Obituary: Jill Tweedie
Saturday 13 November 1993
JILL TWEEDIE had finer qualities and worse luck than seemed possible to co-exist in one person. While the qualities - her talent, emotional honesty, wit, generosity, warmth, beauty and intensity of principle - were evident not only to her friends but to more than a generation of women who relied on her newspaper column (spanning 22 years) - the bad luck was obscured by her desire more to explore what she had in common with her readers than to inflict her exotic sufferings upon them.
But in her last book, Eating Children, published this year, she revealed with extraordinary passion the story of 'The Cleft', her name for her father, 'as unacquainted with love as a Scots pine', who undermined her at every step, her early exceptional promise as a ballet dancer who then grew too tall, and her first marriage in Canada, to an exiled Hungarian count, Bela Cziraky, who while taking her on mad jaunts through the European castles of his relatives was torturing her with his insane, possessive love.
Their firstborn son, blessed in the womb by the Pope, was a cot- death victim at five months; two subsequent children, Ilona and Adam, were kidnapped at ages three and two by the count (who took with him as well all their joint savings and even her warm coat). Interminable legal struggles - and more appalling luck: as well as eating up every spare farthing she earned, her lawyers 'forgot' to turn up at the crucial custody hearing - were unsuccessful in retrieving them for two decades. When she saw her children again they spoke no common language.
Her sufferings never resulted in self-pity, in fact she never even referred to them, publicly or privately. 'I began to feel that my luck was so bad,' she said once, 'that I became ashamed of it, and wouldn't tell anyone about the things that had happened.' Instead, she worked incredibly hard to overcome luck's effects; and her pain helped her to enter into any pain.
In her column for the Guardian she explored the tragedies of other women, or the simple, ordinary miseries of all women marooned at home with small children, demanding men, and the general dreadfulness of domesticity. Her startling, hilarious insights into the banal seemed to her readers like miracles, signposts to help one grope through the week. She wrote the column with the heart on its sleeve. Other journalists pushed intellect, analysis; Tweedie understood how we felt. We didn't read her for information or opinion, but almost to look in the mirror to check our continuing survival (see] still moving]). Finely tuned to the most urgent needs of others, she saw everything with dignity and grace, integrity and sense - so that we felt good about ourselves, though not in a phony way. Her feminism, which sprang from the heart of one who loved men, made another kind of sense from the 'wimmin' angle so easily caricatured by Private Eye and others.
By then she had another marriage, to a long-haired Dutchman called Bob d'Ancona, an innovator in computer graphics, and a beloved son, Luke, who mercifully stayed with her until adulthood. But a soothsayer in her youth had predicted three husbands, and it was with the third, Alan Brien, that she had 23 years of real happiness.
Jill Tweedie's great passion was other people's torture: moving house. She moved to a new home almost as soon as visitors became used to the last one, loved the trashy mags published for the sake of the estate agents' adverts, patronised them all, viewing their wares, imagining a new life in the new places. Her reclamation of various unlikely interiors included a once-humble dwelling in Spitalfields; all were reborn into rare beauties in her trademark colours of peach, raspberry, plum, beige, moss green, and with a perfectionism which meant (said Alan Brien) 'she never bought anything without returning it'. She could have been an A1 interior decorator if she had been trivial enough. As it was all her efforts looked like illustrations in beautiful-home magazines, and a cottage in Clwyd actually was featured in one of them.
In her books (collections of columns: In the Name of Love, 1979, It's Only Me, 1980, Letters from a Faint- hearted Feminist, 1982; and novels: Bliss, 1984, Final Affairs, 1986) and further journalism she stayed the course of candour and laughter, never dealing in cynicism, though much in bitter rue. Her special gift of talking straight from her centre led her to touch the same place in others, and she had dear, close friends in the thousands whom she had never met, all of whom seemed to need to reach her when they heard she was dying. Her readers thought they knew her, whereas really it was she who knew them. In the weeks before her death she received sackfuls of letters from all over the world, from her old faithful fans, from Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka to a woman who had been to kindergarten with her.
Although she had Swiss finishing school manners, and a perfect horror of 'niceness', she was the nicest person her friends knew. At the same time, background in others mattered not at all and good behaviour very little next to their personal honesty and freedom from the illusions she wouldn't suffer in herself. Her qualities as a friend were one with her public self: sensible, generous, funny, encouraging, caring, daring, loyal and true, engaging and engaged. Just as in reading her column, again and again one felt: this is the one person who understands what it's like, who gets the point.
The dreadful motor neurone disease which killed her so early was the final piece of appalling luck. As she wrote in a letter after the diagnosis, 'the latest opinion of various profs I've consulted is that it's likely to be a genetic predisposition ('the Cleft' had it at death, although he died before it killed him) combined with what they call an environmental insult, ie Chernobyl or pesticides or, more likely, M. Thatcher.'
She also wrote, though apropos of something else entirely, 'Why is life so . . . uneven? When we grow up, we'll change all that.'
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