I took this photo of Polly in Whitstable in January 2013. We’d gone there for the weekend with Hannah and Kate. It was a sort of baby shower – though of course Polly would scoff at such a thing – two weeks before the birth of my son Natty, Polly’s godson.
She told me later she was impressed by my bright red nylon Reebok classics and my stories of going to raves but really it was her with her strident opinions and her fierce intelligence who had the cool. I hadn’t met anyone like her before. Meeting her family it all made a bit more sense: her Dad who spoke to us like adults, her cute little brother, and her lovely warm mum Jane, whose tenacity, advocacy and love have been unending in these difficult years.
So that first impression was entirely accurate, that is who Polly was: a brave cool nerd, telling everyone about the interesting thing she’d read about Russia, tweeting an article about it the day before she died.
We quickly became the firmest of friends and confidantes, chatting our way through our teenage years, then Liverpool University, then muddling our way through the dance floors, festivals, weird jobs and shared houses of our 20s and on and on the conversation carried us, into marriage, motherhood and beyond. Allies and witnesses to each other. Comrades and chosen sisters.
Miriam Gold recalls her friend since sixth form
How do you sum up a life? A life untimely cut short. A hilarious, brilliant, complex woman. A mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a best friend. A historian and a poet.
These last weeks memories and snapshots have come pouring in to my mind. The time we went to Vietnam and realised the only transport option was motorbikes driven at daredevil speed by drivers who looked about 13, Polly screaming and laughing over the noise of the engines and the hubbub of Saigon. The times we got dressed up and went out dancing, the times we stayed in and she cooked vegetarian lasagna – still the best I’ve had – the storm in Lille, the songs we sang, the night she met Rhys at a house party in Stoke Newington, the rainy afternoons sat round the kitchen table whilst the kids played: all the tea we drank and all the toast and marmite we ate and all the chats we had.
But really I’ve been reflecting on my first impression of Polly. In the History class at my new school this tiny girl with long red hair put her hand up and was telling the room she’d just finished reading Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Livesand could she have a moment please to talk to the class about it? Did she not know the rules? You don’t admit you actually enjoy learning. Amazed, I watched as the girl continued, saying it was a great read – though not without problems – and that we should all ask for it for Christmas.
We were barely 16 but even then Polly knew who she was: a massive bookworm who was so uncool that she was cool. Whilst the rest of us were messy teenagers Polly had her own beautiful and dignified approach to life.
Polly’s intuition was immaculate. She knew to take a punt on a boy from Cardiff, turns out he was husband material of the finest possible quality.
Polly found a home in academia. After years of journalism and taking time out to be with her children she found her place in the professional world. Her Phd brought her immense pleasure and the happiness of sitting in a library or an archive in Kiev or Tbilisi filled her bookworm’s heart to overflowing. During her illness it was a safe place for her to go: separate from the disease, the work she desperately wanted to do. In what turned out to be her last days, she reflected with classic Polly fortitude and humour on the fact that an article she wrote was trending whilst news from the doctor was so difficult.
To have her as a friend was to have someone for whom you would save up your best jokes, remember your funniest stories and share the secrets of your heart to open slowly together, savouring the words and unravelling the problems. Polly’s view of the world was a singular one, but she was also unequivocal in the love and solidarity she gave.