October 12th, 2010
A few years ago I was invited to the 60th Anniversary celebrations for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. It gathered together women of all ages to mark the many issues the show had covered in its history.
I was a few months pregnant at the time and struggling to stay awake and suppress endless nausea. It was early days and I’d a history of miscarriage so only my partner and I knew I was pregnant. Given my worries about the pregnancy I hadn’t planned on staying at the anniversary party very long.
As I was about to leave I spotted Claire Rayner. I was thrilled to see her as she had served as a guide to me through my teenage years with her advice giving in the media, and latterly had served as an inspiration for me in my role as an Agony Aunt. Despite being very nervous about approaching one of my heroes I decided to tell Claire how much I admired her work.
I duly delivered my message without really expecting any conversation to follow. Claire grabbed my hand and said. ‘You work as an agony aunt?’ ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘Do you answer all the problems you are sent?’ she demanded. I explained (somewhat sheepishly) I answered as many letters as I was given by the websites and magazines where I worked, but I didn’t always get to see or answer everything.
She then told me how vital it was to answer all the letters sent to me, that it was my job as an advisor, and that people were reliant on support from agony aunts so we had a duty of care to them. Following it up by joking about how she had issues with the job title (auntie) but felt the role was vital.
I sat, fascinated, as she revealed to me how she had worked as an agony aunt. How she had used funds from her novels to allow her to answer all the letters she was sent (not just those that ended up in print). How she often had to trace people simply by a postmark to try and ensure they got help when they were living in a violent relationship or struggling with suicidal thoughts. [She did not mention, but I knew from her work and reputation that Claire was one of the first people to talk about sexuality and gay rights within healthcare, as well as issues around sexual functioning and cancer, and sex and disability].
She talked to me about how important sex education was – reliving some of her campaigning work in this area. Including advice to parents, young people and through campaigning for greater sexual health awareness and sex education. (You can hear Claire talking about this issue here). Claire was one of the first people to write for both adults and young people, professionals and the public in an accessible way. We cannot underestimate her impact on our sexual and reproductive lives, sex education and healthcare.
During our conversation Claire gently but firmly she asked me what my views were on sex education and sexual health. This was a topic we both agreed upon, but we talked about how there were still so many limits to reproductive healthcare in the UK and internationally, about the importance of contraception and sexual health advice and school sex education. Again we returned to the topic of advice giving in the media with Claire outlining her views about how agony aunts could encourage parents and politicians to help young people be informed. She expressed her concerns for young people and talked about how vital it was to provide sex advice to ensure people were not ignorant, afraid or struggling to cope with unplanned pregnancies, infections or sexual abuse.
Our conversation spread to talking about how media advice giving had changed. Drawing on her background in nursing, Claire was one of the first people to push for media advice giving to be recognised as a legitimate speciality. We discussed how the role of the agony aunt in the past was one used to share health information and even challenge the status quo (for example celebrating female sexuality or providing frank sex information to young people). Claire raised the concern that contemporary advice giving was less involved with the reader, lacked empathy and was far more commercial. She worried that people weren’t truly offering a service to readers who were not all benefiting from advice – not least because not all advisors appeared qualified or particularly compassionate.
She wasn’t wrong on that score. Increasingly we’re seeing advice giving delivered via celebrities or people who use an advice column to promote their own products rather than a public service (for a discussion on this and other issues relating to advice giving see here).
As someone who struggles with the conflicts often found with advice giving in modern media I was comforted to hear about the possibilities of health and activism within media from someone who’d been doing this job for years.
During our conversation I noticed Claire was looking tired and although I didn’t want to end our chat I also didn’t want to exhaust her. I was also still feeling pretty poorly myself so I explained I had to leave. ‘So soon?’ Claire joked ‘you’re one of the youngest here!’. ‘I’m pregnant’ I blurted out. Immediately Claire switched to agony aunt mode. ‘Are you well?’ I found myself telling her I wasn’t that well and was worried about another miscarriage. Patting my hand she provided invaluable advice, from tips on dealing with nausea through to managing my fears over losing another baby.
It was something I recognised and had seen before in other agony aunts I admire. It’s as though they just can’t help themselves offering support and care if it seems like it’s needed. It’s something I also do myself, although had often felt foolish for. Talking to Claire I realised that it was actually just fine. Some of us are simply put here to try and make other people feel better – and to campaign against systems and practices which harm and exclude.
Given the hostility many agony aunts face, Rayner was a wonderful example of good practice – putting the role into the spotlight while demanding it be taken seriously as a legitimate form of help in social and healthcare (as well as media).
So it is with sadness I’ve learned that this wonderful and inspirational woman has died.
Showing her compassion to the end she apparently asked friends and family to share her last words “Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS I’ll come back and bloody haunt him.”
Claire Rayner. A trailblazer, campaigner, and a woman who wanted to make life better for those she met – and all those she never met but helped nonetheless. She certainly achieved that ambition. Ahead of her time she serves as an inspiration to any of us working in advice giving, sex education, healthcare and patients’ rights.
I’ll be honouring her memory by continuing to campaign for the role of the Agony Aunt to be taken seriously, and to demand those offering advice via the media offer compassionate, accurate and caring services to those who need it.
Further obituaries here
Claire Rayner, the woman who taught us to love agony aunts