Agony aunt and NHS campaigner Claire Rayner dies at 79

A look back at the life of Claire Rayner

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Tributes have been paid to agony aunt Claire Rayner, who has died at the age of 79.

The award-winning journalist had remained poorly after intestinal surgery in May. She died in hospital near her home in Harrow in London.

She told her relatives she wanted her last words to be: "Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS I'll come back and bloody haunt him."

Her husband Des Rayner said he had lost his soul mate and best friend.

Claire Rayner (1980)

She worked for the Sun, Sunday Mirror and Woman's Own and was named medical journalist of the year in 1987. She also wrote a string of novels.

Her restaurant critic son, Jay, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "She had been through a hell of a lot of health troubles over the last five months and some of us thought towards the end that she actually just wanted to give up.

"But late on Sunday night, when things were looking a bit bleak, she was offered one last chance and I honestly thought she would say, 'No, just let me go,' and she didn't.

"It was very much in the nature of her that she said, 'I will try the dialysis.' It didn't work, unfortunately. She had led an absolutely amazing life and I am very, very proud of her."

Mrs Rayner, who had two other children - Amanda and Adam - and four grandchildren, will have a humanist funeral for family and close friends.

A former nurse and midwife, for many years she was also president of the Patients Association.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 70, but beat the illness. In 2006 she wrote about her experience on the BBC News website.

Claire Rayner Claire Rayner's son described her as an "agent provocateur"

Her husband of 53 years, Des, said: "I have lost my best friend and my soul mate. I am immensely proud of her."

Mr Rayner, who was also her agent and manager, said: "Through her work she helped hundreds of thousands of people and doubtless, by talking frankly about the importance of safe sex in the 80s when almost nobody else would discuss it, helped to save thousands of lives.

"Right up until her death she was being consulted by both politicians and the medical profession about the best way to provide the health services the nation deserved and nothing mattered to her more than that. Her death leaves a vacancy which will not be filled."

Her son Jay added that she had been a great parent and a great journalist who did not shy away from controversy.

"The thing about her was she was an agent provocateur, she liked to make mischief, she liked to infuriate people," he said.

In 1996 she was awarded the OBE for "services to women's issues and health issues".

She was involved with 50 charities, and was a member of the Prime Minister's Commission on Nursing and the last government's Royal Commission on the Care of the Elderly.

Her no-nonsense manner led to the BBC employing her to demonstrate how to put on a condom and she was one of the first people used by advertisers to promote sanitary towels.

Born into a Jewish family, she later became president of the British Humanist Association, whose chief executive, Andrew Copson, said: "Claire Rayner found meaning and inspiration in living and the enjoyment of life, in trying to fulfil her potential, and in the wonders of nature and the marvels of the cosmos.

"She was a remarkable woman with broad interests and deep sympathies who lived an exemplary humanist life and we all feel lucky to have known her and to have had her support for so many enjoyable years."

Campaigner

The chief executive of the Patients' Association, Katherine Murphy, expressed her "deep sadness" at the news and added: "For almost 30 years Claire has devoted so much of her time and energy to championing patients' issues. She was a figurehead and inspiration to us all."

Neil Churchill, chief executive of Asthma UK said Mrs Rayner was one of the charity's "most charismatic supporters", adding: "She was truly an inspiration and will be deeply missed."

Her close friend, Baroness Helena Kennedy, said: "She was an extraordinary woman - passionate, committed, warm and exuberant. The key thing about Claire was that she was a campaigner to her toes - her mission was to improve the lot of others and she did it with great humility and common sense."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes also paid tribute to Mrs Rayner, who joined the party in 2001.

She wrote in the Independent at the time that she felt disillusioned with Labour after 50 years of supporting them.

Mr Hughes said: "Claire's campaigning was an inspiration to millions and especially to Liberal Democrats, who were so proud that she was a member of our party.

"Continuous work and campaigning to improve our National Health Service for all our patients will be the best sort of tribute our country can give her."

BBC News website readers have been emailing their memories of Claire Rayner. Here is a selection of their comments.

I got to know Claire very well during the 80s when I worked with a health insurance company. At that time Claire was working with Woman's Own magazine and we organised health weeks when women could call to talk about their medical problems. Later Claire became a patron of the Medical Advisory Service. Claire talked about wearing three hats: "Agony aunt, journalist but above all a nurse."

George Maskell, London

I read Claire's autobiography a few years ago and was particularly moved by her account of her episode of depression. It was a fabulous story of someone with real backbone, gumption and determination. Having read the book I e-mailed her publisher who, to my surprise, passed my comments on and she typed me the most wonderful letter of thanks which I have kept and treasured.

Jane Shand, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire

I had my first child in 1979 and remember Claire Rayner's books about childcare being very practical with common sense. She gave down to earth encouraging advice in language everyone could understand. As far as I can remember the alternatives were Dr Spock or medical encyclopaedias.

Pauline Davis, Bristol

It must be 35-40 years ago and I must admit that it was with some trepidation I attended a meeting organised by Croydon Campaign for Homosexual Equality. The hall was packed with local lesbians and gay men. She said loud and clear: "There's nothing wrong with you, but there's lots wrong with the way society and the politicians treat you. Just by being here tonight, proves that you've had enough and intend to organise, be visible, win friends and change the world you're living in." Well, Claire, we listened and took your words to heart. There's still much to do, but we've come along way.

RMJ Harvey-Amer, Croydon

How very sad. I worked closely with Claire for seven years when I was CEO of the Patients Association. She was a great boss and also a really good friend. She gave me the chance to advance my career and the confidence to give media interviews both to the press and to television. She was quite simply a wonderful, caring person who did so much for the NHS and patients. She will be a great miss to so many people.

Mike Stone, Reading

I met Claire and her husband Des on a cruise going to the Canaries a few years ago. Claire gave a talk on the ship which was very well attended. I bumped into them in the town of Vigo where they were shopping. By then she was walking with the aid of a stick. Des was a tower of strength, always in attendance. Their love shone out even to a casual observer.

Martin Holland, Horley

Anyone who can part this world still trying to influence those in control of systems that affect populations as Claire has done with David Cameron, is a truly special and giving person. I never met Claire but being a nurse, I was aware of Claire's influence. Claire did what nurses do in their day-to-day work and provided a voice for their patients. A remarkable person indeed.

Kerri Shaw, New Zealand

I only have a handful of heroes but Claire Rayner is one of them. Few people have both the ability of insight into someone's true problems whilst also providing the solution. We've lost a unique British icon.

Oliver Davis, London

Claire Rayner made an important contribution as president and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, and her atheistic humanistic beliefs were an important part of her make-up and personality. She will be greatly missed.

George Shilling, Shipston on Stour

I met Claire Rayner on one memorable occasion some years ago, and it was perfectly obvious that she was what everybody said about her - a hugely generous spirit, vivacious and fun, but above all genuine in her interest in and concern for others. She was a big personality with an even bigger heart, and in today's world there aren't many of her calibre. She will be missed.

Christopher Warwick, Ascot, Berkshire

Claire inspired me to train as a nurse and gave me sensible honest advice about all manner of problems. She is totally irreplaceable.

Maria Garner, Grantham

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