Andrea was 25 when we first met. She was witty, she was fun, she was beautiful. But she wasn’t particularly self-confident. She was working in a lowly job that she didn’t like, one of a string of jobs since she’d graduated, and she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do. I was a graphic designer and soon after we got together I made a suggestion – why don’t you work with me? I’ll train you. I was only half serious. She probably quipped “Dunno, what are the hours?”, but she quickly agreed and so began our long partnership. We were partners in every sense, we lived, loved and worked closely together for the rest of her life.
Around this time she had her big epiphany, one that she often talked about in interviews. Still working part-time for a charity, she famously crossed the floor during a racism awareness course from the “white” side of the room, beckoned by her black colleagues. After a childhood of evasion and “passing-for-white”, this light-skinned young English woman of Caribbean heritage realised not only that she was black but just what that meant in terms of British history, British society, and her strangely unrepresented place in it.
Thomas Kinsman, one of the characters in The Long Song, the last novel that Andrea wrote, describes at the beginning of the book how his mama, a Jamaican woman called July, “… had a story – a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force that was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale”.
It’s a description that fits the author herself rather well. Andrea made a good graphic designer, she could think visually and had great ideas; but now she had a story, the story of her own heritage, and she wasn’t going to be able to tell that through graphic design.
She began to write. Just little scenes, memories from her childhood. She joined an afternoon-a-week writing course. I guess I would have said nice things whatever she read to me, but I soon found I didn’t need to flatter her. I remember her reading out an early story, just a snippet, where I laughed out loud and then welled up with tears within the space of a single paragraph. Wow, I thought, how did she do that?
Since her death earlier this year one of my difficult but strangely uplifting tasks has been to assemble and go through her archive of written material – all her early notes, ideas for novels, research material, tape recordings, character sketches, handwritten drafts, annotated printouts, reworkings, letters, notes to herself. There are crates and crates of material all labelled and box-filed in her careful, slightly cautious manner. Although I know it was done over a long time, 20 years or so, I’m still staggered by the sheer amount of work she did. I was with her all this time but I still can’t quite grasp how, and when, she managed to do it all. We had a full life with friends and family and fun, and problems and crises and heartaches. But in among it all was this fat, fat story that, in a suite of beautiful, powerful novels, she patiently worked through. It was a courageous achievement that in the words of July’s son, Thomas, she clearly felt impelled to do.
When I think about Andrea, of all the rich, complex and loving feelings I have for her memory – her humour, her talent, her humanity – one thing keeps coming to my mind. She was quite simply the most intelligent person I have ever met. Not in the way we sometimes misuse the word, not clever-clever, or self confident, or good at general knowledge (she was none of those), but just a sure-footed thoughtfulness that had such depth, breadth and insight. She was a wise and wonderful woman. At a personal level to say that I miss her doesn’t even come near. At a public, cultural level I know that she is missed by very many people. Through her body of work she has made a small but real difference to Britain’s view of itself. Right to the end of her life her down-to-earth modesty meant I was never sure if she quite understood or totally accepted that fact. I just hope that she did.