Press & media
Whitehorn, Katharine (6 of 7). Oral History of the British Press
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2009-02-12, 2009-03-03, 2009-03-20
Interviewee's home, London
Whitehorn, Katharine, 1928- (speaker, female)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 6: Gavin tried writing different books and plays which didn’t really work at first in the 1970s. They were also short of money. KW tried working more which was also not really successful. But at the end of the 1970s things began to come right. Gavin had success with his Maxim book. In 1981 they got their first boat which was a great joy. It was tiny. Details. They loved everything about the river, being beautiful and peaceful and tranquil. It was moored near Reading. Once a year they would take it above Oxford where big boats can’t go. [5:28] They were alone together and Gavin was not fighting KW’s other life. KW might have got stroppy doing all the domestic things, while Gavin did the boat things. After a few years they got a bigger boat which was more comfortable. Friends would sleep in a hotel, or the kids in tents. Having written Cooking in a Bedsitter KW could not complain about the cooking facilities. They could actually have hot water in the bigger boat. Usually they were away for a weekend, except for the fortnight above Oxford. They had a sort of rope ladder so they could bathe in the river. Story of losing a bucket over the side and retrieving a knife from the mud. [13:40] You would probably get up slowly, travel along a bit and relax in the evenings. Story of the white goose, and the mooring they called goose mooring which was particularly nice. They scattered Gavin’s ashes there eventually. They had got away from all the London distractions. The first boat cost £4,500 and they couldn’t afford it the first year. They bought it the next year and it was the thing that made them happiest. They had moved KW’s parents into London and her father died in 1980, and her mother lived for two more years. She was arthritic and being deaf, it was difficult for her. Once they got over the sadness of her death it was the right thing for her. [20:54] Her father had a nice retirement from Marlborough. He taught classics at Berkhamsted school. It was a small class of bright people which suited him well. He suffered from depressions from time to time which were controlled by drugs. He used to go back to Cambridge too. They had both died by 1982. KW’s brother had a drink problem. He turned into a different person in the country, doing gardening and so on. His second wife was called Marion. His first wife was a manic depressive, but it was Marion who got him off the bottle. [27:40] Bernard went to UCS school. Jake went to Westminster. Neither of them did particularly well. Bernard aged 16, just said he would not go back to school. He got odd jobs for a couple of years then thought he wanted to get into the media. He became a film editor. He is now 45 still doing this and writing as well. He married someone who already had a year old child. Jake was not good at the team spirit. He did not get good enough A levels to go to university. He went to work for a computer firm. They are super men in every way except for the academic side. KW feels she underestimated the effect that Gavin’s drinking had on the boys. Whatever the difficulties it never stopped them admiring Gavin. [34:20] KW took the problems as they came. She never felt alienated from them. Comparison with Julie Myerson’s family problems, where hate and anger ruled. The atmosphere at KW’s home was good. When Gavin was drinking he was never violent, he was argumentative and turgid. And the boat was the saving grace. In 1985 they had a holiday in France and KW realised that she had everything she wanted, job and family were fine. By 1986 everything had gone wrong. KW was determined not to give up, and they decided to go for therapy. It did help them to talk. By 1987 they were back to where they had been before. In 1988 cirrhosis of the liver was diagnosed. For 13 years Gavin never had another drink. Life improved and improved. Apparently he had wondered in the 1960s if he was an alcoholic. There were problems at the publishers, who had been taken over, and who never promoted Gavin’s books. This made him very sad. [45:50] KW had five books published which were essays from the Observer. Then there were little books. The first was etiquette and what-to-do “Whitehorn’s Social Survival” only 15,000 words. Story of the picture of KW. Others included home and money. The manuscript of the latter was full of facts and got lost. Stories. There is a plan to combine bits of the books and bring the compilation out again now. [51:42] As for the autobiography she could not have written it while Gavin was alive. Then she had been put onto a wonderful agent called Kate Jones. She wrote it in any old order. She gave the manuscript to a friend who rubbished it. Kate told KW how to make small changes but was very positive about it. Unfortunately she died of cancer. Bernard has written two novels but the second one does not fit into a category. KW’s autobiography published by Virago has been very well received and she has spent a year going round literary festivals. Her audience is white haired. [58:04] She went to Hay on Wye, Cheltenham, Dundee, Melrose. Bridport. Charleston, Folkstone. Before she had finished the book she had tried out the talk on a Saga cruise. Living Through Changing Times was the title. KW likes autobiographies which are personal. The publicity person at Virago came with KW at the beginning. Story of Bridport. [1:03:22] KW’s views on Margaret Thatcher changed through the decade of the 1980s. She wrote an article talking about the fact that the financial bottom line was all that mattered. The response was huge, agreement and disgust. It was the time of the demutualization of the building societies. Nationwide with KW there, stayed as it was. The degree of depressed fury about the importance of the balance sheet was enormous. Today again there is a scandal over a hospital in Stafford. Story. KW has come back to her father’s way of thinking, the professions are important. It depresses her still that people running things have to raise money all the time. In the 1950s and 1960s we thought that public money could finance anything. We needed Thatcher to begin with at the end of the 1970s due to the despair in the country. KW’s sadness about our time at the end of the century is that Neil Kinnock did not win. Tony Blair was Thatcherism with a red tie.
Life story interview with journalist and broadcaster Katharine Whitehorn