Saturday 16 January 2021

Bedsit in the Sky

Dang! Sorry to report that Katherine Whitehorn, columnist and talking head who oversaw my growing up, is dead. She was 92, in a Home, Alzheimered and Covid positive so it was time to cash in her chips. In her day, she was forthright, honest and funny and punctured many balloons about what women should be, while documenting how a spectrum of women were. She questioned the necessity to do housework, for example. A lick and a promise and reasonably clean clothes freed housekeepers [still overwhelmingly women for all her decades in journalism] to do more productive self-developing things; both inside and outside the home. "When it comes to housework the one thing no book of household management can ever tell you is how to begin. Or maybe I mean why."

She started as a fashion reporter for the Observer but her editor soon realised she was more trenchant, and funnier, than most of the blokes in the copy-room and so gave her a column to write about whatever was floating her boat that week. It ran for more than 30 years, and, along with the crossword, was the reason why we bought the Observer most Sundays in Dublin in the 70s even if it was shipped (foreign) without the colour supplements and cost more than across the water. 

I was in Dublin studenting and spent two years, usually with The Beloved,  living in bedsits, one of which was no more than 2.5m across in any dimension. There is no room for clutter if you want to see the flooring occasionally and her Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961) reduced the batterie de cuisine to a functional minimum [prev deets] and described how ingenuity and out-box thinking could save on the washing-up and still dish up a serviceable meal for two. That book also included a [short] list of essential supplies which could easily fit in one box from the off-licence. And don't forget to buy one bottle of wine when you pick up the box: life is so much easier for us nowadays with screw-tops to serviceable plonk. "Food is not necessarily essential just because your child hates it".

Although she was born into comfort and had a similar very expensive education to mine, she was not without empathy for the dispossessed "The easiest way for children to learn about money is for you not to have any." She wasn't, like Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, living in bedsits as a journalistic exercise investigating how the other half lives. She was living thus because a very wide range of people lived in such minimal accommodation. I don't think we are better off, in all the dimensions that matter for a life well-lived, by having five (5) sorts of vinegar on the shelf next to the cooker.

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