You'll be dead and gone when the best stories come out

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a mistake for the Jay family to complain last week to the Press Association about the obituary of Lord Jay by the PA's veteran political writer Chris Moncrieff. If they'd kept quiet, then the PA would not have warned all its radio, television and newspaper outlets that the family found the obituary "offensive" (Offensive! Terrific! What does it say? Can I read it next?). A small private grievance was converted into a "row", the offending words were quoted and requoted, and now we all know that Douglas Jay, whom many of us had forgotten, was "as mediocre and uninspiring as his appearance". These aren't kind words, but it would be wrong to think that they are unusually unkind for an obituary, and that obituarists always deliver their judgements in coded form (eg "gregarious" meaning "drunk") to spare the reputation of the recently dead.

Other obituaries last week recounted the life and achievements of the French writer and film-maker Marguerite Duras. The Daily Telegraph pulled no punches. Duras was "as unhappy in person as her writings might suggest. Arrogant, humourless and insistent, she discouraged dialogue, but would talk irrepressibly about her alcoholism". She had joined the Communist Party "but her loyalty to the party did not survive her material success".

Almost every paragraph made her into a nightmare - a particularly French kind of nightmare that has over the years made me so anxious to see the word "Fin" in so many small cinemas. And now here was an obituary offering me revenge. "There was also Le Camion," the Telegraph wrote of one her films, "in which Duras appeared with Gerard Depardieu as a film-maker discussing the script of a film she proposed to make. These conversations were intercut with shots of the lorry in which they drove to locations. The film failed to win any prizes, even at Cannes." I laughed out loud at this Anglo-Saxon cruelty, though I never met Duras, never read a line of her work, and my knowledge of her wouldn't cover a stamp. Now, thanks to her obituary, I feel that my ignorance has been well preserved.

THAT is one good and practical reason for the harsh obituary: to save time for the living - no need to read that book, see that film, buy the biography when it appears. The kind obituary (which is often the fair obituary) is a different matter. One good reason for reading and writing them is that they offer journalists a rare opportunity to be fair, thoughtful and compassionate in what is, at least technically, the simplest narrative form: a human life from birth to death, this happened, then that. No need for "rows" here, or stoked-up oppositions between parties who, in reality, may mildly disagree. Usually, the writer will know the subject, or at least his or her achievements. For these reasons - and the fact that death and loss may be suddenly present in the writer's mind; some reclamation of what used to be called "finer feelings" - obituaries are often the best-written things in any broadsheet newspaper.

WHEN my friend and former colleague David Blundy was shot in El Salvador seven years ago, a couple of papers asked me to write his obituary. I cried when I wrote the first; the second, dry-eyed, ,version written a few days after he died, was much better. I don't admit to crying with either pride or shame. Far too much is made of men doing it. Last Wednesday, in the first of a series devoted to what the BBC calls "an oral history of masculinity", I watched several men born early in the century tell us of an upbringing in which crying was condemned as about the worst thing a boy or man could do. The commentary had a tsk-tsk tone; we were peering back into a repressed and still-to-be-liberated past. I half expected Bob Hoskins to appear and say: "It's good to cry." This would be the modern view, and yet there is something of the medieval chemist about it - as if suppressed tears might ferment and steam somewhere behind the eyeball and damage the brain.

My own erratic history of lachrimosity suggests that tears are such capricious events that very little can be read into producing or not producing them. Grief and pain may be standard causes, but they are also liable to prickle and pop out in the cinema, the theatre and the pub. Recently I saw the new film Othello and towards the end, where everyone lies dead due to the peculiar (and unexplained) evil of Iago, snuffling could be heard from the seats around me. I was surprised. The film hadn't moved me, despite the poetry and the tragedy. Then, watching the BBC's history of masculinity a few nights later, I felt a lump in my throat. It wasn't what the old men said that caused it, but some old black-and-white footage of a school playground before the war. I have no exact idea why. Perhaps because, like the family snapshot (and not necessarily of your own family), it conveyed a moment of ordinary innocence, which we have all known, and often lost.

ON MONDAY I slipped on a kerbstone and fell on my head. Glasses smashed, blood on the pavement and a deep cut ("Um," said the doctor, "I can see your skull"). The casualty department at the nearest hospital, Bart's, has been closed, so I took a taxi to the Whittington, further away in north London, where I was stitched and injected and X-rayed. The doctor seemed to know what she was doing, the nurses were kind, and I don't complain that it took four hours. I wonder, though, about the management.

The Whittington is the kind of trust hospital that prides itself on efficient managerial techniques and has probably spent a lot in hiring people to implement them. But the systems for patients, or consumers as they may well be known, seem as notional as ever. Perhaps hospitals have to be like this - feverish, apparently chaotic - in which case the reformed National Health Service is wasting its money on MBAs, Master of Business Administration, the initials that in the late 20th century are causing so much dread.