Success, social life and serenity: Katharine Whitehorn's guide to happiness at every age

Katharine Whitehorn
·10-min read

Things I wish I’d known at 20

I wish I had known that my choices weren’t restricted just to what I had at that moment. I wish I had known, for example, that I wasn’t resigning myself to eternal spinsterhood by breaking off my suffocating engagement to a man who wanted me to give up my hard-won place at Cambridge and get married. When I said timidly, “But what about my career?”, he said, “Many good jobs don’t require degrees.”

“Such as?”

“Well, receptionist.”

I wish I had known, too – this was the 50s – that wearing a ghastly sort of rubberised corset known as a Two-Way Stretch was totally unnecessary. I would have breathed easier without it, in every sense.

But most of all I wish I had known that the most appalling social embarrassments would not blight me and be sneered at for years to come. Yes, I spilled red wine all over someone else’s carpet, and helpfully put salt on it – and then we all spent weeks trying to expunge the salt. Yes, the only time I ever heard a Frenchman say “Ooh-la-la!” in real life was when the front of my homemade swimsuit came clean away from my bosom.

Such things hardly blighted my life, but at the time I was mortified. I wanted to sink beneath the waves. And I practically gave up social life for good – decided to go away and live in a cave – after my first cringe-making attempt at smart London, when I was asked to a party in a restaurant by a rich girl I had known at school. Big thrill.

Trying to make conversation, I asked a beautiful young man wearing a tie that looked like my brother’s: “Ah, you’re an Old Rugbean?”

“Old Etonian, ectually,” said the demigod.

Abashed, I turned to another who had a stripe down his trousers, like someone I knew in the marines: “Royal Marines?”

“Brigade of Guards, ectually.”

So realising that the high life was not for me, I groped my way to one of two identical cloakroom stairways – and ended up in the gents.

Things I wish I’d known at 30

I wish I had realised, when I was sacked from Woman’s Own, that being fired can be a new beginning. Back then women’s mags weren’t sexy as they are now, just cosy to a fault.

I had to do a feature called Undiscovered British Beauties which involved touring round the country looking for pretty girls in offices and factories. This was easy – you simply picked out the only two who didn’t have a ghastly frizzy permanent wave. It was making their very similar lives sound different and fascinating that was the headache, and even worse was trying to write gooey captions for mother-and-baby pictures.

In the end my copy was deemed insufficiently warm and sincere. In those days firms could – and did – boot one out with five hours’ notice and a week’s pay, and at that age I had nothing to fall back on. The loss of the weekly pay cheque seemed devastating.

It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my working life trying to sound excited about knitting patterns and babyfood, that freelancing and looking round for other jobs was what I ought to have been doing anyway.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that my husband was getting fired from the BBC at about the same time – at least, they were trying to find him in the labyrinthine TV corridors of Shepherd’s Bush, and he was trying to find someone to resign to – “not me, old boy, try next door”.

Later I realised that all the best people on Fleet Street had been fired from either Woman’s Own or the Daily Express; it was practically a rite of passage. Anyway, sticking in a job for ever and ever, just because you are afraid to leave, is surely a recipe for disaster.

It’s a lesson my children learned from a man in our shoe shop, who said he had never really worked out what he wanted to do with his life; when he was demobbed in 1945 he had just gone into his father’s shoe firm, from which he was now sadly retiring.

Things I wish I’d known at 40

When I was 40, I was working myself into a lather over my children. I wish I’d known how little any of the things about which I was frantic would matter in the end. Were they getting the right food? Imbued with Dr Spock, the things I thought they ought to eat were far too elaborate. Nowadays they are supposed to eat baked beans and pasta and peanut butter. If only I had known.

Were they reading the right books? I have since been told that I gave them a copy of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince three times, though I am still not sure if they liked it. And as for the anguish about getting them into this school or that, about whether they passed their exams well or not, well, neither of them got to college, but they are both doing fine.

On the other hand, I still wish I had realised what their schools couldn’t do.

I assumed, for example, that they would have decent art classes – they didn’t; or that they would succeed in giving them a taste for classical music, yet one son who actually had his own clarinet at one point had forgotten how to read music by the time he was 20.

