The acceptable face of feminism. The most beautiful voice on radio, ever. The most dangerous woman in England: these are some descriptions of Jenni Murray. In over 20 years as the host of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, she has represented many things to many people. She is the consummate professional, as at home discussing make-up as male infertility. She's the Rottweiler interviewer in poodle's clothing. She once asked Edwina Currie when she last had a smear test. Above all, she is the nation's matriarch. So it will shock some Woman's Hour fans to have to confront Jenni Murray the daughter.
In this memoir of her annus horribilis in 2006, however, this is the version of Murray that emerges. From the rebellious teenager protesting "It's not fair" to the weary chemotherapy patient struggling to look after her father, this is a tribute in the Larkin mould: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad". It begins with the death of her mother, Win, on the day that Murray's breast cancer is diagnosed. It ends at her dying father's bedside, as she lifts his still-strong hand onto the back of her bald head. "I wonder if he can sense how much this little girl loves him."
Murray thanks her sons for accepting the dictum, "life is copy". But she has acknowledged that she could not have written this book when her parents were alive. It is to Murray's credit that her mother emerges as a complex character, more sinned against than sinning. Win did not enjoy the social and educational advantages that were available to her daughter, Murray insists. Psychological studies can explain mothers' jealousy. But as the only child of a pre-feminist couple, who only had eyes for each other and had longed for a son, Murray has a lot to forgive. That she can understand her mother's crass comments and absolve her constant criticism is the mark of a thoroughly decent feminist, and a sign of real love.
The chatty style employed here will not be to everyone's taste. There is an element of "children say the funniest things" and too many exclamation marks mixed in awkwardly with campaigning talk on everything from women's suffrage, through assisted suicide and sex education, to "why can't the trains run on time?" A conversational style that is perfect for radio doesn't always work on paper. But when it comes to moments of emotional saturation – birth, death and chemotherapy in particular – her reserved Radio 4 voice is just what's needed. It is as though this skilled journalist is interviewing herself, reining back the instinct to comment and teasing out the story.
This history of women's lives, in which feminism is a ultimately a tool for forgiving rather than accusing, is one well worth the telling. Whether Win would approve is another matter, but other women will thank Murray for telling both their stories.Reuse content