Dr Lorraine Lim: some memories

by Scott Rodgers on September 18, 2017

Last week, Lorraine Lim, a Birkbeck colleague and friend, passed away surrounded by her partner and family in Singapore. I can still hardly believe, or accept, that I’m writing these words. And I’m not sure my blog is where I should be writing them. But over the last few days, as I’ve debated this in my head, I’ve concluded that this is a good place. Maybe it opens up a few more memories – albeit minor, fleeting and mostly work-related – to an indefinite public who knew Lorraine.

The first time I met Lorraine was when she and Sophie Hope joined me in a temporary shared office, on Tavistock Square; soon after, we were also joined by Stamatia Portanova. The four of us spent those few initial months getting to know one another, trying to figure Birkbeck out. Right away, Lorraine left an indelible impression. She was incredibly friendly and cheery. She was positive, decisive, confident and direct. She had ideas and trajectory. I could see even then that she was going to have a big impact on our then very young department.

Soon after, I had the opportunity to work with Lorraine on a project. Along with Sophie Hope, we organised a postgraduate workshop on ‘doing research amongst technologies’. We took the approach you might expect from keen early career academics: we put an awful lot of work into it. It was fun, though from my recollection, Lorraine and I also butted heads, here and there. Our ways of being in the world overlapped in some respects: we were both strong willed. But Lorraine also had a way of just cutting to the chase, of cutting out the bullshit. Something I certainly lack myself at times. The resulting workshop was a success, and it was strongly influenced by Lorraine. It’s worth linking to the workshop website and blog, because it testifies to Lorraine’s insistence that the workshops needed to have a life beyond the face-to-face sessions. She was instrumental in ensuring that the website could be a resource for others, distant and after the fact. This was a general quality that I will always remember about Lorraine: her strong sense that the academy ought to have some utility. Not utility in terms of immediate practical or commercial ends, but responsibility to think about the uses of what we do. More than most, Lorraine recognised that academics work from a privileged position of relative autonomy, and felt we should make something of that.

Lorraine was well known for her research, which sought to understand cultural policies, institutions and work through its myriad contexts, particularly in cities and in East Asia. Those of us who worked with Lorraine, though, also knew a multidimensional and deeply committed colleague. She was committed to the widening participation mission of Birkbeck. Alongside her extensive work on the postgraduate arts management programme, Lorraine spent years developing and defending the Foundation Degree in Arts and Media Management, aimed at students who otherwise would not have an opportunity at higher education. She was committed to students’ futures. Based on a very well-run student workshop, Lorraine developed a superb website aimed at preparing students for work in the cultural and creative industries (which she also late wrote about in The Guardian). She was committed to labour politics. I can remember, like it was yesterday, Lorraine quite rightly giving me a stern talking to on the steps of Gordon Square, when the fact of it being a strike day had passed me by. Suffice to say, I promptly joined the union, and the next time we were on strike, I was there in solidarity with her and others. Above all, however, I remember Lorraine as committed to ensuring that her work life had a social side, most often one involving food and drink. She was often the first to take the initiative in organising departmental drinks, or to lead us on a Szechuan dinner. She was a true Singaporean.

In the past week, my colleagues and I in FMACS (as we call our department) have been exchanging our memories of Lorraine over email, telephone, and in the corridors of Gordon Square. Her passing has underlined the ways in which our small department is like family, one which has lost a most dear sibling. Thankfully, at least one of us – Simone Wesner – was able to travel to Singapore for the funeral, to express to Lorraine’s familiar and friends how important she was to us.

Through social media, the past week has also delivered many new memories of Lorraine. People with whom I’m unacquainted, tagging Lorraine’s name, adding thoughts and images. I feel as if I’m learning about new and other sides of Lorraine, about just how wide her network of friends was, how much she was loved, and the fun things she go up to outside of academia. But it’s the images, arriving like waves, which are most haunting.

Only a few of the images coincide with the time during and around her treatment for cancer; how she looked when she came back to FMACS, so very briefly, for a party we threw to celebrate her return. An affair of sparkling wine, and chocolates, which we’d laid on as a surprise – and in hindsight, hopeful – welcome home. She didn’t drink, she couldn’t, due to the medication she was on at the time. And she had someone to meet that night, so couldn’t stay as long as she’d have liked either. It was the last time I saw her in person. She soon returned to Singapore for further treatment.

Most of the images I see on social media, though, resemble the Lorraine I knew as a colleague and friend. For now, these images conjure up the stubborn unreality of her passing away. Like the rest of my colleagues, I knew Lorraine was unwell, but the London-to-Singapore distance seemed to mean her absence, and the reasons for it, were sometimes experienced more abstractly than they might have otherwise. Now we must come to terms with this sad, and profoundly unfair, loss. Alongside my colleagues, I hope we can find ways to make sure Lorraine’s memory endures. Rest in peace, friend.

Leave a Comment

Previous post: