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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad