Lives remembered with a loaded phrase or two

By Elizabeth Summers / April 24, 2017 / No comments
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What exactly does it mean to live life to the full? Our obituary for the actor Barry Howard, best known for his stint as a ballroom dancing instructor in Hi-de-Hi!, prompted this email from Peter Tanner: “The masterly saying-everything-and-nothing sentence, ‘He appears to have lived life to the full’, has put a very broad smile on my face. My compliments to the (anonymous) author.”

Obituaries are rich territory for the loaded phrase, of which this is a particular favourite. A quick survey of recent appearances suggests that if you want to live life to the full you had probably better not be in a settled relationship or averse to a drop of the hard stuff. So much for those of us who thought living life to the full meant a quiet evening at home with a glass of wine and some Nordic noir on the box.

Another expression much appreciated by obituary aficionados is “he/she didn’t suffer fools gladly”. Commonly applied to admirals or headmistresses, and conjuring up the most alarming martinet tendencies, it is often thought to have originated with Shakespeare. In fact he lifted it from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians — “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise” — and there has been much discussion over its intended meaning. Was St Paul telling the Corinthians to be nice to idiots or was he being waspish about their gullibility? Either way he probably didn’t foresee that its use in the negative would become a notoriously barbed compliment.

I’ve found very little evidence in The Times archive for that most hackneyed of coded references, the “confirmed bachelor”. In obituaries at least it crops up only a dozen or so times and I wonder if it really existed much beyond the imagination of Private Eye. Certainly by the time Kenneth Williams died in 1988 it wasn’t coded at all. “He was,” we wrote, “as the clichés go, an intensely private man and a confirmed bachelor”.

In the same vein, “he never married” is assumed to have been an arch reference to the sexuality of the deceased, but I doubt things were always so calculated. When we wrote, in a 1923 obituary of a prep school master, that he “never married” and “usually spent his holidays in a little inn frequented by seafaring men at Falmouth”, no one would have dreamt of the innuendos that would be evoked in these smuttier days.

Train of thought
I know people can get worked up about trains but James Thom from Aberdeen took things to a new level. “What a magnificent photograph gracing your front page, the Flying Scotsman thundering over the Forth Bridge at full throttle, a sight to gladden the heart. But wait a minute, what does it say on the nameplate? The Cathedrals Express? What on earth is going on?”

I explained to Mr Thom that, while the locomotive was indeed the Flying Scotsman, the train was The Cathedrals Express, named after its original route connecting the cathedral cities of Hereford and Worcester. He wasn’t pacified.

“Let me get this straight. A line of nondescript carriages is called The Cathedrals Express and the locomotive pulling the carriages is the Flying Scotsman, so the nameplate The Cathedrals Express is fixed to the front of the locomotive? What kind of crazy, cockamamie logic is that? It cannot be right. It’s a dystopian nightmare!”

Put like that, I rather had to agree. Another photo that caught the eye, happily with less controversy, was the pair of peregrine falcons swapping food in mid-air. “What an amazing and beautiful picture,” Bramble Coppins wrote. “The photography you feature is always of the highest standard but this has exceeded anything I recall seeing this year. Thank you.”

Mass production
There was some prize ecclesiastical pedantry this week. Jeremy White wrote from Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire: “As a (not very good) Catholic I noticed an item about the Pope’s plans for more women deacons. It said that deacons don’t have the authority to ‘perform’ mass, unlike priests. I always thought that priests ‘take’ mass; technically they ‘celebrate’ mass but all regular Catholics would use the word ‘take’ I would think, certainly not ‘perform’. ”

Then on the Faith page we had a story about the Greek Orthodox church: “Why the sacred art of icon painting is thriving in Britain”.

Captain Nick Kettlewell from Dorchester wrote: “Recently at an ancient church near here we consecrated an icon to St Edwold. There being no liturgy for this in the Church of England we used an Orthodox rite. One thing we were instructed most firmly: ‘One does not paint an icon; one writes an icon’.”

Puzzling problem
Conspiracy theories have been everywhere lately. David Lamb wrote, “I always get The Times on a Saturday as I think your TV and radio supplement is good, and I enjoy the games and puzzles. This week I was surprised to see that the Codeword was already completed in scrawly handwriting and I wondered if someone at the newsagents had done it. Then I looked more closely and I’m sure the solution is printed to look like handwriting. Then I see that the mini Sudoku is also completed in the same hand. Did all the copies go out like this one?”

No, I promise, it must have been the newsagent. Even we’re not mad enough to publish pre-filled puzzles.