Allison Pearson: 'Just like Lynda herself, I feel I'm bloody lucky'

A year after the death of the legendary Lynda Lee-Potter, the 'Daily Mail' has appointed Allison Pearson as her successor. But will her opinions - or jokes - chime with Middle England? Interview by Simon O'Hagan
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"I'd only done about three pieces," Pearson recalled last week. "He was very seductive. He offered me an enormous amount of money, and in those days I didn't have two brass farthings to rub together. But I turned him down. I was wary of being a tame liberal monkey in a cage. I was worried I'd go there, be absorbed into the Mail and not be able to stay true to what I was."

A lot happened to Pearson over the next 13 years. The IoS TV column took off. She became a star writer at the Telegraph and at the Evening Standard. She won Critic of the Year and Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards. She established herself on TV as a critic on BBC2's Late Review. She wrote a bestseller, I Don't Know How She Does It. She married, and had children. And when, earlier this year, Sir David's successor Paul Dacre approached her to take over the late Lynda Lee-Potter's slot, she thought about it again and this time said yes.

"I was quite cautious to begin with," she said of her Mayfair lunch meetings with Dacre. "But I suppose I was ready to be convinced. I felt that not only had I changed but that I was a much stronger person whose voice couldn't be knocked off course. And it's a fantastic challenge. The sheer size of the audience [5.7 million readers] means it's like prime time."

Last week, the Mail trumpeted the signing. "Allison is in a class of her own," Dacre said. "She is possessed of a sharp intelligence combined with a mischievous sense of humour and a warm understanding of the problems facing so many families."

For Dacre, it is a huge appointment. Lee-Potter was an institution, a giant of Fleet Street for more than 30 years, the embodiment of the Mail spirit, an indefatigable defender of all the "family values" that the paper holds most dear. Her death in October 2004 was so much the end of an era that the paper, anxious not to offend readers, has waited almost a year before announcing her replacement. But will Pearson - hard to pin down politically, but no reactionary - deliver what the Mail wants?

"I very much made it clear to Paul what my views were," Pearson said. "That there were areas where I overlapped with the paper and areas where I diverged. I felt that was fine by him. He said he did not want me to change in any way. I don't know him well, but I get the impression that he's an incredibly shrewd operator, and he's obviously not taking me on to lower circulation. My constituency - women in their thirties or forties, many of them working mothers - is an audience he wants to appeal to, and I guess that's my role, to reflect the changing realities of women's lives."

Columnists, Pearson said, aren't there to reflect the line of the paper. They are there to entertain and stimulate the readers. Still, how about an example of where she disagrees with the Mail?

"I'm passionately pro-BBC, an absolute supporter of the licence fee, and that is not always the Mail's position." And ground in common? "I would very much share the paper's views on education. Is it the mark of a reckless reactionary to think that children should be taught to read and write?"

That's more the spirit of Lee-Potter, a woman with whom Pearson identifies to a perhaps surprising degree. "Neither of us came from the kind of background which we'd have expected to lead where it did, and I think we both felt bloody lucky to have got there. Neither of us had a metropolitan point of view. We both made a class journey - Lynda from Yorkshire, me from South Wales - and in this country that's invaluable. When you migrate, it means you've seen a bit of life."

It also helps that Pearson, who is 45, was in the real world for some years before she became a journalist. She taught English as a foreign language, worked in a mental hospital - "very good preparation for journalism" - did a stint in PR, and sold ad space. And having lived in London for a long time, she moved to Cambridge two years ago with her husband - The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane - and their young daughter and son.

"I don't lead a media life," she said. "I lead a normal life. I'm more in the school playground than I am at media functions, and I think that's good."

It's the humour, indeed the humanity, that Pearson lovers would say mark her out from her predecessor. Pearson agrees that she comes at the world from perhaps a more forgiving standpoint than Lee-Potter did, but explains it in terms of the difference in their generations.

"Lynda brilliantly captured the identity of post-war women who had been brought up in austerity and wanted to keep their houses nice. My generation has had messier lives, and we probably judge a little bit less. We've been given the opportunities Lynda's women didn't have, and it's been a mixed blessing. The having-it-all generation is really the doing-it-all generation."

