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TX: 09.11.07 - Shirley Conran and ME

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


CONRAN
Well it was a very successful time in my life because it was 1970 and I had just been Woman's Editor on the Observer and I had gone to the Daily Mail as the Woman's Editor and we had just started Female, which was a 16 page magazine then and was a huge immediate success. And I got virus pneumonia. And I went into hospital with virus pneumonia and came out with ME.

WHITE
Can you tell me some of the things that were said to you by doctors before you really got to grips with what it was?

CONRAN
Oh well the doctor's attitude was perfectly simple - if I can find nothing physically wrong with you then you must be mad so you need a psychiatrist and if he can't find what's wrong with you then you must be - what's the word? - uncooperative. At that time I was a very meek and mild and obedient, well brought up middle class person who believed that doctors knew what they were talking about. And the first psychiatrist I was sent to was unfortunately the one who started the myth that ME is hysteria. Now I don't think I've been hysterical for 35 years and I don't think you can write bestsellers if you're hysterical and I have written 12. So I said I wanted another psychiatrist. So the next psychiatrist said my problem was I wanted to draw attention to myself and I said look I'm an editor on the Daily Mail, I have a stack of invitations a foot high every morning on my desk, I can get all the attention I want if only I can stand up. And the third psychiatrist - I've forgot what he said - oh he said I was work shy, which is ridiculous. All my family - we have wonderful work and we love it and it's very creative work.

WHITE
How difficult was it for you not to have a firm diagnosis?

CONRAN
I think it was extremely stressful because to be told that you needed a psychiatrist in 1970 was a serious social stigma. It wasn't till I sat down with a mug of tea and thought I am not this ridiculous person they're describing, I am going to deal with it in my own way.

WHITE
Can I take you back to Superwoman which of course is a guide to household management, it was a huge success and when it came out the assumption was it really stemmed from how an enormously busy and successful woman managed to cope with everything else. That wasn't the real story was it?

CONRAN
No it wasn't. What happened, as I told you, all my colleagues were very helpful, one of them was somebody called Patrick Seal who had been European editor of the Observer and that was how he knew me and he decided he wanted to be a literary agent. And one day he phoned me up and said: Shirley, I've sold your book. And I said: What book? And he said: The book you're writing about housework. And I said: Well I'm not, I'm writing notes about housework because I know nothing about it, I've never done it before and I can't afford to have anybody else to do it now. And he said: Well I've got a cheque from a publisher in my hand. I said: I'm writing a book. So that was how it started.

WHITE
But those notes were really about how you could cope with the limited energy you had, not the limited time you had?

CONRAN
It was how to minimise housework and of course the reason I had to do it was because I had so very little energy.

WHITE
But that book of course plunged you or potentially plunged you into a whirl of activity - promoting it - how did you cope with that?

CONRAN
On my back as they say. No seriously I very quickly got the reputation for being a prima donna but at the time the publishers were thrilled at my being number one because they hadn't had a number one since before the First World War and then it was Rupert Brooks poetry. So this rather went to their heads and they hired a magnificent maroon Jaguar with chauffeur for me and I said I'm sorry I can't tour England in that, I have to have a Bedford van with a mattress in the back. Bedford van because it had no windows, you see, so it was dark. And every luncheon wherever I was I had to lie down in the bookshop manager's office for an hour on the carpet, on the floor, even - no matter how dirty the carpets were and they sometimes were very dirty.

WHITE
What advice would you give to other people about coping with ME from your long experience?

CONRAN
Well what works for me is two hours up and 20 minutes down in a darkened room or else if I'm - if I can't get in a darkened room I'll just lie on the floor with a sleep mask, I never go anywhere without a sleep mask in my bag.

WHITE
And this is what you call pacing really is it, as far as your lifestyle is concerned?

CONRAN
Yes, 90% of patients agree that pacing is what really works. But it's very, very difficult, it sounds very easy. I found that I had to put that determination and willpower, it's not so much a question of willpower but won't power that you need here, you need - instead of using it to get you to do things you need to use it to get you to stop things.

WHITE
I think you have tried cognitive behaviour therapy, what's your feeling about that?

CONRAN
Oh I think CBT is very, very good for not only people with ME, I think it's good for everybody, just as I think everybody probably needs a psychiatrist after they're 21 years old. And if you have ME you certainly need a psychiatrist to deal with the difficulties that the medical profession is going to put in front of you.

WHITE
One last question: Looking back over the time that you've had this condition do you think anything good has come out of you having ME?

CONRAN
ME has brought me a lot of good things, it got me to a psychiatrist, it made money for me, it gave me an international fame and it gave me a job that I simply love which is writing books.

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