Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reviews and obituaries

Publishers Lunch guided me to an article in Slate, about book reviewing in the United States, and it is well worth reading. However, the really good bit comes at the end.

The author of the article, Jack Shafer, tends to the view that British book reviews are better than American ones because British literary editors don’t give a twopenny whatsit about any link between the reviewer and the author of the book. Quite the reverse: they will often appoint the sworn enemy of an author to review his latest book. Result: sparks.

At the end of the article, Shafer remarks in passing that British obituaries are better than American ones too. They go in for plain speaking. (See, for instance, my reference to David Hooper’s obituary of Peter Carter-Ruck.)

Shafer offers a link to an absolute peach of an obituary: it appeared in the Daily Telegraph, and the subject was the journalist Graham Mason. As the first line of the obituary tells us, Mason was the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses – a title for which there was, by the way, considerable competition.

Among the competitors was the famous Jeffrey Bernard, who was turned into a play, so to speak, by Keith Waterhouse. Peter O’Toole played the part of Bernard, and you can get a DVD which is a recording of a performance of the play at the Old Vic.

For a good many years Bernard wrote a weekly column for the Spectator. It was described by Jonathan Meades as a suicide note in weekly instalments, because it mostly dealt with his boozing and with the increasingly catastrophic effects of that habit on his health. The title of the Keith Waterhouse play was Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which was the excuse offered by the Speccie whenever its author was too ‘tired and emotional’ to produce any copy.

The column ran for years, and some of the characters in it became famous as a result. The owner of the pub, Norman Balon, became known as the rudest landlord in London. He was even invited to publish his memoirs; which he did, with a little help.