A good few people in Ireland of my generation or older will remember a weekly 15-minute programme on Radio Eireann – later to become RTE Radio 1. The programme was called ‘Dear Frankie’, and was sponsored by Jacob’s Biscuits (‘We bake better biscuits every day’). Frankie Byrne was an ‘agony aunt’, and on a regular basis listeners sent her their anguished and sensitive questions and she would read out her answers. Her voice was instantly recognisable, and apart from being rather deep and gravelly it also had a strange and for me rather odd and impersonal intonation. What she dished out was not so much advice as instructions, and I thought that she did so in an often rather patronising way. She was a guardian of the less than happy mores of the time. We now know that she had a fairly complex private life herself, but that’s not the point of this post.

I have always been rather fascinated by agony columns or programmes. I would never have dreamt of addressing one myself, but have always been mesmerised by them anyway. Not for salacious reasons, but because you can feel what is driving the questioners. For some, what they want is validation: they have hit upon some plan they know is at the very least somewhat iffy, and they want someone to tell them it’s really OK. They want to have an affair, they want to withhold some relevant information, they wand to deceive – and they want to find that actually it’s not really so bad. Or else they feel real anguish about some really complex personal problem, and they want someone to tell them the answer is clear and simple.

I doubt that many find that the answers help them. In fact, I doubt that many other readers care much about the answers anyway, they are much more into delving into the private lives of others as revealed in their questions. And so I am pleasantly surprised when I find an agony column that respects the questioners without necessarily humouring them and provides what may actually be useful advice. One rare example of this would, in my view, be Graham Norton’s column in the Daily Telegraph. We’ll forgive him his choice of newspaper for this, and maybe recognise his skill in making readers’ problems seem both important and understandable, and that his answers are often cushioned with wit and a little self-depracation. Actually, here is an agony column where the answers are more interesting than the questions. And so after 30 years or so, Frankie’s voice is gradually letting go of me. About time.

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7 Comments on “Agony!”

  1. wendymr Says:

    My all-time favourite advice column – at least for the laughs – was Buck Up!, Ann Widdecombe’s short-lived spell as an agony aunt with the Guardian during 2004.

    Some of the ‘letters’ appeared to be genuine, and the response was a terse helping of no-nonsense Widdecombe common sense, but this gem – of a question, as well as the answer – is my favourite:

    My wife and I are deeply worried about our 23-year-old son. We have tried to give him a decent upbringing, but are starting to think that he might turn out to be a Tory. While, as good, enlightened progressive parents, we welcome diversity and choice, we worry about his future. Will he at some stage form a relationship with another Tory? Could such a relationship produce children, and if so, could they turn out to be “damaged” in some way? Please shine your wisdom on our angst.
    Bob Horne

    AW: You are right to be worried. Once Toryism enters a household it tends to spread, infecting everybody with a rash of common sense, which can be quite difficult to cope with if you have believed yourself immune. His siblings may well catch it and it has even been known to affect parents. Once it takes hold it is very difficult to combat and, so, yes, he probably will marry a Tory and the symptoms are likely to be observable in any children. However, it is quite normal for it only to last in children about 16 years, after which it fades. In a large number of cases however it returns with maturity. My advice is to give in.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    Agony columns are good fun to read in a vicarious kind of way. But there are some serious issues. People who write in often have real anxieties and may be quite desperate. The agony aunt invariably has no qualifications (unless you count being a C-list celeb and/or being self-opinionated) and is subject to no oversight and dishes out whatever thoughts come into their head presumably with a view to providing good copy: it is fundamentally entertainment to other readers after all. But some poor sucker might actually take this stuff seriously. As with the Mystic Meg types dispensing nonsense advice on the radio, this is not a victimless crime.
    It is possible to do it well, the Guardian‘s Saturday Work supplement has a column (“A bad at the office” I think) which dispenses very sound advice on a range of work & career related issues. Doubtless there are other examples.

  3. Vincent Says:

    I just about remember her on the wireless, but in that way of remembering a echo of a familiar voice where you are uncertain of accuracy. What I do remember is everything halting for the show, why exactly I don’t know. But I suspect it’s much for the same reason as reading the Bog Cuttings in the Phoenix or the District Court Report in the local GAA Advertiser. Where you either pat oneself on the back for never in a month of Sundays or thank God for there but for Grace and so forth.
    As to Norton, I’ve always found the concept of him a matter of wonder. CoI, Gay, from County Cork and survived. For heavens sake that in itself should be enough the shoot Darwin out of the water. But one cannot help musing what might have happened had Auberon Waugh encountered him in the halls of that paper.

  4. As I recall, she played Frank Sinatra. I fear that lack of discernment in one area usually extends to others.

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