Kathryn Carr, journalist and writer: born London 10 August 1957; married 2004 Simon Cobley (one son, one daughter); died London 15 September 2004.
Perhaps nothing sums up the core of Kate Carr's personality better than the opening lines of her memoir of her experience of breast cancer. "By the time you read this book, I may be dead. Or dying." She adds, a few paragraphs later:
"You have to get used to it [cancer], perhaps even persuade yourself that it's a great way to live. I have got used to it . . . I don't think, however, it's a great way to live. To me, it is, as Homer Simpson says, crap on a crutch."
The undiluted honesty of the statement - no evasions, half-truths, or self-deceptions to sugar the bitterest of pills - was typical of Carr, as was the touch of black humour. Her eye and her mind were those of the outstanding journalist that she was, that is, sceptical, straightforward and with an unerring instinct for the heart of the matter.
Her death, and the publication of her book, It's Not Like That, Actually, two days later, marked the conclusion of a stellar career that punched holes in some of the "glass ceilings" that existed in journalism, both for women and those from relatively unprivileged backgrounds. Born in 1957 in east London, she grew up in Essex, one of five children. The first of her family to enter higher education, she studied English and Comparative American Studies at Warwick University, where she became involved in feminist politics and joined a number of women's groups, as well as attending the protests at Greenham Common. She also worked on the socialist magazine The Leveller.
Although Carr was passionate and active in her beliefs, she was as far away from any left-wing stereotype as could be imagined. Even then ahead of the curve, she understood that feminism did not equate with drabness or negativity. She was enthusiastic about fashion and, even when at the heart of radical politics, she worked as an assistant in a clothes shop in South Molton Street. She did needlework, loved and valued family life, and, although she objected to male power structures, she didn't object to men, and was in a steady, happy relationship most of her adult life.
There was nevertheless a certain irony in the fact that she should find her first job in journalism on Good Housekeeping - a magazine that, in its archaic title more than its content, represented the antithesis of everything she believed should be possible for modern women. She quickly moved on to Company as Arts Editor, and then, aged 30, to one of the toughest, and yet most prestigious environments in journalism, as an editor on the Sunday Times Magazine under Andrew Neil.
This was the job that sealed her reputation in the newspaper industry. Colleagues remember her as a dream editor, cool-headed and clear, who put a high value on writers. She was extremely popular, particularly among women, whom, without ever expressing an agenda, she worked to promote in what was then a very male- dominated world.
Fragile-looking, soft-spoken and apparently delicate, she was surprisingly tough and forceful. Despite her lack of interest in networking or any of the total immersion in newspaper life that defined many of her colleagues - Carr always liked to get out of the office and home to her family - she earned enough respect to be made the first woman executive editor on the magazine.
Nevertheless, management clashes left her unhappy at the Times, and she moved to Associated Newspaper's new flagship magazine, Night & Day, which, at its launch in 1993, was intended as the last word in quality-magazine journalism. It was here that I met her, and was attracted to her integrity and straightforwardness in a slippery, dissembling world. We became firm friends while I was going through a divorce - her fair-mindedness, sympathy and sense of perspective impressed me deeply.
Her success, both personally and professionally, had led her to believe she had led a charmed life. But, as she wrote later in her memoir, "Like so many people who have travelled far, I occasionally felt that this good fortune couldn't last." And it was during her spell here, in 1997, that she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although she would deny any soft-focus idea that the illness changed her life in any way for the better, or led to any "spiritual rebirth", she did begin to question the constant pressure that came with a life at the top echelons of Associated Newspapers. When a new editor was appointed with whom, it would be fair to say, Kate Carr didn't enjoy a natural affinity, she looked around for other opportunities, and eventually left for a job on a new women's magazine, Aura, launched in 2000 by the Fleet Street veteran Eve Pollard.
Again, the outcome was unhappy, but Carr at this time had moved beyond being bothered by such things. The illness had made her focus even more strongly on her family, and meanwhile she kept an eye open for other opportunities.
While on Night & Day she had been approached by a former colleague, Paula Reed, to work as executive director of a cancer charity, Gilda's Club, well established in America but looking to move across the Atlantic. At that time, unwilling to be defined by her illness, she refused, but now, in the spring of 2000, she decided to accept the offer. Although initially sceptical - Carr simply didn't see herself as a "do-gooder" - she ended up finding it a profoundly satisfying, if equivocal, experience. Not all people who worked for charities, she came to understand, were saints. When Gilda's Club folded at the end of 2001, Carr was saddened - but she also acknowledged that she would never work for a charity again, and returned to journalism.
Around this time she told me she was thinking of writing a book about the experience of going back to being a housewife. She was realising more and more, she told me, how the idea of sacrificing another hour with her children for the sake of "career" seemed unacceptable. I thought the idea was interesting, but in the end she decided to write a book about all the illusions that people who suffered cancer had to deal with. The idea that it was somehow a "positive" experience that meant a kind of spiritual rebirth, the problem of how to deal with well-meaning friends who suggested it was all down to "karma", the weaknesses of the health system and, where there was choice, the burden of it.
The result was It's Not Like That, Actually - one of the most unflinching books about cancer I have ever read. It is not a feel-good book, and it will certainly never become a triumph- over-tragedy TV movie featuring Meryl Streep. But it has the quality of truth. And as such it is a perfect epitaph for a writer, and a person, who valued honesty perhaps more than any other quality.
Tim LottReuse content