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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6 times the Home Office broke up British families in the name of immigration

Irene Clennell came to the UK in 1988, married a British man and had a family. In 2017, she was deported. 

Irene Clennell first arrived in London in 1988, before the Home Office’s younger staff members were even born. Soon after, she married a British man called John, and received indefinite leave to remain. They made their home in County Durham. They have two children and one grandchild. 

Now, though, Clennell is in Singapore, after being detained and forcibly deported on the orders of the British government

Her crime? She spent periods of time back in Singapore caring for her ailing parents, enough to invalidate her indefinite leave to remain. It seems the Home Office decided her parents took too long to die.

Clennell’s case matters – and not just because her husband last heard from her sobbing on a plane. Her family is the latest to be torn apart by the government’s stringent immigration rules. 

As well as an inflexible approach to the amount of time spent in the UK, the rules demand that British citizens must earn £18,600 a year to bring over a non-EU spouse – a rule that discriminates against women, who are more likely to work part-time for less pay, and those living in lower-paid regions of the country. 

With EU nationals facing an uncertain future, and the government desperate to meet immigration reduction targets, this inflexible approach matters. Here are some of the families that have felt the consequences:  

1. The father who can’t see his son

Toni Stew, from Worcester, met her husband Mohamed El Faramawi in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But this was no holiday romance – they got married six years later, and have a young son.

But because Stew works part time, in order to care for her son, she does not earn enough to sponsor her husband’s move to the UK

El Faramawi has only met his son a few times since the birth 17 months earlier.

2. A couple trying to look after their parents

Kevin Draper, from Bristol, met his wife Mae, originally from the Philippines, through friends in Hong Kong. In 1995 they settled in the UK, but then a job came up in Dubai. 

In 2011, sad news summoned Kevin home – he needed to care for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, Mae’s mother passed away, and she went to support her family in the Philippines.

She was advised to apply for a UK visitor visa, and finally received one in 2013 after two failed attempts. Having been reunited with her husband and daughter, she decided to apply for a spouse visa. But in 2014 she was told that in order to do that, she would have to return to the Philippines, and the process could take another two years.

3. A British father who was made redundant

Dominic James met his wife, an American named Katy, in 2005. After they married a year later, she managed to join him in Edinburgh for three years.

They moved out to Seattle, where they had a daughter, but the couple always intended to return to the UK. James managed to get a transfer from his employer to the Edinburgh office, but was made redundant shortly afterwards.

Despite Katy’s work experience in the UK, her visa application was denied because James, now self-employed, did not earn enough to meet the minimum income requirement rules. (The Home Office eventually granted Katy 30 months longer to stay).

4. A mother who thought the UK was home

Beverley Boothe arrived in the UK in 1979 as a teenager, to join her parents who had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. 

According to Boothe, she received indefinite leave to remain in 1980. At some point in the next three decades, she lost the passport with the original stamp in it. But she assumed the Home Office had a record of her application.

It turns out they didn’t – records are only kept for 15 years from the date of the “last action”. Boothe, a criminology graduate, gave the Home Office her fingerprints and information about her family. Just before Christmas 2013, she was ordered to go to Jamaica or face deportation.

Not only did Boothe have no close family to return to, she had her own children in the UK. Although they all have British fathers, her youngest daughters were unable to obtain passports because of her status.

5. A father facing separation from his wife… and parents 

In 2012 AJ, an American, moved with his father to South Shields, Tyneside, when he went to join his new wife. There, AJ met Lian Papay, and fell in love. The couple discovered they were expecting, and married in 2013.

But Lian did not earn enough to sponsor AJ, and so her husband is forced to rely on short-term visas. Ironically, when AJ flys back to the United States, he leaves not only his wife and son, but his father and stepmother.  

6. A woman who wanted to care for her father-in-law

Gary Walsh, a Falklands war veteran, married his wife Xia Zhao, an accountant, more than 16 years ago and has two adolescent children. 

The family lived in Malaysia, but flew to the UK after hearing Gary’s elderly father was unwell. 

Xia Zhao came on a one-year visa, but after discovering how ill her father-in-law was, applied to stay and work so the family could care for him. Her application was refused, and she was advised to apply instead from China in a process that could take years. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.