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Goodbye Sue October 11, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

It’s been a bad year for death. Six friends have succumbed to mortality this past ten months and the latest of these was the one I’d been closest to. Sue Miles, who was unaccountably 66 years-old, died of cancer on Friday last and I am only glad I was able to see her the day she finally went.

Her deterioration was swift: although in some pain and physical discomfort, on Wednesday she was sitting up in bed exercising the sharp wit and sometimes caustic commentary that characterised her considerable if easily-worn intellect: two days later she was unconscious and breathing fitfully, though I like to think approving of the small group of family and friends who were sitting around being as upbeat and sarky as we could.

It won’t do to dwell on the nature of her cancer, nor to trot out the old line about the tough battle fought because Sue herself was not one to wallow in the effects of illness – however serious – or indeed anything else. As a straight-talking, ever curious, forward looking and lateral thinking woman, that would not do and it’s one of the things that shone through when I first met her  in 1968.

I had been hired, purely on the basis of a few reviews and news items I’d written whilst living in Birmingham, by the then editor of underground newspaper, International Times, Peter Stansill. Sue’s husband, (Barry) Miles was a stalwart of the team I inherited to write for the music section I was woefully inexperienced to edit and like him, and as the daughter of Daily Mirror journalist, Lionel Crane), Sue provided great encouragement and support. Knowing few people in London at the time, Sue and Miles instantly befriended me and I spent my first Christmas there at the incongruously grand house they rented in Lord North Street, just behind Parliament Square. Over that Christmas and regularly afterwards, some of the key figures of the counter-culture, from Allen Ginsburg to Richard Neville, passed through their door and it always tickled me that cultural if not political revolution was being plotted in a haze of dope smoke just a hundred yards or so away from the seat of government.

Sue was involved in Indica Bookshop which was co-owned by her husband and a crucible for early underground culture and the beat poetry and art that originally fueled it. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and William Burroughs were celebrants of that movement and Sue engaged and entertained these luminaries with the same non-nonsense manner that she did this wide-eyed neophyte from the provinces who had barely two O-levels to rub together. She also ran the café at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, and after heading up the fundraising support group for the Oz Trial, she tired of the compromises that many of her contemporaries – including me I’m ashamed to say – were prepared to make as the counter-culture lost its idealism and energy, and embarked on a short-lived attempt to forge a career in mid-wifery. But after that she wisely turned her catering experience to succulent effect, initially at Food For Thought, a vegetarian restaurant in Covent Garden and then Didier in Maida Vale.

A gifted chef who made it look so easy, she went on to run the kitchens at L’Escargot, the Zanzibar, Dingwalls, Soho Brasserie and other establishments where her redoubtable (i.e. take no shit) attitude and culinary talent won her considerable praise, if not the celebrity craved by some of her peers, but sometimes also caused confrontation with owners who expected undying obescience. After divorcing Miles she married another friend, the renowned graphic designer Pearce Marchbank, with whom she had two children, Otis and Celine and, like many others, I once again found myself a welcome guest in their Kentish Town kitchen.

Having split from Pearce, two or three times a week a decade later  she fed me again as I rode wearily home from running my own publishing company in Shoreditch, and indeed taught me how to cook properly, at her house behind Kings Cross . As interested and supportive as ever in what I did, those suppers kept me nourished in more senses than one and although she eventually moved to set up restaurants in Suffolk, we still spoke regularly on the phone. When she moved back to Kings Cross having been diagnosed with cancer, I saw a lot more of her on my regular visits to London, albeit under less than happy circumstances.

There is much more I could tell you about Sue, but those who she made her friends, many of them closer than I, will probably have valued above all else her unswerving loyalty, her caterwauling laugh, her uncompromising determination to live life as she believed it should be lived and her magnificent bullshit detector. I’ve tried to avoid cliché in penning this scant obituary, but to say she will be much missed is incontrovertibly the case.

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