When somebody dies, it is the job of the living to put the dead to bed. Only after the letters are written, notices placed, property dispersed, can we begin to feel they are, as Rilke had it, “At home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation”. These rituals, taken together, are sometimes said to form a kind of secular mourning period, forcing us to contemplate our dead in all their extinguished multitudes and slowly acknowledge their disappearance. But for this living person, anyway, they often have the opposite effect. “Is that it?”, you think when the eulogist folds up the six-minute speech and returns to the front pew. “Is that all?”, when the house is finally cleared and those objects deemed suitable to be kept are laid out on a table, diminished and embarrassed-looking, without the explanatory presence of their owner to give them purpose and coherence.

Obituaries used to be like this: those achievements amounting to a career, or public service, were separated out and respectfully laid before us, cheerful and so unlike the deceased’s reputation: denuded of personal attributes, character and inclinations. Sins also were washed away. Friends who in life had been loved for fibbing, fornication and extreme silliness would reappear, in death, like some species of abbess, inexplicably devoted to good works. Moreover, as obituaries were in effect Who’s Who entries fattened up for the pot, the section was closed to any career outside the parameters of “distinction in public life” established by that volume.

This all changed in 1986, when there arrived at the Daily Telegraphobituaries desk the polymathic Hugh Massingberd, compulsive serial anatomizer and taxonomist of British institutions and author of many books on English life, who brooded over the social landscape with a capacious memory and curiosity like a mosquito trap. He became the obituarists’ obituarist, as proof of which he has perhaps the longest entry in one of the compendiums under review, Eccentric Lives. Its editor, Andrew M. Brown, credits him with reinventing “the whole concept of the form”, saying: “His vision of obituaries was that they could be essentially a comic form, and that it was our peculiarities, foibles and eccentricities that made us really human”. Under him these tributes became a branch of biography, and it followed that the obituary pages began to include those lives that told a good story – a principle taken up in the same decade by the innately funereal antiquarian books dealer James Fergusson, who, in an appointment of rare genius, was put in charge of death at the Independent, then recently formed. The newly obituarized were characters whom the readers weren’t expected to have known or even heard of. They were instead human curiosities whose frailties and obsessions made them a cracking read over the breakfast toast and gratified our sense that we, as a nation, still produced independent spirits.

It is probably not a coincidence that we decided to venerate, rather than suppress, the representatives of “eccentricity” in British life at the very moment when that quality was in decline. In his introduction to Eccentric Lives, Brown puts his predicament plainly: “In 2014, when I was given the job of looking after the section, one of the questions that nagged at me was: will the well dry up? Are eccentrics still arriving on the slab of 21st century history? Are we not living in an age of conformity?” He is in fact working from a far more luxuriant field than his opposite number at The Times, having allowed himself twenty-two years’ worth of the departed, as against their six. If you can have Lord Haddington (1941–2016), the peerage’s senior cereologist and patron of the publication of that name, consecrated to the study of crop circles, or the crane operator Maurice Flitcroft (1929-2007), recidivist gatecrasher of the Birkdale Open Golf Championship, latterly under a variety of disguises involving false whiskers, why would you stoop to Lady Howe (1932-2022; Lives Less Ordinary), whose slender claim to being eccentric, as opposed to merely interesting, lay solely in the context of the Thatcherite cabinet in which she didn’t even serve, but in which she had some influence via her husband Geoffrey Howe, who shared her traditionalist views?

Both these books mean to stimulate a conversation about what entitles you to be considered a human curiosity. To judge from the selection, some attributes will give you a head start. It helps to be on the political right, either as an active voice in politics (Christopher Booker, 1937-2019; Roger Scruton, 1944-2020; the Dowager Marchioness of Reading, 1919-2015, famed for her advocacy of football hooliganism) or as an exemplar of those behaviours, or occupations, that we have come to associate with sound Conservative views. Outstanding in the category is Nigel “Nosher” Morgan (1954-2018; Eccentric Lives), the classic bullet points of whose career begin with the Irish Guards (where he was refused permission to carry a weapon “for his own safety”) and go on to embrace a stint as a wonk at the Centre for Policy Studies, as a trainee for the Catholic priesthood, as an unsuccessful gold prospector, as a specialist security adviser in sub- Saharan Africa and as a conspirator in the “Wonga” plot to displace the dictator of Equatorial Guinea – all the while consuming pink gin “by the pint”.

