Siân Elizabeth Busby died on 4 September 2012 after a long illness. A few days later I transcribed her handwritten manuscript for the end of A Commonplace Killing, her final novel. My motive was selfish: I wanted to keep talking to her. I still do. The tears could not be staunched as I read, deciphered and typed. Foggy-brained, the transcription was spoilt by spelling mistakes and typographical errors. All mine. Siân’s prose was as pellucid and accurate as ever. And brave. Here she was, all hope lost of reprieve from the lethal cancer, reflecting on what it is like to know that death awaits on the morrow.
What caught me off guard is that the work is complete, and – for me at least – more-or-less perfect. Siân worked on it until the illness became excruciating and wholly incapacitating. I did not know, until reading handwriting as familiar as my own and hearing her voice in my head, that she had finished this exquisite work. I should have guessed. When Siân put her formidable mind to a project, whether it was teaching herself to read as an infant, years before going to school, or curating a museum on the history of Judaism (a non-Jew, she could hold her own in a scholarly spat with the rabbis, and inevitably knew far more about my inherited faith than me), or directing a 19-hour Chinese opera, she always triumphed. And as if to accentuate my own vanity, she was never smug, always dissatisfied with her own efforts, routinely critical of her achievements.
It is a difficult question whether the circumstances in which a book is written, or any work of art forged, are relevant to our appreciation of it. I am clear that Siân would not wish you to make any allowances for her debilitated state during the act of creation. But you don’t need to indulge her. A Commonplace Killing is a jewel. Even so, for the proud spouse, if not for Siân, it matters that she finished the book after she had received her death sentence. On 3 August 2012, the consultant oncologist at the Royal Marsden, Sanjay Popat, a compassionate, assiduous and expert physician whom we came to think of as a friend during the years he was in charge of Siân’s treatment, gave us the latest in a succession of scan results. Medical science could no longer help Siân, except – perhaps – to take the edge off acute and constant pain. “This is where I say goodbye,” he said.
It was almost exactly five years to the day after Siân – who is probably the only person I know who has never smoked a cigarette – was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the ensuing years, she never despaired or resorted to self-pity, even as the cancer spread, on a couple of occasions to the brain, later to the liver and spine. The cycle of surgery, body-racking chemicals and radiation was relentless. Life became punctuated by terrible shocks and emergencies. Yet those who met her at pretty much any point in this ordeal encountered the Siân they had always known: solicitous, supportive, witty, insightful, unselfish.
Through the sheer force of her will, Siân remained poised and beautiful. She eschewed drama. Most of our friends had no idea how ill she really was. Siân did not wish to be seen by others as someone who was suffering from a lethal cancer. She did not want to be classified as infirm and she did not need maudlin sympathy. The priority was that our boys, Max and Simon, should not be constantly bothered and worried by friends and neighbours asking for the latest prognosis on her health. Siân just got on with living.
Her huge, magnificent novel McNaughten – which for me is the last great Victorian novel, a symphony of fantastical stories, rich in disquisitions on the absurdity of life – was written when Siân’s illness had become for us just one of those things. I know this may seem odd, but these were wonderful years for Siân, Max, Simon and me. The cancer did not haunt us. If anything, it helped us to understand what matters in life: family, first and foremost; work that fulfils; friends, beauty and fun.
By the time Siân was completing A Commonplace Killing, the cancer could no longer be confined to the background. It was a monster laying waste to our family. Siân was being turned into an invalid, in almost unimaginable pain most of the time. For her, what was perhaps worse was that she was being robbed of her ability to take care of those she loved. Even so, Siân somehow put what I might euphemistically describe as her personal cares to one side, and got down to finishing her book. This probably seems slightly bonkers, given the overwhelming and unstoppable facts of her mortal illness. But she (and I) had an important if not wholly rational conviction that where there is life there is hope, that there is no point living in constant fear, and that there is an almost moral imperative not to be ground down by circumstances, even if those circumstances are an express train thundering in our direction.
Writing for Siân was not work but part of who she was. I kept letters that she wrote to me when we were at university more than 30 years ago and when we were too-briefly a couple in our very early 20s (we were then apart for a dozen years). Here is funny, beautiful and fizzing 18-year-old Siân, not long out of the local comp (like me), writing to me at Balliol College, Oxford from Sussex University:
“I’ve been concentrating on a new theory of political power and ideology, a bit outside my scope of course, although I do have ‘O’ Level sociology. The crux of my theory is that the ruling class maintain power because they are ‘softies’, not exactly homosexuals or anything, but – you know – they read books and newspapers like The Times and listen to classical music, etc, all of which the average oppressed individual, because of ingrained social attitudes, regards as a bit ‘wet’, thus preventing him from ever attaining any position of power. His own undeveloped tastes are of course amply catered for by the media (weapon of the ruling class by which they perpetrate the ideology suited to the status quo), which tells them… that those attributes which are conducive to political power are ‘a bit wet’.
