Archive for the 'Women' Category

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Benazir Bhutto’s life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father’s knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father – despite intense international pressure – from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia’s military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.

Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.

Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military – seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role – introduced a new amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country – regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple’s separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) – to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.

The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.

Although she declines to name names – saying that “it’s better not to give the impression that you’re trying to fire political shots over somebody else’s shoulder” – it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf’s “people” and Bhutto’s party. Her response to these reports is that although “there have been ‘back-channel’ contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an ‘understanding’ I find very confusing.” It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.

In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice – “I always lay my cards on the table” she maintained – I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: “You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven’t heard me speak like this before,” Bhutto finally allows. “Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition… to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they’re not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.

“But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military.” The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf’s ruling party has said that “they can rig the election so there’s no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP… Which is why it’s premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women’s Bill.

“At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf’s military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they’re not, the ruling party will still be in the driver’s seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue.”

Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: “If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan.” What a pragmatist she must be. “Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy,” she says.

I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government’s position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari – and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. “Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support,” Bhutto says. “Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West’s strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades.” And you and your party would like that support? “Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn’t have it.” Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? “Pakistan is a critical country,” she says.

Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn – set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.

Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls – like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian’s – kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children’s library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.

The headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence security agency – the ISI – are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America’s War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.

Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan – some already radicalised but not all – to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents’ adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.

It was my understanding that Musharraf’s inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan – on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan – was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto’s response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: “My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty.” What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? “The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran’s stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally,” she says. “In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he’s got the West in his hands.” A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.

Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because “my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support,” she says. “And they dislike me because I’m a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections – and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals’ slate in my father’s time and my time has been the PPP.”

When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn’t an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas – “But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order.” None of this was painless, she says, “there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can’t tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of ‘zero deaths’. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it’s not easy confronting them.”

Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith’s certainty that life and death are in God’s hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death. “My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics… My daughter will become prime minister’, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me,” she says. “But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment.” Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? “Yes, in a way, because I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, ‘You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.’ It makes me weepy,” she says, as her eyes fill up, “but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.

“Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn’t succeed with me.” This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself – in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married – to Elizabeth I, “who had also endured imprisonment and remained single”.

When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: “Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia… And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do – and ten years before Tony Blair.”

At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: “When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint.”

Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, (“Oh, they’ve gone on endlessly,” she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world’s terrorist tragedies would not have occurred – since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.

“I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight,” she writes in the new conclusion to her book. “I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998.”

Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: “I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I’m leaving… I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban.” Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? “No,” she says. “I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I’ve been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don’t feel that there’s anything like immortality.”

As we sit in Bhutto’s study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: “Yes, I do. I confess.” There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man’s watch – “I like big watches… All the better to see you with, my dear” – the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.

Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer’s, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch – I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna – Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. “My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman,” she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.

When she was a little girl, Bhutto’s father used to say: “Well, if Nehru’s daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan.” He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: “Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc.” These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.

At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: “I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers.” When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: “I consider myself a defender of women’s rights, yes.” You don’t like the label? “Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their – ah – underwear in the streets.” So did you burn your bra? “No, I never did,” she smiles, “and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!” It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes “off-message” and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: “Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977.”

Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don’t expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books “to try to cope with stress and anxiety”. In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.

This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir’s father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. “She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart,” Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained “‘Oh, Benazir has got so fat’ in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin.” But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.

Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It’s not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn’t like it, but it’s become a discipline – and she’s always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry’s caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: “I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I’m unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It’s the one thing that doesn’t complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness.” Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: “It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

It’s hard to know what part Bhutto’s husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded – and it has been put to her so very often – that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife’s investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow – however problematic he may be – but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.

“You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison,” she says. “And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew.…” And…? I ask expectantly. “And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile,” she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.

Bhutto’s mother was always trying to line her up with “good husband” material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage – as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman’s will – what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.

Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? “What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me,” she says. “I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?” Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren’t used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. “He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn’t,” she says. “He found it very difficult to cope with initially… the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he’s got used to it.”

Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband’s perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison – his neck slit, his tongue cut – and almost killed. “It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice,” she is gulping with grief. “He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn’t know what to do to save his life.”

I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn’t harder after everything she and her family have endured. “What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband,” she says, blowing her nose loudly. “And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly.” This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.

Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer – and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it’s hard to know whether she’s being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison”. I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.

* * *

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Times BooksDirect for £11.69 (RRP £12.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080;

Crime, Women

Joanne Lees: My Story

The Sunday Telegraph – October 01, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

FIVE years after her harrowing Outback ordeal, Joanne Lees speaks to UK journalist Ginny Dougary in a worldwide exclusive about her boyfriend’s murder, her trial by the media and the intriguing events that followed.

Joanne Lees
Photo: Mark Harrison

Does the name Joanne Lees ring a bell?

And, if so, what does it toll for you? Do you need prodding to be reminded that she was the backpacker whose boyfriend, Peter Falconio, was murdered in the summer of 2001 when the young English couple were on “the trip of a lifetime” in the Australian Outback?

First, you may recall, she was treated as a victim who had been through a terrible ordeal, which she was fortunate enough to have survived.

Then, the very fact that she had survived, coupled with something else – and it is this “something” that continues to fascinate – tilted the axis, so that she came to experience the double horror of being viewed as a potential murderess.

“Murderess”… the taffeta-rustling, almost seductive sibilance of that word draws you in. Hasn’t Hollywood always played with the frisson of a woman whose glacial beauty masks her deadly instincts?

And in this story, which was all too real for those who were involved, it was an additional misfortune for Lees to be blessed with unusually good looks – would she have been quite so newsworthy if she had been plain? – and an equally rare quality of self-containment.

In December 2005, Bradley John Murdoch – a 47-year-old drug dealer – was found guilty by the Northern Territory Supreme Court of murdering 28-year-old Peter Falconio, and of attacking Ms Lees.

Case closed and, thereby, presumably Lees is vindicated and cleared of all doubt. Well, yes and no. Murdoch has always professed his innocence and was given permission to appeal against the murder conviction earlier this year.

After the verdict, an Australian journalist who had been covering the trial was approached by a British newspaper who wanted her to write a piece saying that an innocent man had been jailed.

(She declined.) Then came a slew of books – among the chiller-thriller titles: Bloodstain, Dead Centre, And Then the Darkness and Where’s Peter? – of which I have only read the last one (by Roger Maynard). And soon there will be a film, To Catch a Killer, an Anglo-Aussie TV co-production with a “reconstruction of the couple’s night-time abduction”.

Well, of course; what else in the era of “real CSI”? So perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Lees has finally decided to deliver her own account of her boyfriend’s murder – what she always refers to me as “the crime” – and her feelings about how she was treated by the police and the media in its protracted five-year aftermath.

Her book, for which she was reportedly paid £250,000 ($AU630,000), is called No Turning Back, and as she writes in the preface, it’s her way of reclaiming her life from all the other storytellers.

Those others, Lees believes, have sought to transform what was a horrible case of random bad luck into a sensational mystery – in which she continues to be cast as an enigmatic, if not slightly dubious, heroine.

Lees is by no means a media aficionado. This is the first print interview she has knowingly given (only a day or two after her trauma – for which, incidentally, she was offered no counselling – she felt she was trapped into talking to an Alice Springs journalist, who was a friend of the woman who had been entrusted by the police to look after her) and only the second time that she has been questioned in depth by a member of the press.

Her first experience was early on with Martin Bashir, the TV reporter, who famously interviewed Princess Diana and went on to skewer Michael Jackson.

While Lees was still in Australia, Bashir had been visiting and “befriending” her mother, Jennifer, who was too ill to travel; it was Lees’ stepfather, Vincent James, who flew out to support her. Mrs James died at the age of 54 from lupus, an autoimmune disease, a year after her daughter’s boyfriend was murdered.

Bashir got the interview he was after, for the price of £50,000 ($AU126,000), but the way it was handled made Lees even more suspicious of the media. She recognises that this suspicion is mutual; her reticence only served to agitate the curiosity of the press and, therefore, the public.

Well, I would have to say that her anxiety about this meeting may have been almost matched by mine. How often do you get to meet someone of whom you might even vaguely entertain the question: could you be capable of murder?

How strange is it to interview someone not only because of the intimacy of their connection with a murder victim but also because of their own subsequent demonisation? And there is also the rather unrealistic expectation that someone who has undergone such a large ordeal will somehow be elevated into a larger person – with all manner of instructive insights and wisdom.

She arrives on time, accompanied by her publisher’s publicist. While Lees disappears to the loo, the PR is anxious to know what I think of the book, and makes a point of mentioning that it is not ghost-written – which is, frankly, no surprise. This is the book’s strength (it reads like the absolutely authentic voice of a very ordinary young woman propelled into an extraordinary nightmarish scenario), but also its weakness in that there is nothing writerly or even profound about it.

The first thing you register about Lees are her dazzling looks. She is even prettier, in the flesh, than in all those snatched photographs. She gleams with lustrous good health: great teeth, a shiny swing of fashionably jagged long black hair and a radiant bright-blue gaze. She has a lovely figure and is wearing a wraparound dress that shows off all her curves and a hint of dècolletage.

Then there is her manner – immediately likable, with not a trace of the tricksy defensiveness or remoteness I had feared. Despite her head-turning appearance, there’s something appealingly modest about the way she carries herself.

She also has a slightly unworldly quality about her, which makes you feel that she’s younger than her years – she turned 33 on September 25.

Reading her book, there were times when I felt a surge of maternal empathy for her; despite or maybe because of her great wealth of supportive friends, both new and old (this in itself speaks well of her), there was a feeling of her being terribly alone and unprotected like a motherless child. And in our interview, this particular empathy – as a mother myself – occasionally resurfaced. But other thoughts also emerged, which made me understand why it had been so easy for Lees to be misunderstood.

At this point, perhaps, it is worth recapping what we know about the night of the murder. Falconio and Lees had been together for five years (although Lees did have a brief fling in Sydney, months before the murder, which was inevitably magnified in the trial) and were touring around the Northern Territory, on that carefree holiday of a lifetime, in their orange kombivan.

After their awestruck visit to Uluru, then the daftness of the Camel Cup race on the outskirts of Alice Springs, they stopped by the roadside to enjoy another spectacular sunset with their evening cocktail of preference, a toke or two on a joint, and, most awfully (you can’t read about this case without uselessly imploring them to stay put) made the decision to press on into the night, along one of those great tracts of empty highway that crosses Australia’s red-earthed heart.

Murdoch, a drug dealer who regularly used amphetamines to fuel his long-distance travels, was also driving along the same stretch of highway. He pulled up alongside the English couple, alerted them to a problem with their van’s exhaust – he said he had seen sparks flying.

Falconio thanked him for stopping, “Cheers, mate,” and asked Lees to stay in the van to rev the engine while the two men investigated the problem. That was the last time Lees saw her boyfriend. There was a loud explosion, and then Murdoch appeared at the window, pointed a silver gun at Lees’ face, and the nightmare began.

She was handcuffed and taped – Murdoch attempted but failed to seal her mouth – bundled into the back of his four-wheel-drive then left while he attended to the business of what we must presume was dealing with her boyfriend’s body, which has never been found.

She managed to escape through the back of the vehicle, ran into the bush and hid under a tree.

Murdoch, accompanied by his dog and a torch, went looking for Lees, but was unable to find her.

Around four hours later, she dared to emerge from her hiding place, having worked out, with admirable survivalist aplomb, that her safest bet was to flag down the traceable driver of a commercial road train, rather than a car, which might have exposed her to more danger.

Here is not the place to go into all the subsequent whys and wherefores that followed – and there’s a whole industry, as I mentioned, devoted to the various conspiracy theories that linger despite the guilty verdict. Reading both Roger Maynard’s book and Joanne Lees’, along with numerous cuttings of the case, questions remain unanswered – perhaps because they are unanswerable.

Without a doubt, what Lees had to endure – that is, if you can bring yourself to imagine the terror of the actual event – even immediately following her rescue was pretty unimaginable.

Scratched and shaken and terrified, Lees was driven by well-meaning truckies to a pub in the middle of nowhere, filled with an inebriated clientele celebrating New Year’s Eve, an eccentric local custom. The local police weren’t answering their phone, the less local police thought it was a prank call, and so the nightmare continued.

For three days, she was reduced to shuffling around in borrowed clothes and oversize shoes after the police had seized her belongings. The friends who had flown in to support her were advised to go home. The one police officer who tried to help her was reassigned for “getting too attached”.

Then came the slow dawning that while the police seemed unable to do their job efficiently, she had, horribly, become a suspect herself (it took three weeks, for instance, before they released the CCTV footage of Murdoch at a service station; vital evidence was not found for months and not stored following normal procedures).

Then the final heartbreak of losing her mother – only a year after Falconio’s death, at a time when she must have needed her most, before the murder had even been solved. As Lees says of that time, “I didn’t cope very well, I didn’t like my own company. I was juggling two jobs and going out all the time because I didn’t want to acknowledge what had happened and that I was alone… You never expect to lose your mum, do you?”

In her book, Lees describes her upbringing in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, thus: “For the first 11 years of my life, it was just me and my mum – we were a team. We didn’t have much money, but she worked hard to make sure I had a happy childhood. There were times when I would catch my mum sitting at the kitchen table crying, a pile of bills in front of her. I was only a child, but I would always try to make her feel better. Maybe that made me older than my years. I had always been very independent.”

Since I have never seen any mention anywhere of her birth father, I wonder if he is still alive. “I don’t need to talk about my father. I’m here to talk about my book. My mum brought me up. I never discuss it,” Lees says, quite evenly. I’m left feeling that it was a bit of a shitty question when, actually, I had not even considered it might be a no-go area. “No, that’s OK. That’s fine,” she says sweetly. “I’ve been honest and open in my book, but I didn’t go that far back.”

As for her independent nature, she says, “Since we didn’t have a lot of money, if I wanted something, I would go out and earn money to do that. I just think I’ve got a lot of get up and go, and if I want something done, I do it myself.” Was your mother a strong personality? “Um, yeah,” she says uncertainly.

When there’s been that tight bond for so long between an only child and a single parent, the child can have difficulty accepting a new adult in the equation. But Lees says she was happy when her mother married James: “I was pleased for my mum, and I got a little brother. And I had a dog and it completed our family. I think there was an image put forward by some people in the media that my life wasn’t good in my early years. But, yeah, it was all good. My life was fantastic and untouched by tragedy until I hit 27.”

Some time later, I tell her that even though she seems natural and warm, she still has a very particular air of self-possession and control, which also comes across in her book. “Oh, I’m not – I’m completely being myself,” she says. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m really emotional.” But that’s not really what we see, I say. “Well, I do in the company of my mates.” (There is one moment in the book when her guard comes down, and she displays a lightning flash of anger – which is as liberating for the reader as it must have been for the writer. This is when she sees Murdoch for the first time in court, and she writes: “The piece of s**t didn’t look at me.”)

I point out the number of times Lees mentions her reluctance to lean on other people. “Asking for help is something I rarely do,” she writes. “In the past, I found it difficult to ask for help… Perhaps it’s because I gained independence at an early age.” She says, “I can’t explain why. I just tend to do things by myself. Maybe it’s because I’ve been used to being a support worker and supporting others.”

It is clear to me that she is referring here to her work in Brighton, helping vulnerable adults with physical or mental disabilities. She returned to her old job at Thomas Cook after Falconio’s murder but left, partly because of the constant press attention. She had hoped to get a degree in social work, but had to keep deferring her university place because of the committal and then the trial in Australia.

But I also have a sense that her role as a carer goes way back, and those few words in her preface: “I was only a child but I always tried to make her (Joanne’s mother) feel better,” suggest as much. I ask her whether she was a support to her mother from a young age. “Yes,” she says, “and throughout her illness as well.” Her mother became stricken with lupus when Joanne was a teenager, and also had to endure rheumatoid arthritis.

This whole area of family struggles is not one Lees feels comfortable discussing, and you have to respect her wishes to preserve some privacy, particularly when she has had so much of it exposed and analysed. I think there may be a slightly old-fashioned thing going on here, too – to do with pride, grit, a resistance to showy emotion, keeping up a respectable front and so on. The people close to Lees all commented on how important it was for her not to break down in public.

But these were the very qualities – which some of us would consider admirable – that prompted the press to think she had something to hide, fuelling further speculation.

In Maynard’s book, for instance, he found it odd that Lees was not on the phone to her mother within hours of her escape. It’s possibly less odd if that daughter has grown up trying to protect her mother and knows that any kind of stress is likely to have calamitous consequences for a lupus sufferer.

In her statement, which was circulated at the end of the trial, Lees specifically drew attention to this (“My mother was very distressed with all the media coverage and the impact it had on her”). She did not need to mention the condition that led to her mother’s death, and only told me about it because I had mistakenly assumed it was cancer.

I was working on a newspaper at the time of the Lindy Chamberlain trial, the Seventh-Day Adventist whose baby, Azaria, vanished while the family were camping near Uluru. (The body was not discovered but Azaria’s matinee jacket was, five years later, and Chamberlain was released from prison.) This case has a bearing on Lees’ story in several respects. Firstly, it reminds you Australia is a vast continent in which bodies can simply disappear.

It is also worth recalling that Chamberlain, like Lees, was cool and reserved in her public appearances – in both cases, their demeanour was somehow interpreted as proof of their guilt. It should be stressed that Lees, unlike Chamberlain, was never officially considered to be a suspect – although she was certainly treated as one, both by the police and by certain sections of the press.

I wonder, knowing what she knows now, whether Lees would have handled things any differently. We go at this in various different ways, and she always arrives at the same conclusion – that however she had behaved, she would still have been condemned. At first, “I was in an isolated bubble, not really in the real world. My focus was on finding Peter and helping the investigation.

I wasn’t reading newspapers – I was trying to come to terms with what was happening in my life.”

And, then, more confidently: “Hindsight’s a great thing, isn’t it? If I’d known what I now know… But I didn’t have a media adviser and I wasn’t given any practical advice or support by the police. I was completely on my own, without friends or family. The friends that did come to support me were encouraged to leave by the police. There is no manual that comes with this – ‘Oh, you’re a victim of a violent crime? These are the rules of behaviour.’ You don’t get a rule book, do you? I was just a normal girl on the holiday of a lifetime with my boyfriend thrown into this nightmare – I’d been almost raped and murdered myself, and all I could focus on was finding Pete. And I’m a private and quite a shy person; I’m not an actress, I’m a support worker. Plus, you can never please everybody, can you? So all I can say is I was just being me and that’s the only thing you can ask anybody to be.”

We move on to the “Cheeky Monkey” top she wore at the press conference; the conference, itself, sparked more resentment from the press because of Lees only allowing three questions and fewer journalists.

I must confess to another maternal twinge at the complete lack of savviness wearing such a garment displayed; it illustrates, to me, what a naive young woman, despite being in her late 20s, she still was in many ways. She doesn’t see it like that: “I was backpacking. I had a rucksack full of sarongs and boardshorts. Everything I had was confiscated by the police; they gave me a few items. Could I go shopping in Alice Springs? I don’t think so.

“I didn’t have a white shirt then or a navy-blue skirt. (This was the anonymous uniform she wore for her court appearances years later.) I was just a traveller and I wore what I had on hand. And don’t you think I’d have been judged even more harshly if I was like, ‘OK, I’m doing a press conference and I want a white shirt and I want this and I want that?’ I feel I would have been damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I was in a no-win situation.”

It crosses my mind here that Lees may have a cussed refusal to be led where she doesn’t want to go, or pressured into conforming to other people’s expectations. Never mind being damned by others, she’s damned if she’ll be bullied into playing the game, even if she doesn’t know the precise rules of that game.

But in the book, she does suggest that she did learn how to handle herself a bit better in public. “It is a journey… I learnt not to give the press anything they could ‘interpret’. But they still did,” she laughs. “When they talked about my clothes now ‘lacking personality’ – but I was just, like… Well, that’s just what I wanted.”

So why did she agree to the Martin Bashir interview? “Out of desperation, really. I saw it as an appeal and I wanted to regenerate public interest; the police weren’t giving me updates and I heard they were reducing the taskforce. I felt I needed to do something. But then I was sat in the chair and Martin said (adopting a deep TV drama voice), ‘The question the nation wants to know…’ and it was ‘Did you kill Peter Falconio?’ And I was just, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re going down this line of questioning.’”

Lees is determined to blank out the horrors of that night and, as an interviewer, it almost feels like an act of violence – it is certainly among the most uncomfortable experiences I have had as an interviewer – to coax her to revisit that territory.

However you frame your questions, it feels like a cross-examination – and, no, it absolutely does not help to tell yourself: “Well, she’s written a book about it, so what can she expect?” I can sense, I say a bit helplessly, that you don’t want to talk about the actual murder. “It’s just that it was a very difficult chapter to write and I’ve written it in my book and I don’t really want to revisit it, you know.” Does it feel like I’m cross-examining you? “No, not at all. But I have relived it in my book and the trial is over and I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

This exchange came on the back of my asking some questions about Murdoch’s motives. I can’t help wondering what provoked the drug dealer to kill Falconio. What was Murdoch doing making handcuffs and carrying them in his vehicle, if he didn’t plan a killing spree?

If he had got away with Lees’ murder, would he have gone on to become a serial killer? Or was he too out of his head to conform to the cold-blooded sociopath who has the resolve to follow through with his grand designs?

I didn’t put all these questions to Lees as there was no point. Her unwavering position is that she doesn’t know what made Murdoch kill her boyfriend and she doesn’t want to speculate. “I don’t want to think about what-ifs. There’s only one person who can answer that and that’s

‘Bradleyjohnmurdoch’.” She always refers to Murdoch in a great rush like this, as though she can hardly wait to distance herself even from his name. And if Murdoch was able to admit his guilt and explain why he did what he did, Lees still has absolutely no desire to confront him.

“I don’t give him a thought. I don’t want to.” Are you really able to expunge all trace of him from your head? “He consumed a lot of my life before he was arrested and then the committal and the trial and once that unanimous verdict was read and he was sentenced to 28 years… I don’t give him a thought.” I can’t quite believe you. “I’m moving forwards now. I’m not letting him ruin the rest of my life.”

Lees is clearly a remarkable person. How else can one explain the courage – which she says was “sheer terror” – that enabled her to escape from a situation in which, frankly, all the odds were stacked against her. It is this determination that she is now drawing on for her long-term survival.

And for this, she clearly needs to employ the same distancing techniques that kick in with a killer when he descends on his prey; Murdoch, to her, has become an “it”, “a s**t”, a “non-person” who deserves to be banished into oblivion.

Does she think Pete’s body will ever be found? She clears her throat, which Lees always does when she’s nervous, “Um, I don’t know. I’d love to be able to bring Pete home, to bring him back to England. But the sheer size of Australia makes it…

“During the trial, it was upsetting to hear the ballistics experts talking about where Pete may have been shot in the head. It was upsetting, because I don’t want to have that image in my mind of what he did to him. I’d just like to take Pete home. Do you understand? Having that image in your head… I’d rather not have that. I find different ways to remember Pete and celebrate his life and writing the book was one of those – having celebrations on a beach with my friends on his birthday and on July 14 (the date of the murder), we have a barbecue.”

In the aftermath of these tragedies, it seems woefully easy to forget that a living person has not only been robbed of their future but also of their past. The murdered person, too, is reduced to a non-person, a statistic. We may not know what makes Joanne Lees tick, but most of us have no idea at all what Peter Falconio was like.

So what was special about him? “It’s difficult to talk about Pete, especially to somebody I don’t know, but he was a great person and everybody liked him. He was very chilled about everything and I always felt safe and untouchable when I was with him. He also worked very hard and loved the construction industry. (The couple met at a disco in Huddersfield and Lees had moved down to Brighton where Falconio was doing a degree in building and construction management.)

We went on holiday a lot and, afterwards, we’d get our photographs and it would be a palace and a beautiful beach and then construction site, construction site… But that was his passion, you see.”

He was also a bit of a mummy’s boy – he was the youngest of three brothers – “and he loved his mum and was always phoning her up. The point is, you know, Pete was a person who had a life – and he always encouraged me to be the strongest person I could be and to fulfil my ambitions.”

The knives are still out for Lees. It’s all too easy for someone like her to become a victim, once again, of the competitive newsprint war, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her further condemned by other newspapers who may have lost out on the bid to buy her book. (As some Australian commentators highlighted at the time, Lees was (slammed) for accepting a fee for the Bashir interview by the very newspapers, in the UK, who routinely engage in the practice of cheque-book journalism.)

So let’s set the record straight, from Lees’ vantage point anyway: the Falconio family have always supported her and fully support this book. “They’re lovely and have given me photographs and kept ringing me up saying, ‘Do you want to put this in the book or that in the book?’ They’re pleased and they support me 100 per cent.”

The fact that she has been paid quite a lot (“It’s not about the money,” she says. “I’ve been offered more for a half-day interview, but I didn’t want a journalistic take on this book”) has never been an issue with the Falconio family. “They’re proud of me and they know that I’ve worked hard on it, so it’s not something that’s ever been raised.”

