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The once-reviled Royal writer who found a safer subject to cover

Princess Elizabeth with a corgi in 1936. Photo/Getty Images

Penny Junor has found some safer Windsor darlings to write about after infuriating royalists by pricking the “Saint” Diana bubble.

Penny Junor, a biographer of the British royal family, was once attacked by a drag queen at Albert Hall. That is a true story. She was, at the time, 20 years ago, one of the most reviled women in Britain. She may have been second only to Camilla, now the Duchess of Cornwall, who was then a mere marriage wrecker and allegedly had buns thrown at her in a supermarket car park. Buns. Vitriol. They have both had a lot of things thrown at them.

It is perhaps no wonder that Junor feels a lot of sympathy for Camilla. Saying so, and that poor dead, deceived Diana’s bulimia was a mental illness in her book Charles: Victim or Villain?, led to her being described as evil and poisonous and “Britain’s foremost hatchetess”.

She sounds terrifying. And, as she is supposed to be “as cold and sharp as ice”, impervious to the sort of mail she gets, you would think. Not a bit of it, she says. “I have a ridiculously thin skin. And when I get letters, or emails now – it used to be letters on lined notepaper in green ink – saying ‘you ugly cow’ and ‘I hope you go to hell’ and ‘I hope your children all die of cancer,’ and all that kind of stuff, that really does upset me.” Perhaps her bark is worse than her bite.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

She has a new book out. She has done Charles and Diana and Camilla; she has done William and Harry. Actually, she did the whole clan in The Firm. Who has she taken her hatchet to now? Kate? Meghan? No such luck. The new book is about corgis.

“It is a complete departure, but I’m mad about dogs.” And these dogs are not just any dogs, they are the Queen’s corgis, hence the title: All the Queen’s Corgis: The Story of Elizabeth II & Her Most Faithful Companions. “It seemed like something quite fun to do for a change. Having spent my life writing about people, who can be very litigious, it’s quite nice to write about dogs,” she says on the phone from Wiltshire, which is one of those counties in England’s south-west where dog-mad people congregate.

Penny Junor. Photo/Getty Images

All the Queen’s Corgis is bonkers. How could it not be? It is about corgis. Also, because, as fascinating as the Queen’s corgis undoubtedly are, there is only so much that can be known about corgis, it is about the Queen’s dorgis and her gun dogs as well. Dorgis – you may not know this; I certainly didn’t – are a cross between a dachshund and a corgi. The original dorgis were Pickles and Tinker, the result of an unauthorised bit of royal romping between one of the Queen’s corgis and Princess Margaret’s sausage dog. What japes!

The corgi book begins with The Line of Succession – the royal corgi family tree. This makes your eyes water. It is as complicated as the list of characters in War and Peace. The dogs all have posh names, such as Rozavel Crown Princess and Ermyn Moondust, but are known by their common (or kennel) names such as Dipper and Disco and Martin. Martin! That’s royalty for you.

In the beginning was Susan. She was the Queen’s first corgi and she was smuggled under a blanket in the royal carriage as the Queen and Prince Philip left for their honeymoon. Junor writes: “The Duke of Edinburgh has been vying with the dogs for his wife’s attention ever since.” Much later, he is supposed to have said: “Why have you got so many bloody dogs?” All of those bloody dogs might, one could surmise, be the reason for his legendary bad temper.

The Queen and a canine companion in 1953, the year of her coronation. Photo/Getty Images

The dogs bite; he barks. But bugger the corgis for a bit. Is Prince Philip, I wanted to know, as curmudgeonly as his reputation suggests? “I think he’s a very complicated man. Well, Philip had a difficult start.” You could say that. There was the deaf mother who went into psychiatric care; the father who drifted off; two of his four sisters marrying Germans with Nazi sympathies; and one, Cecilie, who was killed in a plane crash.

He’s a stoic. Junor says: “I think he’s a remarkable man to be someone who gave up his naval career – and he is really a sort of classic alpha male – and yet he has walked [for nearly 70 years] two paces behind the Queen.”

There are those reputed affairs. “Who knows?” If anyone does, she probably would. “If anyone knows, they certainly wouldn’t say so while he’s still alive. Put it that way.” I put it this way: she thinks he probably did, like the Queen’s corgi and Princess Margaret’s dachshund, get up to mischief. “I would not be surprised. But I don’t know.”

The royal family – Anne, Andrew, Prince Philip, the Queen and Charles – picnicking with a pet at Balmoral Castle. Photo/Getty Images

The Queen’s corgis, the book’s cover line suggests, are the great loves of her life. Does she think the Queen loves her dogs more than she loves Philip? “I think she loves her corgis and we dog lovers are passionate about our dogs. My children are all convinced that I love my dog more than I love them!”

The royals are not like us, and neither are their dogs, and neither are their sex lives. As Junor has previously pointed out, “the then Camilla Shand slept with Prince Charles in 1971 only as revenge on her philandering boyfriend, later husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, who was cheating on her with Princess Anne. That’s just how the upper classes bonk.” Literally bonkers.

People think she knows about things such as royal sex lives. They also think that she goes about tally-hoing and shooting pheasants, say, with the royals; that she’s friends with them. She isn’t, although she has met some of them, including the Queen – “not to chat to” – and she did once interview Prince Charles.

