Friday, 24 August 2007

Done and undone

I've just been crying my eyes out for a woman I never met.

Read the news this morning that the writer and humanitarian campaigner, Siobhan Dowd, had died of breast cancer at the age of 47.

I was aware of her because of her recent successful forays into children's fiction, A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery - and also, rather absurdly, because we shared the same dentist, who a few months ago, after his obligatory enquiry about how my writing was going, mentioned that she was a patient of his.

Two and a half years ago the writer and broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter died. He'd been suffering from Parkinson's disease and yet his death came as a shock. I had more of a connection in that he had been my supervisor when I first came to Oxford to study and on rare occasions we met thereafter, he was always enthusiastic and helpful and great fun to be with.

What these two people have in common, apart from premature death and the ghastly injustice of that, about which we are all going to feel revulsion, pain and anger, is the concept of the life well lived. Reading Siobhan Dowd's obituary in The Guardian, one sees how much she crammed into her life - and Humphrey was the same: an extraordinary human dynamo.

It's the John Donne moment again, the 'no man is an island'. It's also a kick up the backside for those of us who have the aspirations and yet somehow, don't seem to be able to get things done. It's the perilously-close-to-a-Hallmark-card sentiment that you should live your life as if each day is your last etc. Certainly, you need to focus on your priorities, decide what is truly crucial to you, so that when your time comes you don't cry out 'But I didn't ...! But I haven't ...! Could you just hang on while I ...!'

So says the woman who's in the midst of a mad cleaning binge because we've got people coming to dinner tomorrow. Why should it matter that the windows are clean and the cushions are straight and the air is gently scented by an Aveda candle? It doesn't matter at all. but still I am in thrall to my mother's and grandmother's standards, to the tyranny of judgement by other females (a tyranny my husband can't for the life of him understand). Absurd. Absurd. I should be writing.

I'll read Siobhan Dowd's books - fewer books than she would have liked to have written no doubt, but two more than there might have been if she hadn't had the energy and commitment she had.

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