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

Edward Bishop
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Tracey Thorn and A L Kennedy to judge the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize

The prize for “fiction at its most novel” announces its 2017 judging panel.

Tracey Thorn has been announced as a judge for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. Thorn – a singer-songwriter, New Statesman columnist and bestselling author – joins the award-winning novelists Kevin Barry, A L Kennedy and Naomi Wood, on the judging panel.

The £10,000 prize, co-founded with the New Statesman, is for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”: The 2016 prize was won by Mike McCormack for Solar Bones, a novel narrated by a dead man, written in a single sentence. The judges praised it as “beautiful and transcendent” and “an extraordinary work”. McCormack is the third Irish writer to win the award, after Kevin Barry –  whose novel about John Lennon, Beatlebone, won in 2015 – and Eimear McBride, whose debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won the inaugural prize in 2013, having taken nine years to find a publisher. The 2014 prize was won by Ali Smith for her “reversible” novel How to be Both, which consisted of two narratives that could be read in either order.

Tracey Thorn found fame with Ben Watt in the duo Everything But The Girl, and went on to record as a solo artist and collaborate with Massive Attack, John Grant and others. She has published two books, including the Sunday Times-best-selling memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, and writes a fortnightly column in the New Statesman, “Off the record”. Kevin Barry is the author of two short story collections and two novels, the first of which, City of Bohane, set in a wild west Cork in 2053, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A L Kennedy has twice been included in the Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists and she has written in many forms, as well as performing as a stand-up comedian. Her 19 books include the non-fiction work On Bullfighting and the novel Day, which won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2007. Naomi Wood, who is chair of judges, is lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths; her most recent novel is the award-winning Mrs Hemingway.

Speaking at the prizegiving held at Foyles Charing Cross Road last November, Mike McCormack said: “It’s about time the prize-giving community honoured experimental works and time that mainstream publishers started honouring their readership . . . Readers are smart. They’re up for it.” Talking to Stephanie Boland of the New Statesman, he criticised the staid nature of British publishing: “Irish writers are selling their books into what is one of the most conservative literary cultures in the world, into Britain. British novels, British fiction, is dominated by an intellectual conservatism.”

The Goldsmiths Prize is open for submissions (novels written by authors from the UK and the Republic of Ireland) from 20 January to 24 March, 2017. The shortlist will be announced on 27 September and the winner on 8 November.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.