Interview: Still doing her personal best at 60: In the Fifties June Paul ran like the wind for Britain. The fame didn't last, but she's hardly been dawdling in the slow lane since

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Indy Lifestyle Online
What happens to athletes, once they've been athletes? Not a lot. A handful become commentators, like Brendan Foster or Dave Moorcroft. One in a thousand become Tory MPs, like Chris Chataway or Seb Coe. Mostly, they disappear from public view.

So that's the male athletes. What about the women? It's as if they never existed. Next week, however, June Paul, once the Golden Girl, unquote, of British athletics, will surface momentarily, if only locally, as a person of some consequence. It will be announced that she has bought the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, north London, England. Quite an event, if you happen to be a cinema or theatre buff. The Everyman, which celebrates its 60th anniversary as a cinema this week, is the oldest rep cinema in the world (ie, it's very strong on old films). Before that, it was a theatre. In 1924, it put on Noel Coward's first play, The Vortex. They still have the original playbills, plus letters from Jean Cocteau and Rene Clair.

June will be 60 next birthday. Doesn't look it. Trim, fit looking, attractive. Mother of five, granny of six, with three husbands in her slipstream, all divorced. Quite a goer, our June, on and off the track. And a tough businesswoman with a company employing 40 people, created all on her own, with no help from any hubby, or any inherited wealth. How did she get here from there?

She says she can hardly recall her famous years. Oh come on, this is false modesty. I can remember you in the Fifties, pinned on desks when I was at school.

She was in her cottage beside Hampstead Heath, baby-sitting her eldest grandchild, seven-year-old Daisy, while her daughter Dani did some magistrating. Nice arty paintings, interesting furniture, green Aga, fruit cake just made, clever use of space. No sign of any Olympic medals, though she has several. She says again she finds it so hard to remember her own feats, how she once thrilled the nation.

Recently she was interviewed by Athletics Today for a 'Yesterday's Heroes' series. She couldn't even remember her personal best.

She was born June Foulds in Shepherd's Bush in 1934. Out of wedlock, though she didn't know it at the time, brought up by her Scottish grandma, who had once been a cook, and her grandad, a lathe operator. She thought they were her parents. Weird to modern minds, but common, at the time. Her big sister, who visited from time to time, was in fact her real mother. This sister got married, had a second child, and then died when June was eight. 'I was distraught, but I felt guilty for crying so much. It looked as if I loved my sister more than my mother.'

When she was 11, her grandmother died. 'I was distraught again. The man I thought was my father came down the stairs, when the body was still laid out, took me on his knee and said don't worry, the woman I was crying for wasn't really my mother but my grandmother. I don't think I've grieved in the same way since, and I've had plenty to grieve about. The realisation of that discovery made me think that tears were pointless things. A waste of time. What you have to do in life is get on with it.'

She was at grammar school by now, on a scholarship, at the top of her class, but her interest in learning disappeared. She preferred the streets, hanging about, playing with the boys. One day, when she was 15, a local woman whose daughter had been an athlete was going round the streets, looking for girls to join a club called Spartan Ladies. 'I wasn't in, but my grandfather said yes, I would join, he'd see I'd be there. He gave me 6d for the bus fare to Richmond, and told me to go. 'Anything to get you off the streets' was what he said. He thought he was looking after me, but really, from when my grandmother died, I was looking after him.'

June was very small, very thin, very immature at 15, but she ran like the wind in her first race for Spartan Ladies. She had plimsolls, but nothing else. The woman from the club gave her the tracksuit and spikes that had belonged to her daughter. The year was 1949, the first year June ever ran a competitive race. In 1950, aged 16, she was the British women's champion, doing 10.9 for the 100 yards - so the record books say - a time which had stood for 18 years.

At the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 she got a bronze medal in the relay. In 1953, she got married to the Olympic fencer Raymond Paul, had a son, then retired from running, and from work. For three years she worked on the Eagle, a children's magazine, along with Chad Varah.

Within a year she was bored. Their flat was opposite the Arsenal football ground and the manager, Tom Whittaker, gave her a key so she could get into the ground every morning and resume training. 'It was a square track, so I had to belt down one side, stop, then come back.' She came back to athletics, stronger than ever, this time running the 200 metres, again breaking British records. In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne she won a silver in the relay and should have won a gold in the individual 200 metres, so she says. 'I was the best in the world at the time, but when the race began, I felt the energy draining out of my toes. The Ossie girls, whom no one had reckoned, ran brilliantly, and I was fifth. It was my ultimate disappointment.'

