Hugh Massingberd joins the majority.
December 30, 2007 12:08 PM   Subscribe

"Hugh Massingberd, a celebrated former obituaries editor of The Telegraph of London who made a once-dreary page required reading by speaking frankly, wittily and often gleefully ill of the dead, became the recipient of his own services after dying in West London on Christmas Day." The linked NY Times obit (by Margalit Fox; print version) contains many good quotes, like "The Telegraph’s send-off of one Lt. Col. Geoffrey Knowles, 'who as a subaltern was bitten in the buttocks by a bear — he survived but the bear expired'"; The Telegraph's own obit is much longer (and, of course, unsigned) and contains, along with more good zingers, a well-written account of his life ("The inevitable consequence of his bingeing proved another triumph of style, as Massingberd, a tall, slim and notably handsome youth with hollowed-out cheeks, transmogrified into an impressively corpulent presence whose moon face lit up with Pickwickian benevolence").

Previous MeFi posts about obituaries: 1, 2.
posted by languagehat (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I just adore the Telegraph's obituaries. Adios, Hugh, and thanks for all the belly laughs.
posted by GrammarMoses at 12:12 PM on December 30, 2007

I've not even read it yet but I know it's going to be a total fucking gem. Thank you languagehat.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 12:29 PM on December 30, 2007

When I lived in England the staff club had subscriptions to all the national newspapers (amounting to something like 8 or 9, a revelation in itself) -- invariably the only reason to grab a copy of the Telegraph was to read the rather good chess column, the cricket coverage (Gower the aristocratic strokemaker vs. Gooch the lumpen proletariat -- and that doesn't even address class warfare perceived outside the England team), and the obituaries. I never knew the story until now, but it was clear even then that the section was in the hands of a master.

Metafilter: a tall, slim and notably handsome youth with hollowed-out cheeks, transmogrified into an impressively corpulent presence whose moon face lit up with Pickwickian benevolence.
posted by Rumple at 12:49 PM on December 30, 2007

I can't believe he died! What delicious "irony"!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:55 PM on December 30, 2007

Great post Hat! Never heard of the guy before, and I'm glad I did just now.
posted by serazin at 1:32 PM on December 30, 2007

I wish there was a collection of his obits, as there is of Robert McG. Thomas' work for the NY Times. I come from a family that passes around well written obituaries.

Thanks for the post, I missed this in the Times this morning.
posted by readery at 1:44 PM on December 30, 2007

readery writes:

I wish there was a collection of his obits...

readery, I have very happy news for you.

There are at least half a dozen paperback volumes of collected obituaries from the Daily Telegraph in the Massingberd era, most of which were edited by Mr. Massingberd and a very large percentage of which would be actually written by him, as well as "specialty volumes" on, e.g., sports figures. seems to have the whole lot; will have at least a few, though the pickings look considerably slimmer.

I discovered him completely by accident when I picked up a paperback collection of Telegraph obits in one of the bookshops at Heathrow, while killing time and waiting for a plane.

I became a devoted reader and fan.

Hugh, you'll be missed.
posted by enrevanche at 2:08 PM on December 30, 2007

There's a nice reminiscence of him in Max Hastings's memoirs, Editor (2002), good enough to be worth copying here:

One of the most talented recruits we captured in 1986 was Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd as Obituaries Editor. Hugh's appointment transformed the Daily Telegraph's Obituaries column from a musty backwater of the paper into the most brilliant feature of its kind in the business. Hugh possessed a fervent devotion to his craft, and to telling all. His frankness sometimes caused dismay among relatives of the dead. When poor, mad Lord Rayleigh died, Hugh spared no detail of his eccentricities, and provoked a barrage of furious letters from members of the family, copied to my home lest I should escape them at the office. 'Cruel .. tasteless .. disgraceful' were among the milder adjectives. 'But everything we said was true!' expostulated Hugh when I called him in.

