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date: 29 January 2020

Diski [née Simmonds], Jennifer Jane (Jenny)free

(1947–2016)
  • Ben Grant

Jenny Diski (1947–2016), by Michael Bennett, 1990

© Michael Bennett/National Portrait Gallery, London

Diski [née Simmonds], Jennifer Jane (Jenny) (1947–2016), novelist and author, was born on 8 July 1947 at the Welbeck Hospital, 27 Welbeck Street, Marylebone, London, the daughter of James Simmonds, formerly Israel Zimmerman (1908–1966), a small-scale entrepreneur, black marketeer, and con-man, and his wife, Rachel (Rene), née Rayner (1910–1988). Both her parents were born in the East End of London, the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe.

Jenny Simmonds grew up in Paramount Court, a block of flats on Tottenham Court Road, London, and her childhood, to which she returned repeatedly in her writing, was a troubled one. Her mother and father, who had both been married before, were emotionally unstable, and Jenny was caught in the middle of their volatile, and at times violent, marriage. She would later reveal that she was sexually abused by both parents. She spent a period of time in foster care at the age of six, when her father left and her mother suffered a breakdown. When her father left a second time, for good, when Jenny was eleven, mother and daughter were rescued from impending destitution by the social services, and Jenny became a boarder at the progressive St Christopher School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. There she embarked on a course of misbehaviour, including sniffing ether stolen from the school’s chemistry laboratory, and partying outside the school grounds. She was expelled at the age of fourteen. Shortly before this, she had been raped by a man who lured her into a recording studio in Notting Hill, London. She then lived for a time with her father and his new partner in Banbury, Oxfordshire, before fleeing to her mother then living in Hove, Sussex. After only a few days there she attempted to commit suicide and was placed in Lady Chichester Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Hove.

Then occurred a remarkable turning point in Jenny’s life: out of the blue, she received a letter from the famous writer, and later Nobel laureate, Doris Lessing, whom she had never met, inviting her to live with her in London. Jenny had known (but not got on with) Lessing’s son Peter at St Christopher School, and he had asked his mother to help her. Accepting the invitation, Jenny, who was desperate to be a writer, suddenly found herself in the company of such literary luminaries as Alan Sillitoe, Ted Hughes, Naomi Mitchison, and Robert Graves. She also met Joan Rodker, a political activist and one of Lessing’s closest friends, who would remain her own lifelong friend. She stayed with Lessing from early 1963 until May 1966 and attended King Alfred School, London. During this time, as she remarked at Lessing’s memorial service, she ‘learned what it was to be a writer from being around, in the house, day by day, observing her [Lessing] being one’ (Guardian, 12 April 2014). Their relationship would continue until Lessing’s death in 2013, though it was never an easy one, and in her final memoir, In Gratitude (2016), Jenny described the rage she felt every time she went to visit Lessing in the 1970s. She left Lessing’s house at the age of nineteen, shortly after the sudden death of her father, and shortly before she was due to sit her A-level exams. At this time she also saw her mother for what would turn out to be the last time; she had no further contact with her and only found out years after the event that she had died in Hove in 1988.

The period of Jenny’s life after leaving Lessing’s home was summarized in her book The Sixties (2009): ‘I lived in London during that period, regretting the Beats, buying clothes, going to movies, dropping out, reading, taking drugs, spending time in mental hospitals, demonstrating, having sex, teaching’ (p. 7). The mental hospitals were the North Wing of St Pancras Hospital and Maudsley Hospital, and Jenny’s repeated hospitalization in her early twenties indicates the severity of her psychiatric problems at this time. The teaching, which gave greater stability to her life, began in 1971, when she and the journalist Roger Adrian Marks, later Diski (1949–2011), her future husband, set up a tiny school for a group of troubled local children and then went on to establish the pioneering Freightliners Free School, where Jenny herself taught from 1972 to 1973 before receiving formal teacher training and teaching at Haggerston Comprehensive School, Hackney, London, from 1973 to 1977. She and Roger married on 4 December 1976, and the couple took the invented name Diski as their new surname. (It was loosely inspired by a surname in Roger’s ancestry: Rogajinsky) Their daughter, and Jenny Diski’s only child, Chloe, was born in 1977; Diski later described her as ‘my rock’ and was grateful that she had ‘a solidity that I never had’ (Sunday Times, 17 April 2016).

In the same year as Chloe’s birth, Diski, at the age of thirty, began a BSc in anthropology at University College, London. However, a severe bout of depression forced her to discontinue her studies after two years. She then returned to teaching, working at Islington Sixth Form College from 1980 to 1984. Her and Roger’s marriage did not last, but they remained life-long friends. They divorced in 1993, long after their separation.

Although Diski had always identified herself as a writer, she only published her first novel, Nothing Natural, in 1986. Taking as its central subject a sadomasochistic relationship, this literary début caused something of a stir; it had the distinction of being banned from a feminist bookshop in Islington, London, and it established Diski as a writer to watch. Once started, she wrote prolifically, from novels and short stories to journalism, memoirs, and travel literature, though her writing resists such easy classifications and, whether fiction or non-fiction, strongly bears her distinctive signature, of which humour, an unflinching gaze, and a willingness to tackle taboos have frequently been identified as marked characteristics. Moreover, in whatever genre she wrote, Diski drew upon her own life for her material, so that her biography became an integral part of her work.

Nothing Natural was quickly followed by six further novels—Rainforest (1987), Like Mother (1988), Then Again (1990), Happily Ever After (1991), Monkey’s Uncle (1994), and The Dream Mistress (1996)—and a book of short stories, The Vanishing Princess (1995). These works of fiction are all playfully inventive. Monkey’s Uncle, for instance, places an orangutan named Jenny alongside Darwin, Freud, and Marx in a woman’s fantasy landscape. Madness and depression are common themes. So, too, is Jewishness, particularly in Then Again, and sexuality remains a strong thread, hilariously so in Happily Ever After.

