Katharine Whitehorn is one of journalism's greats. She was one of the early feminists – but not so feminist as to make one dislike her or find her threatening. She has served on enough boards surely to merit her the offer of a Damehood (rather than the measly OBE she so rightly turned down); and she virtually single-handedly created the "lifestyle" column. Of course, when you look at what passes for the subject-matter in lifestyle columns now, one would be forgiven for arguing that she had created a monster, but at the time her columns were incredibly funny, refreshing and liberating.
"Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?" What woman can forget that guilt-relieving remark? Not to mention, "Outside every slim woman is a fat man signalling to be let in." And the immensely sensible reflection that "Doing Christmas at the last minute is OK – not only is it not too late, it is quite possibly too early."
The voice of Whitehorn, never one to declare a penchant for immaculate housework or pandering to a bloke yet still distinctly feminine, was quite radical in the Sixties, when housewives could still devote their entire lives to cleaning the front step and dusting the never-used parlour. She encouraged us to become ourselves, sluttish if necessary, to sit down and have a drink rather than polish the silver, to read a book in preference to making net curtains. Her amusing weekly columns in The Observer were probably far more subversive and effective in the fight for women's rights than any number of bra-burners.
The only problem I have with her autobiography, Selective Memory, is that her life seems so outrageously happy. She had loving parents – her grandfather turns out to be Herbert Grey, founder of the Marriage Guidance Council, now Relate. She did well at school, was one of the few women to go to Cambridge, got various publishing jobs, did a stint as a reporter on Picture Post, and became women's editor of The Observer. Briefly, she was fashion editor, but she always wanted the fashion pages to be for "real people" – which, of course, is not what fashion is all about.
Though the readers loved it, the advertisers didn't – which was lucky because it freed her up for the column and, later, for a series of short books on survival. The first was Cooking in a Bedsitter, in print for 40 years, and absolutely essential for anyone who, in the Seventies, wanted to cook just for one. The book described things like braising, stock, browning, and how to make a white sauce. It was also important to explain what an avocado pear was, and yoghurt, and Whitehorn had to urge her readers to accept the now ubiquitous teabag. This book was followed a series of survival manuals, like How to Survive Children, and How to Survive Your Money Problems.
The idyllic life of career, children, committees and boating is never quite so interesting as a miserable one, but the book becomes more gripping at the end when Whitehorn writes movingly of her husband, the crime writer Gavin Lyall, whose occasional comic entries make amusing reading. Clearly a very entertaining man in his own right, he remarks dryly, when Katharine has told him she has done the wash, cleaned up the bulbs, rung his sister and tidied up the spare room: "What ought you to have been doing?"
She charts his battle with drink: "Life was so cosy at the bottom of that bottle," he once said, having given up for a while. Finally, there is the moving description of her widowhood, which her natural optimism transforms from being something absolutely ghastly to something almost liberating, despite the sadness. There is a sort of relief, she says, honest to the last, in not having to own up that you've been inept enough to drive from Kennington to Hampstead via a road labelled A23 Brighton.
Virginia Ironside's novel 'No! I don't want to join a bookclub' is published by Penguin
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