It was always a pleasure seeing Katharine Whitehorn at journalism events, especially on dark cold winter evenings when we all thought twice about venturing out.
As a trailblazing journalist Kath wore her celebrity lightly and was keen to discuss current issues and of course look for copy for her next column.
I can’t remember when I first got chatting to Kath but I have fond memories of evenings at the Adam Street Club off the Strand, perhaps after a Media Society event in the mid 2010s, seeing her off in a taxi when we were nearly the last to leave after setting the world to rights.
Life was always an adventure for Kath. Not wanting to miss out, even though she hated walks, she scaled Britain’s tallest mountain Ben Nevis when she was eight. She ran away from her boarding school by cycling home and went youth hostelling by herself in 1945. When she graduated from Cambridge her father gave her £70 and told her to spend it all. And she did, hitch hiking around Europe for two months by herself, staying with friends’ contacts who had been in the Resistance.
She was a trail-blazer even in her first job as a reader for a publishing firm where she persuaded them to publish a book about lip-reading, aimed at the deaf reader, like her mother Edith.
Later she taught in Finland and America, where she bought a typewriter and resolved to become a journalist. It seemed a good idea “because I so liked an unsettled life”, she wrote in her autobiography Selective Memory. “But it wasn’t an overwhelming call, a vocation; only later when I was firmly ensconced did I realise that this was where I absolutely belonged.”
Her career spanned Women’s Own, Picture Post and the Spectator as well as the Observer where she was fashion editor in the 60s, determined “to write about real clothes”. She later had a general column in the Observer and took on the standard of service in the banks in one of them. When they hit back one accused her of the “complete immaturity of extreme youth.”
“I was thirty-five at the time,” Kath wrote drily.
Along the way she wrote Cooking in a Bedsitter, now dramatised by BBC Radio 4, and Whitehorn’s Social Survival. She appeared on Any Questions and Call My Bluff and she recalled she was once recognised in a restaurant by a Beatle who’d seen her on TV. She didn’t recognise him.
But she did serve on the committee which reduced the age of majority from 21 to 18 and subsequently turned down an OBE as she felt people would think she was a journalist who had Sold Out.
Kath joined us at WIJ meetings, including a 2017 lunch with Claire Perry MP where we discussed gender balance in the newsroom and was there when Dame Ann Leslie shared some of her hairy moments covering conflicts around the world.
Kath also always had time for younger journalists and was interested in what they were up to. She was good fun and such an inspiration. She took great delight in the column she wrote again for the Observer magazine in recent years. It was the section I always turned to first. Her columns are witty, to the point and succinct – and she made that look easy.
Here she is in 2017, with her perspective on bad news: “When we read about some of the terrible things some people do to others, it can help us to realise that the people we deal with day by day in our own lives are not, after all, any worse than others, indeed they may even be a whole lot better.”
She was generous with her comments and self deprecating.
I hope she’d forgive me for quoting this email sent not long after she was awarded her CBE for services to journalism. Rather than dwelling on that – she was the only female journalist honoured that winter – she wrote back: “Boot definitely on other foot- it was great to talk to Real People at that meeting yesterday.”
It was always great to talk to Kath. A Real Person par excellence.