openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Dawn Foster: A brilliant, working-class trailblazer who inspired a generation

The writer, who died at just 34, gloriously represented an audience that so many in the media hadn’t understood was there

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
19 July 2021, 11.45am
Dawn was the funniest, the bluntest and the most consistently right of all of us
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Kevin Hayes / Alamy Stock Photo

Dawn Foster was the best of us. If there is a generation of left-wing journalists and writers whose careers flourished from the magnificent protests of 2011, she was the funniest, the bluntest and the most consistently right of all of us.

The night after her death was announced last week, I lay in that space between wakefulness and sleep where all you can see is your thoughts, and processed memories. I thought about the times her writing taught me things, times she made me laugh, times she told me off for mansplaining, and that night, not long after we first met, that we got drunk in Michael Crick’s garden (she was his lodger). Times – particularly around Grenfell – that her journalism moved me. Times I was jealous of her.

We weren’t particularly close. It’s a mark of how many people thought she was great that she probably had a few hundred friends and comrades who, like me, were always delighted to sneak away from some left-wing conference or other to grab a quick drink with her, or who enjoyed an occasional silly exchange on Twitter. But it’s her close friends who will be grieving most this week, along with everyone who yearned for a better media, and a better world.

The last time we snuck away from a conference together was to an amazing Chinese restaurant in Liverpool. Dawn was furious. Her Guardian column had been getting more reads and shares than most of the more established names at the paper. But it had just been cut. The paper, she believed, was more interested in ingratiating itself with the courtiers of some Labour centrist king over the mountain than with speaking to the growing audience of not-so-young-anymore readers whose life experiences have made us furious with capitalism, the British state and its jesters.

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Dawn Foster, eye-rolling on BBC News | Screenshot via @GossJam/Twitter/BBC News

Her final column, published on 9 July 2019, had encouraged Tom Watson, then Labour’s deputy leader, to quit the party.

“Watson’s wing of the party is convinced there is a huge untapped reserve of voters who share their precise politics, but exactly where these voters live remains to be seen,” she wrote, “I travel extensively around the country, and the only time I meet these people are in TV and radio studios.”

The paper, she felt, had made a clear decision to side with those monotone voices in the TV and radio studios whom she used to magnificently roll her eyes at, rather than the voters she met wherever she travelled across the country.

But it wasn’t just her journeys around the UK that helped her understand it. Dawn was a rare working-class woman in the media, and was unusual in our papers and televisions because of her background in both Wales and Ireland.

As Joe Dwyer wrote last week, “she was one of the few English-based journalists who covered the housing crisis in North Belfast and reported on the DUP’s blockage of housing plans for people from the Nationalist and Republican community… She was one of the few working-journalists in Britain who intimately understood Ireland. Especially at a time when many routinely embarrassed themselves by revealing their total lack of understanding.”

The world is full of brilliant working-class women. And our media should be, too

She suffered from epilepsy and schwannomatosis, and wrote brilliantly and hilariously about her experiences with them. When I did make it back from our lunch just in time to give my talk at that conference in Liverpool, she sat in the front row to support me, and had a fit. In reality, her condition was terrifying. At the Labour conference in 2018, she had told me that people kept saying she looked ‘well’ because she’d lost weight. In reality, she’d been seriously sick.

There aren’t many working-class, disabled, Welsh, feminist socialists in the British press. She fought her way in from the very periphery of Britain’s media industrial complex and made it not by letting them bend her, but by remaining angry, funny and clear, and by gloriously representing an audience that so many papers hadn’t understood was there.

And when The Guardian cut her, it wasn’t her they sidelined, but themselves.

It’s not just them. Dawn briefly worked at openDemocracy, too, as editor of our gender section, 50.50. But the frustrating need to fundraise alongside writing ultimately led to her departure. Which sucks.

Dawn herself was unique. That final column for The Guardian manages, in the space of two paragraphs, to teach us about early 20th-century Czech satirist Jaroslav Hašek and then sum up the flaws in centrist thinking better than any of the rest of us ever managed. But the world is full of brilliant working-class women. And our media should be, too.

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A sign reading 'Dawn Foster forever' hangs over the River Lea in Clapton, east London, July 2021 | Brian Whelan

Dawn Foster was the best of us. Our generation – who bunked off school to march against the Iraq War and graduated into the last financial crisis and felt the world heat, and blocked the streets to protest against austerity, and channelled our rage into sentences and paragraphs and articles and books – we have lost our clearest voice.

But we are just the harbingers of those who will follow. Where Dawn led, many more will come.

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