Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Goodbye Katharine, And Thank You

Two  weeks ago, the death was announced of Katharine Whitehorn, journalist, writer, radio presenter at the age of 92. She'd been living with Alzheimer's for a while.

I think she was the first woman journalist of whom I was really aware. She began her trade at a time when women in Fleet Street were meant to write about fashion, or food, or parenthood. But she was wise and witty, and honest. Early in her career, she was sent off with the paper's photographer, who needed some shots of 'young women in London'. Katharine had to carry a suitcase through the station, sit forlornly on a park bench, and huddle by the gas fire, as her washing dried over a rack in a dingy bedsit.

And she was a journalist not a model -what a cheek! but KW subsequently carved a way for women to hold their own, and many of those who followed her say they owe their success her pioneering efforts. The first woman to have a column in The Observer, and the first female rector of a Scottish University.

She wrote a piece in 1963 "Sluts" which caused an uproar at the time. Dedicated to women who have ever changed their stocking in a taxi, fixed a hem with a safety pin, or taken something back out of the laundry basket, because it had become "relatively, the 'cleaner' thing". Life was too full to bother with the little details.

I came to love her writing - she understood that some of us just cannot do it. However hard I try, I cannot manage to look effortlessly stylish [if I start that way, my hairdo is ruined by the wind, tights mysteriously ladder, and there is always a spot of gleaming white toothpaste on my otherwise pristine navy top ] and I only have to enter a tidy room for things to slide off the coffee table, or the kitchen sink to inexplicably fill with washing up, and the carefully arrange vased of flowers to suddenly shed petals everywhere.

Katharine wrote cleverly - but usually kindly - of what she saw around her. She punctured the balloons of the pompous, and praised the efforts of hardworking people - recognising that being a working mother is really difficult. 

KW wrote about more than housekeeping, style and parenthood - she was warm, and wise and witty. And she genuinely cared about the way women [and men] were treated in the workplace, and the ridiculous expectations on them. 

Her books "Cooking in a Bedsitter" is very precious - Bob bought this book as a student, and one evening in 1978 cooked a meal for his relatively new girlfriend using her recipe "The Dish". Then he proposed. Reader, I married him.

[listen to a brilliant radio play written around this book here]

KW was incredibly proud of her left-leaning nonconformist heritage - her great-grandfather was the the last person to be charged with heresy by the Church of Scotland [later acquitted] her grandfather founded the Marriage Guidance Council [now "Relate"] and her father was a conscientious objector in WW1 - and her mother had secured a place to study at Cambridge. Katharine married Gavin Lyall [who wrote spy fiction] and they had 45 happy years together. Her poignant pieces about widowhood touched many hearts. In the 1960s, they moved into a house in Hampstead, where she remained till 2018. Here she brought up her two sons. She always worked at a beautiful Kai Kristiansen desk to write all her articles, It was an inspired purchase - now recognised as a classic mid-century Scandi piece.

When she went into care, and her boys sold the house, the desk went to auction. It raised over £2000 for the 'Dementia UK' charity. In the Bonhams Catalogue, her son wrote "Dementia is an awful affliction, but one which most of us will have to deal with in one way or another. If her desk can, in some small way, help in the struggle – not just for a cure, but for a decent life for those involved – then I'm sure my mother would thoroughly approve."

That seems so fitting - in many ways in her life, and in her writing, she was committed to  'helping in the struggle, working for a decent life for others'.

She revisited her 1963 piece ten years ago - here it is

Slut, slob, slattern – what's in a name?

I feel I have to defend the word "slut". There have been parades of women defending the right to be sluttish, meaning sexually so; but the word can mean several things. In the 60s, when women were supposed to be efficient and clean, with white collars, unladdered stockings and meals punctually on the table, I wrote an article defending us sluts: those of us whose collars were dirty, who left cups in the bedroom and shoes in the kitchen and took back clothes from the dirty linen basket because they had become, relatively, the cleaner thing. And Observer readers wrote in their droves saying: "Me, too" – one woman had found herself wiping the kitchen table with the kitten, another said she'd used the buttons off her husband's pyjamas for suspender buttons until he sewed them on again, and so forth. [We had to use "slob" for American consumption, because to them a slut meant not so much a woman whose knicker elastic let her down as one who let down her own knickers (always assuming she was wearing any)

But our meaning of slut – struggling slattern or mucker – is not to be taken from us. There are still plenty of us about, even if we've cleaned up a bit over the years.   [June 2011]








18 comments:

  1. I used to refer to myself as "a bit of a slut" until the alternative meaning was pointed out to me! I am still a slut (and have become more so as I get older!) and much prefer the word to "slob" which is a more ugly word. Though I quite like "slattern" too, which makes me think of a don't care, laddered stocking kind of gal!

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    1. Yes, probably 'slatternly' is a better adjective to use nowadays. Slob is an ugly word, as you say [up there with gob, snob and blob]

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  2. Thank you for a wonderful post on one of my "heroines". What an amazing, erudite, compassionate and witty woman she was. I smiled about the comment on not wearing any knickers as it brings to mind my own mother who quite often went out shopping knicker-less because of a laundry crisis. Your blog is always so interesting to read as you cover such varied topics. Thank you once again, regards Sue H.

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    1. That reminds me of a lady who turned up at our church on a very hot summer's day to attend a funeral. I was greeting people in the church entrance. "Where's the loo?" she asked. I directed her - and when she came back a few minutes later she whispered "Oh that's better, I'll be much more comfortable in the pew now I have taken my knickers off" [I struggled to maintain a straight face and not giggle - it was a funeral after all] When I write my book about being a Pastor's wife, that anecdote will have to be included.

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    2. One time when we flew from Chicago to London we took a nap at the hotel and then forced ourselves up to go walking. I had jumped into my clothes. I was SO uncomfortable walking about as my panties were really in a twist. I kept sneakily trying to adjust them. When we got back to the hotel I saw that I had jumped in wrong. One leg was in the waist part and the leg hole was around my waist! It was a horrible feeling!

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    3. My 4year old granddaughter did that in the summer - she really couldn't work out what had gone wrong! Fortunately her mum was on hand to set her straight.

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  3. How fabulous, and so very very reassuring. Perhaps, Ang, you could be a columnist in your retirement? I think you would amply fill KW's shoes. I am slightly sad about the desk.

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    1. Sad that you didn't get it? Sad that it didn't raise more money? Be glad that the charity was blessed! Not sure anyone would pay me to write a column, Mags.

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  4. What a wonderful blog! I've been reading the obituaries about this writer and just realized that I have a copy of "Cooking in a Bedsit"! I will be searching out some of her over works. Thank you

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    1. Even when you have a fully equipped kitchen, her recipes are brilliant for simple unfussy meals

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    1. Thank you- I hadn't seen one in any of the other blogs I follow, and I thought she deserved a proper mention

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  6. I always read her columns, and that is going back many years. What a clever writer she was.
    And as for the kitten.......!

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    1. Never had a kitten myself. I will admit to quickly wiping some spilt milk with a sock which was en route to the washing machine.

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  7. I'm afraid she is someone I hadn't heard of or read, but, you wrote a lovely tribute to her.

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  8. Oh she sounds brilliant! What a great lady (And I loved your own proposal link in there! How romantic!)

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  9. I am so glad I read this today. I have two of her Cooking in a bedsit books and had forgotten them. There was a lovely recipe for upside down lemon meringue pie, must have been in the Cooking to Impress section! I am going to look them out.

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    1. I must re read my copy and see which gems I've forgotten

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