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Page last updated at 14:19 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 15:19 UK

A life in columns

Katharine Whitehorn
Whitehorn was photographed by Bert Hardy in the 1950s

New Point of View contributor Katharine Whitehorn has spent five decades trying to understand what makes society tick.

Of all the roles in journalism, the national newspaper columnist is perhaps the most prominent but the least understood by the readers.

"They think it's easy," says Katharine Whitehorn. "Firstly they think you write it on a Saturday. The fact is that you spend your time putting yourself about the world thinking of something."

Outside every thin woman is a fat man trying to get in
One of Katharine Whitehorn's bon mots

Having begun her journalistic career on a small women's magazine, she moved to the doomed Picture Post in 1956 before transferring her unique style to Woman's Own.

Starting in 1960, Whitehorn spent more than three decades as an Observer columnist during a time of intense social change in Britain. The way we live, work, dress, eat and relate to each other was dramatically reformed.

When she started writing, newspapers often catered for women readers in a perfunctory manner, and in other publications the tone was starting to feel old-fashioned.

"Up until then most writing for women had been about teaching them how to be perfect - better cooks, better wives."

Whitehorn, following on from the Guardian's Mary Stott, was one of a generation of female journalists who attempted to steer feature-writing for women away from this patronising tone and towards more realistic attitudes to life.

Agony aunt

Away from her columns, perhaps her best-known book was Cooking in a Bedsitter, republished and updated many times since the 1960s and about to receive a new retro edition.

"It was aimed at people with only one [hob] ring," says Whitehorn. "It had a huge secondary market of people who were beginners. Up until then all the cookery books had been written for people with proper kitchens."

Food is unrecognisable after decades of more varied cuisines and ingredients, but the need people have for a make-do guide remains, she says.

Katharine Whitehorn
If you look at a woman's magazine it's all lipstick and knickers and even hands in knickers
Katharine Whitehorn

Similarly seismic changes have happened in the world of the printed word, although Whitehorn still takes a dim view of the typical woman's magazine.

"What has really changed is mainstream journalism, which is much more feature-oriented. The papers are so much bigger - the feature pages deal with personal relationships, health, education.

"If you look at a woman's magazine it's all lipstick and knickers and even hands in knickers."

Whitehorn has spent the last decade as an agony aunt for Saga Magazine, dealing with reader problems from grasping children and loneliness, to incontinence.

"Three-quarters of it is common sense, everybody but them could see what to do. They are like a fly buzzing at a window pane, not seeing the next window was open."

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