The Art of the Obituary

 

 

Dr Ann Wroe, Historian, biographer and Obituaries Editor of The Economist, London

 

19 January 2018

 

© photograph of Stourhead Lake by R.E. Blackburn

 

I wonder what your first thought is when you wake up on a Monday morning? Not too printable, perhaps, especially if it’s back to work, or raining again. Well, I can tell you what mine is, as the radio gibbers faintly through the gloom: “Has anyone died today?”

 

It’s certainly not a question I would have asked 14 years ago. But since I became Obituaries editor of The Economist in 2003, it’s been my natural preoccupation. Each Monday I have to settle on a candidate, and by Tuesday afternoon I have to have summed up their lives in a picture and a thousand words. So, though the dead may be peacefully outside time, there’s a certain wild urgency about shadowing them on earth. There’s a lot of fast reading to be done, and determined Googling, and running to the London Library - especially that running, because if I don’t get my hands on the relevant biographies and autobiographies, the obit-writers from the newspapers will have got there first. I always imagine they are younger than me, long-legged and voracious, like my friend Harry de Quetteville who used to run the great Obits in the Daily Telegraph, and is descended from conquering Normans. I used to have the grand advantage of working just round the corner from the London Library, which gave me a head start. Sadly we’ve just moved to the Adelphi Building, near the Savoy, which is now a 15-minute stiff trot away; but I have been lucky so far, or perhaps my rivals are getting slower.

 

All very well, you may say; but isn’t that a rather disrespectful view? Shouldn’t this be, if not a morbid occupation, a solemn and even tragic job? Of course, it can be; when the young have died, or when very talented people, good for the world, have been cut off in the prime of life. Almost every week I could write such an obituary, about the victims of the world’s unending wars. The saddest such story from last year was that of Qusai Abtini, a 14-year-old Syrian boy who was the star of a hit TV comedy show in which the children played adults, showing up the folly of the so-called grown-up world. He kept the city of Aleppo laughing when it was under continuous bombardment, but he was killed as he and his father at last tried to escape. The picture I ran of him showed him looking in the mirror in his film-star dressing room, its walls pocked with bullets, as if he was dreaming of Hollywood. But it wasn’t to be.

 

Sometimes the sadness of the story lies not in the death of that person, but in the fact that they could not come to terms with the death of someone else.  I remember Winnie Johnson, the mother of Keith Bennett, a little boy who was killed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on the moors, who had spent her whole life afterwards looking for his body. Brady knew just where it was, but though she appealed to him in prison, he would not tell her. So the search overshadowed the rest of her existence. And I have to say that when Brady died last year, I would not give him houseroom on my pages.  

 

But such harrowing cases, happily, are rare. For the great part of the time, my subjects have died old and peacefully, full of years and experience and good stories, and reviewing their lives is the very reverse of gloomy.  First of all, it gives me an excuse to get into other ways of seeing: from what they’ve said, written or just done, to get inside their heads. It’s a process of total immersion. Beyond that, it opens up new worlds, and ways of living, that I would never have known of or thought of otherwise. In the space of a few weeks in 2010, for example, I wrote obituaries of a wood-carver, a Thai chef and a man who used to jump out of aircraft into forest fires. I knew nothing about any of those jobs. But suddenly, from my wood-carver, I knew how to make a drawer with proper dove-tail joints (at least in theory), and how oak and ash feel different under the hand or the chisel; from my Thai chef I learned how to make salmon tom kha, infused with galangal and lemongrass, and what the best fish sauce is; and from my fire fighter I understood how a forest fire behaves, spotting and spreading in a thicket until it leaps “over the hill”, like a wild animal, into a 50-acre blaze.

 

I’d never have known any of that if I wasn’t writing obituaries for a living. And though the knowledge may not lodge in my brain for long, it’s fascinating. When I wrote about Amarillo Slim, an inveterate gambler, I learned to play ‘Texas Hold-em’ poker, though I certainly couldn’t tell you how to do it now. (I also learned that he was so determined a better, he’d bet which sugar cube a fly would land on). Obituaries have inducted me into the mysteries of bee keeping, Irish folk songs, long-distance cycling, high wire walking, how to cross the Pacific without maps; even alien abduction. (How else would you explain how an upstanding Scottish man came to wake up in the middle of a forest, with scorched earth all around him, and without his trousers? You may laugh, but for as long as he was alive the police had not closed the case.)  Obituaries have taken me into hovels and palaces, onto battlefields and theatre-stages, into minds addled by drugs and delusions or alive with schemes and poems. Every sort of human endeavour, and every form of triumph and failure, is celebrated there.

