Jenni Murray - Woman of the hour

Sitting outside a bustling café in central London, Jenni Murray, the voice of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, is deliberating over whether "strangle" is too strong a word to use in relation to Sir Alan Sugar.

In the end, assessing the state of women's employment opportunities in 2008, she decides it'll do just fine.

"It'd be nice if we had equal pay, it'd be nice if someone would strangle people like Sir Alan Sugar," she says, the irritation audible in that trademark mellifluous voice. "If you throw a woman's CV into the bin because she's of childbearing age you really don't deserve to be a successful businessman.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"And what about the young men they're employing?" she asks, warming to her theme. "Do they not realise that's there's a whole generation who want to be better fathers than you (it's still Sir Alan who's taking a pasting]? Sorry, but I feel cross about people like Alan Sugar."

Murray is finishing off some lunch at the restaurant just around the corner from the BBC in London. As I approach she is chatting to a passer-by. As they swap news – it transpires their sons were at school together – I get a moment to look and listen. As always she's wearing specs perched on the end of her nose, her short hair is perfectly coifed and her nails long and unpainted. There's a sizeable diamond on one hand and a large opal on the other, matching her earrings.

Murray is a daunting prospect. In more than 20 years on Woman's Hour, she's discussed every topic, interviewed "every woman I ever wanted to" and, despite the honeyed voice, shown that she's a fierce interrogator. Murray is the woman who asked Edwina Currie when she last had a smear test, Gordon Brown whether he'd show his wife his tax returns and Monica Lewinsky why she had never washed that dress. There's a no-nonsense, Northern sensibility (Murray was born Jennifer Susan Bailey in Barnsley) barely hidden beneath the elocutionary tones. It's what has made her a respected journalist since she joined the BBC in 1973 and why thousands of women and men welcome her into their homes three mornings a week as she presents Woman's Hour.

Friendly chat over, as the woman moves away, a pair of sparkling eyes fix on me and with a quick handshake I sit. It's too late to worry any more about this self-described "interviewer's nightmare".

For a woman who has only recently completed a course of chemotherapy to treat the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in December 2006, Murray's keeping up a gruelling schedule. She splits her week between her home in Cheshire and her flat in Camden where she's based for work. She's been up since six, she tells me. Since then she's presented Woman's Hour, now it's lunch with me and then she's spending the evening at the theatre reviewing The Female of the Species (what else?) for a newspaper. Only the crutches tucked behind her seat reveal that she's in anything other than rude health.

"In as much as you can say the cancer's gone away, the cancer's gone away," she says with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, you never know what's going to happen, but neither does anyone who hasn't had it. Fingers crossed we should be all right, then we'll get the hips done and that'll be that."

Complications caused by the chemotherapy damaged the blood supply to her hips, which has made it difficult for Murray to walk and, much to her dismay, drive. "The consultant said if I drive an automatic . . ."

she trails off in disgust. "You're not a driver unless you know exactly when to change gear."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I can't imagine that she made a very good patient, I tell her. "I felt very sorry for my oncologist, actually. I was probably the best-informed patient he's ever had because we've done so much on breast cancer over 25 years on Woman's Hour, but I don't really know enough," she laughs.

What Murray does know is that she has no truck with anyone who says she's brave, or play the blame game that so often surrounds cancer. "I will not blame myself in any way," she says. "Bad luck of the draw is what caused me to get cancer. Just as with someone who flies a glider that crashes – bad luck. The NHS has no business saying that people who've behaved badly won't be treated.

"Forget it, we're all paying our taxes, we're all paying for the NHS, we all deserve to be treated no matter how we've behaved. I can't see the difference between somebody's who's drunk a lot throughout their life and somebody who's had a skiing accident that's paralysed them."

Everything that Murray says betrays a low-key, straightforward approach entirely in keeping with the way she announced on air that she had discovered a lump in her breast after having missed a routine mammogram due to work commitments. She made the decision to go public despite the concerns of her

husband, David.

"David said to me, are you sure you're going to tell people, because it'll be in the papers and all that," she says. "And I said there's no way, when I've had an

intimate audience for 20 years and they know that I'm somebody who says let's get all this stuff into the open, there's no way I can just slope off quietly for a month or so and not tell people that just like them, I've got

it too."

Murray is warm and open, with a throaty, gruff laugh. It's a relief really, because the Jenni Murray revealed in the pages of her book, Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter, is something of a shock. Gone is the unflappable, matriarchal voice from Radio 4 – informed, measured and authoritative – and instead there stands a petulant, needy and defiant daughter. It's the story of Murray's annus horribilis, 2006, the year in which both of her parents died and she was diagnosed with the cancer from which she's now free, and an exploration of her troubled relationship with her tyrannical mother, Win.

"My mother was born in 1926, raised by

Edwardians, her opportunities were very limited and she did what was expected of a woman of her generation: she kept a clean, tidy, respectable household and wanted to raise a clean, tidy, respectable daughter."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For Murray though, born in 1950, the landscape was entirely different – from the make-up to the music to the men. It was the source of constant tension, made only worse by her adoration for her father, who was often working abroad for long periods.

Although 2006 was a dreadful year ("My mother would always have said things come in threes and you know breast cancer, your mum dies and your dad dies. That was three very, very bad things."), her mother's decline did allow for a reconciliation. "I am so relieved that we sorted out a lot of the problems that we had before my mother died,"

she says. "I think if she had died and I still had that burning resentment, the grief would've been much more terrible than it was."

Brutally honest and, by turns, painful and humorous, Murray's book casts a clinical eye over her relationships with her parents. She acknowledges that she couldn't have written it while her mother was alive but she also believes, taking a lesson from Simone de Beauvoir, that daughters must try to understand the different perspectives of their mothers while finding their own way into adulthood. "Simone de Beauvoir grappled with whether it was selfishness or self-

possession," she says. "I always try to comfort myself by saying it was self-possession."

Murray has two sons, Ed, a vet, and Charlie, a would-be rugby player. She says she's glad that she had boys rather than a daughter. "The luckiest thing that happened to my children is that their gender was male," she says. "I think if I'd had a daughter I would've been every bit as difficult a mother as my mother was."

Really, I ask, thinking of Murray's description of her mother calling after her high-flying daughter had appeared as a reporter on Newsnight to berate her for the clothes she was wearing or how much weight she'd put on. "I would've expected her to be a High Court judge by the age of six, probably," she says. "If she'd gone out in what my mother called an 'extended belt' with black eye make-up at the age of 14, I would unquestionably have been saying 'I don't think so'. Boys are just so much easier to bring up. I have to say, though, I've never told my boys they were anything other than fabulous looking."

It's fitting that it was with de Beauvoir that the teenage Jennifer Bailey, only daughter of Win and Alvin, found solace. It began a commitment to feminism which has been present throughout Murray's distinguished broadcasting career, for which she was awarded an OBE in 1999. I suggest to her that she has become synonymous with Woman's Hour rather than merely presenting it, but she's having none of it. "They said that about Sue MacGregor, they said that about Marjorie Anderson," she shoots back.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"The programme has been going for 60 years now and I think it rises above whoever is presenting it." But surely if feels like more than just a job? "It's an immense privilege to be able to do a programme where I can honestly say I've never been bored, except during gardening items," she says wryly. "To be able to go to work every morning and do something that you enjoy is just an immense privilege.

"This morning I interviewed Baroness Scotland QC, the Attorney General, and Vera Baird, the Solicitor General," she says, prodding a piece of baklava towards me. "For the first time those two major legal jobs in Britain are occupied by women. We talked for about 20 minutes about what difference your gender makes if you're in that kind of profession and what difference they had made in terms of domestic violence, rape convictions, all those issues that have long been of interest to the women's movement. At the end of it I said to them that what they'd done was lay out a feminist agenda for the law so how were they going to react when the press finds out and calls you a 'monstrous regiment'? And they just laughed. They said 'let them, we think this is the right thing to do'. And I thought, this is a real moment of progress.

That we now have women in positions of power who believe that the only way for women to move forward is if there is true equality between women and men. And they are in powerful enough positions to make some sort of difference. That I find incredibly encouraging."

Murray's keen sense of humour (a lover of country music, she tells me she used to do a fine party piece of Stand By Your Man – "an element of irony, of course") ensures that she enjoys the tagline "the most dangerous woman in England", bestowed upon her by one of the more excitable tabloids when she wrote about her ambivalence about the institution of marriage.

Murray has been married twice. First to Brian

Murray, whom she met at Hull University where she studied French and drama. Then in 2005 she married her long-term partner, David Forgham, a former naval engineer, solely to avoid inheritance tax. She told the registrar: "Here are the rules: you do not refer to me as the bride.

You do not refer to him as the groom. No flowers, no music, no romantic guff." It's classic Murray.

As a columnist she's vehemently followed the feminist principle that the personal is political, but I wonder if her role on Woman's Hour makes her feel that she has to be a model feminist?

"No, not at all," she says. "If I hadn't have been a feminist I wouldn't have wanted to do the programme in the first place, but I've just pottered along doing what is right for me and occasionally shared it with people. Never on the programme, though. My role on the programme is not to promote anything, I'm there to listen to other people's opinions and thoughts, not to express my own."

And what of her career ambitions now?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"My ambitions now are so short-term," she says. "My ambition right now is to be able to get up from this table and walk up the pavement without crutches." It's a goal she doesn't manage today, but I'd bet it'll happen soon enough.

n Jenni Murray's appearance at the Edinburgh

International Book Festival is sold out. Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter is out now, published by Bantam Press, priced 14.99.