Some Years with Acker
I was never more than a spear carrier in Kathy Acker's life, though a spear carrier with one or two reasonably important lines.
There is, potentially, an interesting clash between the role of pious friend, the role of memoirist and the role of biographer, between the entirely personal and the supposedly impersonal - conflicts of levels of interest that can only be resolved by good faith. The fact that I knew Kathy, that at times we affected in small things the directed flow of each other's lives, needs to be made explicit from the start if this is to be an honest relation.
Kathy distrusted authority and the authoritative; she particularly distrusted them when they dressed themselves in the clothes of the authentic. Everything that follows, both in this opening memoir and in the bulk of the book, will be as fair and as true as I can make it by enquiry and thought, but there can never be an entirely accurate version of a life lived so much in ambiguity. Nor, indeed, can there be such a version of any life, merely in most things a best guess.
All memory is polyphonic - your voice now duets with and counterpoints the voice of the person you used to be, the person who told these stories to different listeners over the years. Truth lies partly in what you tell and partly in the intervals, the suspensions, somewhere in between.
And there is also, shamingly, the fact that we do not pay enough attention at the time to what may become significant later. One of the reasons for writing biography of someone one actually knew is to tell other people what they were like, but another is to remind oneself or tell oneself those things one could have known already had one been mindful. I thought of myself as fond of Kathy, and yet there are whole evenings spent with her which have passed from my mind leaving hardly a word behind.
What follows will be as frank as I can make it. Kathy was not always the easiest person to know or get along with - this has been confirmed by everyone I have spoken to her about her. What remains true of her is that she was much loved.
As far as I can remember, then, the first time I heard Kathy's name was at some point late in the autumn of 1983, when I attended an editorial meeting at Chatto and Windus, where I was working parttime as a reader after failing to sell them a projected book about Australian drag revues. I was not paying all that much attention, for the first of many times; earlier that year I had had my gender reassignment surgery, and I was in discomfort from bladder infections and ulcerating grafts.
Mike Petty, the editor in charge of making the Chatto fiction list more startling and less a matter of Iris Murdoch and Antonia Byatt, had persuaded Carmen Callil, who had recently moved to Chatto after the first sale of Virago, that they should consider this interesting American phenomenon called Acker.
They had read some of her chapbooks and had a meeting with her; it had not worked out and they had decided that she was not, perhaps, quite their thing. This was the gist - almost certainly the whole - of their report. People solemnly scribbled notes and the meeting moved on. What is interesting, though, is that from an early stage, in London, Acker was at least talked of in clever establishment intellectual publishing circles.
I was mildly intrigued, but had my own preoccupations; the name Kathy Acker lodged somewhere in my memory as someone at whose works I really must look one of these days.
In due course, Picador published Blood and Guts in High School and I remembered my interest and went out and bought it. Even when doing a preliminary skim in the bookshop, I realized that this was both good and not writing I particularly liked; I was, at the time, still rather too much in physical pain and some emotional distress to cope with the raw or the primal so directly. Mu own writing was far less direct, far more conservative. Kathy's was the real thing, but not a sort of the real thing I could make use of. If it spoke to me, what it said was things I did not want to hear. This never entirely changed.
I noted the reviews, though, and was irritated by those which dismissed the work; that irritation taught me that the books mattered to me rather more than I had been inclined to think. Kathy was a real writer and on the right side of things; not particularly liking her writing did not mean that I was about to let anyone disparage it. She had become a figure in my personal mythology of allies and enemies long before we actually met.
Some little time later, someone mentioned that Kathy had settled in London; rather later, someone told me that, improbably, she was dating Alan Jenkins, the editor for whom I wrote fiction reviews at the Times Literary Supplement. Alan is a charming man, to whom I once had to explain who Phil Spector was, and what a remix was, after describing a John Edgar Wideman novel as being a bit too much 'like a Phil Spector remix of the storm scene in Lear.' I noted that, however hip Kathy was, she did not let it determine her lovers.
Linda Semple, who was running Gay's The Word at the time, mentioned that Kathy had also been dating, briefly, Melissa Benn, had gone with her in tuxedos to the Women's Ball at Islington Town Hall and wondered aloud what the effect of the break-up would be, After all, she explained, a brief fling with Chris Tchaikovsky of Women in Prison had given Melissa an interest in penal affairs.
I knew a straight line when I heard one.