As for the fling – she had sex with a friend on two occasions; a close friendship that went further than perhaps it should have – really, who are we to pass judgment? The Falconio family forgave her when they had more reason than most to condemn her. What she says is: “I did love Pete with all my heart and when that happened I did overstep the boundaries of friendship but it made me, like, love Pete even more and value what we did have.”

Lees doesn’t know whether she would ever have told Pete about it: “That was one thing I struggled with. I don’t know the answer, and the thing is, all I can say is that was taken away from me, too, wasn’t it? All I wish was that Pete was still here and I could… Well, I wish he was still here more than anything.”

I use every trick in my ken to get Lees to tell me her plans for the bright new future and get nowhere. More writing, perhaps? A university degree? There’s no significant other, but she would love to have children at some point.

I’m a bit disappointed that she’s chosen to withdraw her complaint against the way she was handled by the Northern Territory police, since so many aspects seem unsatisfactory – but perhaps everything in her life to that point had taught her to appear more resilient than it was possible for anyone to be in those circumstances.

When we say goodbye, I can’t help but give her a hug and when we part there are tears in both our eyes. I say that it’s been a difficult interview and she says, in the natural way she has: “It’s because it’s such a personal story, and private and painful.” But her last words to me are these: “You know what? I’m a positive person, and when you look at what has happened to other people, I feel really blessed. Really, that’s what I think – ‘God, I’m lucky.’” And, in one major respect, you would have to agree.

* * *

Joanne Lees’ book No Turning Back: My Story (Hachette, $35) is in store October 5.

Bradley John Murdoch is due to appeal his sentence and conviction in court on December 12.

Celebrities, Sport, Women

Game, set and in shape for more

THE TIMES – May 27, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Tennis champion Martina Navratilova is so passionate about keeping fit that she’s written a book about it. She tells Ginny Dougary about life as a bionic woman.

There’s something faintly discombobulating about coming face to face with a legend from your youth and discovering that she is almost exactly the same age (bar one day) as you are now. In 1978, when Martina Navratilova won the first of her nine Wimbledon singles titles — an unbeaten record — I was still a layabout student. Throughout the Eighties, while she was smashing her way into tennis history, others of us were travelling or having babies, or working out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives.
If people wonder at the marvel of Madonna’s physique — another contemporary, give or take a year — how much more marvellous is it that Navratilova made her comeback at 46, three years ago, in a sport that routinely spits out players who are decades younger? In January 2003 she won the Australian Open mixed doubles (with Leander Paes), making her the oldest winner, male or female, of a Grand Slam title.

That year she also won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, tieing a record 20 Wimbledon titles held by Billie Jean King.

Navratilova does not, suffice to say, suffer from self-doubt. She is an engaging and popular figure but humour is probably not her strongest suit. She does not do frivolity and appears as discombobulated, in turn, by the manner of some of my questions. At one point when she gives me a severe look, I explain that I am only being light-hearted, and she replies: “Oh good. You see, I take myself too seriously.” When I begin to say that she may be a miracle bionic person, she insists, without a trace of irony: “I am. I am.” She tells me that when she was still battling away at 35, a commentator asked Billie Jean how long Navratilova could possibly keep going like this, to which King replied: “With her body, ’til she’s 50, for sure.” “And here I am. So she was right.” Navratilova’s body, as much as that of any other superb athlete, is her livelihood. There is a way in which she defines herself by it, but it is also something oddly detached from her, like a streamlined machine that she feels she has a responsibility to service. “My body needs to move to feel good,” she says. “Just to exist. Like a racehorse, it’s got to run.” But the message of her new “self-help book” is that we, too, can have a body if not like hers, at least one that functions to the best of its ability.

We meet in her rented apartment next to the Spanish Steps in Rome, where she is playing doubles in the Italian Open Tennis Tournament. She is, as ever, focused on her game and looks nonplussed when I ask whether she’s had a chance to check out the house next door, where Keats and Shelley lived. I was expecting light and luxe and gorgeous views from the balcony overlooking the cobbled piazza below, but we sit in a dark, airless room, with unapppealing furnishings. She is in tracksuit and socks, nursing a dodgy right knee (the left one underwent surgery recently), and has none of the blonde highlights or artful make-up of recent photographs. I am the last person to expect a woman of substance to conform to this sort of glamorous stereotype, but the whole atmosphere feels a bit, well, Eastern bloc, as we sit there cradling our plastic bottles of water in the gloom.

She is direct. When I say that I am not a great reader of these sorts of books, as she can probably tell, she laughs (perfectly pleasantly) and says: “You may be happy with the weight you are, which is fine, but most people aren’t.” This probably sounds harsher than it felt because she is pragmatic about such matters rather than judgmental. Besides, when she defected to the United States from Czechoslovakia, at 19, and discovered the joys of junk food, she was branded “The Great Wide Hope”. “That wasn’t rude,” she says. “It was honest, because I was.” For years, her body has been a temple of purity and, as such, she seems to be remarkably vulnerable to any pollution.

The conundrum being that superwoman though she undoubtedly is, she may be less robust than us lesser mortals. “Dairy,” for instance, “really knocks me down big-time.” Wheat? “It’s OK, but it sends me to sleep.” If she has more than a couple of sips of red wine (which she says she loves but it doesn’t love her), she feels terrible. Smoking (cigarettes), of course, is a complete no-no. Dope? “I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say I dabbled.” (A big giggle.) She got a terrible lurgy from mould in her suitcases when they became waterlogged at Heathrow in the storms of 2004; a story she recounts, with a measure of aggravated pleasure, furnishing minute details of the dampness that had permeated layers of leather grips on her tennis rackets.

Her book, Shape Your Self (an inspirational guide to achieving your personal best), may be a daunting title, but it’s not a daunting read. Navratilova’s entirely sensible view is that “most people know what they should and should not be doing, it’s just that they don’t know how to get there”. She says: “I think it talks to people, not at them. It’s humorous; there are stories (from her own life) that people can relate to and I give people the tools with which they can make little bitty steps, without feeling deprived or stressed.” She is passionately pro organic and raw foods, and anti GM and pesticides. When she goes to people’s houses, she tells me, she always opens their refrigerators to see what they’re eating, and believes that if she can motivate people to get informed about what they’re putting into their bodies, “this might be the most important thing I have ever done”.

There is no doubting her sincerity and that her motivation to write the book was to help people: “I actually tell people not to tell their friends to buy the book; figure it out and pass it on. I really don’t care if a hundred thousand copies sell or a million, as long as it helps as many people as possible.” The tone of the book is far from hectoring, but I wonder whether she finds herself lecturing people in person: “I do have a tendency that way, but I try not to. I’m strong and to the point. I don’t bullshit around. I say ‘here’s the deal; this is what they do to these animals and if you don’t want to know so that you don’t feel guilty about eating it, then probably you shouldn’t be eating it and you probably should know.’” (This had nil effect on her friend and old rival Chris Evert, who listened politely to Navratilova’s lecture about not “eating babies” before turning to the waiter and saying: “And I’d like my lamb medium rare.”) I ask Navratilova whether she would be as forthright with someone in a position of power and influence: “I don’t know that many powerful, influential people, but I’m sure I would.” Would she, for instance, tell the Queen that “a whole bunch of homeless people could use your fur coat; I’m sure you have another option to keep warm”. (As she has been known to say to others.) “I think that’ s where you draw the line. You do not tell the Queen what to do! But I think I would tease her because she’s got a good sense of humour. The Queen is a very cool woman.”

While she enjoyed her mini-retirement, taking up woodwork, snowboarding and flying lessons, Navratilova slackened off on her fitness regimen and both she and her body rebelled: “I was pissed off that I had all this time, but I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do because I was too tired and out of shape.” So while she continued to play soccer and basketball and river swimming (she doesn’t care to do laps in a pool), she also returned to the treadmill and thence to the tennis courts. “Once I was back in shape, I thought I might as well play because I’m ready to go, and it seemed a waste of talent if I didn’t.” Does she have high self-esteem? “I have my feet on the ground, pretty firmly planted, although sometimes I float off and think I’m better than I am. I have a healthy self-esteem. I know what my strengths are and my weaknesses and I’m willing to admit them, but perhaps not in public,” she laughs.

Being in tip-top condition is no guarantee, apparently, for a trouble-free menopause. Navratilova says she’s bang in the middle of it, with hot flushes, sleepless nights and mood swings. She’s been using a hormone cream to help with the former but still suffers from the latter. “My honey says, ‘You’re over-reacting’, and I say, ‘I have a right to be pissed off, you know!’ So now I think I have to take a chill pill when I get irritable, but at least I have an excuse.”

The couple have been an item for the past six years but the tennis champion’s partner prefers to remain anonymous. She says that if she’d had her way she would have kept a Greta Garbo veil of secrecy over all her previous paramours: “But I wanted them to be with me when I was playing tennis, so they became public. You know, I wasn’t hiding anything but neither was I throwing it in anybody’s faces.”

The most public of her relationships was her seven-year stretch with Judy Nelson, a former Texan beauty queen, who left her husband for Navratilova. The break-up led to a messy palimony suit and worldwide press coverage. It may be ancient history — the couple split 15 years ago — but Navratilova still feels incredibly bitter about the fallout (see her book extract overleaf.) I wonder why she felt compelled to revisit such painful territory in what is, after all, a diet and exercise book. “I wanted to tell people because they think I’ve had this wonderful life, but I’ve had my problems. I’ve had my share of disappointments and that was a big one, “she says. “This person was not who I thought she was.” She is clearly torn between wanting to keep a discreet silence about the end of the affair and feeling compelled to explain her sense of betrayal.

“Look, let’s just say we had problems and she (Judy) said, ‘Oh, it’s all about your tennis. There’s nothing wrong with us.’ And there was something wrong with us, but because she was ten years older, I deferred to her. After we split and I started going to therapy, that’s when I realised that there had been something wrong with our relationship. When you split up and they want half of everything you made because, according to her, she did everything but hit the ball. Well, excuse me, I was hitting that ball before we got together. It’s not like she contributed to me being able to do this. She said that ‘if you leave me all I ever want are the dogs’, but when we split her philosophy changed. Her actions and her words did not match.”

So you’re clearly not exactly friendly. “No, but it’s not because of the split. We’re not friends because she totally betrayed me, and sold her story to the National Enquirer about stuff which was extremely private a year after we split up.”

Her birth father committed suicide shortly after leaving his wife when their daughter Martina was small. But she has no depressive tendencies, she says. “I’ve had dark moments, but who hasn’t? I’m not a brooder and I don’t look to the past, always to the future, perhaps to a fault.” She’s learning to be more diplomatic and better at seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
Is it inevitable that if you strive to achieve something exceptional in life that you are bound to be a bit selfish? “To a degree, yes, but I think you can do it without being a prima donna or a jerk. But you do have to say, ‘OK, for me to win Wimbledon this year, I need to be able to practise, and that means I can’t go out to dinner tonight because I’ll be too tired.’ So that’s the selfish bit.” Spiritual rather than religious — “you know, I’m not a born-again or anything like that” — Navratilova had to give up meditating when she found that it impeded rather than aided her concentration on the tennis court. “You need to keep doing it to get to that higher level of consciousness. You know, the ninjas when they fight they go into this shhhhheeeeoooough zone, where everything moves in slow motion. Well, I didn’t get to that point.

Not that I would want to hurt anybody with a ball that way. But I was, like (adopting a trippy, space-cadety voice), ‘Oh, another double fault. Well, it’s no big deal.’ So I had to stop meditating because I got too mellow.”

Finally, I ask her one of my last devil’s advocate questions; “You’re full of them,” she grins. Is it not natural to experience a certain amount of fatigue as one gets older? I mean, what’s so bad about taking a nap? “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with taking naps. I love doing that. In fact, one of my best naps ever was at Wimbledon one year. It was a Friday and it had rained all afternoon,” a dreamy expression softens her chiselled face, “and the whole house slept for a couple of hours. It was the best frigging nap probably of my whole life. I still remember it.”

See Quiet on the court, please, for an extract from Martina Navratilova’s new book, Shape Your Self

Politicians, Travel & Adventure, Women

The labours of Cherie

Ginny Dougary

Photographs – Jenny Matthews

For all her achievements as Cherie Booth QC, Cherie Blair has had a rocky ride at No 10. Ginny Dougary joined her on last month’s tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan to gain a remarkable close-up view of the PM’s spouse in action.

Cherie Blair

The period of our travels with Mrs B, wife of The Boss – as the couple at No 10 are known by their staff – began with admonishments from one of her advisers that I was not under any circumstances to write “fluffily” about Cherie’s clothes, and ended back in England with Hairgate, the front-page disclosures that the Labour Party had paid £7,700 to Cherie’s hairdresser – the bill for a month of styling her locks – during last year’s general election campaign.

In between the warning and what felt like its fulfilment, a photographer, Jenny Matthews, and I had spent a week more or less “embedded” with Cherie and her entourage in Pakistan – where the Prime Minister’s wife had been invited as a guest of the Government, in her own right as patron of Breast Cancer Care – and Afghanistan, meeting the most remarkable women, from the loftiest to the lowest echelons of their societies.

My first sighting of Mrs B was one that has somehow stuck through all the other images of her more buffed public persona, perhaps because it was more “real”. She emerged from the plane, as we touched down at dawn in Islamabad, uncoiffed, no make-up, sleepy, casually dressed. She may be an ambitious woman with a formidable brain, and a pronounced drive to change the world for the better – a consequence of both her unpampered upbringing and her faith – but the ability I witnessed in her to connect with people from the most humble backgrounds, is to do with her humanity and natural warmth.

Watching her at close quarters, over a prolonged period, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her as a young girl – when she walked from a stage to her seat, with her modest, unshowy deportment; an occasional suggestion of lack of confidence in her general mien. I had come across her daughter, Kathryn, years ago, in a different context, and was struck by something similar in the way that they carried themselves.

Throughout the trip, Cherie was at pains to point out to the women she met that the fight for equal rights was something that was still being fought in her own country. This was partly a diplomatic move, an attempt to minimise the gulf of difference and maximise mu­t­uality, but also because it happens to be true. While it would be almost grotesquely absurd to equate the deprivations of most Western women with the barbarisms that are meted out to some women in Pakistan – honour killings, burnings and the like – it is still undeniably the case that certain prominent women are filtered through a particular prism. At one point in our journey, I asked Cherie whether it irk­ed her that a woman’s image is so pivotal to the way her actions are perceived. “You don’t have to worry about lipstick in the law,” was Cherie Booth, QC, bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, and founder of Matrix Chambers’ response.

At the end of our time together, when we sat down to a formal interview, I asked her how she felt about her depiction as a greedy, freebie-chasing, slightly loopy – here, she chuckled – creepily alternative, Lady Macbeth figure. “Lady Macbeth!” she chuckled more. “Is there anyone else evil we can identify me with? Look, in the end, you’ve spent a week with me. You can make up your own mind whe­th­er you think I’m a completely Loopy-Lou, freebie-loving person. But I am here with a serious purpose, actually, and because I think that if we can try and do something to make a difference, we should.”

We arrive for the lunch in the President’s house, through security and into various spectacularly high-domed rooms, and thence into the banqueting hall. It is the start of a dizzying jerk between different realities, only a helicopter or convoy drive away: from opulent palaces, hallucinogenic flower displays, and fragrant ladies who mostly have their heads uncovered, to refuges, tented schools, widows, orphans, the stench of dung and poverty, scorched earth.

At the central table, Cherie is seated between Mrs Musharraf, the wife of the President, and Mrs Aziz, wife of the Prime Minister, and patron of the Breast Cancer (Pink Ribbon) Campaign in Pakistan. Other tables are filled with an impressive array of female academics, lawyers and campaigners. It is this sort of dual hosting of Mrs B’s trips that is so often a matter of political delicacy: when does Cherie Booth become Cherie Blair? But the statistics that we are to hear again and again override the temptation to speculate about any such tensions.

Pakistan has the highest rate of mortalities from breast cancer of any Asian country; statistics show that 35 per cent of women suffer from breast cancer. It is shocking, is it not? – as Cherie is to say in one of her many speeches – that more than 50 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Pakistan don’t even report for treatment. And it is shocking – is it not? – that so many women die from the disease without even passing through the health system.

There are all sorts of reasons why women from a predominantly Muslim country would not feel free to check their own breasts – or have their husbands, or anyone else, check them for them. But beyond the cultural obstacles, there is also the question of lack of funds, a shortage of female health workers, general ignorance and, until now, a lack of will to do anything about the problem. I was told that a “proper” word for breasts doesn’t even exist in Urdu; only demeaning slang.

Cherie’s personal connection with breast cancer – and most activists have one – is that her aunt Audrey, who played a significant role in her niece’s upbringing, died of the disease aged 52, having spent years in denial about the lump she had found. As the Patron of Breast Cancer Care points out, even in our own country it is relatively recent that the stigma and secrecy around the disease has lifted.

Off by helicopter to “Aashiana”, a Persian word meaning nest, a temporary government-funded refuge for widows, orphans and women made destitute by the earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. The figures produced in a random survey by the Population Council and UNICEF of vulnerable people in earthquake-affected areas suggest that there are 6,047 orphans, 1,724 widows and destitute women, 4,686 disabled. This refuge on 50 acres has the capacity to care for just 1,500 of them.

We go into a room where 15-year-old boys and girls in neat blue cotton sit in front of a dozen computers. Mrs B makes a beeline for one of the girls and asks her to explain what she is doing. “I use the computer a lot,” she explains, always offering an example from her own life to try to put the other person at ease. But this is not just small talk. Over a curry lunch in a restaurant the next day, the most relaxed event of the week since it was spontaneous, she tells me what a lovely job she did on Euan’s history dissertation, designing and laying out the pages on her computer at midnight. She laughs when I accuse her of being a techie. “Do you not know about my great skills at IT? I was the first chairman of the Bar’s IT committee. I’m very proud of that. And I enjoy playing with my Powerpoints. Are you not impressed by them?” Most mornings Cherie was up at 7am, writing her speeches and working on their presentation.

As we move into other buildings, where the children are younger, the distress is more evident. There are two small rooms, with space for no more than a double bed in each, in which 16 of the unaccompanied infants sleep huddled together. Cherie moves right in and sits among them and when a little boy starts wailing at the sight of all the towering strangers, she takes him on to her lap and comforts him. He doesn’t let go of her hand for the rest of the tour.

We move on to meet the widows, who tell their harrowing stories. A number of them have lost their sight since the earthquake devastated their lives, as though they have been struck blind not dumb by what they have witnessed. One woman weeps inconsolably and her tears flow throughout the meeting. Her whole family was wiped out by the earthquake and she cannot forgive herself since it was she who persuaded her brother to visit her with his children. She was out in the fields working while at home were her two daughters, two sons, her grandchildren, nephews and nieces and brother… all of them lost. There is a look of real distress on Cherie’s face as the interpreter recounts this, and she reaches out to hold the woman’s hand. “Tell her it’s not her fault, can you?” She asks each woman what she wants – to stay in the refuge or go back to what’s left of their villages, are they being trained, and so on. When I comment on how much she en­gages with everyone she meets, she puts it down to the women in her family: “My mother and my grand­mother were always very interested in people and what made them tick – endlessly fascinated by life.”

We arrive at the Prime Minister’s house for pre-dinner drinks and a meeting of various health ministers, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistan High Commissioner in London – a well-respected figure who was in New York during 9/11 and is said to have played a pivotal role in influencing the Pakistan Government’s subsequent decision to work with the United States – and various other political figures.

The hum of noise from a connecting room becomes louder, and we walk in to meet diplomats, senators, heads of NGOs, police officers, a general, two commercial pilots, two fighter pilots in their early twenties, the governor of the Central Bank… all women. As Cherie says in her speech, she would be hard-pushed to present such an impressive roll-call in London… “I’m sure this means that your society will be on the up and up.”

Around my table are some faces that I recognise from the first lunch. Zarine Aziz is the president of the First Women Bank. Why is it, she asks, that Western journalists perpetuate the myth that all wom­en in Pakistan are dumb and downtrodden? Why, when there have always been strong women of influence. Benazir Bhutto? Oh, long before her, Zarine waves her hand dismissively. The other wom­en agree that they feel misrepresented by our media. Look at the part Fatima Jinnah played, the sister of the founder of Pakistan in 1947, they say. The new quota that was introduced in 2003 of women councillors at local level was 33 per cent, which translates into 30,000 new women councillors. In the National Assembly, 60 women are assured places out of a total of 342 MPs.

We troop downstairs for a fashion-cum-culture show. It’s been a long day and it’s now around 11pm but Cherie is still looking perky and smiley in the front row. The models are well-known local actors, all doe eyes and Bollywood strained sincerity. There’s a wildly exuberant twist on the Raj – a handsome young man is dressed, frankly absurdly, in puce britches, turquoise waistcoat and lime cravat, with some sort of codpiece device. He fixes Cherie with a devastating smoulder, and when she gives him a distinctly bawdy look back, he is so flabbergasted, he breaks out laughing. This, no doubt, would be considered evidence by some of Mrs B’s vulgar streak, but it does lighten proceedings. When we tease her about her flirtatious behaviour, she gamely joins in. As she says to one of the women we meet in a less glam­­orous setting a day or so later, “Everyone’s entitled to a bit of fun.”

Although Cherie’s main brief in Pakistan is to raise awareness of breast cancer, as a guest of the Government she is also expected to make appearances at other events. This raises the question that exercises her critics, namely, where does her role as Ms Cherie Booth blend into that of Mrs Cherie Blair. Although she has undeniably achieved a great deal in her own right as Cherie Booth QC, would she really have had the red-carpet treatment (as well as the first-class plane tickets), were she not the wife of the Prime Minister?

Left to her own devices, my guess is that she would have chosen to spend more time in Pakistan seeking out the company of ordinary women – “a horrible phrase”, she says, but we know what she means – and less high-society hobnobbing. It’s where she certainly seems most comfortable. This is partly to do with what she once referred to as “the little bit of grit” in her faith, particularly in its social teaching, which is part of its enduring appeal to her – and one of the reasons why she wanted to raise her children as Catholics. When I asked her to explain this, she said: “It’s not quite the same these days where everyone seems to be Catholic as far as I can see… but certainly when I was growing up, to be a Catholic was something that meant you were not part of the Establishment. And so, being from a fairly humble family myself, and knowing that my children are having a pretty privileged life, I don’t want them to be simply part of the Establishment.”

The next morning’s seminar is on women’s entrepreneurship and development. In front of the LokVirsa cultural centre are many stalls covered with all manner of different handicrafts. Gifts are thrust upon her at every stall – “What a lovely doll, thank you. Wherever I go in the world, I always bring back a doll for my daughter”; “It’s a dear little camel. My son Leo will love it”; “All these bangles, really?”

Cherie says she can’t claim to be an entrepreneur herself but “I’m a mother and a working woman – a barrister specialising in human rights – apart from being the wife of a prime minister… I feel passionately that equality for women is an end in itself but the advancement of women helps everyone… women hold up half the sky… It’s a long journey ahead but the longest journeys start with the smallest steps. And remember, you’re not just helping yourself, you’re helping everyone. Thank you.”

We set off to view room after room of artefacts. It’s a chaotic gallop, Cherie attempting to say something meaningful about each tableau as the crowd pushes her relentlessly on, the heat, the confusion, and then we’re out and running to get into our car so we can make it to the airport to catch a plane to a destination that is so top secret no one has yet mentioned its name.

We were able to have our informal lunch in a restaurant the previous day because our flight was cancelled due to inclement weather. So today we board the UN plane which makes two journeys a day to Kabul. Cherie is reading a book on Catholicism. That evening she has a private service with the papal nuncio, to which we are invited to participate. But none of us non-believers feels that it would be quite right to sit in. One of her advisers stresses several times that Cherie would have preferred to go to a public service – but it seems clear that her hosts would have considered this too much of a security risk.

We are greeted at the airport by a number of armoured tanks and a great many men with rifles. Our first stop is the Al Fatah School in the old Russian quarter – one of the largest girls’ schools in Kabul with 8,000 pupils, from the age of 7 to 18, and in some cases, 21. In the staffroom, Cherie asks the director what she most needs for the school. The list ranges from the optimistic – a science lab – to the more achievable volleyballs and basketballs, which Cherie commits to sending. On a table, there are books provided by the British Council: Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days and Hard Times.

Throughout the years of the Taleban, the director continued to teach: “We met secretly and if we had been caught, our men would have been punished – not us. But we put up resistance and we never gave up. In the Taleban years, there were no desks or chairs but the girls would bring the bed clothes from their homes and sit on the ice so that they could learn.”

We walk past empty, abandoned rooms filled with blocks of cement and rubbish and into a room where two girls are sitting at a table and reading – one a copy of the Koran, the other a comic with pictures of movie stars. For all her rallying cries of “Remember – girls can do anything”, it was this vivid illustration of the limited range of options available to them which really seemed to depress Cherie when we talked about the visit afterwards.

Into the playground – or, at least, open ground since there doesn’t seem to be any equipment for play – Cherie links arms with the director, a wide-faced, indomitable woman with a simple manner, and wishes her luck. “It’s very important what you’re doing,” she says, looking at her face intently. “And you’re a very brave woman to have worked through the years of the Taleban.”

