The journalist Deborah Orr, who has died aged 57 after suffering from cancer, was a strikingly original character, and made an impression in whatever she did. From 1993 to 1998 she proved to be a gifted editor of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, setting a serious tone and a high bar by eschewing trivia in favour of carefully chosen big reads, often on challenging subjects.
However, she made her most public mark as a columnist, one of the small tribe of trenchant writers with the panache to walk the high wire of tackling social, political and personal issues in an engaging manner, week after week, in her case for the next two decades.
The original suggestion came from Simon Kelner, the editor of the Independent. It followed a turbulent period when Orr had served as an unhappy literary editor of the Guardian and left the paper in the wake of the departure of her then husband, the journalist, author and media personality Will Self from its sister paper, the Observer. He was sacked after admitting taking heroin in the toilet of John Major’s plane during the 1997 general election campaign, her plea that he be allowed to resign notwithstanding.
Orr had a loyal following as a columnist at the Independent (1999-2009), then back at the Guardian until its reshaping as a tabloid in 2018, and finally at the i newspaper. Fans appreciated her muscular style and voice. As she led them through an argument to her conclusions, the workings of her mind were visible, and she was not polemical.
She praised the benefits of inner-city life over the suburbs, despite her neighbour being stabbed to death. She was early on to the fact that minor crime was not being checked by policing, resulting in a permissive atmosphere and the increase in knife crime. She highlighted the plight of children’s suffering in a landscape of cuts while courting controversy by sending a son to the fee-paying Dulwich college. Brexit was “like deciding you are going to cure cancer by giving up membership of your golf club”, she opined.
She had an intensity that less assured people and even editors found intimidating: some were fearful of taking her calls. With long hair, a taste for thigh-high brown boots, leather miniskirts, Goth-style apparel or long swishy skirts, she had a Dorothy Parker manner, sardonically witty and somewhat haughty. But she certainly had a soft side, and never sought the media profile bestowed on her husband by television and radio.
They married in 1997: Orr became stepmother to Self’s children, Alexis and Madeleine, and they went on to have two sons. For a time the couple were glamorous fringe bohemians of the Groucho Club set and put on lavish parties. Orr held an annual Christmas “no men allowed” party for female friends at their house in Stockwell, south London. This building became a news story in itself after a large chunk of masonry fell from its facade to the ground.
She created a beautiful garden, and developed a sympathetic ear to the troubles of others. When her divorce was finalised last year she moved to a house in Brighton.
In 2017, in a Guardian column, she revealed her diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, rooted in a working-class childhood in her birthplace of Motherwell, near Glasgow, as the daughter of Win (Winifred) and her husband, John Orr, a factory worker. The condition left her uncertain of dates, barely able to remember events of the past decade. Her bravado was a camouflage for insecurity.
This self-discovery led to a memoir, Motherwell: A Girlhood, to be published in January: writing it took over from column writing. It charted the influence of her mother, who railed against Deborah going to university. Win’s life had been determined by men. She wanted the same for her clever daughter, who duly went her own way after attending a local comprehensive school and collecting an MA (1983) from St Andrews University, where she had studied English.
Her route into journalism came through City Limits, a co-operatively run listings magazine in London, where she became deputy editor (1988-90), and as film critic for the New Statesman. From there she was invited to join Guardian as an arts subeditor by Alan Rusbridger, who was then its features editor. She moved to Weekend magazine and in 1993 succeeded Roger Alton as editor. There she made her name wooing writers including Gordon Burn and Andrew O’Hagan. Alexander Chancellor and Julie Burchill were signed up as columnists.
Orr’s Weekend was ambitious, providing essential grit in the Guardian oyster. In 1995 she oversaw a redesign that brought a National Colour Supplement of the Year award, and in 1996 scored a newspaper first by giving away an individually numbered print of an original work by Damien Hirst to every reader.
But the often dark cover stories eventually came to be seen as problematic, and, extremely upset, she did not want to continue as editor if it meant taking a new direction. After that, she became the briefest and most reluctant Guardian literary editor in the paper’s history. “I was absolutely heartbroken in a spectacularly unprofessional weeping wailing way,” she said.
Orr the columnist adapted readily to social media, communicating frankly about bitter disputes as her marriage to Self crumbled. These extended to his demand to put red sticker spots on the possessions he wished to take away, as if the home they were selling was a gallery.
Following a diagnosis of late stage four cancer this summer, a decade after she was treated for breast cancer, she tweeted about her condition, from severe pain to induced insomnia in the small hours to her advice about what not to say to cancer patients, especially: “Is there is anything I can do?”
Her smartness, vivid personality, serious edge, willingness to tell as it is and bravery shone out to the end.
She is survived by her sons, Ivan and Luther.
• Deborah Jane Orr, journalist, born 23 September 1962; died 20 October 2019