 

Writing obituaries also fits in beautifully with what I do when I’m not at the office. As some of you know, I write non-fiction, and most of that has been biographies - of Pontius Pilate, Perkin Warbeck (a 15th century pretender to the throne), the poet Shelley, about whom I first spoke here some years ago, and Orpheus. Even my latest book, on light, was a biography to my mind, and at one stage I actually capitalised Light all through, so that it became a character - but I did abandon that as too pretentious!  Alongside those books, then, where I sprawl a life over perhaps too many pages, I have the enormous pleasure and challenge of trying to squeeze a life into a page: extracting the essence, if I can. The one activity helps, and feeds into, the other. 

 

It’s strange that this business of writing lives has so taken me over. I never intended it to happen. But I’m an historian by training, which means that - unless you’re a Marxist or determinist - you tend to believe that history is made less by the weather, or the price of bread, or the pressure of populations, than by the thoughts and actions of ordinary men and women. I’m fascinated by human foibles and failings. And I’m also continually intrigued by a much more fundamental question: What is life? What is this force that our bodies enshrine for a time, as Shelley put it? And that leads to a further question: how can what we are ever be caught on paper?

 

The concept of the soul is out of fashion these days. But I for one believe in it, and I don’t think science has yet provided a plausible alternative. Writing lives, for me, is a process of catching souls. We can amass all the facts we like about someone, go most painstakingly through the ancestry, the schooling, the marriage, the career, the divorces - and we’ve all seen how biographies are getting fatter and more exhaustive with the years - and yet that vital spark may still get away from us. I think it’s that chase, as much as anything, that thrills and motivates me.

 

Before I got involved with obituaries, I already liked writing the lives of rather obscure folk. That’s largely because other people steer clear of them, and you have the subject deliciously to yourself, like an untrodden field of snow. Twice I’ve chosen biographical subjects, Pontius Pilate and Perkin Warbeck, for whom there is no more hard evidence than a handful of coins, a couple of letters, a few sightings and some snatches of conversation. As for Orpheus, he probably never lived as a man at all, and was merely myth and dreams. The effort to tease out their characters was a real struggle, though also a delight.

 

In the same way, I like writing obituaries of people who aren’t widely known. If I get the chance and excuse to commemorate just some ordinary man or woman in the street, I seize it. I rather wanted to write an obituary of an old man, called Joe, who played the mouth organ in his full paratrooper’s uniform for 20 years outside Fortnum and Mason’s in Piccadilly. I bet he had some stories to tell. (He’s been gone for a while now, and it’s sad that he must have slipped away without any of us noticing.) It’s a challenge to reconstruct a distinctly private life. It would be impossible without Google, and it’s perhaps heartening to know, in some ways, that even Google doesn’t always get very far. In November 2015 for example, after the Paris terrorist attacks, I wrote an obituary of one of the victims. A few were in fact fairly well known in music circles in Paris, but this man wasn’t, because he was a bureaucrat from out of town, and rather old to be going to the Bataclan. And that was why I chose him. His name was Cedric Mauduit, and he was director of modernisation and performance for the department of Calvados. I had to find out about him largely through office memos: a mention here, a mention there, and the memories of friends. That sort of work appeals strongly to the historian in me, labouring to ferret out tiny bits of evidence and stitching the fragments together.

