Problems with the touchy-feely stuff

Who has got what it takes to replace Marje Proops as queen of the agony aunts? One thing's for sure, her successor is unlikely to be male
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The death of Marjorie Proops has provoked a fury of speculation: who will succeed her as the most celebrated and prolific agony aunt? Will the warm and cuddly Claire Rayner be lured to the throne in Canary Wharf? Could the terse, provocative Anna Raeburn be tempted away from Mohammed Al Fayed's new Liberty radio station. Or will a new pretender take the crown that Marje defended so fiercely?

The role of agony aunt is up for examination. What makes a good one? There is a joke among the top practitioners that the key qualification is to be a Jewish mama. "Maybe Jews have been so good at it, because we have such an intense intellectual curiosity," says Claire Rayner. "Our history of persecution means we know that all we have is each other and we also have the capacity to find humour in the most appalling circumstances." For Irma Kurtz of Cosmopolitan, Jewishness has encouraged portable skills, most importantly "common sense", which an agony aunt needs in huge quantities.

The demands of the job, she says, remain constant: "The basis of all the agony I get is a low self-esteem, a failure to feel one's own beauty and power. That is the core of it - not being sure of one's self."

There is a new group whose self-esteem is sinking fast: Men. Are today's agony aunts up to the job of helping men, who as a result of rapid social change have more and more problems?

This is particularly important when replacing Marje. Because you can be quite sure there is one question no one is asking: what about hiring a bloke? The reason? Newspaper editors are solid, almost to a man, in seeing the touchy-feely stuff of agony columns as being the exclusive preserve of women.

Phillip Hodson, a highly-regarded member of Britain's small circle of "agony uncles", has personal experience of this prejudice. His first foray as a national newspaper advice columnist was on the Daily Star. The arrival of a new editor, Lloyd Turner, produced a short meeting: "From tomorrow morning, your column is being written by Diana Dors." Next, he was offered the agony column on the Sunday Mirror by the Eve Pollard. "It was vetoed by Robert Maxwell, who said I didn't have a big enough bust," says Hodson. On the third occasion, another female editor, Patsy Chapman, then editor of the News of the World, installed him in the agony slot. Two and half years later, a male editor, Piers Morgan, replaced her, and, surprise surprise, Hodson was given the chop. Today, he writes his column for Family Circle, the women's magazine.

"As a rule," says Hodson, "my experience of most male newspaper editors is that they are very sexist. They believe that men should be out doing the war stories. They are also homophobic. They are disturbed by any feminine aspect coming out in a male columnist, which, after all, you have to bring out if you are going to deal with emotional problems.

"In the end, they will change, because they're not stupid. They will see there is a market for it. Looking at the future, it is clear that men will probably have more emotional problems than women in the home and in the workplace. But they will be difficult to deal with because part of masculinity is the belief that men can cope. An outlet is needed for these problems. An agony uncle can offer a role model, a person who knows what it feels like to be a man."

The ruling clan of agony aunts is unimpressed. Irma Kurtz doesn't rate male pretenders. "You guys don't talk to each other like women. Two women meet as strangers and after five minutes they're almost each other's blood donors. We go straight to the gut, the heart or the sex organ, depending on what the problem is."

Claire Rayner agrees. "Both men and women prefer generally to talk to a woman. It's probably because most adults today have been raised by a woman and so they feel more comfortable telling a woman about difficult issues."

Deidre Sanders, The Sun's agony aunt, says there is no reason why agony uncles shouldn't do well. "But when newspapers have tried them, they have found a whole range of family problems that readers had which they didn't want to raise with a man. The postbag tended to fill up with men writing to another man about sexual problems."

But teenage magazines are already demonstrating that there is a gap in the market. Men are needed to get certain problems out into the open and magazines have appointed agony uncles. The girls write in to find out what's going on in their boyfriends' heads.

This week in More, the advice columnist Tony offers some robust advice to Janey who is worried what her boyfriend makes of the "farting" noise, when she's on top: "It should take more than an embarrassing noise to make any lad worth his salt bolt for the door ... After all, blokes aren't exactly silent movers when it comes to expelling air, are they?" He also replies to a teenager worried that her boyfriend has never said he loves her. "It's a bloke thing," says Tony. "Try to find comfort in the fact that your boyfriend is not alone in the trouble he has getting the 'L' word from his brain to his mouth."

Nick Fisher on Just Seventeen works alongside a female colleague who also writes a column. This week he helps out a reader who complains that "my willy is a class joke", after he unzipped to flaunt his tackle to his friends. "Of course," reassures Fisher, "your mates will tell girls how teeny it is, because it makes them feel safe that you're the object of ridicule and not them."

Fisher says, "There is a very good case for newspapers to have both an agony aunt and an agony uncle. I'm not knocking Marje, but if I was a twenty- something bloke, then I would feel that she was very far removed from my experience and I would wonder if she could tell me anything about my life."

So which newspaper is going to taking the plunge and trust a man with the touchy-feely stuff? After all, the first agony columnist wasn't a woman. It was Daniel Defoe.