For a living Jones wrote people up when they died.
This was not strictly true. Some people he picked up before they corpsed, and did a dry run on them. Facts, dates and, if he felt interested enough, a sharp phrase or quotation he half-remembered from a colour supplement twenty years ago. This helped, because it saved him time when the blade finally fell. The ends of others were inconveniently sudden. That meant research, or what would pass for research, rapid enough for him to meet the editor’s deadline.
The obits editor had long ago ceased to care which names Jones offered him, as long as the conventionally celebrated made their appearance within a day or two. What mattered was not who Jones let through the gates but how smartly he dressed them. Surveys showed that a sixth of his newspaper’s readers turned to the obituary page before any other. In less cynical papers this might be because they needed an inoculation of faith in the virtue of common humanity before turning to the crimes of less scrupulous and caring people. The Citizen’s death pages appealed for different reasons: its readers yearned for confirmation of their suspicions about those opera singers and hedge fund managers lucky enough to escape censure while alive.
Thirty years ago, when Jones began in the necrography business, it had been different. Writing a notice was quasi-judicial. You weighed a poet’s early promise against his whisky-soaked decline, electoral triumph against public disgrace or sheltered dementia, the spiky genius of a young footballer against his sad truculence as a failing manager ten years later. Then you arrived at a calm, balanced and elegantly turned verdict: a helpful note left for the subject’s first biographer.
Jones, though, attracted attention from the start as one of the ‘New Obituarists’. He presumed that the rise of any successful businesswoman concealed a trail of illegal deals. If a blonde from Aberbargoed mutated too rapidly into a diva admired at Glyndebourne then the only possible reason could be the ruthless bedding of one of the London critics, male or female. Distinguished scientists were the hardest cases to crack, though it normally turned out that the halo conferred by a startling medical breakthrough could be dislodged by uncovering underhand deals with transnational drug companies.
Jones learned as an apprentice that the libel laws, which restrained the Citizen’s treatment of the living, though only spasmodically, did not apply to the deceased. Even so, he was reluctant to invent complete untruths. Not through moral scruple but because innuendo and insinuation always made for more readable copy. After all, he was read as much for his Tacitean style as for his incineration of grand reputations.
He liked to think – and he had good reason to do so – that the way he laid out his subjects in his specimen book was the way they were going to be remembered for years to come. Especially if he could overturn the established view. The victim he cherished most in retrospect was Brian Criddley, ex-miner turned budget airline entrepreneur, whose affable business manners gained him a fortune and whose well-publicised charitable giving had won many admirers. Under Jones’s steady pathological eye, however, Criddley’s reputation began to rot. A few well placed phone calls established that the capital to buy struggling Sabrina Air had been collected through extortion and blackmail. A discreet meeting in a pub off the Euston Road revealed that Criddley’s hands were seldom far from the thighs of his cabin crew. Finally, his son was persuaded to narrate his final hours, spent in De Wallen in Amsterdam on exercises that proved too costly for his seventy year old heart. From his obituary’s publication date the man welcomed as ‘Brian’ in Number 10 and ‘Bri’ in the Sky studios was spoken of no longer.
Within a few years Jones had catalogued enough examples of iniquity and error that more than one publisher had approached him with the idea of a book collecting his most acid notices, to appear under the provisional title The decline of public trust.
Then came the day when Jones was asked to memorialise Thalia Abuchete. She had led the state of KwaBasai to independence, became the country’s first elected President, and was re-elected four times before retiring to lead an international anti-poverty foundation. The request came unexpectedly, and Jones had no notes prepared, but he was confident that he would be able, in his usual way, to remove with a few corrosive sentences the shine from Abuchete’s previously stainless reputation.
Research in the Citizen’s cuttings yielded nothing of interest, and an online search little more. Abuchete, it seemed, had risen to prominence without using violence or corruption. Her election victories were won fairly, with no suggestion of bribery, and the Mother of the Nation title she soon acquired was never used with irony. She lived frugally all her life, unenriched by decades of power, and on retirement devoted herself to a blameless cause.
Jones turned to the few remaining Africa hands he knew who could tell him about postcolonial KwaBasai. Yet none of them, even the most hard-boiled, could recall the slightest negative report or even rumour about Abuchete’s behaviour. She had even been on friendly terms with the detested British colonial governors. No one, in the country or outside it, could find anything hostile to say about the late President.
Only hours remained before the editor’s deadline. Jones was becoming desperate. His last throw was to make a speculative phone call to Abuchete’s son-in-law, who lived in exile in South Carolina, in the hope that he would feel bitter enough about his past to vilify his mother-in-law. But Freddi would only say that he had repented of his grave error in opposing the saintly Thalia, and that to atone for his sins he had joined a sect of extreme southern Baptists.
Suddenly it occurred to Jones that he had no choice but to compose an encomium. Then came another, larger realisation: that there may well be truly virtuous people in the world, who were able to live their lives according to moral principles, and without ruining the lives of others. In confusion he filed his copy. It was unlike any previous death notice he had sent in.
The editor was deeply disappointed. The readers could not believe their eyes. Overnight Jones the scourge had become Jones the cheerleader. It was intolerable, or lamentable, that a giant of journalism had been reduced to this semi-skimmed mediocrity. Interviews were arranged to get to the bottom of the problem, but Jones could only repeat to his managers that his entire newspaper life had been a lie, and that he could not under any circumstances return to his murderous ways.
In the end an early retirement was arranged, and all agreed that the golden era of the Citizen was drawing to an close. Jones fell silent, in print and in conversation. He spent his final few years with his grandchildren, and studying the texts of the early Church fathers.
Theophilus Jones, journalist, b. Maesteg 3 April 1934, d. Cardiff 21 May 2013.
Mr Jones completed this notice shortly before his death.