Hannah McGill: Obituarists deserve to have their knockers

Novelist Colleen McCullough's obituary did no justice to her canon. Picture: Getty Images
Novelist Colleen McCullough's obituary did no justice to her canon. Picture: Getty Images
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Indignation was widespread last week when The Australian ran an obituary of its nation’s bestselling author, Colleen McCullough, that referred to her as “plain of feature” and “overweight”, observations many regarded as indicative of a built-in preoccupation with women’s looks.

It has since been claimed the offending piece was drafted some time ago, and accidentally went in unedited. This might be a hastily concocted cover story by the forces of the patriarchy, of course – but the obituary certainly reads weirdly, jumping straight into observations about her appearance before setting out anything about her achievements.

Had an editor sorted this out, one wonders if the content would have drawn such ire. After all, it’s not unusual for physical appearances to be described in obituaries, and not always in complimentary terms.

“Built like a truck and as dishevelled as a trucker”, said the Guardian of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, also referring to his “porcine” eyes and “windbeaten” hair.

Are actors fairer game than writers, given their fame to some extent rests on what they look like? All right: the Independent’s obituary of Ted Hughes noted how “craggily handsome” he was, while the New York Times swooned about his being “particularly attractive to women”. Try finding anything about Jack Kerouac that neglects his good looks, or tributes to Philip Larkin that overlook his lack thereof. Really lucky writers might get credited with both: the young Gregory Corso was, said his Guardian obit, “often described as ‘cherubic’, but in later life, with teeth missing and hair uncombed, there was more than a touch of the gargoyle about him”.

We like talking about what people look like when they’re alive, especially if it’s extreme; we’re hardly going to stop considering it when they die.

Poor editing aside, I was more struck by the idea that McCullough’s final write-up had been prepared some time ahead of her death. It’s well known that newspapers have stockpiles of obits – but that doesn’t stop it being unsettling to read one and imagine it being written while its subject was still breathing. Try it. It’s creepy – way creepier than referring to someone as “plain”.

In a 1966 essay called Mr Bad News, the American writer Gay Talese profiled the New York Times’ then-obituarist Alden Whitman, who often wrote up people preemptively, and in some cases “can hardly wait for that person to drop dead so that he may see his masterpiece in print”. Whitman’s colleagues kept a “ghoul pool”, the spoils of which would be claimed by whoever identified which obit would be required next. Talese also relates how obituarist Lowell Limpus marked his own passing in 1957: “This is the last of the 8,700 or more stories I’ve written to appear in the News. It must be the final one because I died yesterday…”

Whether he rated his own looks goes unrecorded. As for McCullough, it’s possible she would have had a sense of humour about this – or just wanted different attributes immortalised. “I may be big,” she once told People magazine, “but at least I have a waistline and a good set of knockers.”

Sexual Objects’ limited appeal

A famous willpower test offers a child a second marshmallow if it can hold off on devouring a first. There are, however, no second chances to consume the album Marshmallow, recently recorded by Scottish post-punk pop band The Sexual Objects.

The band have pressed just one copy, and sold it to the highest bidder, who for £4,213 also got rights to the recordings. Hip hop outfit the Wu-Tang Clan will be expecting a larger return on their similar stunt: the sole copy of their new album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin will be auctioned next month. To some, this way of doing things – tried before by Radiohead and Jean Michel Jarre – comes off as self-regarding and ungenerous, but there’s a shiver of excitement in it for me. It’s an echo of the pre-internet days when an album had utter mystique, and you actually had to save up, leave your house and buy it in order to hear it; and it makes the point that there’s no reason that musicians’ work shouldn’t be valued as much as any other artwork. That said, I’m not in the running to offer the Wu-Tang two marshmallows for their one-off, let alone the millions they’re expecting. But I’d really like to hear the The Sexual Objects’ record, if whoever bought it will do me a tape…

Rash call on online sickies

Robot doctors are coming! Well, no, not quite. But the NHS is planning to pilot in Scotland a scheme whereby patients unable to access a surgery will consult doctors online. Considering my computer likes to give itself viruses that infect it with adverts for virus-protection software, I’m not sure I like the idea of entrusting it with my bodily health.

Still, this move could be good news for people in search of sick notes, who will be able to revisit the pleasures of childhood malingering by drawing spots on themselves with lipstick, filling in a questionnaire about how much they don’t want to go to work today, and hoping for the best