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The Life and Work of Ruth Langdon Inglis with Neil Langdon Inglis

Ruth Langdon Inglis (1927-2005)

Neil Langdon Inglis, US General Editor for Interlitq

October 8th, 2023

The Life and Work of Ruth Langdon Inglis: Neil Langdon Inglis interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Apart from being very much an established writer, your mother, the China-born American author Ruth Inglis (1927-2005) was above all a person dedicated to her family. A flourishing literary career and a devotion to family aren’t easy things to balance. Can you speak about your upbringing and whether there were any aspects that were particularly challenging?

NLI: The quest for work-life balance defined my mother’s life, but in the 1960s her career reigned supreme. Fortunately for me, from my earliest years I found it completely normal to have two parents who were consumed with their work and who spent relatively little time at home. Another child in my place would have thrown almighty tantrums. It never bothered me when my mother was on assignment with NOVA magazine or THE OBSERVER, just as long as I could consult her if I had a problem: once I asked her to take me out of a kindergarten where I was being bullied, and she readily agreed.

My mother counted on our housekeepers and assorted babysitters, with whom I got along and who were reliable (the sole unreliable exception, my mother sacked on the spot). My parents’ marriage endured as long as my father Brian Inglis’s TV career (as presenter of the Granada WW2 documentary series “All Our Yesterdays” continued—and when that program came to an end, my father no longer needed my mother. He had other priorities. So the childhood idyll was shattered, but then the idyll of the 1960s was ended for many, to be replaced by the chaos and upheaval of the 1970s.

DG: Ruth knew or interviewed many of the greatest luminaries of her time—and indeed of all time. John Updike, Anne Sexton, and Roald Dahl are some of the names that come to mind. In addition, she wrote books on various topics related to childcare. In her 1998 book, “The Children’s War,” these efforts overlap: She interviews the adults who at that time were children evacuated during WWII bombings of Britain. What inspired Ruth Inglis’s interest in child development and do you see traces of this interest in other areas of her journalistic career?

NLI: Ruth was an ardent admirer of Dr. Benjamin Spock (another of her interviewees), who urged parents to enjoy their children’s company and not to view parenthood as a chore or nightmare. Just as Spock believed that the parenting experience could be enriched through appropriate resources (such as his own classic guidebook, “Baby and Child Care”), my mother dedicated herself to answering questions and dispelling misconceptions about child development, thanks to her interviews with pioneers in the field and through her own research and attendance at conferences. She looked upon herself as a go-between connecting parents with experts, deciphering obscure technical language in a way that busy working parents could understand.

Ruth appreciated the efforts her own parents had made on her behalf (although her mother was mentally ill and institutionalized for long periods, with the result that Ruth’s father stepped in as single father, supervising Ruth’s education via correspondence courses). For a child of diplomats, endless travel and relocations were the norm, and there were painful moments (including perilous evacuations from war zones), some of which could have been handled more deftly but which provided useful fodder for the future writer.

DG: You’ve just scanned the beginning chapter of Ruth Inglis’s first book, “A Time to Learn,” (pubs. Dial Press 1973: a guide for parents to the new theories in early childhood education) [see appendix for the first chapter]. It may be in your view her finest moment as an author. Can you elaborate on why it’s this book which makes you feel this way?

NLI: It was her first book, and her first major project carried out on a fully independent basis, outside of the shadow cast by her ex-husband. ATTL was an intensely personal manifesto, describing how periods of loneliness in her youth had been delightfully occupied with books, starting with children’s literature, then graduating to Shakespeare but also modern literature, a lifetime passion. Her conclusion? The child’s “absorbent mind” is an invaluable asset, a future goldmine, sowing the seeds for a lifetime of esthetic and cultural appreciation by a richly furnished intellect. My mother’s gratitude for books manifested itself in her generally receptive and welcoming approach to new writing; she championed the work of up-and-coming authors, for example, her friends Anne Sexton and Jennifer Johnston. She was a staunch advocate for the work of photojournalist Penny Tweedie. These women’s achievements were something to celebrate, without hesitation or equivocation.

