One of the most striking passages in Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk describes the memorial service for her father, a press photographer, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. The scene resonated with me: although the press has long since decamped from the area, Wren’s wedding-cake church remains its spiritual home, to which we return when one of our number has died. I was there just a few months ago, when the place was packed with journalists from the Guardian and the Independent who had come to remember our friend and colleague Simon Ricketts.
Now, on the journalists’ altar, there stands a tribute to another departed friend: the brilliant Scottish writer, editor and columnist Deborah Orr, who died a fortnight ago of cancer, just a few weeks after her 57th birthday.
As the tributes poured in, it became clear that many people who had never met her felt that they knew her through her columns, and her rebarbative comments on Twitter, where she had more than 62,000 followers. In a way, they were right, because the woman and her writing were of a piece: fiercely intelligent, sharply funny, disconcertingly honest and deeply humane.
I had the privilege of sub-editing Deborah’s column in the Independent for several years, and her professionalism made work a pleasure. She filed beautifully crafted copy, on time, and usually slightly over-length because, as she said, it was easier to cut than to fill, so she always included a few lines that could easily be removed without injury to her argument. I soon learned to tell which they were.
Her professionalism wasn’t just a matter of taking pride in her work, though she had more grounds to do so than most. It was born out of consideration for her colleagues. She knew we were under pressure, and no columnist was so important that they could turn in a shoddy job and expect others to tidy up after them.
Having been an editor herself, she thoroughly understood the mechanics of production journalism, and was never precious or defensive about her copy. She once told me that she never read her articles in print because life’s too short (ah, who could have known?) to worry that someone had moved a comma. It was a fib, but kindly meant – she was letting us know that she trusted us with her words.
Deborah was a model of journalistic integrity. In 2007, she steadfastly refused to join the voyeuristic media frenzy over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, despite pressure to do so. In the absence of further evidence, she wrote, ‘These commentaries add nothing to anyone’s understanding of what has happened, or to anyone’s sense of what might happen differently in future, because they do not educate, inform or entertain – except, perhaps, the dissociated or the ghoulish among us.’
A few days later, a duty editor came up to me and asked if I found Deborah difficult to work with. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Why?’ Apparently he had phoned her on her day off, when she was in Selfridges looking for a birthday present for one of her sons, to ask her to write just such an article. She had given him a piece of her mind.
In the spring of 2008, she was sent to Afghanistan to write a feature on the country’s rug-makers, who were incorporating symbols of modern warfare into their traditional designs. I remember her storming into the newsroom on her return, furious that the photographer she’d been assigned had insisted that it was too dangerous to travel to the carpet-weavers’ village and that she, as a mother, should not put herself at risk by going. Her rage at his sexism in using her motherhood as a smokescreen for his cowardice, as she saw it, and the fact that he had endangered the lives of the weavers by obliging them to travel to Kabul for the interview, was volcanic.
Deborah did a magnificent – and magnificently funny – impression of being a cynical, hard-bitten hack. You could compile a book of her withering put-downs. I remember the (then) rising young star of the Indy Comment desk standing by my computer wondering why, when (for once) he had written only the 850 words asked of him, his copy was still over-length. Deborah stalked over and said, ‘Not a lot of people know this, Johann, but there are short words, medium words and long words. And 850 long words take up more space than 850 short ones.’
Colleagues who did not know her that well sometimes fell for this act and found her intimidating, even scary. Behind that seemingly fierce exterior, however, she was the kindest of people and the most loyal of friends. Since she died, I have found myself recalling her many small – and not so small – acts of kindness towards me, and I know that many friends and colleagues have similar memories of her.
In March 2009, I agreed to take redundancy from the Independent. I had been there ten years, had other projects I wanted to pursue, and I suspected that the generous severance package would not remain on the table much longer. (It didn’t.) Less than an hour after the redundancies were announced, the phone rang. It was Deborah. Was I all right? How did I feel about it? What was I planning to do next?
My leaving do took place at the Gun, an old riverside pub on the Isle of Dogs. Deborah wasn’t in the office that day, so she came all the way from her home in southwest London to be there. We sat out on the terrace, overlooking the great bend in the River Thames and the O2 dome on the opposite bank, talking. As was the custom, I had put money behind the bar, and she insisted, very forcefully, on contributing. Naturally I refused, but when I finally crawled out of bed the next day I found, in the top pocket of my jacket, a crisp, neatly folded £50 note, which she must have put there when I wasn’t looking.
Gore Vidal famously remarked, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.’ Deborah was the exact opposite. She wanted her friends to succeed and be happy, and would go to great lengths to help make it happen. She was there to cheer them on when it did – and to commiserate when things didn’t go so well.
It is all the sadder, then, that she did not live to celebrate the publication of her memoir Motherwell: A Girlhood, which will appear in January. Fortunately her publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, printed advance copies, so she was able to see and hold the book, and take pleasure in the glowing early reviews by Tracey Thorn in the New Statesman and Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller. Her last-ever tweet was a photo of that double-page spread, with the message, SO HAPPY!
Deborah’s creativity, charisma and rare gift for friendship blaze through the moving tributes by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian, Simon O’Hagan in the Independent, and Louisa Young on Radio 4’s Last Word. Her untimely death leaves an aching void in British journalism, and in the hearts of her many friends.