Miles Kington: You haven't lived until they've written your obituary

Obituaries are no longer panegyrics and whitewashes; they are entertaining stories and exercises in style
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The Independent Online

Yesterday I brought you an extract from a trial in which an obituary writer called Ursula Bloom has admitted to writing and publishing obituaries of people who never lived. Let us hear how she justifies herself...

Counsel: Now, Miss Bloom, I would be interested to hear how the invention of a dead person and his fake obituary can possibly be defended.

Defendant: You have to understand that the whole business of writing obituaries has changed utterly in the past few years. Until recently all obituaries were dull recitations of facts. They recorded the main events of a person's life, and showed him or her in an unfailingly good light. If there had been an obituary of Dr Crippen in the old days, it would have dwelt mainly on his sterling medical work. If his murder of his wife was mentioned at all, it would have said that Crippen's arrest contributed to the advancement of detection by radio telegraph. But that is no longer true. Obituaries are no longer panegyrics and whitewashes; they are entertaining stories and exercises in style. So much so that volumes of them are printed separately for the Christmas gift market.

Counsel: I am with you so far...

Defendant: There is now great pressure on obituary editors like myself to come up with more entertainment. There is a new obituary programme on Radio 4. There are rumours someone is going to start an obituary magazine called Goodbye! as a counterpart to Hello! magazine. It is harder and harder to rival this.

Counsel: So it is harder and harder for you to resist the temptation to invent the kind of obituaries your employers want?

Defendant: Precisely.

Counsel: And so you find yourself telling the life and death story of someone your readers have to take on trust from you!

Defendant: Oh, but that happens anyway. Readers have never heard of most people who die. If I bring them the story of "Scottish laird who claimed to breed intelligent cabbage" or "Squadron leader who got DFC but whose moustache was declared too German, and forcibly shaved off by his squadron", do they know or care if it's true? They just enjoy it.

Counsel: I see. As a matter of fact, was either of those true?

Defendant: One of them was. The other I made up.

Counsel: Which was true?

Defendant: I can't remember. The point is, once you start to regard obituaries as entertainment, then sure as eggs is eggs, people will start to make them more entertaining, and then start inventing them.

Counsel: Do you not think this is pernicious?

Defendant: No more so than when a barrister is spinning a false yarn about his client.

Counsel: But even if barristers sometimes fantasticate, we do not invent fictitious characters.

Defendant: Never invent meetings with people who did not exist? Never adduce alibis which never happened? Never hypothesise the existence of someone who did the crime of which your client was accused?

Counsel: Well...

Defendant: I rest my case.

Counsel: You cannot rest your case. You are the defendant.

Defendant: Ah, but think of Sir Geoffrey Broughton, who so confounded the prosecution with his brilliance when on trial for bigamy that the judge mistook barrister for defendant and sent counsel down for three years.

Counsel: Is that really true?

Defendant: Yes. Well, according to the obituary printed in my paper.

Counsel: But did Sir Geoffrey really exist? Or was he another of your puppets?

Defendant: What do you mean by "exist"? A fictional character can exist, can he not? Yes, I believe Sir Geoffrey Broughton existed, in the sense that Hamlet or Macbeth existed, aye, and Lady Bracknell and James Bond too. For many people, Sherlock Holmes is more real than Conan Doyle. For others, characters in The Archers are more real than their own family. Do they then exist? Perhaps they do. And when a man who has never lived comes to have an obituary, can he have gained existence? Why not?

Counsel: M'lud, my head is hurting. May I ask for an adjournment?

Judge: Willingly. Mine too. Court adjourned.

The case continues, though not in this space.

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