DG: Ruth Inglis contributed a great deal of material to NOVA magazine. Indeed, as you’ve written, she described this as “the high-point of her professional career.” You’ve been doing research into those years for some time now. What are some of the insights you’ve gained as a result of this work?

NLI: As the sixties progressed, my mother continued to carve out a niche for herself, separate from her marriage and separate from motherhood. She had been a journalist since graduating from Barnard College in the late 1940s, but I think she always intended to leave a personal legacy that transcended the ephemera of bread-and-butter writing. NOVA magazine (1965-1975) burned brightly in the 1960s firmament in the UK. This was a women’s magazine which did not overlook the traditional topics of cookery, fashion, and maternity, but which also made daring sorties into the controversial issues of the day (Vietnam, contraception, abortion, and changing social mores). The magazine ended up being read covertly by men, a phenomenon of which the proprietors were well-aware (this was referred to as the magazine’s “bisexuality”). My mother joked that NOVA was even more popular with men than with women; this was no laughing matter for the syndicate that published the magazine–which advertisers should they target?

I now know that my hugely famous father was roped in to contribute to the inaugural issue of NOVA as a way to lend credibility to the fledgling publication [Brian Inglis, “Doctors and Adultery, and the Muddle of Medical Ethics Today,” NOVA, March 1965]. While my mother might have suggested the idea of Brian’s involvement, and may have served as go-between, I suspect she winced internally at the thought of (yet again) being hitched to Brian Inglis’s wagon. Yet she outgrew that ball and chain, and Ruth soon became a star interviewer for NOVA in her own right, particularly under its first editor Denis Hackett, who helmed the magazine during its halcyon days. Ruth may have had her own private thoughts about how the magazine got run into the ground in the mid-1970s (the three-day week and the oil embargo sealed the magazine’s fate).

NOVA was always a critical, not a commercial success: and rival COSMOPOLITAN’s much greater circulation (three times the size) enabled it to weather that decade and to survive and thrive until the present day. But commercial success in and of itself meant nothing in Ruth’s eyes; so in conclusion, her years with NOVA did indeed represent the apogee of her career. I was proud of her as her child, and as a student of the history of journalism—and I still am.

DG: During her time at NOVA, Ruth Inglis was in many ways a trailblazer, writing courageously about social issues like the legalization of homosexuality, for example. It’s strange to observe, but today’s society is becoming more about the individual, yet, at the same time, also less tolerant of non-conforming individuals. The right-wing waves across Europe and the US are only one sign of this. Are there particular pieces of her writing that might give you a sense of how Ruth Inglis may have responded to all these new developments?

NLI: Excellent question. Ruth was politically liberal but a small-c conservative in some respects (she was partial to Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell). She enjoyed her friends’ eccentricities, but feared that nontraditional behavior would leave her loved ones vulnerable to abuse. Her view on trans women would have aligned with Martina Navratilova’s or JK Rowling’s. Ruth believed that womanhood was a gift, and not something to be trifled with, or opted out of. As a further example of how she steered a middle course, we see how she was an advocate of “work-life balance” before the term was invented. We now know that she published two long-form journalistic projects (one for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY) in the months following my birth. Ruth battled for her career (and successfully), but she also wanted children (and thus she had my sister Diana and me), but she would not have been content with simply the former or the latter (she would have loved a happy marriage too–but there success eluded her).

Ruth was intrigued by changing social mores and devoted many column inches to the topic of “house husbands,” “single fathers,” and “creative [amicable] divorce.” She was determined to give unorthodox social structures a fair chance, irrespective of whatever personal qualms she might hold about their feasibility, or whatever mixed results these new customs might have achieved. Above all she wanted no limits set upon her own personal or intellectual exploration. The limited opportunities and gender role constraints of the 1940s and 1950s were suffocating for her, and she wished to break free from them and live life in her own way. She was, in essence, the “new kind of woman” that NOVA championed.

