Biographer Penny Juror: Camilla is s*xy and funny, she’s a breath of fresh air
Her unflinching biographies have earned her both death threats and fans — now Penny Junor has turned her pen to the Duchess of Cornwall. Here she talks about.
Penny Junor has a reputation for being as cold and sharp as ice, and has been described as “evil”, “vile”, “poisonous” (the tamer insults), and as Britain’s foremost hatchetess. Her detractors would depict her as a nib-wielding villain, drawing blood with every pen stroke. She’s glamorous: tall with a white Anna Wintour bob and glacial eyes, nails painted with absolute precision, clothes freshly drawn from a dry-cleaning sheath. I’m thinking, ‘Will she be chilly?’ as I shake her hand. So later, when we talk about her family (her father was the bellicose Fleet Street editor John Junor), she floors me by starting to cry.
Junor is, of course, the biographer accused of butchering the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. She wrote as she saw: Diana was not a sacrificial virgin offered at the altar of the royal family but a complicated Sloane with a messy upbringing who fell into a terrible match. There followed books with prime time ITV titles — Charles: Victim or Villain? and The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor — stonking bestsellers that forensically examined her subjects.
Today she is continuing to upend the view that pretty princesses are heroines with a flattering portrait of Camilla, the Duchess: The Untold Story. Camilla “rescued” Prince Charles from a “rotten marriage”, she argues, and is a well-adjusted, down-to-earth breath of fresh air in the household. She drinks, she smoked, she’s funny, and “she’s s*xy”, says Junor.
Cue a landslide of hate mail. It comes via her website, by email, on Twitter. It congregates in the “below the line” comment sections on newspaper websites — the modern-day equivalent of a mob at the medieval stocks. Yesterday she received one that opened: “You ugly f**king bitch, I hope you and your f**king horse face go to hell.” Fortunately, at 67, she’s adept at flicking such criticism from her shoulder pads.
Camilla is, says Junor, “a role model at 70, in as much as she has made women feel that to be themselves at her age is OK. They don’t need to go shoving Botox into their bodies and dressing in ridiculously young clothes. She went from housewife to duchess and took on one of the most full-time visible jobs in the country. She’ll be working her socks off until she drops down dead.”
Actually, Junor is uninterested in what Camilla thinks of the book (“no skin off my nose”) but says the Duchess of Cornwall was a “delight” to follow. “I follow a lot of royals and some won’t even look you in the eye.”
Like who? “Princess Anne.” Throughout a five-day trip to Uzbekistan, she continues, Princess Anne didn’t utter a word to her, even though they went to school together (Benenden).
Junor’s first book on Diana was published in 1998. But what’s odd about her career is that she had zero “passion” or even “interest” in the royals. She was already a successful journalist, columnist and television presenter, and only took on Diana because she was rung up and asked. After it was published, “I thought ‘never again’.”
Her house in Wiltshire was besieged. Paparazzi lenses poked from hedges. “I was on every front page that day and for days after, every news channel. People spat at me in the street, I got death threats.”
So instead she wrote about Richard Burton, Margaret Thatcher and John Major — the last she “adored” but says she got too close to as a subject (“although not as close as Edwina Currie”). She says in hindsight that biographies are better when you’re one removed, talking to family, friends and colleagues. “Otherwise you’re accused of writing a hagiography.”
Although she ultimately sees them as “a good thing”, she long tried to shake off the royal beat. “And then someone would ring me up — from the Today programme or a publisher — and drag me back.”
I wonder if it’s peculiar to the British psyche to deify non-religious heroes, seeing them wholly good as opposed to just human? Back then it was Diana; today it might easily be Jeremy Corbyn (whose fan base monsters even the mildest critic of the Marxist messiah). “Diana was seen as superhuman, super- good, super-saintly with virginal innocence. In truth, she had a series of lovers. She was a fun, funny girl traumatised by childhood, married to the wrong man. Corbyn is considered a saint too by those who ignore all the things he says. People won’t always see the full picture.”
Junor is known for her fastidious research. She has written 16 books and her work is meticulously sourced, she tapes all conversations, transcribes them herself, and even shows the sources drafts of their words in context. She works in four- or five-month chunks, “going into purdah” in order to write eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week (“I used to do 12 hours, seven days but I’m finding it harder”).
