Criminal misfits don't merit such eulogies

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The Independent Online

Obituaries are a uniquely valuable part of newspapers, a barometer of our society, and the proper place to celebrate lives of merit. They tell us of the many different ways in which people contribute to the world, a place to set down a marker and remind us of those whom fashion might have forgotten. The best obituary pages aren't composed of the great and the good, but the eccentric, the undervalued, the ignored and the special. I've always felt that, instead of burying time-capsules containing trainers, birth pills and CD players, a few volumes of decent obituaries would tell any visiting extraterrestrials a whole lot more about us. Decoding the printed word would probably take a lot less time for them than working out what a cloven-hoofed orange nylon Nike shoe was used for.

Obituaries are a uniquely valuable part of newspapers, a barometer of our society, and the proper place to celebrate lives of merit. They tell us of the many different ways in which people contribute to the world, a place to set down a marker and remind us of those whom fashion might have forgotten. The best obituary pages aren't composed of the great and the good, but the eccentric, the undervalued, the ignored and the special. I've always felt that, instead of burying time-capsules containing trainers, birth pills and CD players, a few volumes of decent obituaries would tell any visiting extraterrestrials a whole lot more about us. Decoding the printed word would probably take a lot less time for them than working out what a cloven-hoofed orange nylon Nike shoe was used for.

As an avid consumer of obituaries, I've been vocal in the past about their one glaring fault: if you were a Martian arriving here, you'd think that women didn't die. The obituary pages confirm that members of the female sex are still second-class citizens - for every five noteworthy males that die, only one female is considered meritorious enough to warrant 800 words about her life. I have decided that either obituary editors are all male, or perhaps the points system which gains one entry to this hall of fame is one in which ovaries count as a major minus.

Even though we might rail at our deeply flawed honours system, it is true that ordinary, unsung heroes, from milkmen to teachers, can now receive commendations and OBEs via nominations from the public. Eventually these people will appear in the obituary pages and a more balanced picture of Britain in the new century will result.

Last week I was depressed to see that our sister paper, the Independent, and the Guardian both devoted thousands of words on their obituary pages to someone who simply should not have been there: Charlie Kray, whose only claim to fame was to be the older brother of a pair of disgusting gangsters. He was a failure at almost everything he did, from running clubs to exploiting the infamy of his name via film deals, videos and T-shirts. How many hard-working women would have to die to qualify for the acres of space that this apology for a human being obtained, written by journalists skilled enough to turn a life of utter unimportance into a quasi-comedy script?

We still display an unhealthy appetite for criminals, even after they've been convicted. John McVicar, a former armed robber, goes on Newsnight and spouts on about violent crime. Why do we consider him an expert on anything? Now he's written a book claiming that he knows who shot Jill Dando. Frankie Fraser (certified insane three times) writes his memoirs and we purchase them. He appears on pop records and in documentaries.

The eulogies to Charlie Kray after his death from a heart attack last week only add to this wilful misinterpretation of facts. In the Mirror his biographer claimed that "he hated violence and was no business brain". Apparently he "didn't know" the full extent of his brothers' protection racket. Barbara Windsor said he was "lovely" and "a very nice man". Well, so was my dad, but I didn't notice 1,000 words of glowing prose in the Guardian when hard-working Stanley Bull of Fulham died of a heart attack while on holiday in Tenerife.

Perhaps if he'd turned his back while I or my sister ripped out someone's toenails or held hot pokers to their testicles he might have merited a mention. Even the Guardian admits that when Charlie's brothers carried out their beatings he did not abandon them - fraternal blood being thicker than victims' blood, no doubt.

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