Afterthought: obit writers always have the last laugh

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I WAS sad to hear of the passing of Edwin Vavasour-Smith, who probably featured in more obituaries than any man alive (or, now, dead) and yet who will probably not be given an obituary of his own. This was because Edwin Vavasour-Smith was the man who specialised in adding postscripts to obituaries.

I have never worked in an obituary department myself, but such a man must be the bane of your life. You frame a completely waterproof and sufficient obituary for a person, the person dies, the obituary is printed, and just when you have forgotten all about him and gone on to the next famous dead person, the postscript comes in. 'Those who knew the late Jack Yarwood well,' it says, 'will be surprised to find no mention of his pioneering work on Assyrian cuneiform,' or 'No account of the late Jack Yarwood will be complete without a brief account of his scholarly investigations into the origin of Punch and Judy.'

Many of these were written by Edwin Vavasour-Smith. The first were genuine, but he was so attracted by the ease with which he could insert these afterthoughts that he was rapidly seduced into supplying notes which sounded authentic but were in fact totally fictitious. He once showed me the first fictitious afterthought he had printed. It read something like this:

'JKW writes: His many friends will be sad that in your account of the late General Arthur Yarwood's life, you did not mention his brief but extraordinary cricketing exploits in the desert. The legendary Christmas Day football match in the trenches of the Great War is well known; less well known is the 1943 Christmas Day cricket match between Yarwood's tank corps and well meaning men from Rommel's crack troops. For obvious reasons it is not detailed in Wisden, but after a hard innings from the Germans (including a splendid 56 not out from one Gunter Eichhorn) the British were hard put to top their score and only did so thanks to a sizzling innings from Yarwood. All he would say about it in later life was that if cricket had been born in Africa nobody would ever have thought of playing it on grass, as hard sand was just as good.'

This represented the ideal afterthought, Edwin told me. It read interestingly - usually more so than the main obituary - and could not by its nature be easily checked. It became something like an obsession to add details to obituaries, often signing himself merely with initials, as in 'JL writes' or 'Mrs GT notes'.

'I frequently had to compete with genuine afterthoughts,' he once told me. 'If someone called, say, Lord Rosburgh died, and they printed the usual dreary obit saying that he had been under-secretary to some government office, they would be bound to omit some other dreary part of his life like his work for an animals' charity. So some ancient relation, usually an aunt, would write in and say: 'It is not widely known how active Lord Rosburgh was on behalf of animal organisations, and how much money he raised behind the scenes blah blah blah . . .'

'But I, meanwhile, would be working on my afterthought. So, while the old aunt was penning her tribute to his charity activities, I would be writing: 'HL writes: It is not realised even now how much interest Lord Rosburgh took in the ballet, an interest which he sought to conceal from his more active shooting and hunting brethren, and there are many prima donnas alive today who owe their first advancement to an early interest shown in their careers by his Lordship.' Usually mine went in first and the aunt's second. You may have noticed that obituaries are often followed by at least two afterthoughts, of which mine is usually the first and the false one, and the other is the second, authentic and boring.'

Edwin Vavasour-Smith was a regular soldier for most of his life, reaching the rank of general in the Gordon Highlanders. When I asked him why he had entered a Scottish regiment, he said he insisted on joining one named after a famous gin, and the Gordon Highlanders fitted the bill. He added that he had tried to join the Beefeaters, but his physical condition was too good to gain him entry. When I asked him if there were any truth in this story, he said that there was absolutely none at all and that I was so gullible I would make a good obituary editor.

(More tributes tomorrow to this great man.)