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This article is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Val Warner: A Reminiscence Patricia Craig
What to Do When Someone Dies is the title of a 2008 thriller by Nicci French. It came into my head when I was confronted by the recent death of my friend Val Warner and didn’t know what to do. To start with, I couldn’t quite believe it had happened. The last time we’d spoken on the phone, in early September 2020, Val had announced quite matter-of-factly that she would probably die and be left to moulder at her house in Hackney, without anyone being aware of what had happened. I, of course, told her not to be so morbid, to pull herself together and stop envisaging such a dismal scenario. But it fell out just as she had predicted. I should have paid more attention to her accounts of minor, but accumulating, infirmities. Alarm bells sounded in my head on a couple of occasions, it’s true, but not with sufficient urgency to impel me into action. For example, taking two and a half hours – as she described it – to walk the short distance from a local supermarket to her home, suggested something seriously amiss. I knew, because she’d told me, that something was wrong with her legs, but she refused to be specific about the cause of the problem. She’d said it was easier for her to get upstairs on her hands and knees – which led me to harbour a terrible image of Val crawling from room to room like an oversized bat. But when I tried to insist that the time was long overdue for her to register with a doctor, or at least to ring a medical helpline (whose number she had gone to the trouble of looking up), she would immediately play down the severity of the affliction.

Legs were not the only cause of concern. Though I hadn’t actually set eyes on Val for a good many years, I gathered from her descriptions of herself that she had developed a form of scoliosis – not that this condition was ever named. She insisted she’d be able to stand upright once the weather had improved: it was the cold that was keeping her hunched over. Living in Northern Ireland, as I did, there was little practical help I could offer (or so I told myself). What Val needed, but didn’t have, was a bossy and efficient friend in the neighbourhood to take matters in hand and impose some order on the domestic and medical shambles in which she had embroiled herself.

I first met Val Warner at the end of the 1960s when we were both twenty-something. She was the school librarian, and I the unlikely art mistress at Notre Dame Convent School in Battersea. It was only a stop-gap occupation for both of us, and this was the first thing that drew us together. Val had recently graduated from Somerville College, Oxford, and was waiting for her life to take a more productive turn (as was I). Both of us had literary ambitions, but for a year or two after we’d left the convent, freelance proof-reading and copy-editing kept us (separately) more or less solvent. Then Val began to publish poetry with the newly established Carcanet Press, as well as editing and translating the poems of Tristan Corbière (The Centenary Corbière came out in 1975). Her association with Carcanet stemmed from her long friendship with its founder and managing editor, the poet Michael Schmidt, whom she’d known since her Oxford days – a halcyon period for Val, when, as part of an up-and-coming coterie, she seemed set to make an impact in whatever field she chose.

But a somewhat farouche deportment, and a measure of ill luck, were against her – though she kept hold of a humorous attitude towards herself and her misfortunes, some of which had to do with money troubles, real or imagined. She never achieved a sense of personal or emotional security, but led what she called in one of her poems ‘a lacklustre life’. It wasn’t actually as lacklustre as all that: two early poetry collections, Under the Penthouse (1971) and Before Lunch (1986), earned her a sterling reputation; her work appeared in a vast range of periodicals, from Ambit to Verse; and she was greatly in demand for poetry readings, appearing, for instance, at the ‘Poems for Shakespeare’ Festival at Southwark Cathedral, and again at a reading in Lauderdale House, Highgate. But the thing that gained Val the greatest acclaim was her 1982 edition of Charlotte Mew’s Collected Poetry and Prose (a joint publication of Carcanet and Virago). Almost single-handedly, Val had brought about a revival of interest in this distinctive, quirky and long-forgotten poet.

Val’s own work is abundant in dismal milieux, in charwomen and tramps, down-and-outs, slum landlords, charity-shop habitues, murderers and muderees, all of it drawn from a low-toned affinity with dirt and dishevelment. The rickety terrace house in Victoria – once the solid and handsome residence of some minor government official or bank manager – where she lived on the top floor and shared ‘a dirty basement bathroom’ with the other tenants, is immortalised in her poem sequence ‘The Rotted House’. The Clapham bus, a Pimlico backyard, a third-floor Edgeware flat: these are features of the urban conglomeration she evokes so decisively. Val’s literary impulse is attached to the seedy and tacky. It is all very downbeat, but enlivened by a singular gift for social observation, and a strong associative and ironic bent. Her London is full of incident and a kind of blasé intensity. It bubbles and seethes and dissolves into sharp fragments. Always eschewing a lyrical note, Val’s poetry carries an astringent, disruptive and unsettling charge.

