Top critical review
on 10 March 2016
Veteran columnist Katharine Whitehorn has named her autobiography 'Selective Memory' because, as she tells the reader in her introduction, there are some elements of her life that are more memorable than others: "The memory makes its own selections, it's own decisions about what is fun, interesting, moving or even excruciating to remember, and what is simply too boring to store." Digging around in old papers, we are told, she was occasionally staggered to find out just how wrong her memory of something could be. After reading these comments right at the beginning of the book, one finds oneself hoping that Ms Whitehorn has remembered enough of the details in her long and busy life to make this an interesting and informative read.
Ms Whitehorn moves quickly through her early life and her difficult schooldays - she hated her time at Roedean, but was bright enough to make it to Cambridge, after which she applied for a position with the British Council and went to Finland to teach English (although she admits she has no memory of how she applied for the job, who interviewed her and how she got a Finnish work permit) and she later took up a post-graduate place at Cornell University in America. Back in England, she worked at the 'Picture Post', Woman's Own', the 'Spectator' and the 'Observer'. As a columnist her writing was considered pioneering, refreshing and entertaining - her most remembered piece was an article on sluts written in the early sixties for the 'Observer' where she asked her readers: "Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty-clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?" In addition to being a columnist, Katharine Whitehorn wrote a series of 'survival' mini-books, including 'How to Survive in Hospital', 'How to Survive in the Kitchen', and her best-selling title was: 'Cooking in a Bedsitter' which remained in print for forty years (and is still available from Amazon). Later, Ms Whitehorn joined the board of the Nationwide Building Society, was President of the Open Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, was involved with the International Women's Forum and was Rector of St Andrews University. And somewhere amongst all of this (the author is rather remiss about providing dates) she married Gavin Lyall (in the late fifties, I think) and she later gave birth to two boys, the first Bernard, in 1964 and then Jake in 1967.
Katharine Whitehorn has certainly had a full and busy life and this briskly paced memoir packs her life, or parts of it, into less than three hundred pages. However, as some other reviewers have commented here, I did not find this memoir as interesting or revelatory as I would have expected and, as Ms Whitehorn only occasionally mentions any dates, I found it necessary to work out for myself when some of the events in her life happened in order to be able to place them in the context of her own life and also in a wider context. In addition, although the author tells us of the major incidents of her life, and she is honest about certain personal aspects of her marriage, such as her husband's heavy drinking and her failure to realize the effect of this on their two boys, this memoir seems more of a relating of events rather than a reflection of how and why certain things happened and what she really felt about them. And, in some respects, that's okay - it's Ms Whitehorn's life and she can tell it the way she wants to and that, I suppose, is the difference between an autobiography, where the author shares with the reader what they can remember and what they are prepared to reveal, and a biography where the biographer thoroughly researches and analyses the life of their subject. So, as an overview of a long and full life, Ms Whitehorn's memoir certainly does an adequate job, but although the author is a very good columnist, I have to be honest and say that I didn't find this as interesting or engaging to read as I would have expected.