Tribute to Michele Hanson
9 March 2018
The writer and Guardian columnist Michele Hanson, who has died aged 75 after suffering a stroke, turned the dross of the everyday into funny, wise and sometimes angry observation. A feminist and socialist, she had radical instincts that informed her life and many of her columns.
She marched to London from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in the 1960s, and she was a musician, teacher, activist and writer. In 1972 she was the runner-up in the first Alternative Miss World contest, organised by the sculptor Andrew Logan. “If you have felt like an ungainly, long-nosed, pin-headed weirdo for most of your life, as I did, then entering a beauty competition is something of a breakthrough,” she wrote.
Reading her invariably meant engaging with a satirical, uncompromising, thoughtful intelligence. Like the course of her life, she was never predictable. Her days as a stallholder in Portobello Road market, flogging vintage tailor’s trimmings mistakenly acquired by her father, became years later a lesson in capitalist economics for a series for the Guardian, School of Life.
She turned a short piece on Elon Musk’s project for colonising Mars into a stiletto-sharp attack on pointlessly conspicuous consumption; and she wrote unflinchingly about growing old. Last week she argued in defence of pole dancing in care homes: “I couldn’t hang straight out sideways or upside-down from a pole, or twirl myself into knots. It must be thrilling to watch people do so.”
That article appeared on the same day as one about the cruelty of factory-farming poultry, based on a reminiscence about a pair of muscovy ducklings that she had reared as a 12-year-old, only for them to meet a secret but gruesome end on her parents’ dinner plates because her mother got fed up with the mess. Her childhood heroine was the local vet.
But of all the animals in her life, her greatest love was for dogs in general and boxers in particular, starting with Lusty, her dearest childhood friend. She was walking one of his successors, Joey, in the snow when she had her stroke.
Born in London, Michele began life in the unpromising environment – in literary terms – of Ruislip, a posh outer suburb where she grew up in the warm and well-fed embrace of a non-observant Jewish family. She was the only child of Arthur Hanson, who ran a factory making women’s fashion accessories, mainly belts, in Soho, and his wife, Clarice (nee Davidson).
Outwardly the very peak of conventional and untroubled existence, her childhood and youth became, in columns and a memoir – What the Grown-Ups Were Doing: An Odyssey Through 1950s Suburbia (2013) – a series of life lessons that are painfully funny and painfully true. Dogs, ponies and summers on the Riviera transmogrify under her touch into an irresistible narrative of bodily functions and betrayal (only remember the ducklings) that is both autobiography and biography, the story of her life, an account of her parents’ lives, and the experience of being their daughter.
The pretty little girl who, according to the boasts of assorted grannies and aunties, had “more brains than you’ve got in her little finger”, failed her 11-plus and was sent to the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s school for girls, then in Acton, now in Elstree, Hertfordshire, to escape the secondary modern that haunted her parents’ nightmares. Haberdashers’ Aske’s was strongly Christian, and Michele’s Jewishness marked her as an outsider, a status that at first she resented and later relished. She even experimented briefly and unsuccessfully with taking her own inherited faith seriously, after which she treated all religion as an excuse for shirking the responsibility of making choices.
Two years from the age of 16 at art school in Ealing, with the already infamous Quentin Crisp as a life model, taught her only that she was not going to be an artist. Yet it was at art school that she shed the last ties with suburbia. She encountered different sexualities, began an unrelenting fight against nuclear arms, hung out with Ronnie Wood, went to an early Count Suckle ska concert in Notting Hill and – though the decision was unrelated – abandoned art college for the London College of Music, followed by teacher training at Trent Park College of Education.
For 25 years she taught flute and piano, first at Holland Park comprehensive and then as a peripatetic music teacher. At 60 she took up the cello, and she also played the harpsichord to a high standard. She loved early music (“nothing after Mozart”, a friend said) and played in an amateur orchestra. Along with her garden, a jungle of tropical plants and frog-friendly habitats, and 18th-century literature, music was an abiding passion.
Along the way, in the 1970s Michele gained a BA in English and an MA in 18th-century English from Westfield College (now part of Queen Mary University of London). At the end of the decade she began writing short stories, and published in Vogue and in the Arts Council collection New Stories. In 1984 she began to write journalism for the Observer and the Guardian. By then she was the lone parent of a daughter, Amy, and had become a political activist.
Her earliest columns, about local government, established the style that sustained millions of words over the next 34 years, deceptively lighthearted, invariably thoughtful and always informed accounts of life on the front line of the fight against Thatcherism, and every government since. She wrote social commentary that covered everything from an attempt by the steak house chain Berni Inns to ban overweight waitresses to the complexities of claiming the mobility allowance.
And she ruthlessly plundered the lives of the people she loved. It began with her daughter, nicknamed in the column, as in real life, Treasure, who found the normal teenage angst of merely having a mother horribly multiplied by having a mother who wrote a column that was a flimsily disguised account of her own life. Amy herself later wrote a charming and generous piece forgiving her mother and relishing the memories that the column sustained.
That series provided the basis for two books, Treasure: The Trials of a Teenage Terror (1993) and What Treasure Did Next (1996), and there were animated films, a radio play, and TV and radio appearances. During these years, she and Amy created an enduring extended family with Hazel Pethig, the Monty Python costume designer, and her two sons, Ben and Nick Cote.
When Michele’s own mother, by then in her 90s, moved in with her, there was another rich source of entertainment at hand – another book, Living With Mother: Right to the Very End (2006). Other columns were collected into Age of Dissent (2000) and Absolutely Barking: Adventures in Dog Ownership (2014).
At the same time Michele became a very active trustee of the charity Amy had set up, the Small Steps Project, supporting children and their families who live on rubbish dumps and survive from scavenging. She and Amy, who survives her, had been planning a trip to Uganda to see the project’s latest venture.
Michele was also planning a biography of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. In preparation for this, she had gained a second MA, in 18th-century history, from what is now Birkbeck University of London.
A family friend was the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in whose Islington North constituency she lived. The prospect of a victory for Corbyn, for whom she campaigned last summer, made her optimistic that, after decades of acceptance of an economy that fostered grotesque inequality, there was a chance that voters would at last see the light “and turn the world to the left … while we still have a world to turn anywhere”.
[This obituary first appeared in the Guardian]