Kirsty Gunn: We don’t expect death, and we don’t know what to do about it

Lovely people like Stephanie Wolfe Murray, pictured in the Canongage office, should be allowed to stay with us, to help us
Lovely people like Stephanie Wolfe Murray, pictured in the Canongage office, should be allowed to stay with us, to help us
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This past week, it feels as though a little bit of the light has gone out of the summer. First, I heard about the death of Stephanie Wolfe Murray, the quietly charismatic philanthropist and founder, with her husband Angus, of Canongate Books.

It was she who, with her unerring eye for what was important, discovered, in the slush pile at the offices in Jeffrey Street back in the early 1980s, a manuscript that went on to be one of the defining Scottish novels of the 20th century: Alasdair Grey’s Lanark.

Her influence can be felt through the regeneration of children’s publishing in Scotland and the prominence of Scottish literature in bookshops and libraries through her establishing the Canongate classics series and the Kelpie Prize, and there were a host of writers and literary events who hummed and came alive when in her magical orbit – from Alastair Reid to William Boyd, from the small scale independent book events she fostered in the Borders to helping set up the Edinburgh Book festival and a host of charities and aid initiatives in Bosnia and around the world. She was just one of those people who make life shine. She was 76 when she died.

And then, just a day later, I heard of Tom Kremer’s death, the founder of Notting Hill Editions. His life story also describes someone who was a force of nature, in his case defying overwhelming odds to leave a shattered past in Europe and set up life in the UK. He established the game-changing publishing venture, Notting Hill Editions, that only publishes essays, nothing else, seven years ago when he was 80.

“He really was quite extraordinary,” says his daughter Kim, who directs the business and worked with her father from the outset. “Who else would think to set up a publishing house with no experience at all at that age?” And yet he did, and, with Kim, managed to single-handedly bring the essay back into our field of consciousness, more important than ever in these truth-challenged times.

Both deaths, in the words of the poet John Donne, “diminish me” for both individuals added so much to what I can only describe as a sense of a sort of ethical wellbeing: that feeling that everyone is behaving decently in this world; that we might look out for each other, help and support good ideas, take care of the less fortunate…How we need reminding that these qualities are important in our brief lives.

Both Stephanie and Tom put so much into our experience of our society. Not only through the sheer fact of their being in it – and that phrase “good works” that they both knew all about, though would never say so, comes into it, of course – but also through their role in the world of letters. Both of them with a gorgeous generosity of spirit, and a sort of devil-may-care attitude, that can often be sorely lacking in cultural life today that has us all scrambling after a smaller and smaller slice of attention in an environment dominated by visual media and social networking.

The essay, as I’ve written about before in these pages, can play an important part in reminding us that not all is about the clamour of success or the next big thing. It is proof, by contrast, as a literary form, of our human softnesses and frailties. It reminds us of these qualities in a way that other literary genres don’t always approach simply because the essay is all about attempting – a thought, a thesis, an argument – rather than aiming to presenting a hard and polished finished “product”, as it were. There is nothing finished about the essay. It is like our lives, brief, uncertain, contingent… that always end in a way that shocks us – no matter how expected, or waited for, or even longed for, sometimes – because we don’t expect death, not really, we don’t really know what to do about it.

Robert McCrum, the writer and critic, has written a marvellous extended essay about death, Every Third Thought, that is due out next month. He opens, as do all essays, with the idea of a question. “No one will know exactly what happened inside my head on the night of 28 July 1995… but I felt then, and still feel… a powerful need to explore the consequences and perhaps the meaning of this very close call” he writes. He is referring to a life-threatening stroke that turned his attention from, as he puts it, “a former life” to a daily “living with the apprehension of mortality”. “What follows is a book I don’t have much choice about,” he goes on, “it comes from the heart.”

Every Third Thought is a reminder of the shadows on the grass, even at this time of year; that we shouldn’t be afraid of them, that in time they will come to enfold us all. Quoting the novelist Marilynne Robinson, Robert gives us this: “I know my life is drawing to an end… everything that takes my attention is very moving to me now. It feels freshly seen, like a morning.” His book shows us that we should grab all the living moments and live in them, while we are here.

I was looking forward to meeting Tom Kremer last week. It was the occasion of the awarding of the third Notting Hill Editions International Prize for the Essay, and there was a big night organised at a club in Mayfair. The prize is one of the most generous of its kind in the world, and the winner and five finalists are published in a volume that follows all those in the Notting Hill Editions series – linen bound, with silk bookmarks, beautiful paper and typeface. They are just lovely books to hold – as well as setting readers off on an adventure in thought. The winner this year is William Nelson and it was fun to meet him and congratulate him on his thoughtful “mosaic” of an idea, as I think of his particular essay – about being in the world, and fine art and uncertainty. He’s a historian by profession and his work has all of the historian’s careful judgment, while being freed into a kind of writing that is more porous and frail… essay writing.

I had been one of the judges on this year’s prize, and have known Kim for a while: she published an essay of mine a couple of years ago and since then we’ve always loads of essay-related matters to talk about. It was sad, something taken away, to hear that her father was not going to be at the party after all.

Stephanie’s funeral is this week at Traquair. I can’t believe I have just typed those words. “Why is it that that doesn’t surprise me?” I said to a friend who had been an old family friend of Stephanie’s since childhood, when she told me that Stephanie had died calmly and quietly at home, that it was all really, really lovely, actually. Because everything about Stephanie was lovely.

Can we keep some of her with us in our lives, please? Can we let the good people stay on and help us all?