Dear Margaret, don't do it

Sometimes it's hard to be an agony uncle. Especially when you are evicted from your column by a high-profile divorcee who airs her private troubles in public. Phillip Hodson wonders whether the fashion for notoriously troubled therapists might threaten to undermine a longstanding service to readers

Dear Phillip,

As you probably know, I'm replacing you as agony columnist for Woman's Journal in September. I'm in a bit of a muddle as to whether I'm doing the right thing. One or two medical colleagues say they are shocked by all the latest tabloid publicity, though I welcomed the opportunity to explain how much my sex life has improved since my horrid divorce. It's such a relief that "you know who" can't come on the phone, telling me to shut up and stop talking about him. Having completely laid his ghost, I can't wait to inform your readers that they must do the same thing with their men. You do agree that this latest move is for the best, don't you? You're such an understanding chap, I had to let you be the first to know. It's ripping news, isn't it?

Yours ever, Margaret (Cook)

Dear Margaret,

You must be joking!

News that Margaret Cook intends to join the ranks of the nation's agony aunts is going to do little but harm. First and foremost to herself. The good doctor is clearly in the throes of the most bitter personal resentment against her ex-husband. Maintaining a high public profile and continuing to give insensitive interviews about his sexual adequacy, heavy drinking and personal rudeness (the usual litany) is going to prove highly damaging to those nearest and dearest - her new lover, her two sons, her much-loved mother-in-law, Granny Cook - besides having an impact on Robin and Gaynor. I wonder whether the hidden, unconscious agenda is really to see the man dismissed from office and his new marriage broken?

Highlighting just one of these likely consequences, I would not want to be in the shoes of her new lover Robin Howie - despite public praise of his erotic prowess - because it must surely cross anyone's mind that Margaret Cook's motive for trumpeting has as much to do with her past sexual arrangements as any new, improved ones. Comparisons like this are odious, Margaret. They reduce your new boyfriend to a prize show performer. If you can't see this, you can't "read people" and won't realise what needs protecting in your new correspondents' lives.

Of course, compensatory boasts are endemic in letters from readers (especially those I fear you are now likely to attract in droves), and I guess your response will be simply to say "more power to your elbow". There may even be a sub-text to your entire column which could be summarised as "if in doubt, kick him out" - whereas what is really needed from an advice columnist is the ability to advise caution, "sleeping on it", reframing the problem, somehow seeing the bigger picture.

I wouldn't suggest that we need writers who have never lived, suffered or been run over by the wheel of fortune. But we certainly don't need people pontificating at the moment when the wheel is still revolving and pinching hard, as it is with you. Sure, readers need to be able to identify with a fighting spirit (that great survivor, Molly Parkin, showed her public how to fight through adversity). Readers want some on-the-page optimism and encouragement.

But they also need an objective listener, the village friend, not an ambitious professional with a diagnostic bent who doesn't seem to realise that emotional intelligence begins with knowing when to leave well alone. (Why don't you stop talking about your private life in public, Margaret?)

Then we come to the trade itself. Yes, I know agony columns are good for a snicker by those who hate the "counselling" approach, and by those with emotional problems to conceal. But I have to testify that most of those who write the pages are a fine collective body of men and women; we all know one another and we attempt to be both respectable and responsible. I've been a professional counsellor for many years, but I still carry pounds 1m insurance to cover even my magazine and newspaper opinions. You can be sued by people "daft" enough to take the advice you will now be asked to dispense.

Let me be honest. I am a bit miffed that you've nicked my column before I had quite finished with it. It's not the first time it's happened. Let me share with you some of this inside experience.

I arrived for work one day on a Nameless National Newspaper (called the Daily Star) to pen my weekly spot, "By Phillip Hodson, The Man Who Understands", only to find myself replaced during a coffee break by "The Woman Who Understands": none other than Miss Diana Dors. As far as the new rugby-playing editor from New Zealand was concerned, my bust just wasn't big enough. Then again, when a woman did get to become the editor of a Sunday tabloid, and asked me to write the problem page, her decision was vetoed by the late Captain Bob Maxwell on the grounds that... my bust just wasn't big enough.

For 18 months, I turned up as the BBC's mid-morning Agony Uncle, but when transmission transferred from Manchester to Birmingham my contract did not, because "we essentially see your job as being done by a woman". I was hired for a year by a breakfast TV company who rang me to say that in the first three months of the show I'd surpassed their expectations... but I was being replaced by a woman because "the new programme director feels the need for one".

I was then hired by the (female) editor of another Sunday tabloid with a massive circulation, and for two years happily penned 100 columns while the letters poured in. Guess the next bit! Editor gets chopped and the new chap in charge gives me permanent leave of absence because he's noticed I'm not a woman. As I remember it, the exact phrase was: "The editor feels it desirable to have the column fronted by a female."

Had I been on PAYE, I could surely have sued the company for sexual discrimination.

Of course, I understand that I am not owed a living - least of all in tabloid hell - and while problem pages demonstrably do some good and spread knowledge, there is a price: we rarely manage to get our therapeutic tentacles on the rest of the publication. While I might be writing very sensitively about "gender confusions" on the back page of a newspaper, you can bet that the news desk will be leading up front with "Pervy poofters in gang- bang terror".

The Sun, unfortunately, doesn't answer the problems on page 9 that are caused by pages 1 to 8.

My complaint is more than the personal. We really do need a two-way take on sexism. It's not enough simply to let women become chief constables. We also need to let men become nursery nurses and agony uncles.

The nation needs more male role models - not fewer - who are seen to be toiling with emotions.

So, Margaret, I trust you do understand why I worry that you have no idea what you've let yourself in for, and why I cannot agree that yet another woman is just what's needed in this job.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence