Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Tim Willis remembers lodging with Virginia Ironside, of 'The Independent', and forging a supportive friendship

Tim Willis
Thursday 05 March 2015 20:15 GMT
Favourite aunt: Tim Willis with Virginia Ironside
Favourite aunt: Tim Willis with Virginia Ironside (Micha Theiner)

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Louise Thomas

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In late 2012, I was between proper homes, working in London, and Virginia Ironside had a room to let: the top (third) floor of her house in Shepherds Bush, plus a kitchenette and bathroom shared with another lodger downstairs. I'd heard of it from a journalist friend and I knew a little about her – The Independent's famous agony aunt with the stern spectacles and a surname to match – but I thought it best to do some preparatory research.

Well, blimey, what a life. If you read her memoir, Janey and Me, you'll see why her special subject is agony. Her mother Janey was a wildly talented fashionista – the first professor in her subject at the Royal College of Art – whose nymphomania and alcoholism ruined her life. Her father, an equally talented graphic artist, then started a new life and a new family. Her uncle Robin was more talented still – a painter and set designer – but haunted and gay and with his own addictions and neuroses.

And Virginia Ironside was disturbed and creative, too. At 19, when the Sixties were in full swing, she published a novel, Chelsea Bird, which paid for her first flat. She was terribly depressed and wildly promiscuous, and in the decades it took her to cope, she wrote all sorts of brilliant books. But she's all right now – in fact, she's doing rather well.

Her "granny diaries", a series of novels about a quirky divorcee of a certain age who lives in Shepherds Bush and takes in lodgers, have sold in seven figures (and paid for her kitchen extension). Her touring one-woman show about the joys of ageing brings in a tidy income and allows her enough time to pursue her causes – voluntary euthanasia being one of her favourites. And then of course there's her problem-solving journalism. And all the unpaid advice for which she gets badgered as a consequence.

Since my default mode is a kind of needy anxiety-cum-gloom, I added to the charity work quite a bit during the eight months she was my landlady. Virginia never knew she was letting a badger, as it were, over her threshold. But anyway, first came the interview and terms. Ideally, said Virginia, our lives would be completely separate, "and the only time we'd see each other would be passing on the stairs every fortnight". Firm but fair, I thought. Doing my laundry would be a pain, as the only machines were in her private domain, but compulsory conviviality has always seemed a worse option than enforced isolation; so I couldn't complain.

Not as much as my 22-year-old daughter, anyway. The first-born was stuck in a bedsit 100 miles away, working in a dreadful call-centre job, and preying on my mind. Everything's fine now – she lives with her boyfriend, and has a great job, and there's a spare room for her in my new flat – but I doubt it would have turned out so well if, one day, I hadn't tapped on Virginia's door and followed up with "Do you mind if I ask you something…?"

Tim rented a room in Virginia's house in 2012
Tim rented a room in Virginia's house in 2012 (Micha Theiner)

But then, I suspected I'd get a sympathetic hearing on responsible parenting, Virginia having suffered from a want of it. And besides, I'd already softened her up by giving one of her adored grandsons a Christmas card, when I'd spied him though her sitting-room's half-open door. That must have helped me earn washing-machine privileges – no more trips to the launderette – and from there, it was a smooth progression to the odd cup of coffee in her conservatory.

Poor Virginia. Instead of passing on the stairs, at least once a fortnight she now finds herself pinned to her armchair by my woes, as we work through her Nescafé and digestives – and it's been nearly two years since I moved out.

The unpleasantness I had with a jerk at work; the trouble with women; the friends to whom I didn't give enough support because I couldn't face their illnesses or lunacies; the maladies, money worries and midlife crises – she's heard them all, and always comes up with sound stratagems. My favourite – for dealing with unpleasant people – was to "strap on an imaginary suit of armour that only you know about"; then the bullshit just bounces off you.

Not that the traffic has all been one way. I suppose, when someone is frank with you, you find yourself returning the dubious compliment. And so, over time, Virginia has started sharing her woes with me: the wonky eye; the shall-I-shan't-I neck-lift; the people who presume on her generosity; the battle to save local playing fields from developers – oh, and the constant travails of Marie Sharp.

Marie is the heroine of Virginia's Saga-sagas, the third of which is published today. And being largely a product of imagination, she can be hard work to make up. The novelist's life is not an easy one. Sometimes, they desperately need (dread word) feedback. And I like to think I've helped Virginia keep her new instalment – Yes! I Can Manage, Thank You! – up to the standard of No! I Don't Want to Join a Bookclub! and No! I Don't Need Reading Glasses! Though I say it myself, I'm quite handy with a blue pencil.

Which is why, when I'm not burdening her with my Weltschmerz, she's ringing me to discuss how to manouevre Marie Sharp out of her toyboy's arms and into her ex-husband's, or the fine detail of contemporary slang. (Sick!) And from there, it's another smooth progression – and soon we're discussing how Virginia can wriggle out of an invitation, or whether she should tell a friend that he's recycled a gift back to her that she gave to him.

We're a hopeless pair, really: completely dysfunctional. In fact, if I weren't her ex-lodger (and now working at the Indy) I'd write to her here and ask how to break the cycle. Meanwhile, in my free time, I'm checking Marie Sharp's syntax and considering how her trip to India will work. That's for the fourth in Virginia's granny series, out next year. Yes, there's plenty of life in her yet.

'Yes! I Can Manage, Thank You!' is published by Quercus (£16.99)

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