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. 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, with Princess Anne amongst others, and then went on to study History/matrimony at St Andrews University – as so many people do. It has the highest rate of undergraduates marrying one another than any other university in the UK. Prince William and Kate Middleton are two more of them. I met my husband-to-be, James Leith (brother of cookery expert and novelist Prue) within two weeks of arriving at the university and in September 2014 we will have clocked up 44 years. We have four children and, at the last count, five grandchildren.
Sam Leith is a journalist, columnist, author, broadcaster – chip off the old block but infinitely cleverer – as they all are.
Alex Leith is a television producer/director and documentary maker.
Jack Leith is a cabinet maker and designs and makes beautiful wooden furniture.
And Peta Leith, now Boateng, is a pastry chef and makes amazingly good things to eat.
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, brewing our own beer in the kitchen, and 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 all sorts of newspapers and magazines.
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, who 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 if she’d asked me to write about Mickey Mouse. It was a fantastic opportunity and all my dreams come true. What I could never have foreseen though was that more than thirty years later I would still be writing about Diana or at least her sons. That 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 having been pretty ambivalent about the institution of monarchy in 1981, through writing about it, 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 nine, 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!