In 1997 Diski published her first non-fiction book, Skating to Antarctica, which juxtaposed an account of her relationship with her mother with one of her journey to Antarctica. This book brought to light the extent to which Diski had incorporated incidents in her own life into her earlier fiction, especially Like Mother (1988), her most autobiographical novel. Much to her own surprise, given her dislike of moving, Diski became a successful travel writer, publishing, in addition to Skating to Antarctica, Stranger on a Train (2002) and On Trying to Keep Still (2006). Her books on the 1960s and animals (The Sixties, and What I Don’t Know About Animals [2010]) again illustrate her tendency to view her subject matter through the prism of her own experiences, and both can be considered memoirs of sorts. Her cat Bunty featured prominently in What I Don’t Know About Animals; Diski’s relationship with cats dated back to the moment she arrived at Lessing’s house, and Lessing, herself a famous cat-lover, opened the door and handed her a kitten. Through the 2000s Diski continued to write innovative fiction: Only Human (2000) and After These Things (2004) are a retelling of Genesis; and Apology for the Woman Writing (2008), her final novel, tells the story of Marie de Gournay, the first editor of Montaigne’s Essays, one of Diski’s favourite books.

At the same time as writing books, Diski also worked in other media. In the early 1990s she wrote three television plays, two for Channel 4 (A Fair and Easy Passage and The Ultimate Object of Desire [both 1991]) and one for BBC1 (Murder in Mind [1994]). From 1992 onwards journalism and essays formed a significant part of her output. In that year, the editor of the London Review of Books (LRB), Mary-Kay Wilmers, who would become a close friend, invited her to write for the LRB, and she quickly established herself as a regular and much-admired contributor. A number of her articles for it were collected in Don’t (1998), and, along with items published elsewhere, A View from the Bed and Other Observations (2003). Diski also contributed substantially to other publications, particularly newspapers. For example, in 1993 she wrote a quirky weekly column in the Sunday Times on supermarkets, entitled ‘Off Your Trolley’. (The consistently superlative quality of Diski’s titles should be noted.) From 1993 to 1997 she was the radio critic for the Mail on Sunday and then, from 1997 to 1999, a television critic for The Observer. Towards the end of her life she wrote a monthly column, translated into Swedish, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten. She was a prolific reviewer of books, mainly non-fiction, and also of films, reflecting a love of film which originated in her childhood, when she would often visit the cinema which adjoined Paramount Court. She also embraced the internet, writing a blog from 2006 and regularly tweeting from 2009.

For someone who identified herself as a Londoner, and who loved her own space, 2000 was a seminal year in Diski’s personal life: she moved to Cambridge to be with Ian Kenneth Patterson (b. 1948), whom she had met in 1998 and whom she referred to as ‘the Poet’, though he was also a noted literary critic and a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Wary of entanglement, she initially bought a house opposite his in Cavendish Road, Cambridge, before finally moving in with him. ‘It has taken me 56 years, but I think I have finally reached happy ever after’, she said, ‘although I’ll still need a shed in the garden to escape to’ (Times, 12 May 2004). She and Patterson married on 3 July 2008.

In 2014 Diski was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and immediately formulated what would be her last project: a combination of a cancer diary and a memoir of her relationship with Lessing, which was serialized in the LRB between September 2014 and February 2016. These entries, which movingly brought together Diski’s life and work in real time, as her life drew to a close, were quickly published in book form, as In Gratitude (2016). She died a week later, at her home in Cambridge, on 28 April 2016. She was survived by her husband, Ian, and her daughter, Chloe, a journalist and writer.

Sources

  • The Independent (22 Sept 1991); (24 Aug 2002); (29 April 2016)
  • J. Diski, Skating to Antarctica (1997)
  • J. Diski, Don’t (1998)
  • J. Diski, Stranger on a train (2002)
  • J. Diski, A view from the bed and other observations (2003)
  • The Times (12 May 2004); (29 April 2016)
  • J. Diski, On trying to keep still (2006)
  • J. Diski, The sixties (2009)
  • J Diski, What I don’t know about animals (2010)
  • The Guardian (12 April 2014); (13 Nov 2015) (29 April 2016); (11 Dec 2016)
  • The Observer (7 Dec 2014); (11 Dec 2016)
  • New York Times (10 June 2015); (29 April 2016)
  • J. Diski, In gratitude (2016)
  • Sunday Times (17 April 2016)
  • R. P. Baird, ‘Jenny Diski, 1947–2016’, The Paris Review, 29 April 2016, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/04/29/jenny-diski-1947-2016/, accessed 13 August 2019
  • Daily Telegraph (30 April 2016)
  • London Review of Books (19 May 2016)
  • Jewish Chronicle (24 June 2016)
  • New Yorker (22 Dec 2017)
  • Jenny Diski website, www.jennydiski.co.uk/index.html, accessed 13 August 2019
  • Twitter: @Diski
  • WW (2016)

Archives

  • Doris Lessing Archive, University of East Anglia
  • Doris Lessing Papers, Ransom HRC
  • Joan Rodker Papers, Ransom HRC

Sound

  • documentary recordings, BBC Radio
  • documentary, current affairs and interview recording, BL NSA

Likenesses

  • M. Bennett, bromide print, 1990, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1999, with daughter Chloe, Shutterstock/Rex Features
  • photograph, 2010, Shutterstock/Rex Features
  • photographs, Camera Press
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)
birth certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas
marriage certificate
death certificate