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Jenny Diski: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? Essays review - a posthumous collection from the pages of the LRB | reviews, news & interviews

Jenny Diski: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? Essays review - a posthumous collection from the pages of the LRB

Jenny Diski: Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? Essays review - a posthumous collection from the pages of the LRB

Bright white luminescence from an elegant and thought-provoking writer

Long-form journalism at its best

“Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.” That was Diski’s response to daughter’s Choe’s observation that if she were buried – a friend had just offered her a spot in a plot she’d bought amid the grandeur of Highgate Cemetery – she’d need a headstone. Cremation and the music would have to be “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Diski said.

“Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.” That was Diski’s response to daughter’s Choe’s observation that if she were buried – a friend had just offered her a spot in a plot she’d bought amid the grandeur of Highgate Cemetery – she’d need a headstone. Cremation and the music would have to be “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Diski said. In the event, after two years of living with inoperable cancer (she was defiantly not “fighting, losing, winning or bearing” the illness) she chose Tom Waits’ version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story as the velvet curtain closed. A beautiful song from the 20th century’s greatest musical, it was a surprising choice, for Diski lived a life that was more “me” than “we”, though she was married and had live-in lovers (“Moving Day”, the opening essay in this collection, is about one of them moving out). Her last partner whom she referred to as “the Poet” and “soppy old radical versifier”, was Ian Patterson, whose elegy to her, The Plenty of Nothing, won a Forward Poetry Prize.

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? Essays brings together some thirty essays of more than 200 written for the London Review of Books from 1993 to her death in 2016. The magazine’s founding editor, Karl Miller, met Diski at a party and suggested to his deputy, the eccentric and bird-like Mary-Kay Wilmers, that she get in touch with her: “You’ll get on with her… she’s a bit like you.” And so they did, and so she was. By the time she began at the LRB, really the only outlet for long-form journalism in Britain, Diski had already written five novels. Her most celebrated work, the memoir-cum-travelogue Skating to Antarctica, would appear in 1997.

The terrain it covered – a childhood which redefined the meaning of “dysfunction” and led to suicide attempts and several stays in a mental hospital – is revisited in “A Feeling for Ice”, the longest essay in this book, in which her infatuation with vast expanses of borderless white nothingness, acquired in the long white ward, is discussed, from her childhood love of ice-skating to a trip to Antarctica, with its “floating mountains of blue ice shaded with white, white ice shaded blue”. Chloe had persuaded her to look into her childhood, a journey begun only reluctantly by going back to Paramount Court, on London’s Tottenham Court Road, where Diski grew up, the only child of Jewish immigrants. Her father had run off in the wake of one of her mother’s breakdowns. From old neighbours still there, she learned that the man she thought a charmer had been a professional con man who committed suicide, an event in which her mother had taken delight. Both parents had sexually abused her, which she only recognised in retrospect, and she’d grown up in foster care and later been taken in and mentored for four years by Doris Lessing, whose son she came to know at school. When she returns from a cruise to the real Antarctica, Diski finds her mother’s death certificate, obtained by Chloe, among the mail: “Only for the last eight years had she truly not existed; only since 1988 had I been orphaned, really safe.”


The finding seems to have been cathartic but, unsurprisingly, Diski never fully recovered from the loss and trauma of her childhood. Depression and madness were perennial themes of her writing which nevertheless ranged widely. Many of the essays here take flight from books, rarely reviews as such (though she does of course pass judgment) but think-pieces, which interrogate both book and author: Piers Morgan’s so-called diaries (“Politics and reality TV are one and the same at present, if the Piers Morgan experience is anything to go by” she writes presciently); Tom Bower’s uninsightful biography of Richard Branson, which leaves many dots unjoined; Tina Brown on Diana (the absurd and vulgar psychobiography of the Princess’s final moments). Howard Hughes was a brilliant weirdo, but Diski reserves her acid for Charles Higham, the notorious celebrity biographer.

There’s a wonderful essay on the office, within which is a beguiling secondary essay on the enticements of the stationery cupboard: gentle and nostalgic. On those two bizarre killers, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, she is viscerally unsettling, trying somehow to “account” for their behaviour while wondering whether books about them are strictly necessary. Revisiting in adulthood Anne Frank’s diary offers an entirely different experience from her childhood reading, when the main point of interest was a shared dislike of mothers. In “Did Jesus Walk on Water Because He Couldn’t Swim?” and “Jews and Shoes”, the latter about “schlepping and cobbling… academic cultural studies at its most anxious”, Diski combines high erudition with high entertainment. As for “The Friendly Spider Programme”, anyone who keeps suitable weaponry on standby and shares a “paranoid theory that I summoned up spiders through the power of thought” will read it from behind a cushion.

America, the America opposed to Trump that is, cherishes and reveres essayists. The Brits, both left and right, tend to have a shorter attention span. We need more essays and Diski was a loss. Reading her now reminds me of the late great Pauline Kael in the New Yorker – or Dorothy Parker, had she been less indolent. Mrs P wanted her headstone to read “Excuse My Dust”.

She’d grown up in foster care and later been taken in and mentored for four years by Doris Lessing

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