Monday, January 17, 2011

Did he leave behind his own?

Hugh Massingberd, who developed the obituary into entertaining and irreverent brilliance at The Daily Telegraph, died two years ago on December 25 at age 60.

His term as obituaries editor, from 1986 to 1994, was "just a lucky time ... a time when so many legends of the century were dying," Massingberd told The Associated Press in a 1996 interview.

The Daily Telegraph said Massingberd found his inspiration at a theatrical rendering of "Brief Lives" by the waspish 17th century writer John Aubrey who said of a barrister — "He got more by his prick than his practice."

That line inspired Massingberd, as he later wrote, to chronicle "what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch."

A parade of remarkable characters took their last bows in the Telegraph during Massingberd's term — remarkable enough to take a curtain call in a series of anthologies.

There was Maj. Donald Neville-Willing who found his dentures a liability in romance: "I'm unlikely to be successful if the moon is bright." He also believed that World War II was "the best thing that ever happened to English homosexuals."

There was John Allegro, "the Liberace of biblical scholarship," whose promising career as a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls degenerated into a series of books claiming that Christianity was a hallucinogenic mushroom cult; indeed, that Moses, David and Jesus were fungi. The obituary recalled a reviewer's opinion that Allegro's books "gave mushrooms a bad name."

And also Nerea de Clifford, author of "What British Cats Think About Television," who had concluded: "Most cats show an interest of some kind, though it is often of hostility."

Lawrence Isherwood, who painted celebrities as he imagined them in the nude, also got a Telegraph obit that recorded Lt. Col. A.D. Wintle's opinion — "What I like about Isherwood's paintings is that there is no doubt about which way they hang."

And there was Len Chadwick, outdoor columnist for the Oldham Evening Chronicle, with an obituary that surely left many readers relieved never to have met him:

"A classic autodidact, as he strode along Chadwick would regale the young boys who were his most frequent companions (he was homosexually inclined) with interminable but inspired monologues — often in Esperanto — on subjects ranging from the history of socialism or his prisoner-of-war experiences to the poetry of Ebenezer Elliott."

The Daily Telegraph rarely dwells on the cause of death, though Massingberd said he argued with former editor Max Hastings that it should.

The day after Hastings agreed, "someone had died of a penile implant which had imploded," Massingberd said. The subject was dropped.

Massingberd's creed was that an obituary should give pleasure to relatives and friends, as well as the general reader.

"I think you want more people to say, 'Gosh, what a remarkable life,' and give them a laugh along the way."

People who died last week here in Middle Tennessee included "Tippy," "Sleepy," "Hamburger," "Stream," "Troll," Mother Fanny and Mama K, a man pictured with a coat slung over his shoulder, and a woman shown with her breathing tubes in.  R. I. P. to all.