Problems, problems . . .

Dismissed as trivial by their peers, threatened by celebrity rivals, tormented by their own psychological demons - the lives of agony aunts are anything but easy. Now, reports Deborah Orr, they are sharing their pain in a new wave of revealing autobiographies
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Irma Kurtz, whose friendly yet authoritative picture byline has been familiar to me since childhood, has now been the agony aunt at Cosmopolitan for an amazing 25 years. It has been a long time indeed since I read the letter in Cosmo from the girl who was dreading her first kiss, because she didn't know what to do. But I still remember my relief that someone else felt that way, and my joy in discovering that Irma's advice was to do what I did anyway, and practise with the crook of one's own elbow.

Kurtz reckons that women like her are the modern equivalent of the village wise women who thrived in bygone eras. Virginia Ironside, who has also plied her craft for decades, and now dispenses advice in The Independent, agrees with her. Cynics would say that this is quite unsurprising.

Ironside reckons, in fact, that the parallel is so apposite that agony aunts are steered clear of in the workplace in a similar way. She claims that, "In nearly every magazine and newspaper I've worked for over the last 25 years, I've been shunted to the edge of the office, marginalised, stuck on a different floor, pushed down a back corridor. Because we are a little frightening, people use humour to reassure themselves when we, or our columns, are around. Agony aunts are not taken seriously. Journalist friends of mine still ask me why I'm not doing something 'proper', rather than producing a weekly newspaper page that it makes them comfortable to see as trivial."

While essentially they are journalists, providing an element in the editorial mix that attracts much reader "traffic", agony aunts are treated as something less serious than the meat of the publication in which they star, marginalised for the voyeuristic compact they make with their correspondents as much as they are prized for their ability to pull in avid readers.

More widely, they are despised by intellectuals as much as astrologers, and considered to be part of a touchy-feely process of cultural dumbing-down that has been progressing since the Sixties, and has now reached, so many of us hope, its terminal velocity.

Virginia Ironside was, not so long ago, the first among agony aunts to claim a billet in the broadsheets. Certainly, such a diversion from the ponderous business of the "qualities" was viewed by some as a terrible erosion of seriousness. Dealing, as they do, in the currency of emotion, agony aunts are quite a challenge to "traditional English values" - those of devotion to duty, making your bed and lying in it, and maintaining the stiff upper lip.

Certainly, there's plenty of evidence that editors nowadays like to think anybody can knock together an agony page. After all, recent years have seen some quite astounding people called to this post. Paula Yates was an agony aunt for a brief spell before her tragic, drug-induced death, and Margaret Cook appeared to be snapped up simply because she'd been dumped by her very public husband very publicly. A similar experience, but with added weight-loss, led editors to believe that Vanessa Feltz was an appropriate person to help solve the problems of desperate strangers.

The old hands were up in arms at this, with Virginia Ironside, in these very pages, asking: "Will Vanessa, like most responsible agony aunts - and like her predecessor, Suzie Hayman [who was sacked from Woman magazine to make way for this 'celebrity name'] - not only reply to their tragic pleas for help, but also follow up their letters to make sure they're all right.

"Vanessa's life is fascinating precisely because it is such a mess. And I'm not saying that genuine agony aunts are paragons of sanity - far from it. But shedding a few stone with the aid of an expensive personal trainer does not mean, in tabloid-speak, that you've 'bounced back'. And, even if you have, just being a celebrity does not give you the authority, experience and knowledge to help people who are truly, truly desperate."

What does give you this "authority, experience and knowledge", though? Agony aunts do provide a service, but it is a dreadful indictment of this society's ability to deal with emotional, personal and psychological problems that they are the first port of call for many people in trouble.

But there it is. During a century - the 20th - which saw increasing medical understanding of psychological problems; treated sexual difficulties with increasing liberality; came gradually to embrace the tenets of the 12-step programme, of the self-help manual, of the gaping gap in people's ability to access their spirituality - or even their moral compass - left by the gradual collapse of organised religion, agony aunts were the people who plugged the gap.

Yes, it might have been better if the "voyeuristic compact" had not been needed. But in order for agony aunts, providing a service that no one else was providing, to do their work, such was the compact they had to make.

Agony aunts who take their calling seriously are conduits. Certainly they have to be empathetic. But when a real problem turns up in their in-tray, what they really need are contacts. What they do best is to dispense not advice but information. Any responsible agony aunt will find herself again and again telling correspondents that they must "visit their GP", or "seek professional help" or "contact such-and-such a group on this number". Agony aunts are the Citizens Advice Bureaux of the psyche. Whatever the editorial compromises they make by turning people's troubles into entertainment for the untroubled or the only slightly concerned, they do provide a genuine service.

But what an odd service it is. Most of us are only consumers of agony columns. Maybe sometimes, while reading about other people's difficulties, we may see, and feel reassured about, a trouble of our own. But mainly, the consumers of agony columns will never write to one. In this respect, agony columns are totally fake - and often they're accused of making up their letters - because while we might even kid ourselves that we feel real sympathy with the people who do write in, we don't. They mean nothing to us, and anyway, someone is looking after them. They're not our problem, they're our light reading.

