When I first came across Deborah Lavin it was clear within a few minutes that I was in the presence of a remarkable person. I was interviewing her about a lecture series she was organising at Conway Hall titled the British Business of Slavery.
She had been inspired to do so after she discovered that her daughter’s primary school in West Hampstead had been named after William Beckford, twice mayor of London, philanthropist and champion of the arts. Somehow, the fact that he was also one of the biggest plantation owners in Jamaica had been overlooked.
As she railed against how his ill-gotten gains had enabled him to be whitewashed by history so that even little children now proudly bore his name on their school jumpers, a few no doubt descendants of his former slaves, she pointed out how all wealth is based on exploitation. “The glamour of wealth disguises its origins and we are encouraged to adore it,” she said. “That is how the slave owners got away with it and that is why we must ask ethical questions about how goods are produced.”
Some years later our paths converged again and I came to look forward to hearing her views on all manner of things as she made links between seemingly disparate subjects and cut through the cant of what passes for public discourse. Never dogmatic and full of warmth and wit, she had ears for you, too, and that is what made her such pleasant company.
Born in London in 1951, she grew up in Toronto but returned to the capital at the age of 16 to begin an eclectic career as an actor, English tutor, theatrical agent, playwright, performance poet and historian. A proud council tenant, she lived for many years in Red Lion Square before moving latterly to Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, two addresses that befitted her erudition and literary turn of mind. As she was confined to barracks due to ill health, I would often meet her at her flat, where her vast book collection took up every available space. Amid the cheerful clutter, were several photographs of her three children and grandchildren as well as a striking portrait of her daughter Madeleine Berns, the feminist vlogger whose premature death from cancer last year dealt her such a devastating blow.
I realise from the fulsome tributes made at her funeral last week and elsewhere, that Deborah touched a great many lives with her boundless energy and fearless questioning, and I would add, a deep sense of humanity, qualities that remained undiminished by the illness that was to so cruelly cut short her life.
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on April 10