Alzheimer’s is a kind of living death, which I guess is why the tributes to Katharine in today’s Observer read a bit like obituaries. The peg for them is the news last week that she has advanced Alzheimer’s.
I’ve known her for many years, and once briefly provided informal IT support for her when she was first grappling with the Internet. I first got to know her when I was TV Critic of the Observer in the years 1987-1995; she had been a columnist on the paper since 1960 and was wonderfully supportive from the beginning. She was spectacularly beautiful but what was most striking was her ability to look and sound like a duchess while possessing the sense of mischief of a born troublemaker. And she was a very influential journalist. As a prominent columnist, for example, she took on the banks for not being willing to give mortgages to single women without a male guarantor — and won. And for young women, having this very posh lady writing frankly about how it was ok to be “slovenly” (because she was too) was liberating in the stultifying atmosphere of early 1960s Britain. “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket”, she wrote in 1963,
“because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi? Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? How many things are in the wrong room — cups in the study, boots in the kitchen?”
She had a blissfully happy marriage to Gavin Lyall, the thriller writer, with whom she lived in grand style in Hampstead, and was devastated when he died in 2003. But she was never one for self-pity. When my Observer colleague Yvonne Roberts wrote to her expressing condolences after Gavin’s death, Katherine’s reply included this line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost”.
Same goes for us now. Alzheimer’s may have taken her from us. But those of us who worked with her have been immensely enriched by her presence in our lives.