Just say No to this agonising aunt

In the real world, the idea of being locked in indissoluble marriage with someone you never had sex with is grotesque
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The Independent Online
What would you want from an agony aunt? Comfort, support, wise advice, understanding and generosity of spirit? Those in distress who make the mistake of writing to the newest agony aunt could be in for a shock.

Anne Atkins, latest heroine of the moral right, has been appointed as The Daily Telegraph's first agony aunt. It was she, you may recall, who caused the stir recently with a rant on Radio 4's Thought for the Day against the Church for tolerating gays. In her new column, she will say that all sex outside marriage is always wrong. Virginity outside and chastity within marriage is the only way. All couples should stay together. No foetuses should be aborted. Women should put family before careers, and God is the best guide for getting the most fun out of life.

I wish Marje Proops were here to see this. She would have laughed her rich, throaty chuckle, but she would have made some sharp and caustic comments, too. She didn't mince words, and she would have made elegant mincemeat of Anne Atkins.

For it seems to have been the death of Marje Proops last month that brought all this about. She always caused a stir, discussing previously unprintable problems, shedding light in unhappy secret corners. But I doubt that she would be pleased by the controversy reawakened by her death. She took the suffering of people who wrote to her too seriously to turn it into an ideological game.

This is the story so far: when Marje died on 10 November, there was a barely suppressed whoop of glee in the ranks of the Telegraph, Mail and Express. Blaming her for breaking taboos and encouraging libidinousness, they declared that her passing was an omen signifying the end of the age of permissiveness and the dawning of the age of a better yesterday - repressive and retrograde.

Just after her death, The Daily Telegraph wrote a lamely facetious leader purporting to come from Marje in heaven, or possibly hell, recanting her liberal views: "Now that there's so much family breakdown and violence and child abuse, I'm not so sure. From where I sit today, some of those old teachings don't look so stupid. So please, can someone tell me, where did I go wrong?"

The Daily Mirror puffed itself up with outrage at this insult to their dear departed. Their retaliatory leader called the Telegraph's "a vile, cruel assault on her before she is even buried ... We demand an apology from Charles Moore" (the Telegraph's editor, whom the Mirror calls "Lord Snooty". Next day, the Telegraph's editor issued a rather pompous rebuttal.

All good knockabout fun. Marje would have enjoyed it. But underneath, something more serious is going on. Mary Kenny of The Express weighed in with a diatribe: "It is my belief that the influence of the agony aunts has been the crucial factor in setting this values-free agenda. And `Dear Marje' was the formative influence on them all ... helping create the `morals vacuum'."

The Mail's regular preachifier, William Oddie, damned her: "Proops was one of those who created the moral anarchy by destroying the social constraints." He produced a salacious list of the sins in the private lives of all the famous agony aunts, claiming their only qualification for advising others was having made such a mess of their own lives, accusing them of a "conscious ideologically-motivated" liberal conspiracy.

Out of all this came Anne Atkins's appointment, and she is certainly different. Her life is in perfect order because she has always done the right thing. The Telegraph describes her as "part-time actress, harpist and moral pundit". She says that giving up her acting career for her family was her toughest decision. She is an evangelical vicar's wife who has never had sex outside marriage, though admits to past temptation. "It is a good feeling to know we've slept only with each other." Just say No is her advice, and she abhors the pursuit of personal happiness. She praises a friend who gave birth to a baby knowing it had no brain, choosing to watch it die. Or another friend who stuck with her violent husband: "He was essentially a good husband, but people focus on the one bad thing."

This novelty will no doubt get people reading, though I very much doubt whether it will have them writing in. Where did she get the letters for her first column? There was Mrs EH, aged 48, who came back from a classical concert to find her husband in the bedroom trying on her underwear, confessing he often wore it under his trousers. Her advice? Get help for him and "Remember the good things: you still have each other and your husband has not been unfaithful." Or the parent worried about their four-year- old throwing toys at his little sister: "Tell him you'll smack him if he does it again."

Is this really the new world order? Are we, as the moralists claim, seeing the pendulum swing back? Oddie writes: "The climate was changed by two events ... the murders of Jamie Bulger and Philip Lawrence. It suddenly became clear to everyone that there are judgements to be made; there is right and wrong, good and evil."

Sometimes, in dark moments, I fear that they are right and a dark cloud of reaction is about to engulf us. When even Labour politicians mouth similarly simplistic sentiments, where do you turn? I have been preparing a radio programme about liberalism and realise that the so-called "liberal establishment" is virtually non-existent. Those that remain are growing old: Roy Jenkins and David Steel, who pushed through the great Sixties liberal reforms on abortion, divorce and homosexual law. Baroness Warnock, still making waves by calling for voluntary euthanasia. But the young politicians and opinion-formers are circumspect in public.

And yet, out in the real world where people struggle with muddled lives, mistakes and calamities, I see no sign of the new puritan revolution: it remains a fantasy among a few influential moralists. In the real world, 80 per cent of people support abortion; sex before marriage is the norm; and the idea of being locked into an indissoluble marriage with a partner you never had sex with is grotesque. Most people want and try to be married, but it is difficult. Women will not be dragooned back into bad marriages, giving up their careers or bearing unwanted children. And when they have problems, who would turn to an agony aunt who hands out advice from a better past that never was?