had for 27 years been the stern but mellifluous voice of Woman’s Hour when Christina Rees was entertained (by her and her three chihuahuas) in her garden in north London on 2 July 2014.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You were an only child. What are your impressions of your childhood, looking back on it now?
I suppose it was pretty conventional. A working-class family. My maternal grandparents lived just around the corner and there was a hole in my granny’s hedge, so I went to and fro to whoever had baked the scones that day. But I was always a bit of an irritation to my mother, because I was never attracted by the domestic. I was a tomboy and I wore dungarees and my best friend was John from next door, and when we both fell in the duck pond I rescued him rather than the other way around.
It was very strange for my mother. She had had a terribly difficult time giving birth to me – on her back, legs in stirrups, shaved, enema’d, in labour for 24 hours and very nearly died – as did I – and so unsurprisingly she just didn’t want to have any more children. And so she always had this sort of thing with me, that I was her ‘little girl’ and I should look pretty and I should have my hair nice and tidy – she’d spend hours doing my pigtails every morning – but at the same time I was the only creature into which she could invest her ambition. So, from my perspective in the long term, that was very lucky, because there was no brother to overshadow me or get favoured treatment; but it led to a lot of difficulties in my relationship with her.
I was much more naturally inclined towards male interests, like having a gun and playing cowboys-and-Indians – I wasn’t really interested in dolls or sewing or cooking or any of that stuff. The only occasion I ever remember of me doing any cleaning, I was scrubbing the grate for some reason and she heard me say, in my then Yorkshire accent, ‘This bloody grate, it just will not come clean!’ And she was so furious that I’d sworn that I got a jolly good spanking.
Did you sense that you were a disappointment to her?
She always wanted me to be the opposite of whatever I seemed to be being at the time. Until the moment I was born – and she told me this when I was little – I was called David Robert because that was what she wanted, a little boy called David Robert. And so I would have expected her to be pleased when I was [behaving like a] David Robert but no – ‘You’re too rough! I’m always having to take you to hospital because you’ve hurt yourself, because you’ve been running around with the boys like a mad thing.’ But then if I said I would quite like a pretty dress, ‘Oh, you mustn’t waste your time thinking about fashion’! There was always this sort of muddle in her mind as to what she really wanted me to be – and that lasted throughout my life.
That could have made you muddled as well, or it could have made you more aware of who the real you was.
I’m not sure I’ve sorted it out even now.
It’s still work in progress.
Definitely work in progress. You know, I love make-up and my favourite person is my hairdresser, but at the same time I’m very male in my attitude to work and family.
Work is incredibly important to me. It’s very important that I have something that I love to do that I think is important but at the same time means I can afford to pay my own bills, to buy my own car
Work is incredibly important to me. It’s very important that I have something that I love to do that I think is important but at the same time means I can afford to pay my own bills, I can afford to buy my own car – you know, if I need to walk away from a relationship, I can afford to do it.
The only thing I can’t walk away from is my kids: they’re there forever. I remember very clearly the day my first child was born, sitting in bed in the hospital with him in that sort of plastic box they put them in and I suddenly thought: ‘My goodness, I’m responsible for you forever. I will always be your mother, and my heart will always break for you.’
And I still feel that. I am permanently anxious [for my two sons]. You know, I don’t find being a mother a burden but I still find that sense of responsibility quite frightening. I still feel that I have to earn the money so that if either of them gets into trouble I can bail them out. It’s just there, all the time.
My father was the same – well, both my parents were. And I suppose that gave me a sense of security.
I understand that your relationship with your father was very different from your relationship with your mother. I gather that you adored him.
It may be because I hardly ever saw him. He was always at work – ‘pennies for Jennifer’, he used to call it. But that kind of work ethic was firmly implanted in me.
What did he do?
He left school when he was 14 and we later discovered it was probably because he was deaf and he couldn’t really hear what the teacher was saying, so he did very badly at school. He got a job in a TV repair shop, but then my mother – my blessedly upwardly-mobile mother! – said: ‘Look, this is not good enough, you know. We can’t live in a council house for the rest of our lives.’ (That was when she sent me for elocution lessons because I was talking like the kids on the estate.)
