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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.