Later that day, Cherie arrives from a private meeting with Pres­ident Karzai, on whom there has been a recent assassination attempt – since when his wife, Dr Zenat Karzai, who was trained as a gynaecologist, has been a virtual prisoner in her own home. The discussion around the table of human rights commissioners and lawyers is fascinating – like watching history unfurl. The main thrust seems to be that there is little confidence in the government, the police are seen as corrupt oppressors, torture in prisons is still going on, the legal system is a bad joke… and landlords and warlords are ruling rural communities.

We are whisked off to the compound of the President’s palace to a lunch hosted by Dr Zenat Karzai and attended by various women MPs who have been elected as part of Afghanistan’s new quota system. Mrs Karzai is youthful-looking, with an air of sweet sorrowfulness. While woman after woman around the table speaks in an urgent torrent of words, she remains silent. The MPs are telling us how the men wouldn’t even acknowledge them during their first days in parliament, only instructing them to sit behind them. But the women insisted that they were their equals and would sit where they pleased. Now the men speak quite freely to them and seem to take their presence for granted. An MP says that it was funny to see one of the fiercest warlords – famous for his legend “To kill you is easy” – flanked by women.

For the first time, Cherie is looking tired, drained and slightly ratty. But then by now, everyone in the party is beginning to feel the strain. She hardly meets my eye and I wonder whether there’s trouble brewing back home. We arrive in Lahore to a military band playing Strang­ers in the Night, more dignitaries, more bouquets of flowers, more smiling for the cameras. There’s a “quiet” lunch at the home of an old friend from the Bar, with a convoy of a dozen vehicles, including an ambulance and two armoured trucks of the Special Comman­do team with their snazzy black ELITE T-shirts (Cherie thinks these should be ad­opted by her blokes from Special Branch), road blocks, marksmen on the roofs.

After another day of visits and speechmaking, that evening there is another – very swanky (£100 a ticket) – Pink Ribbon fashion show and dinner, hosted by the Governor of the Punjab. The buzz around the tables is that her breast-awareness campaign is making an impact. One woman says she has heard the word “breast” men­t­ioned on television for the first time in living history. Another says the Governor doesn’t seem to be able to stop saying the word. People are moved by the humanity of her speech and by how natural she is.

The next day we’re on to the launch of a pro bono legal project, which has been the initiative of yet another amazingly effective twentysomething, a solicitor trained in London, Mahnaz Malik. Its main imperative, Malik says, is to tackle the problem of the thousands of innocent children who are being jailed – sometimes for years without trial – and forced to share cells with adult criminals. The families of these children have no access to legal assistance.

Cherie gives a good and clever talk, with her trusty Powerpoint, illustrating that the quality of justice is not strained – and stressing the crucial role the judiciary can play in improving society – while managing to avoid offending her hosts. “People say that human rights is a Western construct foisted on others. But that’s not true. Equality, dignity, respect and justice are as much an integral part of the Islamic tradition.”

It’s our last day and we’re off in helicopters again, this time to the North West Frontier. Looking down on the hills and valleys, with the houses dotted so few and far between, does make you question what impact all those high-powered, reforming women can have on the vulnerable, uneducated women who live in these remote communities. We land first in Chakothi, which is a transit point close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. When Dr Lodhi acts as interpreter for the villagers who have been asked what they need most of all – after water, hospitals and schools, it is always (this delivered with her knowing smile) “…oh yes, and freedom for Kashmir”.

The security is fiercer here – army, police, it is hard to tell the difference – men with guns, anyway, shoving us into the back of Jeeps, grab on to a bar if you can, hurry hurry hurry. Since the earthquake, there have been landslides, which means the road is usually closed. It’s difficult to get materials in to rebuild the school which is still being housed in tents. Cherie arrives, rose petals are thrown over her head and a garland of red, pink and white roses is placed around her neck.

Into the first tent which smells of animal dung. She asks the little girls, “What are you doing? Reading? Do you like reading? Shall we do the alphabet? That’s excellent [e x c e l l e n t, they spell out in a chant] and so clever [c – l – e – v – e – r].”

Cherie is taken to meet the parents of the children – the mothers sitting together in one area; the fathers in another. We are circled, in this stricken valley, by the lovely green embrace of mountains which are capped in snow in the distance. The women see that the guest of honour is really interested in what they have to say, and one by one they rise from their seats until she is surrounded. Cherie tells them it is their right to speak out – which makes the women smile – and that she will keep an eye on the rebuilding of their school, and that she’s happy “to see that the men are so docile. I’m sure they give you no trouble.” The men, one cannot help noticing, are not smiling.

Our final destination is Balakot, the area which was devastated by the earthquake, and the last tent we visit is the Adult Literacy Centre. We squeeze into the packed space, and sit crosslegged on the floor with the women who have been learning reading, writing and arithmetic… two hours a day, for 180 hours. The test is for a woman to be able to read a newspaper without assistance. Cherie asks if she can see their work. A woman, who was illiterate three months ago, inches her finger across the column of a newspaper article – voicing the words as she goes. What would she like to do now that she can read? The woman says she wants to learn English.

Another mother says that she is able to help her children with their homework, since she has completed her course. Cherie asks her age – which is 35 – and then tells her she is 51 since “it’s only fair to tell her mine, too”, Another woman gets up to do some simple sums on the blackboard. Cherie suggests that she adds her age to the 35-year-old’s. Painfully slowly, taking her time as though her life depended on it, she drags on the chalk to form the letter six and to the left, a very wobbly eight. That was the moment when a tiny step felt like a giant stride towards the possibilities of hope.

Back in Islamabad, at the end of the day before our night-time flight, we sit down to a formal interview in the living room of the British High Commiss­ioner’s residence, where Cherie has been staying.

It has been my belief that this will be a one-on-one, so I’m somewhat surprised to see not one but two assistants – Sue Geddes and Sara El Nusairi – sit down on chairs at the back of the room; particularly as they have already positioned their own tape recorder on the table along­side mine. In retrospect, it was probably quite a useful misunderstanding since it enabled me to catch a glimpse of the steel behind Cherie’s warmth. It is no exaggeration to say that her face darkened when I asked her why she felt it necessary to have an audience. (I wondered who was more frightened by what Cherie might say – she or they?).

She said words to the effect that it was normal protocol for someone in her position to have a press assistant sitting in – which, to be fair, it probably is. Norma Major had someone with her, she added, when Cherie interviewed her for The Goldfish Bowl, her book on Downing Street spouses. It takes a good 15 minutes – half our allotted time – to get back to the easy to-and-fro which has made my dealings with her so pleasant. Indeed, she is so accustomed to asking questions that I have to remind her (and myself) that we are in interview mode.

What has surprised her most about the trip? “Hmm. I suppose I wasn’t surprised to find the women interesting and into all sorts of different areas… perhaps what did surprise me was to find that the men were more accepting of that than I thought.”

What one has to wonder is how much of it is pretty words and how much of it will be action? Although it’s interesting, perhaps, that they feel those are the right words to express? “I think the fact they want to use that language is important and shows some progress at least. Some people are paying lip service, I’m sure. But I’ve met the President a few times, and Mrs Musharraf, and actually, I think he’s made those words before and he has delivered on some things. For example, the women’s quota. I mean, that’s a huge thing and it wouldn’t have been done unless he wanted it to be done.”

Where did the pressure come for the President to do it? After all, we hardly think of him as an enlightened feminist or a human rights person (in 2005 the President caused an international outcry when he was reported to say of an alleged gang-rape: “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped”). “No… no…” (It must be tricky remaining true to yourself, without badmouthing your host.) “He probably sees it as a way of making sure this country doesn’t become more extreme Islamist.” Pressure from the United States? “That’s what the international community wants, that’s for sure, but I also think he wants this country to be a secular state and therefore empowering women is one way of doing that.”

Did she notice a certain sullenness from the men in the rural areas? She says that that they were noticeably quiet but some of that might have been cultural. “I was careful to put my hand out to them but only shake their hand if they indicated that’s what they wanted. Some of them clearly didn’t, not because they were being nasty but because I’m a woman and in their culture they might not want to touch me.” She did concede that the other reason may well have been that she was so clearly focusing her attention on the women. She was very heartened by the sight of the women doing the electrics during a visit to a retraining programme in the earthquake zone. “OK, they weren’t being taught how to wire up a new house but learning how to mend household appliances and be self-sufficient makes total sense, doesn’t it? Remember that many of those women would be widows, and if they don’t know how to do that, who is going to do it, in a society where women can’t just ask a stray man in to help?”

Her own household skills are not all that hot. So is Tony any good? “Oh no,” she laughs. “If anyone did change the fuse in our house, it was me, not Tony. But I’m not claiming that I’m an electrician.” We talk about all the shocking practices against women we have heard about during our stay. In the Hadud law, sex between any two people, outside marriage, is considered adultery (although Dr Lodhi stresses this law is under review). If a woman is raped, unless there are four male witnesses to confirm her story, she will be accused of committing adultery. The honour killings and such are all tied up with the question of whether a woman has shamed the honour of her family: “So if you’ve been perceived to have been flirting, the reprisal could be the complete disfigurement of your face,” Cherie says. In Bangladesh, she says, the most popular punishment against women is to fling the acid from car batteries on their faces.

In some of the tribal areas, if there’s a dispute between two families, the local form of justice is that a daughter will be taken as compensation. “At the end of army rule, the General [ie, the President] had taken [these practices] out of the family law and put them into this special Hadud law which is particular to the Islamic law. So it makes it much more difficult now for the Government to repeal a law which is perceived to be Islamic.”

Do we call Pakistan a military dictatorship? “No, we don’t. We certainly don’t.” But he did seize power… (in a military coup in 1999). “But there have been elections since.” Nevertheless, some people do still call it that. (Imran Khan, for one, in this magazine – who has his own political ambitions, of course – recently described the regime as “a military dictatorship with a democratic façade”.) Says Cherie: “Pakistan has been restored to the Commonwealth and is working its way towards a fully non-military involvement. This is the question of whether [Musharraf] should continue to be General. [If he is re-elected.] And certainly our policy remains that he should not.”

As a human rights lawyer, and a passionate human rights activist, how would you weigh up the compromises involved in visiting a country whose regime you disapproved of, with the good you feel you could do for the people who are living there?

“Well, that’s – um – that’s – always a – I mean – that’s always a ques – um… To some extent, I feel, particularly in relation to women – that sometimes just by going to these places and showing your face and talking about women’s issues, at least you’re both, hopefully, giving some sort of encouragement to those who are pushing those issues, and making people who are against those issues face up to the realities. But there’s only so much you can do, and in the end, it has to come from the country itself.” We move on to more general questions. It has been made clear that questions relating to the Prime Minister’s policies are off-limits. I wonder whether there’s part of you that thinks it will be a tremendous relief when you leave Downing Street; do you think you will regain part of yourself?

“I don’t know about that. I mean, ever since I got married, I’ve been Mrs Blair – who’s the wife of Tony Blair and the mother of…” Aha, I am reminded of her slightly poignant quote: “I started life as the daughter of someone, now I’m the wife of someone, so I’ll probably end up the mother of someone.” Does that suggest you feel that you will never be able to be seen as a person in your own right?

“Certainly I feel that as Cherie Booth, QC, the law is my thing, isn’t it? And within the law… well, it’ll be 30 years this year since I qualified as a lawyer.”

Do you think you might like to become a politician? “A politician?” You’re looking at me as though you think I must be crazy. A deep, rich laugh. Well, you did think about it at one time. “No, I did. [She was a candidate for Thanet North and lost; the year Tony gained his seat at Sedgfield.] And I’m fascinated by politics but I’ve lived 26 years in politics – more than that because I’ve always been interested. But, you know, you can change the world through the law, too, and that’s the path I’ve chosen.”

Have you been paid to come here? “No. As you know, we’re guests of the Government. That means they paid for our flights and, well, actually, not our hotels since we stayed here.” No fees for any of the talks? “No. No. In fact that’s the norm. I do these things all the time and I don’t get paid for them.” (Although sometimes she does – as in last year’s controversial speaking tour in Australia for a children’s cancer charity when she was reportedly paid a fee of £100,000.)

Do you think you could have married or fallen in love with someone who didn’t have a faith? “Not all the people I went out with were particularly religious but it was one of the things that Tony and I had in common from the beginning. One, was an interest in politics and the Labour Party, and the other was in the spiritual. And we both still retain both those interests.”

You’ve said on a number of occasions that your first love was history but that you felt that if you studied it at university (as her two older sons, Euan and Nicholas, have; Kathryn is showing interest in following in the thespian footsteps of her maternal grandparents), you would end up a teacher; an idea that clearly filled you with dread.

“I know. What a terrible thing to say because I think education is so important. But I think the ethos in the Sixties from the nuns was that you would go into teaching and you’d become good Catholic mothers. I haven’t got anything against good Catholic mothers and I’ve tried to be one myself but I wanted to do something a bit more bold.”

Enrolling at the London School of Economics – which certainly had a reputation in the late Sixties for political radicalism – must have been Cherie’s way of giving two fingers to the nuns. If you have a rebellious streak, where does it come from? “My husband always says – and heaven forbid that he ever disagrees with me – that I’m a bolshie Scouser. Maybe that’s the explanation.” He doesn’t really call you that. “He does! But I always point out to him that I think the women from the North West are very strong and independent. A surprising number of women High Court judges come from the North West.”

We talk about her being brought up by strong women herself. Her parents, Gale and Tony, met at RADA and toured together in a repertory company in North Wales, where he played the juvenile boy lead and she was the juvenile girl lead. Cherie was brought up by her grandmother and aunt while her mother was away touring. After the birth of her second daughter, Lyndsey, Gale stopped acting. Did she miss the theatre? “Yes, absolutely. And if you asked me why I feel very strongly about women’s empowerment and why women have to be independent, it’s partly because my mum found herself abandoned by my father and had to go out to work. First of all in a fish and chip shop and then in Lewis’s, a big department store in Liverpool, and that was because she had to work to keep my sister and me.”

I ask her, just for fun, whether she finds Bill Clinton sexy. Mass squawking from all the women present. “Well, I can see what people see in Bill Clinton,” Cherie says, panting with laughter, “but as you may have noticed – um – I enjoy – niceyoungmen!” Do you think any of your children will go into politics? Have they expressed any interest at all? “They’re all interested and they’re all members of the Labour Party, for example.” Would you mind if they were members of the Tory Party? “It’s up to them. Let’s just say that I’m pleased they’re all members of the Labour Party so I don’t have to worry about it. They’re interested in the world and they’ve had a wonderful chance to have an insight into the world.”

Finally, what do you think you will miss when you leave No 10? “It’s difficult for me to know yet. I’m going to wait and see when it comes. One thing I can say is that it’s such an opportunity and a privilege and you do get a chance to make a difference – which is partly what this trip has been about.” Will you continue to do so through your charity work? “If they want me to because I think you should always try to make a difference if you can and so it depends on what opportunities come along. But it’s not… well, it’s not over yet, darling!”

Before I went to Pakistan, there was so much secrecy and high security around the trip that there hadn’t been an opportunity to gauge people’s responses to Cherie; a woman so much in the public eye, she has no need of a surname to identify her. But back in Britain, even before the hair business, I was left in no doubt at all about her unpopularity. I spoke to lawyers, academics, actors, architects, singers, house­wives, secretaries and, of course, other journalists. Although most of them voted Tony Blair in, a couple of them said they would not be voting Labour in the next election. The central point of their disenchantment was undoubtedly the Iraq war, but they also seemed to blame his wife for somehow symbolising everything they disliked about the current regime. These are some of the words they used to describe her: “mad”, “vile”, “manipulative”, “power-mad” and “dreadful to look at”.

One person asked, “How can such a smart woman be so stupid?” In all my years of interviewing – a cast list that includes Jeffrey Archer, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos – I have never encountered such overt and sustained hostility to a subject. Before our travels, I shared some of their misgivings but did not judge her quite so harshly. Her apparent reliance on Carol Caplin made me feel uneasy (Peter Foster and the flats didn’t help). But I also understood how a woman in Cherie’s position and with her natural temperament – a swottish bluestocking, in some ways (“There’s no need for lipstick in the law”) – might come to rely on someone who could take care of all the packaging involved in being the wife of a modern prime minister.

Hairgate was part of this, of course. But since I have had the odd snip at Michaeljohn, where her hairdresser Andre Suard works, I know that a day rate of 200-odd quid was a deal. (Andre wasn’t on the trip to Pakistan, although I was told that Cherie had asked for him to come, but the budget wouldn’t stretch to it.) The holidays chez-Berlusconi and Cliff Richard were similarly off-putting. So, let’s just say, I wasn’t an uncritical devotee of Cherie before I had the chance to observe her at close quarters for a week. However, I also felt that she was good-hearted, a genuine champion for women and the underprivileged, and someone who had achieved a great deal through the force of her own intelligence and efforts – and that these qualities were perversely and consistently overlooked in favour of concentrating on her defects.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then Cherie is stuffed. The constant refrain from anyone who has actually met her, is that she is so much more attractive in person than in photographs – which do not do justice to her flawless, milky skin (this she attributes, she tells me, to drinking 2 litres of water daily), her handsome eyes and, often, strikingly sweet expression. Part of her appeal is the way she is so animated. But this is the very thing that produces such unflattering pictures.

One or two people told me how much they loathed the way she hung on to her husband’s arm in public. But Cherie is a touchy-feely person and, from what I saw, reaches out to make physical contact with anyone she warms to. In Pakistan, one of Cherie’s aides told me that one of the reasons Mrs B is keen to usher other people into her photo opportunities is that it distracts her from feeling so nervous. Like Tracey Emin, whose response to a camera is to pull a lopsided grin, Cherie’s face tends to freeze into a panicky rictus; hence all the references to her being Cruella De Vil et al.

Spending so much time with her, however, left me in no doubt about the genuine, empathic parts of her personality, and it would be difficult for anyone to dissemble for so long while being watched so carefully. The different people who work with her seem very attached to her and her husband, which speaks well of them both. Although she is clearly by no means a saint. I asked one of the retinue whether Cherie ever spoke harshly, and the response was “No, but she sometimes speaks carelessly, which can be hurtful.” I am still left with a feeling of being tremendously privileged to have met so many impressive women in Pakistan and Afghan­istan at such a key point in their battle for personal freedom and democracy, but feel daunted by how far they have to go – and how tenuous that progress may prove to be. But as Cherie said, “The longest journeys start with the smallest steps.”

Fighting Breast Cancer: A Journey with Cherie Blair is on BBC News 24 tonight and tomorrow

General, Women

When the baby boomers become Generation Z

THE TIMES – Feburary 23, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Last week’s television highlight, for those of us addicted to the desperate goings-on in Wisteria Lane, was seeing the sober-suited working mother Lynette Scavo transform herself into a reckless sexpot — bedroom hair, bustier, “shakin’ her ass” as she strutted along the bar counter — in a last-ditch attempt to out-floozy her demon (and, significantly, childless) female boss. Ever since my favourite Desperate Housewife returned to work, leaving her hitherto breadwinning husband to do the childrearing, we have seen her performing ever more frantic cartwheels to prove that she can be a high-performing advertising executive while still, somehow, being a supermom (or some sort of mom) to her three children.

There should be something ludicrously anachronistic in 2006 about her daily juggling battle; perhaps the one nod to modernity being that the boss of the agency is a woman, who is now insisting that Lynette accompanies her for after-hours drinking and dirty-dancing to prove her commitment to the job. But for all the brave talk in the past decade about family-friendly policies and work-life balance, women are still apparently so fearful about being penalised at work if they dip out to have children that we now have, to quote a front-page weekend headline, a “UK baby shortage (that) will cost £11 billion”.

According to a new study published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we are on the brink of a demographic crisis with a shortage of children born to support future elderly dependents. Oh great. So now we league of fretters have another Big Worry to add to the list of international conflict, ecological disaster and, er, bird flu: the spectre of the swollen ranks of the Baby Boom Generation becoming Generation Z (for Zimmer Frame) threatening to capsize society as we know it.

I have some experience of dealing with Gen Z as my mother was 32 when she gave birth to me (a year older than I was when I had my first son), on her second marriage to my father, who was 42. He died when he was 75, having had chronic arthritis for almost as long as I remember. My mother died ten years later, at the same age, of breast cancer, which had first struck when I was 8.

The final year of her decline was a distressing unmerry-go-round of hospital stays, stints at home with mostly hopeless (and exorbitantly expensive) agency help, an introductory stay at the hospice, and — worst of all — a short-lived period in a nursing home. The idea of being in one filled her with dread but she decided to try it out, partly because if the experience proved tolerable it would give her daughter a break from all the organisation required in looking after her. The nursing home, however, did not prove tolerable.

It was a clean, genteel place, with a pleasant room and french windows opening out onto an attractive courtyard garden. But what my mother feared more than any physical deterioration was the idea of losing her marbles; her wrath when asked if she knew the name of the Prime Minister was something to behold. She managed maybe two or three evenings of dinners, surrounded by fellow diners who were senile for the most part, and this was her idea of living hell. On day four, she asked us — in desperation — to plan her escape, which we accomplished in an early-morning raid.

One of my friends, who once fitted into the demographic of mid-thirties IVF career women — and who now, happily, has two spirited daughters — and I used to fantasise about creating a franchise of retirement homes for the likes of us in our dotage . . . Hip Homes for the Hip-Replaced. There would be a soundtrack of Van Morrison and the smoking of dope as the preferred pain medication; a sort of chain of geriatic hippy communes. Child of my mother that I am, I can’t help feeling that’s all well and good for Generation Zimmer Frame but not so hot for Generation Ga-Ga.

Royal touch from ancient wonders

So those youthful ancients the Rolling Stones performed for free on the weekend at the Copacabana Beach in front of an audience of two million-odd people. I laughed out loud when I read the line “Fans said guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood waved from the penthouse (hotel) balcony occasionally”. It was the word “occasionally” that summoned the image of a Buckingham Palace mechanical and slightly self-conscious royal wave. I hope they gave as good a performance as I witnessed on Sunday from 90-year-old Doris, whose blind eyes sparkled as she warbled her way through Where Did You Get That Hat?

Cruise control

Recent photographs of Tom Cruise, who has been in the newspapers for some reason, has made me think of his role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm. He plays a young lawyer who slowly discovers that the pukka firm he has joined is a creepy masonic league of money-filching ne’er-do-wells, and he is in it too deep to get out. The Cruise character eventually derails the firm by detailing his partners’ more innocuous practice of routinely overcharging their clients.

I have spent the past week investigating some routine overcharging that has been going on in my accounts. For instance, for the past five years I have been — unwittingly — paying for two separate insurance companies to protect the contents of my home. The problem with monthly direct debits is that unless you have the time to be super-vigilant, companies change their name and you can easily lose track of what precisely you are paying for.

The good news is that the insurance industry regulators take the position that the clients, who have put themselves in this hapless position, should be reimbursed by both companies to the tune of 50 per cent each. Fortunately, both the Abbey and More Than, between them, are willing to pay back the thousands of pounds I have been doubling up on. Not so Carphone Warehouse, which has been drawing more than £500 from my account over three years despite having documentation that the mobile phone in question was cancelled.

The best offer it has felt it incumbent to come up with is £100 out of “goodwill”.

Is it any wonder that I have become a Grumpy Old Woman?

Celebrities, Women

Hostess with the mostest

THE TIMES – February 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Davina McCall may host shows at the tackier end of the television spectrum, but her appeal lies in a naughty, but oddly wholesome niceness. As she takes on BBC One’s primetime chat-show slot, Ginny Dougary meets a former wild child who has turned her bad times to spectacular good.

She’s clearly not Essexy, like Denise Van Outen or the new (literally) faux-celebrity, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Chantelle; although she does have something of their cheeky charm. Her vowels are a bit all over the place – “moind” for “mind”, for instance – and she’s much given to using phrases which are generally employed by young teenagers regardless of their background: “Ah, bless”, “Hell-o-oh” (swooping up and down), “bodacious”, along with some unequivocal East-Enderisms, such as “God love ’im”.

Boris Johnson is probably the only broadcasting personality who can get away with making a virtue of his poshness. Elsewhere, for a successful television career, a populist approach and an accessible manner are essential – and it’s Davina’s common-touch watchability as Big Brother’s Big Mother (or, perhaps, big sister) that has landed her a new primetime role as mid-week talk-show host on BBC One. Now although this is clearly something of a big deal – the last pre-watershed King of Chat on the Beeb was Terry Wogan back in 1992 – reports of a million-pound contract or, in fact, any contract at all are apparently overstated. As McCall, in ladette mode, put it to me: “I’ve never signed a contract with any TV channel because I like being a slut and working for anybody who wants me.”

For her fans, who obviously include the BBC chiefs, what is engaging about McCall’s personality is that although she works at the tacky end of television, she manages to retain a niceness while still delivering on the pushy, tasteless questions: “But did the train go into the tunnel’’ (to establish whether two former Big Brother contestants, Stuart and Michelle, had sexual intercourse). Indeed, McCall’s USP may be that while she is undeniably naughty she is also oddly wholesome. For her detractors, of course, she is the epitome of Moronic Britain; representing everything that is wrong with declining standards and cultural dumbing-down.

