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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.

3 Stars.
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on 16 August 2008
I agree with the previous reviewer that this was a very disappointing read. (Although I was left wishing that Katharine Whitehorn had been rather more selective because the end of the book degenerates into a list of minor conferences she attended ... and frankly, all these years on, who cares!)
I really thought that such a high-powered journalist, who worked through some of the most exciting times on Fleet Street would have done better than this - and, although it feels cruel to say so, maybe Whitehorn should have written her memoirs when she was slightly younger and on better form.
When the book flickered into any kind of life, she came across as a difficult woman, rather full of her own achievements - and I felt rather sorry for her late husband, whom she seems to have treated somewhat condescendingly. (I couldn't quite work out why, he was a few years younger than her and she seems to dismiss him as being somehow less 'experienced' in life, which even if it was true when they met, surely can't have held true for very long!)
All told, a disappointing book - and only goes to show that journalists can't always tell a good story. Possibly because it's hardest to write objectively about yourself.
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on 20 February 2010
I carried this title with me for months in my briefcase; I would sneak off to the canteen to enjoy a few pages' insight in to the changing landscape of English post-war culture from a woman who gives feminism its better angle. What comes through is a vulnerable human whose modesty and moderation curb pretension. A bright young thing who loved people and probably valued her education and maybe didn't quite stand outside of that station; but honest and interesting. Delightful and elegant and humane. The low ratings here are a puzzle, as here is English moderation at its best.
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on 2 November 2007
Katharine Elizabeth Whitehorn was born in 1928. She worked as a columnist for The Observer in London from 1960 until 1996. I give these dates because, unlike many an autobiography, Katharine has been extremely "selective" in her autobiography and has chosen, for whatever reason, not to provide many dates, so you're left wondering when certain events actually took place.
I finished reading this book only this morning but already, apart from the last section which deals with the death of her husband, writer Gavin Lyall, little of it remains. I was left wanting more, or at least answers to questions. Small wonder she has called it Selective Memory. What really happened when she was fired from jobs? How did she pay her way when she was out of work? Did she 'sign on' and get a Giro payment? How did she get a job in Finland, teaching English to small classes of adults? It is known that in writing it can be either feast of famine, so when did famine (rented accommodation) turn into feast (buying a home; buying a boat; sending their sons to private schools)?
Indeed, the most enjoyable episodes in this book are descriptions of Katharine and Gavin's various boats. But again, Katharine doesn't explain why for one of them the name Simpkin was chosen. I kept asking the journalist's questions which I thought this consummate journalist would've been keen to provide the answers to: who, what, when, where, why and even how?
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on 12 July 2009
revealing and touching memoire that tells us a lot about both Whitehorn the person and journalist, her professional and personal life. Probably not the thorough-going analysis she would have produced 10 years ago, but a fond farewell from an old woman to one and all. A moving exploration of her marriage and how it moved into loving and comfortable old age. Conveniently diced and sliced into both large chapters and small sub-headed bites that the professional journalist in her knows will keep you turning the page.
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on 28 December 2009
Having been a fan for many years of Katherine Whitehorn's various columns I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed with the book, but then realised towards the end that her strength has always been in writing about her thoughts and feelings on various things - political ideas, cookery, child-rearing, running a home, a women's place in the late 20th century world, etc., etc. She was never famous for writing about what she'd actually done. So this book was probably very new ground for her. I found it interesting that although she carefully described both her husband and herself as heavy drinkers she only once referred to the effect of this on her two sons. She asked one of them why they'd never invited their friends home but said they avoided an answer. Perhaps it was the book she needed to write after her husband's death, but judging it against her lifetime of other output I would hesitate to put it on the same level.
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on 29 April 2015
An interesting tale of an interesting woman, although perhaps not quite profound or introspective enough to earn that 5th star. Very much of its time - I think you will enjoy it if you know who she is and enjoy her work, but if you dont knwo who she is I am not sure there is enough here to hold your imterest
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on 6 November 2014
Used to love her column in the Observer, and loved this. Excellent, spare writing and very evocative.
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on 24 March 2015
The last chapter was a help to me as I too have gone through the loss of a very much loved man.
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