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‘Goodness, different in my time’

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Agony aunt for Saga
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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I'm agony aunt for Saga Magazine for the aged which I’ve been doing for a dozen years, which is extremely interesting because it’s other people feeding you their experiences, and fascinating. And people say, well how...? How do you think you can be an agony aunt for that, what do you know about it? Well, the answer is that three-quarters obviously is common sense, anybody but the people concerned could see exactly.

Some of it I can’t do, but you can discuss the problem and then maybe people write in and talk about it. And the other thing that is an enormous help that I discovered since very early on is the extraordinary number of self-help or particularly dedicated organisations to people’s problems. I mean, health problems, I don’t do health problems, but the problems of people who've a son or daughter said they were gay, or somebody who’s been wrongly accused of shoplifting or somebody who doesn’t know how to run their finances, who do they go to?

The incredible amount of help out there. And I mean, I’ve often said that, you know, if you had a Burmese lesbian grandmother with ingrowing toenails, there would be a special help just for her. And sometimes, I mean, the one I'm doing at the moment, I'm... I had several people over the years writing in and saying, my son or daughter is not actually my child, I don’t know whether to tell them. And I had to judge really on the circumstances and how old the people were and so on.

One of the best was somebody who wrote in and said, I'm in my 80s and I’ve got six sons, one of whom isn’t mine, but we decided to bring him up as ours, and my wife died and... but I'm going to die soon so should I tell him? And I sort of thought, well, all these people are in their 40s, if it had been talking about a 20 year old, yes, probably, he’s forming his identity. But as it is, you know, does that mean that the grandchildren are going to say the grandpa is not their grandpa? So we decided, bit of correspondence about it, okay, don’t tell.

Then he wrote to me again and he said, well actually I have told because my son... six months later, I thought you might be interested to know this... he asked me directly, am I your son? So asked direct, yes, you’ve got to tell the truth. He then told me one fact that he hadn’t said before. Because he didn’t... he hadn’t told me that his five brothers were all dark and that this one was blond to a fault. And he was able to tell him, well actually that his father had been... I forget what, but something charismatic like played football for England or something.

And of course, considering the way the footballers lay themselves around that isn’t amazing nowadays. But it is a big question. So at last... I’ve actually asked him, I’ve said, look, I’ve been tackling this dilemma, there’s no real answer, I would like to hear from people who were told or not told. And I'm struggling at this moment with quite a big post bag of people in what some cases it’s been a relief, in many it’s been a failure, in an awful lot of cases they wanted to know and then was it a good idea or not? Interesting problem.

That’s part of what I do. The other half is things which I write when people ask me to write them. I write stuff for The Guardian. I review books for anybody. I'm... even for the oldie who, you know, pay you with a half bottle of weak white wine at the best. No. I... that’s not quite true, only nearly true. I’ve been doing odd bits for The Observer again which is huge fun. I sort of feel I’ve rejoined the family.

A distinguished journalist and renowned author, Katharine Whitehorn has written for The Spectator and Picture Post. She was the first woman to have her own column in the Observer and was their star columnist for the best part of 40 years. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, she is recognised as someone who has transformed 20th century women's journalism. She takes a keen interest in social welfare issues, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was the first woman rector of the University of St Andrews.

Listeners: Bob Bee

Bob Bee is a Scottish documentary maker who has made many films on the Arts and Science for ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Tags: The Guardian, The Observer, Saga Magazine, Dior, Paris fashion

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011