She ran, internationally, for eight years, till she pulled an Achilles tendon in the European Games of 1958. 'The girl who won came to my hospital bed with her gold medal and said this is really yours. I wonder if they'd do that today?'

She was still a national heroine, recognised in the streets, which she says she hated - and it led to TV and radio work. Then she retired, back to being a mum. She had another two children before the marriage collapsed.

She then met the pop singer Ronnie Carroll. He'd been very big in Eurovision song contests and had a number three hit with 'Roses are Red'. 'He was one of the lads, the so-called showbiz hellraisers, along with Sean Connery and Stanley Baker. I had no interest in pop music, or in getting married again, but as always with me, emotion took over from logic. I had two children before we decided to get married. This was the Sixties. Nobody was shocked. I'd got into my head I should have five children.'

Ronnie's career had peaked, but he was offered a job in Madagascar running a hotel, so they sold up, and were ready to sail with all five children, when the job fell through. Instead, they went to Grenada where they ran a beach night-club for a year - ending up broke. 'Ronnie was a good singer, but not brilliant at much else. I had to sell everything, including the packing cases our goods came in. They got the best price, the packing cases. People bought them to live in. They probably still are.' She came back penniless, the marriage over. June lived in a friend's cottage in Sussex with her children, working in a pub, then she took a stall up in London at the newly opened market at Camden Lock, trying to sell bric-a-brac. 'There was just one tea stall in those days, a hole in the wall affair, with one kettle and a teaspoon tied with string. I thought surely I could do better than that. So every Friday night I baked pies and cakes down in Sussex, took them to London every Saturday, came home and counted my takings.'

Twenty years later, she still has the main food stall in Camden Lock, plus three restaurants in the Hampstead area, trading under the name of Huffs. Along the way she has created five or six other restaurants. 'The best fun to me is starting new things from scratch, seeing them come alive, then I want to move on.' Along the same way, Eric Reynolds became her third husband. 'That lasted two minutes. Well, two years. We were too alike for it to work.'

The Everyman deal stems from the fact that she created a restaurant for them in their basement, but someone else got to run it, much to her fury. Now it is feeling the financial strain and June has come to the rescue, taking over the cinema as well. 'I want to keep it as it is, with the same manager and style, but expand its scope with lectures and live performances.'

She has had ups and downs in her business life, as in her marriages, but has survived. 'I put it down to resilience, honesty and being streetwise. When you've worked Camden Lock for 20 years, you've seen most things. I went to see the film Naked last week with a friend. She was totally shocked. To me it seemed normal life.'

She lives alone, in her little Hampstead cottage, and won't get married again. 'I didn't have much luck with my guys, did I? But I have now found contentment, the sort of contentment I would like to have found with a partner. I am sometimes lonely, but find it's like not eating. Your taste is so much finer when you get back to it. I'm not a workaholic. I'm very good at sitting and doing absolutely nothing. I have no aches and pains, no arthritis, though all I do these days is a brisk morning walk. I'm nine stone, a stone lighter than when I ran. I don't feel old. I don't feel young. I feel ageless.'

Last year, after doing a course in group psychology, she thought up a scheme to create a women's athletic team for the year 2000. 'I wanted to use my experience as a runner, and my business experience. The Communist states did well with athletic teams by dominating. I wanted to do it with love, caring and persuasion. I wrote to the athletics administrators and got a Dear John letter back. They didn't want anyone helping them who'd been out of athletics for more than five years. That really pissed me off. I'd have liked to end my working life as I'd begun. It's fortunate the Everyman has come along, to give me some potential fulfilment.'

She doesn't envy modern athletes, able to end their days rich. 'Imagine having no incentives, once you give up running. Where will the challenges be, if you are blanketed with financial security? I think money has corrupted athletics. We ran for the joy of it, and to win, of course. Chariots of Fire just about sums up how we ran.

'When I first ran for England at 16, we didn't have blocks. We all carried trowels in our bags and dug little holes in the cinders. I can remember the trowels, and the cinders, but I can't remember me. I look at my old photographs, but I don't know the person.'

(Photographs omitted)