So, my father went to night school and qualified as an electrical engineer and got a job with a company in Stockport which did foreign contracts, and when I was 10 he was sent to Madras. And then, I’ll always remember, he sent a telegram to my mother – she wouldn’t have a phone in case she got a phone call to say that my father had been killed in a car crash. So, the telegram came and it said: ‘Asked to go to Calcutta for two years. Won’t do it unless you’ll come.’ So, she started getting ready, organising her jabs, getting the cotton to make dresses, and I remember saying: ‘What about me?’
She said: ‘You can come too, but you’ll have to go to school there.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to go to school there. I want to go to Barnsley Girls’ High School. Find a way for me to stay.’ My mother had gone to the high school and it was a real intellectual-status thing to go there. And, in the end, my grandmother said: ‘OK, I’ll have her.’
So, at 10 you’d made up your mind?
At 10 I’d absolutely made up my mind that was what I wanted to do. You see, my mother had actually made going to the high school very important. My education was incredibly important to her, for which I am immensely grateful. I mean, I could read fluently when I was three.
I’d really wanted to go to school when I was three, so they sent me to a Catholic convent school, which was the only school that would have me…
I did become very passionately religious around the time I went to high school. I decided that I would be confirmed and I went to all the classes and I took it all terribly seriously
Yeah, there are stories there – clearly…
Intellectually, they were brilliant – I mean, they taught us really, really well; but I was so aware that I didn’t really belong, that I was a ‘heathen’. I wasn’t allowed to go into the chapel, I wasn’t allowed to be the flower monitor – I so wanted to be the flower monitor!
Why were you a heathen?
Because I was Church of England. Sort of. I mean, that is what my parents would have put down on the application form.
Does your experience at convent school have anything to do with the fact that you’re not a –
Well, yes. Yes, it does. There have been two incidents in my life that have seriously, seriously turned me off religion, and the first one was at the convent school. There was a girl in my class who was an absolute scamp and the sisters heard her swearing, so they lined us up and said: ‘You must tell us which girl it was who was using such foul language.’ Of course, there was no way anybody was going to say. So, Sister Mary Joseph took off her belt and with the buckle end of it she hit each of us really, really hard on the hands. We were, what, five?
So, the next day my mother dragged me screaming to school and there was Sister Mary Joseph. My mother said: ‘Jennifer’s very reluctant to come to school today because she tells me you used a belt buckle on the children.’ And this sister looked my mother straight in the eye and said: ‘Oh, Mrs Bailey, no, I’m afraid Jennifer’s exaggerating. Yes, I threatened the children with my belt, but I would never actually strike them!’ And of course my mother believed her. She just couldn’t imagine that a nun could tell a lie.
And what was the other experience?
I did become very passionately religious, oh, around the time I went to the high school, so I was 11, 12, I suppose. I joined the Guides, which I loved – loved all the camping and climbing trees. And we were attached to a very traditional, bells-and-smells Church of England church and I just adored all of that. I decided that I would be confirmed and I went to all the classes and I took it all terribly seriously and that was all great.
A couple of months later, I went to take Communion and in front of me was a man with the worst cough I have ever heard, and I thought: ‘I’m not going to drink out of the same cup as him – I’ll get whatever he’s got!’ So, I dipped out and afterwards I went to see the vicar – terribly sweet vicar, he was really lovely – to explain why I hadn’t taken Communion that day. And he said: ‘Oh Jennifer, what a silly idea!’ He said: ‘You could not possibly pick up a germ from a consecrated cup!’
And I left. I never went back. That was it. That was it. I just thought I’d never heard anything quite so nonsensical in my life.
So, you stopped going to that church…
I stopped going to church period. I carried on going to the Guides – I went until I was 18! – and I still did the promise, but I put my hand behind my back and crossed my fingers at the God bit, because I didn’t believe it.
Had you believed the God bit before?
I think so, but I’m not entirely sure that I did. I think I liked the drama and the atmosphere. The church was beautiful – I mean, really exquisite. But it had a huge crucifix over the nave and I can remember looking at it and thinking: ‘There’s something really disturbing about that image. I hate it.’ It really offended me.
So, what is God to you now?
If I were to define myself it would be more as a humanist than anything else, because that’s – that’s all I see existing, really. We are not here for very long and it’s our responsibility to make things right
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God at all.