Pearson is admired as much for her technique - a stylistic concision which she said came from her experience working as a sub-editor when she started out in Fleet Street in the late 1980s. "You learned to take out any fat." Tim de Lisle, the editor who gave her the writing break at the IoS and a long-standing friend, says she "pours herself into every sentence - heart and soul and craft". Pearson, he says, "can do soulful, erudite, angry, and satirical, and it's all pulled together by having a distinctive voice that really sings". Asked to apply to herself one of those punchy epithets that often accompany a columnist's byline, Pearson suggests: "She's well-meaning, she's sentimental, she makes bad jokes."

The new column starts in January, in the same slot and on the same day - Wednesday - as Lee-Potter. Pearson admits that the prospect is slightly daunting, even though in length and format it will broadly follow the pattern of the columns she has written for the Evening Standard for more than 10 years.

"Ithink if I can be not nervous then I'll enjoy it. But I'm the new kid on the block. It will take a while. In my first column I thought I would appeal to the readers to grant me an amnesty - to give me three weeks before they write in and say it's not the same."

They might well have forgotten all about Lynda Lee-Potter by then.


On Britain post-7/7

"Australians talk about the cultural cringe. Britain suffers from cultural cowering, the nervous deferral to other beliefs, regardless of how offensive they are to the majority of citizens."

On education

"New Labour's attempt to increase the shamefully low percentage of working-class kids in the best colleges is entirely laudable. If it means squeezing in a few Ryans at the expense of a few Ruperts - well, the Ruperts owe the rest of us several million life chances."

On Jane Austen

"No one understood better than Austen how female destiny is dictated by economics. The Bennet girls will all end up homeless unless their mum finds them a fortune with a bloke attached."

On Monica Lewinsky at the LSE

"Many congratulations to Monica on mastering the entry requirements to one of the country's most distinguished institutions. One wonders vaguely what she thought LSE stood for: Luxury Stain Erasure?"

On England's Ashes heroes

"At a time when grim-faced men appear in their own death videos to tell us that our society stinks, the England team has gone out there and shown that battle can be won with nothing more violent than a push through the onside."


Price is wrong

After doubt was cast on whether Piers Morgan's diaries really were diaries - some muddled chronology suggested that events were written up long after they had occurred - could the same be said of the former No 10 spin-doctor Lance Price, whose book has caused such consternation in Downing Street. In his entry for 6 December 1998, Price gleefully describes the turmoil in the Tory party when Lord Cranborne, its leader of the Lords, was sacked. "Tom Baldwin of The Times was particularly well informed ..." he records. Baldwin might have been Downing Street's favourite lobby journalist, but in 1998 he wasn't working for the paper and never had. He was political editor of The Sunday Telegraph, joining The Times several months later.

Flighty piece

British Airways must be glad that October is finally here, to that it can get rid of the September edition of in-flight mag High Life. The cover line referring to Kate Moss was unfortunate enough. Even more regrettable was the double-page spread on the food scene on the Louisiana coast - at the time of going to press not yet ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Those damn lead times...

Double Dutch

As the son of a Dutchman, Press Association football reporter Jim van Wijk ought to feel at home when he is on assignment in the Netherlands, as happened last week when he went to Amsterdam to cover Arsenal's match against Ajax. When Van Wijk and a dozen or so other writers headed off to a smart restaurant, there was only one person who was going to be handed the menu, written entirely in Dutch. Could Van Wijk translate it? Er, no. Instead he had to phone his father for help.

To the Max

Why is Max Clifford stumping up £10,000 to spend a day with the News of the World, when they rely on him so heavily - and pay so handsomely - for his kiss-and-tell scoops?

Much to the excitement of the neighbouring NoW table, he outbid all others in the auction at last week's London Press Club ball for Lot 5: "Visit the News of the World. Meet the people who uncover the secrets you all want to know." It was for charidee, of course.

Copy right

We were over-hasty last week in pointing the finger at Anthony Seldon and Dennis Kavanagh, the co-editors of The Blair Effect 2001-5.

We said that they were wrong to say that Blair's eight-year tenure exceeded that of every British premier in the last century except Mrs Thatcher. The mistake appeared in a proof copy of the book, and has since been corrected in the published edition.