On telly, she is an odd mixture. As a guest on other people’s chat shows (hosted by the likes of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady – all of whom will probably end up on her show in today’s circular light-entertainment loop), she often goes in for that very English, very middle-class self-deprecation (think Emma Thompson). When she’s in charge as Big Mother – which is her main claim to fame – McCall is more obviously confident and excitable; shouty and motormouthy, talking ten-to-the-dozen in an Anneka Rice verbal gallop. Her own drink and drugs hell, and the long years of recovery, as well as her chequered childhood, may help to explain the genuine empathy she seems to have with the oddball contestants. But what makes her special, I think – which was certainly the strongest impression I had when we met – is that she is kind.

Our interview takes place in a photographers’ studio in Fulham where McCall is doing a shoot, under duress, for the BBC’s Radio Times. I assume “under duress” because it wasn’t until the 11th hour that our meeting was actually confirmed, which seemed rather more Hollywood hauteur than cosy little Britain. It later transpired that McCall hates being interviewed (which is why it took her so long to commit), and that she has the absolute heebie-jeebies about the new show partly because everyone insists on calling her the new Parky: “It strikes fear into my heart that people keep saying ‘Parky’ because it’s very hard to step into somebody else’s shoes and it’s just a nightmare because I want to be me. Even though I do partly want to be like Parky [although it’s hard to imagine him asking the train into tunnel question] because he’s bloody brilliant, but if I try to be like Parky it’s just going to seem weird, and I don’t really know how I’m going to be but it will be me.”

Unfortunately I cannot report on what sort of “me” this new “Davina” will be because – despite numerous requests – the BBC fail­ed to send a DVD of the pilot. This much we know: the guests were Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady (presumably talking about his unorthodox new slot, alternating with the wonderful Richard and Judy), an actor from EastEnders and Charlotte Church. There will be stairs: “Shall I leap down them? Oh no, I’ll be wearing heels so I’d go arse over tit, wouldn’t I?” Peals of laughter. Has she got a nice sofa? “I’m not sure… I was under the impression it’ll be two chairs but I want them close enough for touching. I need touching.” There are to be no gimmicks, just talk and music, and she’s very happy with it, although, “in a funny kind of way I don’t want to push it be­cause I don’t want people to have great expect­ations – I just want it to grow in a natural way.”

She is softer-looking and more delicate in person, oddly more reminiscent of the act­ress Dervla Kirwan than McCall’s own high-octane TV self. Glossy hair that flops in her eyes, good teeth and cheekbones, no make-up. There is something endearing about her open quality. Her gaze is so steady and attentive that I comment on it – and her explanation is that perhaps it is because she has a slightly lazy eye. Although she is 38, there is a childlike aspect to her which belies her streetwise past, and still clings to her without any suggestion that she is simple-minded.

An image remains of her sitting schoolgirlishly on her hands, although I’m pretty sure she did no such thing. This is much of a piece with other Davina conundrums – her aforementioned wholesomeness in a distinctly unwholesome show; her surprisingly old- fashioned values despite such modern packaging; the feeling she gives of offering new-best-friend intimacy while actually guarding her privacy more fiercely than the starriest A-list celebrity.

I thought of her as being a natty dresser until a number of friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and it seems that Davina’s husband, Matthew Robertson, may also be of their persuasion judging by his comments to his wife that morning. Apparently his very words were: ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of going out like that! Your trousers are far too short and your jacket looks two sizes too small.” Davina and I agree that this is a little harsh. Granted it is quite an unusual look; a sort of Hobbit meets homage to Jackie O. A forest-green retro jacket with a belt that ties under the breasts (Betty Jackson) and not quite three-quarter-length cuffs, over a mutton-sleeved black T-shirt (Jigsaw), denim gaucho culottes (French street market) and square-toed pixie boots. I am slightly startled when she shows me her devil’s horns tattoos on each hip pointing down – as she says, raising that well-exercised eyebrow – “to you know where!”

Her first attempts at experimenting with clothes and burying her Home Counties accent was at the age of 13, when she left her paternal grandmother’s house in Surrey to live with her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Gaby, in the wild streets of West London. She turned up on her first day at Godolphin & Latymer in long white socks and a proper uniform, “but Godolphin’s quite relaxed and everybody had their skirts taken in and so on, and I’m stood at the door with a pudding-bowl haircut, very, very nerdy and very square, with my doctor’s bag, and to go in at the second year of secondary school is difficult anyway because everybody’s already made their friends…”

So she abandoned the knee-length socks and went out and bought a bag from Millets with her stepmum. “I told her they were going to kill me if I didn’t”, and pretty soon she’d copied the names of bands she’d seen on other girls’ bags “because I just wanted to fit in. It was a survival technique, really.” By the same token, McCall changed the way she spoke when she got “a bit of hassle” from some kids in Shepherds Bush, on her way to school, “So I started talking ‘loik vat’ for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.” By this time, McCall’s survival skills were already pretty well-honed. Her French mother, Florence, and her English father – who comes from a long line of Wykehamists (which makes Davina’s background upper middle class, according to one of my Winchester- educated friends) and was a Debs’ Delight – had come to the decision to make their three-year-old daughter a ward of court since neither parent felt equipped to bring her up themselves.

She now knows that her parents did the best they could at the time by handing her over to her grandmother, but it has still left her with a lifelong fear of abandonment. “Being a mother myself [she has two little girls with Matthew, Holly and Tilly] has made me realise that all the things that make me want to be a great mum are all the things I missed when I was a kid,” she says. “Having got older and having been in recovery and going to meetings makes me realise that I can’t blame anybody else necessarily for all the things I’ve done in my life, but that my core insecurity is definitely going to have come from my mum not being around. “With time, I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t because my mum didn’t want me but when I was a teenager, I thought it was because my mum just had, you know, better things to do and that’s a horrible way to feel.”

Her feelings about her father seem to be less complicated than those towards her mother; in part because of the latter’s alcoholism, which certainly made its impact on Davina’s childhood, but also because her father was simply around more.

McCall would stay with her mother in Paris during the school holidays, in the chic eighth arrondissement off the Champs Elysées. At first, she says: “My mum was a very exciting wom­­an to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She’d do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, ‘Gosh, that’s like me – I’m Saffy and my mum’s Edina.’ Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.” How embarrassing was her mother? “Well, I’m thinking of an electric-blue floorlength fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil which she’d waft around in, and she’d go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work [as manager of the Yves St Laurent boutique], and she’d be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you’d be thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and she’d do citizen’s arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff but funny and fantastic… if you’re not the daughter. My friends would say, ‘Oh my GOD, she’s so cool.’ But I didn’t tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn’t tell my English family because I didn’t want to upset them or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother. And I still love my mother and I’ll always love her, and she’s not drinking now and she’s doing really, really well.”

When did she realise that her mother had a drink problem? “Quite early on, really. Four or five. You’d walk into a room and you’d have to read the atmosphere and try to fit in. There are sort of survival techniques that kids use to deal with it. Like if somebody’s in a bad mood, you just sit quietly and know not to ask for anything or be too demanding. Or if they’re in a really good mood then you’ve got to join in and be silly. Or if they’re really crying, you’ve got to go and take care of them.”

In her teens, back home in London, the young Davina – no longer a nerdy square – started hanging out with an older set and be­coming a fixture on the clubbing scene. She was a regular at Taboo and the Camden Palace and Beetroot and knew Steve Strange and the late Leigh Bowery and Pete Burns, most recently seen being nasty on Big Brother. “I’d always quite cherished his kind of brutal honesty but I have to say that Pete Burns should not drink because when he has a drink inside him, he becomes vicious and he was drunk that night,” she says, apropos of his bullying attack on Baywatch’s Traci Bingham. A couple of interesting things emerge when McCall talks about her own relationship with drugs. She says that the reason she couldn’t allow herself to have even one glass of wine – although her husband is a “wine nut who spends a lot of time doing that lovely ritual of de­canting and sniffing and swooshing and sometimes, you think, you know, it looks fun” – is that she knows that she’s not the sort of person who can do “one” of anything. “And I can’t tell you, hand on heart, that if I got drunk at a party and someone said, ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ that I wouldn’t think about doing it, and that is too frightening… I’ve got two children, and I’ve got a life.

Just how bad was it? “If I started on New Year’s Eve, I would be taking drugs nonstop for three days because when I start I just can’t stop. And when I was an addict, I just let everybody down and maybe because I did have strong morals and good manners and stuff, that made me hate myself. With a passion. And that’s eventually why I stopped.”

For a long time, McCall was able to keep her life under control, working as a booking agent for Models 1 during the day and running clubs – her energy fuelled by drugs – into the early hours. But, she says, it was the control aspect that was so exhausting: “It’s like a white-knuckle thing – you know, trying really hard not to do something you really want to do, and you’re constantly in your head thinking about the next time you can go and get some drugs.” She left a boyfriend whom she’d blamed for getting her into heroin, but while he was able to quit, her habit got even worse. “I realised, ‘Gosh, it’s not his fault, I’ve got to look at me.’ And the last thing I wanted to do was stop taking everything. I just thought, ‘Am I still going to be a fun person to be around? And aren’t I going to turn into a really boring person? And I don’t want to be totally abstinent and I definitely can’t do it for the rest of my life. You know, forget it.’ But I tried it every other way. I knew I had to cut things out, so I stopped taking heroin about two months before I got clean [at 24], but then I just had a major coke problem, so I realised I’m obviously unable to take any drugs in moderation. And now when I see friends of mine coming into the rooms [at NA], in their mid-thirties, I think, ‘Well, thank God, I didn’t have to wait that long.”

At one point in our interview, McCall declared that she’s never been ambitious in terms of her TV career. I’m not having it that you’re not ambitious! was my response. Well, she demurred, ambition’s always seemed like a swear word – and she hates swearing – but, yes, OK, she was ambitious to get on to telly in the first place. And she was really proud of herself, when she finally got an opening on MTV: “Because I’d spent three years just chewing at people’s heels and annoying people. Tenacious. Addict without the drugs. Because the minute I put down the drugs, I needed something else to get my teeth into.”

Did she become a workaholic instead? “No, just tenacious. You see, if I work at something half as hard as I used to work on scoring drugs – and addicts spend a lot of time and effort trying to maintain their habit – then I’m going to be extremely successful.”

Still, I doubt that Davina appeared on most people’s radars until Big Brother really took off. And there were a fair number of turkeys on the way: a dating show called Love on a Saturday Night; a TV race to have a millennium baby, which she disapproved of anyway. But I do remember seeing her on a travel show years ago, and being struck by the new presenter’s… what? Freshness? Jauntiness? Slightly camp appeal? It’s hard to define what she had but as her French mother might put it, McCall definitely had a certain je ne sais quoi. So now, she’s routinely talked about in hyperbolic terms as one of the highest-paid female presenters, and there’s the new BBC show over the next eight weeks, hosting the Baftas for ITV and then, presumably, back to Channel 4 for the umpteenth series of domestic squabbles in The House, of which she says: “I’ve been very, very blessed to have a corker of a show to always come back to and I don’t know where my career would be if I didn’t have Big Brother to come back to, but thank goodness I have.”

Perhaps it’s because McCall has had more cause to examine herself than most of us, but she’s rather good at assessing what makes her so popular. “One thing I had in my favour is that I’ve never been skinny and I’m not putting myself down, but although I think I’m attractive and I know what my good features are, I’ve never thought of myself as a stunning beauty. And that’s a good thing for me because sometimes if you’re really, really beautiful you’re quite alienating.

“You know, I have to admit that when Traci walked into the Big Brother house, I was – like – ‘OMIGOD, look at her!’ And there was a part of me that hated her because she’s beautiful and she’s got such a bodacious body and enormous boobs. And when I saw that she was just somebody who needs a lot of love, I sort of melted a bit but she did have to work on me. And I don’t have to do that because people aren’t threatened by the way I look.’ And the other thing in her favour? “Oh,” she says, with a whoop, “I’m silly.”

What she really loves about Big Brother is when contestants say that they’ve learnt something about themselves from the experience: “Because for some of them it is a journey, a very personal one, and being in that house makes you look at yourself; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do except think about yourself, and how your behaviour affects other people and how their behaviour affects you and how when there’s an argument you have to resolve it or else it just goes on and on. And it’s having to deal with things and deal with them in an open way and do stuff that you’d never normally do on the outside.”

Nadia, the transsexual who emerged the winner some time ago, was one of McCall’s favourites. That was the series that got me hooked, and following her over the weeks sometimes felt like watching an Almodóvar film which turned into The Elephant Man, in that extraordinary moment when she broke down in front of the camera and sobbed, “I am… not… a man…” “You see, there was real emotion there. She wasn’t in it for the money… I really believe she was in it for recognition and affection and that was an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing,” McCall says, her brown eyes blazing with sincerity.

What interests me about Davina’s own journey is how far she strayed from everything she held dear, in those lost years in her twenties. For several years after she got clean she went to church on a regular basis because, she says, “the vicar was amazing and unjudgmental, and he’s still one of my best friends”. She loves singing hymns and still prays, though “I don’t know who I’m praying to but I do believe my prayers are being heard.” When I ask her whether she has any role models, she has an instant reply: “My granny. She’s amazing. Highly emotional, highly opinionated, very fair and moral and just and incredibly thoughtful and kind to the community she lives in. She does a lot of charity work and she has a very strong faith and goes to church, and she used to say prayers to me every night. I mean, she’s really… well, she’s still the backbone of our family.”

It’s no surprise, then, that now she has a family of her own, and a husband she adores who jacked in his own mini-TV career as Pet Rescue presenter to become an Outward Bound instructor, that McCall has returned to her roots with a big house in Surrey and lunch every Sunday with family and friends. “A couple of years ago, my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny, who also lived with us, and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again, and how she had these little things in her purse, like a pixie in a black cap which she’d let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.

“That was very emotional for me… a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I’ve got it. And she’s just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family’s stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl, and our family tree from way, way before me, and it’s these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.”

It’s time for McCall to submit herself to more of the publicity hoopla she tries to avoid. She says she feels absolutely drained, stretching out on the banquette and whimpering as she kicks her legs in the air. But then a thought occurs to her: “Can I just say that’s what I’d like to have as my epitaph.” Er, what? “Whole­some but naughty. I love that. You know, I always wanted to be a little bit naughty.”

General, Women

The cure for bad backs, by royal appointment

THE TIMES – Feburary 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Sarah Key’s method of stamping out pain is so successful that the Prince of Wales is a big fan. So is Ginny Dougary, after joining a week-long course that brought tears as well as laughter.

Sarah Key is at it again, in her white skirty-shorts, tanned bare legs and pearls, her trusty plastic spinal cord draped over one shoulder like an outlandish stole, urging her “babies“ (aka middle-aged patients) to: “Dance on your pain, rock ’n’ roll, bend like a willow, crouch like a bushwhacker, curl like a swastika, spread like a blow-fly, and suck that fluid into your discs . . . shhhhhhllleeeeeeeoooough.”

“The world of backs is full of bullshit” is another of the Australian physiotherapist’s pithy sayings but there are many more where that came from, as I discovered when I enrolled as a fully fledged back-sufferer for a week of the Sarah Key Method.

There were 11 of us on the course, of all shapes and sizes, varied professions and nationalities — one woman had flown in from the States — and we were all 40-plus, with the exception of one sporty whippersnapper who, despite being only in his early thirties, seemed to be the worst afflicted of the bunch.

Key worked exclusively in the NHS when she was living in London more than 30 years ago. She went private in 1976 and now travels between Sydney — where she has her own practice — and the Hale Clinic in London. She is best known for using her feet to dig deep into stubborn tissue and for treating the collective back problems of the Royal Family, in particular those of the Prince of Wales, who is one of her staunchest supporters and, indeed, is backing her attempt to extend her treatment farther through his Foundation of Integrated Health.

Key uses her feet because she can feel more with them than with her hands. It’s a technique that she hs been honing for 20 years, since she first learnt it in Switzerland. She has treated thousands of people in that time from all over the world and says her success rate with “simple lower-back pain is astonishingly high, though complex problems have to be viewed over the longer term”.

This time last year I wrote in Body&Soul about my first meeting with Key when I interviewed her at Tresanton, Olga Polizzi’s haven of a hotel in Cornwall. It was on the eve of Key’s first Back-in-a-Week course at Tresanton and there was only a handful of patients. I sat in on the first morning’s meeting and every story of a life half-lived because of debilitating pain was dismaying in its own way.

What struck me most forcibly was how much the back-sufferers had sacrificed to be there. These were not people who were even comfortably off: an unemployed car mechanic who lost his job because of his ongoing back problem, who was funding the week with his redundancy money; a young mother, unable to pick up her toddler, who was risking further credit card debt. There was only one person, a Nike executive, for whom the fee at Tresanton of £ 3,000-odd pounds would not have created considerable financial hardship.

But then over the long years of searching for a cure most of the sufferers had already spent that sort of sum on the endless, dispiriting round of cranial osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncture, surgery, hypnotists and so on.

At that time, through brisk walking and daily exercises, I considered that my own bad back was pretty well sorted. But then Sarah gave me a couple of sessions with her feet and, on the second one, something unexpected happened. As I sat in one of the rather uncomfortable chairs, I felt an extraordinary whoosh of relief. My posture was suddenly radically different. Instead of the pinched sensation I must have learnt to live with, I was sitting in a way that felt completely new — but with a dim memory of it being familiar from a long, younger time ago — undistorted, relaxed, and at ease.

In the weeks that followed that mini-revelation, I felt more supple and spring-out-of- bedish than I had for years. But to maintain that new sensation of lightness, it was up to me to take charge. She gave me a “back block”, a blue Perspex oblong brick about a foot long, over which one is supposed to lie — stretching out the spine, sucking fluid into those all-important discs dried up from the hours of sitting hunched over a computer — twice a day, for the rest of one’s life. And guess what? I didn’t do it.

Therein lies the strength and the weakness of the Sarah Key Method. Her amazing foot action is only one aspect of her method. There is the aforementioned back block, which is already used in some forms of yoga but which she has modified for her own treatment. There is also Key’s approach, which marks her apart from others in her profession.

She is passionate about demystifying what is wrong with you, encouraging each back sufferer to understand his or her specific problems through straightforward diagrams and using vivid, unobfuscating language. She overturns all the usual shibboleths of the back profession and this sometimes feels scarily counter-intuitive: we are urged to bend down whenever possible; told that it is madness, indeed, to think that we are protecting our backs by avoiding using them; and that it’s actually good for us to lift heavy things, and so on.

Far from feeling alternative (where you tend to be urged to listen to your body), this feels more bracingly Mary Poppins-esque: our backs are naughty, stubborn children who need a good talking to and, when properly handled — with a daily regimen of back block and a spoonful of appeasing exercises to help the medicine go down — they will amaze us with how well behaved they can be. In the real world, however, the key question is whether you are the kind of person who is self-disciplined enough to maintain the eternal vigilance necessary to prevent your back, once it is on the mend, from going again.

When I returned to Trensanton as a particpipant in the Back-in-a-Week course, a fair number of my fellow sufferers were Times readers who had read the original piece in Body&Soul. Before, I had been a detached observer; now I had my own anxieties about feeling raw and vulnerable. The previous month, my only remaining adult relative — my older sister, Anne — had died unexpectedly, at the age of 59.

Almost as soon as I heard the awful news, my back went into spasm. The last occasion I had felt such excruciating pain was when my mother was dying and it seemed uncannily similar, almost as though the body itself had an emotional memory.

So there were tears that week but also a lot of laughter. It was instructive and helpful to hear about other people’s setbacks and to be reminded that one was far from alone in experiencing the frustrations of trying to cope with life when every movement causes pain.
I recalled how I had sat on the floor for an hour and a half for a recent interview with Bob Geldof because there were no suitable chairs. A chief executive talked about how she would sometimes have to lie down in meetings, which may have been awkward but would have been more so if she weren’t the boss.

Each day started at 8am with a slide-show lecture. The room was covered with mattresses, pillows and blankets and we were encouraged to lie, sit, stretch and stand whenever we felt uncomfortable. There were initial individual consultations, with Key scribbling over our backs with a marker pen to pinpoint the problem areas, which were then photographed.

Towards the end of the week, these images were flashed on to a screen as we listened to the diagnosis of one another’s cases and Key’s suggested remedies. The exercises that would strengthen one person’s back, for instance, would be disastrous for someone else. By day three, what with Key dancing on our pain with her feet and us rocking and rolling on our mats, most of us were feeling sore and, in some cases, spectacularly bad-tempered; the atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie replaced by monosyllabic grunts. This, we were told, was entirely to be expected since the work is so intensive.

This time round my back seemed more resistant to Key’s earthy foot action, although I was certainly aware of the different, almost musical notes of “sweet pain” when her heel hit the trouble zone and the dull drone from the surrounding areas.

One of our group was actually sobbing on her mat during an exercise session, although it was unclear whether this was emotional or because the movements were too hard for her. Another member put her back out, mid-stretch, and Key had to whack it in with some force. So although there were many jolly snapshots from the week — I particularly liked the moment when the magazine editor, something of a style icon, said the only way she could be persuaded to wear a pillow strapped to her back was if Prada designed the cover — there were constant reminders that back pain really is no laughing matter.

If anyone had come expecting instant results, they would, we were warned, be disappointed. On the penultimate day, Carmel Neale, who had attended one of the earlier Tresanton courses, addressed our group. For seven years she had felt like a “mouse on a wheel” trying everything from surgery to Pilates in her search for a cure, but with no success.

In the months after being released from Key’s care, progress was literally painfully slow, but she persevered with the daily exercises and the back block and now, a year later, her life was transformed; her only medication a glass or two of sauvignon blanc and occasional anti-inflammatories. She had been on hiking holidays and sailing trips, had moved house, and her back had coped throughout.

As Key said: “You must remember that you are all on a journey. You’ll be able to poke your head out but then you’ll probably need to retreat back into your shell.” Two months on, there are mixed reports from our group. The whippersnapper is on three-months’ sick leave from work at Key’s behest, and a couple of the women say that they feel in worse shape than they did before.

The magazine editor is making terrific progress, however, and I’m fine (my back pain, as I believed, was tied up with the shock of bereavement). Almost everyone speaks highly of Key: she has given them hope; they feel that she really cares and takes them seriously; and for the first time they have a diagnosis that makes sense.

The main obstacle to recovery, it must be said, is that although Key is determined to teach her method to more physiotherapists — her hope is that it will be taken up by the NHS to enable those who can least afford it to benefit — she, herself, cannot be cloned and for most of the year she could hardly be farther away.

Two initiatives are needed to discern whether the Sarah Key Method could and should be made more widely available: thorough ongoing research into why her approach seems to work in many cases where all else has failed and the facility for more physiotherapists to be given the opportunity to observe and be trained by her. Both of these will be taking place soon under the auspices of Prince Charles, who wrote the foreword to her Back Sufferer’s Bible (Vermilion, £9.99). “Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work,” he wrote. “After all, I should know. As one of her guinea- pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.”

Since HRH has been seeing Key for years, he as much as any back-sufferer would agree that there is one certainty with a problem back: it is sure to be be a long and chequered road ahead. For, as Sarah Key says, and who better to say it: “Backs are buggers.”

Celebrities, Women

The essence of Elle La Belle

THE TIMES – November 23 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Body has a mind all right, but it’s hard to fathom.

Wth rings on her thumbs and rings on her toes, Elle still turns heads wherever she goes. She is clearly a hippy chick at heart, particularly where accessories are concerned. The half-moons of her big toes are adorned with tiny crystals that twinkle as she wiggles them. Her bronzed forearm is covered in bits of string, ribbons and shells and each one has a story: “This one’s for breast cancer and Kylie. We’ve known each other for years. I haven’t spoken to her since she’s been ill and it’s on my mind.

“This is from a friend’s wedding that I organised by the sea and I gave everyone a bracelet in a box with sand; this is an elastic band for my hair; this one says ‘peace’; I have another one that says ‘patience’ but it’s probably in my son’s hair,” and so on.

When I enter the room where the interview is to take place, Elle Macpherson is sitting down trying to tuck into a bowl of leaves — assembled with a supermodel’s appetite in mind, but The Body says it’s too insubstantial for her — and a double espresso. She has been modelling ballgowns for a photoshoot and apologises for her charcoal-rimmed eyes. She stands up, and one almost gasps: it is like being confronted by a beautiful freak. The impression is of someone superhumanly tall, with the broadest and squarest of shoulders, tiny hips, huge hands, a narrow face and those panda eyes. Her look is fabulous but ultra-studied, in marked contrast to the effortless carelessness that is projected in the broad-grinned, outdoorsy image of her photographs. All in black, from head to toe: leather peaked cap, leather jacket, skinny poloneck and clinging trousers, a wide, wide belt resting far below her navel. Think Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle; Jane Birkin Je t’aime-ing with Serge Gainsbourg; Diana Rigg in The Avengers.

My impression of Elle La Belle from all I had seen or read about her was positive. She seemed straightforward; no bullshit; in command of herself and her assets; a bit controlling, but only because men usually call the shots in the world in which she operates. Perhaps it’s because she looks so strong and athletic that I had assumed a certain robustness of character, too. There was a little question mark when she checked into a clinic in Arizona after the birth of her son Cy, now 2; apparently she was suffering from postnatal depression. But you needn’t be intrinsically unstable to be knocked sideways by the hormonal tumult that can occur after giving birth. And in June she separated from Arpad Busson, a French financier and the father of her sons, Cy and Flynn.

