Eleanor Mills pays tribute to a pioneering female journalist – and family friend

I first met Katharine Whitehorn at family parties – she was a great friend of my aunt Barbara Mills’s sister, Sheila. She’d be clad in a silk shirt, drinking gin and had the most fantastic gravelly voice, posher than the Queen, think Celia Johnson from Brief Encounter after three packets of fags. I remember she always asked interesting questions. And when I popped up on the Observer in the early 1990s as a rookie hack she was smiley and concerned and always keen to know what any of us youngsters were working on.

Whitehorn was a true Fleet Street Grande Dame, the first woman to have a column on The Observer, which she joined in 1960. Her mix of the domestic and the profound has been much copied but rarely bettered. Reading back through her columns, they still ring true today – why should anyone, ever feel good about getting round to doing the cleaning? Her conclusion was forget it and go to the pub. Or here she is on birthday parties:  “The main purpose of children’s parties is to remind you that there are children more awful than your own.” Quite.

Whitehorn was a pioneer, a trailblazer the voice of a new, modern kind of woman – educated but not a blue stocking. Married but not defined by her husband. A mother, but one who had a job and a life outside the family. It is amazing to think that when she went to Cambridge (Newnham) to study English after the second world war, the men she studied with had all fought in it and women had to be out of mens’ colleges by 10pm. I loved her story of being lowered out of Trinity on a rope by a “chap who is currently a high court judge”.

She chronicled a huge shift in womens’ lives, which her most famous book, Cooking in a Bedsitter, epitomised. It described how to make spaghetti on one gas ring, and what to do with an avocado pear. Her writing evokes a generation of women living independently, away from family and without a husband, for the first time. The outpouring of affection for her and her book on Twitter today shows how loved she was.

In her writing she wrestles with the innate entitlement of ‘chaps’ without raging about it – showing up the double standards and sexism of the time with humour not a sledgehammer.  “It might be marvellous to be a man – then I could stop worrying about what is fair to women and just cheerfully assume I am superior and they will iron my shirts.”

Her great legacy was to pull back the curtain on ‘having it all’ – she didn’t pretend that she could manage kids, career and husband effortlessly. Often it involved changing her tights in a taxi, not clearing up, or fishing a dirty dress out of the laundry basket because it was less rank than any of the alternatives. Her lack of embarrassment about the corners that had to be cut in order to juggle everything was the opposite of the cult of perfection that many women still struggle with today. Her columns give women permission to be themselves, to dislike domesticity, to find their own paths.

At the end of her session on Desert Island Discs, her luxury item was a distiller, so she could make booze out of whatever fruit or vegetables were to be found. Not for Whitehorn a dry January!

If you haven’t read her, or didn’t get the chance to chat to her at one of our Women in Journalism Christmas or summer parties where she was a regular attendee, get online and have a scout.  For those of us who did, she is one of the reasons we became journalists, though few can rival her knack for a fantastic turn of phrase.

Most of all, Whitehorn’s tales from the sexual equality frontline remind us how far women have come in the century since her birth.

Katherine, I hope you are sitting up in heaven on a fluffy cloud enjoying a stiff gin. Wherever you are,  Women In Journalism salutes you.

*********************************************************************************

Julia Langdon remembers Katharine  ( British Journalism Review Spring 2021)

It was in a cellar in Chancery Lane, just a stone’s throw from the Street of Adventure, that I came face to face with my future. It would be spelled out literally in the name of Katharine Whitehorn and, for the pedants, that is the correct use of the adverb “literally”.  Many women journalists of my generation will say that they owe their careers to the brilliant barnstorming of Katharine Whitehorn, yet how many credit it to spelling her name correctly?

It happened like this. At the back end of 1967, I found myself in that cellar for a day-long examination, set by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, called the Proficiency Test. It was the culmination of nearly four years employment as an articled apprentice on the Portsmouth Evening News, but its significance was far greater than the scroll of paper awarded to successful candidates and which, I can personally attest, nobody in all the years that lay ahead would ever ask to see. It was the ticket to freedom. It was the only means to escape the contract of apprenticeship. It was in those days of a closed shop, operated under some sort of agreement between the trades unions and the Establishment (with a gigantic capital “E”), the single route to a job on Fleet Street for those who were not Oxbridge graduates. I have no idea how this curious arrangement was policed, but it was certainly how it then operated.

To be eligible to sit the Proficiency Test, candidates were required to secure qualifications in advance in English, Law for Journalists, current affairs and Pitman’s shorthand at 120 words a minute. They had not devised a means of measuring our rat-like cunning or whether we had a sufficiently plausible manner because Nicolas Tomalin had yet to define the only essential qualities for real success in journalism. (He wrote that characterisation in 1969.) Night classes, day release, a trio of appropriate ‘A’ levels and the constant threat of being fired for failure to match a terrifying schedule of shorthand speeds had brought me those requirements and thus from Portsmouth to Chancery Lane. So there was therefore a great deal riding on the outcome when I sat down in that cellar, licked my pencil and turned over the paper to start writing now.

And the only question I can remember went something like this: “Which woman journalist do you most admire and why?”

Well, of course it had to be Katharine Whitehorn. She was the trailblazer who had cut a path through wild country so others might follow. She had hacked her own way through the undergrowth of Fleet Street and secured a vantage point in The Observer which she used to illuminate the ways of the world for all her women readers. And, in the passage of time, for quite a few men as well.

She was funny and frank and fearless. Famously, she brought out the inner slut in all of us, shining a torch into the dark places in all our lives – particularly beneath the kitchen sink – and making us feel better about ourselves as we proudly hung up the sign which read: “Only dull women have immaculate houses”. She had insight and empathy and a quite remarkable ability to convey her meaning in words of straightforward common sense.  I can still quote now, as I had committed to memory then -and I haven’t looked this up to check: “Motherhood means finding a sausage in your purse. Motherhood means finding your purse in the dustbin. Motherhood means not finding your purse.”

