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Diary

After 50 years, I’m out of the agony-aunt business

Also in Virginia Ironside’s diary: why Putin’s facelift is so obvious; camouflage; saving a park; when to visit the doctor

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

It’s clear that Vladimir Putin has had a facelift, which might explain why Wendi Deng would take an interest in him. But a friend who met him was surprised enough to ask his translator why it was so obvious. ‘Surely he has enough money to get a better one done?’ he said. ‘Oh yes,’ she replied. ‘But here in Russia, a facelift is a status symbol so everyone has to be aware that it’s been done.’ I wonder if the reason American women continue to go for the wind-tunnel effect favoured by Joan Rivers isn’t based on the same social pressure. Wealth and power have their own looks.

After nearly 50 years of giving advice, my career as an agony aunt appears to be at an end. There’s no room at the Indie for me — either on the i or in the online version. Love you, they say, but no cash. It was flattering to be part of agony-aunt history — from Marje Proops, Claire Rayner and Anna Raeburn to Evelyn Home. The job was a wonderful way of riding the journalism wave and doing a bit of good at the same time. And the letters! Most were heartbreaking, but there were some memorable cries for help. ‘Dear Vagina,’ wrote one reader. ‘I have a problem with my Virginia.’

An exhibition on camouflage to be held in the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum this summer has prompted me to rummage through my father’s archive. He served as a camouflage officer in Leamington during the war and I have several photographs of him and his team (wearing suits and ties, of course) painting away at models of factories, trying to disguise them as fields of sheep, housing estates or patches of scrubland. They used paint, netting and seaweed — and sludge, the residue of oil from ships’ tanks, which could darken all kinds of surfaces from roofs to runways.


He had once visited a factory that had carried out the camouflage unit’s instructions to disguise its works. At the end of the tour, the managing director suddenly said: ‘One thing puzzles us.’ And he pointed to the side of a building on the edge of the factory site on which a drip of paint had been painstakingly enlarged and reproduced. Thinking on his feet, my father replied: ‘Top secret, old chap. My lips are sealed.’

Feeling dreadfully ill last weekend, I decided to do what the NHS advises. I rang 111, and was told I would be called back within the hour by a doctor. I was indeed rung back by a charming woman who said she would make an appointment at a walk-in clinic nearby. I went along and was seen, before I could even take off my coat, by another delightful doctor. Clearly, if you want to see a doctor quickly, go at weekends.

I’ve given up arguing about the existence — or nonexistence — of God with my religious friends, but I couldn’t help gloating when one of them described his wife’s beliefs. ‘She doesn’t believe in Jesus or any of that stuff,’ he said, sorrowfully. ‘But she does believes in telepathy, the spirit world, communicating with the dead and so on. I’d say she was superstitious rather than religious.’ I nearly said ‘I rest my case’ but bit my tongue.

For the past two years I have led a campaign, along with Harry Audley of the White City Residents Association, to save half of our local park from being leased to private developers for 35 years. It was a Conservative council that initiated this ghastly plan and it was only delayed by two judicial reviews that I’d taken out, one of which had been resolved and the latest of which was not quite as strong as the first anyway. We were prepared for the worst. But Labour had a surprise victory in the elections and, with the help of an amazing Labour councillor, we managed to reach a compromise. The park is now still in the hands of the council and the developers have been left with a seven-year management contract of a much smaller area for football pitches, some of which can be used by the community.

The turning point came when the developer himself agreed to meet us. He faced 150 furious residents, from black lawyers in wheelchairs to women on benefits, old Etonian bankers, special- needs children, and a gang of heavies from White City yelling accusations of corruption and worse. He was dead before he entered the ring.

Virginia Ironside’s new book, No, Thanks! I’m Quite Happy Standing!, is out on 21 April. Virginia Ironside was the Independent’s agony aunt. Her book No Thanks! I’m Quite Happy Standing! is out later this month.


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