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The feminisation of Fleet Street


‘This nonsense must cease. Get a job!’
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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I had bits of freelancing here and there, and I taught in a charm school for about six weeks. It folded. Nothing, not... nothing to do with my efforts, it was because the backer skipped the country.

And during that time, two things happened which in the end turned out to be absolutely just what should have happened. One was somebody said, well come to a party at X’s because you might meet somebody there who’ll help you get a job. I said, 'I can’t, it’s the anniversary of my old friend, George Grun, from Cambridge, whose...' He was the Viennese refugee whose father had stayed on long past when he could have got out to help our refugees out. 'I can’t miss that'. So I didn’t miss that, but at that party I met somebody who invited me to another party where I met Alan Brien, and I... at that point Alan Brien was on the editorial side of The Spectator as well as writing for it, and he edited a little 400 word thing called Roundabout.

And I said, could I do the cat show for Roundabout? And he said, 'No, I'm afraid somebody else is doing that'. And I said, 'Well, you know, I would rather like to write for it'. So he gave me something else and I... that was supposed to be 400 words, and I wrote it and I wrote it a bit longer... and I wrote it a bit longer, and by the summer I was writing it at about 750 words length and trying desperately to get a job on The Spectator. And I did. But not before... I had... still so brainwashed by the women’s magazines I thought slipper warming [sic] was what I ought to be doing, and Gavin, sort of classic event, Gavin...

It was when I went... started to make my own bread that Gavin finally cracked. And he took me up to the top of Hampstead Heath, sat me down on a bench and said, 'This nonsense must cease. Get a job'. So in fact I was hoping for The Spectator job and I got it. And I got... what I was doing was not only the Roundabout column, and I still don’t know, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I had... not the Roundabout before but something more... it started with an event or book or person or something, but it then broadened into have some different meaning. And I was also editing the back three pages of this, sort of, consumer bit of The Spectator, and that was having... that was great fun. 

A distinguished journalist and renowned author, Katharine Whitehorn (1928-2021) has written for The Spectator and Picture Post. She was the first woman to have her own column in the Observer and was their star columnist for the best part of 40 years. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, is recognised as someone who has transformed 20th century women's journalism. She took a keen interest in social welfare issues, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was the first woman rector of the University of St Andrews.

Listeners: Bob Bee

Bob Bee is a Scottish documentary maker who has made many films on the Arts and Science for ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Tags: The Spectator, Roundabout, Hampstead Heath, Alan Brien, Gavin Tudor Lyall, George Grun

Duration: 2 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011