It was entirely fitting that Deborah Orr, a woman who was born to communicate, was posting tweets right to the end, from what was to become her death bed. “I’m ordering spring bulbs,” she tweeted a few weeks ago. “Even if I don’t see them bloom, I’ll have made some next spring in 2020.” What did she order? “Lots of tulips. 200. F*** it,” she responded.
This seemingly insignificant, ephemeral exchange reveals quite a lot about Deborah: a defiant, indomitable, frequently profane, audacious life force, honest to the point of making one’s eyes water. Her Twitter account chronicled her battle with breast cancer, and provided her, crucially, with a conduit to the outside world. She wouldn’t have liked you not to know what she was thinking, even though she was in pain and she knew her days were numbered.
And now our eyes are watering again with the news at the weekend that poor Deborah had died, shortly after her 57th birthday. Deborah, columnist, author, commentator, mother, and a natural iconoclast, was a colleague and friend for almost all my professional life.
She was a magnificent, loyal, gloriously awkward presence. As one of the most important voices on the Independent, her influence went way beyond her contributions to the paper, for which she won many prizes.
She was someone I, as editor, would turn to for advice – both personal and professional – and was a guiding force for many of the younger journalists on the paper, inveterately generous with her time and her counsel. She wasn’t an easy person to manage, and even though I was nominally her boss, I always approached her with trepidation. An incautious remark, an ill-thought-out opinion, a casual observation, could be greeted with the most withering response, delivered in the rich South Lanarkshire tones that brooked no argument.
In truth, Debs, a woman with the warmest of hearts and a formidable moral compass, was a wee bit frightening, and of the many adjectives that will be used about her, the one that most accurately describes her is fearless. Around the turn of the century, I thought it would be a good idea to create a fellowship among our columnists, so I decided to host a dinner at the Groucho Club for senior writers and editors.
I might have known that the mixture of copious amounts of drink and a collection of enormous egos had the potential to combust. And so it was that Bruce “The Brute” Anderson, a bear-like, right-wing columnist, proferred some pretty extreme views, and followed them up with an offensive anti-IRA song. We were all either outraged or embarrassed, but only Debs had the courage of her convictions. She stood up and threw a glass of red wine all over her fellow columnist.
There will be people all over the land who will have similar stories about Debs, but many more who will point to her fidelity as a friend, her companionable quality and her fizzing intellect. I texted her recently to encourage her to keep tweeting “so I know what you’re thinking (which is generally what I’m thinking)”.
And now we won’t know what she thinks ever again. A voice that has been very important to a lot of people has been stilled.
Her recently-published memoir, Motherwell, a searingly frank account of her early life, will act as her enduring testament. And whenever I see a host of tulips, I shall think of the force of nature that was Deborah Orr.
Simon Kelner was Editor of The Independent from 1998-2011
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