Virginia Ironside: 38 years of solving problems
Virginia Ironside has been an agony aunt for 38 years. She tells John Walsh how she tackles people's problems
On 18 June 1993, Virginia Ironside published her first agony-aunt piece in British newspaper The Independent.
The column was called "Dilemmas" and the first dilemma belonged to a woman worrying that her cleaning lady was stealing money. "In hindsight, it was an odd one to start the column with," she says today. "More suitable for The Lady than The Independent ... "
For the next 20 years her weekly Dilemmas slot has brought the troubles, traumas, disappointments and woes of the world to her door, dealing with readers' problems – patiently, empathically, clearly, always kindly.
Before The Independent, however, she'd had 18 years of agony, so to speak, in other outlets.
Her first column was at Woman in 1978, when she was 33 and, after a starry early career – publishing a novel, Chelsea Bird, at 19, being pop columnist and television reviewer on the Daily Mail – she was "scratching a living. I was a divorced single parent, living with my son, taking in lodgers, working on Saturdays, writing columns for 19 and Girl About Town. I was pitching ideas at lunch with someone from Woman, who she announced she had to leave before coffee to find a replacement for Anna Raeburn, who was resigning from her column. I said, 'Oh God, I've always wanted to do that job.' She sat down again and said, 'Maybe I'll stay for coffee...'"
Ladies' magazines in the mid-1970s weren't the racy journals of sexual emancipation they are now. "Before Anna, Evelyn Home was the agony aunt. She presided over a terrible period of repression. You weren't allowed to use the word 'bottom' anywhere – not even 'the bottom of the garden. Anna changed all that – she'd worked on Forum – and now it was all 'penis', 'vagina', 'clitoris', the works."
She was bewildered by the readers' sudden hunger for information about sex. "We had a flood of letters asking, 'How do I have a simultaneous orgasm?' and 'Where's my G-spot?' and 'Do females ejaculate?'"
She inherited a team of letter-answerers, mostly single women d'un certain age. "When it came to sex questions – well, none of them was married, they were all baffled. They'd come into my office saying, 'How do I answer this?' and 'What is a blowjob?'"
What did she think qualified her for the job? "I'd been depressed for years and seen every psychotherapist in the world so, though I didn't have the answer to everything, I had a model of how to approach problems, and sounded confident."
Why had she been depressed? "My mother was alcoholic, I was an only child, my parents' marriage was really miserable, and I'd spent most of my childhood either gloomy, or trying to make things right – trying to get them to talk to each other. I could put myself in other people's shoes, and intuit how they might think and react."
So she was launched on the seas of emotional trauma, family rivalry, fractured friendships, marital distrust and ghastly children. From Woman she went to the Sunday Mirror, then Eddie Shah's Today, then back to the Sunday Mirror, then the Sunday Post – and then The Independent. Along the way she met the doyennes of the agony circuit.
"Deidre Sanders of The Sun is still a dear friend. We used to meet for lunch at the Gay Hussar – Katie Boyle, Clare Rayner, Marje Proops, Deirdre and me, and sometimes Irma Kurtz."
How had she got on with the legendary Marje Proops, queen bee of agony aunts? "I adored her. I thought she was an absolute sweetheart, a very motherly and charming woman. And she stabbed me in the back in a way that was quite astonishing."
Whaaat? What did she do?
"She took over my job at Sunday Mirror when the newspaper became a seven-day operation – but did it so unpleasantly, lying to me, saying horrible things behind my back – then ringing up and saying, 'Darling, shall we have lunch?' She was a monster. But when she turned the old beam of light upon you, you flowered."
Virginia is proud of the library of information leaflets she wrote and disseminated to readers. "When we were starting out, Deirdre and I wrote masses of leaflets. There were ones for stillbirth, about cutting yourself, bulimia, arthritis, miscarriage, blushing . . . Then the internet came along so the leaflets became redundant."
The internet has inspired, Virginia says, a whole category of problems that weren't around before the 21st Century. "Things like, 'Should I meet someone off the internet?', or a girl at school might write that she's being cyberbullied."
Had there been letters she couldn't answer?
"There are no unanswerable problems, but some are unusable. One or two were too visceral – a question about spots on the clitoris, you wouldn't use that; it's too medical.
"The strangest letter I ever had was from a man who believed he was dead, and couldn't convince anyone that he was. It was pitiful. He believed he'd suffocated himself with a pillow. There's a name for his condition – Cotard's Syndrome.
"A man wrote to me about the breakdown of his marriage and we corresponded, though I always thought there was something odd about him. Once he came to see me at the office. Later, I was wrapping china in newspaper and found a headline over his picture, saying: 'Laughing maniac sent to Broadmoor.' It seems he'd pushed a woman under a Tube train." She paused to reflect. "He wrote to me from Broadmoor for a while, until my then-partner said, 'Could you please stop this?'"
Which Dilemma elicited the best response?
"The ones that always get the most voluminous response are anything to do with pet bereavement. All these letters saying 'My dog has also died,' 'My cat has died...' The first time it happened, there was enough to fill a book." Which she duly wrote (Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coping with the Death of a Pet) in 1994.
Other revelations from Ms Ironside's decades of agony:
1) Letters asking about correct etiquette at weddings or dinner parties have dried up completely.
2) Men infrequently seek advice – and often it's, "Our children have left home and my wife is very upset ... "
3) Letters threatening suicide are rare. "The fact that they're writing means they think there's a way out."
4) When strangers at parties discover her occupation and tell her about their affair with their sister-in-law, she doesn't run a mile.
"I love people asking my advice," she said with fervour. "It's flattering to feel wanted. I love being an agony aunt. When you feel pretty depressed a lot of the time, it's lovely to see a lot of letters from people more miserable than you, and be able to offer comfort."
The doyenne of the advice column ends with a poetic reflection on what's in it for the advice-dispenser: "If somebody comes to you cold and starving, you build a fire and make a meal and share it with them. And as you do, the heat from the fire comes your way, and you share the food you make and as you help, you help yourself in a curious way. That's why giving advice and helping people is not totally unselfish. You get off on its comforts yourself."