Eccentric Lives : ' Memorials without mercy '. The Daily Telegraph Book of 21st Century Obituaries.

It used to be that, when you died, what you wanted was an obituary in a good newspaper, not that you'd be around to savor it.

Since the introduction of the smartphone, the stakes have been raised. '' I got a breaking news alert when I croaked,'' some overachiever has surely bragged in the great beyond. ''How about you?''

Obituaries in  newspapers like The New York Times have loosened up in the past few decades. Resume virtues, like being the inventor of Velcro, still matter most, but eulogy virtues, like being able to mimic an old school bus starting up, are sneaking in as well.

One newspaper led this shift in tone : The Daily Telegraph in London. It was the Telegraph's inspiration, beginning in the 1980s, to treat obituaries as an essential comic form.

The paper's cheeky, truth-dealing obits have inspired a cult leadership. The books that collect them, with titles devoted to ''Rogues,'' ''Heroes and Adventurers,'' '' Naval Obituaries,'' ''Sports'' and so on, are oddly uplifting, better than edibles, to tuck into before bed.

The latest Telegraph collection is titled ''Eccentric Lives.'' It's a book about oddballs and joy-hogs and the especially drunken and/or irascible, and it may be the best yet.

The English journalist Jessica Mitford, in her letters, said the slogan for her funeral would be ''brevity followed by levity.'' The Telegraph seems to bide by similar rules.

Among the notices is one for the 17th Viscount Mountgarret who, in 1982, became outraged that a hot-air balloon was flying over his grouse moor in Yorkshire. He began to pepper the balloon and its occupants with his shotgun, hitting the pilot in the neck.

[The others ducked] Mountgarret was fined and had his shotgun license temporarily withdrawn.

The obit goes on to say that his friends loved Mountgarret, because he was an entertaining character :

At the end of a day's shooting, his guests would retire to his house near Harrogate, where they might be invited to participate in one of their host's favorite pastimes, indoor golf.

Mountgarret would appoint a certain feature - his double bed, for example - as the ''hole.'' The players would then chip their golf balls through the house [up the stairs, if necessary], occasionally damaging the contents as they did so.

Another obit is devoted to Eileen Fox, a former bohemian who was a well-known personage - plump, untidy and always carrying plastic bags full of her things - on London's Shaftesbury Avenue.

Fox ''made everyone else's business her own, often to their intense irritation.'' A patriot, she rarely heard ''Rule Britannia'' without taking off her clothes. She was a popular film extra, ''specializing in crowd scenes that called for gummy medieval serfs.''

Fox, ''a frequent menace to British diplomats,'' sued the British Airways, claiming to have been bitten on the bottom by a flea. At the same time, ''she was a generous woman, fond of the young and earnest in her desire to help.''

There aren't many famous people in the book.One sort of famous one is Mark E. Smith, the belligerent lead singer with the band the Fall, who died in 2018.

In his obituary, The Telegraph, which knows a good line when it sees one, quotes quotes a journalist for The Independent who said, ''Mark E.Smith will be remembered as a man who believed that the pen is mightier than the sword, but who did not always have a pen to hand.''

There are a lot of touchy and snappish people in this book, including a famous drunk whose hangover were so awful that ''on one cold day he complained of the noise that the snow made as it landed on his bald head.''

Ezra Pound once said that he'd never known ''anyone worth a damn who wasn't irascible.''

One of the books in The Telegraph's obituaries series is devoted to ''Priests and Prelates.'' The eccentricities of religious dignitaries aren't as funny as they used to be.

Sometimes the memorable bits in these obituaries are the little things. John Jones, a professor of poetry at Oxford from 1978 to 1983, was an especially brilliant lecturer, one who never required notes. He was also known to be insufferably arrogant.

His wife, Jean, was a painter whom Iris Murdoch admired. When Jean began to sink into dementia, Jones's life fell apart. Still, we read :

Difficult as their marriage had been, it had lasted 63 years, and those who loved them would think of their nightly routine, which Jones managed to keep going except in the very darkest times, of their lying beside one another in bed and reading jointly, and silently, the novels of Angela Brazil.

John read more slowly than Jean and she would patiently wait for him to nod, vigorously, as a signal that she could turn the page of ''Monitress Merle'' - or ''Jean's Golden Term.''

He is survived by his two children.

The World Students Society thanks review author, Dwight Garner.


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