Funnily enough, though, the agony aunts themselves are no longer happy to provide only our light reading, if indeed they ever were. Claire Rayner is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, and although she said she'd never write her autobiography, somehow it hit the bookshops in March just the same.

Others among the long-standing stalwarts of the agony industry have not made such extravagant vows, but all the same it has taken Kurtz many years to break out of her glossy monthly page and into the travelogue, first with Dear London and more recently with Then Again (Fourth Estate). It has taken Ironside even longer to come up with the book she must have been considering writing for most of her adult life - a shocking memoir of her mother and herself, the forthcoming Janey and Me.

I daresay there are masses of people who are fully aware that Ironside is the daughter of a famous woman. But this was a revelation to me. Ironside, as far as I can remember, has been on the scene for as long as Kurtz, an unchanging emotional port in the storm of mediated emotional life.

I'd never considered the fact that agony aunts had mothers at all. But it turns out, in fact, that they do. Strangely, from reading these three quite different but oddly concomitant books, it even seems that agony aunts all have a certain sort of mother - an emotionally distant one, whom they as children and young women did not feel they could, or should, confide in.

Irma Kurtz, it has to be admitted, does not reveal enough in her book for much in the way of conclusions about her relationship with her mother to be drawn. Suffice, though, to say that her book retraces the journey round Europe she made as a young woman, desperate, it would seem, to leave her life in the US behind. Kurtz gives every impression of having a normal family back in New Jersey. Nevertheless, she never really made it home from her trip, and settled in London for the rest of her life. This does not prove that she had "issues" with her mother - acknowledged or not. But at one point in her memoir, she pats her bag and notes that it has her mobile phone in it, her only contact with "Mother and her carers". The whole set-up does not immediately speak of close family ties.

No such ambivalence for Claire Rayner or Virginia Ironside, who both absolutely hate their mothers, and, in their persuasive views, with good reason. These mothers, unlike Kurtz's, are far too dead to be injured by the amazing mud-slinging that their daughters indulge in. Kurtz's mother though, as a call to the carers could perhaps confirm, still seems to be alive.

Perhaps this is the reason why Kurtz's own book seems less than alive. Kurtz is clearly an interesting and erudite woman. But her book, which is sub-titled "Travels in search of my younger self", offers little insight into either the young Irma Kurtz or the woman who exists today.

Ironside's book, though, is a total contrast to this, crackling with anger, drawing vivid portraits both of her mother's insatiable craving for experience, and her own passive absorption of it. Ironside is far from being the cool, calm, self-invented woman she has appeared for all these years to be.

Instead she is a woman who has lived forever in the shadow of Janey Ironside, who, as head of the fashion school at the Royal College of Art, was a style icon, an iconoclast, and one of the primary architects of the period in which the style atom was split, and London started to swing. Unfortunately, she was also a self-absorbed alcoholic with a penchant for promiscuous infidelity and scant interest in such minor matters as her only begotten child. The students, though, she adored, just as passionately as they adored her. Ironside still seems utterly furious about the whole damned scene.

Likewise, Claire Rayner, who again has been around forever being a good, brave, sensible egg, also has a major bone to pick with her mother. Rayner's childhood makes really rather gristly reading. Her chosen title for her autobiography, How Did I Get Here From There? (Virago), is entirely apposite. Here is a woman who had every possible reason to fail miserably in life. Instead she has triumphed in every way - professionally respected, happily married, and a woman who genuinely helped to shape the times in which she has lived. Her only tiny failure is that she cannot forgive her mother, who really did not love her in the way a child should be loved.

This is not the only similarity that leaps out of the pages of the books of the three women. They all identify themselves as outsiders, at various times in their lives, and all consider themselves to be, as agony aunts, part of the women's movement.

All are concerned - maybe every woman is - with the physical effects of ageing and the creeping invisibility that the process brings to women. Although all approach it in a different way - Rayner quite breezily, Kurtz fairly anthropologically, and Ironside in the same way as her mother did, with recourse to cosmetic surgery.

While again in Kurtz's book there are only references to "dark times", both Rayner and Ironside are explicit about their attacks of depression over the years, particularly postnatally. All have many other things in common too, not least of which being that they're all effortless communicators and gifted writers, and all quite formidably intelligent.

What the books together reveal is that agony aunts were not just a media gimmick - even though it is possible that they are becoming such now - but that they were women moulded from a certain experience who all ended up finding a similar outlet for that experience and for similar reasons. All this really suggests is that there's something solid, meaningful, and integral about the whole agony-aunt phenomenon. Now, as parvenus are being hired for the sake of a passing instead of enduring byline, it might be a jolly good thing - as Claire Rayner might say - to take note of that.

Virginia Ironside's 'Janey and Me' will be published in September (Fourth Estate)