Tag Archives: This

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

Katharine Whitehorn: This is how you changed our view of the world

Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts


Yvonne Roberts. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Former Observer journalist and friend: ‘We became mates over long lunches’

Katharine is 20 years older than I am. When I was a novice in journalism, she had been writing a weekly column for the Observer for seven years. A collection of her columns, Observations, including her musing on Incapability Brown, men who leave all the work to women, was published in 1970. The dedication read: “With love and thanks to my parents who provide so much copy.”

That is Katharine, dry, wry, insightful, funny, honest. For decades, she has prepared us for what might be coming next … children, families, career crises, ageing, loss; always with humour, wisdom and a huge appetite for this strange business called life.

In those early years (she was 40 in 1968) she wasn’t a feminist, but she cleverly and with great charm removed enough bars of the gilded cage so that those who came after her could slip through more easily.

It wasn’t just that she depicted a different kind of woman, gin drinking, “cups in the study, books in the kitchen”, she also demonstrated how a woman working alone in a sea of men could make them think again. Where exactly is a woman’s place?

In my forties, in 1990, I edited a section of the Observer for a couple of years, and Katharine, a doyenne not only of journalism but a veteran of directorships, public speaking, a national institution in the making, could not have been more generous, more fiercely supportive; the exact opposite of a Queen Bee, always making room for me and other women. We became mates over long lunches, suppers and a diet of Katharine’s anecdotes.

In 2003, Katharine’s husband, the thriller writer Gavin Lyall, died aged 70. They had been married for 45 years. “Marriage is the water in which you swim,” she wrote, as she looked towards, “the grey mudflats of the future”; Katharine’s way with words. When I sent my condolences, her reply included a line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost.”

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke.


Rachel Cooke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

Observer columnist and critic: ‘She was the reason I became a journalist’

For a long time, I kept a note hidden inside my diary: a piece of paper that, in extremis, I’d take out and prop against the lamp on my desk. The note read: HAVE GOT JOB ON PICTURE POST WHICH I WANTED MORE THAN HEAVEN. I no longer have it, but it hardly matters. These are words I know by heart. To me, they’re a charm: an incantation to be muttered under my breath whenever I am in need of extra courage.

They come from the telegram Katharine Whitehorn sent to her parents in 1956, when she landed her first longed-for job as a journalist, a story she tells in her wonderful memoir, Selective Memory. Katharine was the reason why, even as a little girl, I never wanted to be anything other than a journalist; she was also one of the presiding spirits of a book I would write much later about some career women of the 1950s. To hear she is now so unwell – unable to read, let alone to write – is, then, sad in so many different ways: some straightforward, and some more profound. No one wants to lose their idol, a person they’ve admired, even loved, for 40 years. But I’m haunted, too, by the thought that her great wisdom and sense of perspective is now lost to us – except, of course, as it continues to exist in the many thousands of words that she wrote down the years.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn (right) tries on an evening gown in a London shop, February 1956. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Katharine was a meteor: clever, funny, compassionate, insightful, beautiful. But she also represents a generation now almost gone: those brave postwar women who took self-determination to dizzying new heights, and in doing so made it easier for all who would follow.

She was certainly a campaigner; one of her most controversial columns in the 60s went after the nation’s banks, which in those days would not give a woman a mortgage unless she had a male guarantor. But the principal way that her feminism worked was by boldly living her life precisely as she wanted to. You could see her, and you wanted to be like her, and thus you had the sense, even if no one else told you so, that some things might just be possible. She gave you, in other words, a future: graspable, shiny, and ever grounded in brilliant, not-too-self-deprecating jokes.

Alison Napier

Alison Napier
Alison Napier.

Long-time reader: ‘She reassured me and validated my way of thinking’

High intellect without high seriousness: that’s what’s always appealed to me about Katharine Whitehorn. I’ve been reading her columns and books since she started writing about fashion for the Observer, way back when I was a teenager in the 60s. She was part of a group of pioneering women journalists who were putting forward a different viewpoint on the position of women in society, before it became a big issue with the feminist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Her columns showed you could be interested in serious things and fashion, it wasn’t an either-or. It was the whole of a woman’s life that was important.