Still, I had been expecting a certain directness, but found myself in less predictable territory. The first surprise was the way she spoke: with a pronounced French inflection that makes her sound more affected than I think she is. When I comment on this, she says: “I don’t know why I do today. Sometimes when I’m tired. It’s an interesting thing. I’d like to question why is that so?” Perhaps because of her early marriage and subsequent longish relationships with two Frenchmen? “From the time I was 18 I spoke French probably more than English. I speak it with my children.” So I ask her to speak French. “Pourquoi?” she asks, laughing nervously. Because I want to see if you have an Australian accent when you do. And she rattles off her response in fluent, accentless Français.

Her first and only husband — she and Busson never married, but were together for ten years — was a French photographer, Gilles Bensimon. They met on a shoot in Tahiti; she was 19, he 40. They were married for eight years and lived in Paris, where he was the head snapper for French Elle, and his Elle became the magazine’s favourite cover girl. She credits him with introducing her to the finer things of life, helping her to developing a discerning palate for wine — which seems a bit of a waste, as she gave up drinking two years ago. Had she become over-partial to her vino, I ask? She shrugs it off good humouredly. “I just decided I wasn’t going to drink any more,” she says.

I had said that of all her ex-beaux, the one I envied her most was the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. “But I haven’t been out with him!” she says, shocked, adding: “People’s looks are really not the first thing I look at.” Was Gilles a dreamboat, or more in that Gainsbourg toad-with-attitude mould? “Well, he’s 21 years older than me, not very tall, grey curly hair, glasses.” Hmm. Sexy? “Charismatic.”

Her mother, Frances, married Peter Gow when she was 17 and had Elle soon after, followed by two more children. Elle’s parents separated when she was 10, and she has talked about the awkwardness of coming from a broken home at a time when divorce was rare. When Frances remarried a lawyer, Neill Macpherson, Elle took his surname. Frances, I had read, was not all that happy about her daughter marrying so young, let alone repeating the pattern of becoming a teenage mother. I had also read that Elle wanted children early on and took no contraception. “Who said I wasn’t practising contraception?” she asks. It was in an article. “Do you think that I would have spoken to a journalist about that sort of thing?” she asks, more amazed than angry. You were young, you might have. “I may have. I just can’t imagine it. It’s not the sort of thing I would do.” Anyway, she says: “I loved having a young mother. We grew up together; in a way she was like my sister.”

When I ask whether her parents might not have been able to see some advantages in their daughter receiving a different sort of education in sophistication, Macpherson says: “I was fortunate. I was saved from a lot of the craziness of the industry because I had security and was with an older man. So when the girls went partying I’d go home to him and cook dinner.”

On the subject of partying models, I ask her view of the coverage of Kate Moss. “There’s a big difference between a fashion model and a role model, and Kate has never pretended to be the latter. She’s the same as she’s always been. But you know what? It’s absolutely none of my business.”

Given that she is increasingly drawn to exploring the connections between a healthy mind, body and spirit, I expect her not to be guarded about her postnatal depression. It is so common — I had it after the birth of my first child — that it might be helpful for someone in her position to lift the veil on the realities. But it is not a subject she wishes to be drawn on. “It’s different for every individual; painting broad brushstrokes is not recommended, especially when we’re talking about other people’s health,” she says firmly. Are you embarrassed about it? “No, no. I think the healthiest thing to do if someone has difficulties is to get help, whatever that is. That’s really healthy recovered behaviour,” she says. “I have zero shame around it all.” But nothing to contribute? “No.”

Are there areas in your life for self-improvement? You seem to be on some sort of path. “I believe it is the journey inside that is rich and interesting. In my life I’ve understood that it is stuff on the outside — clothes and people and places and acquiring things — that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. Twenty years ago I probably felt that if I had lots of money, I was important to some extent. My belief system supported that; now I’m a lot more centred.”

I wonder if you have anything to say about how you are — er — bearing up — er — under the whole — um . . . As she sees me struggling to put a question that I don’t feel comfortable asking, she laughs, but not unkindly. I must say that her composure and the grace with which she handles press intrusion into private matters is impressive. “I have nothing to say on that,” she says, knowing that I’m trying to broach the subject of her separation. “My children are well, I’m well and I’ve made a statement to the press that says it all.”

When I ask Macpherson what she thinks of Arki’s city academies to help deprived children (her ex describes himself, rather cutely, as a “venture philanthropist”), her response is so stilted it makes her sound like an automaton: “I think Ark is a very interesting charity and I think the philosophy behind it is commendable and what they’re doing is remarkable.”

She is an odd mixture of different parts. At times she comes across as a Valley Girl, every phrase swooping upwards in a dangling question mark — like, you know? The aforementioned French cadence; the occasional posh English word and — the voice I like best — down-to-earth Aussie, which is the only time she sounds really natural. This comes out when she tries to define the Australian character: “There is a sort of honesty of spirit, which is about trying to find out the truth behind a thing. ‘What are you trying to say, OK? You wanna do it or you don’t wanna do it. It’s cool by me, whatever it is’.” And explaining why she likes to accentuate the positive: “I don’t feel good when I s**t on other people.”

In the same vein, I like it when she calls me on what she perceives to be my interviewing technique: “I feel you’re much more savvy than you’re letting on. I think you are trying to play dumb to me.” A huge, gusty laugh. When I protest that I would never try to play dumb, she says: “You don’t even sound dumb so don’t try to play it.” But at odds with this bracing directness is her manner — which made me wonder whether her sun-kissed photographs captured an idealised version of herself, not in the way she looks, but conveying a freedom of spirit that she strives for but doesn’t find that easy to attain. For much of the interview she reminded me of a far more anxious, vaguely troubled individual than I had imagined. With those big blackened eyes and that serious expression, she reminded me of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Martin Bashir interview. There was very little in her body language to suggest the sense she wishes to project of her newfound “centredness”.

When we part — she is punctilious about picking up her boys from school — she is concerned that she has taken herself too seriously. “I’ve tried to be as honest and open with you as I can,” she says engagingly.

In a Sydney Morning Herald interview in 1992, the journalist noted the lack of books in her Manhattan flat. “I don’t think you should read what you haven’t written,” was the 28-year-old’s response. This could have been an ironic riposte, but she doesn’t really do irony. It could have been invented, but that also seems unlikely. What is certainly the case is that Macpherson is now a reader par excellence. She asks if I am familiar with Noam Chomsky: “He is quite a modern thinker. His Hegemony or Survival is interesting: he talks about the rise of American culture and its effect on the world.” She is very taken with William Blake, and quotes philosophers: “As Socrates said, ‘ The unexamined life is not worth living’ . . . when I was in my twenties I was interested in finding out who I was, and to some extent I didn’t like what I found.” Why? “Because I was young, I didn’t get it.” Get what? “I didn’t have self-acceptance.”

I think the area she finds most difficult to balance is her success as a businesswoman — through licensing agreements on her lingerie, Elle Macpherson Intimates, and The Body, a new range of potions and lotions — with her desire to be womanly. I’d read, with astonishment, that she used to pack Busson’s suitcases. Was this a legacy of her early wife-training in Paris? “I have always been conscious — because I was financially independent — not to emasculate men, and it was important to me to maintain contact with my femininity. That is a thread throughout my career: not to become a hard-arse ball-breaker. Alhough I’m sure that, along the way, I’ve slipped into that mode. But I didn’t want to. But there’s stuff I like to do with a guy I like to be with. You know, to please him. I also like the domesticity of life.”

Where she loses me is when she goes into Gaia-speak about the differences between men and women. “I believe in the empowerment of women in their femininity, sensuality and sexuality. I cherish women as being Earth Mother Nature, protector of the Earth and Universe and femininity and goddess energy. We have disrespected and disregarded that as a culture, especially with women going in the workforce, you know, glorifying women in the workforce.”

Are you saying women should go back into the home? “No, I’m using it in my lingerie and beauty products, saying the beauty in women should be nurtured and respected and loved, for themselves.”

Ah well. In the meantime, Elle Macpherson will be nurturing and respecting and loving herself through her daily meditation, pursuit of her creative self, muscling through the demands of single motherhood in Notting Hill, striving to quieten her “inner chatterbox” and live in the here and now. As she says: “One of my interests is to find peace and serenity. I want to feel good about myself.” And at last I see that great, broad, captivating Macpherson grin.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

One tough kookie

The Times Saturday Magazine – November 5 2005
Ginny Dougary

From honorary Rat Packer to early-adopting New Ager, Shirley MacLaine has always been an unconventional broad. In a wonderfully frank interview, she talks to Ginny Dougary about politics, sex, and brother Warren Beatty.

Shirley MacLaine is holding court on a Malibu cliff-top terrace with plunging views of the ocean far below. It is she who has picked this restaurant location – principally because of its proximity to one of her homes, and something about the setting, as well as her untrammelled personality, lends a certain cheerful anarchy to the proceedings.

She has the most penetrating stare, which could intimidate the faint-hearted – for whom she would have no time anyway. MacLaine, herself, is lion-hearted… always steering her own path, way ahead of the rest of us, or in a league of her own: a civil-rights agitator before the great swell of the civil-rights movement (she risked being lynched when she attempted to check into a motel in Mississippi with her black friends); the only female who hung out as a buddy rather than a broad with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia boss Sam Giancana; an unconventional, long-distance marriage (her late husband, Steve Parker, lived in Tokyo with their daughter, Sachi); she was open about her affairs with spoken-for men – Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, whom she shared with Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye – which, if she were anyone else, would surely have played awkwardly in hypocritical Hollywood; a Democrat campaigner, along with her brother, Warren Beatty, for George McGovern – if he had won, she would have considered going into politics herself; an intrepid solo traveller; an early and abiding New Ager, before the term was invented, who has been mocked for her beliefs in reincarnation, UFOs and other such other-worldy stuff.

To explain her directness at one point in our interview – in something which comes suspiciously close to an apology – MacLaine excuses herself on the grounds that she is old enough now to speak her mind with impunity. A wearer of purple from way back, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of her ever feeling constrained by convention or the need to bite her tongue. She has always appeared younger than her age, and that hasn’t changed. It’s something to do with the curiosity in those startling blue eyes with their spiky lashes, her freckles, “Oh, I’ve always hated them; still do. They used to call me Freckle Face”; the quick turn-of-phrase; the slightly teenage counter-culture bolshiness.

Today, as she moves between tables of expectant journalists, she still has the gait of a dancer. At the end of our rumbustious one-on-one, I ask her to give me a flash of her famous legs. “They’re very white,” she says, and then grabs the hem of her loose trousers to roll them up… and up and up. They are ridiculous, I exclaim. Very slim, seemingly never-ending, taut almost to the very top, not a trace of cellulite or blemishes of any kind. My God, you’re 71! “That’s why I don’t mind telling anyone my age,” she says. “Mind! I love it.” In this spirit of mutual Shirley-worship, she also confesses that she doesn’t have to wear a bra: “I hate wearing a bra.” Didn’t you breastfeed? “Yeah, but she didn’t eat much! Ha ha ha.”

In her new film, In Her Shoes, MacLaine is the grandmother to two motherless and very different sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) and plays a pivotal role in patching up and explaining the various estranged relationships. It is an unusually quiet performance for MacLaine – rather English in its reserve – of guilt, subdued regretfulness and long-buried emotion that gradually comes to the fore. It has no trace of the “bombastic serenity” – the apt phrase MacLaine has coined to describe her relationship with the world. As a senior care worker in a Florida residential home, her character – who dresses with tasteful restraint – in no way resembles the colourful woman in front of me, with her pinky-auburn gamine haircut, cerise Indian kurta and layers of turquoise ethnic jewellery.

We decide early on that I shall call her Empress – and it really does rather suit her. She is a powerful presence with an occasionally imperious manner: “Hey! Can I have some ice-tea?” she bellows to her elderly personal publicist, Dale, at one point, and then to the film’s publicist, Hilary. “I asked for some ice-tea. I don’t know where it is! Maybe they went to Starbucks to get it!” But she is also an absolute trouper; submitting to hour after hour of interviews, eating lobster and mussels as she speaks, with no break or discernible outbreak of ill humour.

The director of the new film, Curtis Hanson, wanted no wigs (MacLaine’s hair is thinning at the back) and no make-up, even for the close-ups – and MacLaine admits that was daunting at her age. I liked her performance, particularly for its quality of watchful distance, so subtle you find yourself sharing the character’s apprehension about opening herself up to the pain of feeling again. I’m not all that surprised to hear the actress say that she found motherhood tough; Sachi was only five when she went to Tokyo to live with her father. “It’s very hard, but I gave up the guilt,” MacLaine says.

And then a second later: “I beat myself up still.” I wonder to myself if she drew on these feelings for her role as Ella, who holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death. But she says that playing the part made her understand her own mother better: “Because she was so contained. She was Canadian, you see, so she never told you what she was frigging thinking.” Oh, I didn’t know that’s what Canadians were known for.

“I’m serious,” she says. “They live in snow. They don’t talk.” Sounds more like the English. “No, the English are more perverted. Ha ha ha. You know exactly what you’re dealing with. With Canadians you never know what you’re dealing with.”

Did MacLaine feel that she missed out on her daughter growing up? “Yes… and so did she.” Was she cross and resentful? “Little bit. Little bit. But now she’s learning, because she’s got two kids – a boy and a girl, nine and seven, and she’s seeing you can’t do anything right. She’s a little over-attentive.” MacLaine leans over to pick up an enormous wide-brimmed hat decorated with antique roses, to protect her pale face from the Californian sun.

“I look like a bag lady now,” she snorts when I compliment her on it. So does she enjoy being a grandmother? “Of course, because I can spoil them and I can say ‘You really shouldn’t do that’ or whatever and send them back to their parents in Connecticut… Oh, it’s totally liberating. And I also like being an aunty. Although everyone thinks I’m their grandmother anyway,” she grimaces.

There have been periods of estrangement between MacLaine and her younger brother. My guess is that there may have been an element of professional competition. MacLaine’s longterm ex-beau, the writer and journalist Pete Hamill, who left her for Jackie Kennedy, was uncomfortable with MacLaine’s attachment to the mystical – and I would imagine that Beatty, who is still very much concerned with the inequities in this world, would be in the same camp. And MacLaine, despite her own sexual adventurousness, was probably uncomfortable with her kid bro’s conquesting reputation.

When I ask her how they’re getting on these days, she says: “Look, I understand the workings of a family better now – brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters – I mean, come on. We’re in a very good and cordial period now… I don’t know how long it will last but we’re there now.” Is it stretching it to find anything about the difficulties between the two sisters in the new film which might correspond to the history between her and her brother? “Oh, I think there can be sibling rivalry between brothers and sisters. I was always watching the way he treated women.”

Aha, and…? “I think he was interested in women because of mother, you know; he could never hear her. Therefore, I think he’s very good with women and understands women. Maybe he didn’t have to understand as many as he did…” her voice goes up. Do you think he has a strong feminine side? “Oh, very. He does, but I think he was searching for what a woman means and needs and loves and hates and wants and is afraid of.”

I say that I had spoken to him at some length on the telephone a few years ago, in an attempt to persuade him to be interviewed. We talked about politics, mainly, but what was alluring about him, compared to most actors I’ve encountered, was his informed interest in the world about him. “He’d have loved to get you into bed,” is her bizarre response. Oh! “Are you kiddin’ me or what?” she squawks. Well, gosh, you know, I feel sort of insulted and embarrassed, and also rather flattered. “You see, he knows that he has that appeal which overcomes the sensibility that you know that he has, and it makes you forget that you know he’s doing that to you.” Hmm. How complicated. Moving on swiftly… What do you think of our new English national treasure, Madonna? “I’d like to bronze that horse.”

I take it you were not all that thrilled when your brother and she became an item? I think you said something quite rude at the time? (Asked how she would feel about having the singer as a sister-in-law, MacLaine’s response was that it would be as easy for her “as it would be for me to nail a custard pie to the wall”.) “I said it would be like hanging bubbles on a clothes line, or pissing up a rope,” she says, in case one were in any doubt about her feelings.
MacLaine is still sufficiently concerned with this life – I feared that she had completely retreated from the here and now – to care about who is holding the reins of power. I wondered whether she was still friends with Julie Christie, a famous Beatty ex, who shows no signs of political apathy. “I liked her a lot. I thought he should have married her.” Do you approve of this one? (Annette Bening.) “Love her. She’s smart; she wants to be a mother; she certainly is a brilliant actress, but if the roles don’t come along – that’s all right, too. I was just over there last night. We had a wonderful time.” I ask her whether she will intercede on my behalf to secure that interview with her brother. “I’ll do it on one condition,” she says sternly. What? (I’m thinking: copy control; I have to become a Buddhist…) A very big pause and then: “You have to go to bed with him.” Hysterical laughter on both our parts. What is she like?

It is as well to mention, perhaps, that neither MacLaine nor I have been drinking. So this drift towards bawdiness – at poor Warren’s expense – is merely his sister’s idea of natural ebullience and fun. The only occasion I have come across such ribald behaviour, in this context, was with another great celluloid diva: Elizabeth Taylor, who was equally outspoken and shameless. They make the present crop of female megastars seem colourless in comparison.

I tell MacLaine that I had been warned that she would be on her toes and quick with the verbal come-back: a legacy of her upbringing. “Nooooh,” she says. Her parents, Ira and Kathleen – the name of Warren’s oldest daughter – Beaty, had a long but difficult marriage. MacLaine once described it as a partnership of “blended neuroses”. Her childhood home was full of “disappointment and longings”. She has also compared her parents to the drunk academics in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Now she says: “They weren’t that bad and therefore not that funny.” Her father was a bad enough “cyclical” drunk – to make her wary of getting involved with any man with similar tendencies. Which is interesting, since the only man who seems to have dented her heart – Robert Mitchum – always conveyed the impression of being over-attached to the bottle.

She was born in Virginia, a southern gal but not a belle – which meant that she was never burdened with the anguish of losing her looks. One of the many astute comments MacLaine has made about herself was this: “See, I wasn’t afraid of getting old, because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol. I did, however, have great legs because I was a dancer. But I didn’t have that baggage. I wasn’t interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in great parts.”

MacLaine adopted her mother’s maiden name when she became frustrated by a director who seemed unable to pronounce her surname correctly (Bait-y not Beat-y). Warren merely chose to embellish the family name with an extra “t”. The two siblings could not look more disimilar; it must have been vexing, I think, to have a brother who was considered prettier than yourself. MacLaine says that she’s not even sure that she is the offspring of her parents. You think you were adopted? “I always felt I was so different from anyone in this family.” Different from anyone, full stop, I say… and she laughs.

There seems to have been a rapprochement between parents and daughter in later life which was partly to do with their shared interest in the unknown. “My mother’s metaphysics had to do with nature: her rose garden, for example. ‘I understand reincarnation,’ she would say, ‘because the rose’s stem is the soul which has a different rose every spring’. Dad was a serious metaphysician – which he never told anybody. His best buddy died in the Second World War, and at the moment of being shot, appeared at the bottom of my dad’s bed. And he told me about one night when he was drunk and crashed the car and had an out-of-body experience. ‘So,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’”

For those of us who remain sceptical about the beyond, it would seem more constructive for MacLaine to apply her considerable energy to addressing the problems coming out of America. Does she actually feel American? “Oh, yeah, but an American that is the result of the founding fathers’ wish. I’m very ashamed of being in this country and of what we’re doing.” Of the war specifically? “Our imperialistic attitudes, our desecration of the environment, the whole Christian crusading that the Bush administration is doing, the marketing economy… it’s a freakin’ disaster!”

So why not re-enter the political fray? (Her brother has been reported to be considering taking on Arnie.) “No, I’ll sit back and…” But why sit back? “Politics are not what it is about now. What it’s about now is really what I’ve been writing about and thinking about for most of my life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is God? We might have an apocalypse with everyone involved and armies killing each other over God.”

Has MacLaine ever fooled herself about herself? “Yeah, now this is interesting… I fooled myself that the country would wake up to Richard Nixon. I fooled myself that we would see that in the name of, quote, ‘Democracy in the Arab world’, we’re losing it at home. I thought we would be more aware than that, and we’re not. I fooled myself for a while that people would understand the nature of my metaphysics. It is now mainstream but I thought they would be ready for it sooner.”

Mainstream? Well, only up to a point. My partiality to MacLaine – an admirer of her talent, sassiness, and courage in forging her own way – meant I found myself editing out the parts of her that alienated me. From kooky to cuckoo, after all, is but a short UFO-mystic hop. I had not read her copious volumes of spiritual travels and tried to brush over the outlandish musings on her past lives: as Charlemagne’s mistress; an orphan brought up by elephants; Nefertiti’s handmaiden; a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. I was doing pretty well, but then I came to the most recent cutting in her many files and my heart sank: four pages in Hello! publicising a new book, Out on a Leash, Exploring Reality and Love, which she has “co-written” with her dog, Terry. Shirley, I read, has Terry the terrier “sign” documents for herself, and says that she talks with the dog in a “purer, more direct form of language”, which she calls “Humanimal”.

She lives alone in her main home in Santa Fe and I had been asking her, as she has become older, whether she finds herself becoming increasingly reclusive or more reliant on friendship. “I’m a phoney recluse,” MacLaine says. “Because I like being alone. My idea of being really alone – no, of being lone-ly – is never to be alone. I love my own company. How I would feel now about my own company without Terry, my dog, is another question.

“But she and I have an arrangement that when she goes, in about ten years, she’s going to come back right away again. So I will wait until I’m drawn to the right puppy. I know more about the meaning of love with her – this is important what I’m saying now – nature and animals have taught me more about love than people.”

One might be tempted to say this sounds barking – ho ho – but MacLaine is in full Empress flow and not in the mood for jests. I say, instead, that it’s quite common for older people living on their own – particularly women – to form extremely strong attachments to their pets. “I’ve noticed that, too, and I do feel very much in the ranks of older women who have their pets,” she concedes. “But maybe it’s because we are really searching for the definition of love. We know that what we’ve experienced before comes and goes – came and went. The child thing is another thing, of course, that’s love – in that you can’t help but love, but you’re always worried about whether you’re doing the right thing.” And so we keep circling back to this niggle of long-gone decisions returning to haunt MacLaine in some way.

I wonder whether she had worries at the time about sending her daughter off to Japan, or did she close them down? “No, Steve and I had arguments,” she says. But there had been kidnap threats and a drunk nanny sleeping with her boyfriend, while Sachi was left sitting outside on the doorstep, and MacLaine was concerned about the general perils of Hollywood life and, in any case, her husband – a dancer turned director turned producer – did not want to stay in a town where he was known as Mr MacLaine.

The couple finally divorced in 1987 after 27 years of marriage. MacLaine’s father had died the previous year and I wondered whether this had been the catalyst. “Oh no, it was because I found out that Steve had been stealing all my money,” she says. The marriage had been amicable till then; more of a long-distance friendship than a partnership. “Yes, that’s right. He had his affairs and I had mine. But take my money and you’re outta here! I’m far too Scotch for that. Ha ha ha.” When Parker died in 2001, MacLaine did not attend the funeral: “He didn’t want me there.”
Passion doesn’t feature in her life any more: “I think it’s the ageing process and also wisdom.” She says that she feels completely peaceful, and happier than she’s ever been. “I have zero stress. All that over-achieving has been transformed into not planning,” she says. “It’s daunting but you should try it.” Instead of going to swanky dinner parties, with place settings and fabulous wine – and where it’s all over in three hours – she prefers to have her friends stay with her for three days in Santa Fe, where they go hiking and riding, feed the chickens and talk. She says that, although she doesn’t like to socialise or go to parties, when she does go, she’s always the last to leave.

So you like to drink martinis and kick up your legs? Oooh, what kind of look is that you’re giving me? “What does having a martini and kicking up your legs mean?” I suppose it’s shorthand for asking you whether you turn into the life and soul of the party. “No. I’m over in a corner talking deeply with someone who no one else is talking to.” Did you object to the suggestion you drink, or the idea that you kick up your legs? “I just thought it was a stupid question.” Oh. “I thought it was a clichéd question.” Oh. “I hate cliché. Hate it. But I have to get over this because now everyone is speaking in cliché.”

I wonder whether, perhaps, MacLaine has turned into one of the Californian New Puritans. But she only stopped smoking last December, and she still wants a cigarette every day. Pot wasn’t for her because, like the ex-Pres, she never inhaled. And now, since her hiatus hernia, drinking’s pretty much out, too. How very boring for you. Yes, particularly since she loves a good martini, she says, especially a Dirty Gibson. This is an evil-sounding concoction: gin (it has to be Tanqueray), a tablespoon of onion juice and a great big pickled onion. “I’ll go make one for you because I make really good ones,” she says. Lovely, I say, but possibly not quite yet. (It’s 11.30 in the morning.)

