Georgina Hammick obituary

Poet and writer whose main characters are often women comically uncomfortable inside outdated traditions of femininity

The poet, novelist and short-story writer Georgina Hammick, who has died aged 83, gave fine-tuned expression to her moment in English culture, writing with wit and insight about class and sexual politics and change. Her published output was small – two volumes of stories, two novels – because, although writing was at the centre of her life, she suffered painfully from self-doubt; and yet her hard-won prose reads effortlessly. It is stylish and elegant and funny.

Georgie began writing as a poet in the 1970s; she loved poetry, knew reams of it off by heart, and found the companionship of poets congenial. But it was in the short stories and novels that her wry delicacy and irony came into their own, made substantial in her middle-class characters. These are often women, sharply observant and intelligent, comically uncomfortable inside traditions of femininity which no longer fit, yet unable to escape them.

Individuals brought up in one world have to wrestle with survival in another, according to different sets of rules. In People for Lunch, the title story of her first collection, published in 1987, a mother and her teenage children, all grieving the death of the father, are expecting guests; they wrangle with loving ferocity over the rights and wrongs of good behaviour. Dave should shave and get dressed, his mother says; Liza should have done the church flowers, the sofa cushions must be plumped, the table laid. It’s absurd, the children protest, to put themselves out for guests nobody even wants.

Yet an old world of social obligation turns out to have its point, and the family’s chaotic grieving composes itself eventually around an ancient necessity: to conform, to keep up appearances – there is something to be said for it.

The story is not an exact fit for Georgie’s life, but her son Tom owns up to having been rather like fictional Dave as a student. When Tom first read People for Lunch, he tried to persuade her to try for publication; she could not bear the risk of refusal, so he “snuck into her writing room and drove to the local copy shop and sent a fat envelope to Stand magazine a few days late; she got second prize, and things began from there … ”

People for Lunch was reviewed with admiring enthusiasm by Bernard Levin and others; Spoilt, another story collection, was published in 1992. Her first novel, The Arizona Game, shortlisted for the Costa, came out in 1996: it is about a girl growing up in a makeshift eccentric family, and its characterisation is exact and tender. Hannah’s uncle and aunt come to the rescue when her own parents collapse into grief after her brother’s death; then her uncle dies too and it turns out that a glamorous actress is the true love of her aunt’s life. Her second novel, Green Man Running (2002), begins with a bravura tragic passage, when a speeding pickup truck in a country lane runs into a herd of bullocks. In 1992 she edited The Book of Love and Loss for Virago.

Georgie was born in Aldershot, Hampshire; she and her identical twin, Amanda, came in the middle of a family of four daughters. Their father, Douglas Heyman, an army officer who rose to be a major general, took his young family to Washington, and then to Kenya, where the girls had some of their schooling; their mother Patricia (nee Marsh) was exacting and formidable, but not keen on her daughters pursuing an academic education. This lack was always part of Georgie’s self-doubt, although her wide reading enriched her as much as any university degree. She reassured her children, in fact, that “you could learn so much by reading a novel, it could make up for losses in your own childhood”.

She loved drawing, and attended arts schools in Paris and Salisbury, but it was Amanda who eventually became an artist and illustrator. Briefly Georgie taught art in school and in 1961, aged 22, she married Charles Hammick, a major in the Grenadier Guards, who was divorced with two young children, Piers and Charlotte. Settled in Hampshire, she and Charles went on to have three more children – Tom, Kate and Rose.

She had married into a smart set rather like her parents’ world, but was never quite at home there: her leftist politics, vegetarianism and passion for literature set her apart. And although she and Charles were happy at first making a home together, she was not sure that marriage to a man was right for her. In a different era she might have preferred to be with a woman, but in the 1960s it was easier to make your private life around the conventions in place.

Charles left the army and worked in business; in 1968, they founded Hammicks Bookshop in Farnham, a business which grew eventually to 21 shops. This brought Georgie into blissful contact with poets and novelists; she was moving into a world where she felt she belonged, and began writing poetry herself, experiencing the “anguish of wanting to keep going while feeling guilty about it, with the children all in turn disturbing her, and a smoky fug emanating from her writing room”. She gave readings and in 1976 was published, along with four other poets, in a collection by Gollancz titled A Poetry Quintet.

She and Charles divorced in 1981 and Georgie went to live in a lovely old house in Wiltshire, for a while with the poet Andrew Motion, and for much longer with the writer Maureen Duffy.

In her 70s Georgie moved to live in London and never regretted it; she loved being part of a literary scene and a circle of reading and writing friends. She served on various arts panels and for English PEN, was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a judge for the VS Pritchett and Ackerley prizes and others. To the end of her life she was working on a novel which was closer to her own story, perhaps, than anything else she had written. She could not quite let it go, revising over and over, and it remains unfinished.

She is survived by her children, and her sisters, Sarah, Amanda and Henrietta.

• Georgina Hammick, author, born 24 May 1939; died 8 January 2023


Tessa Hadley

The GuardianTramp

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