Telegraph obituaries editor Harry de Quitteville -- sorry, Quetteville -- stresses how timing must be dead on:
There are two questions that I get asked when people discover that I am the obituaries editor at The Daily Telegraph. The first is: “How do you decide who gets an obit?”, to which I respond that, ultimately, we publish the lives that we think will most interest our readers. Eminence, celebrity, comedy, bravery – all are factors likely to pique their curiosity.
The second question is considerably more delicate. It is: “How many obits do you have prepared in advance?” This is, of course, not a particularly sensitive query in itself – these days most people know, or at least vaguely assume, that many obituaries are written while the subject is still alive. So I am not revealing the central mystery of the obituarist’s art by confirming that we have a large number of obits, perhaps several thousand, in various states of readiness. The instant publication (literally, in our internet age) of considered accounts of the recently dead (sometimes running to several thousand words) inevitably requires us to do a little of the legwork ahead of time. No one is astonished at that.
But it does raise a much more prickly point, something that obituarists do not talk about much. This is the unavoidable truth that the advance preparation of obits obliges us to make a decision about precisely when we should start putting an article together.
Few people like to reflect on whether the Grim Reaper is hovering nearby, whetstone out, sharpening the old scythe. But on the obituaries desk, I’m afraid, we do it all the time. Indeed, one of our writers regularly appears at work after one of her subjects has died and notes wryly: “I see my curse has struck again.”
It was something that came home while I was putting together the introduction for my new collection of the greatest obits that the Telegraph has ever published: Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer.
The book is an assembly of simply extraordinary figures. There are, of course, the military heroes – men such as Charles Upham, VC and Bar; Eddie Chapman (Agent ZigZag); or Nancy Wake, known as the “White Mouse”, who led Maquis fighters against the Nazis in Occupied France. There are villains, too, like Idi Amin or Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the real-life gangster whose exploits were portrayed by Robert De Niro in the film Casino.
There are the sportsmen (Fred Trueman, Sir Stanley Matthews) to cheer, and eccentrics, whose antics prompt tears of laughter. This last group certainly includes Colonel Albert Bachmann, the Swiss spy agency’s answer to Inspector Clouseau, whose “impact on his own service was so catastrophic that when he was finally unmasked, many assumed he must be a double agent. He was not.”
The glory is in the variety, and the brilliance, of the men and women who adorn each page. Of genius that flowers in myriad ways – from Stanley Flashman, the world’s greatest ticket tout; to Cecil Williamson, “Witch Protector to the Royal House of Windsor”; to Sean Breen, “the priest who nourished his flock with canny tips on racing” (“His definition of the spiritual dimension was comprehensive,” the obit records, “allowing him to recommend to punters in 2005 that Cardinal Ratzinger was a hot bet to be the next Pope. 'A few of the lads got on at 13-2,’ he revealed after the white smoke had filtered out of the Vatican chimney, 'but I did not back him myself out of reverence.’ ”)
I confess, however, that I reserve a special place in my heart for the stories thrown up by two peculiar categories of obit. The first comprises cult leaders and tele-evangelists such as The Reverend Ike, who preached “the Prosperity Gospel” and exhorted his faithful to visualise “money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool”.
The second category is mountaineers. This is partly because I am awed by their courage; and partly because they are generally great characters. Of all the mountaineers we have done, however, it is Chris Dale whose obit I like most. It begins: “Chris Dale, who has died aged 49, was a 6ft 6in mountaineer with a passion for solo climbs among the hardest peaks of Scotland, Wales and the Alps. He was also an equally enthusiastic cross-dresser who went by the name of Crystal.” Who could not read on?
Did he climb backwards in high heels?
Of course age is the major factor in predicting a death, and for the obituarist it is also the least worrisome. This is because by the time major achievers are in their dotage, they are unlikely to strike out on radical new paths that will change the whole tenor of their obituary. Rare is the Oscar-winning actor who becomes a pioneering brain surgeon in his eighties; the pioneering brain surgeon seldom becomes a rocket scientist at the last. Thus we are able to prepare in advance for them with impunity.
But even here there are exceptions to the rule. In particular there is one figure who is catapulted from almost total obscurity to global prominence at an age when his peers are usually contemplating an existence of uninterrupted golf. Naturally, Joseph Alois Ratzinger (b. 1927) was not wholly anonymous before 2005. But his life, and hence his obituary, was transformed once he was named (aged 78) Pope Benedict XVI. In fact, Popes are particularly troublesome. Not only do they suddenly become famous at an advanced age, but having done so, they then also make decisions of vast significance with great frequency. Such a combination of venerable age and ever-changing impact keeps us daily on our toes, updating, updating, updating.
Not that our assessments are just based on old age. Far from it. Take the brilliant but addicted singer Amy Winehouse. Tragically, despite all the denials and protestations of spokesmen who insisted she was fine, the simple evidence of one’s own eyes indicated that she was dangerously unwell. She eventually died at the age of 27. Terribly young, and yet, even so, our piece had long been polished.
I know it sounds ghoulish. In a way it is. But I am betting that every other paper that runs obituaries was in the same position. The singer Whitney Houston (who died aged just 48) was another case in point. Her premature death was sad in itself. How much sadder then, that judging by the speed that obituaries for her were posted online, newspapers around the world appeared to have anticipated it.
Ultimately, the equation that obituaries editors must work out is one of age or risk multiplied by fame. So while even the most celebrated actor, if healthy and in middle age, will not make us sit up, a celebrated actor with a passion for fast cars might get us sharpening our pencils. Rowan Atkinson, who last year crashed his McLaren supercar into a tree, please take note.
Then there are the people who drive McLaren cars for a profession. Happily Formula One, as our recent obituary of the sport’s doctor, Sid Watkins, made clear, has become an infinitely safer place in recent years.
Of course some young people put themselves in harm’s way for a noble cause. And when those people are heirs to the throne, we are placed in a particularly uncomfortable position. The news of each royal deployment to Afghanistan, no matter how courageous, no matter how uplifting the example, makes my heart sink. Because the bare truth is that for some figures we simply must be ready when the moment comes, even if, one hopes, it does not come for a very long time. Which means that obits editors are, by nature, worriers. Many are we, on this and other papers, whose nerves have been frazzled by the limitless potential for getting caught out. Scenes of devastation, where every casualty is a youthful, unobituarised hero of the pop charts, play in the mind’s eye.
There is the ever-present possibility of opening the filing cabinet in anticipation of pulling out a perfect piece on a major star, only to find a truncated, moth-eaten scrap beginning something like: “Laurence Olivier, who has NOT DIED aged XX, was a promising young actor and delighted critics last year [1930 – SUBS PLS UPDATE] with his performance in Noël Coward’s Private Lives…” It makes you want to weep, but no matter how prepared we try to be, there are always moments when we get caught out and scramble to recover. Don’t mention the sudden death of Michael Jackson; my pulse still races at the thought.
The Telegraph is by far the best newspaper for obituaries. I hope it never dies, or we will be stuck. Perhaps we could rope in E. J. Throbb, who, at 17¾, has many more obituaries in his pipeline:
So farewell, then, Harry
De Quetteville, dead
Good writer and good
Alas the day [INSERT DATE]
Harry de Quetteville
You really left
© E. J. Throbb, aged 17¾