M Profile: Caron Freeborn - Cambridge's Unlikely Don; She Was a Drug Addict at 14 Whose Family Paid Protection Money to the Krays. Home Was an East End Council House, She Played Truant from School and Dreamed of Being a Stripper. Remarkably, Caron Freeborn Is Today a Leading Academic Light on Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University

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Byline: Barbara Davies

Her cockney accent may seem out of place in the book-lined study, but the audience of undergraduates hang on to her every word.

Straight out of their various public schools, the students are initially shocked by the effing and blinding of their English tutor, but at Cambridge University, Caron Freeborn is regarded as something of an oracle when it comes to Shakespeare.

"When I first came here," she smiles, "if I opened my mouth to say anything, people would laugh. Because of my accent they assumed I must be saying something funny."

Sitting in her favourite armchair, the 35-year-old cuts a striking figure in Lacroix and Prada, spiky heels and tattoos - hardly the stereotypical Cambridge don.

But then growing up in the heart of London's working-class East End, where her family paid protection money to the Krays and she became a drug addict by the age of 14, Caron's aspirations once extended only as far as working as a hostess in an illegal drinking den.

When she played truant from school, preferring to get high with her friends, she could never have imagined that one day she would be a leading academic and an expert on Renaissance literature at one of the world's most famous universities. Not to mention an up-and-coming novelist.

As a child, Caron assumed her life would follow a path no different from that of the rest of her family, who have been in the East End for "as long as anyone can remember".

Her waitress mother Bobbie and her gas-fitter father Tony had married as teenagers and both had left school with virtually no education to start earning a living to help support their own parents.

Born Caron Severn, she grew up in a two-bedroom, end-of-terrace house with a tiny garden, sharing her bedroom with her adult cousin Kenny, who was brought up as her brother.

"My mum always told me that when she first moved to the house she thought she had died and gone to heaven because it had a bathroom and electric lights in all the rooms," says Caron.

"When she was a girl she was so poor that when she got her first job and bought a bar of soap she had to lock it away from her sisters. Our house was luxury compared to those days."

Like the rest of her family, Caron was raised in a culture where violence and criminality were the norm.

Her uncle Ronnie, who owned a scrap yard in Stepney, used to pay protection money to the Krays and every Friday night he had to go to the pub for a drink with them.

"Had to," emphasises Caron, "absolutely had to.

"And when Kenny was a kid, the Krays used to give him a couple of quid pocket money each week."

Caron readily admits that her family are "not quite legit".

"Where I come from, everything in everybody's house is hooky. It's all bought down the pub."

Her childhood years were rough and ready but loving and happy. The tiny family home was never silent - on the rare occasions the TV was switched off, her father would play his Tony Bennett records and sing along noisily.

Holidays abroad were out of the question, but each year the family would pile in to her father's Ford Cortina and head off to Pontins in Great Yarmouth.

Like the rest of her family, education held no meaning for Caron and she regarded her school years as nothing more than a hardship.

"When I was little, I wanted to be a stripper," she laughs. "I thought the music was fantastic. That was the beginning and end of my ambitions."

But her love of books was the thing that would finally set Caron apart.

"I started off with Alice In Wonderland which I found in the local library and I never looked back," she says. "I used to spend my pocket money on Enid Blyton."

By the time she reached senior school in 1977, it was becoming clear that she was far brighter than her contemporaries, but for Caron this was more of a curse than a blessing. …