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I started a whole
I became a kind of “Granny Stand-Up”.
I went up to the Edinburgh Festival
Virginia Ironside is a prolific author and journalist who has been writing all her life. She published her first novel in 1964 – when she was only 18. She worked at the Daily Mail as a rock columnist and various newspapers and magazines. She currently writes a regular Agony Aunt column for the magazine Idler.
The Virginia Monologues – Why Growing Old is Great was published in 2009. The Independent summed up the book as “the perfect witty rant, touching without being cloying, wonderfully heartless, leaves us with the urge to live each day as if it is our last.” It’s a hilarious and very honest account of ageing. Over the last few years Virginia has written several comic novels featuring the redoubtable older protagonist, Marie Sharp. The first, No, I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub! was a bestseller and Marie Sharp has been described as “the babyboomer’s answer to Bridget Jones”. Virginia has also written more serious books, notably You’ll Get Over It: The Rage of Bereavement, which looks at the myths we tell ourselves about grief.
Virginia says, “the years after being 60 have, no question, been the happiest years of my life.” We catch up with her to find out if, a few years on, this is still true.
I love making people laugh.
I love being the centre
In your book “The Virginia Monologues” you flip negative perceptions about ageing on their head. How easy was that process?
It was very easy, because I was 60 when I wrote it. It was a golden time. You had all the experience and a sort of calmness - and none of the pressure. It seemed like your reward for the ghastliness of living. It was brilliant. There was a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow. It was wonderful! And the grandchildren, they were a joy for me. Particularly the little ones,who want you to build bricks up, then knock them down. I could happily go on doing that forever. The only drawback is giving them back at the end of the day. A little boy of two or three – there’s nothing better.
At that age, I started a whole new career. I became a kind of “Granny Stand-Up”. I went up to the Edinburgh Festival and did a show every day for a month. I love making people laugh. I love being the centre of attention. It’s wonderful: you can be very cruel about old people if you are old yourself. A younger person would be seen as unfeeling and callous, but I can talk about it because I have the same problems as other old people. I do find it difficult getting up out of a chair. I do have to root around in my mouth afterevery meal – it’s disgusting really. But it’s funny.
Most of the audience are old and they understand – they know how difficult it is to get pills out of packets. It’s like they don’t want you to get into them. Child- proof bottles: who has the grip to get those open? There’s a lot of fun to be had in comparing notes. All the pills we have to take. I’d list them all, the ones I was on, then I’d say, “Any more?” And there’d be these shrieks from the audience. “What about Omeprazole?” I felt a real connection. They liked it too. It was a sort of taboo. The joy about being a comedian, or a funny person, is that you can break taboos. You could say all kinds of things, for example, about death. Quite serious things, but in a funny way. And there’d be a wave of recognition and sympathy. The audience was on my side.
I’m 77 now. What they don’t tell you, of course, is that you get the crock of gold, but then you open it up and it’s full of old newspapers and biscuit crumbs. It’s not much fun after that.
Have you revised your opinion that “growing old is great”?
It was true at the time. I really felt it. I am more realistic now. What I hadn’t realised was how very disabled one can get very quickly. It seems to happen when you’re 80. I’m not talking about everyone, obviously. There are millions of very ancient people who seem to be able to get up Everest in a wheelchair. But I’m not one of them. I think the limitations that age puts on you can outweigh the benefits. I don’t want to enter the world of carers and chair lifts!
You wrote your first novel at 18, which seems a very confident thing to do at that age. Were you confident in your youth?
No, I was a gibbering wreck. I was shy, I was drinking too much, and I slept with anyone who asked me. I was desperate. The book was really about my life, and it hurt a few friends badly. I look back and think I was wicked to do it. But I did do it. Because I was so unconfident, I couldn’t believe I made any impact on other people at all. I couldn’t understand why they’d be hurt, I thought it’d be water off a duck’s back. But no. It was my first realisation that people may look confident - but everyone is incredibly sensitive. We all put up a front.
