I’ve been asked to give a speech about my achievements and quite honestly that is the most uncomfortable thing in the world. The strange thing about achieving any degree of success is that we’re the last people to recognize it ourselves. Instead of patting ourselves on the back we all tend to look to the next challenge. It’s a pretty good way of making sure you don’t get complacent but there is also call sometimes to stand back and admire what you’ve done. Today for all of you is such a day and that’s the reason I’m a little uncomfortable about banging on about myself!
We’re all born into different circumstances; some slip seamlessly from the womb into a life of privilege where money isn’t an issue and doors open automatically. But a silver spoon is no guarantee of happiness and indeed nurturing ambition, when you don’t have looming living expenses to cope with is quite a challenge. Hence the reason I really admire those who take their own good fortune and use it to help others and to create further wealth for the country. Too often in this country we resent and envy those who have succeeded instead of resolving to making our own ambitions come to fruition.
At the other end of the inheritance scale are the rest of us, often being handed down only bad debt, born with few advantages, or worse still positively disadvantaged. The fight to succeed in life may be harder but unlike our inheritance endowed compatriots, when you have everything to gain and little to lose it’s much easier to get out and fight for what you need.
Today I present a Book Show on Radio 4, work for the BBC, SKY Channel Four and others on television shows and documentaries, write an agony column for the Observer newspaper which I love and have been doing for 10 years and do lots of other journalism. Only yesterday I got my third invite to appear on the only show you might ever watch me on I’m A Celebrity, I’m afraid I said no, again!
Looks also can be deceiving. With my well-rounded vowels you might presume that I moved seamlessly from an Oxbridge university into the world of media with my credentials stamped clearly on my birth certificate. But appearances aren’t everything, ask any blonde…. and in many ways I am living proof of what any of us can achieve given early nurturing and later incentive to make something of your life. It’s only when you truly test yourself that you see what you are capable of.
I was born into a loving but dysfunctional family, the eldest of six and brought up first in Oslo and then in Ireland where we moved when I was six. My parents separated shortly after, my father drank himself to death at the age of 44 and my mum spent too many years with a partner who was violent and abusive. As a result I left school at 16 with no qualifications and decided to try my hand at independent living, boarding a ferry from Dun Laoghrie to Holly head with my belonging in four carrier bags, headed for the bright lights of London, a city where I knew not a soul.
A series of mac jobs, cleaning a pub, waitressing, working in a doctors surgery, regular panic about affordable living accommodation and plenty of moments when homelessness threatened to be the next option and then, all of a sudden I was. A career in the music business as a trainee PR, then a PR then a period of owning my own company. Later TV came calling when Channel 4 wanted a new face for their groundbreaking music show Big World Café. The rest may not be history but it certainly was the beginning of an interesting career trajectory that involved a lot of battling, to be credited with a brain, to be considered capable and finally, after years as a book lover, the proudest moment of my life when I was asked to judge the Booker Prize for Fiction. Not bad for a tear away teenager who left school too young.
I’m telling you all this not to blow my own trumpet but to illustrate how unlikely it once would have seemed that I would be standing here today, at the invitation of HRH The Duke OF Edinburgh, talking to a room full of hopeful young people, exactly as I once was, who have displayed determination, courage, intelligence and ability in their determination to achieve great things. Despite the antiquated class system, the global economic crisis and all the other obstacles strewn in your paths you have the power to create your own destiny, unfettered by any of the disadvantages that on paper might appear to hold you back. I couldn’t be prouder to be considered worthy of sharing my experience with you and I know, that if you weather the knocks, maintain the self belief that achieving your gold medal must surely have instilled and surround yourselves with people who want the best for you, not the sort who sap your courage and hold you back, each and every one of you will do something worthwhile with this one precious life we are all lucky enough to have been given. In my day job as an agony aunt I receive countless letters from men and women, girls and boys struggling to find a path for themselves. You have already put your feet firmly on solid ground. I salute you for what you’ve already done and look forward to witnessing what you set your minds to next.