I think my father was an atheist, too. He had a very interesting background. After he was in India, he went to Poland and he and my mother were living in a little village near Auschwitz. By now I’m 15 and my father said: ‘I’d like to take you both to Auschwitz.’ My mother said: ‘Under no circumstances do you take Jennifer there. She’s too young, she shouldn’t know about these things.’ And my father said: ‘You’re wrong.’
So, he and I went and as we came out, under [the sign that says] Arbeit macht frei, he said: ‘Well, there but for the grace of God…’ I said: ‘What?’ He said: ‘Well, you’re not really Jewish but I don’t think Hitler would have minded that.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said: ‘Well, my mother’s Jewish, so I am.’ And I then realised that the reason my mother had so not wanted me to go there was, she didn’t want me to find out that I was Jewish.
What did that do to your sense of identity?
It made me very keen to find out more about what my background could have been, and I spent nearly a year in Israel when I was at university. I worked in a gallery for the sculptor Frank Meisler. I was so fascinated by Israel and the Ashkenazi intellectuals who’d come there from Europe and really got the place going…
Have you gone back there since?
I went there a lot throughout my early twenties and early thirties and then, you know, you have kids and… And I now have no desire to go back there. I have a lot of difficulties with what’s happening there now. When I was there, it was a place of real hope where the people still believed in kibbutz, they believed in collectivism, they believed in trying to find some peaceful solution – and none of that has happened. The news today is just appalling. And the settlements! You know, for God’s sake! Somebody sit them down and say: This is not on!
Do you see a solution?
I’m not hopeful. Not hopeful. Both sides are belligerent and unforgiving. And I hate that, I hate that about it.
Do you sense that this world is an essentially good place? Or an essentially bad place?
I think it’s just real. Human beings are deeply complex and some of them are really, really nice and some of them are really, really not. And that’s just life.
If you have no religious faith, what are your values now? Why is it so important to you to be forgiving?
I suppose if I were to define myself it would be more as a humanist than anything else, because that’s – that’s all I see existing, really. We are not here for very long and it’s our responsibility to make things right. I don’t have a spiritual life at all. I have a very practical, deeply moral side.
Based on what?
Based on what I’ve worked out for myself, I think. That bitterness doesn’t work – it damages you more than it damages the other person. I had to learn that through my mother.
Were you eventually reconciled with her?
We were, right at the last minute. She had Parkinson’s disease and was terribly ill for a long time and I spent every weekend going over to Barnsley and, with two teenage boys, it was really tough. She had been a really smart, sharp, self-determined woman and she couldn’t do anything for herself and she was absolutely desperate. She would beg me, beg me, to help her die.
She could communicate that?
Oh yes. My mother could always communicate!
Were you tempted to do as she asked?
Yeah, I was. If it had been legal to acquire drugs for her and help her to take them, I would have done it, without question.
How were you reconciled?
A lovely new florist opened on my route into Barnsley – a couple of wonderful gay guys – and I went in and said, ‘I’d like to buy a bouquet to take to the hospital,’ and they said: ‘Ooh, are you Jenni Murray?’ (They’d recognised my voice, which doesn’t happen very often.) So, we hit it off and they produced the most gorgeous bouquet imaginable, which I took to my mother’s room; and just as I was leaving she said: ‘Jen, those flowers are absolutely beautiful – and so are you.’ It was the first unconditional compliment she had paid me in 56 years.
She was amazingly proud of me, but she couldn’t communicate it. When I was on Newsnight, she’d phone up at twenty past eleven and I’d pick up the phone and ‘Oh, hello, Mum. What did you think of my interview with Norman Tebbit?’ And she’d say, ‘I’m sorry, love, I didn’t really notice what you were talking about, but… you know that red top you had on? It’s a bit too rosy for your complexion. And your fringe has got a bit long – you know your eyes are your best feature…’
Honestly, those were the conversations we always had. She never walked into my house without telling me I was either too fat or too thin – and then she would run her finger along the top of the mantelpiece and go ‘Oh!’ Because I didn’t have her values, you see.
Why were we talking about this?
We were talking about values, and being forgiving.
