Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer.

Obituary writing is a strange profession. Hugh Massingberd (from the UK’s Telegraph) introduced humour and style into a traditionally dry area of newspaper journalism and believed that his normally conservative paper should celebrate the lives of people who were interesting as well those who were eminent.

His obituary collection, Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer contains so many wonderful careers, that I thought it was worth a post. Herewith, a selection of my favourites.

Jeffrey Bernard (1932 – 1997) Journalist and Columnist. “As the years passed it was increasingly as an alcoholic blur, so that when Bernard was commissioned to write an autobiography, he had to place an advertisement asking if anyone could tell him what he had been doing between 1960 and 1974.”

Jure Robic (1965 – 2010) Extreme cyclist. “Toward the end of the race, he was known to weep uncontrollably and was sometimes seen to be hopping off his bike to fight with imaginary assailants, such as bears, wolves, or aliens – which turned out to be mailboxes.”

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929 – 2000) Songwriter and performer.  “… among his later songs were Alligator Wine, Feast of Mau- Mau, I Hear Voices and the unbroadcastable Constipation Blues. In the late 1960s, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins teamed up with the singer Shoutin’ Pat Newborn and the collaboration prospered until she knifed him in a jealous rage.”

Flossie Lane (1914 – 2009) Publican. “… who has died aged ninety-four was reportedly the oldest publican in Britain and ran one of the last genuine country inns. A chronic agoraphobic, Flossie Lane was never known – within living memory – to have ventured outside her pub, other than to take in the air in the rear garden. For the last ten years, at least, she had slept every night in her customary armchair. The last person out tucked her up.”

Gene Scott (1929 – 2005) American TV Evangelist. “… would mix scripture with profanity laden monologues about the state of the world. ‘Nuke ’em in the name of Jesus’ he cried during the Gulf War, punctuated with demands for money.”

Vivian Stanshall (1943 – 1995) Musician, satirist, and all-round eccentric. “His hey-day was the mid 60’s when as the singer of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, he brought his anarchic humour to a wide audience, hitting the charts in 1968 with ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ – perhaps the only top ten single ever to feature a hosepipe solo.”

Julian Anthoine (1939 – 1989) “… was one of the best loved characters in British Mountaineering, He was himself the inaugurator of the Wallasey Mountaineering Club’s regular concluding ritual, the so-called ‘dance of the flaming arseholes’ – an exhibition which impressed itself forcibly on anyone who witnessed it.”

Melvin Burkhardt (1907 – 2001) “… who has died aged ninety-four, was a fairground sideshow performer known as the Human Blockhead because of his ability to drive a five-inch nail or an ice pick into his head without flinching. He was universally admired by his fellow performers, one of whom observed, ‘anyone who has ever hammered a nail into his nose owes a large debt to Melvin Burkhardt.”

A friend once asked, during one of Hugh Massingberd’s low moods, what would cheer him up; after some thought, he replied, “To sing patriotic songs in drag before an appreciative audience.”

Hugh Massingberd (1946 – 2007) Journalist, editor and wit. Affectionately known as the Laureate for the Departed and The Father of the Modern Obituary.