Obituary: Ruth Picardie
Tuesday 23 September 1997
A few years ago, Ruth Picardie found a lump in her breast, which was diagnosed, after a biopsy, as a benign tumour. In October 1996, when she returned to the hospital with a lump "the size of a golf-ball", she was told that, not only did she have breast cancer, but that it had spread to her lymph nodes.
Her chances, they said then, were 50:50. Ever the optimist, Picardie took the news on the chin; she was determined to live and, when she did not respond to chemotherapy, except to become very sick, she sought alternative treatments. But, within a few months, the cancer had spread to her bones, her liver, her lungs and her brain. The experts were unsure about which would get her first. "Great," she wrote after reading one of the many books full of contradictory advice, "I'm going to die, but I'm going to go bonkers first."
Ruth Picardie hated euphemisms, and would not have wanted the facts of her illness to be swaddled in evasive cliche. As a journalist, and as a friend, her honesty cut like a hot knife. She was always pushing the envelope of what could be said, not out of prurience, but because she was one of the most voraciously curious people I have ever met. And she had a theory about everything.
So she wrote about the indignities of IVF treatment (after two and a half years of trying to have a baby, Picardie successfully underwent IVF and, in August 1995, gave birth to twins), the faddishness of diet gurus (she was an avowed foodie and chocaholic and worried about being fat), the politics of housework (a tidy person herself, she knew how cleaning was for some women a form of social and emotional control) and, in the last Observer articles she did, under the banner "Before I say Goodbye", about living with a death sentence.
She did all this with a lightness and sardonic wit that sometimes, especially towards the end, became terribly black and shockingly profound. As one of her friends put it, in her professional no less than her personal life, Ruth Picardie always had the courage to let herself be seen. At a time when it is fashionable for female journalists to go the full monty and expose every detail of their personal lives, Picardie took care to use her own experiences to scrutinise the absurdities and ironies of being "a post-modernist, post-feminist babe of the Nineties".
In the Eighties, she had demonstrated against the US bombing of Libya and supported the miners' strike; as the decade came to an end, she realised she was a member of the last ideologically driven generation, and brought into her writing many of the questions that trouble this new age. She had the rare gift of making politics breathe, and because she had such a sense of fun, and such a wide frame of reference, you found yourself reading everything she wrote to the end.
Picardie was also a generous and sensitive editor. Friends who worked with her early in her career, when she edited the film trade magazine the Producer, or worked at the shortlived women's magazine Mirabella, remember her as being direct and clear about what she wanted. In the 18 months that Picardie worked as an editor at the Independent, she was unfailingly encouraging, full of ideas and determined to get the best out of everybody. If you were down, she would dust you off and make you shine.
Though she loved to gossip and giggle, she never sank to malice, and in an industry where backstabbing, mild hysteria and one-upmanship are routine, she was a calm hand at the tiller. Her candour made some people curl, but they never became her enemies.
Ruth Picardie met her husband, the freelance journalist Matt Seaton, as a teenager at Cambridge University. (She was the first student from her school, Llanishen High in Cardiff, to get to Cambridge, where she read Anthropology at King's.) Her friends thought of theirs as an exemplary relationship, not because it was without difficulties, but because they had managed to evolve together and be comfortable together.
Their wedding, on a summer's day three years ago, was held in the garden of Matt's parents' house in Sussex. To the guests (which included her sister Justine, also a journalist, and both of her parents, who had divorced long ago), sitting on blankets on the lawn, it all seemed perfect. Ruth, in a white linen Nicole Farhi dress (even in the last weeks of her life, Ruth found the energy to go shopping: it was another of her passions), spoke simply and eloquently of her love for Matt, and her oldest friend gave a speech which ended with Ruth's being pelted with chocolates. As well as a celebration of Ruth and Matt's life together, they made it a celebration of their friendships, too.
Ruth believed that her IVF treatment had accelerated the cancer - and was angry that she had not been informed of the risks. But she said, her twins, Lola and Joe, were "the meaning of life". In her penultimate column for the Observer, she wrote of her sadness at not having a future, of not seeing them grow up and of not being remembered. "How," she asked, "do you write the definitive love letter to a partly imaginary child?" She concluded by saying that "life will continue just fine".
She was right, of course, but for all of us who were proud to love her it will be that bit less brilliant.
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