I drew the line, however, when the dowager Duchess of Buccleuch was known to be close to death. Hugh enquired eagerly: 'Can we say in the obituary that she was generally known as Midnight Moll?' No, I said firmly. I also seem to remember a row about whether we could report the circumstances of the death of a businessman who had the misfortune to expire while energetically engaged with a girlfriend in a bedroom at the Dorchester. A half-truth was circulated by his family, to the effect that he had died at a sybaritic dinner in the hotel. This prompted a letter to the grieving widow from a friend, who suggested that it must be a comfort for her to know that the old boy had pegged out while doing what he enjoyed most.

Nice to see the Telegraph giving him such a splendid send-off (a full page in the print edition) -- 'one of the most extraordinary and lovable Englishmen of his time' is perhaps coming it a bit strong, but still, he does seem to have inspired great affection in the people he worked with. More reminiscences of him by his Telegraph colleagues Damian Thompson and Andrew McKie on their respective blogs, and I expect others will follow.
posted by verstegan at 2:09 PM on December 30, 2007

I'm guessing the "." won't suffice.
posted by nola at 2:10 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Montgomery-Massingberd's gifts for the telling anecdote and the witty understatement, his ability to merciless tear part a class system he clearly admired, his Monty Python-esque eye for the absurd make him so much more than a chronicler of British eccentricity -- he is quite clearly a major literary figure of the last 30 years. His autobiography alone is a major accomplishment of merciless insight.

I'm not British -- a fact I often regret -- and I'm thus in no position to be able to appreciate his work at Burke's, but informed British friends tell me Montgomery-Massingberd's achievements there have not been surpassed, nor will they be anytime soon.

I had heard he was ill, but the news of this loss are a cause of great sadness for me -- we mourn the passing of a maestro.
posted by matteo at 2:22 PM on December 30, 2007

A friend of mine from my schooldays has always said that his life's ambition was to get an obituary in the Times. I'm sure that these days he'd prefer the Telegraph.

posted by athenian at 2:33 PM on December 30, 2007

Coincidentally and for what it's worth, William Deedes, the Telegraph editor who thought it would be bad form to expand the obit section while the Times was suffering from a strike, also died this past year. Interesting character in his own right, and not just for being the model for the protagonist of Waugh's Scoop.

Sorry for the derail. Pray continue.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:40 PM on December 30, 2007

From the comments at the Telegraph:
My favourite Massingberd story was the time when, as Obits Editor, he attended an "away day" for editors of the paper to devise ideas for how the paper could attract more younger readers. He was told, so the story goes, that younger readers did not like his obituaries page because 'there were too many old people on it'. Massingberd, in his very quiet spoken manner, is reported to have replied "I will see what I can do."
posted by enn at 3:04 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

posted by not_on_display at 6:12 PM on December 30, 2007

In Iceland obituaries are written by relatives and published in newspapers (sometimes dozens and dozens of them) so I've written a couple in my time. I hope that one day I'll write an obituary worthy of Hugh Massingberd.

Also, he was referenced obliquely in Blackadder IV when Blackadder tries to call "Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Massingberd-Massingberd, VC, DFC and bar."
posted by Kattullus at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2007

"One felt that nothing mattered beyond kindness, good manners and humour."
See you, Hugh.
posted by Abiezer at 9:01 PM on December 30, 2007

enn: I have heard the same story of Jamie Fergusson, his rival, and friend, at the Independent, after it was taken over by the most recent lot of barbarians. It might be true of both, but I am pretty certain it was true of Fergusson.
posted by alloneword at 11:59 PM on December 30, 2007

alloneword: So it goes. As long as I can believe that someone said it, in real time, that this isn't someone's l'esprit de l'escalier, I'll be happy.
posted by enn at 12:17 AM on December 31, 2007

Great post.

posted by YouRebelScum at 5:57 AM on December 31, 2007

He died as anyone else could be expected: though not always fond of large children and small animals (nor any of their accompanying adults), he was nonetheless sociable to both his peers and anyone stepping through a door.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:17 AM on December 31, 2007

Great post, thanks.
posted by peacay at 7:21 PM on December 31, 2007

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