Maybe I was in an unusual position, but her writing echoed what I felt and what was in the society immediately around me. I’m not part of the London intellectual group, I grew up in West Yorkshire, but my father was a lecturer at the local arts school and my mother was a graduate who worked before she married. It was only when I moved outside that circle that I realised my views weren’t commonly held. So to have somebody expressing them in public was a reassurance that you were not on your own. There were other people, aside from my immediate family and circle of friends, who thought the way I did. It validated what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Katharine Whitehorn.


Katharine Whitehorn photographed at her home in north London, 2016. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Her Observer column reflected life as it was actually lived, rather than holding up an example of how one ought to be. There was one quite famous observation she made about pinning up your hem with a safety pin. As long as it looked all right and you were presentable, you didn’t need to sit down with a needle and thread. It cut through conversations about whether this was sluttish behaviour or not (sluttish being a word that was differently used at that time, referring to a lack of care with your appearance).

She wrote about deep-down important things too, such as one’s identity and feeling of self-worth, making people understand that their worth was their own, not about other people’s perception of them. And she was so witty.

When I read about her situation last week, I was in tears. I’ve been in that same situation with my mother and it’s heartbreaking. I really feel for her family. I would like them to know there are lots of people like me who’ve been there and know what a difficult time it is for them now and how sad we all are.

Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper. Photograph: Sam Frost for the Guardian

Novelist and commentator: ‘My ambition was completely to be her’

Katharine Whitehorn is a complete goddess and, to the younger me, was the most wonderful journalist. Everyone rushed downstairs and grabbed the Observer to read her column on a Sunday morning. It was always the first thing I read. She was readable, funny and marvellous. My ambition as a young journalist was completely to be her.

Two epic remarks stick in my mind. One about getting something out of of the dirty-clothes basket because it was comparatively the cleaner thing, which is perfect. The other advised having that large gin and tonic before you put your children to bed rather than afterwards. Wasn’t that wonderful? She was so clever, so down-to-earth, a terrific intellectual.

When I got my Sunday Times column in 1968, I immediately hit the headlines because I wrote about wilder things like sex. Soon afterwards I had lunch with [journalist] Bernard Levin and I said: “Oh gosh, I heard on the grapevine that Katharine was so shocked and annoyed with me that I upstaged her.” I didn’t think she liked me very much. But then she rang me up and said, “No no, I think you’re wonderful.” So we had a wonderful happy lunch together and became sort of friends – we didn’t see each other all the time, but had lunch occasionally. She was adorable.

I was lucky: she paved the way for me and there was no rivalry between us. She was just a brilliant writer. Any woman writing just wanted to be her. I can’t think of an equivalent. Dorothy Parker maybe, but Dorothy Parker was more acerbic. Katharine was never bitchy. Her writing combined wit, wisdom and kindness. And she appealed to all sexes. Usually, if you were a woman writer, you were read only by women, but men and women rushed downstairs to read her.

The writer Katharine Whitehorn would rather die than live like this | Polly Toynbee

This a terrible thing to write – but I know that the old Katharine Whitehorn, the wittily honest Observer writer, would not have flinched. That’s what her two loving sons say and they want it written the way she would have. Her friends and former colleagues have been told, yet it may appal some lifelong admirers to have it said out loud. But her ability to confront hard truths and break old ideas of decorum is the reason so many read her for decades. With her usual no-nonsense rationality, she wrote with fearless clarity on the end of life.

Katharine is now 90, living in a care home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, with little understanding left, no knowledge of where she is or why. She often doesn’t recognise people, can no longer read and curiously sometimes talks in French, not a language she knew particularly well: she will never read or understand this article. In other words, she is not herself. Her old self would not recognise herself in this other being who sits in the care home dayroom. What or who she has become is a difficult philosophical question, but she is no longer Katharine Whitehorn as was.

Pause here to celebrate the real Katharine, the breaker of conventions with pioneering humorous columns about everyday life. Now standard fare, her Observer column delivered an electric shock to women’s pages of the 1960s, then filled with woollies, jellies and the etiquette of hats and gloves. Her 1963 praise of “sluts” – slovenly women, nothing to do with sex – made her famous for asking, “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?” Frankness about untidy lives was her hallmark. After joining the Picture Post in 1956, she wrote as a single woman in London; her Cooking in a Bedsitter remained in print for more than 40 years.

