Press & media

Whitehorn, Katharine (5 of 7).  Oral History of the British Press

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  • Subjects

    journalists; broadcasters

  • Recording date

    2009-02-12, 2009-03-03, 2009-03-20

  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, London

  • Interviewees

    Whitehorn, Katharine, 1928- (speaker, female)

  • Interviewers

    Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)

  • Abstract

    Part 5: After several weeks when they had both got home they went to meet each other’s parents. They all accepted the marriage. Gavin was born in 1932 so was younger than KW. She met Gavin’s friends too, like Martin Davison. KW did some free lancing journalism then went to Women’s Own. KW did not like it there. Jimmy Drawbell was editor and ran things in a competitive way. She became a freelance features writer. She shared an office with James Leasor and Corelli Barnet who made a subversive unit. She was sacked with one week’s pay and five hours notice. Gavin was working for the Tonight programme which was very cliquey and he did not enjoy that. They were both out of work at the same time. They were slowly making their first flat nice in Nutley Terrace, Hampstead. The house belonged to Anna Bostock. Story of how they got there. [11:16] George Grun had been a brother confessor and had married a friend of KW, June. GG had been a refugee from Vienna. That night at his party she met Alan Brien from the Spectator. She got work from him and gradually took over the Roundabout column. This was the Spectator’s radical moment. It had Brian Inglis and Bernard Levin and Karl Miller on it. KW shared an office with Cyril Ray. They were a marvellous gang. She got a job editing the back three pages of the magazine. KW knew exactly what she wanted to do with her column. It should start with some sort of event and then take it further. KW did not like editing very much. [16:34] You should start with the reader for a consumer column. She influenced people by her own writing. She likes to be edited. She and Gavin would edit each other’s writing. At this time she wrote “Cooking in a Bedsitter”. It was in print for 40 years and has just been reissued now. She altered recipes so that they could be cooked on one gas ring. Also you would have no- where to put the salad, and the washing up bowl would be full of socks! Over the years changes were made to take account of shared flats and healthy living. Virago has reissued it in the original form as a retro joke. [23:16] David Astor at the Observer wanted to employ two women, one for fashion and one for other women’s features, more serious. George Seddon, the editor, asked KW to do the serious job. Anne Scott James pulled out of the fashion side and KW took that on, while still at the Spectator. KW had actually taught at a charm school for a time. KW had loved reporting the Paris fashion shows for PP. It was all so hectic and so beautiful. KW arranged for the fashion shoot once, and got a new photographer. But there were lots of complications. She finds it exhilarating to work against the clock. [29:29] The Observer in 1960 was now being run by David Astor, a visionary and idealist. George Seddon was Mary Stott’s disciple, and took it further than her. KW related clothes to real women, rather than doing fashion. George encouraged her to do the quirky thing. The advertisers tried to persuade George to take KW off fashion. But she brought them round. KW loved the 1950s clothes which were seriously beautiful. And into the beginning of the 1960s. KW thought the mini skirt would last for ever. Fashion was fun. [35:36] She and Gavin had agreed to try to wait for children. Then KW was rushing around so much that she had two miscarriages. KW left the Spectator, and moved her column to the Observer. The Spectator minded, which she was delighted about. Ian Gilmour had decided to stand as a Conservative candidate and Ian Hamilton took over. He excluded her from Bernard Levin’s farewell lunch. This was discrimination and really the only time she had felt it. She feels that in journalism she got there because she was a woman. In male dominated areas women need to compete. But she was doing a different sort of women’s writing, not in a ghetto of its own [41:54] The Observed divided into two, the serious side and George’s side, women’s pages became features. KW had a good relationship with David Astor. When he resigned from being editor in favour of Donald Trelford, KW went to express her emotion. [44:34] Bernard was their first son born in University College Hospital in 1964. Details. Gavin was a good father, doing imaginative things with the boys and took over one night a week. The rock in this entire situation was Trude. She was a marvellous woman coming every day and was brilliant with young children. KW had other help when necessary. She could not have continued with her career without them. She did all her writing at home, in the flat she wrote in bed, and when they got the house in 1965 she had a desk. Everything went well. Jake was born in 1967. KW thinks she would have been a lousy mother to teenage girls. [52:31] KW got on to the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority which she helped to write. Among other things they said the marriageable age should be brought down. Then she was on the British Airports Authority in the 1970s. Unlike the 1960s, the 1970s got much more difficult for KW. Gavin changed his writing style then. He was drinking heavily. KW went to help with women’s editing on the Observer, which she did not enjoy. Both the boys were at paying schools. The insurance they took out did not work so well. By the end of the 1970s Gavin had been writing scripts and wanted to change one into a book. It was so different in style. The boys had had trouble at school but were growing up. [59:15] KW was elected rector of St Andrews University in 1982. And she had also been on a committee which was medical. Having written a book called “How to survive in Hospital”, she wrote a column on World Medicine. She got on the Council of the Royal Society of Medicine. It was meant to be the bridge between the profession and the public, dealing both with the ethical, legal dilemmas and the NHS. She had to go to St Andrews half a dozen times a year. The rector is meant to be on the side of the students and chaired the court as well. She feels she was too old for the students. The dominant force was a students’ club which disapproved of KW as a feminist. She describes her inauguration which went well. She had a good manager to brief her for the court. [the cat causes a disturbance] Examples of issues which KW settled. There is a usefulness for outsiders. The next thing was the Nationwide Building Society, which appointment came through BAA. [1:09:33] Non executive directors are being discussed now in 2009. They should be reminding the directors how ordinary people feel. Women don’t mind asking questions when they don’t understand. They had to fight to stay a mutual society. Details. Nationwide had been the building society of the Co-operative society. They were acting in a paternalistic way. KW made sure that another woman was appointed in her place when she left. KW was thought to be very shrewd. The Nationwide got into the house agents business which was a mistake. There was a nice tradition of being good to staff. They went round to the local branches. Story of the consultancy firm at St Andrews who were very inefficient. KW stopped Nationwide employing them.

  • Description

    Life story interview with journalist and broadcaster Katharine Whitehorn

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