Readers of a certain age understand that the best stories are buried at the back

Obituaries tell us as much about the newspaper as they do about those who have died
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Did you know that the Queen of Albania (which doesn't in fact have a Queen) was an Australian called Susan? She was married to King Leka I, the son of King Zog I, who fled Albania with his two-day-old heir two days after Mussolini invaded. Queen Susan, I read last week, "tried to lead as ordinary a life as her roles of housewife, mother and queen permitted".

Did you know that the Queen of Albania (which doesn't in fact have a Queen) was an Australian called Susan? She was married to King Leka I, the son of King Zog I, who fled Albania with his two-day-old heir two days after Mussolini invaded. Queen Susan, I read last week, "tried to lead as ordinary a life as her roles of housewife, mother and queen permitted".

Did you know that Maj-Gen Charles Sweeney, pilot of Bock's Car, the aircraft that dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, was almost out of fuel when the bomb, known as Fat Man, was launched? The intended target, Kokura, was obscured by cloud, and Sweeney was diverted to the secondary target, Nagasaki. The extra flying time this brought about, plus the fact that a failed valve had rendered 600 gallons of fuel useless, meant that after dropping the bomb Sweeney had to make an unplanned landing in Okinawa, with virtually empty fuel tanks.

Did you know that Pat Roach, who played "Bomber" Busbridge in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, was a former professional wrestler, and held the British and European heavyweight championship in that sport? And that he auditioned for the part of Darth Vader in Star Wars?

All these fascinating facts, and so many more, were to be found on the obituaries pages of the quality press last week. It is true of every week. Some of the most amusing, surprising, entertaining and simply interesting pieces are to be found among the obits. I was going to say "buried" on the obit pages, but, apart from the pitiful pun, that would not be true. These days, none of the four serious papers hides its obits away or squeezes them into the paper. They are taken seriously and with commitment, and some of the best writing appears in these pages.

It was not always so. When The Independent launched in 1986 it made much of its intention to provide an expansive obituaries service, and delivered. This concentrated the minds of the rivals. The Times, consistent with its then role as "newspaper of record" and parish magazine for the Establishment, had long recorded the passing of the great and the good and published often ponderous accounts of their lives. But over the past 20 years or so the obituary pages have taken on character and style.

They have broadened their catchment, reflecting the move away from deference and the custom that only "top people" in politics, the Civil Service, the law and the church deserved an obit. In so doing they have reflected the character of the newspaper in which they appear, applying that most basic of journalistic rules: think of the reader and what might interest him or her.

Obits are no longer expanded Who's Who? entries but have become often elegant essays. They have moved in the direction of a "warts and all" approach, allowing some mention of the limitations as well as the achievements of their subjects. They have become less tributes than mini-biographies. And just as some news stories and features reflect the standpoint of the newspaper, so, often in a coded kind of way, we nowadays read obits with attitude. This is usually achieved by the choice of person asked to write the obituary. These names are disclosed by The Independent and Guardian, but not by The Times and Telegraph.

This "attitude" in obits was demonstrated last week in the substantial obits of Paul Foot published in all the heavy papers. Foot, investigative journalist (Mirror, Guardian, Private Eye), socialist political activist, author, intellectual and (personal interest declared here) supporter of Plymouth Argyle, was dispatched in style, earning a full page in most of the papers. There is no formula or transparency about the decisions over the length of obit the subject is "worth". Eminent journalists tend to be treated generously in terms of space. The hacks look after their own. Deaths of major, internationally known figures (and these days they might be rock or soap stars, as well as politicians or prominent figures from the arts) will tend to dictate the space they are given. The character and subjectivity of the newspaper will be shown more in the case of the departed without incontestable claim to a substantial obit.

Foot was deservedly loved even by those who disagreed with his politics. BothThe Guardian and Telegraph recognised the quality and integrity of his journalism and respected the consistency and commitment of his politics. But while The Guardian dealt effortlessly with the contrast between his background - public school, Oxford, establishment political family - and his espousal of the "working-class struggle", the Telegraph went to some lengths to highlight these contradictions. It mentioned invitations to tennis at house parties, accusations from Oxford contemporaries of "armchair socialism", and a television encounter with General Sir John Hackett who, after some particularly scathing words from Foot, said: "Come, come, that's no way to speak to your godfather." But this is the joy of obits, and the luxury of reading them in several papers. It is, I suppose, true that you only start reading them at a certain age, when contemporaries, or those who have been on the news pages through your newspaper-reading life, even friends, begin to appear. But if journalism is the first draft of history, then the obit is the first draft of posthumous biography. As a snatch of contemporary history, obituaries inform, but more than that they unfailingly entertain.

I am surprised local newspapers do not make more use of the form. They have discovered that nostalgia and local history are popular (that sepia sells) but, probably through lack of resources, do little in the way of obits. The same is true of the broadcast media, although Radio 5's Brief Lives is an exception, and is fascinating listening.

Talking obits reminds me of a recent example of editorialising in the reporting of death. This was the killing in Saudi Arabia of the British oil executive Michael Hamilton. "He was a friendly gentle man," said the Telegraph. "The death of Michael Hamilton stunned colleagues who remembered a tough but fair man who earned the admiration of colleagues.... He and his wife were best known for promoting concerts in eastern Saudi Arabia."

The Guardian on the other hand reported that "he was attracted by the affluent lifestyle of oil-rich Saudi Arabia". He made a regular "retreat to his home in Sussex" and "like most expatriates seeking security and respite from the more restrictive mores of the kingdom, he and wife Penelope lived in one of the special compounds with facilities that would not be out of place in a home county country club."

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


A nasty spell

Is someone trying to tell Leonard Slatkin something? The BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor was greeted by a rather unflattering spelling mistake as he left the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night. The car sent to collect him after he conducted Strauss's An Alpine Symphony had a card in the window reading: "BBC - Lenard Flatkin". As one wag wrote on the Proms messageboard: "Offstage horns are notoriously difficult to get in tune, but it wasn't that bad."

Tell me on a Sunday

You know that uncomfortable feeling that people are talking about you? Paul Webster, The Observer's amiable deputy editor, had a bad case of it when conversation in the office stopped as he came near, and emails were closed down. "Come on, what are you all saying about me?" he demanded. His fears were allayed by a fellow executive who said that it was him that people were talking about, because his wife was expecting triplets. The next thing Webster knew he was being called over to Al's Diner, nearby, for a routine chat about the paper. There he was sent to the downstairs bar, where he was astonished to be confronted by a large crowd, including his children, in a room festooned with photographs of Paul. It was a surprise 50th birthday party.

Monster ratings

Sky News anchorwoman Kay Burley, pictured, was her usual chipper self at a party last week to mark Sky's 15th anniversary. In a rousing address to the assembled throng she recalled that it used to be said that more people had seen the Loch Ness monster than watched Sky. But when it comes to being overlooked, Burley herself might have had cause for complaint. The freebie reporter's notebook that guests received was adorned with images of Sky News personnel - although curiously Ms Burley was not one of them. Shame on Sky.

Hutton's long shadow

BBC news and current affairs staff do not dislike their new boss Helen Boaden. But many are suspicious of the reasons for her appointment. A reporter said: "The fear is that the BBC is sending the message that nobody who was running news during Hutton can be trusted." Mark Damazer, deputy director of news, wanted the job. But an observer said: "Mark was too closely involved in preparing the defence to Lord Hutton."