Once they’re gone, bring out the clever barbs

Michael Howard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

DE mor­tuis nil nisi bonum, or so it used to be said. That was then. Now, with the ad­vent of a new style of obit­u­ar­ies ed­i­tor, in­clud­ing Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe of The Econ­o­mist , all has changed, changed ut­terly. Now obit­u­ar­ies are light en­ter­tain­ment. The great and the good can no longer con­sole them­selves for mor­tal­ity with the ex­pec­ta­tion of unc­tu­ous post­hu­mous tributes: the first para­graph of The Econ­o­mist ’ s treat­ment of for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Ed­ward Heath warns them what to ex­pect: The tributes spoke of his in­tegrity, his long ser­vice and the strength of his con­vic­tions. Many of his fel­low con­ser­va­tives were es­pe­cially keen to em­pha­sise his love of mu­sic and sail­ing. Un­spo­ken, at least for a few hours af­ter his death, were the thoughts up­per­most in many minds: his gen­eral grumpi­ness, his undis­guised bit­ter­ness and, in par­tic­u­lar, his loathing for that woman. Not that The Econ­o­mist con­fines it­self to the great and the good, at least as the term is gen­er­ally un­der­stood.

It spreads its net to in­clude film stars, clowns, car­toon­ists, Third World dic­ta­tors, gardeners, poets, as­tro­nauts, ex­plor­ers, cos­meti­cians, two rather off-beat dukes, the in­ven­tor of frozen non-dairy top­ping, at least one ‘‘ ex­treme mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist’’, a ‘‘ pos­si­ble vic­tim of alien ab­duc­tion’’ and a ( ad­mit­tedly re­mark­able) par­rot. Bar­bara Cart­land was per­haps a pre­dictable tar­get for its at­ten­tions, as was that grande hor­i­zon­tale Pamela Har­ri­man, whose life is de­scribed as ‘‘ an as­ton­ish­ing tale of sex, money and, far sweeter-smelling than both of th­ese coarse com­modi­ties, power’’.

A lit­tle more sur­pris­ing is the in­clu­sion of a rather less grande hor­i­zon­tale , one Anna Nicole Smith, de­scribed here as a pe­cu­liarly mod­ern celebrity who ap­par­ently owed her fame and for­tune to her ‘‘ cel­e­brated Amer­i­can breasts’’. I never knew this.

This col­lec­tion in­deed must make read­ers pray de­voutly that they may es­cape the at­ten­tion of The Econ­o­mist ’ s obit­u­ar­ists.

Their trib­ute may be­gin as does that to the ty­coon Roland ‘‘ Tiny’’ Row­land: ‘‘ Hunt­ing around for some­thing not too bru­tal to say about Tiny Row­land now that he is dead, those who knew him re­marked on his charm. The English lan­guage is help­ful with the eva­sive word.’’

Or it may con­clude as does the obituary of the fer­tile philoso­pher Jac­ques Der­rida: ‘‘ In his fi­nal years he be­came in­creas­ingly con­cerned with re­li­gion and some the­olo­gians started to show in­ter­est in his work. God help them.’’ Or they may find them­selves de­scribed with the same dev­as­tat­ing un­der­state­ment as is Kurt Wald­heim: ‘‘ a diplo­mat with a se­lec­tive mem­ory’’.

The wit is wicked, in the best sense of that am­bigu­ous word, but it is never cruel and it is al­ways bang-on. As its vic­tims, af­ter serv­ing their mil­lion-odd years in pur­ga­tory, would rue­fully have to agree.

The Spec­ta­tor

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