Deborah Orr remembered

Tribute to my editor of The Guardian Weekend magazine from 1991-1998 who died in October 2019 aged 59

Deborah was fierce long before Beyonce. Long before the term even existed, and much more than that really: MacFierce if you like, in everything she did.

A great, great-looking, smoker, drinker, dancer, talker in particular…

Yes, most of the meetings we had about work did take place in the pub round the corner, not the office.

She had talents I rarely saw even in the famous names I interviewed. A way of keeping her warmth and principles intact (unmistakable) while she was being catty and cutting: positively withering you could say. A knack of making the funniest and most serious comment(s) of the night, often about the same subject and in a room full of very funny, serious, people. But without being remotely arrogant about doing either effortlessly. Practically bashful…

Not apologetic though. Never that.

Rather than any anecdote or observations I have though, the best way of getting an idea what Deborah was like is just to experience her yourself.

Luckily we can all do that, thanks to BBC Sounds. Her appearance on Saturday Review (March 24th 2018) in particular was Ultra Deborah, Orrissimo.

Only Deborah would turn up on Radio 4’s most prestigious Arts show, as one of the guests discussing the week’s ‘cultural highlights’ and begin her critique of Philip Hensher’s new novel by merrily mentioning: ‘I’m only halfway through it.’

This was clearly unheard of. You can tell this by the way the host, Thomas Sutcliffe sounds genuinely shocked and appalled when he gasps: ‘oh black marks!!’

Deborah though doesn’t pause for breath – launching into a stream of characteristically witty, brilliant, insights – enthusiastically skewering Hensher’s story, style, and entire ‘writing process’, utterly unhindered by the fact she hadn’t actually read the book.

Better yet – and pure Deborah – is the way she doesn’t acknowledge Sutcliffe’s reprimand – not even to explain why she hasn’t done her homework. (The whole point of anyone being on the programme.)

This is how she was Weekend: relentlessly herself.

She sailed through it – gloriously oblivious to, or just untroubled by, the pressure/significance of being something so ground-breaking as a factory worker’s daughter from Motherwell who had become editor of The Guardian’s Saturday magazine, and at the age of only 31 too.

Her self-belief was extraordinary, but never made her seem obnoxious.

Even her rivals admired her I think – as an outsider, representing the underdog.

Mainly she let me interview mavericks and misfits who, in the mid 1990s, were cults, not cool: the likes of James Ellroy, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Meatloaf.

She let me represent our fellow outsiders’ cases, going against the perception of them (back then) as artists operating on the margins, causing trouble: Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, Ice-T (post ‘Cop Killer’), David Cronenberg (circa ‘Crash’), ‘Near Dark’ director Kathryn Bigelow, Driller Killer’s Abel Ferrara, and Hollywood figures/womanisers who might be regarded as too dubious to defend, promote, or even cover today: Sean Penn, Peter Fonda, John Malkovich, and Julian Schnabel.

Deborah would give the profiles 5000 words but never brief me or discuss an ‘angle’ I could/should take. She let me see the proofs too and was as protective of the copy as I was. Well almost…

Once, for reasons best known to himself a sub-editor re-wrote my piece on Tricky, even altering the colour of his jumper (wrongly, obviously).

Deborah she went ballistic, going back to the office (from the pub) to change it all back it even though it made it late going to the printers.

Other friends and colleagues seem to recall the details of their encounters with her, every bon mot she ever muttered.

If I’d known she was going to become so bloody legendary in later life, and, horribly, now in death, I’d have taken notes.

At the time I didn’t realise how astonishing she was, or what she’d achieved.

She was just Deborah.