Another Little Building Block

Nigel Starck on enhancing our understanding of the human condition.

Nigel Starck, author of Life After Death, wants us all to up our apostrophe game — but frankly, Im not sure Nigels’ opinion hold’s water. A scholar of obituaries as much as a writer of one, Starck’s obits have appeared in UK papers (he has written several for The Guardian) and those in his native Australia. We chatted to him about the use of puns in headlines, the obituary formula, and why obits aren’t an art for the young.

What was it that first drew you to obituaries?

I’ve been a journalist for a long, long time now — more than forty years. I’ve covered just about every topic, and I’ve done just about everything there is to do in journalism too — I was a TV producer; I worked in radio; I was posted to Asia for three years; I worked on British newspapers for four years; I’ve worked right around this country. And the one thing that stuck was the obituary.

I’ve always thought — and still do think — that the obituary is the finest of the journalism arts. It demands of the writer incisive research, utter accuracy, delicacy and felicity. The obituary is an important instrument of history: if you want to know what life was like in times past, read the obituaries.

Would you say that your approach to writing obits has changed since you started?

When I was a fairly youthful reporter, I just didn’t know enough to be writing obituaries — in many ways, it’s not an art for the young. Back in the 60s, I was sent out to write obits of ex-servicemen, and I just didn’t know what questions to ask, which resulted in some pretty pallid writing. I’d do it so much better now — and I hope I am: I’m back writing on ex-servicemen now, only this time I know what to ask and what not to ask.

I’ll give you a little example — one of the obits I’ve written recently was of a pilot involved in WWII. He flew an aircraft called a Sunderland Flying Boat — huge things: the biggest British operational aircraft in WWII. At night, he and his crew sank a U-boat using flares — it was a remarkable piece of aviation.

Now, if I’d been told that as a young reporter, I would’ve just trotted something out without doing the research. This time, though, I searched the unit’s history, and I found a historian who said that this was a demonstration of aviation at its highest level. I was able to check the facts; to put the story in context, to understand it better; to appreciate the skill and the significance of the moment — to get the full story, basically. As a young reporter, I just didn’t do that sort of thing, and as a result, my early obituaries were superficial, I feel, and not particularly worthy of the craft.

“They’ve all got a great story to tell, mate. Every life has something to tell you.”

When you say that obits aren’t an art for the young — Is that more true for obituaries than it is for other parts of journalism?

It’s because it’s a review. I’ve trained many young writers in my time — a lot of them are great at a lot of things, but they’re usually not very good at writing reviews — of plays or of films. They just lack experience — it’s not their fault, of course, but by definition, they haven’t been to a lot of films and haven’t seen a great array of theatre.

With an obituary, you’re reviewing a life. I think you’ve got to have been around for a while to be able to to write about life in that way. You’ve got to have that breadth of vision, in order to place on record the life and its significance — in order to place it in context.

When it comes to having context, what’s your take, then on having obituaries be written by one who knew the deceased personally?

The Guardian has a series called Other Lives, where they’ll have obituaries written by people about someone they knew — their mum, their dad, their sister, whatever. I don’t think that ever really cuts it. The Australian press does it too: they’ll run obits which are essentially just the eulogy, but tricked up a bit. And they’re just bad obits — they contain lies, errors, subjective opinions, whereas an obituary should be a review. A review of a life. It is not a personal judgment. It’s a candid review. An appraisal. If it’s written by somebody with an intimate relationship to the subject, I would be inclined to discount it as a work of value.

Many obituaries tend to stick to a tried-and-trusted obituary formula — The first paragraph always tells you how they died, and how old they were, the final paragraph lists the survivors. How do you feel about that formula — Does it make for a better obit?

It depends what paper you’re writing for — The Daily Telegraph are absolutely strict on writing with that formula — that’s just the way they do it. Personally, I don’t like it. The “survived by…” thing is pathetic — I loathe that ending. It’s… it’s terrible! It’s like writing a theatre review, and ending the review with “And then the curtain came down.”

This is an example of what you can do when you don’t have to follow a formula — This is the start of an obituary of an aboriginal artist I did for The Guardian:

“The artist died as he had lived, on the red-brown sand and beneath a big sky. From his birth on the Wati Ngintaka dreaming track — the route taken between Aboriginal sites by an ancestral being — he had been taught the quest for nourishment and shelter.”

