I was born in October 1949. My father was Sir John Junor, long-standing Editor of the Sunday Express and controversial current affairs columnist in that paper and latterly in the Mail on Sunday. He was a powerful and domineering character, with whom I had a difficult relationship - mostly because of how he treated my wonderful mother. The Sunday Express was owned in those days by Lord Beaverbrook – who persuaded my father to give up his ambitions to be a Liberal MP and become a journalist instead. Beaverbrook gave him a job and a house on his estate at Mickleham in Surrey, where I spent the first nine years of my life. I only met the legendary figure once, when he gave me half a crown, but the house, lovely though it was, came with a price and my father was constantly at Beaverbrook’s beck and call.
To get out from under, we moved to Charlwood, also in Surrey, but the job still dominated family life and the house was often full of politicians and the great and the good. Looking back, it was quite a roll-call but at the time I thought them deadly dull.
I was educated at Benenden School in the wilds of Kent, with Princess Anne amongst others, and then went on to study History/matrimony at St Andrews University – as so many people do. It has a higher rate of undergraduates marrying one another than any other university in the UK. Prince William and Kate Middleton are just one other example. I had met my husband-to-be, James Leith (brother of Bake-Off judge, businesswoman and novelist, Prue) within two weeks of arriving at the university and in September 2019 we will have clocked up 49 years of very happy marriage. We have four grown-up, married children and, at the last count, seven grandchildren - an eighth is on the way.
Sam Leith is a journalist, author, broadcaster and literary editor of the Spectator magazine. A chip off the old block but infinitely cleverer – as they all are. He has three children.
Alexander Leith is a television producer/director and documentary maker. He too has three children
Jack Leith is a cabinet maker and designs and crafts beautiful wooden furniture. He has a Battersea rescue dog called Freda.
And Peta Leith, now Boateng, is a pastry chef turned cookery writer and makes amazingly good things to eat. She has one child and another cooking.
I ran away from St Andrews half way through my second year and followed James to London. While he trained to be an actor, I trained as a journalist with IPC Young Magazines, and got a job as a feature writer for 19 Magazine. I then moved to the London Evening Standard before giving it all up to be a full-time mum when Sam was born in 1974. By then we were living on a shoestring in a tiny cottage in the country, eating what we grew on our allotment and brewing our own beer in dustbin. To keep body and soul together, when the children were asleep, I wrote freelance articles in the cupboard under the stairs. My output grew and I was soon writing for a variety of publications.
In the early 1980’s I started writing biography. It began with a phone call from the publicity director of Sidgwick and Jackson, Vikki Stace, whom I had recently interviewed for the London Evening News about being bitten by a rabid dog in Kathmandu. ‘You’ve never written a book,’ she said. ‘How would you like to write a biography of Diana, Princess of Wales?’ It was about a week after her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. To be honest, I would have jumped at it, whomever the subject. It was a fantastic opportunity and all I could have dreamt. What I didn’t foresee however, was that more than thirty five years later I would still be writing about Diana or at least her sons. That first book was a big success. A few years later I wrote another very successful biography of Charles and ever since I’ve been labeled a royal expert (now a ‘veteran royal expert’). Over the years I have written about plenty of other people so I have not always felt the most qualified to comment on current happenings, but the programme-makers seem to have thought differently, and so I have gone on and on. And as a result of writing about the royal family, meeting them and watching them at work, having started out pretty ambivalent about the institution of monarchy, I have become a huge supporter.
At almost exactly the same time as Vikki’s call, I had another call out of the blue which resulted in sixteen years of presenting primetime television – seven of them, a consumer programme on Channel 4 called 4 What It’s Worth, and for nine years, the Travel Show on BBC2. They were great years in which I worked with some fantastic people. They took me all over the world and provided a wonderful contrast to the solitary task of writing. And they mysteriously stopped when I hit the magic age of fifty…
JOHN LEWIS PARTNERSHIP
In 1993 I was appointed General Editor of the John Lewis Partnership. It was another amazing opportunity that came out of the blue. The Partnership owns John Lewis & Partners department stores and Waitrose & Partners supermarkets. Everyone that works there owns the business, shares the profits and has a democratic say in how it’s run. And to make that feasible there is a lot of internal journalism – a magazine for the entire Partnership and local ones for each individual store. My job, which was part-time, was to oversee that journalism, oversee the PR department and have frank conversations with the Chairman (then Sir Stuart Hampson) about anything and everything. One of those conversations resulted in women being allowed to wear trousers! It was a complete departure from everything else I had ever done and a fascinating insight not just into the world of retail but into a fascinating business model. I had five very happy years there – and still shop with them faithfully.
I am very proud to have been involved in one way or another with all of the following charities.
I have been patron of Women’s Health Concern, which is now the patient arm of the British Menopause Society, for more than twenty years. It’s a small but excellent and much-needed charity that provides independent advice, reassurance and education for women of all ages about their gynaecological and sexual health, wellbeing and lifestyle concerns. Women can access unbiased information – by telephone, email, printed factsheets, online and through symposia, seminars, meetings and its workshop Living and loving well beyond 40…!
Beat, formerly known as the Eating Disorders Association, is another excellent charity, which not only provides help and advice for sufferers and their carers and relatives, but campaigns for better treatment. I was a trustee for six years.
I first volunteered for Central London Samaritans, which provides listening support for the suicidal, in the early 1970s, and was I was also a trustee of the branch for a period. The organisation has grown and changed enormously since those early days but it is a subject that has been close to my heart for nearly fifty years.
Maytree Respite Centre for the Suicidal is another great charity, where I volunteered for some years. It offers similar befriending and support but in a non-non-medical residential setting in North London and is the only one of its kind in the UK.