When I started out on the Observer in 1968 as a junior on its miscellaneous Pendennis column, she was a megastar columnist, 20 years older than me, culturally and politically of another generation in another firmament. Though unswervingly for women, she never quite belonged to the feminist waves that followed her. Her warm insight into women’s actual lives – married to difficult men, coping, juggling – cast a caustic eye on mundane details and great questions alike.

Her sons say without doubt that if the real Katharine could see herself now she would be horrified, never having wanted to end up as she is. Indeed, most people find the prospect of this ending a negation of self, denial of a life’s work and character, a mortifying indignity no one should suffer. Who wants to leave family and friends with a final memory of themselves as a vegetable, a distortion, an alien being?

But even those who think carefully about how they definitely don’t want to end up find that rational plans, made in good health, usually slip away during a step-by-step medical decline, no longer in sound enough mind. Too late to say stop. St Joseph, the patron saint of the good death, deliver us from this evil – though it’s the religious, with their 26 bishops and other believers in parliament, who have repeatedly prevented us from gaining the right to die in dignity, despite years of overwhelming public support for this final freedom.

Katharine wrote often of this, so we know what she thinks – or thought when she could still think. Ten years ago she reported for the Guardian on Oregon’s right to die laws with strong approval – except she thought only allowing the terminally ill to choose death didn’t go far enough. “Oregon at least shows the way forward for dealing with a problem that is not brought about by too little health care, but almost by too much – by our ability to keep people alive long after they would once have served their term.” In a YouTube interview you can see her airing that view.

In 2013 she wrote a column headlined What the Death of My Cat Taught Me About Assisted Dying, asking why it’s cruel to keep a sick and suffering pet alive, but not a human. She complained that the current endless debate on assisted suicide would “limit it to people who are pretty certain to die in a short time anyway. If it were me, I would dread, far more than suffering just weeks before the end, the prospect of being incapacitated … Nobody insists that a cat has to be within weeks of death before we let it go; surely we should not deny release to humans with nothing but wretchedness ahead.” She ends, “How I wish one could wear a poison ring, as featured in Jacobean dramas, and refuse ever to be parted from it. No assistance would ever be necessary.”

But that mystic ring that, with one magic touch, one kiss, sends its victims to instant death is denied to us. The dying are forced to stay when they long for the end: my mother dying in pain asked the doctor acerbically, “Where’s Dr Shipman when you want him?” Not there, no easeful death. No doubt the law will change, by slow degrees, allowing a slight hastening of death to those with imminent terminal diagnoses. But the greatest horror of all is Katharine Whitehorn’s fate, not dying, yet dead to all that makes life worth living.

If there is value in an existence living only in the minute, a mind with no yesterday, and no tomorrow beyond the next meal, that’s not an existence she valued. And surely the real Katharine Whitehorn, the one in her right mind, is custodian of herself, arbiter of what or who is her real self and when to discard an empty husk? (And no, this personal custodianship has no bearing on the rights of disabled people.)

Yet that’s denied to her, through no one’s fault. She wrote a living will, which her sons say demand she not be officiously kept alive beyond her wits. Yet there she sits, in a state she strove to avoid. She is on no life-sustaining medication that could be withdrawn: a body can long outlast its mind. She has survived cancer. Her sons say if she ever suffered pneumonia – once called “old man’s friend” – they would obey her and tell doctors to withhold antibiotics. Until then, she sits in God’s waiting room, surely a wicked God to wipe out all that makes a person who they are, without taking their life.

How many times have I sat with friends, promising one another that we won’t let this happen to us. Yes, we’ll find the pills to do the deed, find the willing purveyor on the dark web. (No, none of us knows how to access the dark web.) We will know the right day, just before losing our minds. But that’s a comforting delusion. Chances are, we will not be in charge of our fate. Under current tyrannical law, a living will can’t save us from dementia. Mostly, Katharine Whitehorn is placid, but in rare flashes of depressed lucidity, her sons say she asks for it to end, to stop now.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

The writer Katharine Whitehorn would rather die than live like this | Polly Toynbee

This a terrible thing to write – but I know that the old Katharine Whitehorn, the wittily honest Observer writer, would not have flinched. That’s what her two loving sons say and they want it written the way she would have. Her friends and former colleagues have been told, yet it may appal some lifelong admirers to have it said out loud. But her ability to confront hard truths and break old ideas of decorum is the reason so many read her for decades. With her usual no-nonsense rationality, she wrote with fearless clarity on the end of life.

