Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. In every life there is the subject for a sermon. Perhaps that is why so many sons of the manse have ascended into Fleet Street’s paper pulpits. Indeed, if there is one area of journalism that has progressively improved over the last 20 years it is the obituary notice.
It is the reporter’s craft fused with the scholar’s judicious sense of perspective. The ability of the four quality newspapers to start each day with a fitting judgment on the lives of the departed is an astonishing achievement. Nothing comparable can be found in even the most renowned foreign journals.
During most of the 20th century, the Times was so much the acknowledged master that it was not until the 1980s that its rivals realised they could compete and produce obituaries that read as if they were something more than a Who’s Who entry with adjectives. For, while the Times had long excelled in producing lengthy assessments of the great men and women of the age, the column inches devoted to the comics, business leaders, sporting figures, rogues and roués were usually quite scanty. When the Daily Telegraph began casting its net more widely over humanity, producing obituaries that were actually entertaining as well as informative, the Times had to raise its game. It did so.
The improvement took place during the 1990s, presided over by two outstanding Times obituaries editors, Anthony Howard and Ian Brunskill. The latter has edited Great Lives, a collection of 124 Times obits of the influential starting with Lord Kitchener in 1916 and culminating 89 years later with Pope John Paul II.
There are many fine obituaries included here from earlier in the century — given the circumstances, the entry for Hitler is remarkable — but most are inhibited by the Spartan prose and avoidance of opinion that were the hallmark of the Times in its days as the journal of record. Consequently, some disappoint. As late as 1980, an iconic figure like Jesse Owens was summed up in five unremarkable paragraphs. Such negligence was not a mark of the paper’s seriousness. It was a measure of its indifference to the world beyond its nose. If the much discussed ‘dumbing down’ means taking a broader measure of the human experience, then that is not all to the bad. It certainly makes for more variety on the obits pages.
The one unmitigated disgrace is the obituary of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. ‘The Great Leap Forward and the enormous upheaval of the Cultural Revolution,’ we are loftily reassured, ‘were marks of Mao’s creative imagination and dedication to revolutionary purity. The means to bring about these changes were persuasive not violent’. Daringly, it concedes the Great Leap Forward was hampered by confusion, but ultimately Mao’s reforms ended famine and helped ‘bring variety’. The victims go unmourned. Worse, they go unmentioned.
Yet this is the thrill of the book. Reputations change over time. Thus obituaries are not the last word but merely a fascinating product of their environment. Le Corbusier, an architect of ‘beauty’, is treated with adulation. His attempt to erase the centre of Paris and replace it with concrete tower blocks was a ‘far- reaching and revolutionary plan’, the realisation of which was prevented by ‘vested interests’. The last word on Robert Maxwell’s business legacy to his children would have been very different had the obituary appeared a few weeks later. ‘The war interrupted [Alan] Turing’s mathematical career’ is all that is to be said about the man who helped crack the Enigma code, which was still a secret in 1954. Turing is but one example of the old Times’s reticence to lift the veil on private lives.
The best are among the most recent. Wonderful and fully rounded assessments are provided of Harold Wilson, Diana, Princess of Wales and Yassir Arafat. Perhaps the masterpiece in the collection is the obit of Ronald Reagan. The opening sentence sets the scene: ‘Ronald Reagan manifestly lived the American dream in which he so fervently believed.’ His significance is analysed. Some interesting character traits are noted: ‘He was a friendly man who had practically no close friends except his wife, Nancy.’ A full chronology of his career follows, its highs and lows brought to the fore. Anyone wanting to learn the craft of obituary writing — or even how to summarise a mass of information adeptly — should study this work of art.
Great Lives is one of the publishing treasures of the year. There is something to admire, delight, inform and take issue with on every page. Here is a tantalising glimpse from the entry for the world’s bestselling author, Barbara Cartland:
So many books written, and not one of them as well composed as her obituary.“
She routinely turned out more than 20 novels a year, in a writing career that began in 1923. A few titles from a typical year, 1977, suggest the repetitive, mechanical nature of the exercise: Conquered by Love, The Dragon and the Pearl, The Magic of Love, The Wild Unwilling Wife, Love Locked In, Rhapsody of Love, and Look, Listen and Love. In her fiction there was, as another title from that year proclaimed, No Escape from Love.
Graham Stewart’s latest book, The History of the Times: The Murdoch Years, is published this month (HarperCollins, £30).