2020 Vision, 17 September, 06:30
Andy makes tea while I lounge in bed. We’re enjoying a lazy morning. Our flight from Mallorca arrived late the previous evening. I switch on the TV news. Time to catch up on what’s been happening in our absence.
The image is familiar. Surely that’s Paula’s house? PAULA YATES. PAULA YATES. Her name scrolls across the picture. DEAD. DEAD. DEAD. Paramedics carry a stretcher from the premises, a body bag. When Andy returns, he finds me breathless, speechless. I gesture at the screen. Slowly he understands and he too loses motor functions, sitting down right where he is, head in hands.
It may seem strange, almost indulgent, to revisit ancient grief when there’s so much that’s fresh and raw, yet for some of us, Paula’s death—two decades ago this very day—has never lost its sting. Earlier this year, with Andy in intensive care, seriously ill but still expected to live, I cancelled every commitment but one. The Globe Theatre had commissioned me to write and perform a piece about Paula for its series of staged monologues, Notes to the Forgotten She-Wolves. A few days later I told the director I couldn’t make it. On January 29th the great Stella Duffy, who had known Paula, performed the piece in my stead. On February 1st, Andy died.
What vibrant memories he took with him, not least of this vibrant woman. The circle of those who loved Paula and remember the truth of her turbulent final years continues to contract. We are so few now. Which of us shall speak for her? The answer: probably none, apart from in small, controlled ways such as this post. In writing and memorising my Globe piece, I finally confronted my grief for her, made all the sharper by its long tail of family sorrow and the certainty that this 20th anniversary would be marked not by appreciation for her but a continuation of the toxic coverage that rendered this brilliant, complex, hilarious woman as a cartoon figure. This wasn’t accidental. The media didn’t just get Paula wrong. Editors and hacks, columnists and paps deliberately diminished her. There is no reason to believe that they would not do so again, for all the same reasons. She ticked every misogynistic box and some feminists who should have defended her, or at least recognised in her a victim of the same oppressions they felt and fought, collaborated in pulling her down, mistaking her for a collaborator rather than a trailblazer. She was transgressive, a groundbreaking broadcaster and prolific writer. She will be remembered today, if at all, for tits and tragedy.
Her best friend Jo messaged me earlier. Paula “got off lightly with the anniversary utterly overshadowed by ongoing virus missteps”. That’s a small consolation. If any journalists reading this wish to honour Paula, don’t attempt to coax Jo or me on to your shows (we won’t participate) or rip off quotes from this blog, much less recycle tired old lies or tired old talking heads who have parlayed the briefest of acquaintances with her into supposed expertise.
Think about how women in the public eye are still, 20 years on, traduced by the media and why—and find ways to do better.
Peaches and Paula, Christmas 1996
©Catherine Mayer 2020