Katharine is now 90, living in a care home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, with little understanding left, no knowledge of where she is or why. She often doesn’t recognise people, can no longer read and curiously sometimes talks in French, not a language she knew particularly well: she will never read or understand this article. In other words, she is not herself. Her old self would not recognise herself in this other being who sits in the care home dayroom. What or who she has become is a difficult philosophical question, but she is no longer Katharine Whitehorn as was.

Pause here to celebrate the real Katharine, the breaker of conventions with pioneering humorous columns about everyday life. Now standard fare, her Observer column delivered an electric shock to women’s pages of the 1960s, then filled with woollies, jellies and the etiquette of hats and gloves. Her 1963 praise of “sluts” – slovenly women, nothing to do with sex – made her famous for asking, “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?” Frankness about untidy lives was her hallmark. After joining the Picture Post in 1956, she wrote as a single woman in London; her Cooking in a Bedsitter remained in print for more than 40 years.

When I started out on the Observer in 1968 as a junior on its miscellaneous Pendennis column, she was a megastar columnist, 20 years older than me, culturally and politically of another generation in another firmament. Though unswervingly for women, she never quite belonged to the feminist waves that followed her. Her warm insight into women’s actual lives – married to difficult men, coping, juggling – cast a caustic eye on mundane details and great questions alike.

Her sons say without doubt that if the real Katharine could see herself now she would be horrified, never having wanted to end up as she is. Indeed, most people find the prospect of this ending a negation of self, denial of a life’s work and character, a mortifying indignity no one should suffer. Who wants to leave family and friends with a final memory of themselves as a vegetable, a distortion, an alien being?

But even those who think carefully about how they definitely don’t want to end up find that rational plans, made in good health, usually slip away during a step-by-step medical decline, no longer in sound enough mind. Too late to say stop. St Joseph, the patron saint of the good death, deliver us from this evil – though it’s the religious, with their 26 bishops and other believers in parliament, who have repeatedly prevented us from gaining the right to die in dignity, despite years of overwhelming public support for this final freedom.

Katharine wrote often of this, so we know what she thinks – or thought when she could still think. Ten years ago she reported for the Guardian on Oregon’s right to die laws with strong approval – except she thought only allowing the terminally ill to choose death didn’t go far enough. “Oregon at least shows the way forward for dealing with a problem that is not brought about by too little health care, but almost by too much – by our ability to keep people alive long after they would once have served their term.” In a YouTube interview you can see her airing that view.

In 2013 she wrote a column headlined What the Death of My Cat Taught Me About Assisted Dying, asking why it’s cruel to keep a sick and suffering pet alive, but not a human. She complained that the current endless debate on assisted suicide would “limit it to people who are pretty certain to die in a short time anyway. If it were me, I would dread, far more than suffering just weeks before the end, the prospect of being incapacitated … Nobody insists that a cat has to be within weeks of death before we let it go; surely we should not deny release to humans with nothing but wretchedness ahead.” She ends, “How I wish one could wear a poison ring, as featured in Jacobean dramas, and refuse ever to be parted from it. No assistance would ever be necessary.”

But that mystic ring that, with one magic touch, one kiss, sends its victims to instant death is denied to us. The dying are forced to stay when they long for the end: my mother dying in pain asked the doctor acerbically, “Where’s Dr Shipman when you want him?” Not there, no easeful death. No doubt the law will change, by slow degrees, allowing a slight hastening of death to those with imminent terminal diagnoses. But the greatest horror of all is Katharine Whitehorn’s fate, not dying, yet dead to all that makes life worth living.

If there is value in an existence living only in the minute, a mind with no yesterday, and no tomorrow beyond the next meal, that’s not an existence she valued. And surely the real Katharine Whitehorn, the one in her right mind, is custodian of herself, arbiter of what or who is her real self and when to discard an empty husk? (And no, this personal custodianship has no bearing on the rights of disabled people.)