It wasn’t really about forgiving her, it was about understanding where she’d come from, because her generation of women were so tightly laced. She never went out with my father without a chaperone until they were engaged. She had to leave the Civil Service when she got married because they didn’t employ married women, and then she’d devoted herself to the home and to me. And then suddenly here was this daughter with Dusty Springfield eye make-up and Cathy McGowan hair…
You were with your father when he died, but not with your mother, is that right?
Yes. She died on the day [in 2006] I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was a good day…
Shall we talk about your illness?
I just find that boring, really. Really boring.
OK. Let’s talk about when you became a feminist.
The day I was aware that I was a feminist, even though I didn’t know the word, was the day my lovely, lovely father came home one evening when I was 15 or 16. My mother had had a really hard day at work and done the shopping, and I’d had a really hard day at school, done my homework, tidied up and helped her cook the supper; and my dad came in and he sat down and he put his feet up and he opened the paper and then he was called to the table and he ate his supper, got up and went and sat down and picked up the paper again.
And I said: ‘Dad, why don’t you clear the table and do the washing up?’ And he said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, love. I’m quite willing to help if you want me to.’ And I said: ‘It’s not about helping, it’s about doing your share.’ And that was the beginning of that awareness that things were just not right. The gender balance was off-kilter.
Do you think true equality is possible?
I think the younger generation is starting to get there, I really do. Yes, there is all kinds of ‘everyday sexism’, all of that stuff – and young feminists really getting angry again, which I love…
For 20-odd years I have been the voice that’s discussed the really important issues. I like to think that I have influenced a lot of people’s thinking
At long last!
At last, absolutely. But when you talk to people who are just starting to have families, the young men are saying: ‘How can we balance this? Can we both go part-time? Can we both work flexibly?’ And it’s the only way.
Why is it taking so long?
Because governments won’t pay for child care. I mean, I’ve been saying it for ages but this idea that housework and child care are not women’s work is only just really beginning to be articulated, and taken seriously. Look how long it took to get paternity leave – in countries like Denmark and Sweden they’ve had it for years.
If men are not the enemy – and I think you would say they’re not –
Well, I have two sons. How could I possibly say that?
Exactly. So, what is?
We have had a ‘genderquake’ in the last hundred years, but it’s evolutionary and evolution tends to move quite slowly. I suppose when I was 25 I expected that it would all happen just like that, but as I’ve got older I’ve realised that such a massive change is going to take time. Men have had it so bloody easy for so bloody long! Why were they ever going to say, ‘Oh, all right, you don’t want to be my maid. You go off and do what you like and I’ll do everything I can to facilitate it’? It will take a long time to get there, with women constantly reminding themselves: ‘This has to change.’
In the Eighties and Nineties, young women slipped into this false sense of post-feminist idleness. And I like to think that I’ve had some impact in reminding people: ‘Whoa, it’s not all sorted out!’ Because obviously that is my real passion, that’s what I really care about – that women are able to fulfil their potential just as men are.
Is it still appropriate to have a programme called ‘Woman’s Hour’? It’s hard to imagine a programme being called ‘Men’s Hour’ –
Well, there is one! They have Men’s Hour on [BBC Radio] 5 Live and they’re really trying to get young men discussing what they think about women and sexism and all of that. Whilst, of course, talking about football as well.
I mean, my jokey answer to that question is that the programme has to be called ‘Woman’s Hour’ because it’s the only way to keep the men intrigued. Actually, we very nearly lost it in the early Nineties, when [the then controller of Radio 4] said: ‘“Woman’s Hour” is such an old-fashioned name! Why don’t we call it “The Jenni Murray Show” or whatever?’ And the editor and I really battled to keep it, because if you have a brand name that’s known and respected and loved – like Jammie Dodgers, Marks & Spencer – you do not change it.
[The title] clearly defines Woman’s Hour as a programme that is for and about women; and that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The women’s magazines try to do it but they’re hampered by advertising – you know, they have to carry all the cosmetics and the fashion and all that, which we don’t have to do.
And which sends out conflicting messages about women.
You referred to the ‘impact’ you’ve had on people. What influence do you think you’ve had on our society?
