Max & Heidi Whitlow

A casual observer might wonder whether the Whitlows weren’t simply interested in drawing attention to themselves

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ArtyThis article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Whitlows’ reputations were made a very long time ago, so far back that a younger generation can sometimes be forgiven for not knowing who they are. The Self-Fettered Super-Char, Heidi’s impassioned account of her role in the late 1960s women’s movement, marched onto the bestseller lists at about the time Edward Heath arrived in Downing Street.

Max’s Twilight on Gosforth, a searing expose of municipal corruption in the industrial north-east, opened at the National in the same week. On the strength of the film rights, Max was able to buy the very agreeable house in Redington Road London NW3 (last Zoopla valuation £6 million) in which the couple still reside.

How best to describe the Whitlows, here in their white-haired yet still purposeful early eighties? Old-style Hampstead liberals? Bien-pensant rag-tag? The plays and the books keep coming — Heidi’s autobiography, Not Drowning but Waving, was serialised in the Observer only the other month — and so, alas, do the embarrassments traditionally associated with a life spent promoting good brave causes with good brave people. 

The most recent was a long interview with their youngest daughter Hermione in the Sunday Telegraph in which she reminisced about being sent to the worst comprehensive in north London and having her head stuck down a toilet by bullies “so that my mother could feel good about herself.” Hermione, according to her mother, “suffers from a lack of moral imagination”. But this is by the way. How do the Whitlows occupy their time in semi-retirement, and how do they go about proselytising the “civilised values” of which the modern world is so greatly in need? 

One should not discount the rumour put about by a mischievous Spectator diarist

Sadly, the Covid crisis put a stop to the highflown conversazioni convened in their drawing room on alternate Thursdays at which guests were invited to discuss, say, Will Hutton’s latest article or Lord Adonis’s biography of Ernest Bevin. But another pastime, what Max calls “a democratic intervention in our civic life”, has risen to claim them. This is the devising of multi-signature letters to the newspapers.

They began in a small way with a letter to the Times about arts funding (“The future of our theatres — time for the Government to Act”) signed by half-a-dozen prominent directors and two former winners of the Booker Prize. Biden’s inauguration was, naturally, a source of great satisfaction and resulted in an 80-signature petition to the Guardian highlighting iniquities on which the incoming president could usefully turn his gaze.

Just lately the problems of South-East Asia have dominated their thoughts, and another collective letter to the New Statesman (“The future of Myanmar — time for the international community to act”) attracted no fewer than 431 “likes” on Twitter.

A casual observer might wonder whether the Whitlows weren’t simply interested in drawing attention to themselves. But this would be a misapprehension. They are sincere, well-meaning people whose concern for their fellow citizens does them the greatest credit. Just now, it scarcely needs saying, they are hard at work on a letter to be signed by A.C. Grayling, Ian McEwan et al, urging Sir Keir Starmer not to rule out a future return to the EU. 

On the other hand, one should not discount the rumour, put about by a mischievous Spectator diarist, that Max was unable to identify Myanmar on the map.

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