'Oh,' I replied, 'I imagine Melissa will be most awflly cut-up about it.'
But Linda was not concentrating, and I had to explain it.
One night in what must by now have been at the earliest the late summer of 1985, since I was no longer in pain and had stopped sleeping with men, I went to a movie and popped into Poons on Lisle St for a bowl of Won Ton soup and a plate of Singapore noodles. At the next table, someone called Alan was getting it in the neck for his floppy hair, tweed jackets and lack of appreciation of experimental fiction.
Somehow, descriptions of Acker had conveyed how formidable she was, but not how small. A tiny woman with huge fierce eyes was taking Alan apart with the amused complicity of the man she was eating with, someone I had met at TLS parties but whose name and face I can no longer remember. Between mouthfuls, she used her chopsticks to punctuate her remarks, without letting a single grain of rice escape.
Her companion noticed me and introduced us and I picked up my plate and joined them.
'If you're going to take Alan apart in my hearing,' I said, 'I may as well be fearfully disloyal and just join in.'
I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but it was the first time I met Acker; what I remember was articulacy and ferocity and intense overwhelming charm.
I was rather prone to falling in love in those days and usually to falling out of love a few days later -my immediate reaction to Kathy was, I fear, to develop a huge crush which died the death within a week or so. I had, as usually at this time, the sense to let the whole thing pass through my mind as an amusing fancy with no practical consequences.
I was in love with at least three other women at the time - a tough young SM butch I had met through the Sex Wars at the Lesbian and Gay centre, a glass sculptress with whom I had had a memorable snog at an Engine Room gig, an academic with whom I had breakfast at a friend's house - and a few weeks later was to be seduced by a teenage carpenter who was for many months the greatest love of my life.
I met Kathy a few times during the early stages of that particularly durable mess, but was rather preoccupied. Kathy had not noticed my interest until it had been over for some months and then determinedly kept me at arms' length by announcing, not entirely accurately, that she did not sleep with women. I was not sure whether it amused me more that she had not noticed my crush until it was no longer extant or that her idea of kind rejection involved galumphing fibs. Later, I came to think of this as part of Kathy's complex relationship with truth; Kathy did have affairs with women on and off throughout her life, but was still capable of reassuring men that she found women's genitals 'kind of yucky.' She also said the same thing to women she slept with about men's pricks, I later discovered.
About eighteen months later, I was at a party for Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York at the Groucho club, as was my friend Neil Gaiman, who at that point was still scrabbling around for journalism and had hardly even begun to write for comics, though he wanted to.(Which is a bit like saying that you knew Chopin at a point when he was talking about playing the piano a bit some day, but there it is.) Neil and I had both interviewed Tama, and been charmed by her.
A few weeks earlier, Kathy had published an article in which she said that Alan Moore's scripts for the comic Swamp Thing were the best writing being done at the time. When I saw her on the other side of the room and pointed her out to Neil, he asked me to introduce them, which I did.
One of the next times that we allmet was at a party in the Groucho Club for Bret Easton Ellis; Kathy and I had both read, and both disliked, Less than Zero, for reasonably different reasons and for the shared one that we both thought it rather dull. Kathy went to the party because after all Picador was her publisher and I went because various Pan/Picador publicists had rather taken me up and wanted another slice of the complicated soap opera that my life had by this time, because of the carpenter, become. I was editing, for Titan books, Neil Gaiman's book on Douglas Adams; Neil, who had been invited because he was writing about a Pan author, came along. We all went down to the Olive Tree in Wardour street and ate large amounts of mixed vegetable mezes.
It was roughly at this time that Kathy got involved with various of the Titan Books crowd, having affairs with both Nick Landau, the boss of Titan and Forbidden Planet, the sf bookstore, and Igor Goldkind, the publicist, not especially to the latter's advantage. Kathy's relationship with Nick did not, in the end, go especially well either; after one date, on which he had talked at length about grinding the faces of his work force, she went home and transcribed what he had said - she recycled it in In Memoriam to Identity.
Kathy was never really part of the Munchen crowd, but she looked in from time to time to meet people; oddly, she never met Charles Shaar Murray, rock journalist and biographer of Jimi Hendrix and her lover during the last two years of her life, at this point, in spite of the fact that they must on occasion have been in the same room.