A few questions on and MacLaine is fretting that she spoke too harshly to me. “You know, I had a pang of guilt when I said that was a stupid question. In my head, I didn’t think that out, and I am guilty over things like that. But I explained myself and it was all right. Still feel guilty.” It was a bit mean? “Mmm. I do that. With age and the right to tell the truth, and then people have their feelings hurt…” Do you mind that? “I do. It bothers me because I’m kind, but I’m also extremely direct and I can’t stand being a phoney diplomat.”

She may never have been a sex symbol, as she says, but that didn’t stop some pretty hunky men finding MacLaine sexy. When we go on to talk about romantic love, there is something about her that reminds me of her character, Ella, in the new film. For all her apparent transparency, there is also a sense of something buried or unacknowledged – which makes me wonder whether the actress really is as tough, deep-down, as she likes to make out. In her youth, and later, she considered herself to be a sexual person. There were liaisons with a number of politicians: the assassinated Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; Australia’s urbane Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the conservative opposition – are you still friends? “Oh, yes!”; a British Labour MP who remains anonymous. Were you attracted to their brains or their position? “I was probably slumming in power,” she says. There were also a couple of truck drivers whom she found sexy, she would like to point out, possibly in the interests of egalitarianism, “but only for one-night-stands”.

Now, she says: “It wasn’t really about sex. Never is. It never really is. What is sexual attraction anyway? When you think about it, it’s not about sex, it’s not about f******, it’s not about how big it is or anything like that. It’s about the person inside that body. It’s to do with a certain energy and values and sense of humour. And I was always attracted to a man who was basically a mystery to himself, because that kept my interest and gave me something to do.”

Were you ever romantic? “Basically not. I understand that romance will kill a relationship.” Did you ever have your heart broken? “No, but there were some periods with Robert Mitchum [they had a three-year affair] where I just wanted to kill him… does that mean I had my heart broken?” she seems to be asking herself. “No, I’d kill a man before he broke my heart.” How did you manage to insulate your heart and still be an open person? “I didn’t insulate it. But…” Then I believe you must have had your heart broken. “But I don’t see myself as a victim. I turned being hurt into action: ‘What did you do this for? Why? What is on your mind? Let’s talk.’ Yes, I am a good communicator.”

You’ve written about flying halfway around the world to meet your lover in hotels. “And he wouldn’t be there.” So what on earth did you do? “Ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ See, I was fascinated by how weak he was… this big guy. I couldn’t stay away from investigating the passivity.” I liked that beatniky phrase about Mitchum having the soul of a poet; a poet with an axe. “That was his description of himself,” she says. “I think he was lying about the axe.”

Our time is up, but MacLaine is damned if she’s not going to show off her martini-making skills, which throws Hilary the film publicist into a state of some alarm. I follow the Empress, tape recorder in hand, and watch her create havoc in the restaurant. The young staff are so far from being obsequious that their attitude is almost rude. MacLaine rolls her eyes but carries on indomitably till she has mixed me her Dirty Gibson. Oh God, I gasp, reeling from the neat alcohol, perhaps it needs a bit more onion juice. “Ha ha ha… this girl is really Dirty!” she says.

I mention Elizabeth Taylor whom I interviewed in Beverly Hills where I also interviewed Madonna, and say how much more gracious one was than the other. “Why would you even mention them in the same breath?” she asks. “Did he screw them both?” Screw? Who? What? Him? Your brother? “Did he do Elizabeth? I don’t know. I think he tried to on that picture in Paris.” Well, honestly! What is Shirley MacLaine like? I think the answer has to be: like no other.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

General, Women

Women’s hour

THE GUARDIAN – July 4 2005
Ginny Dougary

Women In Journalism started as an accident … well, certainly by a sort of fluke and I was there to witness the unlikely uprising. In 1993 Eve Pollard, then editor of the Sunday Express, was also that year’s appeals chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, and hosted a fundraising evening with a panel of high-profile speakers. The topic she had chosen for discussion was something along the lines of Are Women Getting their Fair Share in the Media?.

At the time, I was writing a book about women in the media (The Executive Tart & Other Myths) and had gone along hoping I might pick up some good stories. It was one of those veal-coloured corporate dining-rooms, and there was nothing in the air-chilled atmosphere to prepare any of us – and there were a lot of us, I noticed – for the heat of the impending debate.

I don’t remember much about the individual speeches but the outcry which followed them was unforgettable. One woman after another got to her feet and told a story about the antediluvian attitudes in her workplace: unequal pay; unequal promotion; lack of women in the boardroom; family un friendly policies. Up stood several very senior respected figures, well-known editors of glossy magazines, and junior reporters – women from newspapers on the left and right, broadsheets and tabloids.

As more and more diners clamoured to have their say, the mood in the room began to take on the emotionally-charged feeling of a revivalist meeting. The refrain was always the same: No, women are not getting their fair share and we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. “You do know that if you take on the men,” one newspaper veteran warned darkly, “there will be blood on the floor.”

At the end of the evening, Eve suggested that perhaps what we needed to do was to form some sort of lobbying group – like women in film and television and advertising. Did anyone think that was a good idea? A resounding cheer. Was anyone interested in get ting involved? Hundreds of hands went up. And that was it.

I was roped into joining the fledgling committee, something I had never done before or since. Amanda Platell, who was then doing something ultra-senior in the Mirror group, made a room available for our initial meetings, and passed the mantle on to Linda Christmas, who ran the post-grad journalism course at City University. We first became official in Eve’s glass-walled eyrie in the Express. Mary Ann Sieghart said, “Right. Let’s all put in £25 and that’ll get us started.” (There were about 30 women crowded around the boardroom table.) I remember Deborah Orr snorting magnificently at this and scribbling a cheque for £25 plus an O.

We were – and still are – a very disparate bunch of people, with our own particular hobby-horses, but united with the feeling that change was long overdue. I was amazed, for instance, while researching my book at how very few women there were in the top ranks of broadsheet newspapers: they existed as editors of colour supplements or Living pages, but were rare in politics, news, foreign, business, sport – all areas which have real clout within a paper. As for the top two jobs, there were only two women editors compared with more than 60 men (the tabloids were only marginally better). Back then, we were yet to see a female editor of the Independent, Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph or the Sun. It was still highly unusual to see women as deputy editors, whereas now it almost seems unusual not to.

The other area I was keen on monitoring was the way women are written about in newspapers. Other journalists were more concerned about not being sidelined after having children; pressing newspapers to adopt a more reasonable approach to balancing work and family life; finding a way to exchange information about pay and working conditions, or networking in the post-Fleet Street social wasteland.

There were 300-400 women at the launch party of Women In Journalism held in the library of the Reform Club. For the first couple of years, we seemed to have all our parties in similarly august, rather masculine clubs. (I suppose it must have added to our sense of storming the bastions.) On that night, among the festivities, we also started the more sober business of forming groups to tackle the different issues.

Ten years on, or more, I would have to say that although we did take on the men, there was no blood on the floor. There was some initial sneering from one or two male columnists – that was to be expected – but the great majority of newspaper editors were keen to show that they were on side. (Partly to send out the right message to the senior women journalists that were on their papers, but also because all editors are looking to attract more women readers). We did get to do a campaign on the portrayal of women which was widely picked up on and debated, and there has been research into family-friendly policies, the prospects for older women journalists, the ratio of women to men in conference, and so on. There are regular seminars with terrific speakers on everything from How to Ask for More Money? to How to Keep Your Job? (post babies or post menopause).

There have been founder members’ lunches with international guest speakers; a surreal dinner in the revolving restaurant of the BT Tower when editors pledged hefty sums to support Women In Journalism; a memorable drinks party hosted by Gordon Brown in No 11 Downing Street where he learnt that feminist journalists were anything but unfriendly; dilemmas and public arguments (Piers Morgan, a big WIJ benefactor, berating Rebekah Wade, then chair of WIJ, for being sanctimonious; should we be doing a candlelit vigil for WIJ member Yvonne Ridley captured by the Taliban?; what will we do if Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore turn up at the same function?)

It’s been fun, instructive and necessary – and we’re still going strong. Here’s to the next 10 years.

Tina Weaver, Editor, Sunday Mirror and current chair, Women In Journalism
A lot of guys in the newsroom have a laugh about Women in Journalism. But men have gathered in pubs and golf courses for years, so why shouldn’t women get together? As the chair, I’ve seen how we are an influential networking organisation, offering support and celebrating achievement. It’s very important we are not seen as a very right-on, politically correct, anti-male organisation. Things have changed enormously from the days when women in newsrooms were few and far between – and even then, were just given the girly, soft jobs. Among the first things I was asked to do on the Daily Mirror in 1992 was to dress in a gold bikini and be fired out of a cannon at a circus. Obviously, I told them where to stuff that idea. But gender is not even an issue anymore, as each reporter is judged on their own merit. Women get a good crack of the whip, whether it’s covering wars, politics or the Asian tsunami. WIJ has largely achieved what it set out to do, getting more women in newsrooms and the challenges facing female journalists are those facing any female in employment: family friendly policies in the workplace. The fact Trinity Mirror has a female chief executive and a female national editor shows how far the industry has come.

Eve Pollard , Former editor of Sunday Express and Sunday Mirror, author, honorary president of Women in Journalism
I was the founding member of WIJ. We wanted to campaign for equal pay and to improve the way women were written about in the press. We’ve been more successful in some of those areas than others. One of the first bits of research we did was to find out how many women were included in decision-making conferences. We’ve helped as women are now included far more. That’s not just down to WIJ, but we’ve done our bit. We’ve also helped with equal pay.

Unfortunately, newspapers don’t write about women any better than they used to. It’s a hard one because there’s a whole culture to change. It would be good if we looked at the way women were reported in the press and had some effect. We could be a neutral place to conduct debates and discussions, not only for women but the whole industry.

It is still easier for men than women but with every year, it gets less easy. We now have a constant three or four female newspaper editors, which is very different from when I was a number two. For women coming into the industry, that must help, psychologically.

I’ve had a fantastic time in my job and it’s my duty to pass that down and help. If there’s an old boys’ network, there should be an old girls’ club.

Sue Matthias, Deputy editor, New Statesman
When I joined the Independent on Sunday’s founding team, I was the only senior woman. Even in 1990, it felt old-fashioned, particularly after joining from the Observer, where there were more. In national papers, women have moved upwards into senior positions, but when it comes beyond that, to board level, there are still very few women up there.

We are moving towards a more balanced industry, but we’re not there yet and it would be nice to see more female editors. One of my roles when I joined the New Statesman in January was to increase the female circulation by bringing in more women writers. So in the election campaign, we published the New Stateswoman to reflect and explore the women’s vote. Overall, there has been a feminisation of newspapers, particularly when you look at the direction of the Independent and the Observer, where news is being featurised.

The old stereotypes of women doing features and men doing hard news is changing and we’ve seen much progress over the past 10 years. That old kind of discrimination is being phased out, but it’s noticeable that women in newspapers disappear over the age of 50.

Polly Toynbee, Commentator, the Guardian
I joined WIJ on the grounds that maybe it would want to create a better type of journalist, with higher standards and different perspectives than the macho style that has always run Fleet Street. This was a mistake; it was certainly not how things turned out to be. It’s just about girls networking, not about quality, standards or taking a different approach. Women are only really interested in it as a job promotion scheme. WIJ has made no stand for standards or quality because they are proud of women like Eve Pollard, who have been editors of pretty disgusting papers. They regard doing things just like the boys as a triumph. Sun editor Rebekah Wade has been as dreadful as anyone could be – as dreadful as the men before her. In the past 10 years, the portrayal of women has not changed much in the popular press. The Daily Mail is trashing women every day; their attitude is to tear them down for being too fat, or too thin. Being a woman, if you make it to the levels of being a political commentator, you are rather privileged, but the lobby is still a very macho, male-dominated atmosphere. Female journalists have a responsibility to look at the world through different eyes, not by mimicking men. They should think how to better reflect women instead of joining the lads’ culture.

Sarah Sands, Editor, Sunday Telegraph
I only ever went to one party. I like the idea of female solidarity but in practice women – as individuals – have different aims. Moreover, working women are all short of time and I had to miss the meetings because I was always stuck at the office.

Mary Ann Sieghart, Assistant editor and columnist, the Times
Today it’s more of an embarrassment among male executives if there aren’t women writers in their pages. When I started there wasn’t a single female voice in the op-ed pages of the Times, now there isn’t a day without one. Likewise, I don’t always feel I am in a tiny minority in morning conference. On average though, I still think women are paid less than men, because they are not good at asking for pay rises. A WIJ seminar we did with a role play about how to ask for more money was very popular.

Glass ceilings are still a real problem in national papers, although less so in magazines. Looking at the number of senior executives, I think about 80% are men. Women are not being promoted enough and their views are not taken seriously enough in terms of commentary. Today all papers are targeting female readers. while men are more interested in what are thought to be women’s and family issues. Yet the depiction of women hasn’t changed much.

Suzanne Moore, Columnist, Mail on Sunday
I was a member of WIJ at the beginning. I went to the initial meeting when Eve Pollard and Amanda Platell were there. I’m not a member now, not because of any ideological difference. I just sort of drifted away.

I did one session where you give a talk and people ask questions. I spoke about being a columnist and found the kind of questions people asked were impossible to answer. “I work at Cross-stitch Weekly but want to move across to a knitting magazine, how can you help?” I couldn’t.

I think there’s a networking idea that has permeated the media and actually it’s bollocks. You get a job through what you write. I’ve never got a job through networking. Lots of people think if you turn up to the parties and meet the right people, it will all fall into place. It doesn’t.

The thing WIJ does which is good is people should know how much other people are paid. If you ask for more money they treat you as though you’d made some terrible faux pas.

I was always confused about what the group’s aims were. They talk about family-friendly policies, are they a union? Is it just a networking organisation? Is it just a place to ask for advice? Women in Journalism does have a place but what it could offer me now I don’t know.

I’d be happy to get behind any real campaign. You have to ask, who are the people getting promoted? Are women getting their jobs back after maternity leave? What is being done about sexual harassment? Women in newspapers should push much harder on those issues in their own work environment.

Linda Christmas, Former head of journalism, City University
WIJ was born in my little office here at City University. Journalists didn’t meet because Fleet Street was a diaspora and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get together? Journalists aren’t really joiners; they’re not good at getting together in a group. They’re too independent-minded.

What we did, very consciously, was get together a group of women who had succeeded, otherwise we would have been earmarked as whingers. That was wise. When we opened our mouths, we had to be informed, rather than speak from anecdotal experience.

I definitely want to see WIJ producing more good research because they’re all highly talented people with access. For me, the research we’ve done is the most important thing because it gives us gravitas. We were born out of a rant but now you have to prove your point.

I want to think about the “so what” factor. If women are just going to go on churning out the same news and the same newspapers, there’s no point. We have to be able to add value as women in executive roles.

The Financial Times has a job share for their news editor between two women. When women wanted to work in a job share in the past they got the gardening page. This is really great, because it means you can’t say anymore you can’t take a job because of the hours.

Jane Johnson, Editor, Closer magazine
There weren’t many female role models in senior national newspaper positions when I started out on my local paper the Southport Star 14 years ago. Although I was inspired by the success of trailblazing News of the World editor Wendy Henry and could look up to columnists like Lynda Lee-Potter, there was a sense that women had to fight tooth and (manicured) nail to get to these coveted positions. Now it’s different – there are three female red top editors. And, spurred on by this, many more ambitious young female reporters going into the business. But I’d say there is still a lack of women on backbenches, the production engine room of a paper is still seen as the macho end. In my experience women are perfectly good at writing brilliant headlines and doing arresting lay-outs. Now I’m fighting for men’s right to work in the increasingly challenging and competitive world of weekly magazines!

Sarah Kilby, Freelance journalist, Former editor, Woman and Home
I became involved in WIJ in 1995. My background is in magazines and I was concerned that very few women managed to get up to the board and they often disappeared after the age of 30. My major concern was about mentoring. I was a magazine editor at that point and was very concerned that not enough women were managing to get into the industry, especially on the business side. The seminars have been key. Women have a reputation for not sharing knowledge but that’s not actually true. Women at WIJ have been very generous with their experiences, happy to make themselves look silly by sharing their mistakes for the benefit of others.

Deborah Orr, Columnist, Independent
I was initially involved in WIJ but typically my job in journalism was so all-consuming, I didn’t have enough time to contribute. In the very beginning, there was no agenda to join for but it seemed to be shaping up as a networking organisation and that’s why my interest waned. When I first started in newspapers at the Guardian in 1990, there were hardly any women. There was Melanie Phillips, the women’s editor, and a few subs. In the past ten years, there have been lots of breakthroughs with women becoming editors but that was changing anyway. WIJ was more a consequence of that change than a driving force behind it.

I really find WIJ very peripheral. I have no awareness of what they’re doing. I think a campaigning group would be a good thing. A lot of women, even those who think they are feminists, don’t understand what it’s like to have children and how much it changes things. Men’s awareness needs to be changed but so does that of young single women.

The whole culture of journalism is macho and a lot of the time women are encouraged to act like men. The worrying part of WIJ was their idea that you needed to have a girls’ network to rival the old boys’ club. You have to act differently to change that culture rather than acting the same way. There is a dichotomy. You’re trying to challenge a culture that expects to work 60 hours a week, bring up children and still find time to campaign for change.

Lindsay Nicholson, Editor, Good Housekeeping, Chairperson of WIJ, 2002-2004
I wasn’t part of the original founding group. I came along later. WIJ are famous for their fantastic parties and I went along to one of those. Those parties are fabulous because you do really network. Women haven’t built up the sort of networks men have over the years and to underestimate their importance is naive. Women have been marginalised by not having access to their own role models.

At WIJ parties, the fact that editors like Rebekah Wade and Eve Pollard not only show up but are really active and talk to people who haven’t yet reached their position in the industry is extremely important. WIJ hasn’t changed how the media operates, that was changing anyway. It has provided a fantastic support for women coming into the industry.

The situation in 2005 is very different from that of 1995. A lot has changed but there is still an old boys’ network. Although the situation has dramatically improved in the past ten years, hopefully in ten years time WIJ will be irrelevant and men and women will be exchanging ideas freely without their having to be a gender split. The ideal would be if WIJ became an irrelevance. If women felt supported, confident and integrated enough, access to role models and turning up to parties and seminars would be unnecessary. WIJ is an organisation working for its own dissolution.

Jean Rafferty, Freelance journalist, Secretary WIJ Scotland
Eve Pollard came up to Edinburgh and threw a massive meeting there. I wanted to be involved because I’m an old-fashioned feminist and I agreed with what they were trying to do to keep women on the agenda. We seem to go forward then we step back. People think women have won equality and we haven’t.

I think WIJ was particularly effective when it was producing research. They did change the industry because with all those women’s contacts, they got things out to the public. Many high ranking women have been on the WIJ committee and that’s validated what we’re trying to do. Women’s subjects are on the agenda more in all newspapers but we’ve got an awfully long way to go because news reporting is still very male. Wars are reported in terms of casualties and “our boys” while humanitarian areas aren’t commented on.

WIJ could do more but the problem is most people on the committee are volunteers. WIJ can’t change the world on its own. The talks they put on in London are fantastic. I’d love to do the same in Scotland but we’re not a big enough pool. I just don’t have the time.

A lot more changes need to be made, especially in the way we report things. I’m a features writer and that’s regarded as a soft option but I’ve written about punishment beatings and I’ve been to Rwanda. The fact that the news agenda is still set by gung-ho men who settle things down the pub is frustrating.

Louise Chunn, Editor, In Style magazine
I was a founder member of WIJ and became involved because I could see working on a newspaper and looking around me, there weren’t as many women as men and very few women who were middle aged. I wondered where they had all gone.

Women do have better jobs but there are still issues to deal with. There still aren’t very many senior women. Not all women want those top jobs but it still seems they don’t get as many opportunities as men. It’s important to remind people there are differences.

Things have changed. There has been a trend towards the female columnist. But in general, it still comes out that men are better at asking for more money or are just given it.

WIJ might like to think it’s about research and campaigning, but it’s also about meeting other women in journalism who inspire you or who you can get a job through. If we were in America we’d say, it’s a networking organisation, get over it. Because we’re in Britain, we don’t. They think it’s somehow spurious, but it’s good. WIJ should be as multi-faceted as it can be without spreading themselves too thin. It should reflect its membership without too many senior members saying it should be about campaigning.

· Interviews by Phoebe A Greenwood and Rob Harris

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

General, Women

Back on her feet

THE TIMES – February 19, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Prince Charles is a fan; so is the Queen but physiotherapist Sarah Key’s approach to backs is thoroughly down to earth.

Twang. Ke-dung . . . a sudden lurching sensation in your spine, like a lift crashing through 30 floors, accompanied by the unshakeable belief that if you try to stand up your body will snap in two, several long moments of blind panic, then days drawing into months of different and ultimately ineffective treatments.

That was my first experience of what is commonly referred to as a back problem: one which seems to have afflicted, at some point, and to differing degrees of pain, almost everyone I know regardless of how active or sedentary they are, slim or overweight, up-tight or relaxed.

My own journey round my back took place all over the country when staying with various friends my back would go and, naturally, they knew just the person I should see in Ludlow, a cranial osteopath; in Aldeburgh, where my host had taken to lying on a book before bedtime to straighten his spine, a remedial masseuse; a physio here, a physio there; and in one particularly ghastly episode where I stumbled and completely seized up in a busy street in Wales, an injection in the bottom.

The only thing that seemed to work for me in the end was a daily regime, suggested by a trainer, which combined a lively walk with a set of yoga-cum-Pilates floor exercises.

Then Sarah Key came along. A few months ago I had the opportunity to witness the Australian globetrotting physiotherapist and her legendary feet legendary, that is, in elevated back-sufferers’ circles do her stuff on a handful of patients who had booked into the Hotel Tresanton, in the Cornish village of St Mawes. Since my back was sorted, or so I thought, I was to be an observer for part of the week-long programme rather than an active participant.

Key has been the Royal Family’s physiotherapist since 1983 a detail which appears in all her literature and the Prince of Wales has written forewords to her books. In her Back Sufferers’ Bible (2001), he concludes: Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it much more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work. After all, I should know. As one of her guinea pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.

What with this royal imprimatur, the quietly luxurious setting at wonderful Tresanton and the £3,200 price tag for a four-and-a-half day course, I had assumed that my fellow guests would be captains of industry and the generally well-heeled. But on this count, as on several others, my expectations were to be confounded.

Despite her Harley Street credentials (she is, incidentally, a registered member of the UK Health Professionals Council) and regal connections, Key worked for years in the National Health Service and is very much an Aussie in her meritocratic approach. On the day of my arrival, for instance, I found her on her hands and knees applying herself energetically to a team of 20 to 30 staff. This was partly to prepare them for dealing with her patients but also to encourage them to address their own back problems.

Later, on a one-to-one session, she demonstates how she uses her feet which I note are impeccably smooth and clean standing with the full (but, mercifully, light) weight of her body on the manager’s bare back, delving and digging around to release what she calls the sweet pain.

Key learnt to use her feet when she went on a course in Switzerland in 1982. The fellow who taught me was a hugely fat Israeli man who got the smallest girl in the group, put her down on the floor and sort of danced along her back like Yogi Bear, she says. When he came to my back, I was stunned by how natural and earthy it felt.

But where her teachers restricted the use of their feet for patients suffering from failed back surgery syndrome, Key found that she could actually feel more with her feet than her hands and began to adjust her treatment for all her patients, although I did feel a bit outlandish at first I knew it would raise eyebrows.

A year later, after treating a succession of ladies-in-waiting, the Keeper of the Privy Purse and private secretaries from the Royal Household, Key laid her feet on the Queen for the first time. How on earth did Her Royal Highness cope? Oh, she’s quite pragmatic, Key says.

There’s no one I haven’t put my feet on with the exception of the Queen Mother. And Prince Charles has been your most abiding patient, why? Well, he alternates between extremely active phases and then an awful lot of travel which is hopeless for backs. He’s sleeping in a lot of strange beds and sits in helicopters, and he had tried a lot of things before I came along. I think he did have a breakthrough but it’s a matter of maintenance really.

Her hope is that the Sarah Key Method, as it were, will eventually be taken up by hospitals and, with this in mind, she has started giving master classes to physios who are interested in her work. The proceeds from these sessions go to the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health, which Prince Charles set up in 1998 to spread the word about non-mainstream medicine with predictably negative responses from conventional health workers.

Key, like the Prince, is scoffed at for not being professional enough. Her critics, she says, think it’s slightly ludicrous that I use my feet because it breaks the barriers of what’s accepted as normal.

They also criticise non-mainstream medicine for not being evidence-based. People trot that out as a reason for doing nothing, she says. The only evidence a patient is going to care about, is the evidence that his back is feeling better. The following morning, Key’s group assembles and the tears start to flow almost immediately. There are three men and two women, only one of whom fits my preconceptions: Ian, 57, a senior executive who, as he puts it, flies around the world persuading athletes to wear Nike.

Dave, a Royal Mail accountant from Derbyshire, has had a bad back since 1991 when he slipped a disc. He has had surgery and every sort of treatment, and has been off work for three months. He’s worried that he won’t be able to fly again or drive because of the pain. The pain that has been stalking you every minute like a gremlin, Key mutters sympathetically.