I had read her columns. I had bought her book “Only on Sundays” earlier that year and, dusting down my copy from the shelves, I see that I paid 25 shillings for it, which was quite a lot out of a starting salary which I remember as £8.14s.6d. (I got a £1 over the minimum for the ‘A’ levels). It had gone up a bit since 1964, but the Fleet Street minimum of £32 a week shimmered like the riches of Croesus.

And now here I was, poised to write a witty and erudite hymn in praise of this woman journalist I so admired, whose footsteps I sought to follow, who had shown us the way ahead – and I couldn’t remember how many ‘a’s and ‘e’s she had in her bloody name. I knew it began with a ‘K’, but were there two ‘a’s or two ‘e’s in her first name? And was there an ‘e’ on the end of Whitehorn?

The first news story I had written in 1964, having graduated from “Ships, Tides and Weather”, resulted from my dispatch by the news editor to a 20-storey block of flats near Portsmouth Dockyard where the lifts had failed. “Find someone on the top floor who needs a wheelchair,” he said. “Preferably a child.” I went, I climbed, I found the sob story. Back in the office, I typed it all out and handed it to the news editor. “This Mrs Jones,” he said of the sobbing heroine, once he had read it, “what’s her first name?” I went back. I climbed those 20 storeys again to speak once again with a surprised Mrs Jones. I did not forget that lesson from Mr Wilkinson (no first names for news editors – but it was Bill) and I knew now, with a dreadful certainty, that spelling Katharine Whitehorn’s name wrongly was not going to be a means of proving myself a proficient journalist.

But reader I went for it! And I must have spelt it correctly because I passed, I got the scroll and in due course, I got the job. I tried the Daily Express first. It was a proper newspaper and James Cameron was in my rollcall of heroes, up there with Katharine, as I would one day be privileged to call her. I went to the black Lubyanka, filled in a request to see the news editor and was taken to the pub by a kindly chap from the back bench who said that I was a bit young, at 21, and should perhaps try the evening papers. Undaunted, I didn’t pass “Go!” but went directly to Bouverie Street. The London Evening News at the time was running an advertising campaign for its classified department, featuring a young woman with a speech bubble which read: “I got my job through the Evening News!” I filled in a yellow chitty asking for the news editor and under “Purpose of Visit” wrote: “To get my job ON the Evening News!”

It worked. I don’t know now how I had the courage, but it surely came from Katharine. Nobody asked to see my scroll or tested my shorthand speeds. But they gave me a notebook, and a box of biros, and a typewriter in the clattering newsroom, and £32 a week, and a career and it was all due to her. Years later, I was able to tell her about it and thank her in person. It brought tears to my eyes then as it does again today as I write this now, for Katharine Whitehorn, two ‘a’s, two ‘e’s, in eternal gratitude.

*********************************************************************************

Obituary for Ham & High by  Julia Langdon

The original definition of a “trailblazer” is someone who cuts a path through wild country so others might follow and that is the role that Katharine Whitehorn performed for women journalists of my generation. More than that, however, having hacked her own way through the undergrowth of Fleet Street in the 1960s she used the vantage point she secured as an Observer columnist to illuminate the ways of the world for all her women readers. And in the passage of time, quite a few men as well.

She wrote about the world as it was, reflecting the reality of the lives of working women and rejecting the anodyne picture book presentation that had previously filled the feature pages of the nation’s newspapers. She was funny and frank and fearless and her readers loved it. Famously, she brought out the inner slut in all of us, shining a torch into the dark places in all our kitchens and making us feel better about ourselves as we proudly hung up the sign reading “Only dull women have immaculate houses”.

Her insight and sensitivity was harnessed to a remarkable ability to convey her meaning in words of straightforward common sense. Even today I can quote her from memory, in a column which must have been written over fifty years ago – and I haven’t looked this up to check. “Motherhood,” she wrote, “is finding a sausage in your purse. Motherhood is finding your purse in the dustbin. Motherhood is not finding your purse.”

Somehow Katharine Whitehorn found the confidence to do this from the combination of her genetic inheritance, a privileged education – six secondary schools and Cambridge University – and a few rackety years which took in studying in the United States; working as a waitress, a model and a short-order cook; teaching English in Finland and a spell employed in a charm school. She never needed a lesson in charm herself and it was perhaps inevitable that her sparkling, bright-eyed curiosity brought her into journalism.

She worked for Woman’s Own, Picture Post and the Spectator before joining the Observer in 1960 and becoming that newspaper’s first woman columnist in 1963. Although there was a break of 15 years from 1996, during which she became an agony aunt for Saga Magazine, she returned as a columnist to The Observer in 2011 and appeared regularly until three years ago.  She knew how to survive and she shared that skill, too, with a wide readership in a series of books on surviving life’s difficulties. Her best-known book, published originally in 1961 and still in print today, was “Cooking in a Bedsitter”. The book was republished in 2008 and an updated version was adapted for a radio series with an ironic commentary in the author’s own unforgettably cut-glass tones.

When she developed Alzheimer’s and needed full-time care, her two sons made a poignant gesture of selling the writing desk at which she had worked throughout her life to raise funds for the  charity Dementia UK to fight the disease.

Ms Whitehorn married the author Gavin Lyall in 1958. He died in 2003 and the immense grief which his death caused her would lead in due course to her own interpretation of how it felt to live and survive the loss of such a love as theirs. And even since her death, her wisdom has helped others. A friend of mine told me only yesterday how she had sent Katharine Whitehorn’s article on grief to another widow mourning yet another early death of a much loved partner in life.