Kathy was never all that interested in science fiction, but she saw in William Gibson's work a corpus of techno-myth it would be fun to draw on. Falling in with a bunch of people who talked about cyberpunk and its roots with familiarity was as handy as being given a canary when you are planning to visit a coalmine.
My memories of Kathy during this period are imprecise; one evening we were walking through Convent Garden with a number of other people and Kathy started haranguing me about what a waste it was that I did not work out - my body would be more interestingly ambiguous with muscles. This was, I think, the first time we ever talked specifically about Kathy's cult of the body; it was perhaps also the first time I specifically realized the extent to which other people existed for Kathy as much as ideological counters as in their own right.
Either that evening, or one like it, she started in on the street cred issue and talked about her time as a sex worker in San Diego and elsewhere. There was a certain amount of pulling rank going on, and she got me feeling competitive. I talked about my times as a street hustler and call girl when pre-op in Chicago and Kathy announced that, yes, those were tough streets, and allowed the subject to be changed.
She was a writer and this meant that a lot of the time she talked about money and agents. She changed her agents regularly, and often felt hard done by by them; I had had my own problems with Anne McDiarmid and Kathy, when she fell out with Anne, complained about her often, and libellously.
One evening Geoff Ryman, giant gay Canadian novelist, gave a dinner party and asked Kathy; he also asked me and Ashley, the young beautiful carpenter and SM dyke over whom I was at the time wrecking my life. Ashley liked hanging around with clever and intelligent people - she knew many things and one of them was the way out of the working class - but refused to be impressed by them.
Kathy was particularly charmed by the fact that Ashley claimed never to have heard of her and made a point of showing off her tattoos and leather jacket and talking about motor bikes and generally winning Ashley's attention, and, momentarily and without actual consequences, her fickle heart. Kathy was a terrible and accomplished flirt, whose large innocent eyes implied passionae interest.
It was later that same evening that Kathy and Neil had an extended conversation about Jewishness and about the whole Littvak/Galitser thing. Other people tell me that she often talked about Jewishness; I guess that, being Irish/Anglo, I was just too much of a gentile to be expected to listen, and I don't remember another conversation in which it came up.
Kathy rarely talked about family, except to execrate it, and yet this was one of the things that she and Neil had in common. Not that this stopped her complaining when Neil was not available. He shared child-care with his wife and it was well-known to all his friends that this meant he was almost never available at weekends. Kathy rang me up to complain about the fact that Neil was not coming to her birthday party - I had not, incidentally, been asked, a fact to which Kathy unembarassedly made no allusion - and I patiently explained that, when Neil said weekends belonged to his children, that was very precisely what he meant. Kathy was petulant about this and I forebore ageist remarks.
Kathy and Neil hung out together a lot, though, and a lot of the time I was not around with them. I just listened to Neil's stories of being dragged around Soho in the wake of Kathy and Tim Roth, the actor, all three of them totally broke. I had my own messy life to lead.
Neil remarked though that I was more important to Kathy than I realized; I was moaning about her at the time. It isn't easy, he pointed out, being Kathy, because you have to be hip all the time. She had dragged him along to the Limelight VIP lounge for a party, and he had collapsed on a couch with MSG allergy and lain there moaning while she schmoozed with Gary Lloyd . And, he said, she talked about you - you were her trophy weird friend that she could gain street cred from knowing, this vast clever leather sex change with a tiny beautiful masochist Polynesian lover.
We all become myths in our friend's stories, but when the relationship with fact is a little more complex, as it always was with Kathy, it all happens a bit more. In person, I suspect that I was rather too conventional in my tastes and manner to suit Kathy's sense of me as a seriously transgressive person; out of sight, I could be adjusted a bit.
I had met various of Kathy's circle, as had Neil, and we had developed a bad habit of referring to them as the Acolytes, which Neil insists on spelling Ackerlites. They were a group of young gay men with ambitions as writers, and they all had sharp haircuts and better clothes than they seemed able quite to be able to pay for. And, unlike Kathy, they seemed to have no politics whatever.
Kathy had achieved a certain level of entree into London Literary Life, but felt that she was a token piece of avant garde rough trade. Hanging out with comics and sf low-life was a way of keeping herself honest - and, frankly, as someone who occasionally went to the same smart parties as well, I could not but agree with her. Hanging out with Alan Moore and Neil was simply more fun.
