Hugh Massingberd: Obit-writer who invented 'the code'

Hugh Massingberd, who died on Christmas Day aged 60, was obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph from 1986 to 1994, where he delighted in injecting his columns with a whiff of scandal, gossip or innuendo.

In that vein, perhaps it is appropriate that the paternity of the modern obituary remains hotly disputed. Was it The Times, which broke the mould of its own dreary columns in September 1986 with a scandalous notice of Sir Robert Helpmann: ‘A homosexual of the proselytising kind, he could turn young men on the borderline his way”?

Or was it The Independent, founded that same autumn, where James Fergusson, now retired, rarely missed an opportunity to claim the superiority of his paper’s signed – as opposed to the Telegraph’s anonymous – obituaries. ‘There are few obituaries more worthless than the third-rate, unsigned obituary,’opines Fergusson.

Or maybe, as he liked to think, it was Massingberd – Massivesnob to readers of Private Eye – who spoke of the Damascene-style moment while watching Brief Lives, Roy Dotrice’s one-man show about John Aubrey, the gossipy 17th-century antiquarian. ‘Tchah. He got more by his prick than his practice,’exclaims Aubrey of a dull barrister. From that moment, Massingberd was ‘determined to dedicate myself to the chronicling of what people were really like”.

His plan to enliven the Telegraph’s obituary page was rejected by Bill Deedes – who said it was ‘bad form’to take advantage of the absence of The Times, which at that time had suspended publication. It was eventually accepted by Max Hastings in October 1986.

Massingberd’s relationship with management was not always an easy one. After one ‘ideas’meeting, he was instructed to find some younger subjects for the page. On another occasion, after Hastings had insisted that obituaries should include a cause of death, Massingberd upset the readers’ sensibilities by penning a lurid account of how one subject had met his maker by virtue of an exploding penile implant.

He would tell enquirers that, as with news stories or books to review, the subjects largely chose themselves. ‘The vital point,’he said, ‘is that the copy should be a good read, a lively, stimulating story.’Understatement was his golden rule, and the joy of the job, he once said, was capturing for posterity some little-known, or half-forgotten, figure who had made a hitherto undervalued contribution to our times.

Hugh John Montgomery was born in Berkshire on 30 December, 1946, to relatively modest means, but related to grander families. It was from his kinsfolk that he chose to become Montgomery-Massingberd and later plain Massingberd. After Harrow, he was due to go up to Selwyn College, Cambridge, but landed instead at Burke’s, editing a series of authoritative genealogical books.

Among his greatest accomplishments as an obituary editor was developing and deploying ‘the code’which, as the Australian academic Nigel Starck says, allows the dead to be ‘dispatched with a tincture of charity”. It includes phrases such as ‘tireless raconteur'(crashing bore), ‘convivial'(habitually drunk) and ‘relished physical contact'(sadist).

Massingberd retired from The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries page in 1994 after a heart attack, but was in demand as the self-styled founding father of modern obituaries. In June 2005, he addressed the International Association of Obituarists in Bath in a double-act with his one-time deputy David Jones. At the Beaujolais Restaurant afterwards, we were afforded an insight into the gluttonous appetite for which Massingberd became notorious (he reputedly ate the largest breakfast ever served at the Connaught).

Despite his affection for the landed gentry, Massingberd was no snob. Indeed, he put the genial into genealogical research. However, his cultural tastes bordered at times on the inexplicable, including a predilection for regularly seeing The Phantom of the Opera and loitering by stage doors.

Whatever the true paternity of the genre, Massingberd’s contribution to the modern newspaper obituary is hard to overstate. He is survived by his second wife, Caroline ‘Ripples’Ripley, and by a son and a daughter.

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