 

Some lives, of course, aren’t hidden away. They’re almost too well documented. And that doesn’t please me at all, because as I’ve said, spirits can still slip through even a pile of stuff. When faced with having to write an obituary of someone very famous, such as a head of state, my heart usually sinks; first because the candidate is being forced on me, when usually I can pick and choose, and second because of the sheer quantity of things done, and things known, about them, whether good or bad. But equally, I don’t feel obliged to trudge through the lot. Fortunately, I’m not writing obituaries of record, as The Times of the Telegraph have to do; mine can be more like whimsical essays. After all, I only have my thousand words in which to catch my subject. So automatically I find myself looking for the small, telling moment, the odd conversation, the strange incident, which I hope may cut to the core of a subject. President Gerald Ford, for example, getting married in one brown shoe and one black one, totems of that inveterate clumsiness he always had; Arthur Miller taking up carpentry, which seemed to me to symbolise the exquisite structuring of his plays; Moammar Qaddafi’s love of green, the colour of oases in the Libyan desert; or Ray Charles remembering, from the days when he could see, the sudden flare of a match and the summer lightning he tried to catch, as if these were portents of the bright lights of showbiz that would surround him in his career.  When I wrote my obituary of Arnold Palmer, the great golfer, I was as much taken by his constant fiddling with golf clubs in his workshop as I was by his activity out on the greens; because the search for perfection in every aspect of the sport was never-ending for him.

 

This may all seem a bit random as a method. But I sometimes test myself by wondering what would happen if anyone in the future cared to write an obituary of me. They would probably spend a lot of time on my 40 years at The Economist - describing the magazine, its people, its routines, and so on. But the fact is that, until I took on the Obituaries - when my work-writing began to be more like my leisure writing - I spent much of my time at the office daydreaming about what I still think of as my real projects, which are my books. Friends and colleagues often remind me of things we did together, but I don’t remember them, because in a deep way I wasn’t there. I sometimes feel there’s more of me in my favourite shade of blue, or in my love of picking up shells on the beach, than in all my years of education or sitting behind a desk. But what obituary-writer would know that, or want to make anything of it?

 

This is the fundamental difficulty with life writing. All of us have parallel lives going on at once, inner and outer, spiritual and physical, higher and lower, however you prefer to describe them. We have our own view of our own lives, what’s vital to us and what isn’t, which may be quite different from what others suppose - even those close to us, partners or children, who will be giving evidence about us after we’re dead. I’m often called or e-mailed by family members wanting to offer me anecdotes or even full obituaries, and I have a tricky job to be both sympathetic, and firm that I don’t really want any help… because only the subject can tell me how he or she looked on the world.

 

That’s why, when I write obituaries, I try to construct them not from other people’s reminiscences of the person but from their own autobiographical writings and their own interviews. Theirs is the voice I want to hear, not anyone else’s - including mine. Theirs are the eyes through which I want to see. When I write the obituary of a singer, such as Leonard Cohen or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I deliberately feed lyrics into the piece so that, with luck, the reader can hear the subject’s voice filtering into their brains. And here, as a different example, is the rhythm of a Christian monk’s approach to the world: Brother Roger's first view of Taizé in the French Alps, where he was to found his monastic order. It’s distilled from his own writings about the place, and it produces a distinctive music, like the mantras of Taizé itself: his own voice, as close as you can get to it. 

 

Deep quiet was what first drew Roger Schutz to Taizé. The young Swiss theology student, climbing off his bicycle one summer day in 1940 after riding a strenuous 70 miles north from Geneva, found himself in the wooded hills and valleys of la France profonde. A few sandstone houses, some unlived in, made up the village. The road was unsurfaced, and there was no telephone; the world did not come through here. No priest had been resident since the Revolution. He might have pushed on, but an old woman offered him a meal and pressed him to stay with them. "We are lonely," she told him.   

 

I can’t begin without getting into someone’s head like this, but it’s often quite a challenge. Sometimes, the right picture really helps. I remember having terrible trouble with my obituary of Harold Pinter, until I found a picture of him in which he was in such a seething rage that his spectacles had gone slightly crooked on his face, as if someone had just punched him and he was about to punch them back. (I met him a few times, and he often seemed to be in that state.) And I found if I worked myself into a rage also, it seemed to catch him. (It also helped if I put stage directions, usually “Silence” all through the obit also.)

 

But undoubtedly the most enjoyable immersion experience of this sort was a real immersion experience: the time I tried to get into the head of Benson, a giant carp who was famous for being the most-caught fish in England. If you ask me, “Why a fish?” I can only answer: it was August, and a slow week. A good moment for a plunge into a lake.

