The first thing I read in The Economist is the Obituary column on the last page. Despite the name, there is very little mention of death here- as the obituaries editor, Ann Wroe, has said:
The death…is rarely interesting. It’s what the spirit did as it inhabited the body, the impact it made as it burned through, the revelation of its essence through the murk of earthly existence, that I want to catch.
And catch it she does. It’s hard to describe the pleasure I get from the small details of an extraordinary person’s life (I’ve chosen that word carefully, for they are not always famous, and are sometimes downright evil), like the biologist who
could be spotted, in bright red parka and with frozen beard, lying full-length on the Antarctic sandstone to snap some tiny life-containing fissure in the rocks
or the economist who
never gave up the search for explanations… Indeed, he was in such a hurry at the end of his life that, at the age of 86, he signed up for a speed-reading course.
These snippets are from obituaries that I liked so much that I tore them out and tacked them to the wall of my room, as examples of good living but also good writing. Most of the obituaries are written by Ann Wroe herself, who brilliantly describes her work like this:
My world contracts to a layout, a line-length, a spell-check and a story of somewhere else, where I try to imagine I have been.
In the same piece, she talks about her method, which helped me understand why I liked her writing so much:
“In my end is my beginning.” And vice versa. T.S. Eliot’s lines from “The Four Quartets” have been with me a long time, but now that circularity seems hard-wired into my working life. It encapsulates two things: the natural cycle of birth and mortality, earth to earth, and the unchanging essence of spirit, passing through. Lives as they are lived are far from neat. But the summing up of a life in a thousand words needs the imposition of a shape, and a circle is as good as anything… circularity also fits the threading of our lives round the spindle of the Fates, that gossipy trio with their flashing scissors. Circles or spirals seem so natural in Nature (in winds, in shells, in DNA, in water, in wood) that our pattern of living may well imitate that form. And it might account for why, as I type in my last paragraph an echo of my first, I feel such a rush of satisfaction…
Ever since I read that I’ve looked to see if there is indeed a motif that appears at the beginning and the end, and it’s often true, which only adds to my delight. (I had the chance to meet my idol in person about two years ago. She was a pleasant-faced lady who gave a quiet, moving lecture on the myth of Orpheus, and I saw her relaxing afterwards with a glass of orange juice. She was everything I’d hoped her to be.)
The Economist’s obituaries were my gateway drug, because I now seek them out in other places too. In addition to exciting feats performed by men and women in far-off places, I’ve found that they can also be a source of useful tips for dealing with modern life, as evidenced by this one of the journalist Peter David by another journalist friend, which reveals a superb tactic for getting people to read and respond to your e-mails:
He said he was annoyed by my inability to read and respond promptly to emails…Not long ago, he sent me an email with the subject line: “I loved your column”.
Opening it immediately, I read the text: “Now I have your attention, would you and Lori like to come over for dinner on Thursday?”
During a difficult time in my life- a time that called for a stoicism that I feared I didn’t have- there landed on my bedside table in familiar red bordering an account of the life of Nadia Popova, a fighter pilot in the Second World War and all-round tough cookie.
Often she flew in pitch dark and freezing air. In an aircraft so frail, the wind could toss her over. Its swishing glide sounded, to the sleepless Germans, like a witch’s broomstick passing: so to them she was one of the Nachthexen, or Night Witches. To the Russian marines trapped on the beach at Malaya Zemlya, to whom she dropped food and medicine late in 1942, she sounded more like an angel. She had to fly so low that she heard their cheers. Later, she found 42 bullet holes in her plane.
It ended like this:
She admitted she stood gazing at the night sky sometimes, wondering how she had ever managed to perform such feats up there. Well, came her down-to-earth answer, because you had to; and so you did.