Deborah Orr, RIP: ‘Funny, charismatic and terrifyingly cool’

I met her just once – when interviewing her ex, Will Self – but she made a lasting impression

Deborah Orr: the journalist spoke about her breast cancer’s return with pitch-black humour. Photograph: Hachette

Deborah Orr: the journalist spoke about her breast cancer’s return with pitch-black humour. Photograph: Hachette

 

The last words the British journalist and writer Deborah Orr, who died on Sunday, tweeted publicly were “SO HAPPY!”

The reason for the joy in that tweet – published a week ago, during the final throes of her illness and treatment for septicaemia – was a glowing, two-page spread of a superlative-rich review in the Bookseller of her upcoming memoir, Motherwell: A Girlhood.

It is her first book, not due to be published until January 2020, when she would have been 57. The idea that she now won’t live to see it on bookshelves seems terribly unfair. But at least she survived long enough to read the review that described the book – which explores her childhood in Motherwell and her troubled relationship with her mother, a relationship which resulted in a diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – as “incisive”, “outstanding” and “utterly riveting, blackly comic, and astonishingly honest”.

Motherwell may be her first book, but she filled the world with her words during her lifetime. As the Weekend editor with the Guardian and later a columnist with the Guardian, the Independent and ‘i’, her writing was full of empathy, grit, sometimes seething wit and – always – her fierce, no-nonsense intelligence.

The novelist Andrew O’Hagan, described her to the Guardian as “completely inspiring and never knowingly not difficult, but beyond the ferocity, she had a huge heart.”

Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh wrote: “Deb really was one of the good ones. Last time I saw her was at wedding where we got a bit drunk and danced. She prodded my stomach and told me I was getting a bit flabby.”

The writer and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup said she was “formidable, magnificent and funny as hell she was a lioness in a world full of mogs.”

She was also, as many people have commented since her death, an inspiration to a generation of younger journalists, particularly younger women journalists. She was the first woman to edit the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, a role she held before she turned 30. In her seat as editor, she commissioned a groundbreaking column by Oscar Moore about living with Aids.

I met her only once, years ago, when I was a very young and very nervous features writer, dispatched to the UK to interview her ex-husband Will Self, at the home they shared in London. I was far too intimidated by Self’s verbosity and insouciance, and her gently scathing demeanour to make much of an impression on them, but she made a lasting impression on me as she whirled around their kitchen, offering coffee (to me) and sharp ripostes (to him).

She seemed funny, charismatic and terrifyingly cool. When I got to know her better later through her writing, and her unstinting commentaries on British politics, feminism, modern life, social media and mental health, I at least had the satisfaction of knowing that my initial impression was spot-on.

I didn’t agree with everything she wrote, but I was never anything less than envious of the way she wielded her words.

She separated from Self in 2015. It was, by all accounts, a messy ending to their long relationship, some of which played out on her social media feeds.

Most recently, she wrote unflinchingly, and with her trademark furiously dark wit, on social media about her illness, a recurrence of a breast cancer she suffered in 2010. Last September, she wrote: “Just checked the headlines. Pretty sure it’s everything *except me* that’s dying.”

And, a few weeks later: “I’m ordering spring bulbs. So there. Even if I don’t see them bloom, I’ll have made some next spring in 2020.”

Deborah Orr is survived by her sons, Ivan and Luther, and her stepchildren, Alexis and Madeleine.

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