Between 1977 and 1988, Val Warner held the posts of Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Swansea, and Writer-in-Residence at Dundee University. Once she’d returned to London, she became an active member of Pen International, working indefatigably on behalf of Writers in Prison. Some time during the 1990s her father died and she inherited the house in Harrow, Middlesex, where she had grown up. (She was an only child.) But because of her edgy and difficult relations with her parents, she never felt comfortable living there; and in 2001 she sold the house and bought another in the middle of a late-Victorian terrace in Hackney. This would be her home for the rest of her life.

In 1998, Val published her last poetry collection, Tooting Idyll (dedicated to the novelist Francis King, who had become a mentor and a friend). In the same year she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Tooting Idyll, like her other books, was well received – but at this point, for some reason, Val decided to give up poetry and write novels instead. It was a bad decision, the beginning of a slide into derangement and obsession. Val spent her days, and most of her nights, in front of a computer, writing, rewriting, planning, revising, restructuring, printing out and compiling endless notes in relation to a series of novels, five or six potential works of fiction, all at the same time. Not one ever reached completion, and the amount of paper generated would have given a conservationist apoplexy. (Val herself was a conservationist.)

I never witnessed the invasion of Val’s small house by scraps and shards, the whole array of umpteenth draft versions and rejiggings, all spread over every floor and every available surface. I am simply going by what she relayed to me. In 1999, with my husband Jeffrey Morgan, I had moved back to Northern Ireland; and – although I made frequent trips to London – my friendship with Val thereafter was conducted by telephone. At some point it became apparent that she was losing touch with all her other friends and turning increasingly reclusive, only leaving the house for minimal food shopping, or to get help with some computer problem. Her terrible diet consisted of soya mince, tinned chick peas (unheated), oats and possibly raw potato. In Val’s world, everyday amenities went by the board. She had long dispensed with cooking facilities, and to obtain hot water for washing and so on, had to boil a kettle on a gas ring. She owned a radio but not a television, a fridge or a washing machine. She refused to activate the central heating, but instead sat shivering in front of an antiquated electric fire, wearing her parents’ cast-off clothes. An incursion of rats and other vermin she accepted as an inescapable hazard of everyday life. None of this was imposed on her; it was Val’s choice to live precariously and insalubriously. When she described to me a rat eyeing her sardonically from the top of a wardrobe, I had to wonder if she was exaggerating the level of domestic discomfort and jeopardy into which she had fallen: but now I think she probably wasn’t. Not only was Val unbelievably indifferent to physical comfort or her own wellbeing, but she had, in her own person, reversed the usual transformation of ugly duckling into swan. According to photographs (which I had to rescue from a dustbin when I went to visit her in Harrow), Val was a beautiful child whose appearance deteriorated dramatically as she paid less and less attention to how the world saw her. Eventually, so neglectful of herself had she become, that people in Hackney mistook her for a bag lady and handed her money in the street.

It’s a tragic story, and utterly unnecessary. Val was not poor, not unlikeable, not beset by unique exigencies, not without resource: but she acted as if all of these were her defining traits. She became a prey to idées fixes. For example, one reason why she found it impossible to actually finish any novel was an irrational conviction that a range of distant acquaintances would assume certain characters in the books were based on them, even though she insisted they weren’t. Nothing would shake this belief of Val’s, and a terrifying vista of lawsuits opened up before her, paralysing her brain and hand.

When someone dies – as Val did – in horrific circumstances, those aware of the way things were going will inevitably feel they ought to have intervened sooner, even if it meant poking their nose into someone else’s affairs. But at what point does one accept that drastic action is called for? A couple of years ago, receiving no response to telephone calls, emails, and even a letter sent in the post, I contacted the police in Hackney in relation to Val. They promptly dispatched some officers to her address. One of them later rang me to say, ‘Your friend is alive and well.’ The whole thing was caused by a problem with BT. Val was not pleased to open her door to two burly policemen enquiring about her health. She knew her phone was out of order, but had done nothing about it. (And there were reasons, which I’ve forgotten, why she couldn’t leave the house to post a letter in reply to mine.) The fault on the line drifted on and on. I now understand her reluctance to summon an engineer from BT. She lived in a state of dread that someone from Health and Safety would get wind of her domestic ineptitude, her disdain for housework or hygiene, conclude she couldn’t look after herself and forcibly remove her to a Home. Anyone coming face to face with the mess and muddle indoors, she believed, would put her independence at risk. I don’t know at what point she gave in and had the landline restored, but she did so in the end – and without any ensuing interference in her way of life.

