Baggage: my childhood by Janet Street-Porter

A blast for the past
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The Independent Culture

Some alter egos sit uneasily alongside their host persona. It's difficult enough to come to terms with Delia Smith's other life as the majority shareholder in Norwich City FC. How can someone who treats a mere egg with reverential respect suddenly become so recklessly partisan about 11 men in yellow shirts? But far stranger is the news that Janet Street-Porter manages to combine all the diverse elements of her media life with the vice-presidency of the Ramblers Association.

No doubt she's interested in public rights of way and genuinely loves the open countryside, but the notion that she ever moved through it at a speed that could be described as "rambling" is clearly nonsense. Janet doesn't ramble. She strides along at a rate of knots with her head high in the air. She talks as she walks and is notoriously intolerant of anyone who falls by the wayside.

This is the Janet we have come to recognise over the years and it is certainly the Janet we get in this autobiography of her childhood, adolescence and first marriage. There is no hanging around, no pauses for reflection, no sense of guilt or shame, no sympathy for those unable to maintain the killing pace.

It's almost as though the author has not quite grasped the point of an autobiography; almost as though, in an idle moment, she accepted a commission and then had to ring up and find out what was required. "Tell the readers about your childhood years in working-class Fulham and your relations with your Welsh mother and your father and your sister. Tell them about how you broke away from the restrictions of home and family and became involved in swinging London."

If that was the case, she certainly took the advice. On some pages the facts of life at home are set down with all the elaboration of an auction bill of sale. "Every Sunday, when my sister and I came home from Sunday School, we would have high tea at 5pm - a tin of ham or tongue, salad cream, spring onions, beetroot, and slices of white bread. A home-made sponge cake and a large pot of tea, and then my mother would inspect all the tea leaves at the bottom of our cups and try to tell our fortunes for the weeks ahead. It was an entertaining diversion, followed by a wash in the tin bath in the kitchen in front of the fire, while listening to Journey into Space on the radio."

Not much more space, and certainly no more self-consciousness, is expended upon more momentous happenings in her early life: the attempt to murder her own sister ("without any warning I rushed up behind her and whacked her in the small of her back with all my might"), or her two abortions ("I slid into a deep sleep, and awoke... to discover a large wodge of sanitary towel wedged between my legs").

What else could we have expected from Janet Street-Porter: ambiguity, uncertainty? Of course not. And that's what gives this little book its peculiar power and appeal. It successfully resists nearly every cliché of the self-justifying showbiz biography. It strides ahead with a terrible self-certainty, leaving a trail of biographical victims in its wake. It is crassly edited and frighteningly honest. It will confirm her enemies' prejudices and make no new friends. How very refreshing!

Laurie Taylor presents 'Thinking Allowed' on Radio 4