Wednesday 7 December 2016

A serious life touched by tragedy but dedicated to happiness

The Irish-born author who died last week believed in 'catching life by the throat', writes Ciara Dwyer

Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00

When I heard the heartbreaking news that Josephine Hart had died on Thursday, I did not think of death but of life; and of the wise words she once said to me -- "You must honour life".

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Mortality made the Mullingar-born writer view life in stark terms, but that was a good thing. She was only too aware that life was short, so just like the title of her book on how to read poetry, she believed in "catching life by the throat". Tragedy had taught her this.

By the time she was 17, three of her siblings had died. When she was six her brother Charles died. He was followed some years later by her sister Sheila, who suffered brain damage as a result of meningitis and was paralysed from the age of two. Within 12 months, her brother Owen died in an explosion while he was experimenting with chemicals.

"It was as if a cleaver came down," she said. "What happened back then has made me very serious in my daily life. I know it sounds incredibly pompous but I am a hundred per cent certain that it is right to live seriously. You cannot tell yourself any lies about the way you live your life.

"As we are sitting here, people are losing their lives who do not wish to die. That is one of the things we forget all the time. There are terrible accidents which take you away in a second and there are also long battles which are lost, so you must honour life. That doesn't mean you must live what they call 'the high life' -- I've never been interested in that -- but that you honour life and its deepest experiences because if you don't, it robs death of its dignity. You have to step up to living properly."

That is what her parents did.

"If your parents are able to survive suffering, it gives you the most profound strength. The magnificence of my parents was that they behaved with such dignity and courage. Later, I understood a line which Primo Levi said -- 'You have a duty to happiness'. That's what my parents did. It was a different form of happiness but it was a pure commitment to life on the basis that life must be lived. You can die from a broken heart, and it got close, but they decided it was morally wrong because they had children and they also had each other, and they had to honour the lives that had been lost. Unbelievably, they pulled themselves back from the abyss and they didn't stay burdened down with feelings of despair. They were incredibly happy afterwards."

And so it was with Josephine. She spoke with such zeal that the air around her was charged. There much laughter, too, and I can still see her penetrating blue eyes lit with glee when I told her of the reader who had written into the paper following an interview with her. Never mind the tragedies, the reader was dying to know who did the wooden floors in her kitchen. "That's hilarious, I must tell M," she said, referring to her husband, Maurice Saatchi.

Josephine told me that she never believed in polite lies. When I asked her if she was always so ruthlessly honest about her feelings, she replied with: "There isn't time for very much else, is there?"

She fumed about The Good Friday Agreement, especially the deals to release prisoners early. "What lesson was taught if you go out and blow women and children to pieces out of love for a cause and five years later you may very well be free? What are you saying to terrorists all over the world? I agree that they should bring terrorists in to talks but I disagree with the absolution. It seems to me that no one on either side has stood up and said 'mea culpa'. There is no truth on either side and they call it truth and reconciliation? They were given absolution by themselves."

Josephine was born on March 1, 1942, in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. At her convent school at Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan she was encouraged by the nuns to recite verse at Irish festivals.

By the age of 12 she could recite Shakespeare's sonnets, poems by Yeats, Eliot and Auden, and lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins and her Mother Superior's favourite couplet from Walter de la Mare's The Listeners: "'Tell them I came and no one answered,/That I kept my word,' he said."

In 1964, she left Mullingar for London where she worked in telesales before

moving on to Haymarket Publishing. It was there that she met Maurice Saatchi, who became her second husband. (She had a son, Adam, from her first marriage, which was later dissolved, to publisher Paul Buckley.)

She interviewed Maurice, and for a spell she was his boss, before he left to set up the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi with his brother Charles. (She had a son Edward with Maurice.) She later went into theatre production. For many years, Josephine shied away from the creative world, thinking it too emotionally dangerous. (The family tragedies had changed her.) But she was forever writing in her head. One day Maurice asked her to go into a room for two hours and told her that she wouldn't die if she wrote. Then he would take her out for lunch. That was how it all started. Her first novel, Damage, was a huge success.

"I wanted to write seriously about sexual matters, "she said. "I've never written about 'her marvellous thighs' or 'his wonderful body' because I think that's completely irrelevant.

"I was interested in the psychology of sex and why you lose yourself in the erotic world. All around we see families go to pieces because of it. My novels all have moral tales -- you do this, and this is what happens."

Maurice continued to be wonderfully encouraging, especially when she later did the hugely successful poetry readings in the British Library.

I attended one on Auden and it was thrilling.

On first meeting Josephine, her constant uniform of black made me think she was austere, but she was warm, wise and very funny. Her language was highly dramatic. "Poetry puts me into a state of ecstasy" were her opening words.

She told me that writing had made her "a calmer person", but that calm was relative. She could flare up pretty quickly, she confessed, and no one would ever describe her as a pussycat. She told her sons: "If you marry a temperamental woman you'll have no problem because you brought your mother up. That's the way it goes. Motherhood isn't hard work but it's hard for the children to put up with you. I'm stunned by their wisdom and maturity and dazzled by my own lack of expertise."

Leaving Josephine, her lessons in life always lingered in my head.

"As you grow older, "she said, "you know your own soul and sometimes that's a very terrible thing to know. There's no escape. Therefore each year, everything you do, you should do carefully because there's no escape from self knowledge later on."

Josephine, who died on Thursday aged 69, imbued us with her passion for poetry and her love of life. It was a privilege to have known her. I shall miss my dear friend.

Other Obituaries, Page 31

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