Thursday 22 August 2019

Obituary: Jessica Berens

Inspiring writer-in-residence at Dartmoor Prison who wrote a witty book

Jessica Berens, who has died aged 59, was at various times a journalist, author, charity worker and writer-in-residence at the notoriously tough Dartmoor Prison.

An eccentric and inspiring presence, she was known for her wit, her incisive writing, her elaborate dress sense, her knitting and her impatience.

As social editor for the British style bible Tatler at the age of 21, she would ride to parties on a motorbike wearing a borrowed Bellville Sassoon ball gown, then straight from jamboree to office to write a castigating report on the revellers.

She later worked on Tina Brown's Vanity Fair, but gradually she became disillusioned with journalism and turned to writing books and working for charities which specialised in addiction and helping prisoners' families.

She became a writer-in-residence at Dartmoor prison, where she ran creative writing classes for the prisoners and started a magazine, listened to their stories, handed out biscuits, and attempted to alleviate the suffocating boredom by encouraging the inmates to be creative. Her superbly observant and often funny book, Short Sentence: Three years in Dartmoor Prison, was published in 2016.

Jessica Berens was born in Kensington on April 19, 1959, the daughter of the journalist Richard Berens, who edited the William Hickey column on the Daily Express, and Araminta Yarde-Buller, who worked for the Burnbake Trust, which provides donated essential household goods to local people in need.

Jessica was educated at Hatherop Castle, followed by Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire. Her parents split up when she was four; her mother married the literary agent Michael Russell and the family moved to Wilton, near Salisbury. Jessica Berens later became estranged from her father.

After school she became a trainee reporter on the Slough and Windsor Express, and in 1981 she got a job at Tatler, which was then edited by the young Tina Brown. It was the magazine's heyday: Michael Roberts was the fashion editor - from him, Berens said, she learnt everything she needed to know about thinking creatively. Craig Brown and Jonathan Meades were staff writers. Jessica Berens remained a contributing editor at Tatler but in 1984 went to New York to join Tina Brown and Michael Roberts who were by now at Vanity Fair. Next came a role at Bob Guccione's Spin magazine, writing about pop culture and gossip, where she interviewed the likes of Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

She returned to Tatler in 1989 as features editor. Jessica Berens was a witty and rigorous writer and reporter - her profiles of the (late) drug-addled Marquess of Bristol and Nigel Dempster were legendary.

She believed that it is always better "to receive an injunction than a box of chocolates" after an article was published. But she soon became disenchanted, and resigned from Tatler in 1990. She wrote two novels, Queen of the Witches (1993) and The Highwayman (1998) and edited an anthology with Kerri Sharp, Inappropriate Behaviour: Prada Sucks and other Demented Descants (2002).

In 1994 her flat in Shepherd's Bush burnt down, after being entrusted to a housesitter who lit an ill-advised candle, and Jessica Berens moved to Spain for a while, where she had a small wreck of a house near Salamanca.

Then to California in 1996, where she worked on another book and enjoyed exploring the seedy underside of Los Angeles. She supplemented her income by writing erotic novels under a pseudonym, and after returning to England she continued to freelance - contributing pieces to GQ magazine, including a memorable interview with Peter Cook.

Eventually, however, she gave up journalism completely and turned to the charity sector. For two years she worked for RAPt - the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (now the Forward Trust) - and then for a charity devoted to helping prisoners' wives and families. She also volunteered for Amnesty International.

In 2002 she moved into a cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon, owned by the Hosking Trust, which helps writers. "Writing a novel is, in fact, an experience so ghastly that you should not wish it on yourself, your friends, your relatives or anyone about whom you care," she wrote.

"Writing a novel is to experience long days of nothingness where anxiety, ennui and embarrassing ignorance all arrive at your door with the sound of jeering."

Jessica Berens had long suffered from depression and addiction. Last year she wrote an article for The Telegraph about the suicide of her close friend Lucy Ferry: "We had both suffered from the effects of very dysfunctional fathers... and, having felt abandoned, we became abandoned, before straightening out with a 12-step programme which allowed us to identify our emotions and express them."

In 2012 she moved to Tavistock and became writer-in-residence at Dartmoor Prison, where she ran creative writing classes and a prison magazine, Tor Views. The resulting book, Short Sentence, contains an insightful portrait of life in one of England's ancient run-down prisons, full of fascinating detail about the minutiae of life "inside": the food, the rules, and her teeth-gritting frustration at the bureaucracy she encountered and the limitations of "rehabilitation".

Jessica Berens had great fellow-feeling for the characters she encountered (they called her Jess, or Miss, or sometimes "Guv"), and an ear for amusing dialogue. There was Colin, in for GBH, who asked personal questions persistently, including whether or not she was a lesbian.

"I'm not a lesbian, Colin, as far as I know."

"So why can't we get married then?"

"For reasons far too numerous to list."

At the end of the book she recounts how she once found herself in a gloomy corridor, when the lights had gone out for no reason, escorting a lifer who had been imprisoned for sexual assault in dark alleys. She was nervous, and kept asking: "Why aren't the lights on?"

"Don't worry, Jess," the man replied. "I feel very safe with you."

In 2014 she suffered a life-threatening aneurysm. "The good thing about the brain surgery," she wrote to a friend, "is that I can put on an absurd facial tic in order to annoy people." She recovered and moved to a cottage in Devon where she started knitting with a vengeance, a hobby she had taken up in 2007, and which, she said, gave her more pleasure than writing ever had.

'Twisted Knits', displayed on her Instagram feed, boasted a series of "knitted maniacs" - such as Kim Jong-un, Colonel Gaddafi and Harold Shipman. Some of her work was on show at the Port Eliot Festival in 2016 - including a large knitted terrorist and a somewhat controversial (naked) Anna Wintour in a noose, captioned "Poor Anna - nothing to wear". An exhibition of her knitting had been planned for this year.

Jessica Berens was a contrary, life-enhancing, and slightly abrasive character, much loved by her friends and four godchildren. She never married, but had complicated relationships with men: she had been known to send wreaths to ex-boyfriends.

Beneath her fierce exterior, she was a kind and extremely empathetic person. At the time of her death she was about to start work as a mentor for ex-offenders in Plymouth.

Jessica Berens, who died on March 27, leaves a brother, Thomas, and six half siblings.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top