Agony Aunts interviewed

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3rd July 2017
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24th August 2017

Agony Aunts interviewed

https://happiful.com/meet-the-agony-aunts-bel-mooney/

BEL MOONEY

Who do you work for?

My advice column appears every Saturday in the Daily Mail, over two pages, with a potential readership of around six million. It consists of two letters, a very personal side column called ‘And Finally’ (which readers love) and a top quotation – a ‘thought for the week’ I choose very carefully to be uplifting and/or thought-provoking.

 

How long have you been an agony aunt?

I began with The Times in 2005, and moved to the Mail two years later. So twelve years in all.

 

How old are you?

I turned seventy last October – which important event I celebrated as another step in the accumulation of life experience and (I hope) wisdom!

 

Do you have any qualifications? Training?

I regard my whole life story as ‘qualification’ enough – having experienced bereavement; family problems in childhood and then later too; nursing a sick child; acute disappointments in my career, marital difficulties ending in divorce; rebuilding and re-marriage and reinvention….Having said that, I also did a short couple- counseling course with the Tavistock Institute, and greatly enjoyed five day-courses with the excellent Human Givens organization, focusing on issues relevant to my column. A third factor is my deep love of literature: all the books, poems and plays I have read I count as ‘training’, since the whole human spirit is there.

 

How did you become an agony aunt?

Sandra Parsons, then Features editor at the Times, was talking to me about freelance work when she suddenly had her light bulb moment that I could write a very personal, ‘literary’ and wide-ranging advice column. I was unsure at first, but quickly realized this is my vocation.

 

How big is your mailbag?

It varies. In a single postbag I will read a variety of comments, fan mail, and pleas for help. People love to enter a dialogue with me; often I will read a very long email, only to reach the end and discover the writer is unburdening, not asking for help on the page! But I do read every single thing.

 

Do you take your work home with you?

I work at home, so it’s always here. But I used to find the invisible presence of so much unhappiness under my roof disconcerting and sometimes depressing. Now I don’t – simply because I’m used to it.

 

Do you get written to by more men than women or vice versa?

More women than men – although I do get very interesting letters from men, and love to use them on the page. I also receive many comments from men, which shows they are reading.

 

Are there some topics you find more difficult than others?

Not really. I do notice that other advice columnists tend to shy away from bereavement, but that is one of my chosen subjects – and many years ago received an award from the charity CRUSE for writing about the subject. The problems I find most upsetting concern toxic family problems and grandparents not allowed to see their grandchildren. As a grandmother I can’t bear to read of their sorrow.

 

Do women and men tend to ask different types of questions?

No, they don’t. Unhappy relationships and bad marriages abound, although more men complain about not getting enough sex. (To be frank, that’s not a subject I enjoy very much – because what can you say?) Bereavement, loss and unhappy wonderings about the point of life itself…those have no gender.

Do you get ‘trends’ of subjects and what’s been the most salient of late?

No, in the twelve years on both papers, the subjects have been constant – and there has been no increase (which I find rather surprising) in problems in relationships due to porn addiction.

 

What have you learned about human relationships?

So much! Let me quote from the long introduction to my selection from the column, called ‘Lifelines – Words To Help You Through’ (2015). I wrote: ‘So many problems going round and round (details given)…I am reminded of something Darwin wrote, ‘Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.’ Yes indeed….Each day my postbag brings proof of self-centredness, and petty conflict and malice and meanness….But set against that there is also the good news of kindness and the saving power of human love.’

 

 

EMMA BARNETT

 

Who do you Work for?

The Sunday Times

 

How long have you been an agony aunt?

8 months!

 

How old are you?

32

 

Do you have any qualifications? Training?

No – but having hosted radio shows for the last 6 years – I’ve listened and given informal advice to a lot of people.

 

How did you become an agony aunt?

Eleanor Mills, the editor of the Sunday Times magazine, invited me to do so and named the column after my no nonsense but kind approach to problems – hence  Tough Love was born!

 

How big is your mailbag?

A few sincere ones a week.

 

Do you take your work home with you?

I carry their problem the whole week and then write my answer by Thursday.

 

Do you get written to by more men than women or vice versae?

I think marginally more women. But only just.

 

Are there some topics you find more difficult than others?

