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High Profile

Life's a problem

Christina Rees

For 32 years, the nation has been telling its troubles to the agony aunt Virginia Ironside. Third Way got her side of the picture in her home in west London. Interview by Christina Rees

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'Virginia Ironside' is such a fantastic name. Has it shaped you in any way?
No, no. I've shaped it! Actually, it's a jolly nice name to have, because 'Vir­ginia' is soft and 'Ironside' is hard - and it's an excellent name for a columnist because it's memorable.

Let's go back to your childhood. You were born into an artistic family - your father, Christopher Ironside, was a painter and designer and your mother, Janey Acheson, was professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art.
Yes. In the Sixties she nurtured people like Ossie Clark, Janice Wainwright, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin. She was a fashion icon, really.

I gather that, from the age of three to 16, you were educated at your great-aunts' school in Kensington -
Yes. There were quite a few schools then called 'dame schools', which were run by - often - spinster sisters, which is what my great-aunts Rene and Nellie were. They were both from Scotland, both tre­m­endously up­right and Calvinist; but actually the school was very lib­eral and ahead of its time. We were encouraged to call the teachers by their Christian names, and there were no punishments - the worst thing was to be sent to the headmis­tress, who would say: 'I'm shocked and appalled that you have been sent to me. I hope you never have to be sent to me again.' I never was - I was far too good.

What kind of child were you?
Rather unhappy, very lonely and bright. I was an only child. My father I absolutely adored, and my mother - well, she was a career woman. That's really why I've never been mad about feminism, because I've seen what it's done to people. If you have a mum, let's be honest, you want to be her number one.
I think my mother loved her car­eer more than anything, really - her husband or her family life. I mean, she was a delightful woman and terribly talented, beau­tiful and funny - a wonderful friend, and enchanting; but damaged and vulnerable and al­coholic and fucked-up. She had affairs - she was a desperately unhappy creature, really.

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And was your father oblivious?
He was, yes, amazingly - until after she'd left, when I was 14. She had flirted with someone at a party and he'd said, 'If you ever flirt again, don't come home!' I don't think he would have done anything, but she was too frightened to come back and that was it. But then he had dinner with the head of the RCA and he mentioned that it had been rather difficult putting up with all her flirting and the head said: 'What do you mean, flirting?' And my father said, 'Well, you know, she was always flirting with people.' 'More than flirting,' said the head. 'She slept with everybody, including me.'

It showed how ghastly that world of arty people was - everybody jumping into bed with everybody: it was grim. It was a horrible place to bring up a child. Not my cup of tea at all. (I don't want to make it seem as if I had a worse background than anybody else. Actually, most people I know seem to have had ghastly backgrounds.)

So, did you react against what you had witnessed?
Yes. I mean, that's not to say that - there was a period in my life, when I was young, when I was fantastically promiscuous; but I wasn't unfaithful. You know, when I did get married I was pretty… I mean, I have always been quite… Affairs always rather confused me. I could­n't get the point of them.

What did you do after you left school?
I went to art school, stayed there a year; I didn't go to university, it wasn't on offer; I did a secretarial course, and then got a job in a newspaper. I wrote a novel when I was 19 or so (which got published, oddly), which was really about my life at art school;1 and on the strength of that I got a job as a sort of Girl Friday on the Sunday Tel­e­graph. This was just at the beginning of the Six­ties and the Daily Mail suddenly was desperate for a young person to write about pop music, which was an abso­l­ute mystery to them; and I was wearing the right clothes - I had the high-heeled boots, the miniskirt, the Biba top, the hair by Vidal - and I was, I don't know, pretty and perfect and I could write.

I was very inexperienced, but that didn't matter much. I've never been a reporter: I've always been a critic or a columnist. I've always written about myself, really. It's amazing, how one can write about oneself for 46 years. There's always another thought or opinion that can be squeezed out, like a drop from a lemon…

Did you enjoy the Sixties?

No. It was a horrible time for women - wonderful for men, most unpleasant for women, because there were no moral codes, really, no idea that 'no' means 'no', or any kind of women's rights or anything. It was just, you know, if a man takes you out to dinner and pays for you, you go to bed with him. I'm sure that people with stronger characters than me, or who were less vulnerable and depressed, would have said no, but… Most girls were just sleeping with people at a rate of knots.

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You say you were depressed. What caused that?
Falling in love with all the shits and the bastards, you know. And there were loads of them then. My father had remarried, my mother was drunk, I was living on my own; I didn't know much about anything and was desperately looking for some sort of affection.

Did you get involved in the drug culture?
A bit of dope and a few uppers and downers, but I was always a bit nervous about going off my head. LSD was the big thing then, but I always found that a bit scary. I never, ever tried it.

