20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 22

Talking of books

Passed on

Benny Green

Over the years more than one worried man has suggested that "Death, where is thy sting?" is not after all the rhetorical question we assumed it to be, but has an answer, as follows: "In the Times obituary columns". Professional writers in particular have been known to express their anger about the last critical rites of other writers. I think it might have been J. B. Priestley who tried to clear the good name of somebody or other, Hugh Walpole possibly, after the Times obituarists had got through with him. The prevailing theory seemed to be at the time that while you could be as frank as you liked about a writer's work while he was still standing, it was expected of you to say nice things over the body. So far as Walpole was concerned, the whole machinery seemed to have worked the other way round, but in any 'case, so far as Walpole is concerned, the debate was a bit hollow, for he had been hustled away years and years before by Somerset Maugham, who gave him the most spectacular obituary in the literary annals of this century, since published under the title Cakes and Ale.

The whole business of obituaries is a peculiar one. A great many public men, creative or otherwise, seem to believe that a good final notice has something to do with the life-afterdeath which a durable reputation can bestow. It all seems nonsensical to me, as it must do to Frank Swinnerton, who not so long ago wrote: For the rest, I am content to be forgotten as soon as I am dead. The fate has befallen better writers than myself; and I doubt if any octogenarian will meet this inevitable doom with greater equanimity.

On the other hand, people will often go to the most extraordinary lengths to feather their own posthumous nests. We know that Shaw and Wells each took larkish delight in compiling the obituary of the other, twenty years before the event, a danse macabre as spectacular in its way as the performance of Beerbohm's Enoch Soames, who sold his soul to the devil in order to find out what might happen to a man who sold his soul to the devil, and there is the well known claim of James Joyce, who once explained away his own obscurantism by saying it was a device to keep the exegeticists busy for the next few hundred years. Somebody once told me that Leslie Henson, a few years before his death, succumbed to morbid curiosity by contriving to hear the BBC recording of his own obituary, and there is another popular legend that Richard Goolden, who, in this year's production of Toad of Toad Hall will be portrayed by a mole, has actually recorded his own obituary for the Corporation, ending with "And then I died.

Goodbye". I hope that story is true, because it brings a little closer to reality the Stephen Leacock version of Robinson Crusoe, which ends with "I grew ill; I died; I buried myself".

I have recently been wandering through the largest burial grounds in the world*, strolling down long avenues of commemorative prose, passing by thousands of tons of monumental prosodic masonry, reading the inscriptions on more one-thousand word epitaphs than I care to remember, and I found, as I walked respectfully across the endless meadowlands of posthumous delight, that it occurred to me that although it is not unknown for a dead man's body to fall into the hands of his deadliest enemies, Times obituaries tend in general to be friendly and as fair as it is humanly possible to be. The current policy appears to be to recruit the services of an obituarist known to be sympathetic towards the subject and apprecia tive of his works, which is sensible enough. As a matter of fact, the Times invited me to write a few obituaries myself, but after doing one, concerning a person who then made a lightning recovery and is happily still with us, I retired from the trade, not because there is something distasteful about compiling obituaries, but because their composition before the subject has gone is better suited to the spectacular levity of Shaw and Wells than it evidently is to me.

My conclusion after reading consecutively as many Times obituaries as is commensurate with the retention of good spirits, is that there are very few assassinations in eviOence these days, but here and there a sad incidence of Death By Misadventure or sheer Accident. Like all men, I have an interest in the obituaries mainly of those men whose work particularly interested me. So I turn to Loesser, Frank, and find that 'Two Sleepy People is "humorously appealing", 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition' "patriotically rousing", 'I Got Spurs That Jingle, Jangle, Jingle' "casually jaunty", and 'Moon of Manakura' "lightly romantic", the whole paragraph being what you might call "adjectivally stupid". Later we read that the scintillating score for Most Happy Fella was "not much more than extremely efficient". On the other hand, the Cole Porter, James Thurber, Harpo Marx and Dashiell Hammett entries are impeccable. My other lightning survey, of cricketers, discloses that Hobbs, Hammond and Sydney Barnes are all well done by, but that in that department, the Guardian held all the aces in Cardus.

In an attempt to take a rather longer view of it, I have decided that the anthology comprises almost the last faint echoes of the Victorian age. When the decade of the 'sixties opened, Attlee and Churchill, Barbirolli and Beecham, Maugham and Masefield, Braque and E. M. Forster, Hackenschmidt and Gordon Harker, Barry Jackson and Carl Jung, Sean 0-Casey and Oliver Onions, Herbert Strudwick and Pelham Warner, all were alive, and kicking at least to some degree. I had forgotten how much of the old century was still there as late as 1960.

By the time the decade ended, there were only a few Victorians left, and since then Wodehouse and Wilfred Rhodes have passed on into the files. By the time the next volume in this lugubrious series appears, precious few of its cast-list will have 'remembered Mafeking or Dan Leno.

*Obituaries From The Times, 1961-1970 (Newspaper Archive Developments, Ltd)