Both Kathy and I were involved in AARGH!, Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia, the benefit comic book that Alan Moore and his ex-wife and her partner put together during the campaign against Clause 28. All of this coincided with some real turbulence in my own life - I was in the process of finally ending the relationship with Ashley and had, partly as a result, had a serious of major quarrels with friends and exes.
Throughout the time that I knew her in London, I was complicatedly involved with the lesbian SM scene, and, through my fuck-buddy Janienne, with the straight SM nightclub scene as well. I had gathered at various points that Kathy was herself by way of being a pushy bottom, as the term is; I cannot remember whether I ever specifically asked her whether she wanted to come out to clubs with a gang of us or whether her disinclination to do so remained implicit.
Kathy was, at times, a bit too fastidious quite to have fun; it is true that the nightclub scene had its low-rent side - mass whippings to The Ride of the Valkyries - and Kathy had seen enough of the vulgar side of sex earlier in her career. Or perhaps it was that what Kathy liked about SM was a sheer sense of being on the edge of oblivion and danger, and there was not much existential angst to be had down at Maitresse.
It was around this time that Kathy introduced us all to Melinda Gebbie, a woman comics artist who became part of the gang and ended up living with Alan Moore. Don, who had replaced Igor as Titan Publicity, was producing his own radical comic and being critical of AARGH as a bit reformist - there were all sorts of rows and many of us never quite patched things up with Don before his death from AIDs. Kathy, as far as I can remember, had the grace and dexterity both to contribute to AARGH and to remain friends with Don; she also defined her own limits quite neatly by contributing not a script for an artist, but a message of support.
Kathy always regarded herself as a feminist, but was critical of the radical puritanism that was particularly fashionable in much of London at the time. She was also scared of it - when I was invited onto a late night chat show to discuss sex with a group of people that included Andrea Dworkin, Kathy was touchingly concerned that I was going to get a really hard time from her.
I pointed out that I was a large grownup person and capable of taking care of myself in arguments; Kathy said, in a sinister voice that she sometimes affected when telling people how the world worked, that I did not know what Dworkin was capable of. I had best keep my head down and not pick fights above my weight.
In the event, Anthony Burgess and a Catholic Marriage Guidance Counsellor were so appallingly misogynist in their opening utterances that Dworkin and I cast glances at each other and proceeded to form an alliance for the night. Afterwards, Kathy was a bit put out with me - if I was capable of putting up so good a show, I should have gone after Dworkin a bit more.
As it happened, one of the long term consequences of that night was that my future lover Paule saw me on television and decided that, since we had friends in common, she wanted to meet me.
Kathy was never frightened of asking friends for huge favours, or of finding a way to make the favour pay off for them. She had a lot of connections with the Riverside and, finding herself unable for once to appear at a benefit for them, asked me to fill in for her. She picked a passage of her own work in progress that she wanted read out, but also made a point of arranging for me to read some of my own work.
Shortly after this, Paule and I finally met and fell in love, and for a few months I was simply not around much - Kathy and I were in occasional touch by phone. In the early summer of 1989, Linda Semple and I were appalled by the fact that Liberty/NCCL had adopted a pro-censorship and anti-porn policy and convened the first meeting of what became Feminists Against Censorship; Kathy was not one for groups or meetings, but sent sisterly regards.
It was about this time that she started to have problems with censorship all of her own, and typically did not think to mention them to those of her friends who might have been able to talk sense into people. A journalist had spotted the cut-ups of Harold Robbins in Young Lust which Pandora had just published and had, in a slow news week, accused Kathy of plagiarism. Robbins' publisher put pressure on her publisher and her editor had claimed entire ignorance of the literary technique for which Kathy had always been famous. By the time William Burroughs had wheeled Harold Robbins into the matter to say that Kathy had, retrospectively, his entire permission to use his work in a way that he, personally, was shocked anyone would be so ill-informed as to accuse her of plagiarism over - the book had been withdrawn and pulped.
The first I knew of any of this was when Kathy rang me to thank me for my review of Young Lust in the TLS. She announce that she had just about had it with London, where her friends did not stick up for her. But, I pointed out, she had not told me, or anyone I knew, what was going on - we could have done something, we could at least have shouted at people - I knew her editor's boss, Philippa, for example, and indeed Philippa was a member of Feminists Against Censorship. Kathy was not in a mood to admit she might have handled things differently - London was full of back-stabbing and she was going back to New York. Which she did.
