How to Die by David Twiston Davies, former Chief Obituary Writer, The Daily Telegraph
15 September, 2012
This address was made at the Bournemouth Joy of Death Festival, 9 September 2012.
Let us begin at the beginning. O death, where is thy sting? asked the psalmist. O grave, where is thy victory?
Despite having had some 3,000 years or so to puzzle out answers to these questions we have made little progress. We are vaguely aware that when we reach the pearly gates there might be two signs, one pointing to Everlasting Paradise, the other to an unspeakable dark fate down below, with only a slight possibility of a visit from the late Lord Longford, the world’s most famous prison visitor. We know about the early Christians being tossed to into the Colosseum as part of the lions’ diet and the Duke of Clarence’s gurgling end in a butt of Malmsey. But I don’t think these entirely help; and the invention of newspapers, like so many innovations, has not improved matters either.
You can say in a news story that somebody has died. But one is expected to avoid upsetting families unnecessarily and to avoid making any statement that might lead to legal problems. You cannot say a driver drove into another car these days. He is “involved in a collision”. It is not permitted to state that an MP died in the chamber of the House of Commons. He has always collapsed to be carried outside where he is found to be dead, though a Welsh MP expired at the despatch box in 1976 and a peer died after making a speech in “another place” as recently as 1999. (I have always thought it particularly unsporting of the teller stopping a stopping a member being carried into the division lobby to vote on the mistaken assumption he was already dead. The poor fellow died two days later.)
Different newspapers have different rules. The New York Times used to have an annoying habit of ringing up the Telegraph obits desk when we were on deadline, saying that the generally turgid notice they were preparing would be incomplete if it did not have the key information about where the deceased died; though the name of the place generally meant nothing when we told them.
American newspapers used to keen on recounting the history of a last illness, beginning with a cold, which became a chill and developed into pneumonia before there was circulation problem in one leg and then the other before both were cut off.
The Daily Express used to have an entire vocabulary of phrases that were acceptable to its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, who was terrified by the word cancer; and these are still partly shared by compilers of classified death notices. Cancer was referred to as “a long illness”. “Bravely born” signalled intestinal trouble. “Suddenly” was a heart attack; “accidentally” a car crash; “tragically” suicide. We never worried too much about these rules at the Telegraph, so I can never remember whether “he was unmarried” meant, to use a modern phrase, “he batted for the other side”; or that he was so curmudgeonly that nobody in his, or her right mind would have spent even a night under his roof.
Whatever the truth, everybody wants to know why somebody has died. Unfortunately the reasons given immediately after a death are often proved to be wrong. Max Hastings used to harry the Telegraph obits about this until a particular incident occurred. I was away that day, but there was a jazz trumpeter, whose name I have forgotten. Hastings had just sent a memo demanding we obey his instruction. So Hugh Massingberd, the obits editor, obediently wrote about the unfortunate fellow who, in those pre-Viagra days, had been operated on to restore the strength between his legs, only for the stitches to come apart in an explosion. We didn’t hear so much about giving reasons after that.
Usually we are content now just to give unusual explanations, such as the climber who died alone on Everest. And in case you have the idea that the word of editors in newspapers is sacrosanct for their staff, then let me tell you that there is always a formidable aunt-class of sub-editors keen to trim out jokes and ever demanding stylistic uniformity, as in the case of the medium Doris Stokes (“the Gracie Fields of the psychic world”). “Passed over” seemed entirely appropriate for her but when the piece appeared in the paper she was deemed to have “died”.
The Telegraph, it must be said, had a problem with obits for some 60 years. The Great Victorian writers George Augustus Sala, Matthew Arnold and TP O’Connor were given so much space their notices often seemed in danger of spilling over the edge into the columns alongside. But from 1928 onwards, the paper was owned by the Berry family. They came from Welsh nonconformist stock, and had the strong conviction that nobody was of any interest once dead. A reader lost must have been their first and probably only thought.
But even they had to accept that subscribers to the paper were interested in those who had just passed away. So there was an obituary editor, who was firmly under the thumb of the News Desk, and was the only staff member instructed to keep as much as he decently could out of the paper. Above all he was to be brief.
Of course there were exceptions, members of the Royal Family, Winston Churchill, and other people of great eminence but of less interest. These pieces were long and invariably respectful. If somebody in the office suggested that they were a trifle tedious, the obit editor would point to the galley proofs saying, “Feel the quality of that length.” Of course there were a few whom some readers did not think deserved to be covered at all. David Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister, who died in 1945, received little more than a grudging half column for winning the First World War.
When I joined the Telegraph in 1970, everyone thought that the obits could be improved. Three years earlier there was said to have been some embarrassment, recorded with relish by other papers, when it took an inordinate length of time to find a writer who had some knowledge of philosophy to produce a notice on Bertrand Russell, the atheist peer, pacifist, CND member and all-round libertine. Few of the paper’s readers seemed to have been unduly exasperated by the wait.
All this changed in 1985 when Conrad Black – Lord Black of Crossharbour to you and to me – became the paper’s owner. He was interested in obits and had written a long biography of the French Canadian premier Maurice Duplessis and an even longer one of Franklin Roosevelt. His first editor was Max Hastings, the military historian who agreed to appoint Hugh Massingberd, who had been asking for the chance to improve the obits for some years. Known as Hugh Massivesnob to Private Eye, Hugh was a friendly giant of 6ft 6in with a vast appetite for food, champagne, and gossip while bubbling over with recondite knowledge delivered so humorously that he inspired the prose of all who worked with him. As a former editor of Burke’s Peerage he brought a knowing eye to our supposed betters and undoubted inferiors, who would have been largely ignored under the Berrys if they did not appear in court reports.
