Rayner's gift was turning taboos into knowledge
British agony aunt Claire Rayner's death marks not just the end of a good woman, but of an era, writes Jemima Lewis
Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00
THERE are moments when you suddenly realise that an era -- your era -- has slunk past almost unnoticed. With the death of Claire Rayner last week, we have lost not just a good woman, but a part of our culture: the golden age of the agony aunt is at an end.
Although Rayner was probably more proud of her work as a health campaigner and novelist, she couldn't help the way the public felt about her. To us, she wasn't just an agony aunt -- she was the apogee of the profession. It was partly the way she looked: a cross between Mrs Pepperpot and Hattie Jacques. Silver-haired and matronly, with the kind of broad bosom into which one longs to weep, she was cosy enough to invite our confidences, brisk enough to sweep aside even the most deep-rooted embarrassment.
Younger readers may find this hard to imagine, but there was a time when orgasms were not often discussed on breakfast television. It was Rayner's gift that she was able to talk about such things -- as well as demonstrating how to put on a condom, and endlessly waving sanitary towels around on air -- without causing riots on the streets.
When I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, the sexual revolution was a fait accompli, but no one yet knew how to talk about it.
Teenagers of my generation giggled endlessly about sex, but were still clueless about the nuts and bolts. We talked in code to disguise our own ignorance; nobody dared admit that we hadn't the first idea what "first base" was, or whether we might have reached it during that long night in the back row of Ewell cinema with the boy with garlicky breath.
Meanwhile, we had no words for the things that were really troubling us: the uncool, uncomfortable, humiliating commonplaces of growing up.
I was 16 before I dared talk to a friend about periods, by which time I had been silently contending with them for five years. Almost everything I knew about my changing body I gleaned from the problem pages of Just 17 or Mizz.
These days, a teenager in my predicament -- or an impotent husband, or a mother who can't shift the baby blues -- would simply Google the problem. One click and you're in touch with the relevant charity, medical association or chat room. The internet is humming with fellow sufferers and survivors, everyone eager to share the lessons of their experience.
This may be one of the reasons why professional agony aunts are increasingly being elbowed aside by celebrity amateurs. At the peak of their powers, Rayner and her fellow titans of the agony trade (among them Marje Proops, Anna Raeburn and Virginia Ironside) were the human equivalents of Google: one-woman databases, wherein resided all the expert opinion, life experience, leaflets and telephone numbers you could possibly need to get through a crisis.
Back then, the problem page was a lifeline; these days, it is closer to entertainment. A background in glamour modelling is all the modern agony aunt requires: Katie Price, Abbie Titmuss and Jodie Marsh have all had their own columns. Their advice tends to be (mercifully) vague: more of a sympathetic, all-men-are-bastards shrug than a recommended course of action.
You could argue that this is a good thing. Rayner's work is done: there can hardly be a soul left on these shores who does not know where to go for advice on depression, contraception, menstruation and everything else that we were once too embarrassed even to name.
But sometimes you need more than just information, or even non-judgmental sympathy. You need a mother figure; a final authority; someone to tell you in no uncertain terms what to do.
Rayner, with her urgent, wheezing conviction and her nurse's air of competence, didn't just have the answer -- she was the answer. A human tonic for all our woes.