Claire Rayner: Novelist, journalist and broadcaster who became the nation’s best-loved agony aunt

Claire Rayner – author, stalwart campaigner and agony aunt – "You can call me what you like, love, as long as you spell my name correctly!" – was anexceptionally talented woman. She was, however, never taken quite seriously enough. Her no-nonsense approach to problems, her deep-felt view that past suffering should not be wallowed in but, rather, used as fuel for an interesting and productive present life, was not fashionable during her heyday in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. It was seen as a rather dated, matron-like "pull-your-socks-up, love" kind of attitude in an era when therapy and counselling were flourishing, although more recently her common-sense attitude has come back into fashion again.

Similarly, her books – of which she wrote nearly a hundred – were, despite being read by millions, rarely reviewed, and often dismissed, wrongly, as pulp fiction. In fact, although she was not a member of any smart literary set, her storytelling ability was phenomenal, and many is the sneering reader who picked up one of her novels only to find herself propping her eyelids open at three in the morning to reach the end.

She wrote everything from self-help books, mainly about women andchildren's health, to books about kitchen gardening, but the vast bulk of her literary work was novels, and huge family sagas, all set in painstakingly researched periods of English history. She often said that the money she earned from agony-auntingand journalism was a mere pittance compared to what she earned through her writing.

Perhaps her most famous series was the 12-volume The Performers, which she wrote between 1973 and 1986, each set in different areas of London, and The Poppy Chronicles (six of them), mammoth sagas, about the "warm family life I never had when I was young". Much to her delight, on the strength of the sales of her books she was able to put a swimming pool into her Harrow home.

Claire Rayner was, as anyone was aware after talking to her for onlyfive minutes, extraordinarily well-read, with a mind as sharp as a lawyer's. Even more impressive, she had the ability to see through the hokumin every argument, get instantly tothe heart of the matter, and then express it in words that everyone could understand.

Rayner was a big figure in every way. She had a large, generous heart, a booming voice, a Wagnerian figure, an old-fashioned theatrical manner – and yet everyone who met her was aware that they only had to scratch the surface to find an enormously vulnerable and rather poignant little person inside, someone super-sensitive to criticism and in many ways strangely unsure of herself. One moment she would be at a conference delivering a chunk of invective against the horrors of the National Health Service, the next turning to a neighbour on the podium whispering, "Was I all right?" ("I'm still desperately insecure, darling," she said to one interviewer.) This fundamental insecurity was hardly surprising in view of her past.

She was born Claire Chetwynd in 1931, in Commercial Road in the East End of London. Her father was a tailor's cutter – "a feckless man" – and her mother was just "a menace. She was a disaster, did nothing, just lurched from disaster to disaster and told lies and fantasised." Claire was beaten by her mother with belts and saucepans, and, when she was evacuated during the Second World War, she repeatedly ran back to London, only to be welcomed home with another beating.

Finally her parents emigrated to Canada, where Claire was diagnosed with a thyroid condition but, because of a shortage of hospital beds, ended up in a psychiatric hospital for 14 months until she was rescued by relatives. The operations she eventually had on her thyroid caused her to suffer permanent problems with her weight. And she never saw her parents again. (I once met her for lunch and she said: "Funny, I've just learned my father died six months ago. And it was not so long ago I heard my mother had died years ago. Oh yes, she's good and dead now. Well under. Best place for her.")

She escaped from her unhappy childhood by daydreaming and reading. The weapon she used against her parents' cruelty was a combination of volubility, using long words and clever arguments to batter them with, and silence – she was capable of speaking to nobody, however hard she was hit, for up to four days. "I'm glad I didn't discover anorexia or I would have used that one, too," she said.

But for years she kept very quiet about her wretched past. The truth only emerged after she was invited on to In the Psychiatrist's Chair with Professor Anthony Clare. During the making of the radio programme she burst into tears, but the tears were left on the cutting-room floor. However, what little she did reveal was enough to make whet her readers' appetities, and in 2003 she finally assuaged everyone's curiosity by writing her autobiography, How Did I Get Here From There?

After escaping from the psychiatric hospital, and cutting all ties with her family, Claire returned to London, and, pretty much, reinvented herself. She trained as a nurse, became an SRN and a midwife and worked in the health service for 12 years – hence her vast medical knowledge. It was also her great experience of hospitals which led her to campaign so fervently later on for better healthcare.

It was while she was nursing that she met her husband-to-be, Des Rayner, a struggling actor, in the mid-Fifties. Theirs was an amazingly strong and enduring marriage, and Desmond,although he paints and writes books, virtually dedicated himself to hercareer, becoming her agent and business manager.

Her writing career began when, as Ruth Martin, she became medical correspondent for Woman's Own in 1966 and followed this up by being taken on as agony columnist for The Sun in 1973. Later she was to work as agony aunt on both the Sunday Mirror and Today, and she also had a column with Woman magazine. But she became most well-known when she made radio and television appearances, from the Claire Rayner's Casebook series, in 1980, to her role as agony adviser, in 1992, on the Good Morning with Anne and Nick programme. Indeed, so forceful and distinctive was her personality that she became a kind of caricature for an agony aunt. She was parodied on Spitting Image and after she had advertised a sanitary towel unfortunately named Wings, on television, people used to shout "Wings!" at her in the street, much to her discomfort.

She was untiring in her work on committees and commissions. Among many others she was President of the Gingerbread charity for single parents, the Patients' Association, and the British Humanist Association (even though a loud "God bless you, lovie!" was one of her favourite expressions). She was also an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. She was appointed OBE in 1996 for her work as an associate non-executive director of the Royal Hospital's NHS Trust and her work as a member of the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care for the Elderly.

Even when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and had adouble mastectomy (of her breasts she said: "I'm fond of the old things. I've had them a long time. But I'm not defined by my breasts"), she didn't complain, but took the opportunity to speak out on behalf of free healthcare for the elderly.

Claire Rayner didn't reserve her compassion for the agony columns. In her private life she was an extremely warm-hearted and generous person, who would give advice at the drop of a hat – and excellent advice at that. When people were down, she took them in or invited them to one of her many parties to cheer them up. Before she became ill she led a hectic social life, many of her friends being from the theatre, a world she adored.

Because she had the common touch, in the best sense of the phrase, and because she worked for popular mediums, like red-tops and daytime television, she was never taken as seriously, as a thinker, campaigner and a writer, as she deserved. But it was the public who benefited, because her sensible and warm-hearted advice, and her compulsively readable stories, reached a huge audience.

Claire Berenice Chetwynd, writer and broadcaster: born London 22 January 1931; OBE 1996; married 1957 Desmond Rayner (two sons, one daughter); died London 11 October 2010.

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