 

In her glory days she reminded some of Marilyn Monroe, others of Raquel Welch. She was lither than either as she cruised through the water weed, a lazy twist of gold. Her gleaming scales, said one fan, were as perfect as if they had been painted on. Some wag had named her Benson after a small black hole in her dorsal fin that looked, to him, like a cigarette burn. It was as beautiful and distinctive as a mole on an 18th-century belle… She devoured everything. Worms, plankton, crayfish, lily roots, disappeared down her toothed, capacious throat. She was a one-fish Hoover, motoring through the food-packed sludge and through rich layers of sedimentary smells. But she was offered daintier and more exotic fare. Cubes of cheese, scraps of luncheon meat, bread crusts, Peperami, dog biscuits and tutti-frutti balls all came down invitingly through the water. She sampled most of them.

 

Of course, she was not fool enough to think they came from heaven. She could see the lines, and at the end of them the trembling shadows of Bert, or Mike, or Stan, spending an idle Sunday away from the wife with a brolly and a can of beer. Often she continued to lurk, roiling the mud to conceal her self and backing in her own scaled beauty, as carp will. On hot days she would rise to the surface, flowing and tantalising, with a lily leaf shading her like a parasol. She played hard-to-get, or the One that Got Away, nudging the line before drifting down towards the dark serene. But then, just for the hell of it, she would take the bait.

 

In short, I believe there’s no such thing as one way of writing a life. Each obituary, or each biography, has to be tailor-made, since no two lives are the same. I often look for a one-word theme, trying to pin down what my subject’s chief obsession was: Ingmar Bergman’s obsession with light, Elizabeth Taylor’s delight in jewels, or the vital importance, to the poet Derek Walcott, of the sea. Themes break those chains of chronological progression, and take us somewhere new; with luck, somewhere deeper.

 

But most of all, I try not to impose hindsight on a life. I want to lose the external, all-knowing, all-judging narrator’s voice. Sometimes my subjects are bad people, for I’ve never believed only the good and worthy should get obits; all human life should be there. It’s just as interesting to climb inside the head of a tyrant, a collaborator, or a thief - though there are some heads, like Ian Brady’s, as I’ve mentioned, that seem just too twisted and disturbed to try to enter. Here’s one that may be judged on the borderline, where it seemed useful to try to understand, for which I got into quite a lot of trouble with our American readers: my piece from May 2011 on Osama bin Laden. Here’s how it ended.

 

Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yoghurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse. He liked the comparison. Yet the best thing in his life, he said, was that his jihads had destroyed the myth of the all-conquering superpowers.

 

The price set on his head for more than a decade never bothered him, for Allah determined every breath in his body, and could ensure that the bombs dropped on his hideout at Tora Bora, or on his convoy through the mountains, never touched him. His martyr’s time would come when it came. The difference between pure Muslims and Americans, he said, was that Americans loved life, whereas Muslims loved death. Whether or not he resisted when the Crusaders’ special forces arrived, their bullets could only exalt him.

                         

Readers objected to that because I had written about bin-Laden as a human being: someone who took his children to the beach. But I felt that those last paragraphs made him more complex, and therefore more interesting and thought-provoking. Few men or women are merely monsters. It is too neat and easy to think so.

 

I also got into trouble for writing an obituary of Jim Clark, the segregationist sheriff in Selma, Alabama who broke up, with dogs and batons, a huge civil-rights march in his town. Here’s Clark in 1965, as I memorialised him, dressing to go to work on an ordinary day:

 

He did not always take the cattle prod. But, as a cattle raising man in the pleasantly rolling country round Selma, Alabama, he knew the use of the thing to ginger up creatures of a slow disposition: people "of low mental IQ", who nonetheless claimed they should have the right to vote, and who hung around the steps of the Selma courthouse until they were summoned inside to read "constitutionality" or "institutionalisation" without stumbling, or to say how many bubbles there were in a bar of soap, until they were laughingly pushed out again.

                           

I was told this was offensive. Of course, it is. But I wanted to remind readers what a segregationist’s mind was like. We don’t hear voices like that much any more, thank God. And as it happened, Jim Clark’s was so ugly that it actually helped the civil-rights movement he was trying to suppress. That made his bad life an even better story.

