Virginia Ironside: 'It's lovely to offer comfort to someone more miserable than you'

John Walsh talks to Virginia Ironside about 20 years of answering your dilemmas

On 18 June 1993, Virginia Ironside published her first agony-aunt piece in The Independent. The column was called "Dilemmas" and the first dilemma belonged to a woman worrying that her cleaning lady was stealing money. "In hindsight, it was an odd one to start the column with," she says today. "More suitable for The Lady than The Independent…"

For the next 20 years her weekly Dilemmas slot has brought the troubles, traumas, disappointments and woes of the world to her door. The Statue of Liberty herself hardly welcomed more lost and sorrowful refugees than Virginia welcomed from the battlefield of marriage and the no man's-land of emotional disarray. A Stakhanovite of sympathy, she has never missed a week in 20 years: that's a thousand columns, dealing with readers' problems – patiently, empathically, clearly, always kindly.

Before The Independent, however, she'd had 18 years of agony, so to speak, in other outlets.

Her first column was at Woman in 1978, when she was 33 and, after a starry early career – publishing a novel, Chelsea Bird, at 19, being pop columnist and television reviewer on the Daily Mail – she was "scratching a living. I was a divorced single parent, living with my son, taking in lodgers, working on Saturdays, writing columns for 19 and Girl About Town. I was pitching ideas at lunch with someone from Woman, who she announced she had to leave before coffee to find a replacement for Anna Raeburn, who was resigning from her column. I said, 'Oh God, I've always wanted to do that job.' She sat down again and said, 'Maybe I'll stay for coffee...'"

Ladies' magazines in the mid-1970s weren't the racy journals of sexual emancipation they are now. "Before Anna, Evelyn Home was the agony aunt. She presided over a terrible period of repression. You weren't allowed to use the word "bottom" anywhere – not even "the bottom of the garden". If you wanted to know about sex, you had to send a plain, brown, self-addressed envelope and they'd post the disgusting details back. Anna changed all that – she'd worked on Forum – and now it was all 'penis', 'vagina', 'clitoris', the works. I'd had a rackety time in the 1960s, but I had trouble using these words."

She was bewildered by the readers' sudden hunger for information about sex. "We had a flood of letters asking, 'How do I have a simultaneous orgasm?' and 'Where's my G-spot?' and 'Do females ejaculate?' It was all quite yuck. But people were starved of information. There was this idea, perpetuated by nutty psychiatrists like RD Laing, that if women didn't have three orgasms a night, they'd die of cancer. It was a nasty, bullying, fascistic time for psychiatry and not very nice to women, though it pretended to be in their best interests."

She inherited a team of letter-answerers, mostly single women d'un certain age. "They were expert at replying to readers who wanted to know how to eat an avocado pear, or whether to remove their gloves when meeting a bishop. But when it came to sex questions – well, none of them was married, they were all baffled. They'd come into my office saying, 'How do I answer this?' and 'What is a blowjob?'"

What did she think qualified her for the job? "I'd been depressed for years and seen every psychotherapist in the world so, though I didn't have the answer to everything, I had a model of how to approach problems, and sounded confident. I could say, 'You're married to a violent man – could it be because your father was violent?' rather than just saying, 'Oh dear, I think you should leave.'"

Why had she been depressed? "My mother was alcoholic, I was an only child, my parents' marriage was really miserable, and I'd spent most of my childhood either gloomy, or trying to make things right – trying to get them to talk to each other, or trying to cheer her up. I was constantly looking, tuning into everybody's emotions. I could put myself in other people's shoes, and intuit how they might think and react."

So she was launched on the seas of emotional trauma, family rivalry, fractured friendships, marital distrust and ghastly children. From Woman she went to the Sunday Mirror, then Eddie Shah's Today, then back to the Sunday Mirror, then the Sunday Post – and then The Independent. Along the way she met the doyennes of the agony circuit.

"Deidre Sanders of The Sun is still a dear friend. We used to meet for lunch at the Gay Hussar – Katie Boyle, Clare Rayner, Marje Proops, Deirdre and me, and sometimes Irma Kurtz. The idea was to put our heads together and ask 'What do we think about this problem?' like a self-help group, but it didn't work like that. We just gossiped."

