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Speak only good of the dead at least for a time

A surprisingly effective, if old-fashioned, term of abuse is to call someone “a shit”. Other insults are more forthright and rude but tend to be less precise in their meaning. A shit is sneaky, small-minded, unreliable, selfish and (for reasons no one quite understands) male. It is an unpleasant thing to be called.

So when, some time ago, a reader sent me an email which opened with the words “You are a mean little shit”, I sat up and paid attention. What had prompted the brief and vituperative message was oddly, I thought at the time a column about Bob Hope, who had died that week. The media had been full of tributes which, I had considered, were rather too warm for a man whose humour, in the latter part of his life, had seemed mechanistic and cold. In his great early films, Hope had been funny but, as he grew richer and more right-wing, he became a parody of humour, and was ungenerous to the large team of gag-writers on whom he depended.

But, of course, my correspondent’s anger was justified. Whether or not my criticism of Hope had been well grounded, it had been ill-judged and perhaps unkind to trash his reputation shortly after his death. The unkindness was not to Hope but to those for whom he represented something when he had been alive. The reader felt that by sneering at Hope, I was sneering at him.

It is never a good idea, as Sir David Hare has confirmed this week, to be publicly unkind about the recently deceased. Hare had been approached by someone from the BBC who was looking for a public figure to be rude about the Queen for a programme to be broadcast on the night of her death.

“They told me that everyone they had chosen to speak to had unsurprisingly turned out to be an admirer and, in the fabled interests of balance, they needed the opposing view.” The playwright, who has gone on record as describing the monarchy as “a historical absurdity”, very sensibly declined the invitation.

Something distinctive happens, beyond mere sentimentality, when a public figure dies. Giving a corpse a bad final review, however well-deserved it may be, makes the writer seem ungenerous and readers feel uneasy. Polly Toynbee famously waited until Auberon Waugh was safely dead before launching a long, intemperate attack on him. Waugh, she wrote, was “a ghastly man” who was “part of a coterie of old fogeys… effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist”.

One could make a case for each of those epithets (although “effete” seems slightly harsh) but the effect of the piece was to inspire distaste for Toynbee, not Waugh. When he had been alive, he had baited her for being humourless and prim; within days of his death, she had had the last word but, in doing so, rather confirmed that view.

Even when rage and contempt are justified, they backfire when expressed too soon. The more pious rentagob commentators explained what a terrible man Bernard Manning had been, the more sympathetic he became. It took Manning himself, on interviews shown after his death, to remind one that he was genuinely unpleasant.

It is difficult to identify precisely why being rude about someone can be unproblematic while he is alive or, much later, well and truly dead, but seems mean-spirited just after his death. Perhaps, reminded of our own mortality, we prefer to remember the positive aspects of a life. A public figure might have been a brute, or greedy, or ludicrously vain but, just for those few days after he has died, it is easier to remember his energy, or daring, or lust for life, the way stories about him added colour to our grey daily lives.

The relatively new obituary style which was pioneered by Hugh Massingberd recognised that, while dreary respectfulness was out of date, readers preferred the facts of a life to be reflected with a certain generosity of spirit. So a coded system of euphemisms was introduced which allowed the obituarist to present weaknesses and vices in light disguise. A crashing bore would be “a tireless raconteur”, a terrible old drunk would be described as being “affable and hospitable at every hour”. A serial groper was “an uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man”.

It is reassuring that some public lives, however shambolic and inglorious, can acquire a sort of retrospective glow after they have ended. Another uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man, the guitarist Ike Turner, has just died and many of the headlines have reflected the Hollywood version of his life, as a much-married man who exploited women sexually and professionally, a brute whose marriage to Tina Turner was famously violent and abusive. Turner herself has released a distinctly chilly comment: “Tina is aware that Ike passed away earlier today. She has not had any contact with him in over 30 years.”

But the best, most interesting tributes, like those on the BBC, have looked beyond Ike Turner the “rock monster” of tabloid headings, to point out how, with Chuck Berry, he could lay claim to being one of the great musical revolutionaries of the 1950s. He was “the cornerstone of modern rock ‘n’ roll”, according to Phil Alexander, editor of Mojo, influencing a whole generation of bands from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin onwards.

Talent, lust, joy, violence: it was a messy, wild life which, over the brief ceasefire of the next few days, deserves to be remembered as more than a trashy morality tale for our time.