Anyway, then I got married and had my son, Will. And that was lovely, but unfortunately we got divorced - it was so sad!

What happened?
He had his problems, I had mine. We were both needy and had different ways of dealing with it. He was quite religious and I found that baffling, and very difficult to deal with.

We were both bonkers, probably - I was par­tic­ular­ly mad. I had a couple of major crack-ups and I spent time in nursing homes - I had to spend a month at the Priory at one point. And I went to psychiatrists and took pills and had therapy. I was severely, severely depressed. I think I probably had post-natal depression but no­body knew. And that's the cruellest thing, depression - worse than anything, I think. If anybody would refuse to give in, it's me; but you can't stop yourself, it takes you over. I still worry that it might come back. It's always there, just saying 'Hello!'

Did you ever remarry?
No. I thought that's enough. I did have somebody living with me for 16 years, so that was a lovely time; but that broke up due to, you know, various things again.

I'm good friends with him now - he's a darling. Actually, after about a year my ex-husband and I be­came friends. He married again and had more children and I became very fond of them. His wife is terribly nice and I go up to stay with them now, and now he is, I think, one of my closest friends.

I like to stay friends with people I've been involved with. I always say it's like roasting a chicken: you take all the nice bits and you're left with the carcass but you don't throw it away, you make a delicious soup with it.

So, now you have some delicious-soup relationships?
Yes, I have. Absolutely scrummy!

How did you become an agony aunt?
I was having lunch with the features editor of Woman and she told me that [their previous agony aunt] Anna Raeburn had resigned. I said, 'Oh God, what a peach of a job!' and she said, 'You don't mean that?' and I said, 'I do.' And, blow me! I got the job.

I absolutely loved it. I think that anybody who has problem parents grows up rather quickly and turns into a caring type of person. You often find this with nurses and doctors - and agony aunts, actually - that they've had a pretty difficult childhood. You're well attuned to people and you're always watching to see if people are upset by what you say - so your antennae are out.

Why do you think you enjoy dealing with other people's problems?
If you come to me for nurture, it's like I'm building a fire for you but I get some of the warmth as well. I'm not trying to demean it, but I think there's a selfish as­pect to it which is marvellous. We both get something out of it. People would say, 'How can you bear to go in­to the office and see these piles of letters from miserable people?' Well, it is very comforting to get letters from people more un­happy than me - there's nothing like it to make you think, 'I may feel gloomy, I may want to kill myself, but at least I'm not living in Solihull…'
And the other thing is, often you feel: 'Oh, this is so clear! If only she does this' or 'Doesn't she know she's not the only one in the world who cuts herself? She just has to ring this helpline…' It's always lovely to be able to - well, do something. Or to feel you do something. How well you can do something or not, I don't know.

What about the letters you get back?

Very few. Very few.

So, you dispense your wisdom and then -
And that's again something I love, that distance. It suits me, this arm's-length help, so it doesn't get too cloying and people aren't ringing you up all the time and saying, you know, 'I want you to do this for me now.'

Have you, along the way, become a wise woman?
I think I'm a bit wiser than I was, yes. I think all older people are wiser than younger people on the whole, just because they've lived longer.

And what is wisdom?
Experience, really. And honesty. I think that's about it. And understanding and compassion - and, of course, forgiveness, which is the basis of everything: forgiveness for everyone, including oneself. (Of course, like a lot of people I find it very hard to forgive, but I do try my best.) And the ability to see the other person's point of view - because on the whole I don't think anybody really wants to be horrible to other people, but sometimes they have to for their own survival, or they don't understand how their behaviour is being re­ceived…

Have the problems changed over the years?
On the surface they have - I mean, the old fear was VD and now it's Aids, you know? But the main miseries are pretty much the same: loneliness and depression and 'Nobody understands me.' People are either miserable because they're not with somebody or miserable bec­ause they are. And, you know, a tear is a tear is a tear.


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And is it still mainly women who write in?
I think it depends on what publication you work for. When I was at the Sunday Mirror I used to get 50/50, and Deidre Sanders at the Sun gets masses of correspond-ence and I think that's roughly 50/50. There are an aw-ful lot of very unhappy, lonely men of about 35, perhaps living at home, stuck staring at their computers and not knowing what's going on, you know. Horrible.

I'm haunted by this statistic, that the commonest cause of death for young British men aged between 18 and 25 is suicide.
Yes, I wouldn't be surprised. Yes.

How funny, suicide and death don't haunt me at all - I couldn't give a pin about them. It's suffering I can't bear. Actually, I don't think suicides ever want to kill themselves: they just want to kill their misery and they have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So, can you justify suicide in some circumstances?
Oh, God, yes! Oh, yeah. Oh, certainly!

Where do you stand on euthanasia and assisted dying?

Oh, I'm all for it. Absolutely. I went recently to a conference that was about how to starve yourself to death, which I found frightfully interesting. I think the whole debate about bumping yourself off is riveting.

I hope to God I don't have to suffer and somebody will put me out of my misery. I don't want to live too long, either - I think that is so unfair on the young. All young people need to have their parents die while they are still active, so that they can have a life without parents. You know, you have got to free up a bit of space. I think that's unselfish.

So, the historic Christian view that life is a gift and you have no right to take it away, even from yourself -
No, no, no. I don't see life as a gift at all, in and of itself. Life is only a gift if it's a nice life. If you were, let's say, chained up in an iron box for the whole of your life in terrible pain, is that a gift? I mean, that's an ex­treme case, but lots of people live lives of torment and misery - and children particularly. And many of them, I think, would be better off dead. I think that to keep anybody alive when they shouldn't be alive is actually wicked.

In 2007, Unicef assessed the wellbeing of children in 21 of the most 'economically advanced' nations and Britain came last. Does that surprise you?
I'm terribly wary of those sort of surveys. I'm really only interested in specifics…

But, obviously, it doesn't surprise me. I see children in the street crying - I'm tormented, really, by the idea of unhappy children - I sometimes wake in the night thinking about them, actually.

The worst thing I've ever seen in my life has been going round orphanages in certain Eastern European countries: it's just unbelievably terrible what happens there. I mean, it's terrifying, ter­rifying, what is happening at this very minute. And so when I think about the plight of children here…

There is no comparison.
No.

Do you think that Britain is a broken society?
I'm terribly unpolitical. I really am. I don't like making generalisations - all I can cope with is my own family and my street. I know all my neighbours - and I think that's actually a moral duty. I'm quite involved in very local life - I'm chair of the residents' association. (I'm a frightful old bossyboots, actually.)
Whenever anyone says to me, 'Isn't it awful in Lon­don? Nobody knows each other,' I say: 'Well, you go and say hello!' You know, there's so much apathy about. 'Oh, politicians are all so awful…' I say: 'Well, why don't you be one?'

Do you think the Ten Commandments are a good basis for society?
I'm not sure about that. I don't know them well en­ough, really, to have a view.
Coveting is something it's jolly difficult not to do. I think that's the one I would hesitate over, be­cause, you know, we all covet. You see a woman with a newborn baby and think, 'Isn't she lucky? I wish I…' That doesn't seem wrong.

I understand covetousness as being something that goes a bit further, that crosses a line and says: I want that baby. Her husband. Her clothes.

Yes. I would have thought that's your interpretation of it. It's not what 'Thou shalt not covet' means to me.

The other, I would say, is just human longing, and as such is unavoidable.
Yes, it is. It's not - it's not helpful; but it's there.


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But it does have a good side to it, doesn't it? Because if we long for something better, we are motivated.
I wonder. I'm not sure that longing isn't a bit like hope, which I think is a very dodgy thing. I think acceptance is really best of all. Once you feel hope, you're always going to be straining for tomorrow, whereas acceptance - I mean, I'm a billion squillion years away from being accepting of anything, but it would be nice to be. Long­ing and hope keep one in a state of unhappiness, really.

Do you think that death is the end?
For me, I hope so - very much. I would hate to come back in any form at all. I've always thought life is not what it's cracked up to be. Not for me. I have been, to be honest, too anxious and unhappy for most of the time.

Have you ever had any kind of spiritual experience?
Yes, I have. I was in this very kitchen, peeling carrots - my son was about to take his GCSEs - and I had a very strong feeling that Christ was in the room with me. It was all very Holman Hunt. And he said, 'Put down your peeler and follow me!' I said to him - none of this was visual, it was just an intense feeling - 'I can't. I've got to make supper, and I've got to help Will get through his exams.' And he sort of vanished. It was all very odd, because I hadn't been thinking about Christ or God. I was pretty cynical about them.

Anyway, I was extraordinarily struck by this and I thought I must find out more, so I started going to various churches: Westminster Abbey and St Paul's and the happy-clappy ones and everything. There was someone at one of the big churches who, every time I went and he spoke, I found myself bursting into tears. I wrote to him and said, 'Can you help me? I've had this vision.' No reply. So, feeling rather irritated, I finally sent him a postcard, 'Did you get my letter?', and he responded: 'I didn't know what to say. But let's have lunch.'
So, we had lunch and basically he asked me about all the religious-affairs correspondents I knew and it was only over coffee I was able to say, 'But what about this vision?' He said: 'Oh, I don't know. I rather envy you, having a vision.' He was quite a high-up, a canon, and a nice enough chap, just rather hopeless. He said: 'I'd go to your local church.'

