An Obituary Writer’s Obituary

Last week, a 71-year old journalist wrote his own obituary as his last reporting assignment, according to a report on Jim Romenesko’s blog:

Harry M. Polster, who had a successful career in New York before editing the Brunswick Times Record in Maine,  prefaced his obituary with these words:

Greetings from the beyond, wherever it is. While death is life’s only certainty, most don’t know the when and how. I did, and I decided it would be fun if my final writing assignment were my own obituary.

The article reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was about 25, shortly before I started as a journalist and never wrote a word of fiction again. It is about an obituary writer who feigns his death in order to read his own obituary. The articles written by fellow obituary writers prove so spiteful that he kills himself. The story, written in the style of an obituary and heavily influenced by reading too much Roald Dahl, was originally published by New Welsh Review. It has never been published on the internet because there was no internet back then. So here it is:

                                                           LLOYD EVANS R.I.P


Lloyd Evans, who died yesterday at the age of 54, was regarded by some as the best obituary writer of his generation.  In a career spanning over 30 years, he virtually re-invented the art of obituary writing and his pieces on figures such as Robert Kennedy, John Lennon and Graham Greene are commonly acknowledged to be classics of their genre.

From an early age, Lloyd displayed an unnatural, some would say unhealthy, interest in the past.  By 13 he had written his first obituary  – a sympathetic portrait of his grandmother, Iris. At 17 he was lecturing on Welsh social history at his father’s Working Men’s Institute. And throughout his teens, he devoured biographies of famous historical figures with a gusto normally reserved for two-dime thrillers.

Almost inevitably, Lloyd’s intellectual precocity led him to Oxford, where he gained a scholarship to study history in 1958.  Many thought that he was destined for a life of academia.  However, following the tragic death of his father, Lloyd’s interest switched from analysing other people’s pasts to analysing his own.

Several years of psychoanalysis followed, in which Lloyd scrutinised childhood memories with the meticulousness that was later to become his trademark.  In fact, even in later years, Lloyd continued to write diaries, note dreams and file letters like other people keep bank statements.

On graduating from Oxford, Lloyd spent a year with the South Wales Echo.  It was, he later recalled, a happy year, in which he met his first wife, Bethan, and cut his teeth as an investigative journalist.

Headhunted by The Manchester Guardian in 1962, Lloyd was placed on obituaries.  Initially, he was disappointed by what he saw as a dead-end post.  Within months, however, he began to revel in his new role, and despite the efforts of various editors to move him, he stayed with obituaries until the end.

It was a position that suited Lloyd perfectly. Like many of his compatriots, he was melancholic to the point of moodiness, and had a brooding intensity that reminded some of the late Aneurin Bevan. He also had a wonderfully morbid sense of humour, which peppered his conversation and occasionally crept into his articles. Above all else though, Lloyd was a man who was genuinely obsessed by the past. He was keen on quoting the poet, R.S Thomas’ observation that, “There is no present in Wales / And no future /  There is only the past.”

However, it would be wrong to attribute Lloyd’s soulfulness solely to his nationality. For him, the past was simply a foreign country in which he felt at home. The present, with its banalities, trivialities and day-to-day monotony, depressed him. Whilst the future was so uncertain that the only thing you could predict with any certainty was its unpredictability.

Lloyd excelled in his new job, becoming obituaries editor in 1971.  Despite his successful career however, his private life was shambolic.  Bethan frequently complained about Lloyd’s preoccupation with her past, which he investigated with all the energy of an amateur sleuth. He was particularly intrigued by his wife’s previous relationships, and this desire to control her past as well as her present, finally ended in their divorce in 1971.

Throughout the 1970’s, Lloyd dedicated himself to his work.  His obituaries were always fair without being fawning and were characterised by a rigorous attention to detail and a genuine compassion for the deceased.  In the 1980’s, however, his style changed.  He increasingly concentrated on the darker sides of his subjects’ lives, often digging deep to unearth headline-grabbing revelations about the lives of the rich and famous.

Typical of this new approach was his obituary of Richard Burton in 1982.  Accusing Burton of betraying his working class roots, prostituting his talent to Hollywood and committing more infidelities than his compatriot Dylan Thomas, Lloyd’s obituary caused a furor.

Threatened with legal action by Burton’s widow, Sally, and virtually ostracised within the obituary writing community, Lloyd remained unrepentant, arguing for “a new objectivity in obituary writing” in a series of articles.

This new approach led to frequent clashes with both his editor and fellow journalists.  In particular, Lloyd had a well-publicised run-in with The Daily Telegraph’s lead obituary writer, Andrew Joseph.  In an article entitled “defending the defenceless”, Joseph accused Lloyd of “jackboot journalism” and “dancing on the graves of the dead”.

Outwardly, he remained unperturbed by the torrent of criticism he was subjected to, but inwardly, one suspected he was stung by its vehemence.  Towards the end of the 1980’s, Lloyd became more and more ill tempered and prone to bouts of depression.  His second wife, Janet, who he had married fifteen years earlier, died in a car crash in 1989 and the shock of the tragedy sent him reeling for the second time in his life.

In his final years, Lloyd’s reputation was partially re-habilitated by a younger generation of obituary writers who were heavily influenced by his ideas.  Critical appraisals began to replace sycophantic eulogies and newspaper readers became accustomed to journalistic hatchet jobs.

In spite of this, Lloyd remained bogged down by depression.  Always hypersensitive about what others thought about him, he became fascinated by the idea of what his fellow obituary writers would write about him if he were to die.  “Imagine spending your whole life looking for your true self”, Lloyd said to me a month before he died, “only to discover that you don’t like what you’ve found when you finally do.”

Ultimately, it was to prove a fatal preoccupation.  On January 16 this year, Lloyd asked his coroner brother-in-law to prepare him a death certificate confirming that he had died of gunshot wounds to the head.  This done, he fled to the Isle of Skye to wait for his obituary to appear in the national papers.

Several of the obituaries published earlier this week were sympathetic.  They, of course, alluded to Lloyd’s marital problems, his mood-swings and his morbid sense of humour, but refrained from the type of verbal viciousness which Lloyd had meted out himself on many occasions.  The vast majority, however, shared none of this restraint, relishing the opportunity to take revenge on Lloyd for past humiliations.

Breaking Telegraph tradition by mimicking Lloyd’s acerbic style, Joseph’s obituary was particularly vitriolic, accusing Lloyd of “having failed in death as he failed in life”.  It may have been the realisation that this accusation had an element of truth in it that finally led Lloyd to take his own life last night.

In his obituary of Graham Greene in 1990, Lloyd quoted the novelist’s assertion that “sometimes the pen draws more blood than a bullet”. In the light of yesterday’s shooting, Greene’s words have taken on a new and sinister meaning.

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