Nigel Farndale

Writing obituaries can be strangely life-affirming

What I enjoy about the genre is that the casting is so unpredictable


In my line of work I sometimes owe a cock to Asclepius. The ancient Greeks believed that a sacrificial offering to Asclepius, the god of good health, could buy you time. Perhaps it worked in the case of Boris Johnson. On the night he was taken into intensive care, I had the digital team of the Times breathing down my neck. They wanted to know if I, the paper’s obituaries editor, had an obit ready to go straight up online, ahead of the print version. I was up until midnight making sure we had, updating and recasting our existing one, trying to get the tone right. The cock may have been metaphorical, but it was offered all the same.

It sounds a bit ghoulish, I know, but it’s odd how detached you get, especially in this case as I know Boris a little — we’re the same age, were colleagues for a while and even played on the same cricket team. Perhaps the only way to explain it is that obituaries are supposed to be life–affirming, not gloomy or morbid; elegantly written short biographies that are full of colour, felicities and, where appropriate, humour. Through anecdote and illuminating personal detail we try to tell the story of a life and give insight into character. In addition to the Who’s Who facts and dates, we want to know: what made the subject tick? What quirks might help them come back to life on the page? The judge who had a penchant for silk underwear… the army officer who took a rolled-up umbrella into battle in case it rained… the surgeon who was so competitive at board games he once made his grandchildren cry by sending a Monopoly board flying across the room.

Obviously, there is no shortage of colourful material to work with on Boris.

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