Yes – where there is no clear answer and also it’s not my right to say – such as should I keep my baby? Plus a lack of detail can be a real problem.

 

Do women and men tend to ask different types of questions?

Men ask quite graphic sexual ones and women go deeper with their emotions.

 

Do you get ‘trends’ of subjects and what’s been the most salient of late?

Career issues, general confidence and entrenched family rows.

 

What have you learned about human relationships?

They are messy, brilliant and damn cruel at times. People need to be braver about asking for what they want from another human being.

 

What happens to the letters/correspondence that doesn’t get answered…

They linger in my inbox because you never know…

 

LOUISA YOUNG

 

Who do you work for?

The Amorist, which is a new print magazine about love and sex. I share my post with the writer Damian Barr, who is Agony Uncle to my Aunt. He is male and gay,  funny and caustic with a streak of golden-hearted responsibility; I am straight and female, golden-hearted and responsible with a streak of caustic and funny. It’s a good balance.
How long have you been an agony aunt?

Three weeks!
How old are you?

Halfway to ancient.
Do you have any qualifications?

Not specific to being an Agony Aunt, no. But I have a history degree, so I have learned how to look at situations and consider them from different angles. There’s nothing like trying to unpick a civil war from original documents to set you up for questioning motives and disentangling undertones.
Training?

Nothing professional. When I was a journalist, I did a great many very various interviews, which taught me to listen and be responsible for how I related to people, particularly in writing. And for twenty odd years I’ve been a novelist, which means that like Miss Marple my job is to look at human nature. I spend most of my professional life wondering what would happen if so-and-so did such-and-such, whether it would be a good idea, and how things would be likely to turn out. Almost always, the answer is: Badly. Because we are fools, a lot of the time.
How did you become an agony aunt?

Our fragrant editor, Rowan Pelling, has known me a long time, and approached me. She approached Pamela Anderson first, but Pamela couldn’t do it.

 

How big is your mailbag?
We don’t know yet. Soon-to-be vast, I hope.
Do you take your work home with you?

I work from home anyway . .  but re the problems themselves, yes I find myself still thinking them over after I’ve responded. I should probably learn not to do that.
Do you get written to by more men than women or vice versa?

So far, the problems that have come through have been from women. But there’s only been two— one in our first edition, and one on its way in the second.
Are there some topics you find more difficult than others?

I really don’t want to address sex problems in any great detail. I don’t have a ‘twiddle here and poke there’ practical attitude to sex, and words like caress make me feel ill. I am also very grateful that we are unlikely to get problems from children.
Do women and men tend to ask different types of questions?

Ask me in six months . . .
Do you get ‘trends’ of subjects and what’s been the most salient of late?

Both the ones we have had so far have been from women trying to come to terms with/ work out how to express their dislike of sexual behaviour from their husbands that they don’t appreciate, though they love the husband himself.
What have you learned about human relationships?

From this limited sample, that women are exceptionally obliging and men are selfish oaves. I fully expect to learn in the near future that men are angels of sweetness and women are foul demons from beyond the pale.
What happens to the dilemmas that don’t make the page?

We aren’t yet into such a swing of things that this has arisen. Only our very first edition is out yet, so we are waiting for our readers to decide whether ours are the shoulders on which they want to weep.

Louisa Young is the best-selling, award-winning author of My Dear I Wanted to tell You, The Heroes’ Welcome and Devotion (HarperCollins)

 

DIEDRE SANDERS

 

Who do you work for?

I edit a problem page in The Sun newspaper seven days a week and I answer a problem phone-in on ITV’s This Morning two mornings a week

 

How long have you been an agony aunt?

Nearly 40 years

 

How old are you?

71

 

Do you have any qualifications? Training?

I did all the trainings available through what was then the National Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate) short of becoming one of their counsellors, and over the years have since trained in assertiveness, sexuality, domestic violence, child abuse, anger management, personal development, and written books on depression and on men’s and women’s sexual relationships. I was a founder patron of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, and am a patron of Family Lives, National Association for the Children of Alcoholics and of Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

 

How did you become an agony aunt?

Worked from graduation as a journalist with an interest in relationships and family dynamics, head-hunted from a consumer/women’s rights column in Woman’s Own to the then new Daily Star in 1978, then to The Sun in 1980.

