The Observer Magazine cover story of 12 May 1968 by Katharine Whitehorn, who died earlier this month aged 92, was typically forthright, witty and wise (‘Social bloomers and how to get out of them’).
Billed as ‘the guide you actually need to the present-day comedy of manners’, Whitehorn opened with some of her own social solecisms with comic candour: ‘I speak as one who first went into a smart hairdresser and knelt at the backwash.’
‘Time was when you were supposed to know what to do,’ wrote Whitehorn. ‘Now things are different. Not because there are not social distinctions, but because there are far more of them… the essential difference is that it is now all right to ask.’
So… how to get rid of people at parties – ‘Empty all the ashtrays in a pointed manner; stay standing.’ (Much easier now to affect a dodgy wifi connection on Zoom.) And what if you’ve forgotten your guests’ names? ‘You can say: “Introduce yourselves, I can smell something burning,” and dash.’
Whitehorn’s list of the dullest subjects in the world (and ones that should be ‘strictly rationed to two sentences on each’) still seems spot on: ‘Cars, children, taxes, any sport, my pet, why my life is so much more awful than anyone else’s’.
‘We fall over ourselves,’ she argued, ‘trying to be cleaner, smoother, better dressed, better read, richer and more suitably brought up than the next person, and the exact opposite is what endears us to other people.’
If you’re wondering about that cover picture and what to do if your pants fall down (did that used to be a thing?), here is Whitehorn’s solution: ‘Grip your arms to your sides and make for the Ladies. If they actually descend, it depends where you are… if concealment is hopeless, look down and say: “You can’t rely on anything these days,” and calmly pick them up.’ Now that is some serious sangfroid.