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

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear