A terrible revenge. Peter Dunn recalls the bad old days of Anne Robinson, and wonders at the public monster she became

Memoirs of an Unfit Mother

Anne Robinson<em> Little, Brown, 285pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0316857777

Anne Robinson, she of the low boredom threshold, has always known how to say goodbye. About 30 years ago, when we were fellow reporters on the Sunday Times, she and her then boyfriend, Johnny Penrose (now her husband), were staying with us at our cottage in Oxfordshire, drinking the day away. Robinson was sitting on a fireside rug. Penrose, standing next to her, made some remark and Robinson screwed up her face and asked: "Why don't you just fuck off?" Penrose shrugged, walked out and drove back to the Mirror in London for his shift in the newsroom.

Later that night, I was awakened by voices and went to investigate. Anne was in the sitting room with her back to the door. She was saying to my wife, Lis: "Why don't you leave him, then?" She turned, saw me and bolted out under my arm, leaving her hosts to have a huge row.

Many of her colleagues on the paper experienced this dark side of Anne in her cups: the slurred summons across the newsroom (by phone) to listen as she ranted on about some ashen colleague on a neighbouring desk; the dreaded rota at the Blue Lion, the paper's pub on the Gray's Inn Road, to return her home to her husband, Charlie Wilson, a chippy Glaswegian headbanger from the Daily Mail who later edited the Times for Rupert Murdoch. On one of my night runs, Charlie answered the door in his pyjamas before turning curtly on his heel. Anne changed into a very short nightdress and was soon bouncing up and down in an armchair, saying: "Give 'em a drink, Charlie. Give 'em a drink, Charlie." Wilson poured whiskies, then looked at me with loathing. "The t-r-r-ouble wi' the Sunday Times," he said, "is it's run by fuckin' college boys."

Robinson herself could be a bit scary, even with friends who tried to look after her. Her mockery of colleagues was often devastating. She decided that the paper's crime reporter, John Ball, didn't pull his editorial weight, and said of him: "Poor John. He's only had that typewriter two years and already it's gone in for its first 500-word service."

I suspect that Robinson wrote Memoirs of an Unfit Mother for quite complex reasons. The fame and fortune (always a benchmark for herself and for her judgements of others) she has achieved as inquisitor on The Weakest Link justify a celebratory autobiography. It will have made her lots of money to boast about. More than that, I'm sure she wanted to get in first before someone else laid their hands on the scalpel. No harm in any of that, except that Robinson has used the exercise to wreak a terrible revenge on almost every important person who influenced her life. It's very skilfully done, with much praise before the little balled fist sinks into the victim's solar plexus. Charlie is my darling, but he used to knock me about and he was ghastly on the honeymoon; Johnny is also a darling, sooo artistic, funny and considerate, but how feckless, how sulky when I got a better job than him on the Mirror and he got sacked and I still made Robert Maxwell give me a Mercedes. With an on-board telephone.

None of this viciousness is apparent in the first two, enjoyable sections of the book, in which she talks about her extraordinary mother, the Duchess, a market stallholder who conquered the meat and poultry business in Liverpool and taught her daughter to despise men (as she did her meek husband) and to have someone do the Hoovering. Robinson took this to heart, so much so that, in north London, she even had a nanny for her dog Guinness, a gigantic creature whose tumuli of garden evacuations kept visitors on their toes.

Her first job in journalism, kitted out by her mother with a green MG car and, later, a mink coat for doorstepping, was with the North London News Agency; it marked her down as the tough, resourceful young journalist who later worked on the Daily Mail (where Charlie Wilson was deputy news editor) and the Sunday Times. Robinson points out, quite rightly, that those were difficult times for young female reporters. Celia Haddon, her contemporary on the Mail (who later wrote about her own drink problem), told me that one executive she had worked for would grab her breasts when it pleased him. Even on the Sunday Times, the news desk deliberately humiliated Robinson by sending her to cover an FA Cup final crowd story when seven months pregnant.

The book's darkest (and most tedious) section covers the 1973 court battle between Wilson and Robinson for custody of their little daughter, Emma. Only then did Sunday Times friends of Anne's realise that social invitations to the couple's various houses had been monitored (usually by sycophantic Mail employees of Charlie's) for evidence of their gross behaviour. The writer Ian Jack, hearing that an affidavit would accuse him of being sick in Charlie's bath after delivering Anne home, absented himself abroad for the duration of the hearings. Robinson has never forgiven the judge for deciding, in effect, that Emma would be better off with Wilson's nannies than with hers. Given the ferocity of the battle - even the equable Penrose had deserted her for Charlie's cause after suspecting her of spooning with one of her legal team - the offer of maternal access seemed a reasonable compromise.

Judged by her own account of her life since then, Robinson remains something of an enigma. Was she an alcoholic, as her stupendous benders suggested? Or was she genetically addicted to the kind of rage for recognition and wealth that also drove her mother to drink? When, two years after giving up the booze, Johnny persuaded the Mirror to give her a job, her solipsistic ego made her a natural for the kind of Glenda Slagg column in which she could lacerate Joan Collins for wearing thick make-up, Princess Diana for image-building visits to hospices, and Johnny (referred to as Himself) for his funny taste in underpants. As a features editor on the paper, she enticed some of her old Sunday Times mates, including my wife, to write for her, then got bored with them. My memory here is of Lis, on her knees and in tears on the telephone, while Robinson lacerated a piece she had commissioned.

Robinson's book proclaims her contempt for men, and yet there is hardly an episode in her life when men have not played a significant role, either in picking her up or hoisting her career, from Frank Keating, the sports writer whom she nearly married and who wrote the test pieces that got Robinson her first news agency job, to Robin Day, with whom she may or may not have had an affair, to Johnny Himself, who wrote her copy when she was too drunk to file to her employers at the Liverpool Echo. Like Margaret Thatcher, who Robinson thinks got it right about husbands, it does make you wonder how Mrs Penrose will cope when and if the dungheap of celebrity television collapses beneath her.