I thought they would be inspired with a love of Shakespeare and Milton and Yeats; they weren’t.

I wish I had known how much, later on, I would regret the records I didn’t play them, the microscope I bought for one boy but never tried out with him, the trips I didn’t take them on – why not take them round a stately home? Serious time in the science museum?

Some parents hauled their children off to concerts and plays, my husband played war games with the eldest son; they even wrote a book about it together – which effectively turned said son into a pacifist – but I had no hand in that.

Not, though, that they probably regret any such thing. That is another thing I wish I had known – that whatever you are reproaching yourself for having done wrong with your kids, whatever you remember cringeingly at 3am, they will have forgotten.

They, of course, will remember, with disgust and fury, something utterly different.

So there is not much point in worrying.

Things I wish I’d known at 50

I wish, when middle-age spread finally got me in its grip, that I had kept up with the only two forms of exercise I had ever really enjoyed – swimming and skating. As it was, I tried to go back to skating after too many years and instantly fell over and broke a wrist.

Also, I wish I had known what a nutritionist taught me years later – that half the time when I thought I was hungry or needed a gin, I was really just dehydrated. So I should have just reached for a glass of water.

I didn’t know, either, that the time of day you eat makes a big difference. I used to starve all day and pig out all evening, which meant that I was taking food in just as I had stopped working it off – no wonder it got stored as fat.

I know we shouldn’t worry too much about size, but we all do. Why, even when I was young and slim, I could worry simultaneously that my bosom wasn’t big enough and also that it was swelling so – oh, God – I must be pregnant. But I wish I had realised that going from a size 10 to a size 14 in 30 years is not bad going, after all.

And I might have been better dressed and better looking if I had realised a few home truths: that the thing you bought most recently is not necessarily the thing you will shine in tonight; that all those things in which you once used to look smashing will not come in handy sometime; that it is pointless to have a uniquely attractive collection of belts once the waistline is no longer something to which one wishes to draw attention.

And that the reason you are always so much better dressed on holiday is not because you have got all your best things with you – it is because you haven’t got all those other ones.

I once unwisely put most of the clothes I’d had on a boating holiday into a black dustbin bag to take home, won the row about who was to take the rubbish over to the skip, and only the next day realised my husband had unknowingly thrown them all away.

I retrieved them the next day and thought I was lucky; but it might have been better if I had decided it was the hand of fate and left them there.

Things I wish I’d known at 60

When I turned 60 I thought that was the end: bus pass, I gloomed, sagging contours, nobody will want to employ me; downhill all the way from now on. A totally outdated notion, as it turned out; I wish I had realised that I was beginning one of the happiest decades of my life. My husband started taking me on his research trips, he stopped worrying about money and I stopped worrying about our sons, and there were years of leaping about on a boat with a rope still ahead of me (all right, only a river boat, but it was great). We sold the boat last year – it’s all right when you’re young and agile, we said sadly – but I was actually 54 when we started.

I didn’t realise – perhaps few did – just how out of date one’s perceptions of older people are. Time was that most people didn’t get the chance to draw more than a few years of their pensions, if they had them; now it’s 20 or 30 or more, and those extra years can be marvellous.

Small wonder I hadn’t understood, when television, for example, simply hasn’t caught up with the reality. Almost every time they have to show a pensioner on the news they show someone who reminds you of the PG Wodehouse character, about whom they couldn’t decide if she was a well-preserved 120-year-old or a 90-year-old who had been aged by grief. But, gradually, even the 34-year-old marketing managers are beginning to classify 60-year-olds – the more fortunate ones, anyway – as Golden Pleasure-Seekers. With kids off your hands, mortgages paid and problems that seemed appalling receding into the past, you find a new freedom.

You’re much as you were in your 50s in many ways, but with an important difference: you realise that friends in their 50s are still ambitious, still anxious about the next step, but you’re not. You no longer think: “Is this all?” You feel you’ve done it, you cheerfully say “No” to things you would once have felt obliged to do.

Could we, I wondered to my husband, have always been as serene as this? No, we decided; you can only come to it after the turbulence of earlier years. A sunlit haven is fine after a life on the high seas, but if you had never ventured, never set sail, you would just be rotting on the beach. It was good.