My lover and I went to New York in the late spring of 1990 and I arranged by telephone that we would see Kathy during the later part of our stay. She showed a real interest in our arrangements - which were moderately complicated. I explained that we were meeting our friend Kristien, who was flying in from the West where she was working on a documentary on cowboys, at Newark airport, and sharing a suite at the Chelsea hotel with her before going up to see friends in Amherst.
When the three of us arrived at the Chelsea, it was to hear ourselves paged in the lobby - 'Kathy Acker for Roz Kaveney and party.'
While the others checked in, I took the call and asked if everything was all right. Sure, Kathy said, but it occurred to me that it couldn't hurt for the Chelsea to know that we were friends of hers.
I have to say that, good as the service was, I saw no particular indication that being paged by Kathy had quite the talismanic force that she attributed to it, but it was nonetheless a sweet thing to do. She went to all the trouble of finding out when our flight had got in and calculating the time it would take for us to get into the city by taxi - she had, it occurred to me after the event, been oddly adamant that, after a transatlantic flight, it would be a false economy to travel in any other way. The combination of entire, if perhaps unfounded, arrogance about the power of her own name and real and elaborate plotting of an act of kindness strikes me as entirely typical of Kathy.
When we got back from Amherst, we went to see her at her apartment at 39 East 12th St, just round the corner from the Strand Bookshop. The sight of the lobby and the doorman brought home to me something I had never entirely appreciated, which was just how wealthy Kathy was - though that particular apartment was, I subsequently learned, a folie de grandeur from which her finances never entirely recovered.
The apartment was oddly disjointed in style; much of it was a very functional room in which desk and computer and television and audio were arranged in a severely utilitarian way, and the raised area around her bed was full of froufrou and mirrored cushions and soft toys. For a person at the cutting edge of post-punk, some of Kathy's possessions were awfully little-girl and old hippy.
We sat around drinking coffee with her and Cindy Carr and Kathy persuaded us to sit and watch Paris is Burning, after which she grilled me relentlessly about the drag queens and trannies I had known in Chicago. She was disappointed that I just did not know whether the black hookers I never really got to know except as rivals for johns were organized in the same way as the Houses of New York a decade later; Kathy liked people for who they were, but was also keen that they provide her with information and services whenever this was remotely possible.
She asked us whether we had read any Jane DeLynn; Paule and I confessed that we had never heard of her. Kathy showed us a proof copy of Don Juan in the Village and said, rightly, that it was good conventional writing on outlaw themes of a sort that I would probably like more than she did. Not that she disliked it - it was just that she wanted transgressive themes to be dealt with in transgressive ways. Still, she gave the book almost as generous a plug as if it had been entirely the sort of thing she most liked.
She was also entirely accurate in her sense of what I was likely to think about it - Kathy was sensitive to the literary tastes of people she disagreed with about the aesthetics of fiction, but whose judgement she respected nonetheless. She talked up Jane so much that, when we left Kathy's apartment, we went straight back round to the Strand and I bought all of Jane's previous novels - and ordered Don Juan from Compendium books the moment we got home.
In the end, I plugged it to UK publishers and reviewed the American edition in the TLS. Jane became something of a friend - I mention this because it was typical of Kathy's generosity to writers that it extended beyond her own tastes and dogmas and was expressed with enough force that people felt obliged to follow it through. When Paule mentioned that we were staying with Sarah Schulman, Kathy was respectful about Sarah's writing - she always had a sense that there were plenty of writers out there who were on the same side even if they did not write the right sort of thing.
She was very keen on showing off to us both her new tattoo - the early stages of the chrysanthemum - and her new rings, elaborate dull metal jointed finger shields that we both admired excessively. Kathy insisted on giving us the full address of the jeweller who had made them, in blithe unconcern that neither of us was remotely in a position to afford them.
She talked a lot about the current state of play in her emotional life - she had by this time broken up with Reinhardt, I think, but she still talked a lot about him, and his refusal to leave his wife, and his drinking. She told us about the time he had made her strip off under a bridge and teased her skin with a knife and how she had known he might kill her, and how upsetting it had been that that felt good.
Just before we left for the Strand- she had to go off to an engagement with her tattooist - , she popped a couple of Demerol. Nine months later, Paule reminded me of this after we had watched a documentary about piercing, scarification and tattooing at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, in which Kathy talked at some length about the feeling of control that experiencing the ecstasy of pain induced in her.
