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?

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.