Thursday, December 27, 2007

Death Comes to the Arch Obituarist

Now, it's his turn:
Hugh Massingberd, who died on Christmas Day aged 60, always used to insist, during his time as obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph, that understatement was the key to the form.

....It was as obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1994 that he found the perfect fulfilment for his gifts. First, though, he had to reinvent the whole concept of the form, substituting for the grave and ceremonious tribute the sparkling celebration of life.

Before his arrival at the Telegraph, obituaries had been regarded as an inferior branch of News, and afforded minimal space.

As far back as 1969, however, Massingberd had discerned the immense potential that lay in this disregarded cranny of journalism.

The moment of illumination had come when he went to see Roy Dotrice's rendering of John Aubrey's Brief Lives at the Criterion Theatre.

Picking up a dusty tome, Dotrice/Aubrey read out a dreary entry about a barrister (Recorder of this, Bencher of that, and so on). Suddenly he snapped shut the volume with a "Tchah!" and turned to the audience: "He got more by his prick than his practice."

There and then, Massingberd later wrote, "I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch." Laughter, he added, would be by no means out of place.

His ambition took many years to come to fruition. When, in 1979, during the strike at The Times, Massingberd sought to convince the Telegraph's editor, Bill Deedes, to venture upon a more expansive obituaries section, he was given to understand that it would be rather poor form to exploit the difficulties of a rival publication.

Finally, in 1986, Max Hastings gave Massingberd his opportunity. Immediately, Telegraph 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.

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