This led to a bit of an argument between us in which Paule rather harshly maintained that this indicated the truth of what she had always slightly tended to think, which was that Kathy, lovely person though she was, was full of shit. (Paule has the habit of provocation, which is one of the reasons why I love her so much.)
No, I found myself saying and still think I got it more or less right, you've got it wrong. Kathy sometimes bends the facts, but that has nothing to do with whether or not she is telling the truth. When she is up on screen, being 'Kathy Acker', she is not entirely on oath; she is talking about essentials and not able or willing to talk about grey areas and ambiguities.
She had a close relationship with pain, this much was clear, and regarded it as an instructive friend rather than an enemy to be avoided. But that did not mean that, on a day to day basis, she was always going to subject herself to it when she was not in the mood - Kathy's endless ability to invent and reinvent herself as different phases of 'Kathy Acker' involved a fair amount of self- management and acts of will, of which deciding that, on a particular day, she was not going to let herself hurt as much as she might on another occasion was one. And, most of the time, self- preservation was always a factor. In the end, after all, she had broken up with Reinhardt, after going to New York partly in the hope of making it work with him.
What was also clear when we saw her in New York was that she had come to the conclusion that she had made a mistake in going there. She had been away from the city long enough that it had moved on and she was no longer capable of being flavour of the month or year in the new greedy environment - she was still very angry with London for what it had done to her and let be done to her and there was no real question of her going back there, though she was still thinking about the possibility of living in Brighton. We got a very strong sense that when we next saw her, it would not be in New York.
Nor, indeed, was it. She had gone to San Francisco a few months after we saw her and moved there slightly later. We went to San Francisco in the fortnight leading up to Gay Pride - indeed, we got on the plane back to London immediately after watching the early stages of the Sunday Parade - and spent rather more time with her than we had had time to in New York.
We met her for coffee and walked round an extensive exhibit of new work at the Municipal Gallery - whenever we talked, Kathy was slightly appalled that someone who was reasonably transgressive in their personal life could be as uninterested in contemporary art as I was. I tried suggesting to her that perhaps I needed to feel more grounded than she did and that there was a limit to the amount of transgression and radicalism one could manage in a single life. Kathy looked at me blankly - she never felt this, or admitted feeling it.
Like everyone else who heard that we were going to San Francisco or who met us there, Kathy was most insistent that we meet Kate Bornstein, gender outlaw and all round extraordinary and beautiful person. (Even complete strangers like a sweet clone we met on a bus out to the Sutro baths asked us if we had met Kate. She said she sometimes felt like a tourist attraction.) Kathy was not exactly put out that we had already arranged to meet Kate and was not the only person brilliant enough to suggest a meeting, but some such thing was nonetheless in the air when we talked about it. Part of Kathy's passion for control was that her friends were allowed to meet only as she arranged; the fact that sooner or later Kate and I were bound to have met, given how small the political community among transexuals is, hardly seemed to occur to her.
We spent a lot of that and subsequent meetings - we met at her apartment and went for cuban food in Haight Ashbury - talking about the porn wars and the culture wars. One of Kathy's regrets about having left London was that she had not been involved in Feminists Against Censorship, except as someone who got the minutes of meetings that we built into the structure as a regular newsletter for sympathizers, and she grilled me remorselessly; I got her to tell me about censorship in the US partly out of interest and partly out of equity.
She spent a lot of time bitching about Neil - she had seen him rather more recently than I had, because he had by this stage moved to Wisconsin, but on the other hand, I spoke to him or e- mailed most weeks; by this time Sandman was being very successful and she was uneasily aware, as were we all, that we had underestimated just what a star of popular culture Neil had it in him to be. She was impressed, but felt that there was something slapdash and careless about even his best work - we pointed out that he was working on a monthly schedule and that had consequences. Kathy was not convinced and made a little mound of the black beans from her Christianos y Moros and, perversely, ate them and the rice separately. She was never entirely persuaded that practicalities of a standard kind were something to which one should make concessions.
Over the next few years, I kept in desultory touch through friends and occasional phone calls; at various points, she tried to get me to involve myself in the complicated mess of the sale of the flat she had at some point bought in Brighton, and I politely declined, pleading incompetence as a pretext for disinclination.
