How did you get a job as an agony aunt?
In 2005, after the end of my first marriage and when I was trying to rebuild my life, I was talking to Sandra Parsons, at the Times, about work. I needed to earn money! Suddenly the tenor of our conversation led to her light bulb moment, and she asked if I had ever thought of writing an advice column. ‘No way’ I replied. ‘But you should,’ she said – and the rest is history.
From 2005-2007 I wrote in the Times, and then was ‘poached’ by Paul Dacre, the legendary editor of The Daily Mail. June will mark my 10th year with the Mail – I am proud to be a part of such a successful and campaigning newspaper. The editor gives me absolute autonomy to choose two letters a week (and I read all my correspondence), write a side column on any subject at all, and provide a weekly uplifting quotation for the top of the page. We have a huge and varied readership…and I can honestly say that I love my readers.
And how often do you publish?
Every Saturday, over two pages, 50 weeks per year.
Do you think you have any special qualities that make you a good choice for advice?
I’ve always been able to see many sides of one issue, and felt empathy for those who suffer. And I think that having experienced pain yourself is essential. I’ve known terrible family problems, bereavement, infidelity and divorce, as well as bringing up a sick child. I’ve been there. To that I would add two other factors. First, I am a very literary person and have read widely, as well as being the author of six novels, about 30 children’s books, and 47 years-worth of varied journalism. All that feeds my column – and the actual quality of the writing is very important. Second, I wear my heart on my sleeve. My readers really do feel they know me, as I write from my own experience when relevant. It gives me deep (and humble) pleasure when strangers write to say they think of me as the friend they’d like next-door – but that can only happen because I’m willing to share my emotions with them.
Do you believe agony aunts should be qualified in any specific way?
Life experience is just as important as any diploma, I reckon. Having said that, I do read widely in related areas, and did a short course in couple counselling at the Tavistock. I’ve also attended four separate day courses run by the interesting organization ‘Human Givens’, on subjects relevant to the dilemmas I tackle. But I still stand by something I wrote in my 2010 memoir (about my divorce and recovery), ‘A Small Dog Saved My Life”: ‘…I may not have any formal qualifications to advise people on emotional issues, but it takes more than a piece of paper to understand pain.’
What else do you do?
I love to read widely, and review books for the Mail – non-fiction, nature and poetry. I collect art and love to go to galleries. We live in Bath and enjoy the theatre and arts scene in that city. And I have three grandchildren nearby, which is a delight.
Are there any problems that come up more often?
Family problems break my heart – you know, in-laws, sad grandparents, estranged children. And of course I could run two letters about a bad marriage each and every week. But I don't, because a big column like mine, in a popular newspaper, must be various. So I’m careful to vary the subjects and the tone.
Is therapy or counselling something often suggested?
Yes, indeed – as I am a great believer in ‘talking cures’. I have suggested people look at the excellent Welldoing.org site too!
Do you ever suggest using apps?
No – because I don't use any myself. Haven’t quite caught up with the app world….
What about self-help books? Which ones?
Yes, over the years I’ve recommended too many to list here. Relate publishes good ones. Breaking Up Blues by Denise Cullington is good. I also like recommending books which are not specifically self-help, like the class, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by Scott Peck. I also recommend poems, because they can so often ease the soul better than anything.
Do you think women are more likely than men to turn to an agony aunt for advice?
Yes, I do. Men certainly write to my column but over four fifths of the letters are from women. I think women are more likely to go for counselling too which is shame, as men probably need it more, as they find it harder to talk about emotions with friends.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I come from a humble Liverpool background and always remember my mother saying to me, when I was a teenager about to go off to university for the first time (and the first one in my family to do so): ‘Remember you’re just as good as them.’
Do you think advice can be generation-neutral?
The big questions in life have no age and no gender. I believe there is too much fragmentation nowadays, too many interest and ‘victim’ groups. Do I have to be a gay man to advise a gay man about his broken heart? Of course not. Do I have to be young to understand the problem of a 22-year old girl? No. I have published letters from children and from people in their nineties.
In the time you have been an agony aunt how do you think readers’ problems have changed?
Over the 12 years, and with two readerships (Times and Mail) they have remained absolutely constant: marriage, relationships, family, bereavement, friendship and work issues – and the category I call ‘angst’ – which poses big, sad questions about the point of life.
It would have been equally interesting to ask if I have changed! My answer to that would be ‘Yes.’ I don't cry over letters as much as I did at the beginning, because now I am used to the messiness of people’s lives. In that sense I have become a tad more tough – which does not mean hard-hearted.