by Kenneth Roy
When I read one obituary of Susannah York which claimed that she rode on a bike four miles ‘across the wild Ayrshire countryside’ to Marr College in Troon every morning, and another obituary which claimed that she was expelled for swimming naked in the school pool at midnight, several thoughts came to mind more or less at once:
1. I live in the ‘wild Ayrshire countryside’, not far from the house where Susannah York and her parents are said to have lived. Our terrain is not wild. It is soft and relatively low-lying. As countryside goes, it is a bit of a pussy cat.
2. It doesn’t feel like four miles to Marr College, although I admit I haven’t measured it recently.
3. She could not have swum naked in the pool of Marr College at midnight, unless she broke into the school or hid in a cupboard after school hours until it was time to take all her clothes off, neither of which offence she ever admitted to. Marr College is not a boarding school. It tends to be locked and dark long before midnight.
4. Likewise, other notable former pupils, including Ronni Anconna, Gordon Brown (the rugby man, not the Raith Rovers supporter) and Mike Russell could not have swum naked in the school pool at midnight, unless they too broke in.
5. Marr College doesn’t actually have a swimming pool.
In fact – which is another way of saying ‘as far as I know’ – Susannah York, not that York was her name, deserted the wild Ayrshire countryside voluntarily and then boarded at a place called St Cuthmans (no apostrophe?) in Sussex. It was there that she was expelled for swimming naked in the pool at midnight.
‘I wasn’t even caught doing it,’ she was reported as saying years later. ‘But I’d been brought up on Enid Blyton, where you always had to own up.’
The writing of any obituary terrifies me. The source of the terror is a sense of responsibility to the dead.
Does it matter if the papers get it so wrong about the early life of a delightful but fairly minor actress? Not really: it is, in the great scheme, if there is one, of no importance whatever, like mostly everything else. But somehow it grates. The obituary is so – well – final. In all but a few cases, nothing more will be written about its subject beyond the publication of the obituary. It isn’t, perhaps, unreasonable to hope that once someone arrives ‘on the slab’, as death is known in the obits departments, a higher standard of accuracy should prevail. Best get the epitaph right if we can. Yet, as we see with Susannah York, we don’t always.
I had only been with the local paper a few weeks when, at the age of 16, I was required to write my first obituary. It was of my own grandfather. He had been a bandsman with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and, after his days of military musicianship were over, raised money for ‘the war effort’ (as he called it) between 1939-45 by producing the plays of J M Barrie, the more whimsical the better.
He was a lofty figure of extraordinary thinness who smoked in a slow, disconcerting manner and spoke laconically when he spoke at all. But I did not attempt a character study of my grandfather for the Falkirk Mail. I stuck to the facts, such as I knew them. The piece terrified me. The writing of any obituary terrifies me. The source of the terror is a sense of responsibility to the dead.
The first requirement, oddly enough, is to be sure the person is no longer with us. There was no doubt about my grandfather, but ‘burying them alive’, as the practice is called in the trade, is not unknown; the Daily Telegraph once had a notorious reputation for killing off retired colonels and even a book of Scottish biography mourned the lamentably early death of the Free Kirk thinker, Donald Macleod, who is happily still with us 20 years later. Tony Howard, who ended his career as obituaries editor of the Times, told me that the thing about the job he disliked most was having to ring up some grieving widow and utter the dread words: ‘I’m so sorry to have to ask you this, but can you confirm that your husband died last night?’.
It opened, if not the floodgates, the cemetery gates to a more frank, often hurtful, sometimes downright cruel form of obituary.
Once the obituarist is reasonably convinced of the mortality of his subject, anything goes these days. You can have Susannah York swimming naked in a non-existent swimming pool at the bottom end of the scale, or rubbish the dead person’s character at the top end. The turning point came when a newspaper described Robert Helpmann, the dancer, as ‘a homosexual of the proselytising kind’; no one’s sexuality had ever been mentioned in an obit until then. It opened, if not the floodgates, the cemetery gates to a more frank, often hurtful, sometimes downright cruel form of obituary in which the old euphemisms – ‘he did not suffer fools gladly’ etc – were swept away in a spirit of cold candour.
They say you can’t libel the dead, but a friend of Dr David Horribin complained to the Press Complaints Commission that Dr Horribin had indeed been libelled – in the British Medical Journal, of all publications. His BMJ obituary in 2003 suggested that he ‘may prove to be the greatest snake oil salesman of his age’ and referred to him as a rotter. Could an obituary stoop any lower? The editor promised ‘remedial action’, but short of resurrecting the dead, and allowing Dr Horribin to sue for exemplary damages, it was difficult to see what could be done to restore a character so savagely destroyed.
I am afraid that, whatever the truth, the poor doctor will always be remembered as a snake oil salesman and Susannah York will always be remembered for swimming naked in the non-existent pool of Marr College. Such is life. Or death.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.