At some point in, I think, the summer of 1994, having nothing better to do one Saturday evening when Paule was visiting her mother, I rang Kathy up and got the answerphone. I burbled into it in the hope that she would pick up and she did. She seemed slightly chastened and quiet and I chatted cheerfully all the time on tenterhooks that I was not causing her some sort of serious offense, but not quite sure why I was even worried about this any more - I had had for some little time a sense that the days of any intimacy were drawing to a close.
After some time, she cut into what I was saying - inconsequential literary gossip of some kind - and said that I should probably know that I had just saved her life. When I rang, she had been about to commit suicide - had lined up pills and a glass of water. I had cheered her up enough that she wasn't going to do it now, but she was not entirely sure how she felt about me as a result - perhaps, she thought, it would have been better if I had been more sensitive to her mood and simply gone away.
She would not tell me what it was all about - it really was not any of my business and she had had as much of my kindness for one evening as she could bear. No, she was not upset at me, she thought, but she needed to get out of the flat and do things if she was going to have to go on living.
I never did find out what all this had been about, and noone I have talked to since her death seems to know either. I assume that she was telling the truth rather than playing drama queen mind games, but I will never know entirely for sure. What I do know, more or less, is that our friendship never quite recovered from the incident - I felt constrained whenever I rang her and there was a certain coldness on her side, or seemed to be.
When I heard, in 1996, that Kathy was moving back to London, and was having an affair with Charlie, I was delighted, not because I thought it was going to change things between us, but simply because it meant that two people I liked a lot were going to be good for each other. It was all the more upsetting when I heard, a short while later, that Kathy was sick with cancer.
I made no particular overtures - my feeling was that she had things on her mind other than me, and in any case I had concerns of my own. Paule's mother had just died, and my father was waiting for a major operation. But I heard a fair amount about her on the grapevine and was pleased that she was back in town.
I eventually saw her, for what was more or less the last time, early in 1997, at a party for an anthology of Nick Royle's to which we had both contributed dreams. We sat in one of the less smoky corners of an overcrowded pub and talked in the desultory way one does at parties when no-one is feeling especially like being there much longer; I was finding it hard to breathe and so was she, and we had not got anything very much to say to each other in any case.
A little while later, I saw her article in the Guardian about her pursuit of health through alternative medicine and was vaguely concerned that she had moved on from herbalism and acupuncture to psychic healing. On the other hand, my friend Roz Stott, who also had cancer, had been more or less crippled by chemotherapy - calcium leaching out of microfractures caused by endless minor bike accidents in the days when she was drinking. I was vaguely prepared, I supposed, to see Kathy's view, am rather more prepared to now; Roz died six weeks after Kathy, in terrible pain from peritonitis from a tumour of which her doctors had lost track and had had a rather less pleasant last two years than Kathy.
I still vaguely meant to see her sometime and maybe get back on reasonable terms, but I had other things on my mind, and I never got around to it, and nor did she. I asked for, and got, regular reports from Liz Young, an old friend and fellow-reviewer whose husband Pete was one of Charlie's best friends. I heard from them that she was having weird rows with Charlie and eventually that she had decamped to California after the worst of these, in which she had accused him of poisoning her.
And then, in November, Gary Pulsifer, who had just published what was to be Kathy's last book, came up to me at a party and told me that Kathy was in hospital and was not, frankly, expected to make it much past the New Year; he would ring me with the details. I rang Neil a few days later; he had been in touch, but she was already so ill that he could only speak to her for a minute or so. I made a decision that I would not intrude - it did not seem especially likely that talking to me was going to be any sort of priority for the last dregs of Kathy's energy. I checked with mutual friends that Charlie knew the situation and that Alan Moore knew, and I left it more or less at that.
The end came much sooner that people had suggested it might; on Sunday afternoon, I got a phone call from Sarah Schulman, who told me that Kathy had died, reasonably peacefully, earlier that day. I rang Neil, who had spoken to her a few days earlier, but had not yet heard; I rang Del Grace, whom Sarah had run immediately after ringing me; I rang Charlie and got the engaged tone several times before I spoke to him; I rang Alan Moore; I was rung by Johnnie Golding - I had not even known that Kathy knew Johnnie, let alone that there had been a relationship between them.