Yet that’s denied to her, through no one’s fault. She wrote a living will, which her sons say demand she not be officiously kept alive beyond her wits. Yet there she sits, in a state she strove to avoid. She is on no life-sustaining medication that could be withdrawn: a body can long outlast its mind. She has survived cancer. Her sons say if she ever suffered pneumonia – once called “old man’s friend” – they would obey her and tell doctors to withhold antibiotics. Until then, she sits in God’s waiting room, surely a wicked God to wipe out all that makes a person who they are, without taking their life.

How many times have I sat with friends, promising one another that we won’t let this happen to us. Yes, we’ll find the pills to do the deed, find the willing purveyor on the dark web. (No, none of us knows how to access the dark web.) We will know the right day, just before losing our minds. But that’s a comforting delusion. Chances are, we will not be in charge of our fate. Under current tyrannical law, a living will can’t save us from dementia. Mostly, Katharine Whitehorn is placid, but in rare flashes of depressed lucidity, her sons say she asks for it to end, to stop now.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

I am a burnt out doctor. This is why it matters | Eileen Parkes

The clinic is running late. My last patient walks in. Her scan report, printed in front of me – bad news. The cancer has grown. I’m experienced at this, I take it slowly. I use the “right” words. She crumples, her eyes fill. The specialist nurse reaches out, takes her hand. In this maelstrom of intense emotion, I feel … nothing. No tears, no heartbreak. I gently explain the next steps, desperately hoping she cannot detect the emptiness behind my words.

This is burnout. A deadening of emotion, a feeling of detachment. I recognise it in myself. I hear it in my colleague’s dark humour, or another doctor wondering aloud how many people’s day she has ruined. Over half of young oncologists working in northern Europe exhibit signs of burnout, a strikingly high number. What causes this level of burnout in young, talented, empathetic doctors?

What is now the hardest part of my job? Apologising, every day, for what is beyond my control. Sorry, your CT scan is delayed. Sorry, you didn’t get your pain relief yet. Sorry, your procedure is cancelled today. Sorry, that’s the earliest date we can get. Sorry, for making you wait, when every precious minute is numbered, ticking by too fast to endure an overstretched system.

Austerity has driven this patched together system, this veneer of healthcare. Minimum time slots are given to see patients with complex needs, who deserve to be treated as individuals. If we run over, we’re inefficient. If we try to restructure our bookings, management ask why we are not working at full capacity. None of us can constantly function at full capacity – the humanity is removed, stolen from our patients and drained from their doctors.

The harmful consequences are yet to be fully appreciated. Physician burnout is associated with increased levels of medical error. Evidence suggests that burnt-out doctors do not make more medical errors, pointing, instead, to the contribution of a pressured, error-prone working environment to burnout.

Doubtless, patient care suffers in other ways when a doctor is exhausted, emotionally detached: there may be a lack of connection, a sense of being cared for, of being heard. Being listened to is of such key importance in the care of a patient – if that is lost, pushed out by tightened appointment times, overstressed staff, the cost of burnout is beyond estimation.

Not only patients but doctors, too, are treated as numbers on a page. Move them from A to B, question their use of every 15 minutes of the working day, expect them to work above and beyond yet penalise them if they dare to document this. The prevailing culture of “I worked every hour, so will you” doesn’t fit with an increasingly diverse workforce who value life outside work. The shocking number of physician suicides indicates a culture and system that dramatically fails to value individual doctors.

Yet the answer, we are told, is resilience. Fix the doctors, get them to manage the workload. That the workload is not manageable is not addressed. An epidemic of burnout has not driven critical appraisal of the system, but instead a focus on the perceived deficiency of character in doctors.

And, yes, physicians will walk that tightrope for a time, carefully balanced, eyes straight ahead, feet gripping the rope. Until the pressures pile up – late again for the crèche run, a bullying colleague who copes by offloading, a quickly made decision that proves to be incorrect, a patient crying at the end of an overbooked clinic. The rope wobbles, the crowds gasp. The feet stumble, falter, then recover and continue. The pressures don’t stop. A service stretched too thin. The fault lies not in the ability to balance but in the rope. The rope moves unpredictably, tautens then loosens, always expecting more. Eventually the most resilient tightrope walker falls, too exhausted to continue, too burnt out to care.