That’s what I mean by ‘gender equality’ in a way: that we all have the opportunity to be who we are rather than what we’ve been told we ought to be
I almost feel like saying: That’s not really for me to say. But, you know, for 20-odd years almost daily I have been the voice that’s discussed the really important issues, and there’s a hunger for the kind of things we do. It’s so rare nowadays to get those kind of really serious analytical discussions about sexual politics – and we do it. And I like to think that I have influenced a lot of people’s thinking.
There are older listeners, there are young women who are listening while they’re at home with children, there are students, there are men of all kinds who are driving around – taxi drivers, lorry drivers. So, we get responses across the board. And we have, I think, the second-largest podcast audience in the BBC, after The Archers.
If you had had daughters instead of sons, what would you be telling them?
I think I would have been a terrible mother of daughters.
I would have expected a daughter to be a High Court judge by the time she was six, you know? I mean, terribly ambitious for her.
Actually, I would do exactly what my mother did and emphasise her education. A well-stocked mind is the most important thing you can have. And I would never tell her that she was fat or thin, or that she should wear this, wear that. I would be really forgiving about however she looked. I did that with my boys. I remember one of them coming home one day with bleached-blond hair and an earring, and my instinct was to have a fit and I just said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ and left it at that. And I hope I would have been able to do that with a daughter. But I might not have.
Is there anything you still aspire to achieve?
Just to keep living! And – you know, you always look to the generation above you for role models, and I look at them even more carefully now. Shirley Williams is my hero of all heroes, and when the Wow Festival1The Women of the World Festival, at the Southbank Centre in London asked me a couple of years ago if I’d do a gig for them, I said: ‘Yes, if you can get me Shirley and Mary Warnock.’ And they did. And I sat in front of this audience of women of all ages talking to those two and they were just brilliant. They were in their eighties – Mary in her late eighties – and as sharp as tacks, and engaged and doing things.2See http://bit.ly/1pajOhN. Baroness Warnock was interviewed in Third Way in February 1997, and Baroness Williams in April 2004.
Over the years, you have interviewed everybody under the sun. Do you have a perception that women do things differently to men, in politics, in business, whatever? And would things be better if women ruled the world?
I get very irritated by this idea that there are two specific genders. You know, there is actually a spectrum. I know lots of very feminine men, who like nothing more than to sit around a table with a bunch of women having a really good conversation, and I know a lot of very masculine women.
We have to be really careful not to assume that we are born into a set of behaviours or enjoyments. That’s what I mean by ‘gender equality’ in a way: that we all have the opportunity to be who we are rather than what we’ve been told we ought to be. Does that make sense?
It makes a lot of sense.
This edit was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Third Way.
Jenni Murray was born in 1950 and was educated at Barnsley Girls’ High School. She studied French and drama at Hull University.
She began her career in broadcasting in 1973, as a station assistant and then a producer/presenter at BBC Radio Bristol. From 1978, she reported and presented for BBC TV’s South Today.
In 1983, she became a presenter on Newsnight on BBC2, and two years later she moved to Radio 4 to present on Today, launching the Saturday edition with John Humphrys in 1987.
She has been the regular presenter of Woman’s Hour since 1987. She also presents Radio 4’s The Message.
She was enrolled in the Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2008 was given a lifetime achievement award by the Media Society. She won a Sony Award in 2010 for her interview of Sharon Shoesmith and a Sony Gold Award in 2011 for her outstanding career.
She is the author of The Woman’s Hour: 50 years of women in Britain (1996), Is It Me, or Is It Hot in Here? A modern woman’s guide to the menopause (2001), That’s My Boy! A modern parent’s guide to raising a happy and confident son (2003), Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter (2008) and My Boy Butch: The heart-warming true story of a little dog who made life worth living again (2011).
She had a weekly column in the Daily Express from 1998 to 2000, and now writes regularly for the Daily Mail, besides other publications.
She is president of the Fawcett Society and vice-president of Parkinson’s UK, and a patron of both the Family Planning Association and the Breast Cancer Campaign. From 2010 to ’14, she was a non-executive director of The Christie Hospital.
She was appointed an OBE in 1999, and a DBE in 2011, ‘for services to radio broadcasting’, and has received honorary doctorates from Bradford, Bristol, Hull, St Andrews, Salford and Sheffield Hallam Universities and the Open University.
She was married from 1971 to ’76; and in 2004 she married again, to her partner since 1980, with whom she has two adult sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2014