Editor-At-Large : Why I can shed few tears for Lynda

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The Independent Online

The death of Lynda Lee-Potter last week was marked by tributes, profiles and generally respectful obituaries. Without a doubt, she was one of the most widely read and feared writers of the latter part of the 20th century. For millions of middle-class, middle-aged women, Lynda was an avenging angel; the one person who dared to express all the bitterness and fury they harboured as society radically changed over the past 30 years, leaving them on the sidelines, feeling adrift and ignored. Lynda's opinions and those of my mother were virtually interchangeable. When I went to visit mum in her tiny flat in Llandudno towards the end of her life, when she was very difficult, there would be a Daily Mail on her coffee table, lying open at the page occupied by her champion, Lynda. Not surprisingly, a furious spat would ensue.

The death of Lynda Lee-Potter last week was marked by tributes, profiles and generally respectful obituaries. Without a doubt, she was one of the most widely read and feared writers of the latter part of the 20th century. For millions of middle-class, middle-aged women, Lynda was an avenging angel; the one person who dared to express all the bitterness and fury they harboured as society radically changed over the past 30 years, leaving them on the sidelines, feeling adrift and ignored. Lynda's opinions and those of my mother were virtually interchangeable. When I went to visit mum in her tiny flat in Llandudno towards the end of her life, when she was very difficult, there would be a Daily Mail on her coffee table, lying open at the page occupied by her champion, Lynda. Not surprisingly, a furious spat would ensue.

I represented, to my mother and to Lynda Lee-Potter, everything that they loathed about contemporary society. I was full of opinions, had been married many times, and was responsible for putting a lot of noisy, young people on television in programmes they found brash and unsettling. Paradoxically, I started my journalistic career as a fashion writer and columnist on the Daily Mail in 1969, just two years after Lynda. I would arrive each day from Chelsea in a series of trendy garbs - one being knitted shorts, knee-high emerald suede boots (their platform soles taking me to an impressive 6ft 3in), topped off with a green fur jacket. I'd enter the ladies' loo where an extraordinary transformation was taking place. Having travelled up to London from Bournemouth by train, a tiny woman would emerge from under a Little Red Riding Hood ankle-length cape, wearing a full set of rollers in her hair. Clad in demure non-revealing prim skirt and top, Lynda would carefully comb her tresses into a perfect bob, apply her lipstick and sail into the office.

Lynda's death from a brain tumour drew a host of tributes from famous women such as Cilla Black, Joan Collins, Jilly Cooper, Barbara Windsor and Betty Boothroyd. The most extraordinary came from Mo Mowlam, who Lynda had once described as bearing "an undeniable resemblance to an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker", when in reality, Mo was suffering from a brain tumour. Of course, Lynda subsequently apologised, but the mistake showed precisely what drove Lynda: a deep-seated insecurity about other successful women. If you didn't fit into her narrow-minded concept of what the world needed, then it was your fault and you were to be publicly and ritually trashed, and sod what you might feel as a result. I didn't notice any lavish praise for this clever woman, who brought spiteful journalism to an art form, from other high achieving women such as Germaine Greer, Lulu, Cherie Blair, Edwina Currie and Tessa Jowell, all of whom felt the knife of Ms Lee-Potter between their shoulder blades.

In his tribute, Mail editor Paul Dacre wrote that Lynda put into simple words what ordinary people were thinking. Another Daily Mail writer said she "understood working-class women". According to Mr Dacre, "she was mocked by that liberal bien-pensant opinion that to its detriment, dominates too much of British life ... most journalists have never stepped inside a council house ... they despise ordinary people."

Let's be perfectly clear about what is being mourned here. It's not the death of Lynda Lee-Potter, which I regret, but the passing of all the values Mr Dacre and the Daily Mail seek to espouse. They find themselves in a quandary as their natural political allies, the Tories, self-destruct. Most people in Britain are middle class these days. As the number of single mothers has increased, Mr Dacre must be depressed to discover that our society hasn't fallen apart at the seams. As thousands of refugees and asylum seekers take their places in our workforce, he must gnash his teeth that law and order hasn't disintegrated. People take drugs, and yet you can still walk up and down most high streets without being killed.

Of course, there are many difficult social issues to be confronted, but the fact remains that under a Labour government most people in Britain are enjoying a reasonable standard of living. Lynda Lee-Potter's columns seemed to yearn for a time back in the 1950s where the working class knew their place and hoped to inch their way up the ladder by hard work and saving, and women stood by their men and did the ironing. A shameless snob, she loved the class system. It kept everyone in their place. Under the guise of being "sensible", Lynda dispensed evil and petty little homilies. Most of all, Lynda felt out of step in a society that focused on and rewarded youth in all its forms, from the Beckhams to Eminem to Kate Moss. It is all too tempting to believe that social and spiritual values are eroding. It's also comfy and convenient to hide behind the fig leaf of "common sense".

Lynda Lee-Potter's opinions, like those of the Daily Mail, were way past their sell-by date. I've just spent two weeks as a teacher in a school in a working class area outside Cambridge, so don't preach to me about council houses and "ordinary people". Lynda, like Glenda Slagg, her embodiment in Private Eye, had had her day.

Cartoon hero

Mike Leigh sets his latest film, Vera Drake, in the kind of working-class 1950s environment that Lynda grew up in. Vera, played by Imelda Staunton, leads a double life, leaving her small flat in Islington to work as a cleaner in posh houses in Belgravia. She bustles about caring for ageing relatives, sick friends and lonely neighbours. But Vera also carries out abortions free of charge, helping young, working-class women who find themselves "in a spot of trouble". As a huge admirer of Mike Leigh's work, I look forward immensely to the play he will write and direct at the National Theatre next year.

Vera Drake has already won prizes at the Venice Film Festival, and last week opened the London Film Festival in an atmosphere of adulation. The film raises important questions about the ethics of Vera's secret career and Mike Leigh has stated that "the audience must walk away with a debate and struggle with it". Having had a backstreet abortion when I was 16, followed by another in a nursing home two years later, I find this subject close to my heart. But the deification of Mike Leigh does him no favours. The film is pedestrian and the characters parodies of the working class, with Phil Davies (a brilliant actor) reduced to a feeble stereotype as Vera's husband. It was like spending several days trapped in my childhood home in Fulham, but with a script written by Martians.

Imelda Staunton movingly expresses shock at her arrest but this family are no more realistic than the cartoon characters Andy Capp and Flo in the Daily Mirror. Was Britain in the 1950s really this grim with chirpy, cockney characters constantly drinking tea? Unfortunately Vera Drake is ultimately propaganda.

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