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

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses