John Dunton founded the Athenian Mercury in the 1690s. A paper that consisted of readers’ questions and the answers. His idea was that readers could send in dilemmas to be answered by a panel of experts, the Athenian Society. But his great innovation was that they could do so anonymously and this has remained a feature of problem pages ever since. Poor old Dunton could have done with some advice himself, because he ended his days in poverty as he was a better innovator than he was a business person. He blamed his woes on other people rather than taking responsibility for his own failings. I think an agony aunt today might have spotted that for him and possibly saved him from destitution.
His panel of experts, depicted as 12 learned men with him in the centre in an engraving at the top of the pages, were largely fictitious. It was just Dunton and a couple of mates who went through all the letters in a coffee shop.
He might have been the first agony uncle to have made up characters to answer problems, but he was not the last. Jackie, a teen magazine published from the 1960s through to the 1990s, had Cathy and Claire answering the letters, except, and I hope this isn’t a shock to you, Cathy and Claire did not exist. It was the job of whoever happened to be the most junior member of the writers’ team to teach readers how to practise kissing on the back of your hand, before you had a go on a real boy.
Magazines may have become creative with making up fictional people to answer the letters, but what I rarely came across in my research into the problem page are made-up problems. The only instance I found was a porn magazine conjuring up salacious questions to spice things up. Even the letters in Jackie were never made up – and they’ve certainly never been less than genuine at the Observer.
The big difference between agony aunts then and today is that now we have the internet to answer those tricky problems about how to eat an avocado pear (a lot of letters in the 70s were avocado-related), what to do about spots and how to remove stains from carpets, so these days the problems we are left with are the personal ones, and it may be surprising how little these have changed over the years.
Deidre Sanders, who I interviewed for Sex, Lies and Love Bites, a 2015 BBC4 documentary, told me that over the three decades she had been answering letters sent to the Sun, people do not change much and that in her experience most of the letters were still about love, relationships and reassurance.
There is one problem we do not see mentioned so much these days, though. In the 1690s, John Dunton was told: “Sir, I’ve addicted myself to a most grievous sin, though I refrain from the commission of it while I’m awake, in my dreams I commit and take pleasure in it.” In the 1970s a reader of Claire Rayner’s column in Petticoat magazine wrote: “I am 16 and I have masturbated all my life. Lately, I told a friend about it and she was horrified and said I would become blind… I can’t believe I have ruined my life about this.” Rayner got angry in response – not at the reader, but at the “stupid destructive rubbish they had been lumbered with… masturbation is not wrong.” She may have had the final word on the subject because this is one problem that I never saw in all my years as the agony aunt at Red magazine.
I had a great time with the problem page at Red and I cannot tell you how delighted I am now to have been offered this opportunity to be the agony aunt for the Observer Magazine. I would have loved to tell my younger self as she lapped up Cathy and Claire and Petticoat magazine, imagining how she would answer, that she would one day achieve her ambition of having the privilege of replying to your dilemmas.
Now that we have Google and Alexa for more practical advice, the problem page is left for talking about ourselves. We like to read it because we are curious about other people. Our circumstances will differ, culture changes over time, but simply by being human we are not unalike.
Agony aunt columns, then and now, speak to what we have in common – and what we don’t. They answer a fundamental paradox: we need both to feel as if we belong and are normal, yet at the same time we want to feel individual and unique. The columns help with both these needs at once. Other people’s dilemmas and the replies may resonate with us. And when they don’t, they give us the opportunity to compare ourselves in relation to what is being discussed.
Our minds are formed in relationship with the people we grow up with, as well as the wider culture. And within families and outside them, other people’s interests will often diverge from our own. This creates inner and interpersonal conflicts. And this is another reason the problem page has never gone away: all of us must cope with such differences.
Maybe your children won’t talk to you, or perhaps your parents don’t leave you alone. It could be you never like work or you love it to the detriment of everything else. You may feel depressed, numb, anxious, overwhelmed or angry. It could be that your relationships or other people are the problem. Or maybe it’s you. So, what can you do about that? Whatever is on your mind, I want to know about it, reflect upon it, possibly learn from it and share my thinking on it. I hope I can help you see things from another perspective, or validate your own. Whatever you are going through, however freakish or ordinary, someone will think “That’s me.” Not every email or letter will be used in the column, but every correspondent will help me know what is concerning people at any given time.
It may take courage to write down what’s bothering you and then send it in. You may feel there is a risk you won’t be taken seriously, be ignored, told off or misunderstood. And then there’s the risk of embarrassment, which does not kill us, but feels like it might. Sometimes humiliation feels so unendurable that the problem is that it hasn’t. And yet, here am I asking you to tell me what unsettles you.