While Ian tells his story, a young woman to his left starts weeping silently. He may be sporty he skis, cycles and plays golf but he’s so weak that he can hardly push a door. All my life I’ve been afraid of having children because I wouldn’t be able to play with them, he says. Now he has young twins. There’s nothing more important to me than to sort this back out and enjoy the next 20 years, he says.

Andrew is 32, single, unemployed and lives at home with his mother in Kent. He used to be a car mechanic and that’s when his troubles started. He took painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine but there was no improvement. He bought Key’s first book and did some of the exercises but was unable to gain long-term relief.

His doctor and the other practioners said there was nothing wrong with him. Did that make you feel mad, Andrew? Key asks. Pretty much so; I felt that I was wasting their time. She asks him who paid for him to come on her course. My last employer, he replies. My redundancy money. All the women are now in tears. It’s been a long, lonely vigil for you, Key says, as her own eyes begin to well and she goes off to grab a tissue, saying: Dear me, I didn’t expect this. Ian asks, Are you going to be able to fix him? Yes, Key whispers. I think so.

Nathalie, 31 from the West Midlands, works in local government and has two young children. She turns to Ian: What made me upset was when you said that you didn’t like getting down on the floor and playing with your children and I long to be able to do that, she says. Her back pain is aggravated by a pubic dysfunction which makes her feel as though she’s been kicked between the legs by a donkey. She apologises for the brutality of the description. Now she’s frightened of doing anything, to the extent that she daren’t even have her daughter sit on her lap. I feel I’ve lost my belief to get it right by instinct and self-management, she says. Only because you’ve had it humiliated out of you, Key says.

Evelyn, 47, from West Yorkshire, has had a serious back problem for 17 years. She’s tried massage, exercise, osteopathy, acupuncture, a corset with metal rods (Dickensian! Key snorts), bed rest in a specially designed bed, and sugar injections allegedly to strengthen ligaments. At one point in this saga, she didn’t sit down for a whole year. She works on a production line rather than an office job specificially so that she can stand all day. She and her partner have cashed in their savings for this course and put their house renovations on hold.

So with the exception of Mr Nike, Key’s patients are ordinary people, on quite low or no income, dealing with unbearable pain. Key told me that she gets people who are at the end of the line, who have been given up on everywhere else. Dave said that when he went to see her for the first time, she did more for him in a couple of hours than he has experienced in years of treatment.

I left Key’s back sufferers, fairly confident that at least some of them would experience a breakthrough, since the previous day I had undergone one of my own. The first time that she balanced on my back, I was rather distracted by the unfamiliar sensation and, yes, the thought that these feet had made contact with all those Royal backs. But the next day, as her toes and heels found what they were looking for, the sense of release a wooshing, almost electrifying expulsion was so powerful that it made me feel giddy with relief.
Afterwards, I found myself sitting back in a chair in a position that felt so wonderfully relaxed and right I am usually perched on the edge, poised to take flight or twisted awkwardly that it made me cry to realise how much I had been adjusting my body for so long to cheat the pain. As Key would say, I had been letting my back become like an alter-ego or a spoilt child that you let get its own way. I’ve promised her and myself that next time, I’ll take my spoilt child in hand and check it in to her Back In A Week programme, as a participant this time, not an observer.

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Me, Myself, I

THE TIMES – November 13, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Years of childhood misery, teenage trauma and adult excess have informed all of Tracey Emin’s work. But her masterpiece, says Ginny Dougary, is the triumph her life has become.

Can this be? Tracey Emin – legendary Bad Girl of Brit Art (who has, incidentally, been protesting she is not a girl but a woman ever since the title was first thrust on her ten years ago) – tucked up in bed by eleven, sipping cold white wine in an unhectic fashion, not falling over, not swearing, not smoking, and hardly showing off at all?

Yes, at 41, Margate’s most famous escapee is in danger of becoming – shock, horror! – sensible. In Istanbul, where we were holed up together for three days in an ancient palace of a hotel on the Bosphorus, the better to enjoy our sightseeing excursions and her show, Trace was at times alarmingly prefectorial. Watches would be checked in the foyer and the forthcoming timetable confirmed and reconfirmed – drinks at such and such an hour, followed by taxi to pre-opening rendezvous, onward to the opening, thence to dinner with British consulate, and so on.

She embraced her self-appointed role as host with enthusiasm, arranging for us to see a mesmerising display of dervishes whirling, a Turkish meal in an appealingly authentic restaurant, suggesting

various hikes incorporating tourist must-sees, and was clearly disappointed when we begged off for a bit of down-time.

Her inability to be punctual is well known and this is one of the habits she is trying to curb. Indeed, she was so very keen to fit as much as possible into the schedule that her little band of followers – Irene Bradbury, representing White Cube, old friend and curator Gregor Muir, representing the Tate, Kelly Piper, her personal assistant, the photographer Graham Wood and me – were often left scuttling in her wake as Tracey strode purposefully on ahead without a backward glance.

This, of course, could never be said of her art which is almost entirely made up of backward glances – an approach that has most definitely placed her ahead of her Brit-pack peers, who are unable to boast the sizable honour, as Emin now can, of an entire room devoted to their art, bought for the nation by the Tate.

En passant, I learnt that she is a stickler for a dress code – and has been mortified on the occasions when she has turned up in inappropriate wear (it is not unusual, these days, to see her in the social columns of magazines such as Tatler). And more arresting still, given her reputation – will she ever live down that Oliver Reed television performance the year her bed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize? – Emin now considers it bad manners and bad business to turn up pissed at her own openings, particularly since many of her existing or prospective collectors are likely to be present.

Why, La Trace has even taken to wearing sensible shoes (Gucci loafers), having done a Naomi in her platforms down some restaurant stairs in Rome, with the consequence that her summer was spent in a leg brace, convalescing in style with Ruth and Richard Rogers in Tuscany.

She has not, of course, turned into a complete goody-goody: her Pamela Anderson-ish love of her cleavage remains firmly intact – each day in Istanbul, there were visible signs of a new Agent Provocateur bra in some outlandish confectionery colour; she can be quite snappy with pushy waiters, and sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, with me; she spoke high-handedly to an obviously doting young journalist, upbraiding her for not sending over her copy to be checked for inaccuracies which – Emin made unambiguously clear – were plentiful.

During one of our walks from here to there, Emin suspected that she had been touched up by a gang of local men and pursued them yelling a torrent of Turkish and English expletives – which may have been understandable but was hardly sensible as she later admitted: “I mean, they could have had a knife.”

On another trot around town, talking about her teeth – an unsightly snaggle below, dentures above – without any warning, she suddenly disgorged the latter, revealing an arc of bare gums. This struck me as a most complicated gesture, daring you to be disgusted or perhaps challenging you to rise above your disgust. Some years ago, an old boyfriend sold a photograph of her taken in a similar vein to a newspaper – which was said, not surprisingly, to have upset her.

It was partly an odd thing to do because Tracey is quite defiantly proud of her beauty, having only fairly recently discovered that she is not, in fact, ugly. In a newspaper questionnaire asking her to rate her looks from 1 to 10, she awarded herself the top mark. A response which recalls the sort of playful arrogance Jeanette Winterson goes in for – the writer, like the artist, is either loathed or adored – who once nominated her own novel as best book of the year.

Emin’s reading of what is happening to her is that she’s “going through some middle-aged thing, definitely”: not sure of where she belongs and wants to live – is she Mediterranean, like Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot father, or seaside-resort England, like her mother? She still wants to have a child, and knows that she needs to modify her drinking drastically before that were ever to happen.

In 1999 she gave up spirits when her then boyfriend of six years – the artist Mat Collishaw – threatened to leave her if she didn’t, which, as it happens, he did anyway. (They remain the best, if not better, of friends.) Next on the hit list last December were cigarettes, and she hasn’t had a puff since. Smoking has always been forbidden in her gracious-sounding Huguenot home – which did surprise me, since that unbohemian attitude seems a bit uptight for any artist, let alone Emin. Sex was recently offlimits, including, she makes it emphatically clear, with herself: “It’s a human thing that you crave for or need, but I don’t want to mix it up with physical affection, which I’ve done a lot in my life. That’s why I started having sex when I was so young, you know.” And, now, even the white wine might have to go.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve got a drink problem, actually,” Tracey said. “Yeah, I do. I’m not trying to find another thing that’s wrong with me, but I really have because I’m such a nice person and I have a couple of drinks and I’m really good fun and then I’m really not fun.” This was clearly on her mind, because an hour or so later, she said: “I was thinking about this last night: how can I have spent so much of my life drunk? All the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life have been when I’ve been drunk. I haven’t made hardly any mistakes sober, ever, ever. Ever, ever, ever. All the mistakes have been made when I’ve been drunk.”

There can be something touching about the way Emin expresses herself, and this statement is a case in point. It is so very naked and guileless, unprotected by what most of us would consider normal worldly artifice. She and her art – the two, in her case, being inextricable – are often accused of childishness. But I would make the distinction that Emin is sometimes childlike in her simplicity and in her inability, most unusual in an adult, particularly one with her experiences, not to be trusting.

Since I also found the artist to be in the main both thoughtful and thought-provoking, I was disappointed on my return from Istanbul to find her regurgitating the same old piss-pot exhibitionist schtick on Paul Merton’s Room 101. Oh Tracey, I groaned, why are you letting yourself down? Why do you insist on making yourself into a cartoon figure, handing out a rod to make it easier for your critics to beat you?

She was fine and funny – sensible, even – explaining why cocaine should be banned purely on the grounds that it turns people into bores, but really not fine or funny, grinning like a demented teenager, as she spouted gruesome puke stories from her drunken past. (Including the quite hideous detail that she once vomited down the sleeve of her jacket in the back of a taxi.)

The thing about Tracey, however, is that it’s not just her art that is autobiographical but her life itself, which is led with a constant

eye on its documentation; each step that she takes is instantly observed and analysed while she is taking it, and placed in a wider perspective of her known history. Seen in that light, what could be more Traceyesque than inviting us to find her erstwhile exploits disgusting, acknowledging that she wants to turn her back on such behaviour; saying to Merton that giving up the drinking would make her feel free. There’s a way in which Tracey’s growing up is a work in progress in which we, as her public, are somehow obliged to participate.
She arrived for our interview by the pool only ten minutes late. A bikini under a canary-yellow flimsy kaftan – bought in India and a gift from the man she has been referring to for some time now as “my Roman husband”; a pair of clunky gold necklaces from one of her half-brothers (her handsome father sometimes gives the impression of having lost count of the number of children he has sired), a ring from her beloved late granny, May Dodge, and one she would give her daughter were that larger gift ever to be granted; slim, long-fingered, eyes hidden behind giant shades, sulky expression. Do you speak Turkish, I ask her. “Better than you,” she replies, without a smile.

When she does smile, it is never that weird lopsided grimace caught in almost every photograph of her ever taken. It’s a sort of nervous tic – as I discovered watching her switch it on for the camera – which not only distorts her attractiveness but also in some subliminal way conveys the impression that she is haphazard and out of control. And, these days, this picture could hardly be more inaccurate.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to know which of Emin’s many achievements and projects to focus on, so we decided it was best to focus on them all: the predictable uproar around her room in the Tate; her first feature film, Top Spot, also controversial; her line of appliqué luggage and handbags for Longchamps; her show in Turkey and, my favourite of them all, Emin’s Ovals, the artist’s dream (she’s at the discussion stage with Richard Rogers and Ken Livingstone) of creating half-a-dozen beautiful lidos along the banks of the Thames.

This level of concentrated activity is increasingly the norm for Emin as her reputation continues to build internationally. In 2004 alone, for instance, apart from Istanbul, she has had two shows in Italy, one in Sydney (following her previous year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), one in Wellington, and a joint show with David Hockney coming up in Santiago, Chile. Even two years ago, she had a ten-year retrospective at the renowned Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, concertinaed between openings in London (White Cube and the Barbican), the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, as well as a show in New York.

The greater Emin’s success, of course, the louder her critics rail against her… the most bitchily clamorous of whom, it is impossible not to notice, are men. Since most art critics are male and the art establishment is still dominated by men, you could say that this helps to explain the lack of easy empathy towards Emin, whose fans tend to be women and gay men. But when I read the playground taunts that she is “very stupid” – the sheer unrestrained nastiness of the attacks – I find myself smarting on her behalf, regardless of what I think of her art. Tracey is, after all, such an easy target for those of a snobbish disposition: the absence of school qualifications (she has no O or A levels), her working-class accent, her lack of polish, her obvious enjoyment of her newfound wealth.

Back in 1999 when I saw her Turner-shortlisted work in the Tate, it wasn’t the bed or wall of drawings that flickered in my imagination but a video from 1995 called Why I Never Became A Dancer. I stood in the dark, in a tiny room packed with people, and watched Tracey in cut-off jeans dancing to Sylvester’s disco classic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). She was staring straight at the camera and something about it, and her expression, reminded me quite forcibly of myself as a young teenager, dancing in front of a mirror, practising my moves, full of optimism about the future.

I can’t have watched for long enough, however, because I only got half the point

of it: the suggestion of hope and buoyant innocence, but not its shattering aftermath. I missed the dedication: “This one’s for you” and the string of boys’ names “Tony, Eddie, Shane, Richard…”, and it was only later that I read the explanation of the piece.

When Tracey was in her early teens, life was pretty crap at school and at home – she was raped at 13, and abused at a far younger age – but at least she was a demon dancer (still is, and she knows it). So she entered a local dancing competition in Margate, with high hopes and a new set of teeth (her twin brother having knocked out the original top row, aided by the siblings’ lousy diet and unfamiliarity with the toothbrush). There she is twirling and swirling, feeling every inch the dancing queen, lifted by the admiring boys’ chants spurring her on to win. Until suddenly she realises that the boys are not cheering but jeering, and what they are yelling at her is: “Slag, slag, slag, slag, slag.”

It was a long time ago, but despite the partial catharsis of transforming the humiliation into a name-and-shame art work, Emin is still stung by the memory. When I make a reference to her tormentors destroying her dancing, she is swift to retort: “It wasn’t so much destroying my dancing, it was destroying me, wasn’t it?”
Tony, one of the original jeering boys, recently wrote her a letter to apologise, saying that now his daughters are the same age that Tracey was at the dancing competition and he was mortified to think of the effect his taunts must have had on a developing young girl. Would Tracey forgive him, he asked – and she does. When the Daily Mail went in for one of its regular Emin-bashing routines after her embroidered tent was destroyed in the recent Momart warehouse fire – the artist received another contrite letter, this time from the woman whom the newspaper had paid to sew a cut-price replica of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

This new name-calling strikes me as displaying the same sort of cowardly tribalism as the Margate lads, but those boys at least had the excuse of being young and ignorant. Emin’s first response when I ask her what she makes of the grown-up men who call her “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid” is measured: “I think a lot of them haven’t met me and a lot of them have just heard my accent and then they judge you from it.”

Pretty soon, however, she is rather less measured: “I think some of them w*** off about me. I think they go to bed and they see my face and they think about my tits and they toss off. And then they don’t have to shag their ugly wives and they feel really sick with themselves and they’ve got to get up and do the same thing again and again and again, and they look at someone like me and I just really get up their nose. I really wind them up.

“I’m a woman, I like my life, I’m lucky in what I do, and I’m very wealthy doing what I do. And no one gave me anything. I made this for me and that puts you in a far different situation. I’m independent, and I’ve got really lovely friends, I really love my home, I love my lifestyle, I travel around the world doing what I do, and I’m in a privileged, fantastic position which I got myself into. So I think it’s resentment,” she concludes.

The Spectator was obliged to publish an apology to Emin and pay her legal costs when, earlier this year, the writer Philip Hensher suggested that the artist was responsible for mounting a homophobic harassment campaign against him after he had abused her in print. (Hensher is gang leader of the We Hate Stupid Tracey Club.)

“The point is, apart from anything else, I’m hardly going to be accused of being homophobic,” she says. “I’m a gay icon.” You mean, you’re hardly going to bite the hand that feeds you? “It’s not even about that. I was really hurt by it and really angry. You know, ‘some of my best friends are gay’? Well, I have hardly any friends who aren’t gay. It was just so stupidly ridiculous. He hadn’t done his homework. He didn’t know about my work for the Terence Higgins Trust or seen whom I’m associating with,” she says. “But I did feel genuinely sorry for him because it’s a really horrible thing to happen to someone and it must be driving him mad, but it’s not me.”

She doesn’t want to expend the energy or time (or money, presumably), in mounting endless legal suits: “But there’s so much stuff said about me that’s not true, so now what I try to do if something is hurtful and wrong is send an e-mail or letter immediately, saying, ‘This is not true… at no time have I ever said this…’ I don’t ask for an apology because it’s only tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”

As for the writers who assert that the Tate was somehow bamboozled into buying a roomful of Emins, they clearly have no clue how such things work: how long it takes to make such a decision (a minimum of three years), how many people are involved in approving that decision, and so on. As it happens, the Tate has been nominating her work for their permanent collection for some years now: “It’s happened time and time again, but the committee has always decided against it – because it said f*** in it too much, or the work was too conservative or didn’t fit within the budget; there are millions of different reasons,” Emin says. “The point is that the work can’t just be bought on whim. It is really discussed, it’s really thought about; it’s a whole committee of about 40 people that argue this out. And it has to be like that because otherwise you could end up with a load of crap for the rest of history.” Naturally, she thinks it’s “quite cool, actually” – that you can walk in to Tate Britain and say, “Can you tell me where the Tracey Emin room is?” And when the Tate Modern opened, she recalls, “My auntie’s friend said, ‘Can you tell me where Tracey Emin’s work is?’ (as opposed to, say, the Francis Bacon or John Constable room) and the attendant said, ‘If I had a penny for every time I was asked that, I wouldn’t be standing here now.’ Sweet, wasn’t it?”

The morning I asked to see the Tracey Emin room, the attendant told me that it is the question she, too, is most often asked. From her observations, people either take one look at the work and walk straight out or they stay for hours, poring over each individual piece. Of all the YBAs – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk et al – the young British artists who made such an impact in the Nineties, it is Emin who has endured thus far as the real crowd-puller. Partly this is because in our celebrity-driven, confessional culture, Emin satisfies on both counts. She is far more likely to be featured in a fashionable glossy or a colour supplement, say, than in a serious art magazine – as the Tate’s own house journal has pointed out. Emin herself says, “Each week I get between 60 and 100 requests, whether it’s to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! or Celebrity Weakest Link or my favourite one, Celebrity Mastermind. That was, ‘Really, I think you may have the wrong person.’ Tracey Emin talking about herself, yeah! ‘When was your first show in a London gallery?’ The point is, they don’t ask other artists but they do ask me – which is why when I got the phrase ‘media whore’ thrown in my face last year, I thought, ‘Oh my God, if you only knew.'”

She has done Room 101, as we know, and Question Time and Have I Got News For You, which she enjoyed and will be going on again soon. She’s particularly proud of having been nominated for the Dimbleby lecture: “I mean, I’m not going to get it, but if people know what that is they realise what an absolute honour it is just to be nominated. It’s pretty nice and special because it means that there’s a board of academics that think I’ve obviously got some insight into things.”

But what of the work itself? What I notice is that it’s much easier to intellectualise what one dislikes about her pieces than what one appreciates. So although it may not be exactly “crap”, I have no time for her pink neon loping scrawl: Is anal sex legal, and its retort: Is legal sex anal. To me, it’s shallow, glib, gimmicky, as babyishly sensational – and on about the same level – as the fcuk advertising campaign. There must be better ways of addressing gay rights, if that is what prompted her to make it. That aside, I’m intrigued, moved, unsettled, disconcerted, upset, disturbed, tickled by most of the rest of the work in the room. The way it connects is visceral, reaching into parts of the psyche, to borrow from advertising myself, that other art doesn’t reach. What the art is not, which is something her detractors are always accusing it of being, is an unmediated confessional splurge. Both the horridness and the sweetness of Emin’s life are very firmly and, indeed, artfully edited to create a certain impact. She is quite capable of withholding in both her art and beyond it; she hasn’t, for instance, disclosed the identity of the boy who raped her or the man who abused her. And, on a happier note, she won’t talk about her new boyfriend, or even say that she has one – although this is a bit irritating since she does insist on introducing the subject of her “Roman husband” quite often.

On one of the walls of her room in the Tate are the handwritten pages – all 4,000-odd words – of Emin’s short story called Exploration of the Soul. It was published in the Independent on Sunday, as well as in a limited-edition book, in 1999: the same year as the Turner Prize shortlisting. It’s all there: the unhealthily intense relationship with her twin brother, the sinister male presence, a very disturbing suggestion of anal rape, and after “the police woman was talking to me – but I kept kind of sleeping… Dear God I thought – every part of me is bleeding” … “And he was rubbing his hands across my chest – my tiny little chest – my bony little ribs – I WAS ONLY TEN FOR F***’S SAKE” – the stifling fear of the dark (something that still terrifies Emin) “left alone… saturated in my own piss – too scared to breathe”, the knocked-out teeth, the teenage rape, the confusion of love and neglect, “Daddy gone”, and then his hotel – and their childhood home – boarded up…

I remember reeling when I read that in between the fashion and the food on a Sunday morning. It was such a direct assault with no leavening banality to make it more bearable. And, after my initial scepticism – oh please! so now Tracey Emin thinks she’s a writer – came the shock that she could write. And that she was able to evoke a certain sort of childhood – I did presume her own – in a way that made me feel absolutely that I was there with her under the bedsheets, in the bath, scrabbling in the strawberry patch looking in vain for our pet rabbit.

This is the way Emin’s art can work at its most effective – taking you unawares, making you catch your breath, knocking you sideways. It can happen, in a more muted way, in the most unlikely places. In the British Airways business lounge at Istanbul airport, for instance, an inspired executive has hung two Emin drawings. They have such a peculiar impact in that sterile setting; as exciting as coming across an original masterpiece, but also charming and intimate. What must go through the heads of the busy business people, tapping away on their laptops, when they look up and see: a pool of white space and a scribble of a bird on a high-up branch with another rather forlorn-looking bird below – “That’s Mat up there and that’s me,” the artist explains; a woman’s body, a pool of something nasty between her legs, various implements. Does it put them off their stride? Do any of them stop what they’re doing and get up to have a closer look?

If you think Tracey is good at what she does – as I happen to, not always but mostly – it is because she does know what she’s doing. At the age of 23, she talked herself into a place at Maidstone Art College, emerged with a First and went on to the Royal College of Art where she graduated with an MA in painting – although she describes herself as “a crappy painter” who was a bit of a misfit there. Her contemporaries were into abstract art, while she was into exploring “Byzantine frescoes and Edvard Munch”. And, rather amusingly, for those who assume she was one of the groovy Goldsmiths’ gang: “When Damien and all that lot were doing Frieze in Building One, I was in Turkey doing watercolours.”

While we are engaged in our interview by the pool – I more or less have to persuade Tracey, a fanatical swimmer, that it would be impractical to conduct it actually in the pool – the silence is broken by the muezzins’ periodic wails beckoning the faithful to prayer in Istanbul’s many mosques; it’s a great stereophonic sound, rising and filling the air all around us.

In the evening, we meet up again for drinks at the Pera Palas hotel, where Mata Hari, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie used to stay. And, more recently, Julio Iglesias and our Tracey (not together) – although she hasn’t yet got a room named after her like the others. Emin did a performance here for the 1997 Istanbul Biennale. At that time, she recalls, you couldn’t have a Turkish man in your hotel room – and so she decided to open up her room to the public. At one point she had 80 people crammed in, listening to her stories, trying to work out what she meant by transforming the space into a love poem, looking at the photographs she had placed under the doilies on the antique furniture, touching the bedspread appliquéd with the words, International Woman. (An early forerunner of her Longchamps suitcases, she says, limited edition of 200, a rosette on each with a handsigned drawing of a place Trace has visited, cost: £2,000.)

This new exhibition – Tracey Istanbulda – is in Platform, a converted bank, right at the heart of Istanbul’s tourist centre. Emin went to a show there at last year’s Biennale – she much prefers Istanbul’s art fair to the famous one in Venice – and decided that it was just the place for her to show work, which had only been created in Turkey and Cyprus. It’s been partially sponsored by the British Council who have “always been really cool to me. They are brilliant: ‘If you have a chance,'” Tracey says, with an impeccable plummy accent, “‘meet our woman Jenny in Madrid, she’s awe-fully nice.'”

This is her fourth visit to Turkey this year, and she’s been spending some time in Cyprus, where her father lives, too. Enver has come over especially for his daughter’s show, but relations between them are apparently somewhat strained at the moment; something to do with complications over the building of a house. “The land’s really beautiful, it’s just that I can’t… what it is, it’s a bit of a macho society to say the least and it’s very difficult to get things done,” Tracey says. “When it really comes to it, you have to be hands-on, you have to be there and I don’t have time. So either I let my dad finish it – do it how he wants which is not what I want at all – or just come back to it later.” I suspect the tensions are because she chose to postpone the project.

Enver sits, in his high peaked leather hat (a present from his daughter and Mat), suit and tie, surrounded by the bright youngish things of the art world. He smiles from time to time – a beautiful sunbeam of a smile – and doesn’t say much. He’s 83, perhaps a little deaf, walks slowly with a stick, but has the smooth, caramel skin of a much younger man. Tracey calls him “Daddy” and gets cross when he’s not attentive enough to her or the wine waiter. She’s quite openly tough with him, having encouraged him to come – the whole show struck me as a kind of love letter to him and his country – but insisting he’s responsible for sorting out his own accommodation.

