It is Saturday morning and I am enjoying a cappuccino with a friend.
It may be the general gloominess of the season but he is concerned about his obituary. Don’t worry, I say consolingly, I will write an obituary for you. I am already warming to the idea of finding something nice to say about him.
Most kind, he says without enthusiasm, it’s not a question of the writing of it but whether the Guardian would want to publish it. I can tell there’s no point in suggesting the Times or the Telegraph; his heart is set on the Guardian.
Now, this is not a matter that has ever troubled me. Until this morning, I didn’t know anybody whose accomplishments were such that they might merit a formal obituary in the one of the more serious papers. Let’s face it, even if obits were handed out in some random way, the odds are loaded against your average person getting one. There can be no more than a few thousand formal obituaries printed in the UK broadsheets in any year whereas there are (according the Office for National Statistics) over 600,000 deaths. Thus, only a small fraction of one percent of us will be granted this kind of recognition.
I try another line of consolation. When it comes to writing obituaries – a most particular skill – there are fewer writers of obituaries than there are subjects and my friend has penned three already. I suggest that being an obituarist is the rarer achievement and, moreover, one that can be enjoyed in one’s own lifetime. He is unmoved. An obituarist is a low budget critic, a mere scribbler, a vicarious enjoyer (or deprecator) of somebody else’s life.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against obituaries. I wouldn’t mind one and I wouldn’t turn one down, even from beyond the grave but if I were allowed only one crack at recognition, I would prefer to be around to enjoy it.
Next time the gongs are handed out, I might allow myself to be awarded an MBE. The citation would read, For Services to Pears Soap (by Royal Appointment). My friend points out that the MBE is inferior to the OBE and the CBE would be better still. Much better even than that, I’d prefer the ultimate accolade – being asked to appear on Desert Island Discs. Now I really am in danger of becoming delusional. Nevertheless, I have my list of eight ‘gremophone’ records at the ready, should the call come through. And I can never pronounce the word gramophone without imitating Roy Plomley’s cultured 1940’s BBC intonation.
I’m old fashioned enough to think that achievement and recognition should go hand in hand, as any good teacher will tell you. Not for me that fifteen minutes of fame preceded by nothing of any note. It feels good to be recognised but it is a reward in its own right to have accomplished something in the first place. The Bolshevist in me would not hand out accolades to public servants and eminent people and those who operate in the public eye; those who have enjoyed ample reward already in life – even to my friend, who is a fine man with many accomplishments but clearly not lacking in material things.
In the Republic of Kew where I live and shortly shall install myself as Head of State, I will recognise the unsung ones – the dedicated teacher who has imparted a love of her subject to many hundreds of children over a 35 year career; the Sikh corner-shop owner who pays himself a sub-minimum wage in service of the community; the elegant lady who shops and fights battles for the ‘old dears’ (she is herself 70).
In my mind’s eye, as I watch my precious gremophone records float beyond my reach into the sunset in a paper boat constructed from the obits vac pages of the Guardian, I console myself by wondering what friends will say about me at my funeral and which of them will actually turn up.
We’ve probably all been to that funeral. The one where the priest, having never met the deceased, bravely attempts to come up with a few words to fill the void: “He loved his garden”, “He was a bit of a joker”, “He liked two cups of tea for breakfast”…
In my case, there will be no such struggle and no need for a priest. My friend has kindly offered to say a few words. He says he’ll keep it brief.