Carla Carlisle on obituaries

In an age when small unnamed traditions are on the wane, there is one I’ll miss. On the Sunday evening before the Chelsea Flower Show, we meet Simon and Sheran at Le Colombier for dinner. These are relaxed evenings-never more than six of us-and the chat is horticultural-who’s coming off Council, who’s joining. The conversation may not be Algonquin (‘you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think’), but it’s always juicy and fun. If these gatherings feel like the night before La Traviata, it’s because Simon was president of the RHS from 1994 until 2001, and at least half of our table will be up at dawn judging the show gardens.

This year, when we rang to check times, Sheran said that they’d have to cancel because Simon wasn’t up to it. An alarm bell should have gone off, but it didn’t. The Parkinson’s disease that had slowed him down hadn’t dulled his wit or his appetite. He treated it as a nuisance, not as something serious.

In fact, the truth of ‘not up to it’ didn’t hit home until I opened The Times on July 20 and saw Simon’s obituary. I read it with the sadness you feel when you learn that a friend has died, but also with dismay. Simon, lively, generous, original, loyal, creative, was given a full-page obituary, but, reading it, you’d think he was the dullest man who ever lived. A good four-fifths of the page was taken up in the minutiae of acquisitions, the good and the bad, he made as chairman of the family business WH Smith. Instead of the recapitulation of a life, it read like a company report put together by a junior from the business pages.

** For more stories like this every week subscribe and save

Considering that just over 2,000 people die in the UK each day, the chances of leaving a memorial in print are slim. But when the fame-or infamy- of the subject is deemed worthy of obituary recognition, I believe that those postmortem inches should be written with grace, should capture the subject’s unique flavour. I’m glad that the ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum’ convention has died out (thanks to the much-missed late Hugh Massingberd, whose transformation of the obit pages in The Daily Telegraph was legendary), but even the non-partisan accounts of a life should be as many-sided as possible, telling us what his friends thought of him, what his critics thought, and, ideally, what the person thought of himself and the events that shaped his life.

One of the good things about The Times now charging for readers to view it online is that the dreary obituary of Sir Simon Hornby will languish unread. Happily, there were others. In The Independent, Duff Hart- Davis captures from the very first sentence the real man: ‘With his commanding height-he stood 6ft 3in-his perfect manners and his tendency to wear slightly foppish clothes, Simon Hornby always looked what he was at heart-a latter-day embodiment of Renaissance Man.’ That sounds like the Simon I knew. A man who never took his legacy as scion of the WH Smith dynasty for granted, but worked his way up from the lowly post of trainee in the Sheffield wholesale warehouse, determined to wake it up to the realities of the late 20th century. He did the same with the Design Council and, as president of the RHS, he was visionary and energetic, growing the membership, securing the finances and turning the Monday Gala Evening into one of the events of the summer season. Astute, exotic, brave, kind, Simon Hornby loved modern art, gardens, friendships and, above all, his wife, Sheran, who brought warmth and completeness to his life. His scholarly plantsmanship was lost on me, but Simon and I shared a belief in the power of the printed word. It has a permanence that, over time, becomes a version of the truth. That’s why when it’s the last word, it’s important to get it right. Only then can those of us still sitting here rest in peace.

* * Follow us on Twitter