There was Lady Stevens of Ludgate, the wife of a press proprietor who wrote a sex manual, with such titbits as “Always kiss your husband’s body, starting with his toes”; Lord Moynihan “who gave ample ammunition to the critics if the hereditary system”, describing himself as an international diplomatic courier but better known as a bongo drummer, confidence trickster, police informer, drug smuggler and brothel-keeper; and Maurice Peppard, a Mendip horse dealer who asked about his ultimate destination would reply: “Heaven I hope, but Hell I fear.” If such characters do not stand out in the same way today it is because their behaviour is now to be found throughout the paper.
Hugh had immense energy and was the author of a stream of books about the Royal Family, country houses and social history. But he had one drawback: he knew nothing of newspapers. So Max plucked me out of the comfort of the book reviews department on the fifth floor in Fleet Street and told me to go and help him – on pain of summary execution if I refused. I turned up several days late in a foul temper, not least because everyone had kept asking me: “What future is there for you now?”
It took me only a couple of days to realise that I had landed my ideal job, one which gave me the chance to be like Bottom in A Midsummer’s Dream, who wanted to act all the parts in a play. I now had the heady opportunity to demonstrate my skills not only as an editor or a reporter, but as a theatre critic, historian, moralist and comic novelist in the footsteps of the great PG Wodehouse. I am afraid I did not make an auspicious start since on my first day I made a serious mistake, which made me leap out of my bath at 10.30 that night when I realised. But luck was on my side. My piece about a novelist called Warwick Deeping was hauled out of the column after I left the office to make room for a large obit of the Soviet politician, Molotov; he of the terrorist cocktail, and next morning I silently corrected the error.
It must be said that the expanded new department did not receive an entirely warm welcome in 135 Fleet Street. The office library only filed obits that appeared in the Times because, I was told, nobody was interested in what the Telegraph thought once “The Thunderer” had pontificated. It took me some time to get this changed. Not only that, our expanded coverage of obits was regarded as an intrusion onto the territory of the then-all powerful News Desk. “We can fill that space if you can’t,” I remember being told by distinctly unfriendly subs. And this was at particularly trying time when we were struggling to fill a daily two columns with a limited number of cuttings in our library and the aid of a few contributors who took a very long time to realise we required deliver crisp, authoritative prose, not ponderous meditations on a subject and his world.
Of course we had to cover many people who had done worthy but dull jobs. But it soon became clear we had the two great stories of the twentieth century to cover, the world wars and the Empire. And these all too often demonstrated that the closer people came to danger or landed in strange situations, the more the atmosphere turned to comedy.
For instance, there was the parachute officer Digby Tatham-Warter who led a bayonet charge in a battered bowler hat at the battle of Arnhem. When told by a brother officer that the umbrella he was carrying would not do much good either, he replied: “But what if it rains?”
Nobody in the Armed Forces should expect to escape danger at some stage in his career. But Major-General Joe Crowdy, commandant of the Royal Army Medical Corps, got his taste of excitement early when as head boy at Gresham’s School in Norfolk he found a fellow pupil, aptly named Goofy, having difficulty cleaning a rifle. He took the weapon, to make an example of the fellow, with the unfortunate result that it went off. The bullet travelled through the wall into the adjoining room, where it ripped through a wardrobe being used by a Bishop of Gambia, who was paying a visit to the school, and left a neat hole in his ecclesiastical robes.
Michael Charlesworth was headmaster of Lawrence College in the foothills of the Himalayas. He arrived as the seventh head in 14 years to find he had six servants but no running hot water. On his first night he killed a rat in his chest of drawers, and next day learned of a notice in a local paper offering 100 rupees for information about a missing pupil. Twelve laundrymen were sitting down on strike on the lawn, the matron had been falsifying her accounts and a nurse had had an abortion in the school hospital. Gradually Charlesworth sorted matters out with the aid of the Governor of West Pakistan (who was subsequently shot in bed by his own son) but he was eventually forced to resign as a suspected spy during a war between India and Pakistan.
Roland Wild, our Vancouver correspondent, was a young English reporter at Allhalabad when he took a taxi through the Khyber Pass in 1929 and arrived in Kabul to find that Afghanistan’s first parliament was about to meet. To make those attending feel at home it was held on an open air compound marked out by barbed wire. They were informed that the appropriate dress for legislators was homburg hats and tail coats, which left them so nervous that these fearsome fellows anxiously held hands. I wonder if a similar soft centre lies beneath today’s Taliban. The country’s reforming sovereign, King Ammanullah II, then indicated that he intended to abolish the veil, and the revolution that followed led to his replacement by the illiterate son of a water carrier.
Finally since we are supposed to be considering the joy of death let’s consider the last word, which is not so frequent these days when we gently fade away on painkilling drugs. One of the wittiest came 500 years ago from Sir Thomas More who thanked the executioner who helped him up the scaffold and joked that his head would be able to find its own way down. But I think the late Cardinal Hume caught the spirit of our age. He said: “Ouch”.