Artillery Row

The wisdom of agony aunts

Advice columns are conforming to the outlook of their publication

As poor old Dominic Cummings knows only too well, lockdown makes fools of us all. Where once driving up to County Durham to visit family would have been regarded as perfectly innocent, it is now enough to trigger a wave of public fury, a visit from the police, and (perhaps) a resignation. A strange effect of the current crisis is that behaviour that used to be considered admirable has now been flipped on its head. Attentive visiting of one’s elderly relatives? Dancing the conga at a VE Day street party? Within a matter of weeks, such acts have switched from wholesome to sinister.

Pity the nation’s agony aunts, tasked with issuing guidance at a time of rapidly evolving norms. It is no coincidence that both letters and responses to agony aunt columns tend to echo the biases of their particular outlet, since these columns exist not only to provide comfort and advice to suffering correspondents, but also to act as a moral voice for their readership. This is an arena in which etiquette and moral standards are both constructed and enforced, particularly at a time like this, as agony aunts do their best to rise to the challenge of COVID-19.

Take the Dear Deirdre column at The Sun, running for forty years, and famous for its raunchy content, appropriate to the home of Page Three. Many of Deidre’s letters within the last two months have been concerned with the problems presented by lockdown. For instance, “I am staying at my colleague’s over lockdown & ended up having sex with her man” writes one treacherous correspondent. It’s easy enough to respond to this one: “stop it now. Go and stay with another friend if your willpower is low.” But what about the woman whose furloughed husband is refusing to help with childcare or housework? The traditionalist Deidre takes an indulgent attitude towards this lazy father: “He sounds as if he has no idea of how to be a caring dad. I’d guess he didn’t have one himself. For now, focus on building his bond with his children. Chores can follow.”

This is in contrast to the more egalitarian approach of The Guardian’s Annalisa Barbieri, who tells a woman facing much the same problem that “With three young children constantly demanding your attention, you have a right to be ‘selfish’ occasionally.” Same problem, different advice. But then readers should already know what they’re in for when they write into an agony aunt – the predictability of the response is largely the point.

Barbieri’s fellow columnist, Pamela Stephenson Connolly, is faced with a rather different problem: “I see lockdown as a chance for more BDSM – but my girlfriend doesn’t” writes a sexually frustrated reader. One wonders how the girlfriend in question – apparently reluctant to be tied up during sex – would interpret the conflict if asked. But Stephenson Connolly is flagrantly non-judgmental, “this is a time to listen more acutely to each other’s evolving needs, to be patient and understanding and work as partners to adapt to the new lifestyle.” Whose new lifestyle, exactly?

The Spectator’s Mary Killen is a source of comic relief in her tongue-in-cheek advice column. Getting out ahead of Debretts, Killen was kind enough to provide a guide to coronavirus etiquette at the very beginning of the crisis: “It’s time for gloves to make a comeback. Pull a cashmere scarf around your mouth while travelling on the tube. Stick to your own mobile and don’t hand it round to show photos. Don’t use anyone else’s landline. Follow HM the Queen’s lead and don’t go to the loo outside your own premises.”

But ten weeks later, her risk aversion is waning. Asked by one reader how he should have responded to a rude passenger invading his personal space on a repatriation flight from Guyana, Killen is brisk: “You could have started coughing.” Not, I suspect, advice that the Department of Health would support.

Both The Guardian and its sister paper have established themselves as vociferous supporters of the continuing lockdown, and The Observer’s Mariella Frostrup affirms this message in her own advice column. Responding to a young reader whose housemate is defying the guidelines, Frostrup is clear: “Self-styled Covid revolutionaries fuelled either by theories of global conspiracy, a hatred of an overbearing state, a “unique” knowledge of how viruses are transmitted, or a sense of personal priority, are available on every street corner … It’s unfortunate that you’ve found yourself holed up with a perfect example of one of these misguided Covid-warriors.”

Whereas Richard Madeley of The Telegraph, the paper leading the charge for Lockdown sceptics, takes a more cheerful approach. “Be patient, lockdown in its present form should be over in a matter of weeks” he optimistically advises on May 9th, in response to a man struggling with budding romantic feelings for his lockdown companion. We must assume that, three weeks on, this unfortunate chap’s patience may be wearing thin.

Madeley goes on to sympathise with an elderly letter writer burdened by a friend who is “worrying me sick with terrible stories she’s found on the internet – about the horrid ways of the virus, the climate, the giant Asian hornet invasion that’s coming this summer, you name it.” Madeley sticks to The Telegraph position: “Next time she starts listing Oxfordshire’s answer to the seven plagues of Egypt, laugh pleasantly, cut in, and tell her you’ve got enough to chew on with the coronavirus, thanks very much. If you want more doom and gloom, you can always watch the news.”

Or perhaps read an agony aunt at a rival paper?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover