Glimpses of remarkable lives

2009-05-07 00:00

What is a life? As the introduction to this book reminds us, in a memorable description by medieval English monk and scholar Bede, each person’s time on this Earth can be likened to “a sparrow flying through a banqueting hall, from darkness and out again to darkness, with one brightly lit moment in between”. However bright or murky that passage through the hall may have been, the obituaries in this elegant collection seek to capture the fleeting flickering of the wings amid the hubbub of the world, after the darkness and before it wells up again.

Presented alphabetically, from legendary oilfield firefighter Paul Neal “Red” Adair to Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, a Guantanamo Bay internee who committed suicide as a protest against his incarceration, the more than 200 obituaries included are a very mixed bag. There are royals, like Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales; heads of state, like Gerald Ford and Edward Heath; singers, like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles; and writers, like Saul Bellow and Patrick O’Brian. Notably, there are two South Africans: Christiaan Barnard and Harry Oppenheimer.

Oddly, also included is the voluptuous Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith, who, aged 29, married the 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall, and on his death embarked on a crusade of litigation because he had left her nothing in his will. But most odd of all is the entry for Alex the African Grey, a parrot used by University of Arizona researcher Irene Pepperberg in an attempt to prove that birds, as well as some mammals, are capable of acquiring knowledge and communicating the results to others.

If proof were needed that in recent decades there has been a renaissance in obituary writing in British papers (although in magazine format, The Economist apparently always describes itself as a paper), these brief accounts provide it. While they may lack the irreverence of the Daily Telegraph obituaries under the masterful hand of the late Hugh Massingberd, they are gleamingly polished glimpses of remarkable lives.

John Conyngham

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