Friday 20 September 2019

Her candle burned at both ends - it gave a lovely light

Gillian Bowler. Photo: David Conachy
Gillian Bowler. Photo: David Conachy

Madeleine Keane

In nearly 40 years of knowing her, I only ever met one person who didn't like Gillian Bowler.

When I pressed him for his reasons, he told me she was very rude to him at a dinner party we had all attended once upon a time.

I pointed out to him that as he had actually tried to set her hair on fire (that lustrous chestnut mane) at said party, her effrontery was justified.

It would have been easy to be jealous of Gill - she was beautiful, intelligent and sensational fun - but she was such a courageous and decent person that she was simply impossible to dislike.

Initially, though, she infuriated me. As a teenager my heart would sink when I would hear my mother Terry saying "I'm off to lunch with Gill" because I knew mayhem would ensue. It invariably did and I always blamed Gill. To be fair, there was probably a pair of them in it. They were the greatest of friends and my mother was touched and thrilled to be one of only two witnesses at her intimate London wedding to the great love of her life, Harry Sydner.

So it was a poignant symmetry for my sisters and I to pay our final respects to Gill yesterday at the same chapel where eight years ago we said goodbye to our mother.

Gill wasn't there that desolate day. Ill in the south of France, she tried to insist on hiring an air ambulance to attend Terry's obsequies. Sense prevailed and when Gill finally recovered, the four of us had an unforgettable dinner of tears, laughter and unprintable anecdotes at the Pearl Brasserie.

Part of her appeal was her ability to combine a serious work ethic with an eager capacity to play too. December was always a frantic month for her - juggling the production of Budget Travel's spring catalogues with a very busy social life. But even coming to a party straight from the office, she was always on time, looking gorgeous and no matter how late the revelries, she'd be bright-eyed and at her desk early the next day, though always able to find time to ring for an entertaining debrief about the previous evening.

She was extraordinarily generous, too - her wedding present to me was our magical honeymoon in Cyprus - "the island of love, Madeleine," she explained.

Though she was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman, bliss for Gill was the Friday bolt from her Baggot Street office to the bucolic retreat she and Harry created near a long, quiet Wexford beach, where the weekend was all about reading, cooking and endless walks with her beloved dogs. Needless to say, she was an avid sun worshipper and I remember one Easter, we were all staying with her there when a feeble spring sun poked its rays out for an hour and she and Terry instantly got into their bikinis.

Literature was one of her greatest pleasures. I last saw her during the summer and gave her a pile of new novels which she received with childlike delight - indeed, our final words were about books. She read widely though she mostly enjoyed literary fiction (the South African novelist Andre Brink was a great favourite), biography and poetry.

Perhaps a result of her many jousts with serious illness, Gill lived life with exceptional verve, passion and energy.

Edna St Vincent Millay's famous poem First Fig came straight to mind when I heard of her death. (Strangely when I was told the very upsetting news, though I was indoors and it is winter, my sunglasses were perched on my head).

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!

Darling Gill. You gave us such lovely light. We will miss you very much.

May you rest in peace.

Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane is books editor of the Sunday Independent

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