The first time I met Dawn Foster, who has died at the age of thirty-four, she chatted to my then-one-year-old daughter like she was an old friend, and was thrilled when she found out they shared the same September birthday. We were staying at the same fancy hotel in Bristol for work, and we had arranged to meet for breakfast after I’d sent her an email to tell her how glad I was to see someone writing from a left-wing, working-class perspective in national media. It was all a bit incongruous — the bleary middle-aged parents and the tall young woman whose startling blue-green eyes twinkled when she nipped off for a ciggie — but I knew we’d made a friend when she carried on merrily chatting about mutual friends and irritants while having bits of boiled egg thrown at her from across the table. (And that was just my husband — badoom-tish — which is exactly what I’d text her now if she were here.)
From that point on, my daughter’s birthday was also ‘Dawn’s birthday’ — we’d send her a card reminding her of the double celebration. Not that she needed reminding. She loved children, and she loved people in general — because of, rather than in spite of, her experiences, it always seemed to me. In the six short years we knew each other, I came to know enough about what she had been through in childhood and adolescence to find not only her resilience but her total lack of self-pity a source of wonder and succour. She wanted not just to survive but to thrive in the life she made for herself.
She did this by choosing to harness her anger as a source of positive energy: not only for herself but for everyone who needed it. Her background wasn’t just working-class, it was in many ways truly marginal: disrupted and dishevelled by periods spent in care, changes of school, and domestic experiences so malign they might have destroyed her. Above all, her milieu was one of hardship. Even as her writing career took off, she worked her way around poverty rather than out of it, all the while knowing she was likely to be in debt from student loans for most of her life. For this reason, she never let go of the insight that much of her early suffering had been avoidable. She never got comfortable enough to forget that poverty is a political choice inflicted by those who don’t live in it.
Dawn’s rage at this fact gave her what the poet Paul Farley, in reference to his own trajectory from Liverpool council estate to professorship, has termed the ‘escape velocity’ needed to overcome the carousel of economic and sociocultural traps that keep working-class people in their place. A scholarship to Warwick — a plate-glass university with an Oxbridge complex — gave her that ticket, but its cruelties didn’t leave her unmarked. We once gave a talk together about social mobility where Dawn related how, as a student on a bursary, she was invited to a special reception intended to make students from nontraditional backgrounds feel welcome. In conversation with a member of staff, she exposed her Newport accent and was told she’d never get anywhere unless she changed the way she spoke. Such indignities might have curdled her outlook into bitterness; other people might have packed up and gone home the same day, and you wouldn’t have blamed them. Instead, she modulated as much as she needed to and used the slight as fuel.
We bonded over a mutual compulsion to place the experiences of working-class individuals in their proper context, in a media landscape that talks over and about working-class people. We were both sick to death of seeing reporting on politics and social affairs that was as dangerous as it was careless, written by people comfortable enough to assume that indignation is the same thing as anger. Dawn was a committed reader of scholarship by figures such as the late Doreen Massey, Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and the spatial geographer Danny Dorling, whose work seeks to make sense of inequalities as they are lived in place and time; she did this with such passion and understanding that when she came to write, her synthesis of ideas and experience seemed effortless.
This was nowhere more in evidence than on the morning of 14 June 2017, when she awoke to the news that Grenfell Tower was on fire with many of its residents trapped inside. She went straight to the building from her home in South London and stayed for as long as she could stand up, taking notes, reporting, and talking to and helping local residents.
‘If one tenant gets rehoused out of borough I’ll fucking go after them,’ she wrote to me in a text that day — referring, without question, to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to Theresa May’s minority government, and to anyone who had had the power and influence to prevent seventy-two people dying in the worst possible circumstances. As far as she saw it, the ‘crime’ of living in a council tower block had been punished by death: the very definition of social murder.
Dawn’s reporting on Grenfell Tower won her a regular column in the Guardian’s opinion pages, in addition to the regular column she had in the paper’s Society section. Two days after the fire, she wrote in the Guardian: ‘The issue certain people have with tower blocks is not safety, but the fact that poor people live in them, that they exist at all.’ She knew this because, possibly uniquely among anyone reporting on the fire for national media, she herself had grown up in one.
For a while, it felt not only that everything she deserved and had worked for was coming to fruition but that — for once — a prominent platform had been awarded to someone precisely on the basis of their unique and crucial perspective, rather than because they were a comfy fit. Dawn was able, all too briefly, to add her voice to the vanishingly small number of national columnists — their ranks now further reduced by the peerless Gary Younge’s move into academia — who actually got it.
Journalists in training are reminded that their role is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. That is precisely what Dawn sought to do with every piece of writing she did, whether it was reporting on child hunger, free schools, the long-term effects of selling off council housing, or the disastrous impact of universal credit. Her columns laid out, at once patiently and furiously, the moral bankruptcy of those seeking to delegitimise the Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell project. In other words, she articulated the needs and wishes of people who can’t afford not to hope, and she aimed with everything she wrote to give people — herself included — something to hope for.
Clearly, that couldn’t be allowed to happen. In mid-2019, I noticed that she hadn’t been in the paper for a while and assumed she was ill, so I texted her to see how she was. ‘Sacked,’ she replied, typically to the point. It emerged that she had written a piece, about Labour’s then-deputy leader Tom Watson, that had so upset the paper’s gatekeepers that they decided she couldn’t be kept on. All she’d done was to point out that his boss had come within inches of winning the previous election with the kind of democratic socialist policies that people rightfully associate with, and expect from, a democratic socialist party. Wouldn’t it be better if the deputy leader of that party worked to ensure victory next time, rather than creating the conditions for its catastrophic loss?
The Guardian’s discomfort with Dawn’s perspective — a paper to which I’ve contributed, as a freelance writer, for fifteen years — revealed its institutional classism. Its editors’ failure to recognise the significance of including that perspective, and to do whatever it took to support her, to maintain lines of communication, and simply to accept the existence of blunt, angry people with extremely good reason to be blunt and angry, is proof of that. It’s also bad business: not everyone is a liberal, not everyone who reads the Guardian is well-off, and there is a large constituency of young, well-informed readers who — how to put this? — could do without being told that Jess Phillips speaks for them.
As with any other long-established, powerful institution, the paper has tacit rules and structures that serve to maintain its small-l liberal homeostasis. This is what is so painful: I have no doubt that, with better health and a level of support from her employer that recognised the sheer difficulty of her circumstances, never mind the value of sticking a firework up some middle-class arses once in a while, Dawn would have been able to continue making and building on her contribution. She always had ideas — good, illuminating ones — on the go, which will never see fruition in her own words.
Dawn and I had a fair amount in common apart from a nerdish devotion to the social sciences: a shared South Welsh/Irish heritage via peri-urban council estates; swearing; and a deep love for Liverpool, my adoptive home city. Whenever we met up in Liverpool, you could see Dawn revel in its doolally joie de vivre, its Irishness, its Catholicism, and the simple fact that it’s a place where being a socialist doesn’t make you a weirdo. Dawn had all these attributes in spades, so it’s no wonder she loved it.
Still, there were multitudes contained in her life and character that I doubt I’d ever have gotten to know. We lived in different cities, we were twelve years apart in age, and I can’t drink more than a pint and a half without falling asleep. But in some way, we were kindred: she inspired me, and I was energised by the way she inspired so many others. I felt meek and cautious standing next to her — she was about a foot taller than me, for one thing — but braver after spending time in her company. Dawn is irreplaceable, but we can seek to emulate her extraordinary compassion and feeling for others’ suffering, and to do something about it. She had every excuse not to, but she still did. So should we.