Her husband James Leith, brother of cookery’s Prue, is a Lamda-trained actor and a restaurateur. He brings her lunch and supper and basically sounds like a hero. “My husband is brilliant,” she laughs. “He is such a nice man.” They met at St Andrews University when she was 20, he proposed within three months and they married the next year.
At one time, Penny worked and James was a stay-at-home dad, helping with their four children (born in two “batches” 10 years apart). “But this was way before anybody else,” she stresses. “He’d go to the school gate and be eyed with real suspicion by the other mothers. When I finished my book, he wrote one about being a house husband.”
It did mean they lived in “abject poverty” for a time. But they made it fun. Junor started with an office in the cupboard under the stairs “alongside the clutter and ironing board”. She had a little desk and a typewriter, and while she immersed, James read, cooked, laundered, wiped noses, wiped bottoms and “was present”.
He even allowed her to bring up their three younger children as vegetarians after she read, while expecting, a story about a farmer who takes a cow to market. (The eldest child, Sam, got away with eating meat because he was already two, she says).
What moves her to write biographies? “Because I am fascinated by people and what makes them behave the way they do. I think it is one of the most fascinating things in the world.”
I’m interested to know how much her own childhood — her father was prone to steaming rages — informed the way she sees people? “A lot,” she says. “I had a very difficult father. I lived in a war zone. My parents were very unhappy and I lived through my mother’s pain. Throughout my childhood I was constantly trying to protect her from my father.”
Her mother Pamela, a painter, was “soft, kind, a gentle sort of woman”. Her father was “controlling and bullying and unkind. Verbally he was violent. Odd things occasionally got thrown but it was violence of the words. And as a child I used to run upstairs and sob into my pillow, or run out to my pony and sob with my arms around her neck.”
By today’s definition it would be classed as domestic abuse. “It would, yes. My mother had no escape. She had no money because they married young and he hadn’t wanted her to work. She was utterly dependent on him.”
Of course, she and her brother Roderick — five years older — tried desperately to please him. She tells me an elaborate story of her father’s attempts to manipulate her against her mother. “He would take me out in the car and give me two bags of apples, red or green. My mother preferred green, my father red. So he’d say: ‘Which one?’ I took a red apple. And he’d say: ‘Well she prefers red apples, like me.’”
Roderick was “never allowed a childhood. He was my father’s ‘friend’. He took him to the pub with him.”
When politicians came to dinner — Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot — both children were expected to be there, “even from quite a small age”.
Finally Pamela discovered letters that proved her father was having an affair and started divorce proceedings. Junor, then 13, was at boarding school doing her confirmation and had “just got God”.
“And so I freaked. I said, ‘No, no, don’t do it. I was such a stupid girl. My father was delighted. He didn’t want a divorce. She would’ve been early 40s and beautiful and could easily have found someone else.”
But he eroded her confidence, telling her she had no talent as an artist. “They only separated when I had two children and moved to a house that was big enough to accommodate my mother.
“I hated him because of what he did to my mother. So I had this terribly torn relationship with him.”
How did it affect her brother? “He became an alcoholic,” she says. Eventually he went into rehab paid for by their father, although he wanted nothing else to do with it. “He was not prepared to talk about it.”
So it fell to Penny to co-operate with the counsellors. One exercise involved family members writing a list of “damages” done to them by Roderick when he was drinking, to be read out in family therapy as a way of helping him face it.
“So I told some pretty nasty stories about things that he had done,” she says, “and my brother got up and walked out. He left. He was so embarrassed and ashamed. He never really spoke to me again. And I thought I was helping to make him better. And then he just drank himself to death.” She stops, overwhelmed.
Both her father and brother died in 1997, the same year as Diana, Roderick on Christmas Eve. “It was not easy,” she says, “but he was my only brother. I really miss the boy I grew up with. It’s very sad.”
Source: standard co uk
Tags: Princess Diana, Camilla, Camilla Parker Bowles, Camilla Diana, Camilla Vs Diana, Princess Diana and Camilla, News, Update, Royals, People Princess, Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall