Jenny Diski: look at it this way…
A collection of Jenny Diski’s writings for the London Review of Books reminds Conrad Landin of their friendship Jenny Diski
29 October, 2020 — By Conrad Landin
Jenny Diski. Picture: Ian Patterson
“I SUPPOSE the world divides into those who look and those who look away,” Jenny Diski says about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Diski, in her life and in her writing, was one of the few who managed to do both.
Her best writings, three books of memoir, skilfully interwove unlikely combinations of subject matter: icebergs and mothers; railway smoking cars and mental asylums; cancer and Doris Lessing, who took Diski into her King’s Cross home for four years after her troubled childhood. Diski’s way was to look away from one subject to tackle another, knowing it would cast new light on the first, as well as on her own past and on the world around her.
I first encountered Diski through her contributions to the London Review of Books, and it is these that form the basis of her first posthumously published book, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? – edited and introduced by LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers.
They fitted perfectly into the Bloomsbury-based periodical, and yet were unique within it. Diski had an extraordinary ability to seduce readers into a cosy accommodation with our most ignoble instincts – before confronting us, freshly unshielded, with uncomfortable truths.
Wilmers’ picks from Diski’s repertoire are sometimes puzzling. The seminal Rape-Rape, written after the arrest of Roman Polanski, as well as personal favourites On Not Liking South Africa and Queening It (on Nina Simone), fall by the wayside. But far be it for me, a former industrial correspondent, to object to Post-Its, Push Pins, Pencils.
After bonding on social media in 2012, I began a sporadic email exchange with Diski – who had moved to Cambridge – where I was studying, after a lifetime in north London. Looking back at our correspondence, there is a running theme of real-life meetings postponed: as she experienced several bereavements and a deep depression – and I a more shallow one, alongside a diseased kidney and a chaotic English degree. On one occasion I apologised for not showing at a talk she was giving at Newnham College. Within minutes, she replied saying she had “unforgivably” forgotten all about the event.
The new collection includes many reviews of biographies and memoirs. Fascinated by celebrity, but always suspicious of egotism and power, Diski would analyse – but rarely judge – from her sofa.
Richard Branson, she says, “is always a step behind, complaining loudly how unjust it is that by being ahead of him others are stopping him being in front”.
Of Princess Diana, she recalls a friend’s observation: “But if she can die then anyone can.”
The LRB’s Deborah Friedell explained in a recent podcast: “We never asked her, I think, to do literary criticism.”
No doubt – but Diski’s reviews were literary even with the least literary of subject matter. She was attentive to style, questioning of omission, and fascinated by the material world of writing. Discussing a new biography of Princess Margaret, which its author Tim Heald had justified “on the view he claims the world has had of her since her death as ‘a Diana before Diana’,” Diski barbs: “This is a pitch of sorts, sure enough, but what grips me is why he would want to do it.”
Close-reading her biography of Diana, Diski notes that Tina Brown “seems to conclude that the descent into the tunnel was set in motion by her descent into bad taste”.
In The Natural Death Centre, which begins with the offer of bunking up with a friend at Highgate Cemetery, Diski interrogates the ultimate existential question with a dose of wit and her usual peppering of political cynicism. She recalls “an incident in the early 1970s (when else?)” at a community festival in Camden Square. “Maybe it was just one of those pseudo-spontaneous street parties that were supposed to weld us all together, before we knew the 80s were coming,” she ponders. Then a man appears on the street, bellowing: “There’s a woman dying at number 65! Hasn’t she got the right to die in peace?”
By the time of our much-delayed meeting in the flesh, Diski’s cancer was advanced. Tennis and Humbert Humbert on her mind, we discussed the pain scale, the NHS and memories of north London.
As I bade farewell, she was frank about the unlikelihood of a second meeting. She died a few months later, shortly after In Gratitude, the book covering cancer and Doris, had hit the shelves. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? is in fact the title of one of the essays that made up In Gratitude – an essay not included here. Wilmers has in fact placed the first chapter of that book as the very last of this new chronologically arranged volume. This act of sequencing could have come from Diski herself – a maestro of repetition, rearrangement and the final twist of the ending.
• Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? By Jenny Diski. Bloomsbury, £18.99