The Way I Was: Me, just as I liked to be: Jenni Murray tells Nicholas Roe about her childhood days as a Barnsley tomboy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS IS the last time I remember looking at myself and feeling totally happy with my image. I'm about seven, and I look like the ultimate sweet little girl, like butter wouldn't melt. But I know exactly what was going on in my head. That little girl is looking at the camera and thinking: 'I hate this. Why am I sitting here? When can I get into my cowboy outfit and go and play in the street?'

It was a school photograph taken in Barnsley, which was a very close-knit community. My father had gone to the boys' section of the same school before me and I loved going there. Then I went to Barnsley Girls' High School, which was the school that my mother had gone to, and I adored that feeling as well.

No, I had no brothers or sisters. I'm an only child. I'm never quite sure if that is a good thing. In fact, it was about the time of this photograph that I told the biggest lie of my life - about having a brother - and got into the most horrendous trouble.

My mother used to go to beetle drives at the school every Tuesday night, and after one of these I went in the next day and announced to the dinner ladies that my mother was in hospital. They said, 'Oh, good lord, why?' and I said, 'She's had a baby.'

They said, 'Really? She seemed absolutely fine last night.'

And I said, 'Oh yes, she was called in very late, and now I've got a little brother called David Robert.' The whole business.

My God, it was the most awful, awful trauma. The headteacher called my mother in and she was furious with me. It was a complete fantasy, but I longed to have a little brother, I absolutely longed for one, and I never got one.

I had a best friend called John Lewis whom I used to play cowboys with. He was our next-door neighbour, and I remember there was a huge duck pond where we used to play, and trees we used to climb on, it was


John was trying to pick one of the flowers on the pond one day and fell into quite deep mud. I waded in but couldn't get him and I remember being terribly frightened and realising that this was extremely serious, that the pond where we'd been playing all this time was actually quite deep and the mud was sucking us down.

I managed to get out in the end and get a big stick which he grabbed hold of and I pulled him out.

Then years later I used to ride just outside Barnsley and someone dared me to run across one of the big pit ponds that looked as if it had completely dried out and I got stuck in the middle and started to sink, and all these memories of John and the mud came back. The people with me joined bridles together and pulled me out. But I can still remember the feeling . . .

Shortly after I had this picture taken, I went off on my own and had my hair cut very short, and my father was deeply upset. I was walking down the road when he was driving home from work. He didn't recognise me at all, he thought I was a boy. I'd get on buses and people would call me 'son'.

It was an incredibly radical change and everybody hated it, and so that was really the start of people saying, 'Your hair looks awful', and then, 'You're too thin', or, 'You're too fat'.

Somehow that was the point at which I started to grow up and people began to comment on my appearance as something other than totally acceptable.

I don't know any woman who is happy with the way she looks. But I can look at that photo and think, at that stage, I was happy with the way I was. Image is terribly important, and it's something about life that I hate.

Jenni Murray presents 'Woman's Hour' on BBC Radio 4.

(Photograph omitted)