I WROTE my first ever obituary this week, which could have been a depressing experience. If it wasn’t, it was because Jan Fairley - who contributed to this newspaper’s arts pages for many years - was someone who lived life more vividly and joyfully than almost anyone I’ve ever met.
Jan was a writer, broadcaster, academic, singer, actor and dancer, and seemed to throw an equal amount of energy into all of these things. She travelled the world and, as one friend remarked, ended up becoming friends with almost everyone she met professionally.
Mostly I knew her as a world music journalist - a subject on which she possessed exhaustive knowledge. Her emails to me often read more like torrents of enthusiasm than feature pitches, words tumbling over each other in her efforts to get across why it was so important that the Scotsman cover a particular concert or album release. She was a champion as much as a critic, and made no apology for that.
Any regular reader of the Scotsman’s arts pages will surely have read something by Jan over the years - for us she interviewed Cesaria Evora, Omara Portuondo, Lhasa De Sela, Amadou and Mariam, Manu Chao, Eliades Ochoa, Anoushka Shankar and Toumani Diabate, and countless other musicians that an arts editor whose record collection consists mostly of music made in Europe or the USA might otherwise overlook. Jan kept me right, and I will always be grateful for her spirited - and often educational - contributions to this paper. She also reviewed classical music for us for many years, particularly at the Edinburgh International Festival.
Jan was treated for breast cancer back in 2004, at the age of 55, but she was always determined to stay active and keep working, and she continued to write for the Scotsman long after that. As far as she was concerned, having a life-threatening disease wasn’t going to stop her working; she’d just have to take on slightly fewer commissions.
And then, at the end of March this year, an email arrived. The tone was as breezily positive as ever, but she was getting in touch not to enthuse about a concert or an album, but to let me and a few other colleagues in the media know that she only had a few weeks to live. She wasn’t in pain but the cancer, now in her colon, was incurable.
“It would be great if you could pop round to say hello after Easter for ten mins,” she wrote. I did, and we ended up talking for an hour, about music, politics and life in general. Jan was as full of life as I’d ever seen her. Propped up in bed with a view of her Morningside garden, and surrounded by family photos, she sang me a song, told me a funny story about trying to buy a hen, and asked me if I knew about
a play at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival called Villa + Discurso, which she thought offered a fresh perspective on Pinochet’s regime in Chile (another subject on which she was an authority, having lived in Chile in the early 1970s). She even gave me a present - a new flamenco compilation CD for which she had just written the sleeve notes. You must give it a listen, she said. She was still championing the music she loved right until the end.
For some reason I fully expected Jan still to be around when that play came to Edinburgh. She had already defied doctors’ expectations and, even after that final diagnosis, stayed alive almost twice as long as predicted, singing and writing and socialising as much as she could. But it wasn’t to be. On Saturday 9 June she was gone. She was 63 - but, as she told me that day with a grin, a friend reckoned she had lived five years for every year of her life. So I like to think that she was really 315.
The best tribute to Jan Fairley, I find myself thinking, won’t be found in any obituary or anecdote about her life, but in the people she left behind resolving to live as joyfully as she did. “I am lucky enough to have loved my life,” she wrote in that email back in March. “I have had an eventful and highly interesting one – full of privilege - and still do love my life and all my friends and family – I will miss you all hugely – quite understand the pharaohs filling tombs for the afterlife.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east