Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer – edited by Harry de Quetteville


Newspaper and magazine obituaries have been around pretty much as long as newspapers and magazines.  By the first half of the last century they’d generally become po-faced and worthy accounts of the lives of the recently deceased great and good – but it wasn’t always that way. In the 18th century obituaries of  ne’er-do-wells were originally intended as a form of warning to the general populace that ‘as ye sow, so shall ye reap’. They duly became one of the most popular features in the publications that published them but unfortunately, the British public being what it has always been, this was for all the wrong reasons: people just loved reading about scandalous lives.

Fast forward to the 20th century however and you find newspapers carrying respectful and (selectively) factual obituaries of  statesmen, archbishops and great military leaders. Dull, plodding and uncontroversial, they were the unglamorous end of journalism and  ‘doing time’ in the Obits department was a rite of passage for all fledgling hacks – a necessary evil to be undertaken on the road to greater glory.

However, in 1986 Hugh Massingberd took over as editor of the obituaries page of The Daily Telegraph and oversaw what was nothing short of a revolution.

From being an occasional feature wheeled out when someone of international importance died, it became a daily fixture, publishing three or four obituaries every day, six days a week. This provided the opportunity to spread the net much wider than the aforementioned statesmen, archbishops and military leaders because, as de Quetteville (the current obits editor) says in the introduction to Thinker, Failure:

… Not even all out war between Downing Street, Lambeth Palace and the MoD could furnish us with enough candidates …

Out went the ‘international importance’ benchmark and in came the tales of the unexpected. Candidates were selected on the grounds of character, achievement, notoriety and entertainment value. The great and the good still featured, of course, but as rounded human beings rather than plaster saints; and they rubbed shoulders with villains and eccentrics, rogues and vagabonds. An eminent scientist could be found sharing the page with the man who provided the voice for the ‘shy, pink and slightly camp hippopotamus George’ in the children’s television programme Rainbow.

Unsurprisingly, the revitalized DailyTelegraph obituaries soon acquired a devoted following, resulting in the publication of many anthologies of them – of which this is the latest.

Unlike its predecessors though, Thinker Failure is set out as a Book of Days, so you can if you wish turn to a specific date to see which of the many personalities who died on that particular day have been selected for inclusion.

On my birthday for instance, I find the obituary of Venetia Phair whose claim to fame was that at the age of eleven, she became (and so far remains) the only female to have named a planet (Pluto).

Today’s entry is for the redoubtable Pamela Harriman, one-time daughter-in-law of Sir Winston Churchill, and surely the most unlikely person ever to be appointed a US Ambassador. In it we learn that Randolph Churchill’s capacity for accumulating debts ‘left her constantly short of money, breeding in her two enduring characteristics: insatiable avarice and a dislike of English men – which eventually came to embrace the entire country.

There are gems on every page. Open the book at random and you find the obituary of  the reputedly safety conscious freestyle climber Kurt Albert (September 27th), pictured ‘dangling from a precipice by one hand while brandishing a stein of beer in the other‘. Close by is Edmund Trebus (September 29th) who rose to the giddy heights of ‘docusoap’ fame in the UK when he did televised battle with Haringey Council who were valiantly trying to tackle his rat-infested and rubbish-strewn home in the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary A Life of Grime.  Elsewhere you come across The Very Reverend Lord MacLeod of Fuinary,  ‘a preacher given to burning jeremiads in the manner of an Old Testament prophet’  (June 27th)  and poor Ronald Allen (June 18th) who played ‘the most famously dull character in the history of soap operas’.

The Telegraph’s obituaries have no byline. The authors remain (sometimes necessarily, one feels) anonymous, but the most desultory perusal of the articles confirms the accuracy of de Quetteville’s comment that he has to hand a ‘tattered list of  names and contact numbers for an array of specialists who can delivery articles of real insight on every conceivable topic …’

Although Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer  doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is – a thoroughly engaging bedside book, to be dipped into and enjoyed in idle moments – it’s not without its depths.

De Quetteville decided to include in the book one obituary which never actually appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph (although you will find it online). It’s that of Jade Goody, the much-derided reality TV ‘star’ who eventually died so publicly of cancer in 2009. He describes it as ‘one of the best pieces of writing it has been my pleasure to oversee’ – and it’s not hard to see why. The tragic young woman’s train-wreck of a life would have been perilously easy to mock without even meaning to, but here at least there is no sneering. Her obituary, like all of the others in the book, is shrewd and clear-sighted but not gratuitously unkind. It treated her, in death, with a respect that she seldom if ever experienced in life – and that’s no small thing.

Aurum Press Ltd. (2014). ISBN-13: 978-1781313091. 592pp.

2 comments on “Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer – edited by Harry de Quetteville

  1. Hilary
    February 7, 2016

    I can’t quite bring myself to buy the Telegraph just for its obituaries, but I’m always delighted to find one of them, generally shared on Facebook by one eagle-eyed friend or another – one friend has a talent for spotting military obits, never a disappointment. The latest was the obituary of a Canadian naval nurse, who died aged 100, having survived a U-boat attack, decorated for gallantry for attempting to save a fellow-nurse. She retired as a Lieutenant-Commander in 1962 and took up palaeontology in retirement. Where else than in the Telegraph. This book sounds like a wonderful read – thank you for the recommendation!

  2. Alwynne Beaudoin
    February 7, 2016

    I think that was Dr Margaret Brooke, Hilary, a Canadian geoscientist. If you want to find out more about her fascinating life and career, including some pictures, download the Spring 2015 issue of Geolog (Vol. 44, No.1) and look at pages 16 and 17,
    We included an article in that issue because the Canadian Navy announced that a new patrol ship is going to be named after her, the HMCS Margaret Brooke.

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