Friday, December 28, 2007

Successful journalist was good egg, shock

Hugh Massingberd was the creator of a great institution: the Telegraph obituaries section.

The impression given by the valedictories (and I've no way of assessing how accurate this is) is that Massingberd really did "reinvent the whole concept [of the obit]... Before his arrival at the Telegraph, obituaries had been regarded as an inferior branch of News, and afforded minimal space." I'm not sure if its quite so simple – on his That Was The Year That Was album, Tom Lehrer tells of his delight in the "juciest raciest, spiciest" obituary he ever read, that of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (you can hear it here). Still, the fact that he felt it worthy of comment does suggest that the average obituary was every bit as dull and dry as has been suggested.

I'd guess that Lehrer would be a great fan of the various volumes of Telegraph obituaries. What really makes them special is the enormous fun of trying to stretch the rule of de mortuis nil nisi bonum by the masterly use of understatement.

Given the success of the Massingberd approach, the other UK broadsheets now make a decent fist of their obituaries. But the Telegraph's are still generally the best. I've always had the impression that whereas the Guardian's dream obituary would be the founder of the Ghanaian social services department, the Telegraph's is of someone who won the VC while charging a Japanese machine gun nest, naked except for a cravat, armed only with a swagger stick.

Just what it is it the makes the Telegraph obits pages so good? There's the distinctive style and tone , often copied by never bettered. As Massingberd explained: "I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch" rather than giving the rather dry and reverential list of people's achievements which were previously preferred. (The Irish Times obits are still like this, if you want to find an example of how tedious this approach can be).

Massingberd's own obit gives some good examples of his approach.

readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that "a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists".

The column also made a speciality of tales of derring-do from the Second World War. The foibles of aristocrats proved another fertile source.

The 6th Earl of Carnarvon appeared as a "relentless raconteur and most uncompromisingly direct ladies' man".

The 9th Earl of St Germans listed his recreations as "huntin' the slipper, shootin' a line, fishin' for compliments".

The 12th Marquess of Huntly married a nurse 40 years his junior: "I still have my own teeth. Why should I marry some dried up old bag?"

Part of the fun lay in the style which Massingberd evolved to pin down the specimens on display. Liberace, readers were gravely informed, "never married". Hopeless drunks were "convivial". Total shits "did not suffer fools gladly". Financial fraudsters seemed "not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City".

It seems somewhat fitting that the Telegraph has given Massingberd a much more entertaining and illuminating obit than that afforded to Benazir Bhutto. It is, however, a lasting tribute to the man that his successors are able to maintain the style, tone and standards he established. For an example, here's the best obit of recent months: Count Gottfried von Bismark.



Blogger Quink said...

I've just read his obit and it wonderful - what a way to be remembered.

5:44 pm  

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