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Laughter from the Grave

Katrina Goldstone

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?, by Jenny Diski, Bloomsbury Publishing, 432 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1526621900

Jenny Diski was using Twitter and doing a personal blog almost up to the time of her death, observing, then passing on, dispatches from the mortality front line. That always stops me in my tracks, that fact. There was the extraordinary effort, both physical and mental, to do it. But there was also the impulse ‑ or is it compulsion? ‑ to stare down even the most unpalatable experiences and then interpret them in her own contrarian and quirky fashion. That drive, despite ongoing pain and wretched weariness, stayed with her till she expired. One Guardian interviewer, Robert Hanks, recalled that despite tiredness, and having to lie mostly in bed, “ … she swigs from a bottle of morphine and keeps writing”. She became semi-famous for the manner of her dying and could joke about that too. As well as her blow-by-blow account of the progress of her illness, in her book In Gratitude, published posthumously, she revisited her unusual adolescence as a surrogate daughter to Doris Lessing. The relationship was certainly not the happy-ever-after it seemed to be when, after a psychologically scarring, unsettled childhood of high drama, Diski ended up being semi adopted by Lessing.

Diski has become slightly pigeonholed as an assiduous death chronicler. What these essays and reviews remind us is how insistently alive she was, that she could tackle anything from Howard Hughes’s germaphobia to Christine Keeler’s conservatism, and produce a startlingly fresh insight on what we thought we knew about the lives and drives of certain public figures. From 1993 to 2016, she wrote over two hundred pieces for the London Review of Books. She also published ten novels and five books of non-fiction Most were, as her friend and editor Mary-Kay Wilmers put it, “reflections on the world and its stories for the most part”. But they were also mini-distillations of what Wilmers called “Jenny-ness”, a heady elixir indeed. Thirty-two of the LRB pieces are collected in this book. Reading these is like being in the company of a very sharp, eccentric friend who always astounds, and confounds you with the offbeat acuity of their observations, the friend who says the true mean things you might think of but never dare to express. I lost track of the number of times I snorted with laughter at an on point observation, an astute apercu or a clarion-clear description.

Oh how we need her now. Even in the four years since her death ‑ it seems so much longer ‑ the parlous state of the planet, the ascent of deception as default in not just politicians but even in everyday exchange, has hurtled us to dystopia and beyond. We need more than ever the sort of acerbic yet sanguine observer of humankind that Diski constituted. In a media mire of tragedy porn and toothrotsweet sentimentality designed to blunt both our senses and our judgement, revisiting her essays is both a pleasurable experience and a salutary exercise. Her searing insights, allergy to cant and vanity, and unsparing gaze at human foibles make her an observer of her times par excellence, and more’s the pity she is not alive to parse, analyse and pass judgment on the present gallimaufry. She was never afraid to look directly at the glinting eye of cruelty yet always ready to dilute the horror with the telling quip, or the tart aside. Born in 1947, in central London, she summed up her heritage thus: “I come from a family of suicidal hysterics.” She makes her tormented lineage sound like an unusual occupation, like lamplighter or ships’ chandler. Yet the mental instability of her parents – both attempted suicide during her childhood ‑ and the ongoing repercussions for her own mental health – are handled with a wry detachment which must have been hard-earned.

As this is a collection of articles and essays chosen by Mary-Kay Wilmers, they are date-driven and this is a boon and at the same time a disadvantage. They carry us back to revisit the scandals and preoccupations that fleetingly held the attention of Diski, and the public, and the result is to create a kind of scattergun social history. Unintentionally I guess, they are both tales of warning and alarm, which also in an ad hoc way reveal to us how we got here. In a collection that spans over twenty years, with pieces both very much of their time and sometimes seemingly prescient, she can cover a hell of a lot of territory, from a withering takedown of Thatcherism to reflections on contemporary death rituals and deconstructing Roald Dahl and Piers Morgan, along the way reminding us of horror show characters we had all forgotten: I don’t think Jeffrey Dahmer even comes up as a quiz show question anymore.

Her longform book reviews and profiles take on the great, the good, the downright bad and the newly obscure. In an unusual, and contrarian assessment of Anne Frank, she pondered the suspect complexities of turning Jewish Anne into a kind of latterday saint, an identity wayward, ambitious Anne would surely not have sought out for herself. Anne, for the young Jenny Simmonds, was someone who looked similar to her: “She may have personified the Holocaust for millions of adults …but for me, aged twelve or thirteen, she simply told the story of what it is like to be twelve or thirteen in a world where no one seems to be listening to you.” In a review of a cultural studies tome on “Jews and Shoes”, Diski managed to weave in a potted history of prejudice as well as present us with enough wacky material for a few good belly laughs. She summarised the dilemma and disaster of being the perfect wife to the Famous Man in an essay on Martha Freud; filleted the princess brides, Margaret and Diana, whilst also contextualising the relationship between modern monarchy and paparazzi. Of Diana, she observed: “It was, perhaps, Princess Diana’s contradictions that kept the interest alive. She spent £3,000 a week on grooming and hugged lepers.” Yet despite Diski’s sterling ability to sniff out cant and hypocrisy like a truffle hound, she is not cruel or vitriolic for the sake of it.