 

I’m intrigued, too, by the thought that we humans may not be totally in charge of what we do. We sometimes become mere victims of our life and times. That theme of ordinary men and women caught up in events way beyond their control is one I’m always moved by. And it reached its peak, I suppose, in my biography of Pontius Pilate, a blunt, superstitious, not-very-bright Roman bureaucrat who is suddenly caught up in God’s plan for the redemption of the world - no less. The sheer discrepancy of scale doesn’t necessarily make us sympathetic to him. But it increases the drama, and his human frailty, considerably.

 

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some of my favourite obituaries have been those of the last soldiers of the First World War. None of them was famous, except for the quirk of their great age; these were just ordinary boys sucked unknowingly into the worst conflict in history. They often raced off to it smiling, or eagerly volunteered when they were still too young, and their stories of doggedness and disillusion are always extraordinarily moving to me. Now that these old men are gone - and the last two who fought for England, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, died about ten years ago - we have no witnesses to the tiny, startling incidents that so illuminate that war: Harry standing on a box to keep his feet above the water in his trench, Henry watching lice creep along a drying line to infest his uniform again; the thunderous noise of the 18-pounder guns, which the men used to call “morning tea” because it started at dawn; the taste of plum and apple jam, which Henry thought hadn’t had much to do with either an apple or a plum. Without their presence, the First World War has become mere history in a book, with no sharp human experience to measure up against it.

 

These men knew their evidence was important. The last of the French foot soldiers for example, Lazaré Ponticelli, tripped over a man one night as he was running through the lines in the dark. The man was a German soldier, and he mutely held up his fingers to Ponticelli to show him he had two children, that he needed to live. Neither man, in other words, wanted to fight that war, or each other. Ponticelli told that story as long as he had breath to tell it; and I felt bound, and privileged, to help preserve it for him. Another poignant tale came from Albert Marshall, the last cavalryman on the western front, who gave his only cigarette to a man who had been tied to the wheel of a wagon as punishment for cowardice; years later, they met quite by chance in the street in London and shared a cigarette again. Once more, of all the stories in his life, that seemed to be the one he wanted most to tell. Just one small act of human charity, and the warmth and comfort of a cigarette in the dark. It’s the very ordinariness of these lives that is so poignant - but then, I’ve come to think there’s really no such thing as an ordinary life.

 

The second book I wrote, in 1995, was actually based on the lives of people caught up in war: but in this case the Hundred Years’ War, in the 14th century, seen through the eyes of seven citizens in a divided town in deepest France. (It was actually my doctoral thesis revisited, with just one sentence preserved from the tedious original). Those lives were really difficult to reconstruct; a matter of sifting through court proceedings, town accounts, wills, using any fragment I could­ to bring these people and their world alive. At first I began with documented things: the rent for a garden, a list of municipal junk in a box, a taunt in the street that ended up in a fight. But then I began to use other devices too to draw these lives closer across 600 years: imagining the light of a candle on a kitchen table, the thick smell of sealing wax, the clank of a pail, the greasy feel of a fleece, and weaving these into the narrative whenever I had a good excuse. This exercise taught me that the smallest touches can help give the texture of a life. Truth lies in the details.

 

Here for example is a passage from my obituary of Marie Smith, the last speaker of the Eyak language of Alaska. It’s not directly about her - you might legitimately complain. But it’s about a world only she had the exact words to describe: the world, I hope, through her eyes.  Warning: there are some odd sounds in what follows!                       

 

Upriver out of town stretched the taiga, rising steadily to the Chugach mountains and covered with black spruce. The spruce was an Eyak dictionary in itself, from lis, the neat, conical tree, to Ge.c, its wiry root, useful for baskets; from Gahdg, its blue-green, flattened needles, which could be brewed up for beer or tea, to sihx, its resin, from which came pitch to make canoes watertight. ...One word, demexch, meant a soft and treacherous spot in the ice over a body of water: a bad place to walk on, but possibly a good one to squat beside with a fishing line or a spear.

