Our much-loved colleague, Clarissa Tan, passed away in the early hours of this morning. We’re all stunned here at 22 Old Queen Street – she had been fighting cancer for some time, but until a few weeks ago she had very few symptoms. Now, she has gone.
I first met her seven years ago, just after she had won the Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul creative writing prize. She was living in Singapore but we kept in touch by email, and I was struck by her gorgeous use of language, her eye for a story, her ability to understand any subject – no matter how complex – and write about it with humour and insight. Even in emails, she seemed incapable of writing a sentence that didn’t put a smile on your face. She had a potent combination of a hard head and a light pen. Now and again, she’d email me from Singapore about some fact or anecdote that had caught her attention – things that she thought spoke to wider truths. She had an eye for the kind of story that makes for a good Spectator cover, and I came to rely on her quite heavily.
When I became editor, I asked her if she’d like to move to London and work with us here. She did – in stages. She enrolled for a creative writing course, which always baffled me since she could already write brilliantly. She waited until she graduated to join us full-time here at 22 Old Queen Street, working on other people’s copy and also her own ideas. On every subject imaginable. She wrote a cover story on the Asian arms race (here), our addiction to smartphones (here), a hard-hitting assessment of racism, here all alongside her regular television reviews (here). To read her pieces is to marvel at her range and style.
When diagnosed with bowel cancer (she wrote about it here, again here and about the ‘death cafés’ here), she opted to remain in Britain. London had come to feel like home for her, and she was hugely grateful for our NHS system that gave her such wonderful care from the outset. She was baffled by Brits who knock their country – she really did seem to think she’d moved to the best place in the world. She saw beauty in things we take for granted. And when she wrote about this (such as the changing of the seasons, here) it helped remind readers about the everyday beauty around them.
Clarissa also loved the Spectator as much as any of us here – and she knew that this love was reciprocated. She told me recently that she saw her colleagues as ‘a family – a large, dysfunctional family’.
I was with her on Friday, and she was her normal, joyful, optimistic self. All of her most endearing traits – her clever, funny turns of phrase, her extraordinary capacity to see the good in any situation, as well as her wry humour – were there in full. It was as if nothing was wrong with her. As I went down the stairs on the way out, she said that she’d found out that as she came from a former colony, she was entitled to vote in the European elections. Why, she wanted to know, aren’t Americans? She saw the makings of a funny Spectator article. ‘I can say that I’d like to stay alive until polling day,’ she said, looking down from the top of the stairs. ‘Voting is important. Russell Brand is wrong.’
On her desk, there is a list, headed ‘advantages of my current situation’. She had found 23 upsides. This is — was — Clarissa all over. She was defined by indefatigable optimism, humanity and love of life. As Jeremy Clarke wrote to me earlier,’her radiant, joyful smile so surprised me when she turned it on me, it made me laugh’. That was her effect on those lucky enough to have known her. The place she loved so much feels greyer, sadder and duller without her.
UPDATE: As of Tuesday morning, the six most-read stories on the Spectator website were by Clarissa. She would have been thrilled. Here they are:
- My first snowfall – 4 February 2012
- I am not my cancer – 20 October 2012
- This coming year, I want to live – 29 December 2012
- Why do Brits seek out Eastern temples, but ignore their own cathedrals? – 16 February 2013
- You’re never really on holiday with a smartphone – 10 August 2013
- The ideal death show – 14 September 2013
- Britain has many major problems. Racism is not one of them - 15 February 2014