The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries

Pan, McMillen: 1996
338 pp., $16.95
ISBN: 0 330 34979 1

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

If you ever wanted proof that the British are a bunch of eccentrics, or wondered where Monty Python found his role-models, then this is the book for you.

The deceased, in America, could probably sue for defamation, but in Britain there is a certain kudos in being odd, so disclosure of the deceased person's foibles and faults in a major newspaper is regarded as a kind of accolade. That the Daily Telegraph's Obituaries page attracts a loyal following of obit-fanciers, is proof enough of British oddity. And even without the barmy military gentlemen ('moustaches' to the obit-writing trade), Monty Python would be spoiled for choice amongst the characters memorialised here.

Each obituary is a masterpiece of understatement, careful selection and tact, and they are often extremely funny. Tact, however, sometimes gives way to breathtaking bluntness. Lord Tony Moynihan, for example, is described as "bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informant". A good deal of his life was apparently spent avoiding imprisonment by following his motto, 'Of the 36 ways of avoiding disaster, running away is best'. But he was often heard to say, from his last exile in Manila, that he wanted to return to England to clear his name because he missed "decent roast beef and good newspapers".

Amongst the more widely known characters remembered here, is John Allegro, philologist, academic, and author of The Dead Sea Scrolls, but also of The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross. John's tracing of early Christianity to a magic-mushroom cult ensured his notoriety and brought him almost guru status in the sixties and seventies. Accordingly, his obituary writer notes that in John's books, "the Children of Israel were not so much chosen as stoned", but he concludes that whilst "His intellectual abilities and literary skills were never in question, ... his judgement was".

Others whose names might be familiar are, John Murray - "the only publisher in whose company a failed author could sit at ease"; and flamboyant hairdresser, 'Teasie Weasie' Raymond, who once described the Duchess of Windsor's hair as "dogmatic", and who learned his trade "making false beards and moustaches in his father's barber shop".

Known or unknown, it doesn't matter. These are people who have, says the editor, "made a hitherto undervalued contribution to some aspect of our lives". Do you remember the barman at the Ritz in Piccadilly, for example? Or the custodian of the Royal Racing Pigeons? No? Well I hope you didn't have anything to do with Albert Pierrepoint, "Britain's leading executioner for 25 years". Perhaps Catherine Griffiths, who "was the last surviving suffragette" influenced ordinary lives more; or Lady Eve Balfour, "instigator of the organic movement in British farming".

Among my favourites, is Mrs Victor Bruce, "dare-devil aviatrix, racing driver and speed-boat pilot", who, in 1930, flew solo from London to Tokyo in a plane she had bought whilst "out window-shopping". She also broke a variety of air, road and sea records, joined a flying circus at the age of 37, and looped-the-loop over Bristol in a 2-seater Chipmunk plane at the age of 81. How's that for a role-model?

But my absolute favourite has to be artist, Lawrence Isherwood of Wigan. Ex-cobbler, painter of "imaginary nude studies of public figures" and creator of "Wigan's Wire Woman" - a miniature sculpture which was "entirely crushed" by some locals on exhibition - "Must have been somebody who didn't like modern art", Isherwood is reported to have said. "The standard critical response to Isherwood's work", notes his obituary writer, "was epitomised by Lt.Col A.D.Wintle...."What I like about Isherwood's paintings," announced the monocled colonel, "is that there is no doubt about which way they hang"".

Dip into it, read it, enjoy it. And look out for a later volume on American and other nationals, just to see if the British really are the most eccentric.

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