I’m not a fan of the starling chatter of Twitter. There’s only one person I’ve ever enjoyed following and that’s the brilliant journalist and self-proclaimed “womanist” Deborah Orr, who died on Sunday morning. Deborah was as trenchant, funny, truthful and idiosyncratic in her tweets as she was in person; hence her 63,000, mostly female followers.
Starting the day with a Deborah Orr tweet was like smashing the ice for a bracing five-second dip. A typical example might be her riposte to the news story about Maurizio Cattelan’s stolen artwork – a gold lavatory – that was nicked from Blenheim Palace: “Imagine a world in which TWO people think a gold toilet is a thing worth having. Sighs.”
My all-time favourite was the more recent: “Morning. Orr lies in a bed on a small hospital ward, smartphone in hand. She is in perfect health. She is poised to begin the most cynical campaign of advance book publicity the world has yet known…”
The joke being that Deborah, whose hotly-anticipated memoir Motherwell is due out next January, had recently been diagnosed with stage four secondary breast cancer and the prognosis was dire. Deborah met the fiendish, returned cancer (which first manifested in 2010) by looking straight down the gun barrel, and had no time for sympathetic platitudes.
She relayed on Twitter how “a well wisher” had direct-messaged her one morning to say, “I’m so sad. Are you alone? Will you have a carer as the cancer progresses?” Deborah told her followers: “Think how gorgeously sad she’ll be if I’m able to confirm her sad details! Don’t be this well wisher, kids!”
Every woman I know who’s been through the hell of cancer laughed in recognition at the toot-toot of the grief tourism bandwaggon.
When I realised how ill Deborah was, I panicked a little over how to respond. I was very much a second-tier friend (I can hear Deborah’s voice in my head as I tap this, saying sardonically, “Ah, my intimate friend Rowan Pelling”), but the fact we shared half a dozen great pals brought us into closer orbit in recent years and my girl-crush only grew as I realised how deeply kind she was.
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 (@DeborahJaneOrr) September 18, 2019
Deborah bare-foot and “lost in music” on the dance floor was a mesmerising sight. I messaged her to say I wouldn’t burden her with my presence on the hospital ward unless she actively wanted more visitors (which seemed unlikely, considering the gruelling regime of treatment), but would find a suitable token of love and esteem. Then I went half crazy trying to find the perfect gift.
At this point in time Deborah had been confined on a hospital ward for weeks, missing out on the changing seasons. So I scoured country paths for the biggest, best un-opened conker cases in all of Cambridgeshire and sent the five finest to Deborah in an old sunglasses box – so she could prise them apart and have a slice of autumn. She subsequently posted on Twitter: “Rowan Pelling has sent me a box of outside!”
Meanwhile, the writer Nicholas Blincoe - an approved hospital visitor - supervised a hospital fingernail-painting session where the nail technician “had a hardening machine to dry the fake nails. But the middle nail was done the old way with lacquer, so they could take a pulse reading.” The glamorous results were duly tweeted. Blincoe told me today that one of his fondest memories of Deborah was escorting her to the theatre, where she insisted on drawing on her vape in the actual auditiorium, “Swallowing the vapour so no one could tell.”
The truth is Deborah was one of the few people in this life I always yearned to impress. I learnt via Twitter I wasn’t alone in that impulse. The many middle-aged women who were going through painful divorces found great comfort and sisterhood in Deborah’s tweets about her separation from the author Will Self, relaying their own tales. Others warmed to her defence of our biology in a world where ‘feeling female’ is increasingly deemed enough to make anyone a woman.
In September she tweeted, “High court judge rules, of course, that only female mammals give birth. Doh! Crazy days.” On Mumsnet, a discussion thread started, “Just a shout-out for how great Deborah Orr has been on Twitter recently and how much I admire her. She was a couple of years above me at uni and I remember seeing her sitting on a desk in the student newspaper office, all big hair and pixie boots, cool as fuck, and obviously a rising star then [early 80s].”
We are very proud to be publishing @DeborahJaneOrr’s sharp, unflinching and often very funny memoir #Motherwell in January 2020. Here’s a first look at the cover. Available to pre-order at https://t.co/qKz9iuC3s8pic.twitter.com/cUy65ZfG6h— W&N (@wnbooks) September 2, 2019
I first met Deborah Orr at a GQ party in 1995 and the description was still apt. She had a great mane of blonde hair, a crowd of admirers and enough charisma to dynamite everyone else off the floor. I was in awe. My status at the time was sacked PA, but Deborah had smashed through the glass ceiling in her 20s and aged 33 had been editor of the Guardian Weekend magazine for a full four years. A rare achievement for any woman then, but a meteoric one for a working class woman from Motherwell, who’d grown up in the shadow of Ravenscraig steelworks and never lost a shade of her Scottish burr.
A friend of Deborah’s recalls that when the writer started on The Guardian as a sub-editor she entered a lift with a man who said, “You must be Deborah Orr from obits?” To which she shrugged and said, “So what?” He said, “I’m Peter.” She looked at him blankly and shrugged again. This was, of course, Peter Preston – then editor of the newspaper, who always roared with laughter at the anecdote and went on to be a huge supporter of hers.
‘Not Easily Impressed’ could have been Deborah’s motto. When she got engaged to Will Self I remember thinking it made perfect sense; she was almost certainly the only woman in London not in awe of his intellect and louche charm (he was a close friend of my ex-boyfriend and I was scared stiff of him back then: two women I knew had had brief flings with him and hadn’t left a dint in his armour). A friend who was part of their south London circle told me today, “It may sound hyperbolic, but they were Arthur and Guinevere – the most glamorous pairing in our circle – and we were their court.”
That’s certainly how it looked from a distance as Will’s books received wide critical acclaim and Deborah became one of the most respected newspaper columnists of her generation – staunchly defending the McCanns and writing a brave and candid account of her own mental health struggles after the death of Carrie Fisher. The Orr-Self marriage may have failed in the end, but it was a love match for many years and Deborah was a devoted mother to her two sons with Will and her stepchildren from his first marriage.
It’s clear from Deborah’s memoir Motherwell that the author’s complex character traits were deeply rooted in her childhood and entwined relationship with her loving, but controlling mother: “there were respects in which she hadn’t mothered well at all”.
What resonates is the triumph with which she seemed to escape her roots and, underlying it all, the deep and lasting hold they ever had on her. No one was more aware of these counter-tensions than Deborah. She writes, “The more humble my beginnings, the more I appeared to have achieved. I emphasised my lowly parents to feel prouder of myself.” That profound honesty, wit and directness of expression was the reason so many adored her. The first tier, the second tier and the Twitter-tier have all had their hearts broken by her death.