After this incident, I persuaded Val to buy a second-hand mobile phone, in case a similar emergency should arise in the future.

However, neither mobile nor landline got through to Val when I repeatedly rang both numbers in early October. Bearing in mind the previous contretemps, I was reluctant to act out of character and cast myself as a busybody again. (I’m a great believer in the doctrine of laissez faire.) But after a week or so of unanswered calls, I repeated my previous SOS to Hackney police station – and this time, the outcome was very different. The policeman who got back to me had bad news: ‘We had to force an entry. Your friend was there, but she was deceased.’ The first thing that came into my head was, why can’t he just say ‘dead’ – no point in dressing it up. I knew, I had known for some time, what the truth of the matter was. Then came shock, disbelief, guilt and distress.

I needed to take some action. I contacted the Guardian and arranged to write an obituary. (It was published online on 2 November and in the paper later in the month.) Remembering Val’s long (though lapsed) association with Michael Schmidt, I thought he should be told the awful news. So I got in touch with him via Carcanet. He was helpful, concerned, and deeply shocked by what had happened. We agreed that Val’s papers, at least, should be salvaged from the mess. The Rylands Library in Manchester expressed an interest in acquiring anything relevant to its Carcanet Archive. But it was not a simple procedure. Val’s unexpected death has presented a range of challenges to well-wishers. Posthumous complications include the state of the house, the Covid pandemic, and the absence of a known legatee. As far as the last is concerned … about six months before her death, Val and I had had a conversation about her will which was somewhere in the house, she knew, though she couldn’t find it. She had left everything, she said, to a couple of charities, but she’d like to change the will so that only one of these would benefit (I think it was something to do with population control). We also discussed her literary executor, Sheila Murphy, with whom Val hadn’t been in touch for many years. Did I know anything about her? Well, no, I didn’t, beyond the fact that she’d once worked for André Deutsch before joining the Aurum Press. (An internet search has failed to turn up any trace of her.) I doubt if Val’s will got changed in accordance with her latest wishes, but I do know that it exists. Unfortunately, no one seems willing to venture into the house to search for it. Two employees of Hackney Council got as far as the front door, but turned tail and fled when confronted with the chaos within.

Everything to do with Val’s affairs has become exceedingly problematic. An autopsy carried out at Poplar Coroner’s Court in November disclosed no ascertainable cause of death. (I have a copy of the death certificate.) I don’t know if a funeral has taken place. No attempt has been made by anyone to sort through the papers – which may well have disintegrated by now, or been eaten by rats and mice. At the time of writing (February 2021) Val’s landline has not been disconnected: it rings and rings in an empty house, to disconcerting effect. Someone from Hackney Council (who now say the matter is out of their hands), or the Treasury Solicitor’s office, could surely locate Val’s bank account through BT, and possibly find a will lodged there. But her name (I have checked) is included in a list of those who’ve died intestate. My last communication from Hackney Council, in December, stated that Warner family members had been found, and that that was the end of it. But, to date, no one has come forward with a claim. I know that Val had no relations: both her parents were only children, as was she; the line stopped with her. I have passed all the above information to the Government Legal Department, but so far have received no response.

March 2021. The landline at present ‘does not accept incoming calls’, and Val’s name has been deleted from the ‘intestate’ list. I hope this means that a will has been found, but the GLD has not been very forthcoming, only volunteering the information that ‘there is no Crown interest in [Val’s] estate’, and that their file is now closed; and directing myself and Michael Schmidt back to Hackney Council – who sent us to them in the first place. The point, which no one in authority will acknowledge, is the importance of securing the papers, which include correspondence with many distinguished late-twentieth-century poets and other writers, not to mention Val’s own manuscripts and books. We all await a favourable outcome, though the signs are not encouraging.

During the 1970s, when many of us were reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time with rapt attention, Val put the books aside after the second or third installment of Nick Jenkins’s engagement with contemporary history and his own ongoing experiences. She was enjoying the novels so much, she declared, that she intended to keep the rest of the sequence in reserve as a form of deathbed assuagement. (It was half a joke.) And did she ever reach the end of Hearing Secret Harmonies via At Lady Molly’s and all the others? If she did, it was not at the end of her life. Death, as far as anyone can tell, caught Val unawares, and obliterated all her foibles and eccentricities, all her bright intelligence.

This article is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

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