Money is an advantage. People on the right tend to have more of it, and it’s easier for a person to answer Nigel Farndale’s condition of “march(ing) to the beat of their own drum” if they don’t have to show up on shift, and especially if the drumbeat urges them to build three separate aircraft hangars to house their several collections of high-velocity vehicles for air, land and water (Charles Burnett III, 1956-2018; Lives Less Ordinary).

Drink helps. “Nosher” Morgan, succumbing in the aftermath of “a massive bender” to celebrate being sacked from his own security company, leads a train of suicidal topers whose spectacular personal delinquencies lend new meaning to the obituarist’s coda “he is survived by his fourth wife, Emily, and two sons”. Barely, you think. Fleet Street is particularly well represented in this regard, having produced such diehards as Stanley Reynolds (1934-2016; Eccentric Lives), editor of Punch (“although he practised drinking assiduously he was never much good at it”), Paul Callan (1939-2021; Lives Less Ordinary), said to be the model for the Private Eye reporter “Lunchtime O’Booze”, and Graham Mason, (1942-2002; Eccentric Lives), “the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses” – a Soho boozer of such common resort in these pages that it, along with its Dean Street sister the Colony Room, almost amounts to a feeder school for admission.

Then there are impediments to inclusion. Not being white is a major disqualification, and women fare much less well than men. Not that we lack women here, but what justifies their inclusion is less their personal foibles – pace the excellent Baroness Trumpington (1922-2018) – than their unusual choice of career. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), the so-called “human computer” mathematician at Nasa and the only black woman to be found in the two books, comes under this head.

The operation of these kinds of obstacles may well derive from the accepted definition of eccentricity, a sense that the characteristics necessary to your typical maverick are those more likely to manifest in men: hobbyism, obsessiveness, spontaneity, self- indulgence. Hence the appearance in Lives Less Ordinary of the Carmelite nun Theodora di Marco (1925-2021), largely on the grounds that she consulted her own opinions, especially in the matter of cigarette smoking. The fact is that most of the dead anthologized here were born before the Second World War, into an environment where independence of mind and action – the sine qua non of the category – was not much promoted among womenfolk. Life has changed since then. In some ways it has changed so much as to have turned the unusual into the commonplace. We have lost two great pioneers of gender transformation in the past few years: April Ashley (1935-2021) and Jan Morris (1926-2020), the latter sensitively obituarized with a pronoun switch halfway through. Neither would be selected on these grounds alone in future. Peter Farrer, a common-or-garden cross-dressing tax collector, can also forget it.

You have here a selection of men and women linked only by their dying in the same slice of time. Did they know one another? Some certainly did (see above, Soho drinking houses). They even married one another’s exes. Some may not have met, but ought to have. Take the mathematical prodigy Simon Norton (1952-2019; Lives Less Ordinary). He was unteachable at school level and had to take maths lessons at the University of London. He soon wound up in Cambridge, doing rather less than had been expected of him – latterly alone in the bottom of his own house, where one of his tenants, Alexander Masters, made him the subject of a book (The Genius in My Basement, 2011). His abiding interest was in British public transport. Though it says that he only took to the bus timetables in the 1980s, men who were at school with Norton remember how something to do then was to stop him in the corridors and sling him the names of random pairs of towns: “Oi, Norton! Llandudno to Eltham! Frome to Blairgowrie!” Without missing a beat he would cough up the recommended bus itinerary, with all times and changes in place. Norton’s was a lonely life; and no sentient person can remain unmoved to think he never met another inhabitant of Farndale’s book, Raymond Butt (1941-2018). A physics teacher in, alas, Canterbury, Butt had memorized the entire British Rail timetable, and collected train tickets to the extent of having to move himself, and them, to larger premises. He could do the itinerary trick and would perform it on demand. What larks he and Norton might have had together. What a double act they could have made.

