“But this is my obituarist—he has to come in with me.” Saying so, my friend led me through the velvet ropes of the most exclusive nightclubs of Manhattan. And it is true, for when he dies I will gather together the many details I have jotted down over the years about his extraordinary life, blotched notes from dawn bars and midnight wharf walks to write his story, one unlikely to be told otherwise; diamond smuggler, punk rocker, Tibetan motorcyclist. “I am here with my obituarist.” There is a pleasure in the phrase, faintly ghoulish, slightly grand, your immortality assured by my patient presence at your side writing it all down on these old shards, scraps of foolscap, cancelled envelopes. For decades I wrote obituaries for national newspapers, magazines, newsletters, websites, about people who would not normally receive such attention: the truly marginal, utterly obscure, mad, bad and definitely worrying. Actively avoided by others, many were dear friends or at least dangerous acquaintances. Penning a short-form summation of someone’s long existence—though often my subjects led lives brief as they were intense—was difficult in one thousand words, and the real satisfaction was in granting unexpected gravitas, formal shape and a public forum to such otherwise chaotic beings. Doomed and Famous: Selected Obituaries (New York: Sequence Press, 2021) gathers some of the best, meaning most improbable, of these miniature biographies, simply arranged in chronological order from over twenty-five years of such an unusual if not sinister occupation.
“Good for the obit!” became my mantra on hearing some unexpected bad news, improbable catastrophe or odd demise. It might seem dreadful now, but it would make a good closing sentence. Death is less threatening when transmuted into amusing anecdotage, or as Isak Dinesen put it, “all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Everyone’s life was eventually composed of paragraphs, openings and endings, rich fictive marrow, fine segues between early promise and final disappointment, hilarious reversals, picturesque poverty. And I was there to jot it all down, stitch it back, boil down the mad decades to half-a-page.
“Bio” is “obit” backwards (almost)—it is only death which scrambles the letters of these near anagrams. Although regularly accused of promiscuity for knowing too many people too superficially, here I can only quote my grandfather, the writer Howell Davies, “A Welshman cannot be in the same room as someone else without wanting to know all about them.” In fact the requirements for someone to enter my “collection” were stringent; I would speak to everyone, engage anyone on the street, but I was always searching for the secret ingredient, for the perfect mystery. It was not enough to be billionaire nor beggar, but required some combination of the two: to have failed or succeeded in a way that made such terms intriguing once again.
My book launch is actually a gallery exhibition, also entitled Doomed and Famous and currently on at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. The show presents a selection of art works, ephemera and bibliophilic rarities from my lifetime collections of such varied stuff. Like the book, it is a celebration of oddities and features as many doomed artists, politicians and writers as celebrated successes. It is somewhere between a garage sale, an alpine monastery library, and a cabinet de curiosité with scraps of paper to rare signed publications, minimal sculpture and rococo treasures.
One of my most prized items (found in a job lot of papers at an obscure auction house) is a very rare programme for a Cambridge Union debate in 1970. The notion to be debated is that “Technological advance threatens the individuality of man and is becoming his master.” And who should be proposing this but the twenty-year-old Arianna Stassinopoulos, now better known as Huffington. What could be a more perfect topic for the creator of the world’s most successful website? The other participants include Rajeev Dhavan, senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India, C.P. Snow, George Steiner, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and even Prince Charles. Curiously every one of them has signed this precious flyer—royalty included—apart from the fabled Huffington herself. Definitively famous and not doomed!