“I would be lying if I said that the last decade hasn’t been the best of my life. I’ve been lucky in love, fulfilled in my work, surrounded by friends, laughed more than I ever thought possible at the most ridiculous of things. I can say with absolute honesty that I have had a lovely time and I don’t regret any of it.”
Those words came from a piece Sarah wrote for the Observer two years ago. It was unforgettable. Titled Game of Thrones, cancer and me, it was about her journey through the disease that last week claimed her life, and how her passion for popular culture (in particular GoT) gave her something to hold on to in dark times. The piece wasn’t miserable (although it made me cry for a long time afterwards) or angry. Instead it was bold, practical, reflective and witty. Just like Sarah herself.
We first met about 20 years ago on the Observer, slightly blurry days filled with deadlines, socialising and headaches brought on by too much gin and whisky. But it wasn’t until 2015, when I moved on to the Observer’s news desk, that Sarah and I struck up a working relationship and then, so much more importantly, a fulfilling friendship.
It could have started badly. Unknown to me at the time, I got the job Sarah had gone for. When I found out, I sent her an apologetic email saying I “hoped she didn’t feel peeved at me”. The reply was instant: “Darling, not at all, if I couldn’t get it then I was glad it was you, as much to have someone I’m friends with than a random person.”
We spent the next five-and-a-half years talking, often over lunch, about everything from books, films, TV programmes, sport and global politics to the school curriculum.
We found common ground in our home lives – both in our 40s, husband, two children of similar ages and even a dog each. Sarah’s husband Kris, 13-year-old Ruby and 11-year-old Oisín were, without doubt, the best things that ever happened to her.
She was an extraordinary storyteller, equally at home chatting in a pub to a group of middle-aged blokes about her much-loved team Spurs or her passion for horse racing as she was discussing American politics, “trashy” novels (which she loved) or fashion. She was clever, funny, kind and generous with praise. Every email began “Hey darling” and ended in kisses – even when she was a bit cross.
Since the announcement of her death last Tuesday, there has been an outpouring of affection for Sarah and appreciation of her work, from fans of her much-loved Game of Thrones and Line of Duty recaps to scores of predominantly female writers whom she championed.
But it was the articles she wrote for the Observer in recent times that captivated a new audience. She wrote about the agonising loss of two stillborn babies – first for the Observer magazine and then for a piece I commissioned in 2017. Was she OK writing about her own experience, I asked, or would this be too much? “I am,” she replied. “I always get a little emotional … but that’s part of it.”
In the past three years, there were candid and moving accounts about her journey with cancer. Her honest and, ultimately, upbeat accounts drew a new audience, often those who appreciated someone voicing their own experience so articulately.
These articles were difficult to read for those of us who knew and loved her because Sarah rarely talked about her illness. In March 2018, when she came to my desk and said she had something to say and could we go for a coffee, Sarah told me she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. I wobbled over the right response but she batted off any attempt to console her, keen to get back to work. Later in an email, I asked if she had told some mutual friends of ours. In typical matter-of-fact style she replied: “I haven’t but I don’t mind you telling them because to be honest it’s a hassle having to have the same conversation constantly.”
Six months later, she told me the cancer had spread to her liver and was now incurable. I was on my local high street when she called. The rain was coming down, the traffic was loud, so I ducked into a side alley. “It’s spread,” she said, when I could eventually hear her. “I’ve got an interview lined up for you this afternoon but I’m not sure I can do it right now.” Of course she shouldn’t do it, I said – but even then she insisted I line up someone else as she didn’t want to let the interviewee down.
Despite the rapid progression of the disease, she never stopped working and would file from her hospital bed, at one point memorably phoning me about a piece while keeping at bay a nurse trying to get her ready for a procedure. “I’m on the phone to my editor, I just need a minute,” she kept insisting.
During the pandemic, Sarah remained positive even though she had to shield herself from another terrible illness she feared might claim her life. “I’ve never been more glad to live in the suburbs of west London because Kris can take the kids to play Gaelic football up a hill every day for an hour and there’s no one there. Plus I have a garden,” she wrote to me.
In all the conversations we had nearer the end, she never mentioned death and she always kept her sense of humour. She would undoubtedly have laughed her infectious throaty laugh last week if she had known that at one point she was trending on Twitter with Kellyanne Conway and Kim Kardashian.
Last weekend, she left hospital knowing she didn’t have long left. “She got to go out the way she wanted,” her husband Kris said in a message the day after she died. “She was so determined to make it home and she managed it somehow.”
Friends and family of Sarah Hughes have created a crowdfunding website hoping to raise £10,000 to set up a charitable trust in her memory. Those wishing to donate should visit justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sarahhughestrust