Gary wrote the Guardian obituary, one of several that appeared over the following few days. Less welcomely, the Guardian also published an attack on Kathy by Linda Grant; no nonsense about de mortuis there - Grant felt that Kathy had had a duty to stick to rational western medicine and take the consequences, rather than set a bad example of feminine flakiness by playing around with alternatives. Grant had been a friend of the recently dead Ruth Picardie, and was passionately upset about the issue. There was a brief flurry of letters, including a particularly fierce and splendid one from Jeanette Winterson.
Over the next few days, I talked to Charlie and Gary and we agreed that there needed to be some sort of memorial gathering. We met in a pub to sort out the details ten days after Kathy's death - Charlie's mother had died that morning, but he insisted on taking care of business.
Going through Kathy's address file sorting out people to ask to the memorial was like having my own life flash before my eyes. I had always sort of known that Kathy controlled information, but I had never known just how much our social worlds overlapped. Perhaps, I realized, that had always been part of the trouble between us - Kathy knew that I had a big mouth and was infinitely capable of causing complications; I was, after all, one of the very few people who knew both Charlie and Johnnie well. Richard Strange, for example, had been the friend with whom Kathy spent her last evening in England, but was also the former brother-in-law of the glass sculptress, the man in whose living room Ashley and I had had a major break-up, the tenderest reconciliation.
Gary provided a room at his office and Compendium and Igor Goldkind helped pay for drink and food; I went to Camden Sainsburies and hauled quantities of beer, wine and cola around in trolleys. Del sorted out some of his better portraits of Kathy and hung them in the corridor, while Gary, Charlie and I with help from people that came early put out the food and drink and cleared as many chairs as possible.
A lot of people were not able to make it that had planned to - Julie Burchill and Salman Rushdie, for example - but there were people from the whole of Kathy's London life. Various Mekons had made it, members of the group with whom Kathy had occasionally performed; Melissa Benn was there and Suzanne Moore and various of her healers and psychics. When Charlie started his speech by saying that this was the party Kathy should have organized in her lifetime, everyone knew that he was telling an essential truth.
I ended up MCing - someone had to do it and I probably knew a broader cross-section of people to chivvy into speaking. Charlie read a fuller version of his observer article and Polly Marshall from Brighton read one of Kathy's poems. Del talked about photographing Kathy and Anthony Harwood about the difficulties of being her agent; John Lawton the thriller writer talked about Kathy's feelings of being a wanderer and Leslie Dick about her extraordinary generosity to other writers.
Johnnie talked about her relationship with Kathy. Given that the proceedings were inevitably going to centre on Charlie's reading, I had persuaded him, without difficulty that it would be imperative that Johnnie spoke as well, both on a personal level and because Kathy would not have wanted to be implicitly represented as entirely heterosexual or entirely vanilla. Some people, like Carole Morin, who wrote about the proceedings in the New Statesman, argued that this was inappropriate; I find it bizarre that anyone should be raising issues of taste about the funeral of Kathy Acker.
I bounced up and down and told Kathy anecdotes and dragged people out of their seats to talk; I also perforce ended the proceedings. Kathy, I said, was a bandit, who moved ruthlessly through life taking what she needed to survive, and was nonetheless greatly loved. People had attacked her, often, for not being a terribly good role model, but in fact she was a very good role model. She had proved specifically that it was possible for a woman to be an avant-garde artist on her own terms and as her own person, without being either a fuck-up or a muse. Pain in the arse though she could be, the word for what she was was, I suggested, in the end, gracious. I left them, and leave you now, with that word, gracious.
Six months later, I dreamed I was at a party and Kathy was there and we talked - she was wearing a brown leopard-skin print sleeveless shirt I knew quite well and a violently yellow pair of plush velvet leopard-skin print trousers that I had never seen before..
After a bit, I thought of something.
'Kathy, you're dead,' I said.
'Sure,' she said, ' but you didn't think that was going to stop me, did you?'
Next day, Charlie asked me if I would work on her biography...
A year later, I was in San Francisco researching the book and had tea with Lisa, one of Kathy's former students and occasional lovers. She did not know Kathy's other friends, but I had found her in an old address book. She talked about Kathy's last weeks, about helping her in and out of apartment buildings she was looking at, and about going shopping with her.
'You'll never guess what she bought that last time we went shopping' she said.
'A violently yellow pair of plush velvet leopardskin trousers,' I said.
'How did you know that?' she said.