A model eulogy from Robert Harris
We are indebted to Jon Snow for bringing Robert Harris’s tribute to Anthony Howard to our attention. The full version can be read here.
It is a classic example of a funeral tribute although it was given at a memorial funeral service which lasted longer than most people’s funerals. So while it has lots of lessons for those wanting to write a tribute, brevity is not one of them.
Harris begins by describing the importance of Howard to his life – the ‘voice in his head’ who hired him 25 years ago as a journalist. So Harris makes sure the audience understands why he is ideally qualified to give the tribute...an important first lesson.
There is little that is maudlin or sentimental. Instead, Harris touches emotions by creating verbal pictures of Howard that people will recognise, so he recalls seeing him 'in the office sucking a wine gum or puffing on a cheap cigar’, or visiting his country house where Howard would always wear his ‘Oxford [shoes] and navy blue raincoat’. Second lesson - avoid sentimentality and use unique memories to build a picture of the subject.
And Howard's disregard for satorial elegance is wittily summed up thus: ‘the infant Tony is reputed to have received from the parishioners of Kensington some 300 items of baby wear – in which case the only time he was fashionably dressed was in his pram.’
Harris lists without unnecessary detail the positions Howard held which otherwise might be tedious. He takes more time to describe his eccentricities – such as his made up language - and unique qualities.
Harris emphasises Howard's compassion when recalling his schoolboy memories and the sympathy he felt for the boy bullied at Westminster school, ‘merely because the boy's father was a minister in the Attlee government.’ Howard himself was hurt by the insults he received because his parents were not as rich as those of the other boys at the first private school he attended.
And so we can see why this son of a Conservative became a lifelong member of the Labour Party.
Anthony Howard stuck with the Party through good times and bad, and look how Harris uses this fact to give insight into Howard’s character and behaviour: ‘He believed in a party that represented what the Bible calls "the hewers of wood and the drawers of water" – a favourite quote of his. He started out as a Bevanite, more or less, and – more or less – he remained one, long after Bevan had died, it being a characteristic of Tony’s that, having found something he liked – a political party, a dish in a restaurant, a suit, a friend – he saw no reason to change it, but stuck with it stubbornly, especially when it became unfashionable to do so.’
Harris understands his audience – the funeral was attended by political journalists, broadcasters, politicians, intellectuals. And so this point is wonderfully well made: ‘He wrote three fine official biographies – of Dick Crossman, Rab Butler and Cardinal Basil Hume – and, with Dick West, one of the best journalistic accounts of British politics ever published, The Making of the Prime Minister (1964). If ever I wanted to tease Tony, all I had to do was tell him was that this was the book that made the youthful Peter Mandelson want to become a politician: it was a compliment he invariably received with a shudder.’ Lesson three - understand the common knowledge shared by the audience.
Harris doesn’t ignore Howard’s failings – rather too theatrical in his manner of speaking, and not achieving his desire to be appointed editor of a national newspaper. Lesson four - address the subject's failings and disappointments but in a positive and honest way.
A eulogy should also touch on the people closest to the life being celebrated, and Harris says he was privileged to have known Howard’s wife Carol and emphasises her devotion. Lesson five - mention the importance of the partner and closest loved ones in the subject's life.
Endings are important but difficult. Harris’s ending of his tribute to Anthony Howard is superb. He recalls Howard saying that "I believe death is the end, but I’m not 99 per cent convinced that is true. I could be wrong about that, in which case I might get an agreeable surprise."
So Harris concludes: ‘Let us hope that he is indeed experiencing that ‘agreeable surprise’. As for the rest of us, we will at least always carry in our heads that wonderfully rich, wise and distinctive voice, which is, even now, telling me to cut the guff, and kindly leave the pulpit.’ Lesson six - a memorable ending which elevates the subject above the person giving the eulogy.