Eccentric Lives and Newspaper Obituaries

From a New York Times review by Dwight Garner of the book edited by Andrew M. Brown titled “Eccentric Lives: The Daily Telegraph Book of 21st Century Obituaries”:

It used to be that, when you died, what you wanted was an obituary in a good newspaper, not that you’d be around to savor it. Since the introduction of the smartphone, the stakes have been raised. “I got a breaking news alert when I croaked,” some overachiever has surely bragged in the great beyond. “How about you?”

Obituaries in newspapers like this one have loosened up in the past few decades. Résumé virtues, like being the inventor of Velcro, still matter most, but eulogy virtues, like being able to mimic an old school bus starting up, are increasingly sneaking in as well.

One newspaper led this shift in tone: The Daily Telegraph in London. It was The Telegraph’s inspiration, beginning in the 1980s, to treat obituaries as an essentially comic form.

The paper’s cheeky, truth-dealing obits have inspired a cult readership. The books that collect them, with titles devoted to “Rogues,” “Heroes and Adventurers,” “Naval Obituaries,” “Sports” and so on, are oddly uplifting to tuck into before bed.

The latest Telegraph collection is titled “Eccentric Lives.” It’s a book about oddballs and joy-hogs and the especially drunken and/or irascible, and it may be the best yet. The English journalist Jessica Mitford, in her letters, said that the slogan for her funeral would be “brevity followed by levity.” The Telegraph seems to abide by similar rules.

Among the notices is one for the 17th Viscount Mountgarret who, in 1982, became outraged that a hot-air balloon was flying over his grouse moor in Yorkshire. He began to pepper the balloon and its occupants with his shotgun, hitting the pilot in the neck. (The others ducked.) Mountgarret was fined and had his shotgun license temporarily withdrawn.

The obit goes on to say that his friends loved Mountgarret, because he was an entertaining character.

At the end of a day’s shooting, his guests would retire to his house near Harrogate, where they might be invited to participate in one of their host’s favorite pastimes, indoor golf. Mountgarret would appoint a certain feature — his double bed, for example — as the “hole.” The players would then chip their golf balls through the house (up the stairs, if necessary), occasionally damaging the contents as they did so.

Another obit is devoted to Eileen Fox, a former bohemian who was a well-known personage — plump, untidy and always carrying plastic bags full of her things — on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.

Fox “made everyone else’s business her own, often to their intense irritation.” A patriot, she rarely heard “Rule Britannia” without taking off her clothes. She was a popular film extra, “specializing in crowd scenes that called for gummy medieval serfs.”

Fox, “a frequent menace to British diplomats,” sued British Airways, claiming to have been bitten on the bottom by a flea. At the same time, “she was a generous woman, fond of the young and earnest in her desire to help.”

There aren’t many famous people in the book. One sort of famous one is Mark E. Smith, the belligerent lead singer with the band the Fall, who died in 2018.

In his obituary, The Telegraph, which knows a good line when it sees one, quotes a journalist for The Independent who said, “Mark E. Smith will be remembered as a man who believed that the pen is mightier than the sword, but who did not always have a pen to hand.”

There are a lot of touchy and snappish people in this book, including a famous drunk whose hangovers were so awful that “on one cold day he complained of the noise that the snow made as it landed on his bald head.” Ezra Pound once said that he’d never known “anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible.”

One of the books in The Telegraph’s obituaries series is devoted to “Priests and Prelates.” The eccentricities of religious dignitaries aren’t as funny as they used to be.

There is an obit here of the Right Rev. Eamon Casey, an Irish bon vivant who left the country after he was found to have fathered a son. The boy’s mother, described here as “a 26-year-old American divorcée,” wrote a memoir in which she asked about his abilities in the bedroom: “He was a goddamn bishop. Where had he learnt all this?”

This collection’s editor, Andrew M. Brown, worries that true eccentrics are becoming rarer. Reading him, you can’t help but wonder if you are among them, or even close. Some days I feel like the most eccentric person I know; other days I feel as dull as a pot of soaking beans. Maybe you have similar swings of feeling.

One core quality of eccentrics, Brown writes, is “a kind of vitality.” Take the Latin lover Maurizio Zanfanti, who was so popular with women, tourists especially, in his Italian seaside hometown, Rimini, that he slept with 200 of them each summer, about two a day.

They would line up, and he felt he could not let them down. He was so kind and funny, with his “dense caveman-style hair” and “chunky gold chains, tanned torso and hairy chest,” that groups of women would return for reunion parties.

Zanfanti, The Telegraph reports, “died of a heart attack at around two in the morning in his Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, parked in a small peach grove owned by his family, seconds after making love with a 25-year-old Romanian woman, who raised the alarm.” He was 62.

Sometimes the memorable bits in these obituaries are the little things. John Jones, professor of poetry at Oxford from 1978 to 1983, was an especially brilliant lecturer, one who never required notes. He was also known to be insufferably arrogant.

His wife, Jean, was a painter whom Iris Murdoch admired. When Jean began to sink into dementia, Jones’s life fell apart. Still, we read:

Difficult as their marriage had been, it had lasted 63 years, and those who loved them would think of their nightly routine, which Jones managed to keep going except in the very darkest times, of their lying beside one another in bed and reading jointly, and silently, the novels of Angela Brazil. John read more slowly than Jean and she would patiently wait for him to nod, vigorously, as a signal that she could turn the page of “Monitress Merle” — or “Jean’s Golden Term.”

He is survived by his two children.

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His most recent book is “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.”

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