Dawn Foster obituary

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Dawn Foster, the writer on politics and social affairs, who has died aged 34 after a long period of ill health, did much to expose inequality and social wrongs.

In 2017, she was longlisted for the Orwell prize for her coverage of the housing crisis in the Guardian. She reported on the unsexy part of the housing market: people in arrears, families stuck in temporary accommodation, homeless women fleeing domestic abuse.

In the small hours of 14 June that year, Dawn received a text informing her of a major fire in west London. She headed over to do what she could as Grenfell Tower was engulfed in flames, and went on to unearth a blog post written by former residents of the tower warning that the recent refurbishment could cause a “serious fire”. That year she was also named non-traditional journalist of the year, at the Words by Women awards.

Dawn often spotted the stories that others missed. In 2018, while attending the Conservative party conference, she realised that a flaw in the official mobile app for the event allowed anybody to access the phone numbers and personal details of attendees, including senior members of Theresa May’s cabinet and Boris Johnson, who had resigned as foreign secretary earlier in the year. The story quickly went viral and resulted in an apology from the party and an investigation by the Information Commissioner.

Born and brought up in Newport, Wales, in a working-class family, Dawn spent time in care before getting a scholarship to Warwick University to study English (2006-09). She spoke often about the bursary of £3,000, and how the university’s provision of low-cost accommodation and an offer without an interview allowed her to take up the course.

Throughout her life, Dawn’s acerbic wit, abiding empathy and keen ear for gossip drew people to her. Her writing career began with her blog 101 Wankers, documenting the harassment she experienced as a young woman cycling around London. It was an instant success and was followed by a commission from the Guardian in 2010 to write a piece expanding on her experiences. Before long, Dawn took a job as a moderator on the paper’s Comment Is Free site, where she continued to pitch pieces. Becky Gardiner, comment editor at the time, remembered: “Her ideas were brilliant right from the outset.” She soon acquired a substantial following on social media.

Dawn Foster in 2019. Writing on Grenfell and health issues took her back to the Catholicism of her earlier years.
Dawn Foster in 2019. Writing on Grenfell and health issues took her back to the Catholicism of her earlier years. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In 2014, Dawn went to the trade magazine Inside Housing to work on the features desk, where I got to know her. Here she was reporting on social housing and the impact of poverty on people’s lives. For this work, the International Building Press organisation named her that year’s IBP new journalist of the year. Dawn then started to write for the London Review of Books, the Independent, the Times Literary Supplement and many other publications.

Over nine years, she wrote more than 100 columns for the Guardian under the title Foster on Friday, as well as many other features and comment pieces, before her contract was ended in 2019. Her first book, Lean Out, was published in 2016. A rebuttal of Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that corporate women could succeed by “leaning in” to their careers, it skewered what Dawn called the “self help” approach of corporate feminism, and was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses book award.

She was never afraid to take on a target. During her years writing for the Guardian, some of her most memorable pieces of writing were excoriations of powerful figures, from Toby Young and Niall Ferguson to Tom Watson and George Osborne.

Despite her many successes, her employment and finances were often precarious. At the time of her death, Dawn was appearing frequently on the BBC and Sky as a commentator. She had been writing her second book, called Where Will We Live?, charting the history of the housing crisis and solutions. Ill health prevented her from finishing the book, which only had one chapter left to be written. Also in train was a third book, about living on benefits.

Dawn had been in and out of hospital due to epilepsy and a rare condition called schwannomatosis, involving noncancerous tumours. This experience was recounted in her journalism and on social media. “She was fiercely open about her body, would go on Sky with a gash from a seizure. That meant a lot to many who aren’t represented,” said the writer on disability Frances Ryan.

Writing on Grenfell and health issues took her back to the Catholicism of her earlier years. “Dawn’s last Christmas was spent volunteering with her church and the Ace of Clubs project to prepare Christmas meals and presents for homeless people in her local area. For Dawn, that’s what living your faith was about,” said her friend Sarah Woolley.

She leaves behind a network of close friends. “She had an incredible knack for cutting through the nonsense and talking about what mattered: people,” Woolley said. “When I remember Dawn I can see her clearly: sitting in a trade union-owned pub, dressed to the nines with a killer manicure. She’s telling the wildest story you’ve ever heard and 10 or so devastatingly handsome Irishmen are laughing their heads off.”

• Dawn Foster, journalist and author, born 12 September 1986; died 9 July 2021

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