Deborah Orr, award-winning journalist

Born: September 23, 1962;

Died: October 19, 2019

DEBORAH Orr, who has died aged 57, was one of the UK’s finest, wittiest and most hard-hitting journalists of her generation. She was best-known for her often-radical but inspirational columns in The Guardian and The Independent and was editor of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine from 1993-98. She was a sought-after contributor to magazines and other publications from Radio Times to The Gentlewoman and was also a regular expert commentator on TV and radio news shows.

As a columnist, her beat was limitless but she most loved getting her teeth stuck into social, political, personal and women’s issues. “Homeless people are stuck in the streets once again,” she wrote. “The services of food banks have never been more in demand. People with mental and physical illnesses or disabilities are dying for want of care, or even heat. The NHS has been plunged into a financial and staffing crisis. The teaching profession is struggling once more with a re-jigged exam system, and is bracing itself for a further squeeze on budgets. Our prison service is a series of riots waiting to happen.” And more recently: “Brexit is like deciding you are going to cure cancer by giving up membership of your golf club.”

In the offices of The Guardian and The Independent, she knew how to put or keep male colleagues in their place. Her working class Motherwell background came in handy in 2001 when a hooded intruder, who turned out to be a woman, broke into her terraced house in Stockwell, south London. Ms Orr fought her off after a violent tussle and later wrote in The Independent: “I feel sad for her, but I’m glad we caught her … I want to meet her, try to get her to understand how it feels to have such a violation visited on one’s home and one’s children.”

Deborah Jane Orr was born in a tenement flat in Motherwell on September 23, 1962, to working class parents who, she later wrote, “made so many self-centred demands.” Her father John was a Scot who worked in the then-throbbing Anderson Boyes factory in Flemington, Motherwell, making cutting machines for the Lanarkshire coal industry. Her mother Win (Winifred, née Avis) was an Essex girl her father had met and married during a spell as a postman in southern England. Her childhood neighbourhood was rough but she found a safer world – “and civilization,” as she recalled - within the cream sandstone Edwardian walls of the Motherwell Carnegie Library.

When she was 11, her tenement building was demolished and she, her brother David and their parents were shipped to a new housing estate. She then went to the brand new Garrion Academy in Wishaw, later to become Clyde Valley High School, where she excelled. It was when she opted to study English at St Andrew’s that problems with her mother peaked. The latter wanted her to stay in the domestic orbit, to “get a man” and be a housewife.

That relationship is at the heart of her memoir Motherwell: a Girlhood, to be published in January, in which she writes: “Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do.”

At St Andrew’s, with her Clyde Valley accent, she at first found herself somewhat out of place among what she called “England’s hunting, shooting and fishing crowd,” she wrote last year. “Even now, my strong, working-class, regional accent will be referred to pointedly … and I’ll feel obliged to respond with a rousing round of ‘Muuuurrrduuur’, in the manner of Detective Taggart. It’s either that or a Glasgow kiss.”

After graduating MA in 1983, despite her mother’s pleading, she headed south where she started in journalism with City Limits, an alternative weekly event listings and arts magazine for London, and as film critic for the political and cultural weekly The New Statesman. In 1990, she was hired by The Guardian where, in 1993, she became the first female editor of its Weekend magazine and later its literary editor. In 1999 she moved to The Independent as a columnist, but returned to The Guardian in 2009, writing a column for the paper for nearly a decade. In 2018 she joined the i, the newspaper remnant of the now-digital Independent.

She co-created the 2012 play Enquirer, about the paper-to-digital transformation of her beloved profession, which had a successful run for the National Theatre of Scotland at The Hub at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay.

In 1997, she married the writer Will Self, a troublesome relationship since her writing was often considered better in style and content than his. They had two sons but separated in 2015 before an acrimonious divorce was completed in 2017. She had just moved to a new home in Brighton when cancer, first diagnosed a decade ago, returned with a vengeance two months ago and only a few days ago was found to have septicaemia.

On October 1, she tweeted: “I live in Brighton now! Safely here! I did it! I got my new life!” An October 7 tweet, however, said: “Very ill with septicaemia. Need quiet now please. Thank you.”

Deborah Orr is survived by her sons Ivan and Luther, and stepchildren Alexis and Madeleine.