Come follow me into the living world of obituaries

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The Independent Online
FROM TIME to time, it is the parts of newspapers that have nothing to do with the news that give the most pleasure. For some, this will be the crossword; for me it is the obituaries. I know that many readers skip over them.

The pleasures are very much the same as reading a good biography or novel. Obituary notices are often well written, particularly, if I may say so, in The Independent, where they are signed. Yet obituaries can be critical. Thus The Daily Telegraph's recent notice of Sir Alan Glyn, a former Tory MP, noted that he was "occasionally over-fussy", "too fond of the sound of his own voice" and that his constituency party had expected greater things of him. This caused Tam Dalyell MP to try to set the record straight in Saturday's Independent. "I fear," he sniffed, "that most current members of the House of Commons will remember Alan Glyn as a creaky, occasionally cantankerous old buffer. This is a pity."

Obituary notices transport you into a life you have never lived and perhaps could never have imagined. Take this account of the background of a Jesuit priest, Father Philip Caraman, who has recently died: "His father was an Armenian banker from Smyrna (now Izmir) who had come to London to set up in business importing dried fruit from the Levant. His mother was of Italian descent. Both were devout Catholics; they had their own private chapel, and of their nine children two became priests and two nuns." These lines might have been taken from the opening page of a 19th-century novel. In fact, Father Caraman is remembered because of his literary gifts and friendships with writers such as Evelyn Waugh. He received both Edith Sitwell and Muriel Spark in the Roman Catholic Church, but later, when he was sent to Norway, he failed to make a single convert in five years.

A staple of obituary notices these days is the war hero. The brave young men and women of the 1940s are now in their late seventies or eighties. Few of them had been in the services before the war. They were volunteers or conscripts. Much like today, they started out in life as young lawyers or trainee doctors. But then - and this is why it is worth reading accounts of their lives - they suddenly found themselves at war for five years. Afterwards they generally went back to what they had been doing in peace- time and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Their war exploits alone earn them full obituaries. Mr Thomas Simpson, who recently died aged 80, resumed his law studies in 1944 in his native Australia. But it is what he achieved in 1943 and 1944, in his mid-twenties, flying in bomber squadrons over Germany - once making 13 passes above the Dortmund-Ems Canal at only 150ft in fog, always under attack - that earned him a DFC and a sizeable notice in the Daily Telegraph. The article was headlined with his war-time rank, Flight Lieutenant "Tammy" Simpson.

Almost as frequently as you find the life of a war hero, you read about musicians of the same period, often somebody who played with Benny Goodman or Glen Miller. Indeed, Mel Powell, who recently died in Los Angeles aged 75, was due to travel with Glenn Miller and his Army Airforce Orchestra on the latter's fatal flight in December 1944, but was pulled off the plane at the last minute.

I confess I knew nothing of Mel Powell, but this is another service obituary notices perform: they educate. I learn Powell was one of a small group whose influence "was to permeate the music of the next 50 years'. He was "one of the most broadly talented musicians of the century". And, indeed, he seems to have been. He was with Goodman for only five years. After the war he went to Hollywood but found "writing a glissando when the mouse ran up the clock" rather boring. And so, in a remarkable switch, he went to Yale, studied composition under Hindemith, became a full professor and was renowned for his mastery of 12-tone technique; his work was performed in concert halls around the world.

But it is the recent accounts of the life of a lesser, British musician, Syd Lawrence, also a devotee of swing music, that I have found the most enthralling. His great gift as a bandleader was in imitating the style of Miller. He seems to have taken his Miller pastiche to such a high level that the Miller family tried to sue him, unsuccessfully in the event.

His beginnings - born near Chester and playing a cornet in a brass band - chime with my own family background, although there the resemblance ends. After the war he got jobs in London, but he couldn't stand the South East. He returned to Chester and, finding no work as a musician, started selling vacuum cleaners. Then he got into the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra and he was under way again. He was never part of the jazz aristocracy; he learned everything from the gramophone records of famous performers. But he found a niche by creating an orchestra which satisfied nostalgia for the music of the 1940s just when rock'n'roll seemed about to obliterate everything that had gone before.

Reading obituaries shows what is possible. In the past two weeks you could have learned what it was like to have started out as the child of Armenian parents living in London. Or to have suddenly found yourself at war. (I ask myself: would I have acquitted myself so well?) Musicians, we learn, can switch genres successfully. And even a life devoted to copying a past master - perhaps painting nothing but Constable-style landscapes - can bring pleasure to a lot of people.