The art of the obituarist
In the wake of the Guardian’s controversial obituary of Peter Sutcliffe, Alex Larman considers the nuances of writing obits
Amidst the general rejoicing and relief that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper himself, had finally died – killed, in the most 2020 of fashions, by contracting Covid-19 – there was an outcry against – of all publications – The Guardian.
Their crime was not to have been overtly sympathetic towards Sutcliffe in their coverage, for even the most woke of newspapers would draw the line at expressing a single word of compassion towards a man like him, but because it published an obituary of him, which currently stands alongside similar tributes to the rather more blameless likes of Des O’Connor, the actor John Fraser and the former president of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings.
Nobody reading the obituary would mistake it for anything other than a factual and disdainful condemnation of Sutcliffe and his actions. Beginning “Few people cast a more baleful shadow over post-war Britain than Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, who has died aged 74”, it sketched in his miserable childhood, youthful hatred of women, violent crimes, arrest and conviction, incarceration in Broadmoor and death.
While the piece, by freelance crime correspondent Duncan Campbell, largely avoids editorialization, deadpan paragraphs such as “In Broadmoor, Sutcliffe was a keen reader, showed an interest in ceramics, and was befriended by visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claimed he had become remorseful. He was beaten on a number of occasions by other inmates, with one attack leading to the loss of sight in his right eye” leave the writer’s sentiments in little doubt.
Yet the other two major national papers of record that generally publish obituaries – the Times and the Telegraph – have chosen, at the time of writing, not to commemorate Sutcliffe in this fashion. While his crimes and death were covered extensively in the news sections, this would appear to suggest that he did not deserve the honour of being remembered with a full-page obituary.
While this provoked the obvious rejoinder “What about Osama Bin Laden/Saddam Hussein/Colonel Gaddafi?”, there has always been a significant difference between an international terrorist or despot and a serial killer. Yet Ian Brady was judged worthy of an obituary by the Telegraph shortly after his death in 2017, and in the Guardian, although the Muswell Hill murderer Dennis Nilsen was not.
No section editor would have made the decision to commission an obituary of Sutcliffe lightly
Much of the debate around whether Sutcliffe deserved an obituary or not centred around the idea of whether such a testament was an accolade of sorts, even if there was nothing in the piece but condemnation. Many argued that it was Sutcliffe’s victims who should be remembered, rather than their killer, and that his death would have been marked perfectly adequately by the extensive news coverage that it received. This seems to have been the approach that the Times and Telegraph have followed. Others, including presumably the Guardian’s obituaries editor, apparently believe that, as Sutcliffe was one of the most notorious figures of the twentieth century, an obituary is the obvious place to mark his death, as its writer took the opportunity to remind readers of the enormity and evil of his actions.
As someone who has written for the Times and Guardian as a freelance obituarist over the past decade, I can imagine that no section editor would have made the decision to commission, or not to commission, an obituary of Sutcliffe lightly. There is only space for so many people to be commemorated every day, and a balance has to be struck between well-known celebrities and those who may not have had as high-profile a public profile but nevertheless deserved commemoration.
The obituaries in the Times on 16 Monday November, for instance, were of Des O’Connor, the cricketer Graham Cowdrey and the footballer Ray Clemence. The Telegraph featured Clemence and O’Connor but swapped Cowdrey for the travel operator John Hays, who founded the organisation Hays Travel and was given an obituary in the Times the next day. All of them were regarded as admirable and successful figures, who all excelled in their chosen fields. The only thing that Sutcliffe excelled at was bringing terror to millions.
As an obituarist, my first commission was to write for the Guardian about my friend Sebastian Horsley, the artist and dandy, who died of a heroin overdose. It was an honour to be able to commemorate a man who had a vast influence upon me, but as I wrote, I was conscious that everything I said would be taken, rightly or wrongly, as the last word on Horsley.
Therefore, I tried to be as generous as I possibly could, and I was pleased that I was able to pay testament to Horsley’s kindness, sincerity and loyalty, even as I had to acknowledge his drug-induced paranoia and misanthropy. However, should his ghost ever appear to me, I can imagine that I would be upbraided for describing his art as “ultimately mediocre”. He was extremely proud of his painting, and I felt a twinge of guilt, even at the time, for making a judgement that, even if I knew it to be correct, could still be construed as ungenerous.
