John Burrow—Diana Wynne Jones’ lovely husband—rang me up about two months ago and said they were doing a memorial service for her, and would I speak at it? Only five minutes, he said, there would be several speakers. My first impulse was to say no—of course I wanted to come, but I wasn’t sure I could speak. I asked if I could think it over. And then rang him back and said yes.
It was today. It has been looming rather awfully in my mind this past week—especially after I found out it was going to take six earth spirits and a papal intervention to make the journey happen: British Rail shuts down on weekends. They put up a lot of ‘works’ signs and claim to be laying on buses to cover the suspended routes . . . but in fact they all go to Blackpool and eat ice-creams (in the summer) and play poker (in the winter) and standard rail disservice begins again Monday morning. The line I used to take when I was visiting Diana that last year wasn’t running at all and everything else seemed to be bristling with warnings and delays and dubious ‘status’.
But we got there. Cathy came along but spent the day being a tourist. (She had such a good time we may have to do it together on her next visit.) I spent about three hours listening to some of the people who loved Diana talk about her, and watching the slide show of her life that her family had put together for background. During the tea break when you went downstairs there was a gigantic circular tower made of copies of her books, and Photostats of handwritten manuscript pages, and the sight of her handwriting made my heart turn over.
It was very simple. There were about twenty of us who spoke, and in a group that large, you’re going to have one or two duds. We didn’t have any duds*. That in itself seems to me to say something pretty remarkable about the people Diana attracted. There were clips from the film of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE** and from interviews with Diana. The composer of a ballet based on BLACK MARIA (AUNT MARIA in the States) played an excerpt. All three of her sons spoke.
I had to hare out of there and back to the train station almost as soon as it was over, because I wanted to make the long drive home in daylight. And I’m so shattered I may not get out of bed at all tomorrow.***
But I’m glad I went. And this is what I said:
* * *
Diana was my first real writer friend—or perhaps I remember her as first because she is such a blazing star in my memory. I shifted publishers between my first book and my second, and my new editor, Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow Books, asked me if I knew Diana Wynne Jones’ work. This was in the early ‘80s, and Diana wasn’t yet well known in America. Susan had brought out CHARMED LIFE a year or two before. She thrust a copy in my hands. ‘You will like this,’ she said.
That was an understatement. I was in the book’s thrall by the end of the first paragraph—and in Diana’s for life. I moved to New York City shortly after the mind-altering experience of my first Diana Wynne Jones book and Susan, bless her, invited me to meet Diana the next time she was in town. Diana wouldn’t have had to be half the charming and fascinating human being she was to knock me over. But she was that charming and fascinating—even goofy with jet lag and culture shock. She was manifestly a wizard of enormous powers.
I remember the first time toiling up the vertical slope to the house she, her husband and three sons lived in, here in Bristol, and thinking—dimly, through the roar of the blood in my ears—that it was of course suitable that a wizard of enormous powers lived on a mountain. (I also remember them taking me downhill to their local, and falling off my bar stool. Even the beer was stronger when Diana sat on the next stool.)
There were long hiatuses in our relationship because I was a better worshipper than I was a friend. But she was always there, wise and funny, intimidatingly well-read and terrifyingly intelligent—and there were the books, the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful books. I have a game I play with my favourite authors—I don’t read their newest book till the next one comes out. I won’t be able to play that game with Diana any more.
I live only about two hours away by train (except on Sundays, when it becomes three or four). I came here several times, the last year of Diana’s life, and she fed me lunch. I’m as tricky to feed as she was, and she catered to my oddities with kindness and aplomb. One of my favourite memories of those visits was the lemon meringue unpie: she found out I loved lemon meringue pie, but could no longer eat flour. And so the unpie was born: a glorious great tureen of lemon meringue, tactfully missing out the crust.
I think we may all be little children about the people we love. It is easy to say ‘I can’t believe she’s gone’, and the phrase is a cliché because it has been true so often, of so many much-loved people. I find myself thinking that if maybe I don’t read that last book, the one I can’t read till the next one comes out, maybe, somehow, she won’t be gone, because she’ll have to write that next book for me, for all of us.
* * *
One of Diana’s sisters read the first chapter of the book Diana left unfinished when she died. It’s amazing. It’s—it’s one of Diana’s opening chapters, that grab you and make the world go away because you’re wholly caught by the world on the page. We can’t not know what happens. . . .
* * *
* Okay, spare my blushes and all, but I can give a speech with embarrassing anyone. Probably.
** Which I still haven’t seen because it’s not the book.
*** I have to hurtle hounds, sing, and ring bells. Feh. Cathy has offered to wake me up by singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ and I suggested that if she wants to live. . . .
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