Her book reviews are very rarely just about the book but rather a carte blanche for her sharp and original mind to roam where it will. If you’re not into digressions, Diski is probably not the writer for you. However the wise apercus that pepper the reviews as well as the tart little wordbombs and neat character evisceration leave you, nine times out of ten, with questions about your own assumptions. Her piece the biography of Denis Thatcher written by his daughter Carol is entitled “Sweetie Pies”. Diski observed: “Though the temptation is great, we skip Denis Thatcher’s unremarkable life and sayings at our peril, for they are what gave us ten years of radical nastiness when we weren’t looking.” That was written in May 1996. She didn’t live to see the full culmination of that “radical nastiness”, 2020-style. Diski informs us that one of Denis Thatcher’s favourite pearls of wisdom was “If all else fails, read the instructions.” La Rochefoucauld he wasn’t.

Reviews of biographies of Keith Richards and Denis Hopper allowed full play to her mischievous side. Of the Rolling Stones she wrote, “The last time I found myself interested in the band was when I read that Richards snorted his father’s ashes, because I have a sneaking admiration for taking things to their conclusion.” Richards’s preening vanities and lack of self-awareness gave her beady eye much material to survey. Yet in her description of his relationship with his son, Marlon, there is also a swingeing condemnation. Denis Hopper, another prime candidate for epic self-delusion, also gave free rein to her talent to expose the deluded star. Her review of his biography compresses a history of the macho heroes of the Hollywood Dream Factory from the tough guys Bogart and John Wayne to the countercultural icons of Hopper’s day, with Hopper’s account of his friendship with James Dean nimbly deconstructed by Diski. She commented: “Hopper’s early training in Oedipal awareness and petrol sniffing was useful support for his belief in his own remarkable talent.”

Searing observations abound in reviews of books on experiences in the mental asylum and on ageing, yet her dark materials are always shot through with the trademark Diski mordant and offbeat humour. For the essay/review on ageing she chose the title “However I Smell”. Of her own experience of assessment in one mental institution, she recalled, “ … twenty or more suited doctors and social workers sitting in a circle interrogating me: on the coffee table in the centre of the circle, the open gold cake box with a half-finished cream gateau inside that no-one thought to offer me”’ Think about it. The cake. The gold box. The young woman. The callousness. While some of the reviews may have younger readers scrambling for Google and Wikipedia for context given the ephemeral nature of the book review, it is Diski’s interwoven commentaries that, for the most part, still stand the test of time and her ability to make you crease up with laughter at her takedowns of the pompous and venal. Diski can even make listing the contents of the work stationery cupboard, sneaked into a review on the office and work practices, seem both amusing and instructive.

I read two of her most famous essays, “Falling in Ice” and “A Diagnosis”, in tandem. One essay became a memoir of sorts, Skating to Antarctica, and “A Diagnosis” was the first instalment of what she herself called “a cancer diary”. In relation to another memoir, Strangers on a Train, she had said: “I’m faintly ashamed of writing these things but I never thought of them as autobiography – I thought of them as playing around with my material.” Yet it was much more than “playing around” with her material. What is crystal clear is that Diski was exploring the terrain of the essay and the relationship to the self in 1993, long before our current passion for “hybrid non-fiction” and the intimately personal essay.

Her daughter Chloe has written in the afterword to this book that being commissioned to write these essays for the London Review of Books was a godsend for her mother, who then played around with the longform essay to her heart’s content. But they are a godsend for us too. Inadvertently Diski managed to track the thinking behind ascendant egos that, in their weird ways, formed the precursor conditions for the times we live in. But she also taught us the best way to deal with anything may be to record it, with deftly contained anger and present laughter. This is her gift to us, to still make us laugh, sometimes hollowly, sometimes heartily, while at the same time delivering a sucker punch portrait of human frailty and folly. She jokingly included a potential contender for her epitaph in the essay “The Natural Death Centre” – “Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.” Well yes, indeed she does.

1/11/2020

Katrina Goldstone is a researcher and writer. Her book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art, Exile and War will be published by Routledge in January 2021.

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