DG: What were her strengths as an interviewer?

NLI: Preparation, but also warmth and approachability–I think she was able to disarm people right at the start of the conversation. She wasn’t able to break the ice with everybody (no journalist is), but interviewees remembered my mother with sufficient warmth that they would happily answer her questions and give her usable quotes on subsequent occasions as well—even when they did not have a current project of their own to plug. This was a rare accomplishment, and it meant that my mother’s contact book was the envy of Fleet Street. Beneath that kind and friendly exterior was a considerable vein of inner tension, but the interviewee would not sense that anxiety. Always my mother would be thinking: do I have the necessary time/date/place/purpose of interview information to provide context, have I gathered enough usable quotes, when is the deadline for submission of the article? Deadlines dominated my parents’ lives, just as they have dominated mine (in the very different field of translation).

DG: It’s fair to say you grew up in a very liberal environment. Along with Ruth Inglis’s progressive views, you’ve stated in another interview that your father, Brian Inglis, “signed petitions for the legalization of cannabis, and wrote about the use of psychedelics … his television boss Bill Grundy referred to him half-jokingly as a ‘civil servant in Bohemia.’” As a mother, did Ruth Inglis ever feel anxious about the possibility of you being negatively affected by these views?

NLI: Ruth did, from time to time, try to warn me that our household was not representative of mainstream opinion and that I should not assume that everyone was like us. I don’t recall being bullied because my parents were in the public eye (although their celebrity may have been at the root of the nursery school bullying incident that I mentioned earlier). As the years passed, I began to perceive the downside to my father’s casual attitude toward sexual fidelity, which destroyed my parents’ marriage and left Ruth at an economic disadvantage in the wake of the divorce (although her financial picture improved a little when she joined the staff of THE DAILY EXPRESS in 1976). My father’s very public embrace of idiosyncratic opinions on the paranormal in the 70s and 80s further strained our family life, as I was a skeptic as a teenager—and became more politically conservative than my parents, a development which they treated with patience and indulgence. On social policy issues, Ruth believed in women and children first, so she was very much a European social democrat.

DG: Was she a militant, or an incrementalist?

NLI: In most respects an incrementalist. She liked to win individual battles, but with kindness. A friend of hers at THE DAILY EXPRESS (where she was on staff in the 70s and 80s) belittled women writers, but my mother got her colleague to accept that Emily Dickinson was a genius. My mother was quite strongly pro trade union, speaking warmly of the “union umbrella”; yet it was a leaky umbrella then and now, and at National Union of Journalist meetings she spoke up forcefully for herself, never allowing herself to be hooted down by the brothers’ loud male voices. And she was certainly one of the first women to break the notorious gender barrier at El Vino’s wine club (where historically women were forbidden to order drinks for themselves at the bar); reports suggest that a group of NOVA women took the establishment by storm, and based on her own recollections I believe that Ruth may have been one of their number. Yet she was never a bomb-thrower. I remember how she once told me that she was channel-surfing, watched a news item on the Apollo program on one channel, and a discussion of knitting on another channel. While she would never have said openly that “it’s a man’s world,” that was the conclusion she had drawn from an early age—and she always wanted to be where the action was.

DG: What was the nature of her relationship with Brian Inglis? Did she love him, or was she in competition with him?

NLI: To this day I don’t know if she ever loved him, or he her. I know that by the late 1950s Ruth wanted to make a completely fresh start, and a move to London to join my father (thus marking a clean break with the USA) gave her that opportunity. I know that she supported Brian’s career enthusiastically and found his work as editor of THE SPECTATOR inherently fascinating. Furthermore, she must have given him the confidence he needed to make the risky leap to television. In addition to her own professional activities, Ruth was a supportive wife, helped Brian with research and typing, kept the household running smoothly, and was a magnificent hostess (Brian delegated all entertaining responsibilities to her). But did they love one another? Ultimately all her sacrifices didn’t matter, and she was cast aside.

DG: How would Ruth’s career have differed without Brian in her life as her husband?