So, I went to the church over the road. Well, frank­ly there wasn't much going on there. I read the lesson and attended coffee mornings and things and became part of it. The vicar there said: Would I go and talk to a group of vicars ab­out my problem page? I talked to them at the most sumptuous meal I've ever had in someone's house - absolutely delicious, with every wine under the sun - and I heard one of them, after he'd had a few drinks, saying: 'If somebody comes up to me and says, "Could I have a word with you after the service, vic­ar?", I say, "Well, if you're going to ask me about money, I'm not interested!' And I just thought: 'God, what horrible people!' It was like you go knocking at the door and you hear the sound of the bolt being shot on the inside.

I'm quite glad the church is there - it's rather like the Royal Family: in its funny old way, it prevents some­thing else much more awful - but everything I hear about it drives me nuts.

What conclusion did you come to about your 'vision'?
I was very suspicious about the fact that it was Jesus in his Light-of-the-world garb: I thought that was highly unlikely. I'm absolutely certain it was a sort of psychological trick played by chemistry. I mean, these things can be induced by your synapses going together and if you wore a special helmet and somebody probed, you'd have a vision; and I think that's what happened to me. If I'd been Muslim, it would have been Allah.

Also, I'm not sure that someone who says 'Put down your peeler and give up your son and follow me' is really someone I'd want to follow. I was being asked to re­nounce everything and I thought that was a bridge too far. But I didn't reject it at once: I did my bit, you know - I couldn't have done more, really.

Did anything positive come out of it?
No, absolutely nothing that was of any validity or use or comfort at all. I didn't feel I got any succour from the church. On the whole I was rejected, or at least not taken seriously. If ever I told anybody about this vision, they changed the subject. I mean, in a way it was rather sweet and English of them.

If the church was no help, did you try reading the Bible?

I did read once a wonderful translation of the New Tes­tament by JB Phillips. I thought it was great, a really good read - you know, terrific stuff. But it didn't take me into the woo-woo areas…

Where do you go for your values when you are giving advice? What well do you draw from?

I think I've just been brought up by people - my father and my great-aunts - who had a tremendous sense of what was right and wrong and how one should behave towards other people…

But what was that based on?
A sort of Scottish ethic, you know. My grandfather, I think, was a Methodist.

Do you think that most people have an inbuilt sense of right and wrong?
I think so, yes, when you get down to it. Most people try to behave well. Even sort of gangs on horrible estates have a tremendous, bizarre sense of respect.

A code of honour?
A code, yes - and honour is usually at the base of it. It's not my kind of thing - but I have my own code, which is really the basics: 'Do unto others…' and 'For­give.'

Your latest book, The Virginia Monologuesis subtitled 'Twenty reasons why growing old is great'. Is growing old so great?
God, yes! You're nearer the grave for one thing. There is more of life behind you than in front of you, and that to me is a great plus.

Tell me some of the other 19 reasons.
Oh gosh! More confidence. Grandchildren - absolutely lovely. I think a lessening of sexual desire is very nice because it means you can be much more friendly with half of the human race who were always a bit edgy.

Young people, I think, is a great plus to being old. When you're young, you can't be friends with 'young people' because you're all young; but when you're older you have this parental relationship with anybody even up to the age of 50, and it's lovely to have that. And yet you can still feel like a child with people of 80, so you've got this much bigger range.


Perhaps you like growing old because you're not actually growing old: you're still pushing the boundaries. I mean, last year you started performing The Virginia Monologues as a kind of stand-up.

You've put your finger on the paradox at the centre of my argument. One of [my 20 reasons] is that you don't have to be young any more, you can relax, you don't have to have any adventures - but of course I am actually having an adventure by doing this. But at the same time I couldn't have done it when I was young, because I would have been too frightened of what might happen - and now I couldn't care less!

You're just doing it. But it's not exactly relaxing, is it?
I think the show is relaxing into myself, in a funny way. I've always had a sneaking longing to show off (I'm not a very showy-offy person - ask me to dinner and I don't do a turn - but my grandmother always wanted to go on the stage) and now I can just be me and make a fool of myself, or not. And that's all part of being old.

And I love it! That feeling when you're in front of a large audience and you know that within three seconds they're all going to roar with laughter is fantastic.

So, the real Virginia Ironside is relaxed, confident, witty and wise - and enjoys life.
I don't know about that last one.

I was just trying to slip that in!
I make the best of a very bad job. I've made a good fist of my life, and it's a lot better now than it ever has been, but even so… I'm certainly never going to write home about it.