Katharine Whitehorn

Diary - 23 June 2012

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A welcome call from son in California: as usual it takes five minutes at least to balance the mental time-of-day differences. In theory, I could call him at four o’clock my time and he’d be awake — just; but I’d have had seven hours to get used to being awake, he’s only just (reluctantly)started. Which is another reason I’m not keen to adopt Skype: it’s bad enough trying to sound alert when you’re half asleep, worse still if you had actually to look bright and focused. Son in question, Jake Lyall, is becoming an actor, day job writing software. It beats waiting tables, I suppose, but I waited table in California myself long ago, and I can still balance a small tray on my fingers; trouble is I never get the urge to demonstrate this skill except when I’ve had too much to drink to make it at all a good idea. Still, ‘come the revolution’ as we used to say, it could come in handy yet.

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All-day meeting of the Geriatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine on sex and older people: I go in the line of duty, as I’m agony aunt for Saga magazine. It is, as Mark Twain said about Hamlet, no place to go for a laugh — well, not unless you have a pretty unclean sense of humour. If the day had a main message, it was that it was quite inadequate for docs and carers to assume that just because people were old, they didn’t have any sexual urges. There are problems, obviously: doctors ought to ask about such things in health checks, but talking about intimate matters is often tricky with reticent older people who have not been trained, when young, to share every gesture and spasm on Twitter. And in care homes, especially those with dementia patients, there are extra problems: if one dementia patient claims to have been flashed at or fumbled by another who denies it, who do you believe, and what do you do anyway? The main message of the day, I suppose, was an increased realisation that the urges and problems of sex must be taken as a factor even to the edge of the grave.

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Dinner: the usual flap at having anyone to dinner, no space ever between ‘I’ll never be ready’ and ‘No one’s coming!’ More tense than usual because it is Lord Wright, once head of the Foreign Office, and his super wife Virginia. How do I come to know such people? Because Patrick was taught classics by my father, A.D. Whitehorn, at Marlborough. In my father’s class, he was made to learn a piece of poetry every evening, Greek one term, Latin the next and English the third. For several decades this, of course, was thought a pointless cruelty; but lo! Neuroscience has discovered that learning things by rote, far from being a barren and useless torture, actually grows the brain; black-cab drivers who have done the Knowledge have enlarged hippocampuses. Michael Gove must be delighted. Me too.

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The Guardian’s ‘Family’ section concerns itself with people who leave their bodies to be used training medics: the question is, if no funeral, what instead? My father left his body in this way to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, which, it appeared, holds a service once a year for those whose mortal remains are dissected rather than sanctified, and the hospital chaplain asked my brother John Whitehorn, as executor, to contribute £100 to this ceremony. John replied that, alas, it would be expressly against the terms of his father’s will, which said there was to be no religious ceremony. However, John felt he could donate the amount the state paid out — I forget how much that was — without ignoring his father’s wishes.

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Saturday: to the Primrose Hill fair, to which even those such as me on the wrong side of the tracks — i.e. Belsize — are welcome. We swap our unwanted bits of this and that for other people’s bits; there’s a merry-go-round and someone on impossibly high stilts, a singing group and some ecstatic Morris dancers; it’s nice to see them enjoying themselves however goofy they look. In fact, the whole fair fills one with the same benign feelings as the Jubilee and the royal wedding: masses of people, cheerful with children, not a mob but a happy crowd: not massed against anything; and not even about football. Does it need a royal occasion? Well, an American who stayed up all night to throw a party in St Louis for the wedding of Charles and Diana once told me it was obvious why Americans were as delighted by royalty as the Brits. ‘It’s the stories. Did you ever hear of anyone who kissed a frog and it turned into a handsome senator’?

Katharine Whitehorn’s books include Cooking in a Bedsitter and Selective Memory.