NLI: I think the fact that our household was so unrepresentative gave my mother various opportunities in terms of having a broad support network, so that she could venture forth into the world secure in the knowledge that her children were taken care of under her overall supervision. Life as a journalist for her would have been harder without all those special resources.

DG: How did she cope with the male chauvinist atmosphere at THE DAILY EXPRESS in the 1980s?

NLI: That she could match her colleagues drink for drink certainly helped (the culture of functional alcoholism has certainly vanished from the newspaper world, or has been sharply modified). She picked her battles.

DG: Ruth Inglis’s final book was “The Window in the Corner” (pubs. Peter Owen, 2003)—”a history and defense of children’s television,” as you write. Another poignant observation, but it seems like children don’t even watch TV anymore. TV is the new radio. Social media the new TV. Do you feel Ruth Inglis would’ve written a similar defense for today’s media, or do you think the content kids are consuming today is entirely different? More different, perhaps, than the radio to the TV?

NLI: I think she would have enjoyed “Peppa Pig.” She was an incurable optimist, but certain aspects of today’s media universe would have been hard for her swallow. Journalism for Ruth meant paid journalism, it was a livelihood, and the current universe in which young writers jostle on the internet for exposure and monetization would have struck her as cruel and undignified. My mother took no pleasure in the exodus from Fleet Street of the old-school tabloids and broadsheets. She would have deplored the disappearance of local newspapers and lamented the destruction of the jobs that vanished with them. My father’s perspective was slightly different; he would have argued that in-house staff journalism was a historical fluke and was bound to come to an end eventually.

DG: At the time of her death, Ruth Inglis was preparing a memoir about her father. Indeed, she always looked back fondly on the exciting lifestyle that her father’s diplomatic career brought. Two questions: Did she recall many stories about her youth and is there a chance that even a part of that memoir might be published?

NLI: As a civil servant myself, I always found it fascinating that Grandpa (US diplomat William Russell Langdon) was more highly regarded by his colleagues in the field than by his supervisors back in Washington DC. My grandmother (performing invaluable yet very unpaid service as a diplomatic spouse) was subjected to rigorous performance evaluation, just as her husband was. Regarding Ruth’s specific reminiscences of her father, I personally thought she was too close to the subject. One of her books that I have had re-released is “The Children’s War” (with Lume Media), which you mentioned earlier. One of the themes in the opening chapter of “A Time to Learn” is the expendability of human life in the global postings where she grew up, due to disease or military conflict: dead bodies everywhere. Her father (a workaholic, as she too later became) allowed my mother to spend a great deal of unsupervised time by herself or with whichever friends she was lucky enough to have at any given moment. Reading filled these gaps, and she developed a rich imaginative world. She would never be bored!

DG: Being a US citizen but having been born in China, along with having spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, did Ruth consider herself more a part of the Old World or New?

NLI: It’s no surprise that she ended up in the UK, she was an Anglophile from an early age. She recalled watching UK movies at an art movie house in Boston (the Exeter Street Theatre). It was only a matter of time before she made the move.

DG: Any other memories, stories, facts about Ruth Inglis you would like to share?

NLI: She was given six months to live in 1994, but managed to soldier on until 2005, writing another book, completing a tour of duty as columnist with NURSERY WORLD—and seeing her family come of age. She lived her life in accordance with her own values and principles. Although she was a celebrity interviewer, social welfare issues provided the deeper tug. Even amidst all the “Swinging London” glitz and high-fashion technicolor in the pages of NOVA magazine, we observe Ruth’s thoughtful May 1973 profile entitled, “Children in Hospital: The body is cared for but what about the mind?” That’s Ruth Inglis personified!



Author Bio:

Neil Langdon Inglis, the son of authors, Brian Inglis and Ruth Langdon Inglis, graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a degree in Modern Languages in 1983. He is a translator and literary critic based in the Washington DC area. His book reviews have appeared in many publications including The Tyndale Society Journal, Fortean Times and Skeptical Inquirer.


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