Thursday, 28 March 2013

Asking the difficult questions

My beautiful, fantastically intelligent friend, Gill Howie, died on 26 March 2013. She died of cancer, after a long illness, and she has left two young boys.

We had drifted apart over the last decade or so, for no reason other than that both of us were working hard, she had had children, and then I did. She was in Liverpool, I was in Cambridge, then Australia, then London, then moving, then management consulting, then researching, then governing bodying, then... then... you get the picture. Busying myself.

Gill was a feminist philosopher, and asked difficult questions all the time about Marxism, and critical thinkers. Gill was an activist intellectual. She thought it was vital to live out her moral investigations in her own actions. So she was a union activist, and later, once she was a professor at Liverpool, and a head of department, I imagine she looked after the interests of her staff to the very best of her abilities.

Because Gill was one of the most compassionate people I have ever known. She had this interest in other people, this love of whatever other people did— they fascinated her, others. It was their very differentness from her that she was absorbed by. She had incredibly piercing eyes, and it always felt as though she were looking straight into your soul, and your own bad faith. Yet she also had the extraordinary gift of not judging or punishing others. Despite being massively more intelligent than most people around her, she was able to hold people as they developed, rather than crushing them with her judgements. She was so patient with the foibles and setbacks of others.

But she was very far from being sanctimonious. I am not talking priestly self-effacement here. Gill may have been the best listener I have ever known, but she wasn't silent. Gill was a most vital, sensual, pleasure-seeking creature. She was utterly immersed in all that life has to offer by way of sensory experience. Gill was naughty in the best possible ways. Hers were the best parties in Cambridge, she was a magnet for some of the most talented and creative people I have ever known. Her tiny flat was a salon, full of people vying for her approval and attention, which she bestowed with queenly benevolence equally on everyone. She was a beautiful cat. How many lives has she touched?

I wish I had not drifted away from her. She was one of the reasons I wanted to do a phd, and thought it was worth the effort and struggle, she made the intellectual adventure of it feel alive and important. She broke out my idealism and my feminism, and never capitulated to that dimension of feminism which is about self-flagellation and perfectionism. For her, feminism was about the right of every woman and every person to their own liberty and pleasure, free from fear and bullying, and it was about the importance of free thought as a practice. She lived her philosophy and worked it out all through her wonderful life. I will miss her very much.

Perhaps the only way to respond to her death is to carry on asking the difficult questions she used to ask, the ones that go straight to the heart of a problem, and enable people to discuss it and resolve it. She was a very brave woman. Let asking the difficult questions be her legacy.


Ned said...

I think you've nailed it. Everything that I have been thinking about Gill, you have expressed, with added clarity. Thanks, Ingrid for telling me why I feel like I feel. Here's to the King Street Salon!

Anonymous said...

Just as I remember also....thanks. Steve q

stormandgrace said...

Beautifully put Inky. Feeling sad and full of joy remembering Gill this weekend.

John FG Stead said...

Thank you, Ingrid. Apt in every word.