When people are stuck, often I find they don’t know they have a choice about how they could respond to their world. So, unthinkingly, they react. Or sometimes they can overthink things so much that they freeze. These are just two of the countless ways we get entrenched in old and unhelpful patterns. But there are also many approaches that can help us progress. And we need them because when it comes to solutions, one size does not fit all. I hope consulting me may unlock some of them.
When I respond, I’ll draw upon the theories used in therapy. I believe the research and wisdom of such concepts are useful to everyone. I want to spread psychotherapeutic knowledge beyond the confines of the therapy room. It is not my aim to look clever at your expense, or to in any way shame you if you write in. My goal is to understand and help you get unstuck, and in the process maybe help other readers, too.
Writing to an agony aunt is not counselling and can never replace it, as I’m sure you know. Just as you don’t have one weight training session and emerge from the gym with a six-pack, a course of therapy takes at least several weeks and often years. Psychological change is not unlike building up muscle. Thinking differently about something or making a change in how you relate to yourself or others takes time and experimentation. When you have therapy your practitioner is there as the support and a witness through this process.
One of their most important roles is being able to bear what you have to say. You may also learn to experience yourself differently in relationship with the therapist as they mirror back to you aspects of yourself you may be unaware of. As someone on the other end of a computer, I can’t do that. But being a psychotherapist has taught me that people grow in their own way and in their own time, in an environment where they can be themselves and where they are allowed to experiment with who they can be – as opposed to someone, or themselves telling them who they should be. So my approach will be along these lines. I aim to be alongside you rather than opposing you. It won’t be therapy, but it may still be helpful. Writing down a dilemma, knowing someone is going to read it, is useful in itself. My definition of good advice is having something put into words that you have always known, but have never before articulated. When you hear it, or read it, it resonates with you and you think “YES” and things fall into place, even just a little. Obviously that is what I hope I’ll achieve in this column. But you will be the judge of that.
A lifetime of good advice
Jay Rayner, son of Claire, greets Philippa with his own family story of letters and lunch
The first time I met the Observer Magazine’s new agony aunt, it was to discuss agony aunts. The psychotherapist Philippa Perry was making a documentary for BBC4 looking at the history of advice columnists and wanted the skinny on my late mother, Claire Rayner. We met at the LSE, where Claire’s papers are held, and pored over one of her ‘standards’ books, the collection of adaptable-form letters she had compiled to help deal with questions that came up repeatedly. What was immediately striking about Philippa was her level of engagement. She was fascinated by the minutiae of people’s lives; by the myriad things that
She was then just a few months into a new role as an agony aunt for Red magazine, but it was one for which she had long been in training. She started at art school in London as a mature student in the late 1980s and met her husband, the Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry at a creative writing class she took at the same time.
But, as she explained to me recently, when we ate together for my podcast, Out to Lunch, she quickly felt the pull of psychology. ‘I had been resisting the call,’ she said. She decided to train as a psychotherapist, which meant undergoing years of therapy herself. She came to understand how she had misinterpreted her dyslexia as general stupidity. She recognised her deep hatred of confrontation. She did the vital work.
Alongside that training came the accretion of experience. When she’s listening to someone talking about their issues now, she told me, ‘I’m looking for the process, their regular way of responding and reacting to a situation. I may get swept along by the details of the story, but really I’m looking for the bones that story is built upon.’ She is, she said, akin to a car mechanic: ‘I’ve been trained in one area.’
Indeed she has. And it is no accident that Philippa’s recent childcare bible, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, has become an international bestseller. Every page ripples with that killer commodity: properly informed good sense.
The business of handing down advice has changed markedly over the years. My mother had a lengthy career as a nurse, a training which underpinned the advice she gave, all of which was supplemented by an extensive library
of literature and a thirst for knowledge.
All of that was, in turn, piggybacked on the lived experience of a neglected child, which ignited in her a burning indignation at both injustice and the shaming of others. She channelled it all into a dam burst of words for the Sun
and the Sunday Mirror, among others.
In those days every single letter, and there could be 1,000 or more a week, was answered; the house I grew up in was a clearing house: pain in; the salve of advice out. Then again, how else were people to get the advice they so badly needed in those days, unless courtesy of a stamped, addressed envelope?
We live in a very different world now where answers are available to all online. The issue is finding your way to a reliable source; to someone who can stand back and see it like it is and then say it like it is. I’m delighted to say that in Philippa Perry we have got exactly that person. Oh, and as this magazine’s restaurant critic, I should tell you she’s also a fabulous lunch companion. It’s a hell of a package.