Can your life be changed by reading about someone else's slovenly laundry basket and their talent for holding a bottle of varnish between two fingers while painting their nails on the Tube? If the journalist is Katharine Whitehorn, then, yes " even the mundane things of life, if described with sufficient wit and charm, can prompt a moment of revelation. I can still recall the excitement of reading Whitehorn on 'Sluts' during an English class at my convent school in 1974. Partly as a diversion from the usual Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Romantic poets, but also to explore other forms of writing, our teacher handed out copies of Whitehorn's Observer piece for us to analyse. Vivid and funny, 'Sluts' was already 11 years old then, but it still read as though Whitehorn had penned it the previous week. From then on I not only devoured everything Whitehorn wrote, but also I knew I had to be a journalist. It might also have been a moment of premonition, for after encountering 'Sluts' again in this collection of women's journalism, I find that Whitehorn's descriptions of sluttish behaviour " being late, losing things, running out of clean clothes and having to employ cleaners to keep life in order " have all come horribly true.
One of the pleasures of this anthology is rediscovering gems like this which are as good on a second or third reading as they were first time around. Erica Jong on the mystery of the Clintons' marriage, and why they are utterly conventional rather than revolutionary; Marie Colvin on the paradox that was Yasser Arafat; Gitta Sereny on the pity and the horror of the killing of Jamie Bulger: they are all insightful, intelligent and well worth reading again.
Other unforgettable pieces, and new to me, were Martha Gellhorn's account of Dachau and Susan Sontag's brilliant exploration of photography, among many others. This book is worth buying for these two alone.
Yet it has to be said that the volume as a whole just doesn't hang together. Eleanor Mills's foreword fails to provide a convincing definition of women's journalism. The days of the women's page ghetto, when writers like Whitehorn and another grande dame contributor, Mary Stott, would write only on lipstick and breastfeeding, are gone. This anthology's greatest pieces are the reportage, from the likes …