Newcomers' Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries from The Times by Peter Unwin (editor)

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Newcomers' Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries from The Times by Peter Unwin (editor)

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A selection of 55 obituaries fro 'The Times' of famous people born abroad who settled in Britain, made notable contributions in various walks of life, and died between 1861 and 2011.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 228 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781441159175

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I think I was not the only person who at first glance found the title and sub-title slightly misleading. For me it conjured up visions of those who came across on the ‘Windrush’ in 1948 and the life they led on settling in Britain – and, perhaps, the lives of the more famous (assuming there were some) in obituary form.

The book is actually a compilation of obits from The Times of fifty-five men and women who were born overseas but spent most of their lives in Britain after making a major contribution in some way or other. Arranged in chronological order of date of death, they begin with Albert, Prince Consort in 1861 and end with cricketer Basil D’Oliveira in 2011.

Naturally they reflect changes in journalism over the last 150 years. The two pages devoted to the Prince Consort do not really comprise an obituary as we understand the term, but are in fact a description of the slight improvement which had been recorded in his illness earlier on the final day, his 'critical condition' from late afternoon onwards, and his sinking into death that evening. Of his previous forty-two years nothing at all is said. I checked back on the files of The Times for Monday 16 December (he died an hour before midnight on Saturday the 14th), and was interested to see that there was plenty of space given in the columns to arrangements for court mourning and general reaction, but not a word about his life and achievements. Things had altered a little by the time of the second obituary, for another German who had come to England, anti-capitalist writer Karl Marx. Three short paragraphs refer to his forced departure from his homeland, expulsion (twice) from France, and settling in an evidently more hospitable London, where he died in 1883.

From then on, broadly speaking they follow the convention that we recognise today, in referring to the death as a preamble to a career summary. Nearly all are considerably longer than the first two. The most expansive is that for Sir Moses Montefiore, the financier, philanthropist and protector of Jewish co-religionists, who was born in Leghorn in 1784 and passed away a hundred years later at Ramsgate, his long life commemorated by nearly nine pages. New Zealand-born Lord Rutherford, a leading theoretician of radioactivity and nuclear energy who died in 1937, is given nearly seven, while musicians and conductors Sir Georg Solti and Yehudi Menhuin have over five apiece. Perhaps the shortest next to that of Marx is that for Melanie Klein, a Viennese-born pioneer of child psychoanalysis who died in 1960. Although she was invited to London and decided to settle there for professional reasons, it is significant that several other people and their families in this book chose to come to England from Russia around the time of the revolution, or from Germany and Austria during the years that Hitler was in the ascendant. From this group might be identified the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the Freud brothers, painter Lucian and journalist, broadcaster and MP Clement, who after being fitted with titanium and plastic knees at the age of 82, said he was propositioned by a lady to come upstairs and make love, but had to explain that it was one of the other.

Without checking up on each one, I would assume that these passages are all reproduced as they originally appeared in the paper, and in at least one instance the editor must have been tempted to add the occasional editorial footnote. The strapline for an obituary for political theorist Ralph Miliband, who died in 1994, notes that his two sons competed to lead the Labour Party, but in the final paragraph we read that he is survived by his two sons, the elder a secretary to a party commission on social justice and the younger a research assistant to a senior member of the shadow cabinet at the time. There is no mention of the name of either, let alone (except in the strapline) their ultimate contest for the leadership after Gordon Brown’s resignation.

Other familiar names to be found include the quarrelsome painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the pioneer woman member of parliament Lady Astor (a worthily factual piece but might have been enlivened by at least one or two of her inimitable quotes), the flamboyant Queen front man Freddie Mercury, without whom few people today would ever have heard of his birthplace Zanzibar, and the actor and director Sam Wanamaker, the actor and director to whom we owe the new Globe Theatre. I expect we could all think of one or two names who might perhaps have also been included; musician and broadcaster Alexis Korner, the fondly remembered ‘father of the British blues’ is perhaps a puzzling omission, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

As a work of reference it is not flawless, and might have perhaps been given added value with the inclusion of an index, increasingly a thing of the past these days. Yet it is very informative, and an attractive volume for browsing. The text is supplemented with two sections of eight black and white photos.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy The World of Vanity Fair - Bertram Fletcher Robinson by Paul R Spiring (Editor).

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Buy Newcomers' Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries from The Times by Peter Unwin (editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Newcomers' Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries from The Times by Peter Unwin (editor) at Amazon.com.


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