My First Job: Writer and 'Saga' agony aunt Katharine Whitehorn

'I got serious Finns to play silly games'
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The Independent Online

Eight years after the end of the Second World War, the young Katharine Whitehorn was one of those parachuted in (metaphorically) to bring emergency supplies of spoken English to Finns who had been unable to practise the language in a country occupied by Germans.

This was before she became a taboo-breaking columnist, a time when women were practically stoned in the streets for not being perfect housewives, before she said that it was OK to be a "slut" like her. Now a classic, her Cooking in a Bedsitter became required reading in rented digs. Today, she continues the good work as Saga magazine's agony aunt.

Realising, after three years, that reading publishers' manuscripts was pretty tedious work, she took advantage of a British Council scheme that provided English lessons to Finnish cultural and social clubs. "I was the first 'teacher-secretary' in Mikkeli, a quiet town in the middle of Finland. Nobody, it seemed, was expecting me. The people who were technically in charge of the club had lost interest."

Much later, when Whitehorn became involved with her university's Appointments Board, she discovered that, as a student, they had put her down as a "self-starter". In Finland she was, unknowingly, testing their theory. "It was the first time I had run my own show. It was very character-forming. Getting 30 or 40 serious Finns to run about playing silly games to improve their English gives you a great sense of power not to mention putting on scenes from The Beggar's Opera, which they adored."

First she had to break the ice not literally in the frozen fjords, although after a sauna she did once do the traditional nude roll in the snow. "The Finns were reserved at first but then they were pure gold." Katharine's students were skilled at written English; one, a teacher of English, actually gave Katharine a few tips on English grammar.

Spoken English was the gap in their market. It wasn't only pronunciation; they had picked up German expressions and were liable to ask, "Won't you take place?", instead of, "Won't you sit down?" One pupil asked what Katharine's parents thought about their daughter being "far with the bears". (Fortunately her parents didn't mind her being away, and Mikkeli was a bear-free zone.) Then there was the Kirk Douglas-lookalike for whom she fell: "I vos in marriage" meant "I have a wife and child".

Katharine acquired practically no Finnish, a fiendishly difficult tongue. It is from the same linguistic family as Hungarian but even Hungarians are baffled by it. She did, however, pick up one word while there: "sauna". She was familiar with the term, of course, but not with the correct pronunciation. You and I say "sorna", but she learnt that it should be "sowna". Five decades later, she still says "sowna".

'Selective Memory', the autobiography of Katharine Whitehorn, is published by Virago at 18.99

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