Remembering Lilian Mohin

I’ve just read in yesterday’s Guardian Other Lives, that Lilian Mohin has died, age 81, although the online version is dated March, so lockdown and Covid-enlarged deathrate must have pushed her off the paper version initially. I don’t think she’d be pleased.

We argued, the first time Lilian and I met, and for a while I avoided her as best I could. A couple of years later that first story was published. I’d been having a really bad time at work and I remember tossing the acceptance letter in the air with delight. All grumbles were forgotten.

After a second anthology acceptance of two stories, Lilian confided that she got sent some very bad stories, and wished she got work like mine more often.

I took her at her word. Every couple of weeks or so, I sent her a story, in the post. (The internet was in its infancy. I remember her saying how she was staying in touch with friends in the US via ’email’ and being bemused, it sounded very like witchcraft.) Each envelope was marked ‘Amusing Ms Mohin.’ We both enjoyed it and she would phone to discuss the latest. (Not your best, dearrr-heart, Needs some work, Pumpkin, This is goood.)

Eventually Ms Mohin was amused enough to publish my first collection. (I was thrilled, I got to choose the cover, I got to choose the font – Garamond, still my favourite I got to veto, if not choose the paper!) I now realise how unusual this was, but I was interested in every aspect, so she talked to me about every aspect, except – crucially – one.

I annoyed the hell out of Lilian by refusing to do any publicity beyond a launch at my local bookshop, and a couple of readings elsewhere. I didn’t understand how important it was, I was borderline agoraphobic (more than borderline, if I’m honest), the idea of radio interviews horrified me, and she hadn’t the patience to explain. Despite that, the book sold reasonably well, owing to the phenomenal Onlywomen mailing list – and people bought books then, almost automatically. I own a copy of virtually everything Onlywomen published.

For a while I spent a lot of time in Lilian’s company, both socially and in a business context. I was briefly on the advisory board, (where I met some fantastic women) and I helped with rebranding for the 21st anniversary (there were a lot of laughs to be had from that).

When I first started pulling away from working at things that were nothing to do with writing I helped out in the office, then in the basement of a town house opposite the British Library, one afternoon a week. I read and commented on manuscripts, sent rejection letters, went to the post office with mail orders…  on one occasion bringing brackets, screws and a screwdriver to fix her collapsing desk – it had been like that for weeks, I didn’t dare lean on it. Lilian hardly ate, and I took to bringing lunch with me and making her share it. I had to be imaginative, she didn’t eat dairy, or citrus and – was it tomatoes? I can’t remember, but we had fun with my concoctions.

It is frequently her voice I hear when I am editing my own work – soft, drawling, but what she had to say, to the point. Sometimes she spoke so softly I couldn’t hear her, but I never said so – I would say I don’t know over and over until she spoke up. That probably annoyed her too.

When not editing, she was the mistress of the digression, and I found her very difficult to follow at full volume, never mind her habitual die-away tone. Initially I put in mental parentheses to try to keep track, then, taking a leaf from my partner’s book, would say, put a pin in that, stick to the point. She liked that, and would sometimes voluntarily put a pin in, and come back to the deviation when the import of the conversation was dealt with.

I spent some time office-hunting with her when the lease (or was it the funding?) ran out on the basement, and eventually she gave up and worked from home. Cue more lunches, and meetings dominated by the antics of cat Simpkin (a delightful animal), and I got told some life history – named for the woman who took her pregnant mother in when she arrived in Kent escaping Nazi Germany, her wondrously tall children (Lilian was positively birdlike herself), her MS, her love life.

Eventually came the rejection, in quick succession, of the second collection, and of the novel that she asked me to write. I took my manuscripts away, wounded, and we (wisely) didn’t speak for a bit. Then she phoned me up and said, that collection… It was months later. I quoted back the mean-spirited spidery-pencilled scrawls on the manuscript. She squirmed. I invited her to a birthday party, warning her that there would be men there (we had both been separatists, I had since discovered one or two men I quite liked. It felt like a test – if she came, we were back on, if she didn’t…) She said she wouldn’t come. She said she would come, necessitating changes to the food. She arrived, and sat in the kitchen sulking, where she gradually unthawed until she was holding court in there, with the cats, and mostly, ironically, to the men. They set up a mutual admiration society while the party went on around them. We made up, we published.

I worked harder at promoting that one, I understood, now. When Onlywomen hit its 35th anniversary (coinciding with Lilian’s 70th year – I went to her birthday party) I organised a reading at my local library with other writers published by Onlywomen, and it hit me, as I was doing the introductions, that Lilian had devoted half her life to Onlywomen.

Eventually we fell out again. It was inevitable really, with Lilian, either you were in, or you weren’t. We didn’t drift apart, we didn’t lose touch. It was always all or nothing with Lilian, she didn’t do half measures, and I think that had rubbed off on me, it was entirely intentional on my part.

She was still having an impact on my life though, as, in reaction, I set up Arachne Press. And then found out how little I really knew, despite all those conversations in the basement opposite the British Museum.