Pressure of space, plus a sense that one should not openly speak ill of the dead, has produced a distinct obituary style, widely adopted in the prints. The established form begins with a biographical overview, introducing points of character and shortcomings. Then, about four paragraphs in, there is a gear shift, to enumerate the stations of the life: place of birth, education, career trajectory. These, ideally, function as vehicles for further instances of the peculiarities introduced at the start. Done well – the masterpiece that is the Telegraph’s tribute to Lord Bath (1932-2020) is just one example – you will have a polished nugget of biography, compressed and glowing with the influence of the generations, truthful and informative. It will not be unkind, thanks to a rhetorical tic whereby catastrophic moral failings appear in such elliptical understatements as “He always resisted the urge to self-deprecate” (George Pinto, merchant banker, 1929-2018) or “De’Ath’s life was one largely devoid of contrition” (Wilfred De’Ath, scrounger and journalist, 1937-2020). (Both appear in Lives Less Ordinary.)

Yet the means of production on the obituaries desk dictates that it doesn’t always work out like this. The pages employ a small staff of writers and editors who can be relied on for the cool neutrality the form demands, but who can’t always research the lives of marginal figures. In these cases the editor delegates the task of writing the piece to a friend of the deceased: a guarantor of interest and colour, but not always, as the obituarist would put it, the voice of conspicuous impartiality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most egregious instances come from the world of academe. Whoever wrote about the Oxford Professor of Poetry John Jones (1924-2016) for the Telegraph failed to repress the whiff of Oxonian misogyny around its depiction of Mrs Jones and her baleful influence on her husband, whose latter years, the obituarist seems to suggest, were much more unhappy than they needed to be, apparently on account of Jones’s insistence on living an “intensely domestic [life], rarely eating in college”. In some cases you wonder if the deceased’s personality had disqualified them from owning any suitably disinterested friend. This certainly seems likely in the case of Stephen Joyce (1932–2020), the grandson of James Joyce and self-appointed keeper of his flame. The Times’s obituary begins: “No publisher, author, producer, curator or politician who dared to invoke the name of James Joyce was safe from his grandson’s strictures. None was ever sufficiently respectful”. As the piece progresses you get the distinct impression that the writer has fallen foul of Joyce’s proscriptive measures and is using the obituary as payback. He or she commands the full range of Stephen Joyce arcana, including his correspondence with unlucky supplicants worldwide, such as the reply he wrote to a distinguished Canadian professor who had asked permission to use some fresh Joyce material: “You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again”. He is described, without evident recourse to understatement, as both “vicious” and “paranoid”, and furthermore as exemplifying in his behaviour the diametric opposite of his grandfather’s moral code:

Not only was every attempt to quote from Joyce contested, but each hard-won approval came with a price tag attached. Like Father Coffey, the writer’s take on Cerberus, the fearsome guardian of Hades, Joyce the younger was clear that there could be no entrance to the canon other than through his turnstile.

When Joyce finally comes unstuck, courtesy first of legislation enacted by the Irish government for the Bloomsday centenary, then by the expiry of the copyright, glee is undisguised.

The tone and style of the obituaries have hardly changed since the mid-1980s. This makes them easily the best-written part of the newspaper, and now they seem to stand aloof from the rest, as if behind a cordon reserved for overseas members who respond to a different, older idea of the British press. But who will read them now the papers have gone online? To find them you have to navigate deep into the website; and, like gardening and classical music, they lack immediate appeal to that desirable younger readership always shimmering in the minds of management. That’s a shame: obituaries make pertinent life lessons, set examples of overcoming setbacks, demonstrate how persistence or luck can change the direction of a life. They also operate as cautionary tales, especially when, as in The Times, the cause of death appears beneath the notice. Did Paul Callan and Graham Mason’s inebriety, or Charles Burnett III’s addiction to speed, do for them in the end? (Maybe; yes; and yes.) It is a mercy, because these tributes abound in the kind of detail that prompts an urgent need to know the manner in which these people died. For instance: confronted with the information that the software engineer John McAfee (1945-2021) pledged to “eat his own dick on national television” if Bitcoin didn’t hit $500,000 by 2020, the eye jumps to the bottom of the page. Here it says “he killed himself on June 23, 2021”, but furnishes no details.

Nicola Shulman is a writer and reviewer whose books include Graven with Diamonds: The many lives of Thomas Wyatt, 2011

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