Kate Gross with her husband Billy in 2006. Photo: John Lawrence/Rex
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Robert Webb on Kate Gross’s Last Fragments: a beautiful act of resistance against cancer

Kate Gross began to write after her cancer diagnosis. She left behind her husband, Billy, their five-year-old twins, and this beautiful book.

Late Fragments
Kate Gross
William Collins, 256pp, £14.99

Kate Gross died on Christmas Day 2014 at the age of 36. She had worked as a civil servant – she was private secretary to Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown – and was the founding chief executive officer of the Africa Governance Initiative, a charity set up to provide practical advice and support to post-conflict African states. She left behind her husband, Billy, their five-year-old twins and this beautiful book.

Late Fragments, like the blog that preceded it, is Gross’s reaction to her terminal cancer. From her introduction: “I began to write straight after my diagnosis . . . Every­thing I wrote was a gift to myself, a rem­inder that I could create even as my body tried to self-destruct. And I wrote as a gift to those I love.” Unsure how much time she has, she finds herself “full of fears that I will have to stop before I can write down all the things I want to tell my boys when they are 35, not five. Before I can tell them who I am, and what I know, and the stories that make up my life.” So this, among other things, is a mother’s account of what life and her imminent death had taught her, for the benefit of her sons. As such – and with a different author – the book could easily have been unbearable. Instead, what we have here is a joy; indeed, a joyful act of love.

How do we criticise an act of love? We don’t. That’s not to say we have to put aside all objectivity because someone obviously very likeable just died. I would feel well disposed towards Kate Gross (pronounced to rhyme with “moss”) and her family even if she’d written a lousy book. As it happens, this is a very good one. Yes, she is communicating with her boys, but the general reader is more than just a collateral beneficiary. It helps that she writes so well. That sounds patronising but the suffering contained in the “Cancer Canon”, as Gross calls it, does not inevitably translate into insight. Here, it does. She makes a conscious decision that it must. She quotes a poem by Jane Hirshfield:

I moved my chair into sun

I sat in the sun

the way hunger is moved when

called fasting.

And she moves us into the sun with her.

Her tone is often witty, always serious, but rarely solemn. Her prose is grounded, unshowy and blessed with a casual poetry. We are spared the hours of chemotherapy (“a particularly inept vigilante marauding through my body”) and we don’t follow her down every twist and turn of her illness. To put it glibly, Gross simply doesn’t have time for the boring bits. No memoir is improved by the 12-page tribute to the subject’s parents’ courtship and Gross doesn’t trouble us with that either. I start to make a note that the chapters describing her careless childhood, self-loathing teenage years and self-rediscovery at Oxford make up less than a quarter of the book but then the pencil freezes in my hand as I realise that these years account for more than half of her life.

Just as well, then, that Gross was out of the blocks like a ramjet when the rest of us were still tying our shoelaces. At 26, she was briefing the prime minister for PMQs (I was tearing tickets in a local theatre) and at 30 she had founded an international charity, raising £20m to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world (I was thinking about buying a flat). With the change of prime minister in 2007, she was immediately responsible for advising Brown on the Haymarket and Glasgow Airport terror attacks: “I was notionally in charge . . . But by that point I had faked it enough times to know I could make it in the grown-up world.” No gentler figure than Damian McBride (Brown’s former Headbanger-on-Earth) remembers the same meetings on his blog: “She was utterly brilliant, almost mesmerising in her command of the facts and of Gordon’s brain, and reduced the rest of us – the supposed experts on working with the man – to stunned silence on the sidelines.”

If we are tempted even for a moment to withhold sympathy from such a kick-ass megastar, the feeling vanishes in the light of her own focus: on love, on finding wonder in the everyday, on the life of the mind, on empathy for others. Years of dealing with the nitty-gritty of public policy (“Those I admired . . . seek out messiness and complexity over neatness and order”), as well as her extensive travel and wide reading, have left her with a respect for our interdependency: “Yes, the threads that bind us together are fragile, easily ruptured by ties to self, to tribe, to race . . . But that they are there at all is reason for unconquerable gladness.”

To read this book is to learn what can be snatched back from death even as it takes everything else. Although Kate resists beatification – the book is nothing if not bloody-mindedly, almost dementedly honest – her attitude is worth the sky. The auth­or died ten minutes before her sons woke to unwrap their Christmas presents. Her book remains. It is vividly, beautifully alive. 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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