My Mentor: Andrew McKie On Hugh Massingberd

'Hugh reinvented the obituary: well-written accounts of interesting lives'
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The Independent Online

It is 20 years since the Daily Telegraph's Hugh Massingberd reinvented the obituary, and I suppose that my greatest debt to him is that the template which he set is still largely the basis for our page. I only worked directly for Hugh once, during a rather disastrous period when Obituaries, Letters and Peterborough (the diary column) were brought together on one gigantic and fairly shambolic table. But he sat only a few feet away from me for several years, conspicuous by his regrettably loud "trouserings". They were not the only loud thing: "Those people over there laughing," one group taking a tour of the office was told, "are the obits desk."

Hugh is a great fan of PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and his enthusiasm for understated humour found its way on to the page. It resulted in a brilliant series of euphemisms which sometimes made me feel that Wodehouse was a social realist: the description of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon as a "most uncompromisingly direct ladies' man" and the judgment that the 3rd Lord Moynihan "provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle" stick in the memory.

Hugh is, as a former editor at Burke's, expert on aristocratic families, but no one could be less snobbish. He was fascinated by the most colossal tripe on television, and brought the same rigour to the relationship between characters from Crossroads as he did to the cousins of dukes. Hugh and those who worked with him were terribly careful about factual accuracy, and that care was applied to the way they wrote: how a sentence was constructed would make it funnier, or clearer, or more nicely ambiguous. He had total disregard for people who didn't understand that the job was simply about producing truthful, well-written accounts of interesting lives.

Andrew McKie is obituaries editor of the 'Daily Telegraph'

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