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Gavin Lyall
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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In the ‘80s things were pretty good up until about ‘85/’86. He was writing... so Gavin had three sort of generations of his books. The first lot were sort of dashing young heroes, most of them flying planes. He tried in Venus with Pistol one where he didn’t like the 'I' character, just to see how it came. Then there was the 'Major Maxim' books which were great success. But then he had to abandon those because the Cold War came down and... sorry, the wall came down and the Cold War stopped.

And so he went back to the very start of the secret service, 1913. But unfortunately that was the point at which Tim Hely Hutchinson took over his publisher, Hodder, and they had one... they had a very small... I suppose I had better on the net, say this, fairly circumspectly, they had a very inadequate publicity arrangement. And I will not give you the name of the woman into whose image I am sticking pins to this day. And they didn’t do much about the publicity for this book and they didn’t succeed so well, and okay, they probably weren’t quite as good. They were still a damned sight better than most people’s books. And by the end of the ‘90s Gavin regarded himself as retired. And when I left The Observer, I wasn’t fired, I... they took away my column and what they had me doing afterwards was very disagreeable so I resigned. But we both really sort of regarded ourselves as retired.

But the point was that by the end of the ‘80s Gavin had been diagnosed with sclerosis and for a week he thought he was dying. And he didn’t believe me when I said that... not necessarily. His GP finally persuaded him that if he never drank another drop he’d be okay. And he lived for another 13 years. And he really didn’t drink another drop. I mean, he would spit out a liquor chocolate. And I can do a bit of proselytizing here because I have one friend who did die and another who is rapidly heading  that way, because a French doctor said, 'Just the occasional glass', meaning a glass of champagne every other week, and the serious drinker thinks it means, okay, no more vodka for breakfast and I can drink one in the evening as usual. And so the... didn’t last long.

Anyway, Gavin was brilliant, but of course the trouble was that when he wasn’t drinking he noticed every single drop I drank and they weren’t mostly singles. Quite different patterns. He would drink gently drip, drip, drip all day, in my case I drink too much when I'm with people and I'm having a great time and I just go on drinking. What you might describe as rather old fashioned Fleet Street plan. But that used to upset Gavin a lot.

So in a sense it isn’t just us... it isn’t just him, it’s me. But somebody once said, well wouldn’t it have been better if you’d been teetotallers? And I say, 'Absolutely not!' Because all the highs of our joint life were accompanied by it too. And you know, pretty damn good highs they were. I don’t think that there is very much that I would have done differently on that front.

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: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, Venus with Pistol, Major Maxim, The Observer, Fleet Street, Cold War, Gavin Tudor Lyall, Timothy Mark "Tim" Hely Hutchinson

Duration: 3 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011