“I gleaned this theory from compulsive reading of The Beano, which portrays the class struggle in such terms, especially in the characterisation of Dennis the Menace (proletarian) and Walter ‘the Softie’ (surely a future member of the elite – en route for a university career and possibly a political career afterwards). Walter is seen as the butt of all Dennis’s pranks – mystifying the real area of oppression represented only in the slippering Dennis receives from his father at the end of each strip: implying that it is wrong to make fun of the elite, at the same time as putting Dennis the Menace over as a real ‘working-class hero’ – but (ironically) not in the revolutionary sense, for Dennis is oppressed by his behaviour to Walter, which is symptomatic of the attitude that the elite are ‘soft’ and the working classes want nothing to do with them or their means of power.
“I hope all this is of some use to you PPE students at Oxford.”
Siân’s own family background was more Menace than Softie. On one side, they had been tenant dairy farmers in west Wales for hundreds of years, never wealthy, although respectable and respectful. Others of her forbears were more working class, from south Wales, and horse dealers from Essex. Her own childhood was 1960s bohemian: a mercurial and irascible actor father who bolted, no money to spare, stability provided by devoted and adored grandparents, Nanny and Bumby. To a large extent, Siân and her younger sister Nicole had to bring themselves up. From a pretty early age, as far as I can gather, Siân was clear that escape from the shackles of birth meant trying to emulate Walter the Softie: I have never met anyone as well read or brainy, nor with such enduring passion for self-improvement, as Siân.
What she made of herself was beyond the hopes and dreams of her antecedents. Her Bumby was a hatter, who latterly specialised in novelty fairground hats; she was told by her grandmother that a bright girl like her could do very well as secretary and Girl Friday to a City gent. Siân had just enough confidence, encouraged by friends such as my own parents (she was a school friend of my sister Juliet), to be more ambitious for herself, and she became the first of her line to go to university. But she was not interested in conventional power, or fame or glory, about which she was scathing. All she ever wanted to do was make things. She was an artist.
After university, Siân spent 20 years as a maker of arts films and television documentaries, interspersed with dancing in avant garde cabaret, making learned exhibitions and creating ambitious “immersive” events long before that became fashionable (with a group of talented artists, collectively called 2Step, most of whom were strong self-deprecating women like herself). It was not till 2000, when the BBC and Channel 4 were no longer commissioning enough serious arts programmes to sustain a full-time career in filming operas and ballets, that Siân discovered what I had always seen as her proper vocation: writing.
Although the style and content of her five books – A Wonderful Little Girl, Boudicca, The Cruel Mother, McNaughten and An Uncommon Killing – are dizzyingly diverse, they are a recognisable family. Madness, depression and the hard-to-fathom workings of the human mind are recurring themes. The history of her own forebears is explicit in one book, The Cruel Mother, and implicit in the rest. The places where she (and I) grew up and have lived are usually recognisable, if transplanted to an earlier age. Or to put it another way, the books are all conspicuously Siân.
In a way, A Commonplace Killing is the most Siân of all. The story was sparked by a sordid murder that happened in Holloway shortly after the end of the Second World War. She had been told about it by Nanny and Bumby. For several years, she had talked to me about how she felt there was a book to be made from her memory of a scandal that was still being discussed in her family when we were children in the 1960s. The north London she depicts is a London that she and I remember from our childhoods: when we were growing up, bomb sites remained relatively commonplace; Holloway, Islington and Camden were places not of multi-million pound homes for investment bankers but of relative squalor and poverty; rationing may have long since disappeared, but our parents talked of the war as a comparatively recent event.
I think Siân was determined to finish this novel partly to prove her victory over her illness, and partly because she would have thought of it as honouring her past, especially Nanny and Bumby. It was the second week of August that she tied up the loose ends. It was a characteristically blustery summer day in west Wales. Siân sat, feet tucked under her bottom – as neat, elegant and self-contained as ever – on the sofa of our small flat overlooking the Aberystwyth prom, alternating her gaze between the spume of glorious Cardigan Bay and her notebook.
Given the advanced state of her illness, it was remarkable that she had the energy to work for as long as she did. But it was not for another five weeks, till the weekend of 15 September, that I was brave enough to read her manuscript and could marvel at her victory over devastating circumstance. Because her final reflections, written without sentimentality, and not mawkish or maudlin in any way, are about the imminence of death and how so many of us waste our talents and our time on earth. And although there is the melancholy and shadows of the flickering flame, there is also a faith in a better life that has been tested but not broken.
Siân was neither ready for her own death nor reconciled to it. Very occasionally she grumbled against the palpable unfairness, but she was courageous and stoical to an extent that tested my credulity. Close to the end, after we had returned from Aberystwyth to the north London that shaped us, Siân endured a restless, troubled night in the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead. I was with her all the time, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She was never once hysterical; she was dignified and calm throughout the worsening nightmare. But having been pressed by the consultant who visited her one morning very close to the end, she conceded that she experienced night-time anxieties about never again waking up. Minutes after Dr Lodge left us, she turned to me. “Did I tell the doctor I was frightened of dying?”, she asked in a weak voice, eyes barely able to open. “He must think I am really stupid.”
And there is the authentic voice of the woman I loved for most of my conscious life (we became friends as teenagers although it was not till we were in our mid-30s that I finally did the one really inspired thing I have ever done, which was to ask her to live with me and then marry me). She was the most brilliant, caring, humane and loving person I have met. And funny. I miss her all the time.
Siân Busby’s final novel, A Commonplace Killing, will be a Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 next month
Robert Peston is donating his fee for this article to the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, the UK’s only significant lung cancer charity.
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