In Memory of Doreen Massey

24 Mar 2016 james

doreen-masseyShe was taken away in mid conversation. The last time I saw Doreen, we met at the usual place, Small & Beautiful in Kilburn at 6.30. Doreen liked to eat early and the restaurant was near her flat. We set off on a rolling, rollicking exchange during which we voyaged over Brexit, birdwatching, Corbyn, capitalism, Syriza and so much more. When we looked up it was 11.00. We’d been at it for four and a half hours patiently unpicking, teasing out the right words, laughing and swearing. The waiters were beginning to close the place. Doreen was concerned about how long it would take me to get home out beyond London. But she said “This is so much fun!” And I replied “Yes, there’s nothing for it we’ll just have to keep on talking and sleep behind the bar”. She was 72, but despite the challenges of her health, she could have the energy of a twenty-year old. Reluctantly, we left into the night. As Doreen crossed the road, with her slightly fragile gait, I looked back at her and I was three foot off the ground. As high as it is possible to be when sober.

The Doreen that I saw was so full of passion. Such an extraordinary force of delight, of challenge, of joy. She relished in the pleasure of the moment. It was typical of her to say “This is so much fun!” She of course had an enormous following, but she wore it with extraordinary humility. There was no ‘side’ on her. She was just there, tussling over the issues in front of her, never hidebound in her views, always surprising, delighting in exploring seemingly contradictory and opinionated positions. In that last conversation she was unsure which way to go on Brexit – repelled by the racist Right but also raging against the EU as the ‘Bankers’ Club’ that had shown its habits of arrogant brutality in its dealings with Greece.

Doreen Massey with Elisa Dassoler at Platform's unauthorised Deadline Festival in Tate Modern.
Doreen Massey with Elisa Dassoler at Platform’s unauthorised Deadline Festival in Tate Modern.

I’d had the great fortune to meet Doreen through Platform’s work. She somehow came across our Homeland project (1993) and we had the odd exchange until we participated in a performance and seminar event organised by Alan Read at the LSE in 2002 called Civic Centre. From then on we became allies and she wrote about our work and participated in events such as a Gog & Magog performance in 2004 and the launch of the Remember Saro Wiwa Living Memorial at City Hall in 2006 with Ken Wiwa, Angela Davies and Ken Livingstone. Indeed, it was typical that Doreen was the one who built the link between us and the then Mayor of London. She was such a generous ally, and knowing that she was there wishing us well gave us strength and comfort. Later it was through Doreen that we were invited to contribute to the Kilburn Manifesto (2015), a commission that resulted in our collective essay ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’ which has become a foundation stone for our ongoing Energy Democracy work. Only four months ago she electrified listeners when she spoke at our unsanctioned Deadline Festival in Tate Modern. (She died only hours before the news came out that Tate had finally met the deadline and will end their sponsorship contract with BP. A quote from her ended the statement of celebration by Liberate Tate.)

I began to meet Doreen for dinner at Small & Beautiful in January 2008 and we continued to do so now and then for the next seven years, although with increasing regularity. To begin with I was a little nervous. Not only did she have such an immense profile as a public intellectual but she was also coming at the world from a determinedly Left and working class point of view. What, I thought, would she make of me, so obviously formed by, even if acting in opposition to, the culture of the ruling class into which I had been born? Slowly she gave me confidence to speak about it with her and our dialogue was enriched by the fact that we came to the table with such different experiences yet often with the same critique. She was often enraged by the Establishment, the Financial elite, the Tory Party – she never held back. But I was grateful for her generosity and patience with me, and her curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world from which I come. For much of my life I’ve reflected on it, tried to own it, tried to critique it – but she gave me courage to do this more. It’s down to Doreen’s support that I completed and published an essay in Soundings, ‘Memories of the Future’, which in part explores the parallel biographies of my father – a man of the army and the City, and my partners’ great uncle – a miner and a construction worker.

And we were bound together by birdwatching. Doreen was an eager ornithologist, a passion that in the eyes of Radical metropolitans is not particularly cool. (But then as her friend Sally Davison recently pointed out to me, Doreen didn’t give a damn about cool.) We’d constantly swap remarks over dinner, over the phone or through postcards, about the Swifts screaming above the streets of Kilburn, the Harriers on the North Kent Marshes where I live, or the great flocks of waders that she’d watched on the Cumbrian coast together with her sister. Often I would rave about the wonders of the Faroe Islands, the cliff tops teeming with Puffins and its extraordinary culture of defiant independence. I was delighted that she and her sister went there one year. Doreen loved it, though true to form, when we next met she asked “But what would it be like to be gay there?”

To me she was so free. Her stories of feminist and anti-Vietnam War activism in the 60’s, her immersion in the GLC, her collaboration with Stuart Hall and Mike Rustin, her passionate embrace of the Latin American Left (and, in return, their embrace of her), her powerful position in the world of Geography, her evident brillance with students, her extraordinary round of giving talks at political gatherings… She never gave up. She rolled out like dawn breaking.

There is so much more I want to talk about with her. This conversation has so much further to go. But damn – I looked away, and she’s left.

Shortly before he died, Joseph Beuys gave a lecture in which he quoted a line from Antonio Metastasio saying ‘Schutze die Flamme’ (‘Protect the Flame’). The death of Doreen brings these words to mind. She challenges me, challenges us, to be as free, to be as passionate, to step up, to engage in the struggle with new energy. Thank you. You gave so much to so many.

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