Obituaries are not simply public relations jobs for a posthumous reputation
The vast majority of the subsequent obituaries that I wrote for The Times were of people previously unknown to me, mainly though not exclusively from the well-to-do and aristocratic echelons of society. Over and over again, my research for the stories followed the same pattern. I would glean a certain amount of information from their appearances in society columns and local newspapers, but it would be conversations with children and relatives that would generally fill in the blanks and make for an entertaining piece. Thankfully, most of the people I spoke to were willing to help and prepared to be reasonably candid, especially once they realised that my aim was not to write a point-scoring denigration of their mother or father, but something balanced, fair and, ideally, celebratory.
This is not to say that I always got it right. I was commissioned to write an obituary of a woman who had been a celebrated marine biologist, and I was sent a rather dry and earnest-sounding account of her achievements in life. It ended with a couple of quirkier details, including her dancing in nightclubs in Thailand and white-water rafting on the Zambesi river, which I happily included, and possibly gave undue prominence to. However, when I sent a draft of the obituary over to her family, they were horrified by what I had done, and solemnly informed me that, “We did not recognise X from the picture that you painted of her”. As I removed the more entertaining stories that I had been told, I found myself wishing that I had never attempted to offer the right of veto to the family. As my editor cheerily pointed out, “we don’t tend to do that, otherwise we’d be going back and forth forever.”
There is also a more entertaining side to obituary writing than earnest memorialisation. Anyone who has ever seen the play or film of Patrick Marber’s Closer will remember the scene in which the journalist Dan, himself an occasional obituarist, describes some of the more commonly used euphemisms of the obituary column. “He valued his privacy” = gay, “He enjoyed his privacy” = predatory gay, “He was the life and soul of the party” = drunk, and so on.
It was relatively seldom that I found the opportunity to use such euphemisms, themselves perfected by the best-known obituarist of modern times, Hugh Massingberd in the Telegraph, but a whole raft of new ones had come into being, and I believe are still in common circulation today. It would be unsporting to reveal too many, but “generous host”, “individual sense of style” and “tireless raconteur” should all be taken with a pinch of salt if encountered within any obituary, and “comments lightly made and rarely resented” would generally mean the precise opposite.
Occasionally, I wrote obituaries of people who I had known slightly, such as Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, and this always made me wonder about how strange it would be to be talking to a writer who, one day, would end up composing your obituary. But the most recent obituary that I composed was one far closer to home: of my father-in-law, the architect Will Alsop.
Obituaries are as balanced and full an account of a life as the writer can put together, whether for good or for ill
Alsop had been poorly served by an arbitrarily judgemental piece that had dwelt heavily on his much-publicised financial troubles. It seemed to spectacularly miss the point; we hardly dwell on the bank balances of Nicholas Hawksmoor or Sir John Soane, for example. It felt important, then, to right that wrong by first making clear his considerable – and inimitable – place in the architectural canon and, second, to convey something of his charm and charisma in his personal life, using observations and information that would not have been readily available to most obituarists. He used to talk quite merrily about how a good friend of his had already composed his obituary for the paper; it transpired that the draft that existed, having been written decades before, was by now outdated. It gave me an opportunity to start from scratch, for which I was grateful.
I was able to celebrate Alsop, which was a great deal more than anyone will do for Sutcliffe, and that is how it ought to be. We have become conditioned to think of the obituary as an honour, a last word for a life lived to the full that has brought happiness and love to those around the deceased.
Perhaps it was poor judgement on the part of the Guardian to have memorialised Sutcliffe, and no doubt there will be some subsequent commentary by the paper’s readers’ editor if the furore continues. But it is also a useful and relevant reminder that obituaries are not simply public relations jobs for a posthumous reputation, but as balanced and full an account of a life as the writer can put together, whether for good or for ill. That is what they are there for, and that is why, at a time when many papers have dropped them altogether, their continued retention in the national press remains an important force for good in the media. And, at their best, they are not a grim reminder of a figure like Sutcliffe, but a highly entertaining journey through a life lived to the full.
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