Unamazing Grace

Grace Coddington's memoir is neither brutally honest nor amusingly bonkers. Thank God for the cat psychic.

Grace: a Memoir
Grace Coddington
Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £25

When I got to page 306 of Grace Coddington’s memoir, I nearly cried with excitement. The cause was these lines: “In New York, I’m cat central: absolutely everyone calls me for advice. They call me if they need to find a vet or discuss their cat’s symptoms or get the telephone number of my cat psychic.” A cat psychic! Praise be. For more than 300 long, sterile pages, I had been waiting for the kind of class-A, uncut, high-street-value nuttiness that the fashion industry does so well but . . . nada. Just endless, meandering anecdotes about minor setbacks on photo shoots, short-lived marriages and photographers being a pain in the arse.

I had expected more from Coddington, who became a well-known face outside the fashion world with the 2009 documentary The September Issue. It was ostensibly a record of Vogue’s largest ever advertising-driven autumn special edition in 2007 but what emerged instead was a portrait of the relationship between Coddington, the magazine’s creative director, and its icy editor, Anna Wintour.

The documentary contrasted the two women, who both started at Vogue on the same day in 1988. There were many shots of Wintour, implacable behind sunglasses, sitting with barely concealed impatience while designers and underlings fluttered around her. The only person who confronted her was Coddington, who emerged as the creative whirlwind behind the fashion stories that are supposedly the magazine’s core (although the documentary made it clear just how much these are secondary to the advertisers’ needs). Visually, they were opposites: Wintour whippet-thin in pristine twinsets and $600 sandals; Coddington in clomping flats and black drapery, her hair a henna-ed exclamation mark surrounding her striking face.

After the documentary, Coddington began to be recognised in the street and was signed up to write this memoir, an orange brick of a book stuffed with personal pictures, fashion photos and her illustrations. The trouble is, as Coddington admits in the endnotes, words just aren’t her thing. “I’ve barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books,” she writes. A colleague, Michael Roberts, was drafted in to “bring my voice to life”; the result is that the passion and vivacity Coddington showed in The September Issue have been largely ironed out, like the crow’s feet from a supermodel’s face.

The raw material is there, but she seems incapable or unwilling to ponder its deeper significance, which is something of a failure for a memoir writer. For example, Coddington spent the 1960s as a model in London and Paris and the darker side of the fashion industry occasionally glimmers through. “After one wild night,” she writes, “I remember accepting a lift from Roman Polanski. He stopped short at his house and tried dragging me inside. I escaped, but had to walk the rest of the way back to my place.” Nothing more is said.

Later, when she is working at Vogue, Helmut Newton repeatedly hassles her to let him photograph her nude. Then, one day, he says: “You remember how I always wanted to do that nude before it was too late? Well, now it is.” Again, Coddington does not reflect: she moves on to write about the time Newton photographed Nadja Auermann as Leda, being raped by a taxidermied swan.

The shallowness is particularly galling as Coddington’s life has extraordinary moments. Her sister, Rosemary, became addicted to drugs and died, leaving Grace to care for her elder son, Tristan, now an orphan. The father of the younger boy, Finn, was still alive and so Finn departed to live with him. “I last saw Finn, who I believe is quite mathematically bright, at my mother’s funeral. He was 14 years old,” she writes. “I understand he still lives somewhere in Wales.” And so Finn leaves the story.

Eventually, Coddington’s crashing lack of interest in anything non-fashion-related begins to grate. On a trip to China in 1979, the main outcome of seeing first-hand the effect of communism on the country is that she ditches the “fanciful, brocaded chinoiserie-inspired clothes” she had brought for the shoot and instead dresses the model in the “plain, functional Mao suits in either khaki or blue”. It doesn’t do much to counter the criticism that the fashion industry regards other cultures as merely fodder for its dressing-up box (see also a “tribal” photo shoot later in the book showing a model with painted-on Polynesian tattoos).

My policy on this is that if you’re going to write about the fashion industry – which is beautiful and creative but also ludicrous, selfobsessed and politically unaware to the point of being offensive – without criticism, then go all out. As Tyra Banks would say, “Own it.” Yet Coddington doesn’t do this either (I suspect because her co-writer was savvy enough to cut out those bits). Hence my relief on getting to the cat psychic. That, at least, is well worth reading. I mean, the woman thinks she can talk to cats.

Grace Coddington, left, with Anna Wintour. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.