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— Robert Cottrell
27th November 2021
Robert Writes: The Quick And The Dead
Of the many books that I hope still to read in my life, the most elusive are those that have yet to be written.
To introduce obliquely the first of these books that I dream of imagining into being, while lacking the application to write them myself, I should say that the one contribution of lasting value I ever made to anything in my thirty years of full-time journalism was my advocacy of an obituaries page for The Economist.
I was, nominally, Features Editor of The Economist at the time — 1994 or so — and trying to make myself generally useful around the place. But since there was only one long weekly feature in the paper which was not being otherwise handled by specialist section editors, I tended to have a bit of time on my hands (such things happened in those days),
I had a weakness for obituaries after having worked on The Independent, where the obituaries editor and antiquarian James Fergusson had turned a traditional backwater into a garden of delights. Transported to my new home in St James's Street I modelled, using the past year's newspapers, the confidence with which we could expect interesting people to die at appropriate intervals and thus ensure a compelling obituary in each week's Economist. The numbers were encouraging, the obituary page was blessed by the editor, Bill Emmott, and it has been duly executed ever since by two of the most perfect prose stylists ever to have graced a printed page, Keith Colquhoun (himself the subject of an Economist obituary in 2010) and Ann Wroe.
All of which is to say that I have a certain interest in obituaries, a certain knowledge of how they are done, and a keen desire to read a quirky crime novel set in the Fleet Street of the mid-1990s when the internet is starting to show its teeth and the old soaks are fearing for their expense accounts.
Let us imagine as our central character a journalist somewhat past his prime, known as Dave "Coffin" Lidd by virtue of a smoking habit formed when such things were still mandatory in the newspaper business. Dave has been bumped from the sports section to the obituaries desk after an awkward incident involving a women's basketball team. He rightly fears he is on course for "voluntary" retirement within months if not weeks.
But he will not go gently into that dark night. He still has the rat-like cunning and the capacity for plausible invention under pressure which one necessarily acquires over long years at the Daily Filthpacket; and, if his new job is technically a demotion, he has no particular animus against writing about the dead, but rather an almost indecent feeling of excitement — for the dead, as every journalist knows, cannot sue for libel. He senses opportunity here. He will ransack the last days of the rich and famous to procure and fabricate scoops and super-scoops that will send sales of the Filthpacket soaring, while his colleagues and rivals on more scrupulous newspapers look on in amazement.
And so he does. Here is one of his first exploits.
A retired Vice-Marshal of the Royal Air Force is strolling home from drinks at his West End club at 8.30pm on a Monday evening. By 10pm he is dead in a mortuary, the victim of a hit-and-run accident. By 8am the following morning he is decorating breakfast tables across the Home Counties in the form of a sensational 2,000-word obituary in the Daily Filthpacket, under Lidd's byline, filled not only with tales of derring-do in times of war, but also with a variety of anecdotes involving ladies' underwear, ballet dancers, poppers and and hidden cameras which the Vice-Marshal, fortunately for the Filthpacket, is no longer in a position to dispute.
Lidd considers this a job well done — especially the muted ferocity, peculiar to journalists, market porters and night-club bouncers, with which he was able to shoehorn the piece into the final London edition of the Filthpacket just minutes before the 2am press run, assuaging an obstructive stone-sub with a case of Glenfiddich and the promise of minicabs home for life.
Lidd's peers on other newspapers, a mostly mild-mannered group, generously attribute his success to an expertise doubtless honed during his years as a sports reporter which has enabled him to build a network of trusted contacts among doctors and nurses in the emergency rooms of the top London hospitals, not to mention oncologists and policemen, taxidermists and coroners, crematorium-stokers and general practitioners.
Nor do his rivals resent his success as much as one might have expected. His regular front-page splashes for the Filthpacket — "Countess chokes on rock star's vomit" — "Cabinet minister hid childhood sex-change" — cast a reflected glory on the obituary-writing profession in general, alerting editors-in-chief the length of Fleet Street to the possibilities of extracting sensational stories from this neglected page which they might otherwise have axed had they thought about it all.
So far, so good. But as Dave Lidd's star rises, and he bestrides his profession like a colossus with a scythe in one hand and a pen in the other, the doubts begin to accumulate; not only among the readers of our imagined book, but even among the readers and editors of the Daily Filthpacket.
The warning signs are already there, if one only knows where to look: An odd coincidence, a cryptic remark, a strange visitor to Lidd's office, a nocturnal absence, a momentary panic involving a lost diary, a misrouted telephone call, a confusion over two identically-spelled names in Burke's Peerage — all of them can be explained away as isolated incidents, but still, one cannot help but worry that Lidd enjoys just a little more good luck than any prudent journalist has the right to possess.
Slowly, reluctantly, the truth dawns upon us. Under pressure to maintain his hit-rate of untimely death notices, Dave Lidd is reversing the apparent course of events. Perhaps he always did so. He is choosing his subjects, writing their obituaries, and then killing them himself.
How does it end?
"Coffin" Lidd must surely sense a growing unease around his singular clairvoyance. He decides to risk one last job — the biggest job of all — before retiring from Fleet Street to host a television show, How They Died, about the final hours of celebrities.
But, in conformity with the rules of the "one last job" genre, something goes wrong.
Perhaps owing to his unfamiliarity with the finer points of online publishing, or to some change in the Filthpacket content-management system, Lidd sends his last, transcendent obituary notice "live" before he has sent its subject to their death.
As horror and wonder sweep the nascent Internet, Lidd is arrested in the grounds of Balmoral Castle, disguised as a ghillie, preparing to shoot the Queen Mother with a rifle belonging to another member of the Royal Family.
(finis, shock, applause)
It seems obvious to me that this book must be have been written by Michael Frayn around 1973, but for some reason I can find no trace of it. The Internet would not have been available as a plot device, but since newspapers in those days printed substantially revised editions from late afternoon until the small hours of the morning, premature publication of the Queen Mother's obituary could still have cooked Lidd's goose in much the same way.
If this book does not exist, I assert my moral right to be identified as the author of this short fiction. If it does exist, and you have a copy of it, would you send it to me, please?