Everyone rushes off to Tracey’s opening, and I hang back for Enver, who hasn’t a hope of catching up. Pretty soon, the others are nowhere in sight and I’ve no idea where I am – nor, I suspect, does my new chum. Arm in arm, we walk down the main shopping street, thronging with people, looking for the gallery. He says there’s a big sign with his daughter’s name on it and suddenly, there it is – Emin – a rather small sign, actually, pointing to an alleyway. “Come on,” I say, “let’s go.” But, alas, it is only a bakery; Emin, it transpires, being the Turkish equivalent of Jones or Smith.

We retrace our steps into the night and finally, thank God, stumble on a socking great banner – TRACEY ISTANBULDA – with a crowd queueing to get in. All the video work has been shown before, there was no money for shipping larger pieces, and Tracey made two new neons: It doesn’t matter My Friend it does Not matter To Cry is Beautiful, and its Turkish translation Bosver Bosver Arkadasim Aglamak Guzel (Tracey can rattle that off, no problem), and what she calls her sexy one: I Kiss You. They’re quite pretty, but that’s about it.
The videos are another matter. Actually, I think she’s hot stuff in this department – which is certainly why Michael Winterbottom, the respected young director, suggested she make a film, Top Spot, under the auspices of his production company, Revolution. The one that most insinuates of the three on show is the gentlest and oddly elegiac: the seaside, Cyprus, 1996; her father, stronger then, in white trunks walking into the surf, turning and smiling at the camera, a man – is it him? – singing in Turkish; then Tracey in a bikini, plumper but still a perfect hour-glass figure, engulfed by the water, her words, a sort of poetic rhapsody to the enduring encirclement of life – the sea, the stars, the sun – end with “I love you Daddy.”

When Tracey and her twin were seven, their father left home. Tracey’s mother, Pam, became pregnant by Enver 40 years ago, on an alcohol-drenched night that was meant to signal the end of their affair. Pam decided not to abort and Enver – who tells me he gave up drinking on the day the twins were born and recites the date, in true AA fashion, or perhaps in the fashion of a proud parent – spent half the week in Margate with his new family, apparently with the blessing of his wife in London. Tracey remembers coming to Turkey for months at a stretch when she and her brother were tiny. Then, one day, Enver found Pam in bed with his driver and later attempted, unsuccessfully, to run them over. So that was the end of that relationship.

Tracey says that although her childhood must have had its good points, her mother has told her that she was never happy. On one of our walks, I notice that one of her feet turns slightly inwards, and

she tells me she was knock-kneed as a child and teased about it. She spent hours on her own practising how to walk properly and, for that matter, talk properly since she was also afflicted with an appalling lisp. Even now, just occasionally, certain words are accompanied by the suggestion of a clicking sound, as though her tongue is awkwardly hammering the roof of her mouth. When I ask her whether her forties are the best time of her life, she says: “Damn sight better than my thirties and nothing could be worse than my twenties, apart from my teens or my childhood. So there you go, it is getting a lot better.”

Growing up was difficult, she says, because she and her brother were left alone so much: “It wasn’t my parents’ fault – my mum had to work all the time and my dad wasn’t there. But there were no rules and I think that children actually need a certain amount of rules. They need to brush their teeth because otherwise their teeth fall out, right? It is a kind of known thing. And children need to do their homework because it’s part of their education. But saying all that,” she suddenly seems wary of how this may sound, “I am fiercely independent and I probably wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the way in which I was brought up.”

If you did have children, you would bring them up differently? “You can say that again, yeah.” You would be very much into rules and structure? “Yeah.” When I say that I’ve never read her talking about the period when she was abused, she says: “Not in the newspapers, no. I’m going to wait until I’m really mega f****** famous and then I’ll make a big billboard.” Is it complicated; are you protecting the person? “No, I’m protecting myself.”

Top Spot is the name of a Margate nightclub where the local teenagers would go to make out; it is also, as Tracey the film’s narrator informs us, the neck of the womb which is hit by the penis during sex. It is, yes, autobiographical with all the writer-director’s childhood horror stories grafted on to the characters of six different girls – as though they would be too much for a single person to bear. One way out of the misery of Margate – which has prompted the censors’ 18 certificate, much to the film-maker’s dismay – is the suicide by the girl the boys call “slag”. Another, as the ending makes perfectly clear, is to leave and turn yourself into something splendid… Tracey, the original Margate girl, amply demonstrating the alternative route.

It is, in a way, another exploration of the soul; only this time, perhaps, more of an expiation of the soul. There’s the rape, the teeth, and the same hints of abuse. One of the girl’s lines first appeared in that story: “I’d watch him from the corner of my eye – his hands down his trousers – always fiddling with himself. Always looking at me-”

The film has its moments – the girl in her school uniform, an echo of that earlier video piece, turning and turning, the colours all darting and electric, to Shirley and Co screeching: “Shame shame shame, shame on you, if you can’t dance too”; and a certain sort of

Beryl Bainbridge hint of strange sexual games between an adult woman and the girls, the latter fantasising about burning her home down, lighting the paper that glows and leaps in a dance of its own in the dark. But, for the most part, it’s too messy and flat and amateurish to be convincing for me, and – worst of all – I’m afraid I found it boring.

I had mentioned Bainbridge to Emin because until relatively recently, the writer had drawn exclusively on her early life for her novels. Then ten years or more ago, almost as though there was nothing left in her own small past to explore, Bainbridge turned her back on herself and switched to making her fiction out of major historical characters. I wondered whether the artist, whose own collection of short stories is coming out next year, could ever imagine herself making a similar journey.

In the future, which may or may not have something to do with the “Roman husband”, Tracey said that she plans to return to painting, in the hope, presumably, that with time on her hands and experience on her side, she’ll be less “crap” at it. She’s going to buy a studio in Rome and work on a series of 20 oil paintings. Her subject? You’ve guessed it. But it will also be Emin in some sort of broader historical context than her own life. Nude? “Maybe… maybe not. But I can see them in front of my eyes and I want to spend the longest time… like just a week painting the gesso on to the canvas and I want to build up the oil paint really, really slowly… the smell of it, this massive beautiful room in Rome and these lovely windows, and just the smell of the oil painting. There’s just me – no telephone, no office – me with very little clothes on because it’s really hot, and I’ll be making these oil paintings which maybe no one will see for a long time. But that’s what I’d really like to do.”

On our last night in Istanbul, there was another party held in honour of Emin and her show. More than 800 people, we were told, had visited the gallery the previous day – and the numbers have held up, with the exhibition closing today. Everyone is dancing to disco and soon comes the unmistakable thudding beat of Sylvester. The crowd parts and Tracey is on her own, brown skin gleaming, grinning broadly and perfectly symmetrically… “make me fee-eel, mighty real, make me – ooooh, ooooohhh”, and as she cocks her ears, what she hears, this time round, is: “star, star, star, star, star.”

Women, Writers

Edge of darkness

The Sunday Times – July 05, 2003
– Ginny Dougary

P. D. James’s crime thrillers delve into the shadows of our consciousness, often shocking us with their unflinching, sometimes brutal, realism. But although the writer has personal experience of life’s psychological twists and turns, at 82, she remains an eternal optimist

She could hardly be more alert: mind as sharp as a cleaver, slicing into lardy thinking, fleet-footed, busy movements but with still, brown eyes. Baroness James of Holland Park, aka the august Faber thriller writer P. D. James, revered for the literary elegance with which she dispenses death, will be 83 next month and she is wonderfully, infectiously exuberant about the joy of being alive.

“I’m not fearful of death but I do love life very much. I love every day. And I hate the thought that it will end and I won’t see another spring,” she tells me. “I’m sure that people who live their lives very fully, who are vigorously alive, can feel the knowledge that it’s all going to end more fully. It is psychologically oppressive and you can wake up in the middle of the night and it can overwhelm you.”

There’s clearly no time to waste on small talk, so we jump straight into the big talk: love, mortality, sex and the nature of the soul. Is it better to be sensible to moral shortcomings than benignly laissez-faire? How do you define what it is that makes up the essential person? Do we become more ourselves as we grow older? Can you be said to have engaged completely in life if you have never allowed yourself to be overwhelmed by passionate love? This last question, in particular, is one which the writer tends to circle back to in different ways. The moment of truth for a character at the end of The Murder Room, James’s new book, is when she realises, like her receptive listener: “All love is dangerous, isn’t it?… [but]… you’re only half alive if you’re afraid to love.”

Many people who meet Phyllis (as she asks you to call her) for the first time find her surprising. Her writing has its moments of quiet lyricism – her abiding character, Adam Dalgliesh, is a respected poet, after all, as well as a detective. There is a melancholic, almost elegaic undertow to the books; a sense that our hero’s grief on losing his newborn baby and wife in one blow has never entirely lifted during all the decades we have known him since we were first introduced in 1962.

But there is also blood, sweat, semen, vomit, mucus: the physical gore of murderous death, and James is unflinching in her delivery of the detail. Here, for instance, is how she handles one corpse disposed of in Devices and Desires by her cross-dressing serial killer whose signature note is stuffing his victims’ pubic hair into their mouths: “The small bush of hair had been pushed under the upper lip, exposing the teeth, and giving the impression of a snarling rabbit.”

You don’t expect the creator of such brutal realism to be a cosy mother hen figure who lives in a pretty Georgian house, with William Morris wallpaper and Staffordshire figurines; the only clue to her darker sensibilities being an antique leather cosh she keeps strapped to the drawer knob of her bedside table. The particularities which previous visitors remarked upon – the chatelaine effect of carrying a large bunch of keys around her neck, the kindly ministrations to tuck into a plate of biscuits, the wearing of distorting thick-lensed spectacles – have disappeared.

But I had certainly imagined that because of all her achievements and honours – former BBC governor, sitting on this and that board, chairing this and that committee, the life peerage and so on – James would be tall, imposing and slightly stern. But physically, her stature is diminutive, and she bustles rather than paces. She is wearing a white T-shirt, button-down mid-calf skirt, poppy-red jacket, grey hair scraped off her head with a tortoiseshell hairband, a large engraved silver heart choker, and Birkenstock sandals.

She claps her hands in child-like glee and laughs, often, throwing her head back with gusto. When she is particularly amused – usually prompted by some observation on the absurd comedy of life – her eyes crinkle up and her whole face seems to shrink. My initial feeling is that I am in the company of one of those hospitable creatures in a children’s classic: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit; an impression which is reinforced by her insisting she sits bent double below me on a piano stool throughout the entire interview, while I take pride of place on the sofa.

We are talking about the various writers who have been afflicted by a morbid dread of death – Samuel Johnson, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis – and she mentions the time she interviewed Amis Snr over a bibulous lunch for the defunct London Evening News. She found it interesting, she says, that he told her how he wished he’d never broken his marriage with his first wife, Hilly, after he fell madly for the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; this second marriage ending famously acrimoniously. James, herself a widow of some 40 years, has never felt – perhaps, she concedes, never allowed herself to feel – an all-consuming love.

“No, I’ve never felt love that has completely overcome my mind. I’ve always felt there’s some part of my mind in control. I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” she says. “I think that we can criticise wild, passionate love but probably most human beings rather want it and like it. But I was always watching what I was feeling.”

She says that from an early age, she has looked at herself go through most experiences as if she were outside herself. When life was difficult in her childhood – her parents were unhappily married; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum for a period – the young James’s way of coping was to pretend she was a character in a book. Her mother would accuse her of being a cynical child; the girl’s cool appraisal of her elders was deemed unseemly and unnatural. “I was born very much an observer of life,” she says. “And yet at the same time I’m very much involved in it in the sense that I love the experience of being alive and of meeting people.

“Every writer is an observer, and just because I have never been overwhelmed by emotion doesn’t mean that other writers haven’t. But afterwards, I think, when the overwhelming ceases and they recover from the hurt of it, they will use it in their work and probably very, very effectively.”

In the prologue to Time to Be in Earnest, the “fragment” of autobiography-cum- diary that James wrote at the end of the Nineties, she warned her expectant readers: “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.”

How much can be guessed here from what little is said. James, of course, is a great believer in English reserve and is allergic to displays of excessive emotionalism. Her reaction to the mass-grieving which took place after Princess Diana died was to note: “I have a feeling, uncomfortable and irrational, that something has been released into the atmosphere and it isn’t benign.”

When we were talking about her unease with the touchy-feely post-Diana New Britain, she told me a story which clearly did move her. She was being driven to Oxford by a man whose wife had died of cancer, leaving him to bring up their three young children. There’s something about her manner that has always encouraged people to unburden their secret sadnesses to James and this man was no exception: “His wife had apparently had a terrible death about a year previously and I remember him saying, ‘It sounds very odd but I go to her grave and I tell her that my eldest daughter is wonderful with the two younger ones and that I’m coping,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure people would think it’s sentimental that I need to tell her how we’re getting on and that we’re managing.’ And because he was telling it very honestly and she’d died young and left these children and they were all coping for her sake, I really felt moved almost to tears,” her eyes glisten. “I felt much more than I felt when Diana died, there’s no doubt about that.”

As for her own bereavement and grief, James writes about these private emotions only at arm’s length and through the filter of fiction. “One does use one’s pain through some of the characters, very different characters from myself, but I think in quite a number of them there is pain,” she says. “And when I say that I don’t get overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain. I do feel pain. I can feel pain quite acutely. I have had a lot of pain in my life and I have felt it. And feeling fear and feeling distress and feeling lost and feeling inadequate, all these things are part of being human.”

She married Connor Bantry White, an Anglo-Irish medical student, when they had both turned 21 in the summer of 1941. They met in Cambridge where James was working as a general dogsbody at the Festival Theatre, and White was reading medicine at the university. Children came soon after, two daughters, Clare and Jane, and on completing his medical training, White went off to join the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While he was away in service, the young doctor suffered a mental collapse from which he was never to recover, and spent the rest of his married life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Sometimes he would return home unannounced and delusional, and so James decided that in these challenging circumstances, it was best to send her daughters away to a pre-prep boarding school, even though the younger of the two girls was only four.

As it now fell upon her to support the family, James went out to work as a filing clerk in the NHS (she had left school at 16 with no thought of higher education), working herself up to hospital administration, overseeing five psychiatric outpatients’ clinics, taking evening classes at the City of London College which led to a job in the Home Office, and eventually rising to a senior civil service position running the Criminal Policy Department.

She started writing in earnest in her thirties, waking at sunrise and getting down the words before arriving at the office each day, not because she needed the extra money but because she felt driven to do so. In 1962, the first of her 18 books, Cover Her Face, was published by Faber – which she says, quite rightly, now seems a bit old-fashioned and creaky – and she was on her way. Two years later, her husband died at home at the age of 44, after taking a combination of alcohol and drugs. She has said that it probably was suicide.

In her semi-autobiography, she writes: “I shan’t write about my marriage… except to say that I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Later, on April 1, 1998: “Connor would have been 78 today and I am trying to picture him, like me stiffer in his walk, his strong fair hair now a thatch of grey. I know that he was glad to die and I never mourned him in the sense of wishing that it had not happened. I still miss him daily, which means that no day goes by when he doesn’t enter into my mind.” And on the publication of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters – the poems about Hughes’s troubled marriage with Sylvia Plath: “No one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what this means. Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent.”

They were both so young when they married, the period of straightforward happiness was so short, and there were decades of difficult times when Connor was sometimes unable even to recognise his wife… I wonder how often in the 20-odd years of his illness there were glimpses of his old self, and were they enough to sustain her? “From time to time he was himself,” she says. “Briefly, yes, he was.” And did that help or not? “It gave me false hopes to begin with, I think, but the false hopes faded and then I realised that he would probably never be entirely right again.”

Did you understand what had happened to him? “Partly. I think one has to realise that it was a long time ago and now he would have had much more help and much more effective help psychiatrically compared to what he got then,” she says. “I’m not sure if I did altogether understand, but I don’t think I ever stopped loving him. You can have a love that isn’t an overwhelming love but it can be a very steadfast love.”

I had supposed that because all this heartbreak had happened long ago James would not feel discomfited talking about it, but she does: “It’s still painful and it’s distressing to the children if I talk about it too much. They do find it more distressing, more than I do, I think. My elder daughter does.” She says that they remember him, “Oh yes, with affection,” but feel that

it’s a private matter. I wonder what it was about him that made her fall in love? “Charm. He had charm and he was funny and he was a very sweet person. Yes, he was a very dear person.”

She is able to talk more freely about her decision to send the girls away when they were so young, perhaps because whatever the short-term damage or resentment at the time, the family is extremely close now. One of James’s great pleasures in life is spending weekends at the home of one daughter or the other, surrounded by grown-up grandchildren, enjoying their marvellous meals and wine and going for a good walk, preferably by the sea. Sadly, having enjoyed robust health all her life, she has just recovered from her second deep vein thrombosis so her walks are rather less vigorous. More like a 20-minute stroll, then? I ask, with an understanding look. “Oh, more than that, dear,” she says stoutly. “Probably more like an hour and a half.”

As people approach the end of their years, particularly if they believe they are going to meet their Maker, they can become beset with remorse about early episodes in their lives. There’s a striking passage in The Murder Room when Miss Strickland, who has a complicated past, talks to Dalgliesh about her last conversation with the first victim, a psychiatrist: “I said that in old age the past wasn’t so easily shaken off. The old sins return, weighted by the years. And the nightmares… For some of us that small diurnal death can be a nightly descent into a very private hell… He said that to be human is to feel guilt: I am guilty therefore I am.”

James does not appear to be overburdened by guilt, although I doubt she would tell me if she were. She does, however, suffer from terrible nightmares which she describes emphatically as “very, very, very, very weird”, which suggests there might be some anxiety lurking in the recesses of her mind. She also suffers from claustrophobia, and always has, so she is not quite as straightforwardly no-nonsense as she might first appear.

What she says about leaving her young daughters is this: “I missed them a very great deal and I felt distressed whenever I saw them and had to leave them, but I think it was the best thing because of their father’s illness. I think that parents should try not to feel too much guilt because all any parent can do is the best she can at the time. With thought, with love, and some of the decisions we make are right and some of the decisions we make are wrong, but as long as we’ve cared and we’ve bothered and we’ve taken trouble,” she mutters something I am unable to hear, and then says almost to herself. “They were happy there. It was a good school and they were happy there.

“Funnily enough, when they were at home during the long holidays, they used to wave me off when I went to work in the morning and they used to think that I wasn’t going to come home at night. I remember one of them did tell me: ‘We thought you might not come back.’ So you never know with children.”

I wonder, knowing all she does, what advice she would give to a stranger who was suffering from some terrible and seemingly inconsolable grief. “First of all, I would probably put my arms around them if they were that sort of person, and then I would say that you have to believe that in the end the pain will lessen. It may never completely go away. If you’ve lost somebody you dearly love – you’re going to miss them, the hurt will be there probably for as long as you live. But it will lessen. You will be able to come to terms with it.

“And, secondly, that you’re not alone in this. This is part of being a human being that we love people and we lose them and we suffer. It’s part of life. It’s that Blake poem, ‘Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.’ It’s a question of holding on. It’s a question of taking each day as it comes, not to torment yourself with the thought of all the years ahead. Take each day as it comes and find the courage to live that day as fully as you can. And even if they were not religious, I think I would say that if you pray for help, you will get it.”

She really does not care to revisit the days when she and her father would walk to the Gothic hospital where her mother had been placed. There is a pitiful description in Time to Be in Earnest of Dorothy James clutching at her nightclothes, begging to come home; one can well imagine the impact of this scene on her young daughter, and why it is still evoked so vividly more than half a century on. How awful that the writer’s early adult married life would be marred by visits to much the same gloomy sort of institution. It is not surprising that she only becomes reticent when drawn on such subjects. Put at its simplest: P. D. James likes to be happy and it doesn’t make her happy to talk about sad things.

It is quite a relief to move on to the less confrontational subject of sex. I read back to her a slightly surprising quote from an interview she did in the mid-Nineties: “I never really had a sex drive. I suppose I was frightened of the sex drive like some people are frightened to drink because they might never stop.” I say that it makes her sound as though she feared she might be a raving nymphomaniac, which makes her laugh hugely: “Well, I must have been out of my mind because I can’t remember ever feeling that. I would never had sexual relations and children, if I hadn’t had a sex drive.”

Might it not be true to say that you are probably more of a head person than a sexual person? “Absolutely true,” she says. “I don’t in any way dislike people who are sexual, I would just say that sex has never been so necessary to me that the need has overwhelmed me. And I would feel that if it did that would be slightly dangerous.

“I am neither sentimental nor over-emotional, but I can’t imagine saying that I feared that sex would overwhelm me. I suppose the fact that I am a head person makes it difficult to imagine how

you could be so much a slave to any

physical need.”

She admits that in all things, what she does fear is being out of control. Surely this must have had something to do with having so much responsibility thrust upon her shoulders at such a tender age. In her twenties, as a mother of two, she had to deal with what must have been at times a terrifying and confusing ordeal, while holding everything together. And, going back further, when her own mother was ill, it was Phyllis who cooked and cleaned and cared for her siblings until Dusty, the housekeeper, arrived. She has written about one particularly acute memory from that time: “It happened very soon after she [Dusty] arrived. I went up to my bedroom and there, lying folded on the sill beside the open window so that it was aired by the sun, was a clean, ironed nightdress. It is still a powerful image of conscientious caring and it lifted my heart. After trying, not always successfully, to cope with housekeeping and school, I was going to be looked after.”

A supporter of the promotion of her own sex in the secular world, in the church – as in her politics – James is a conservative traditionalist and was originally doubtful about the ordination of women. Now, however, she says, “I believe it is inevitable and right.” She has mixed views on hardline feminism but since she was attacked by a clique of male crime writers a few years ago, after a comment she made about class was misconstrued, she says she has rather more insight into why some women dislike men so much.

Her curriculum vitae includes such positions as the vice-president of Prayer Book Society, seat on Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, chair of Booker Prize, president of Society of Authors, associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and so on. You don’t get much greater or gooder than that roll call, but is that why she accepts the roles? “I quite enjoy it, dear, let’s face it,” she smiles. “But I also do feel that if you’re asked to do something as a woman, even if you’re going to be more or less the statutory woman, and you’re sure that you can do it, then I think there is an obligation to do so. I like women very much and I admire my own sex very much, and you can’t complain that women aren’t sufficiently represented if when you’re offered the chance, you say no to it.”

While she would defend any woman’s right to go out to work – “I have very much sympathy for women who want a professional life; that’s the sort of woman I am myself” – James feels it quite wrong that women who opt for full-time motherhood should feel diminished by their choice. Her hackles rise particularly when career women are cavalier, or worse, about the women they pay to work in their homes: “There was one on the radio and I took a real dislike to her when she said, ‘I want someone to do my shit work.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t work for you, dear. If you think looking after a house and making people comfortable is shit work, thank you very much. I would hate to work for you… because what respect would I get if I did.’”

The memory of that “clean, ironed nightdress” is still clearly very much intact.

When I say that professional women still tend to do the bulk of the domestic work when they get home, she says: “That is unfair, and I feel very strongly about it, indeed. It’s interesting the way I brought up my daughters, you see. They both have husbands who would never let that happen.

“From the beginning, I led them to feel that you’re not born as a woman to spend all your life ministering to a man. You hope to meet a man that you love and with whom you can have children, but it has to be an equal partnership.”

The only time in the interview when I catch a glimpse of the occasional astringency which can inform James’s writing, is when we talk about politics more broadly. I make an unflattering remark about Margaret Thatcher (it was her successor who was responsible for James’s peerage), and the Baroness gives me a concentrated look. She wastes no time at all dispatching my suggestion that under Mrs T we were encouraged to be selfish and greedy. “I think that materialism is very much part of human nature,” she says firmly. “We all like what money brings. There are very few who won’t go after the biggest profit they can get. There are very few who will sell their houses at under their value because a poor family’s trying to buy it. Show me them, I’d love to see them. There may be some, but not many.

“It’s lovely to have Mrs Thatcher to blame for this, you see. We can tell ourselves it’s not our fault, that we’re all Thatcher’s children and she taught us to be greedy. I very much distrust that. The present Prime Minister is very fond of his rich friends. There’s no doubt that he consorts only with people who are minded about prosperity and about money. So I think there are people who are greedy under any administration, and we must take responsibility for ourselves.”

But what materialism and consumerism cannot guarantee, as we all know too well, is happiness. It is a testament to the buoyancy of the human spirit – the “holding on” – that despite all the sorrows in P. D. James’s life, there is no trace of bitterness or any feeling that she has been hard done by. Even in her darkest times, she never felt that happiness would elude her. And, as she says, it can come when you least expect it:

“You may be in the country, leaning over a fence, and there’s the smell or the sight of a bean field, and suddenly there’s that tingle of wonderful physical wellbeing, a sense of being completely at home in the world; as much at home as the bird is in the air or the fish in the water. And that’s happiness which can’t be bought or sought. It just steals upon you. Doesn’t it, dear?”

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