See? That’s encouraging, it’s entertaining, it’s enticing. And let me read you the closing, instead of “He was survived by…” — This is talking about how he had raged about the atom bomb test carried out in central Australia:

“The air is desert clean again now as Nyakul’s Pitjanjatjara people in their hundreds gather for a ‘sorry camp’ — a place of grieving — near the tri-border. In their night sky, they have a fine view of McNaught’s Comet, and its million-mile tail. The dreaming endures without boundary.”

That’s it. No survivors, nothing! It’s got poetry at the beginning and at the end. That’s why I like writing for The Guardian — they’ll let you do that. They’d never let you get away with that in The Telegraph. Probably not The Times either — you would in The Indy, I reckon.

With the Guardian, they’ll have what’s called a bio box — the biographical detail — at the start or end of the piece, which enables you to be a writer of substance and art. Those ritualised beginnings make your job easier, but ultimately weaken the product, I find.

And what about headlines? Could they too be used to allow the writer to be poetic in the body of the obit?

Ah, I have very firm views on this. I dislike intensely the American and Australian way of trying to use a normal newspaper headline in an obit — it’s just so… wet. And it’s imposing the subeditors value judgment of a life upon the reader. The best way to do obituary headlines is just to have the name of the person. They might have a strap-line under it but the most important thing is always the name. I think if you try to convey a message too strongly in the headline, it can become a bit patronising, and it cheapens the obituary as an instrument of history. So I do like the British press’s practice of just having the name, with perhaps a descriptor under it — that drives it home very strongly that the obituary is about that person’s life. It’s just cleaner and more professional than some cheap headline — it’s the authoritative way, as far as I’m concerned.

Are there any obituary headlines that stick out to you as being particularly egregious?

Sometimes, subeditors will try to work some silly play-on-words into the headline. [He opens up his book to show an example.] This is an obit about a Sydney surgeon who also seemed to be very fond of dining out: “A Surgeon’s Skill, With an Eye for Sturgeon” — Crap! That sort of playing with words, it’s an insult to a life of achievement. It’s just bad journalism — lacking class entirely.

Y’know, I’m usually a fan of the pun, but that’s simply not the place…

You don’t have puns in obituaries. You just shouldn’t. I mean, you don’t have to be totally po-faced — tell it as it is — but don’t play with lives like that. It’s just wrong.

Now, not only do you write obituaries, but you’ve also done a lot of writing about obituaries? Is there one you prefer?

Excellent question, let me think… I’d have to say that I probably prefer writing them. I’ve written two obituaries for prime ministers, and the sense of achievement is tremendous — because you are placing on record, for perpetuity, this newspaper’s opinion on that person’s contribution to society. You put an enormous amount of work into it — and not for a huge fee. For one of the prime ministers, I had to read five biographies — there’s a lot of work in that. And you have to read (or at least speedread) them all, because some had rather conflicting opinions and reports of incidents. You then have to boil it all down into a maximum — and I mean, real maximum — of 1,500 words. And that would be very generous: most obituaries are 800 to 1,000 — 1,500 is quite a luxury. But you still have to get a lot in, and decide what you leave out. It’s a great exercise in discipline, in reportage and in using the voice of history — the voice of record. I love writing about obituaries too, but I think you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that you can write them before you can have an opinion on them.

What, then, would you say are the skills needed to be a great obituarist?

I must say, experience really helps. Persistence too: you’ve got to persist and persist and persist. You can’t leave anything unclear. And you have to write the thing with the strength and persuasiveness to make those people who didn’t know your subject wish they had.

To have the reader wish they knew the subject — Is that the ultimate goal of an obituary? Is that what you want the reader to leave the obit feeling?

I want the reader to feel that they now have another little building block to their understanding of society. And that should be true of even the simplest obit — my obituary of Ray Baldwin, which I wrote for an ex-service magazine, comes to mind: an Australian soldier who fought in the New Guinea campaign during WWII; a gutsy, fiercely independent man. It’s a little story, but it’s really about the independence of spirit that can exist in war, and about the way that a man can be brave but can still be moved to tears. It just enriches your understanding of the human state — That’s something that the obituary does very well.

And on a similar note: Are there any lessons — life lessons — that you’ve learned from writing obituaries?

Oh, most definitely. Don’t ever underestimate people. That’s what the obituary teaches you. You sit opposite someone on the train and you might think “Oh, he’s an ordinary sort of person.” But you just can’t tell what they’ve done in life. They’ve all got a great story to tell, mate. Every life has something to tell you.

And finally: How would you like your own obituary to read?

Just say one thing, please — that he had a sense of history and a passionate concern for the correct positioning of the possessive apostrophe. ◈