Elizabeth (left), her parents and Princess Margaret with the family’s dogs in 1937. Photo/Getty Images

She sounds posh, to an antipodean ear, but says, “No, no. Not at all.” She went to the same boarding school, Benenden School in Kent, as Princess Anne, who was a year behind her. They were never friends. “No. no, no.” She was sent to the school only because, she says, she failed her exams and couldn’t get into a grammar school.

Her father was Fleet St editor Sir John Junor, who was much loved and much feared, not least by his daughter. He died in 1997. In 2002, she published a memoir, Home Truths: Life Around My Father, in which he was portrayed as a heavy-drinking man’s man, a philanderer who was a brute to his wife. His daughter had a predictably complicated relationship with him (he was “absolutely vile” to her husband, James Leith, the brother of food writer and telly cook Prue Leith). Her feelings about him are still tangled: “When he was nice, he was very, very nice, and when he was nasty, he was horrid.”

She, too, became a journalist (and one of her four children is the journalist Sam Leith) and worked for the Evening Standard, and for some years wrote a column for the satirical magazine Private Eye (which had spent many merry years poking fun at her father). She says she had no interest in the royal family and certainly no interest in writing about them. “The whole thing started with a rabid dog in Kathmandu,” which is appropriately barking. She was working as a freelance journalist and got a call from an editor: somebody in Fulham had been bitten by a rabid dog. The editor knew somebody who had been bitten by a rabid dog in Kathmandu. Could she go and interview her? The bitten woman worked for a publisher, liked the piece Junor wrote, and days after Charles and Diana’s wedding, phoned and said: “Would you like to write about Diana?”

Diana and Charles. Photo/Getty Images

That was her nice Diana book. It was a success. But then she wrote her book about the failure of the marriage. She says she didn’t set out to write a book that shattered the image of Diana the saint and Charles the scoundrel. Diana had been dead for about 18 months, and “great bubbles had grown up around her in that period. Before she died, people were really sort of criticising her; columnists in the newspapers were saying, ‘This is really tacky, to be taking your children on board your playboy’s boat; to be having the Queen’s grandchildren paraded on Dodi Fayed’s boat, and half-naked’, and so on. People were tutting about her and then, the minute she died, she became a saint, an absolute saint, and you could not say anything about her. At all.”

She did. “I was really interested in what went on in that marriage and I knew that the Prince of Wales was never going to speak about it. And the world had been left with Diana’s version of a callous, terrible man and an evil Camilla who destroyed Diana. I didn’t know whether that was true or not and I wanted to find out.”

What she found out was that they were entirely ill-suited, that Diana was “a very troubled girl and she’d never had any discipline in her life because her parents were divorced. Whenever she disliked something, she was able to give it up, and being a member of the royal family is all about doing things that you really don’t want to do, year in and year out.”

The Queen meets dog enthusiasts and their pets in 2005. Photo/Getty Images

Junor is a great admirer of Charles, but considers him a flawed character. He has a very bad temper and he can behave “quite selfishly at times. He’s not a great man. In many ways, he’s not the strongest of men. Camilla will be the strength behind the crown.”

She said all of these things and that Camilla saved Charles from “the depths of despair”. Her timing was off. The manuscript, about to be serialised in the Mail on Sunday, was stolen and other papers published excerpts.

People thought that she was a total bitch. A bitch who got rich writing horrid things about Princess Diana. “No. If I’d written that Charles was a horrible man who was beastly to Diana and had only ever loved Camilla, I’d be rich.” The book was shunned by the public. “The old maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity did not carry in that instance.”

Oh, well, I say, I used to be called a bitch, too. “I’m sure you’re not.” We all have our moments, I say, hoping to tease out a bit of the bitch I was secretly wishing she was. She’s been a hack for too long to fall for that old trick. “Ha, ha. Mmm,” is as much as she’ll say.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Photo/Getty Images

Junor doesn’t think she’ll write about Kate or Meghan. She thinks Kate is “very, very nice but I don’t think she’s going to set the world on fire. But, you know, that’s perfect for her role.” Doesn’t she think that’s a terrible observation to make in 2018? She says the difference between William and Kate’s marriage and William’s parents’ marriage is that Kate and William “are equals”. She who will never set the world on fire is never going to upstage the future king in the way that Diana did. “In this particular job, I think it’s important that Kate doesn’t eclipse William. I’m not saying he’s more prominent than she is, but she isn’t in competition with him.” As for Meghan: “She’s used to being a star. She’s used to public acclamation and I think that’s one of the reasons that she sort of nailed it. Harry’s previous girlfriends have fled at having the spotlight turned on them.”

Anyway, much safer to write about dogs. But corgis, aren’t they awful? And the Queen’s corgis are particularly awful. They bite. “I thought they were pretty horrible dogs until I met a few and they’re actually rather sweet. I have a german shepherd, and they’re a bit like german shepherds with their legs cut off!”

My favourite story in her book is of a footman who, after having been bitten, took revenge by lacing the corgi’s food with gin. I hope this is a true story because, good for him. “It was only a little bite!”

From a rabid, bitey dog in Nepal to one of the biggest bitches in Britain to bitey corgis at Buckingham Palace. That’s the sort of career trajectory you couldn’t make up. Despite the sad lack of evidence of bitchiness, and her unfathomable fondness for corgis, I liked her. She’s jolly good fun. She said: “It’s been very nice to talk to you. Good night from one bitch to another.”

All the Queen’s Corgis: The Story of Elizabeth II & Her Most Faithful Companions, by Penny Junor (Hachette, $29.99)

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.