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Angela Tilby: Katharine Whitehorn understood loneliness

15 January 2021


Katharine Whitehorn

Katharine Whitehorn

THE New Testament scholar Dennis Nineham confessed in 1969 that he sometimes chose not to start a sermon with a scriptural text in the conventional way, but with a quote from the columnist Katharine Whitehorn.

That name is not so well known today, although many Church Times readers will have a copy of her famous cookbook Cooking in a Bedsitter somewhere on their shelves. It was in print for more than 30 years, and helped many to produce passable meals from a gas ring as students or as tenants in lonely one-room flats. Whitehorn died last week at the age of 92.

In the swinging Sixties, she was famous, trendy, and as much quoted and admired by men as by women. Highly intelligent, left-wing, observant, witty, she was best known as a writer for The Observer, which she joined as fashion editor in 1960, later becoming a columnist. Although my parents were Telegraph readers, we had The Observer on Sundays. I devoured her column each week, usually reserving it until last.

As an awkward but ambitious 1960s teenager, I loved the way she gave women permission not to be perfect, while encouraging them to dress with style and aspire for more autonomy at work and at home. A famous photo shows her alone in a dim bedsitter, sitting on the floor with a cigarette, while towels and underwear dry behind her. She was beautiful in a casual, understated way. On the radio, she spoke with an upper-class drawl. But her reach was wider than her background. After The Observer, she became the agony aunt for Saga magazine, following her generation into middle and old age, into coping with family problems, death, and bereavement.

Whitehorn educated a whole generation of men and women into new expectations of each other. She was a feminist before feminism, but, at the same time, a believer in marriage, who mourned the marital break-ups of her friends. She herself was faithfully married to the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, who wrote the drinks chapter in Cooking in a Bedsitter, and, as she gratefully acknowledged, “rescued me from bed-sitters . . . for good”.

I am not aware of her having had any faith. But she understood loneliness, both the particular loneliness of individuals and the loneliness that belongs to the human condition. I think it was this instinctive universalism that preachers sympathetic to her values, such as Nineham, picked up on. Her writings — witty, elegant, and sometimes outrageous as they were — touched the heart. Sunt lacrimae rerum. . . “There are tears of things,” as Virgil said.

When overwhelmed with the lacrimae, I can still take comfort from her recipe for ratatouille, which I have done so often it is instinctive. Chopping vegetables will not save the world, but it may help to keep sadness at bay.

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