Sunday, 4 April 2010

Her and her big mouth

The Scotsman, 5 August 2003

She's got big hands, bloody big feet and a great big voice. "Hurry up," she yells, "I'm freezing me tits off."

Janet Street Porter is sitting with her Olive Oyl legs dangling over the triangulation point on the top of Edinburgh's Blackford Hill. She's not being rude, unkind or unpleasant, she just's being, well, Janet Street Porter. Sort of stentorian.

Behind her, a huge panorama stretches away to Edinburgh Castle, Inchcolm and beyond to Fife, half of Scotland united in the sweep of an eye. But around her, opinion has quickly divided into love and hate, high on this hill. The photographer - the object of the tits remark - is in the former camp, he's lapping it up; in the latter, the birds have stopped singing.

They are not alone. Wrapped in their raincoats and cowering under flat hats, the Calvinist residents of Edinburgh's villa quarters linger warily below the summit, their morning constitutionals on hold. Even their mutts know instinctively to avoid this woman. The bravest scamper up, slobbering, but quickly retire with a whimper. "I hate dogs," Street Porter calls after a Labrador as it dives down the slope to its owner, both of them now sharing a gloomy kind of look.

Street Porter is a real walker, out and proud, the former president of the Ramblers' Association who has trodden the pathways with the rich and famous on a television show, As the Crow Flies, and ambled more discreetly with local groups, like the Selkirk Plodders.

She lives in London, but has a house by the sea at Whitstable and another in Niddersdale in Yorkshire's West Riding, two hideaways which help her make the most of the landscapes she loves. Her ideal is to get on the top of the moors and walk for miles in a "huge expanse of emptiness" or to tramp round the marshes in a Kentish sort of way.

So much for likes. But in the manner of dedicated walkers everywhere, Street Porter tends to dislike a sizeable array of things. Those joggers you meet on mountain tops? "Oh fing hell, them. Or people on bikes," she shrieks.

"Just for a bit, I started running again along canal towpaths and not only have you got dogs, you have people cycling with dogs on leads. Stupid. Mind you, I looked a sight - I was like an octopus having an epileptic fit, a lot of wobbly bits and tentacles flying about."

Before the image can burn itself into your brain, she's off again: "And what about when you're out walking and you get the mountain bikers coming up behind you and they've got no bell? But then they just couldn't have a bell, could they? It wouldn't be macho enough. Hate them.

"They come up beside you and you don't hear them coming if it's windy. They make you jump. You say: 'Why don't you have a bell?' And basically they tell you to f off."

Which is unfortunate, because Street Porter is, she confides, very thin-skinned. That's why she's turned her life into her solo show, All the Rage, which is already playing to rave reviews on the Fringe: it's all just one helluva cathartic experience for her. Often patronised in the media, she is content to let her achievements speak up for her, both on stage and in conversation. She has been the editor of the Independent on Sunday, a successful television executive and she has won prizes for her programmes.

"What I haven't won awards for is being a big woman with big tits and funny glasses," she says. "I can't control what people write. There's no point in moaning about it ..." and for once she slows down "... it's - just - the - way - it - is." Isn't it simply sexism? "I couldn't care less."

She can at least vent her spleen on her mother - she, by Street Porter's account, was a nightmare. On stage she calls her bitch and worse. She says: "I remember wishing after she had her thyroid operation on her neck that they'd cut her head right off."

Here on the hill, she sounds less strident but just as bitter. "My mother was Welsh, and we spent all our summer holidays in Wales. We did a lot of walking then. But you weren't allowed to do the kind of walking where you actually enjoyed it - it always had to be allied to something, collecting firewood or bilberries or blackberries. You had to learn to have fun yourself."

The rest of the year her childhood was spent in a working-class district of Fulham, where she says she spent a kind of schizophrenic existence. She was a fashion-conscious mod who made her own clothes but at the same time she was isolated and withdrawn. "It sounds bad, but I lived in my head, and walking was just something I did. I felt very different from everyone else and I don't know why."

By now Street Porter has clambered down from this morning's peak of achievement and we're dropping away from the Blackford summit. Tramp, tramp, tramp. She could go on for hours.

"A lot of people are surprised that I like walking by myself. They say things like: 'Is it dangerous?' And that's never even crossed my mind.

"I like walking alone, or with one other person, that's the best. I did Hadrian's Wall the other week with a friend, and it was funny. A cab driver said: 'There's a really famous tree you're going to pass,' and he said something about a movie with Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner; he was going on about the most famous tree in the north of England.

"We were doing that bit of the wall coming out of Housesteads, it's fantastic, like being on a switchback. We were walking along the top and it was really windy, and we were wittering on about face cream and sun block and stuff, and suddenly she shouted: 'Where's that tree?' We'd walked right past the north's most famous tree, and we hadn't even noticed it. It's like that isn't it?"

She reckons the most hopeless person to walk with is another woman who is having a relationship crisis. You can have a five-hour discussion about why she should leave her husband, but she'll just go meekly back to him.

They never learn, do they? "No. And then you think, that should have been a fantastic walk - but why have we expended all this energy on a second-rate person, the bloke, the source of all the trouble? He's probably lying in front of the telly asleep, completely unaware of the fact he's been analysed."

You might imagine with her rich experience - itemised with an accountant's care and attention in All the Rage - that Street Porter might have enjoyed the odd romantic stroll with one of her four husbands or other lovers. "I'm not a very romantic person," she says. What, not a single amble down lovers' lane? "Well, they've all walked," she says. "But walking's my thing anyway. I don't think of it like that."

Anyway, men bring their own problems to the hillside. "They think if they don't get to the top before you they have failed some kind of virility test. Myself, I'm a bit of a plodder."

And then there's worse: those Munro-baggers. It's simple. They're sad. "Why've you got to tick them all off?" she demands. "Why can't you just have mountains you enjoy? What is it about bagging Munros? Just tell me what happens." It has to be conceded: it's a male thing, just a bit anal.

"It is," Street Porter agrees. "Obviously I've spent most of my working life with men and they have this way of operating which seems a bit alien to me. At a big meeting at the BBC this bloke said to me: 'I'm going to put my dick on the table at this point...' I thought: 'No, not really.' What he meant was, 'I'm going to be perfectly honest.'"

A duck quacks. We've reached Blackford Pond, the end of our hike. Then she delivers the bombshell for ramblers everywhere. "Bagging Munros is a dick-on-table exercise."

Janet Street Porter - All The Rage is at Assembly, 5:10pm today, and until 24 August.

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