This piece won the Royal College of Physicians Teale Essay prize for writing on Resilience, austerity and the NHS

If you would like to write a blogpost for Views from the NHS frontline, read our guidelines and get in touch by emailing sarah.johnson@theguardian.com

Join the Healthcare Professionals Network to read more pieces like this. And follow us on Twitter (@GdnHealthcare) to keep up with the latest healthcare news and views

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I am a burnt out doctor. This is why it matters | Eileen Parkes

The clinic is running late. My last patient walks in. Her scan report, printed in front of me – bad news. The cancer has grown. I’m experienced at this, I take it slowly. I use the “right” words. She crumples, her eyes fill. The specialist nurse reaches out, takes her hand. In this maelstrom of intense emotion, I feel … nothing. No tears, no heartbreak. I gently explain the next steps, desperately hoping she cannot detect the emptiness behind my words.

This is burnout. A deadening of emotion, a feeling of detachment. I recognise it in myself. I hear it in my colleague’s dark humour, or another doctor wondering aloud how many people’s day she has ruined. Over half of young oncologists working in northern Europe exhibit signs of burnout, a strikingly high number. What causes this level of burnout in young, talented, empathetic doctors?

What is now the hardest part of my job? Apologising, every day, for what is beyond my control. Sorry, your CT scan is delayed. Sorry, you didn’t get your pain relief yet. Sorry, your procedure is cancelled today. Sorry, that’s the earliest date we can get. Sorry, for making you wait, when every precious minute is numbered, ticking by too fast to endure an overstretched system.

Austerity has driven this patched together system, this veneer of healthcare. Minimum time slots are given to see patients with complex needs, who deserve to be treated as individuals. If we run over, we’re inefficient. If we try to restructure our bookings, management ask why we are not working at full capacity. None of us can constantly function at full capacity – the humanity is removed, stolen from our patients and drained from their doctors.

The harmful consequences are yet to be fully appreciated. Physician burnout is associated with increased levels of medical error. Evidence suggests that burnt-out doctors do not make more medical errors, pointing, instead, to the contribution of a pressured, error-prone working environment to burnout.

Doubtless, patient care suffers in other ways when a doctor is exhausted, emotionally detached: there may be a lack of connection, a sense of being cared for, of being heard. Being listened to is of such key importance in the care of a patient – if that is lost, pushed out by tightened appointment times, overstressed staff, the cost of burnout is beyond estimation.

Not only patients but doctors, too, are treated as numbers on a page. Move them from A to B, question their use of every 15 minutes of the working day, expect them to work above and beyond yet penalise them if they dare to document this. The prevailing culture of “I worked every hour, so will you” doesn’t fit with an increasingly diverse workforce who value life outside work. The shocking number of physician suicides indicates a culture and system that dramatically fails to value individual doctors.

Yet the answer, we are told, is resilience. Fix the doctors, get them to manage the workload. That the workload is not manageable is not addressed. An epidemic of burnout has not driven critical appraisal of the system, but instead a focus on the perceived deficiency of character in doctors.

And, yes, physicians will walk that tightrope for a time, carefully balanced, eyes straight ahead, feet gripping the rope. Until the pressures pile up – late again for the crèche run, a bullying colleague who copes by offloading, a quickly made decision that proves to be incorrect, a patient crying at the end of an overbooked clinic. The rope wobbles, the crowds gasp. The feet stumble, falter, then recover and continue. The pressures don’t stop. A service stretched too thin. The fault lies not in the ability to balance but in the rope. The rope moves unpredictably, tautens then loosens, always expecting more. Eventually the most resilient tightrope walker falls, too exhausted to continue, too burnt out to care.

This piece won the Royal College of Physicians Teale Essay prize for writing on Resilience, austerity and the NHS

If you would like to write a blogpost for Views from the NHS frontline, read our guidelines and get in touch by emailing sarah.johnson@theguardian.com

Join the Healthcare Professionals Network to read more pieces like this. And follow us on Twitter (@GdnHealthcare) to keep up with the latest healthcare news and views

If you’re looking for a healthcare job or need to recruit staff, visit Guardian Jobs