The Corner

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Obituarist’s obit


One of the dreariest aspects of American newspapers is the obituary column - not least in The New York Times, with its plonkingly dull trudges through the CV: see this snoozer on the great Michael Kidd for a typical example of its deathful prose.

The best obituaries column in the world, in my opinion, is the London Daily Telegraph’s, and the man who deserves more credit than anyone for that accolade is Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, who transformed the paper’s coverage of the newly deceased in the Eighties and Nineties. He died on Christmas Day and his comrades on the page bid him farewell here. He was known in the satirical press as “Hugh Montgomery-Massivesnob”, but he was a lot less snobbish than the NYT chaps with their peculiarly parochial notions of what passings merit notice.

US papers are especially grudging on military obits. The Telegraph made this a grand speciality – Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Sanders, who accepted an invitation to lunch from the same Waziri tribesman who a few days earlier had blown him up and cost him his right arm; Bunny Roger, the Mayfair “aesthete” who marched through German lines brandishing a rolled-up copy of Vogue; Warrant Officer “Muscles” Strong, who interrupted his Chinese captors’ lectures on western imperialism with cries of “Bollocks!”; Sir “Honker” Henniker, Bt., an Indian Army brigadier who enjoyed being saluted by his elephants; Charles Upham, the New Zealander who charged two German machine-gun nests singlehanded and is one of only three men in history to be awarded two Victoria Crosses. When my wife’s uncle died, the paper noted that, before leaving for Normandy by glider on D-Day to seize the bridges over the River Orne, he purchased a newsboy’s entire supply of the first edition of the London Evening Standard so that the men who’d landed before dawn would be able to read press accounts of their exploits on the very same day. The Telegraph’s anthologies of military obituaries (edited by David Twiston-Davies) are highly recommended, and a very moving parade of astonishing courage punctuated by dotty elan. It was Hugh Massingberd and his team who brought their stories to a wider audience.