Deborah Orr death: Tributes pour in for ‘brilliant, edgy’ columnist and Independent contributor

Jane Dalton
Jonathan Evans

Tributes have poured in for Deborah Orr, the former Independent writer known for her outspoken championing of social issues, who has died at the age of 57. Ms Orr, who was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2010, won widespread admiration as a pioneering strong female voice in the national press, combining great intellect with emotional intelligence.

Praised as “The Independent at its finest” and “a brilliant and original thinker”, the Scottish-born writer had completed her memoir, Motherwell, a book about her early life growing up in Scotland, which is due to be published early next year.

Former colleagues said the world was now a smaller place.

Ms Orr wrote for The Independent from 1999 until 2009, including interviews, reviews and thought pieces. Christian Broughton, the editor, said she represented so much about The Independent.

“She combined great intellect with emotional intelligence, she was often edgy and always full of integrity, writing columns that brought tough and often controversial subjects within reach,” he said. “Deborah was never afraid to present an independently minded opinion.”

Simon O’Hagan, who worked at The Independent for 25 years, praised her as “a brilliant and original thinker whose take on the world, even if you disagreed with it, couldn’t fail to command respect”.

“As a person she had enormous integrity. She was funny and irreverent. She treated everyone equally and was altogether fantastic company,” he said.

Ms Orr, who was born in Motherwell, near Glasgow, joined the Guardian in 1990, where she worked as a features sub-editor with Linda Taylor, now The Independent’s head of production. “Deborah and I worked together at the Guardian in 1990. Back then she was tough and opinionated – and I’m glad to say that nothing changed over the next 30 years,” Taylor said.

After becoming the first female editor of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, Ms Orr later came to The Independent, where she fearlessly highlighted issues ranging from economic injustices and social problems to the Madeleine McCann case, which she described as “a monument to the grotesque and frightening dangers of gossip”.

In 1997, she married Will Self, the novelist and journalist. The couple separated two years ago, after a 20-year marriage. She is survived by her sons, Ivan and Luther, and her stepchildren, Alexis and Madeleine. She returned to the Guardian as a columnist for almost a decade, then just last year joined the i newspaper.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she wrote openly about her treatment. Ironically, she had written about cancer several times, including five years earlier, this for The Independent on how people with cancer are not always “brave” but have no choice in the matter. The disease returned this summer.

In 2007, she wrote how the NHS was “suffering from reform fatigue” and how well-meaning staff lacked leadership. Alex Andreou, a lawyer-turned-actor, described her as “one of the best friends anyone could wish for, one of the cleverest human beings, the best damn gallery tour guide, and [with] a sense of humour so dry it was almost desiccated”.

Roger Alton, who edited The Independent from 2008 to 2010, said the world was very much a smaller place now, remembering a ”warm, funny and fearless” writer.

Ms Orr was full of ideas and “incredibly clever – beyond words really”, he said. ”Charming, too, when she wanted to be, which was often. She could be difficult but I don’t know anyone who didn’t like her.”

He recalled her smoking “on an Olympic scale” and her profanity but that her “understanding of what mattered in culture, arts, books, film, theatre etc was flawless”.

She was full of ideas, wrote like a dream and was a brilliant, innovative editor

Roger Alton

“She wrote like a dream,” he said. “She loved her garden too and only a few weeks ago I was lugging bags of earth around the place to help tidy it up. She was directing me and wanted to help but it was clear that she shouldn’t because she was weakening.

“A brilliant and innovative editor of the Guardian magazine, she was none the less not that well treated by that paper once Peter Preston, who understood her talent and developed it, had left. Funny, sought-after and admired, with a great capacity to make friends too. All of whom loved her.

“She endured everything with great courage.”

Rachel Johnson, the journalist and Boris Johnson’s sister, tweeted that Ms Orr was “the warrior queen of journalism”.

Mariella Frostrup, the presenter of Open Book on Radio 4, said her autobiography was “a must-read”. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, the publisher of her memoir, said in a statement: “The loss of Deborah Orr, who was exceptional in so many ways, cannot be understated. She was adored by everyone who worked with her.”

Taylor added: “When we worked together on features, it was very obvious she would go places. In a typically macho world she fought for the voice of young female working-class women. I think she frightened some people. But she would kick up, never down – she was a people’s champion. She wouldn’t take any nonsense from management.”

Last month, she tweeted that it had been a year since she first went to her GP with chest and back pain, and that she had only just seen a breast oncologist for the first time.

“Deborah was one of the first really strong female voices in Fleet Street, Taylor said, adding: “It’s really sad to lose such an incredible woman.”

Mr O’Hagan tweeted that commissioning her to write for Radio Times was “a highlight of my time at the magazine”.

He added: “Deborah Orr was The Independent at its finest.”

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