How had she got on with the legendary Marje Proops, queen bee of agony aunts? "I adored her. I thought she was an absolute sweetheart, a very motherly and charming woman. And she stabbed me in the back in a way that was quite astonishing." Whaaat? What did she do? "She took over my job at Sunday Mirror when the newspaper became a seven-day operation – but did it so unpleasantly, lying to me, saying horrible things behind my back – then ringing up and saying, 'Darling, shall we have lunch?' She was a monster. But when she turned the old beam of light upon you, you flowered."

Virginia is proud of the library of information leaflets she wrote and disseminated to readers. "When we were starting out, Deirdre and I wrote masses of leaflets. We were an early kind of internet. I wrote and printed about 100: on bereavement, there were ones for stillbirth, infertility, cot death, kids murdered by their parents – and that was just infant mortality. Leaflets about cutting yourself, bulimia, menopause, arthritis, miscarriage, blushing… Each leaflet had links to books, groups, tapes, specialist hospitals. We were telling people what help was available. Then the internet came along and you could type in 'I'm cutting myself' and get straight onto self-harm.com. So the leaflets became redundant."

The internet has inspired, Virginia says, a whole category of problems that weren't around before the 21st century. "Things like, 'Should I meet someone off the internet?', or a girl at school might write that she's being cyberbullied. But online dating's the big one now. It didn't exist before because – of course – you'd never think of going out with a stranger…"

Had there been letters she couldn't answer? "There are no unanswerable problems, but some are unusable. One or two were too visceral – a question about spots on the clitoris, you wouldn't use that; it's too medical. There were invented letters from schoolteachers, written in a childish hand, saying: 'I am Miss Evans, gym mistress at Hammersmith High. I'm a lesbian and I smell and nobody likes me and I've bad breath, what can I do?' You'd wonder if it really was Miss Evans – but of course it wasn't.

"The strangest letter I ever had was from a man who believed he was dead, and couldn't convince anyone that he was. It was pitiful. He believed he'd suffocated himself with a pillow. There's a name for his condition – Cotard's Syndrome.

"A man wrote to me about the breakdown of his marriage and we corresponded, though I always thought there was something odd about him. Once he came to see me at the office. Later, I was wrapping china in newspaper and found a headline over his picture, saying: 'Laughing maniac sent to Broadmoor'. It seems he'd pushed a woman under a Tube train." She paused to reflect. "He wrote to me from Broadmoor for a while, until my then-partner said, 'Could you please stop this?'"

Did men write to you saying, "I have this terrible sexual obsession with agony aunts; what shall I do?"? "If anyone had," said Virginia sternly, "It would've gone straight in the bin."

Which Dilemma elicited the best, or most interesting, response? "The ones that always get the most voluminous response are anything to do with pet bereavement. All these letters saying 'My dog has also died,' 'My cat has died,' 'My budgie…' The first time it happened, there was enough to fill a book." Which she duly wrote (Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coping with the Death of a Pet) in 1994.

Other revelations from Ms Ironside's decades of agony: 1) Letters asking about correct etiquette at weddings or dinner parties have dried up completely. 2) Men infrequently seek advice – and often it's, "Our children have left home and my wife is very upset…" 3) Letters threatening suicide are rare. "The fact that they're writing means they think there's a way out – it's the ones who don't write who are going to kill themselves." And 4) when strangers at parties discover her occupation and tell her about their affair with their sister-in-law, she doesn't run a mile.

"I love people asking my advice," she said with fervour. "It's flattering to feel wanted. I love being an agony aunt. When you feel pretty depressed a lot of the time, it's lovely to see a lot of letters from people more miserable than you, and be able to offer comfort."

The doyenne of the advice column ends with a poetic reflection on what's in it for the advice-dispenser: "If somebody comes to you cold and starving, you build a fire and make a meal and share it with them. And as you do, the heat from the fire comes your way, and you share the food you make and as you help, you help yourself in a curious way. That's why giving advice and helping people is not totally unselfish. You get off on its comforts yourself."

Virginia Ironside's latest book is 'No! I Don't Need Reading Glasses' (Quercus, £14.99)

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