Journalist who chronicled his life with cancer

The journalist, writer and broadcaster John Diamond, who died on March 1st aged 47, did not battle his illness bravely

The journalist, writer and broadcaster John Diamond, who died on March 1st aged 47, did not battle his illness bravely. Nor was he courageous in the face of death. He developed cancer and, despite treatment, it killed him.

As he wrote in his bestselling book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, first published in 1998: "I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy has nothing to do with pacifism, and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it, or deserve to survive it - the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so."

It was a horrible irony that the illness which eventually ended his life was also, professionally, the making of him. He was successful before, of course; his career as a radio and television presenter was burgeoning, but the column he published in his regular slot in the Times, in April 1997, in which he announced that a lump on his neck had been diagnosed as a cancerous tumour, changed everything.

As he continued to chart the course of his illness, there was a growing realisation among both readers and editors that his immense facility for language, previously expended for the most part on the smallest of domestic issues, had disguised a writer of immense talent and skill. His column won him a prestigious What the Papers Say award, and his book was received with glowing reviews, both of which events gave him huge pleasure.


John Diamond was born in Stoke Newington, north London, the son of a biochemist and a fashion designer, and one of three brothers. He remained close to his family, and was particularly proud of his secular Jewish upbringing, which informed almost all of his opinions.

Though he would eventually receive an honorary doctorate from Middlesex University, he was not good at exams. A scholarship to the City of London school was withdrawn after he failed his O-levels and he left at 16 to work as a solicitor's clerk.

He managed, after passing a few exams in his spare time, to gain a place at teacher training college, and for four years taught drama and English at a girls' school in Hackney.

After leaving teaching he broke into journalism by joining a company that published newsletters about the property business. His boss wrote a column about property for the Sunday Times, and, during a three-week holiday, asked John Diamond to take it over in his absence. There, displaying the kind of chutzpah for which he became rightly famous among his friends, he went about the paper announcing himself as the deputy property editor and offering pieces on almost anything other than property. Within a few weeks he was working regularly on the Sunday Times magazine.

John Diamond's tastes were essentially eclectic. A member of the Labour Party from the age of 16, he did write a column on politics for the Daily Mirror, but, for the most part, his work was on the softer side; he wrote about everything and anything - from travel, cigars and cars, to the role of the fax machine in modern life and the importance of a good whisky in a man's life. He had the true hack's hunger for the byline.

Until his illness literally stole his tongue, he was also a regular presenter on BBC radio, his talent for which was recognised in the Sony Radio Awards.

The decision to start writing about his cancer was, he later said, not a particularly calculated one. His brief at the Times had been to write about the minutiae of domestic life; he simply felt that it would have been dishonest if, in the week of his diagnosis, he had written about anything else.

In recent years, he had begun to write a column for the Jewish Chronicle and, after his diagnosis, had even joined a synagogue - though this, he told friends, was not because he had discovered God. He remained an atheist to the end, but, he said, he wanted his children, Cosima and Bruno, to know something of the Judaism into which they had been born.

Until surgery on his tongue forced him to contribute to conversations through swiftly scribbled notes, John Diamond was regarded by many inside the worlds of journalism, politics and the arts, as a wit and raconteur. It was no accident that the summer parties he threw with his second wife, the journalist and cookery writer Nigella Lawson, were attended, in turn, by the famous whom he so enjoyed collecting around him, and who, in return, so loved him.

Recently he complained in print that friends who had been asked to write his obituaries were refusing to show them to him, as though they were some gift not to be opened until the big day.

Many people found his candour uplifting. It wasn't that he offered hope in the face of a terminal disease, a foolish notion, but that his wit and his fortitude exemplified the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. He would not only have smiled at such pomposity, he would surely have debunked it.

John Diamond: born 1953; died, March 2001