 

I can’t vouch for the pronunciation of any of those Eyak words, and the woman who had to read that piece for the audio version of The Economist has never spoken to me again. But the point is that, with Marie Smith’s death, no one is left who sees spruce, or ice, in just that way. That’s why this was a noteworthy life not just for Marie’s family or her neighbours, but for the rest of us.

 

And if that world seems rather remote, here’s the end of my obituary of Margaret Gelling, an expert on English place names, who spent a lifetime looking at the landscape through Anglo-Saxon eyes.

 

She was delighted to think that the public, reading her books, would suddenly learn to decipher their habitat and see it with completely different eyes. At Hartside in Cumbria, for example, a deer would suddenly flash through the woods; at Earley, in Berkshire, white-tailed eagles would fly above a cliff. And better still, in the soulless suburbs of South London, Penge now marked “the pond’s end”, and Croydon became “the valley where the wild saffron grows”.  

                       

I thought readers in South London would be charmed by that, but I shouldn’t have called them “soulless”. There was rather an aggrieved postbag.

 

I think it was Virginia Woolf who once speculated that it might be possible to write a whole life in one incident. That thought has always fascinated me. Certainly I think particular incidents are pointers to the thrust of a life, and in my obituary writing I try to find those if I can. They often occur in childhood. Four-year-old Luciano Pavarotti, for example, jumping on the kitchen table to sing, and hearing applause for the first time from his adoring aunts; young Bobby Fischer unpacking the chess set he had been given as a present, and first arranging the pieces on the black and white squares; Karl-Heinz Stockhausen hearing the strange echoes and vibrations made by his little toy hammer on the furniture round the house. (Frankly, I wish he’d left it there, but never mind.) Or Ray Bradbury, my favourite science-fiction writer, watching blue fire balloons float skywards in the dark each Fourth of July, and transforming them later, with his own special magic, into the disembodied souls in his “Martian Chronicles”.

 

Most such key moments are hidden away in the first chapters of autobiographies, but sometimes they surface later, overturning a life. The inventor of Pot- Noodle, for example, Momfuko Ando, was on his way home one night from his Japanese salt-making factory when he saw clouds of white steam in the street, and a line of people hungrily waiting at a noodle stall. From that moment, he applied all his ingenuity to making really fast, fast food. The man who became the saviour of India’s lepers, Baba Amte, was a wealthy Calcutta lawyer until he refused one day, as he walked to his office, to touch the decaying stump of a hand that was stretched towards him. His refusal made him so ashamed that he decided from that instant to give up worldly things, and instead embrace humanity in its most stomach-turning guise - a story extraordinarily like that of St Francis, I realise now.

 

Albert Hofmann’s story is one of the best. He overturned his life in a minute by accidentally ingesting a substance he was synthesising in his laboratory, which happened to be LSD. No one had ever had this sort of chemical trip before - and his was partly on a bicycle, as he tried to get home, which is a mind-blowing thought in itself. But he later said that his experience then was the same one, of the overwhelming power and beauty of nature, which he had felt on a path in the forest one day when he was a child - and not on any mind altering substance, except astonishment.                         

 

After childhood, the most revealing moments in a life often come in extreme old age, when a pattern has become clear that may then be justified, or embroidered, or denied. Rather than focusing on the hot noon of my subjects, I sometimes prefer to see them, and hear them, in the twilight. Kurt Waldheim, for example, an ex-president of Austria with a Nazi past, who after a life of self-delusion and selective remembering, trying to conceal his past as an enabler of the Holocaust, wrote, hopefully, that "When death comes to you, all the distinctions in life disappear. Good and bad, dark and light, merits and mistakes, stand now in front of a judge who knows the truth."

 

I’m sure I don’t know the whole truth, and I’m also not one to judge. I’m just recording the follies, the achievements, the mistakes, the crimes and joys, of human nature. I’ve discovered that the depths of almost any life can be thought provoking, inspiring, even thrilling, in ways we might not expect from the unassuming surface. This is the mystery of being human. It is perhaps not until our lives are written that we realise how extraordinary we are. And I feel very privileged, and very lucky, to have stumbled on such a way of spending my own life.

 

©  Dr Ann Wroe 2018