Well, thanks for the memory

Obituaries are becoming a little too frank and fearless, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
Compare and contrast: "Douglas Jay had one of the ablest and most original minds in the post-war Labour Party ... a moderniser before his time ... who set himself high standards of public conduct ... his qualities of integrity and modesty earned him the solid respect of colleagues in both the House of Commons and, later, in the House of Lords."

"Jay ... a shambling figure ... his oratory was as mediocre and uninspiring as his appearance ... Stories about his reputed tightness with money abounded ... his attire was such that at one overseas gathering ... he was mistaken for a tramp and ... one of his suits was accidentally posted off to Oxfam ... [in later years] his passionate anti-Europe campaign ... became hectoring and unreadable."

The former is the obituary of the former cabinet minister which appeared yesterday in the Times. It is an example of the old Augustan style of obituary writing: cool, restrained and anonymous - the last word on a public figure passed authoritatively by his peers.

The latter is the obituary that was flashed electronically to the nation's newsrooms by the Press Association, the news agency whose words are normally used by national and provincial newspapers and radio stations without checking and without attribution. The Jay family were so offended that the Press Association felt pressed to circulate a PS recording the family's outrage.

How the elegy has changed. Plato set a clear template for this sort of thing some time back: "To honour with hymns and panegyrics those who are still alive is not safe; a man should run his course and make a fair ending, and then we will praise him."

And so it went for many years. Praise was the order of the day. Obituaries were largely aimed at the friends and acquaintances of the deceased and were often couched in code which only contemporaries could understand. Even where the code became penetrable by the general reader, the delicate euphemism was maintained: "fond of the good life" meant the deceased was a drunk; "confirmed bachelor" hinted at homosexuality; "generous" implied a spendthrift, and "he did not suffer fools gladly" signified an irritable old bastard.

It all changed in 1986 when James Fergusson, the obituaries editor of the Independent, revolutionised the form by breaking with the tradition of anonymity and introducing a plainer style of writing, fair yet candid and accessible to all. Each piece was signed by its author, and the pieces were a first go at biography rather than the first attempt at writing official history. The approach was swiftly adopted by the Guardian.

At the same time, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd took over the Daily Telegraph's obituary pages and, with an acute eye for small detail, turned them into funny and frequently vulgar character sketches.

Before long even the tabloids were at it. When Lady "Bubbles" Rothermere, wife of the owner of the Daily Mail, died, the Daily Express gave the event two whole pages in which its diarist Ross Benson began by informing readers that he "would not wish to say anything malicious". He then went on to aver that so great was her love of parties that she "would attend the opening of an envelope". But this week's Press Association obituary of Lord Jay took everything a step further. It went beyond the merely bitchy into a fully-fledged philippic.

The inventor of this latest manifestation of the form - the obituary as diatribe - was Chris Moncrieff, sometime political editor of PA. Admittedly his diatribe contained a core of neutral facts, but virtually every judgement was negative and the tone almost petulant. "I know the family found it offensive, but I thought it was fair and balanced," insisted a bewildered Moncrieff yesterday. "It is just one of 100 obituaries I've written in the past year. There was no difference in approach and there have been no complaints previously."

All of which might seem a bit rich to those who know Moncrieff. For the man who described Jay as shambling and lacking dress sense was himself best spotted round the Palace of Westminster before his retirement by his shabby anorak and the scruffy blue duffel bag which he used in place of a briefcase. And this chronicler of Jay's eccentric eating habits was himself a generous consumer of Guinness, until warned off the sauce by an unnerving fortune-teller he once went to interview. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We should probably save all that for the obituary.