Richard Ingrams' Week: We'll not see the likes of 'Massivesnob' again

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The Independent Online

Hugh Massingberd, whose sad death was reported this week, was known to Private Eye readers as Massivesnob, a nickname based on his somewhat obsessive interest in the aristocracy.

Being a great fan of the magazine, he was hugely flattered to be satirised and later I commissioned from him a "Focus on Fact" strip cartoon feature called Britain's Least Known Peers. Hugh was thus able to display his arcane knowledge of men such as Lord Colwyn, a dentist who played the trumpet in a dance band.

As obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph, he personified all that was best about that paper and which has since been swept away by successive editors desperate to appeal to the young. At its best, the obituary became a short biography in the tradition of John Aubrey's Brief Lives. Although many of them were devoted to war heroes, the best were often those of lesser known figures gangsters, bit-part actors or eccentric aristos.

One of the rudest obituaries ever printed was Hugh's tribute to the TV chat show host Russell Harty, who died in 1988. Described as "an adenoidal northerner", Harty was credited with "sweaty gaucheries", "uniquely affected accent" and "brazen sycophancy".

Typically among these abusive phrases was the obscure detail, such as the fact that Harty's father, a greengrocer, had been the man to introduce the avocado pear to Blackburn.

After telling the story of how, in 1983, Harty had conceived the disastrous idea of calling with a TV crew unannounced on housewives in Widnes, the obituary ended with this memorable sentence: "A bachelor, Harty lived in a converted barn near Giggleswick with a 'daily' woman to look after his needs."

Be grateful you're not Russian

There's nothing better for inducing a cosy sense of well-being than reading about Russians having a bad time a seasonal thought inspired by Orlando Figes's brilliant new history, The Whisperers, which I have been reading over Christmas. Like his earlier book, A People's Tragedy, The Whisperers is history seen through the stories of individuals not necessarily obscure caught up in great and terrible events, in this case, the long years of Stalin's rule. It is a catalogue of suffering and death, punctuated by individual acts of selflessness and courage. And behind it all lurks the sinister all-powerful monster, Joseph Stalin.

A new history book for schools published in Russia this week is reported to portray Stalin as an "efficient" ruler and "a necessary evil" all part of a drive to rehabilitate the dictator for a new generation. The talk of necessary evil reminds one of the tag, repeated many times in Figes's book, which Russians used to justify Stalin's atrocities, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs" the eggs in this instance being thousands of innocent men and women who were shot or imprisoned during the Great Terror.

It is the fact that Russians have never fully acknowledged the evil of Stalin that makes it difficult to feel wholly sympathetic to their sufferings. And the fact that, in all the family photographs reproduced here, scarcely anybody is smiling suggest that they are a naturally gloomy people who expect the worst to happen and don't get to indignant when it does.

If you think that you are having a bad time, I recommend The Whisperers. It will make you feel grateful that, however burdensome your troubles may be, at least you are not a Russian.

Rewriting the story

Nowadays, we laugh at our ancestors for the bowdlerising of Chaucer or Shakespeare, ie cutting out all the rude bits. We, in the person of the BBC, like to put rude bits in, not take them out in order to spice up the classics, such as Jane Austen.

At the same time, anything that smacks of racism in the great works of the past must be censored or adapted for modern viewers. Thus, in the latest BBC version of Oliver Twist, shown prior to Christmas, Fagin, the villain of the story, was transformed into the victim of anti-Semitic police and ordered by a judge to renounce his Jewish faith an unlikely scene not to be found in Dickens's original.

Almost my first memory of cinema is being scared to death by Alec Guinness's brilliant portrayal of Fagin in David Lean's 1948 film, pictured. With huge hooked nose and straggly beard, Guinness modelled his appearance on George Cruikshank's illustrations, which in turn were faithful to Dickens's description of the character. Although the film was launched so soon after the war and the revelation of the Holocaust, there was scarcely any accusation of anti-Semitism in this country. Not so in America, where the film had to be withdrawn following protests by Jewish organisations. When it was eventually shown in 1951, 12 minutes of Guinness's performance had been cut out.

All of which suggests to me that the BBC, in radically rewriting the story, may not be acting wholly out of a spirit of high-minded tolerance. More likely it is just as concerned not to jeopardise a profitable sale to the Americans.