 

How big is your mailbag?

Hundreds of emails and private messages on Facebook at The Sun every week and similar volume of calls to This Morning.

 

What happens to the problems that don’t get printed/on air?

At The Sun I work with a team of six counsellors and we prioritise sending every reader who writes in a personal reply within 24 hours. I select which ones will make for readable and informative columns once the readers have received their personal replies. We often write follow-up emails/FB messages to readers with difficult problems to see if they have received the help they need and if we can be of further assistance.

At This Morning viewers initially talk to one of a team of trained phone-answerers. If their call is not suitable for the phone in they are given details of relevant helplines and organisations. I do my best to give useful replies on air but often call viewers back afterwards to offer more guidance and This Morning’s support team are on hand to follow up cases afterwards until we are confident things are improving.”

I see this ongoing service we provide at both The Sun and This Morning as totally vital – in a way the column and phone-ins are a signpost to the support available.

 

Do you take your work home with you?

It’s often on my mind – and there is a lot of it! I hardly move anywhere at any time without hundreds of readers’ problem emails and FB messages printed out which I read through and work on at every available moment. It’s the only way to get it all done. I’m on holiday next week but taking a few hundred in my suitcase. Luckily I regard people feeling able to share their problems with me as an amazing privilege, and still get a buzz when we hear from someone saying thank you, we have helped. (This is not the royal “we” by the way. I couldn’t manage at all without my Sun team and the back-up at This Morning)

Do you get written to by more men than women or vice versa?

Maybe slightly more women but it’s fairly even and my columns have more or less equal numbers of problems from men and women.

 

Are there some topics you find more difficult than others?

More distressing, certainly – child abuse, for example.

 

Do women and men tend to ask different types of questions?

Much more similar these days than in the past.

 

Do you get ‘trends’ of subjects and what’s been the most salient of late?

No day goes by now without me receiving problems linked to someone’s use of their phone to flirt with, sext or date people outside their relationship or view pornography.

 

What have you learned about human relationships?

They’re complicated – and crucial.

 

VIRGINA IRONSIDE

 

Who do you work for?

I am agony aunt at The Idler and the Oldie

 

How long have you been an agony aunt?

Nearly 40 years

 

How old are you?

I am 73.

 

Do you have any qualifications? Training?

I don’t have any qualifications but I see that as a great advantage. I am really trained as a journalist which, I think, works well. Counsellors listen to people whereas I have to come up with an answer. I also know what works on a page and what questions will hold the reader’s attention. I also feel qualified because I’ve probably had more counselling than just about anyone. I have been depressed since the age of eight. I have done everything from group therapy to psychoanalytic to CBT.

 

How did you become an agony aunt?

I started out as a freelance and I was a single parent and desperate for work. I went to a lunch at Woman magazine and persuaded the editor to hire me and that was that. I felt equipped to do the job as my mother was an alcoholic and suicidal all her life and I just thought it was better to take care f people than let them kill themselves.

 

How big is your mailbag?

It varies but I feel there’s no problem I can’t shed light on.

 

What happens to the problems that don’t get printed/on air?

If I feel something needs referring on, I refer on to counsellors or psychotherapists. I answer all letters. I take them home and often write long replies.

 

Do you take your work home with you?

Yes I do. I think it is my responsibility to treat people’s problems with thought and concern so I answer them privately. I think it is my duty to reply to everyone. I am not in the business of making money from people’s misery.

 

Do you get written to by more women than men or vice versa?

I think it’s an odd crowd who write to agony aunts. I do tend to get more letters from women but men do write in.

 

Are there some topics you find more difficult than others?

Yes. I can’t deal with child abuse. It’s really horrid and I don’t like hearing about that.

 

Do women and men tend to ask different types of questions?

Women like to ask about relationships and men tend to write in about sex

 

Do you get ‘trends’ of subjects and what’s been the most salient of late?

Not really. In the past there was a lot about STDs but people are much better informed now. There’s a lot about growing older and phobias and loneliness and not so much about sex. Really, everyone is far more unhappy an confused than anyone realises and that’s not down to social media. It’s just that we all find it difficult to be truthful about our lives and we all put up a good act.

 

What have you learned about human relationships?

I couldn’t have survived without them and I am not alone in that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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