It was quite a funny book and revealing of the sort of life we were leading back then, in the 60s. It wasn’t much fun. For me, it was a very unhappy time. The 60s were a turning point, a revolution – and people always get hurt.
You had a very creative family – your father and your uncle were artists. And your mother was a fashion designer and professor. What was that like?
It taught me that creative people are pretty selfish. My father was wonderful, but my mother was beset with demons. She tried to kill herself three times. She wasn’t a “mum”. She was hellbent on building up this fragile creature that she was. She became a howling success. But as a child, you want your Mum to make you cucumber sandwiches and read you a bedtime story. My uncle was fascinating. He was a painter, he used to be no. 2 at the Tate, a friend of Cyril Connolly and Angus Wilson. A brilliant artist. My father worked all the time. He was a designer. He designed the backs of the first decimal coins. I was an only child. It’s not much fun. My parents were busy being creative, so I was brought up by au pairs, who came and went, never to be seen again. Later I was a latch-key kid. I always felt that I was never madly wanted. That gave me a push to do something, to be noticed. But it’s not a very happy place to be. I always think, “What’s the point of having children if you can’t enjoy bringing them up?” I’m a creative person but I always made sure to be there for my son. Taking him to school, picking him up. Putting aside work for him. I’m not saying I’m a brilliant person – it’s informed by what
I lacked as a child. But I didn’t want him to feel like I felt.
You do talk about quite serious subjects, but your books have a very light touch. The Marie Sharp series are very funny. How do you do it?
I write like I talk, I suppose. I’ve never had any problem writing. People say to me, “I can’t see you tomorrow, I have to write 250 words for the Mail.” I think, “250 words? Let me do it! I’ll do it in 5 minutes!” It’s easy for me. That series of books were all written when I was a grandmother. I was 60, I was very happy. I mined my own life and the funny things that go on. The first one sold very well – and made me quite a bit of money.
Often Agony Aunts can be a bit pious. You’re not though, are you?
That’s just me. I can’t help it. I’ve got views and I think they’re worth passing on. A lot of Agony Aunts fail because they have been counsellors and the Editor thinks they’d do a good job. Being an Agony Aunt is being a journalist. You’re there to make sure people enjoy the column. You’re not there to say, “Well on the one hand, this and on the other hand, that”. That’s not good enough. I’ve had quite a rough life, despite being one of the luckiest people in the world. I’ve had some problems and I’ve learned an enormous amount about how you deal with these things. I’m still learning. A lot of Agony Aunts tell people things that are very easy to say, but not very realistic. They say, “Sit down and talk to your abusive, drunken husband and talk calmly over a nice supper.” Well, when could you ever do that? Much better to talk to them in the car – when nobody can get up, slam the door and leave. You’ve got to have some pragmatic tips.
The other thing is something I remember my father saying: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to get what you want?” If you want to be right, well, maybe you’re never going to see your daughter again – or whatever it is. Far better and actually more generous, to be the bigger person and apologise. Even if you’re lying through your teeth!
I do see a counsellor. I’ve done it since I was 28. Some of them have been absolute rubbish and destructive. But I do feel I’ve learned a fantastic amount from later ones. There are some that are pretty spot-on.
In your role as an Agony Aunt, how would you advise readers against falling into the trap of thinking things were better in the old days?
I do think things were better in the old days. But it’s good to remember the Ancient Greek writers who often complained about how ghastly young people were, and how it was the end of the world, they’re all violent and hopeless and drunk. When you see those quotes you realise: you’re just following a pattern. In a way, it’s quite right that you feel like that. It’s right for older people to feel despair at the younger generation. It’s part of the ageing process, like going grey. One of the things I loathe is my contemporaries going along with the new trends. That’s not what they’re meant to do; they’re meant to move on and stop clogging the system. You don’t want to be a trendy old vicar with a guitar and a cardigan.
We’ve talked a bit about mental health. What do you think about the way we treat our mental health nowadays?
In the old days, it was rather like divorce – it was taboo. It wasn’t “done”. A lot of people suffered. They were trapped in ghastly marriages. Like divorce, when it became easier, a different set of people suffered. Perhaps they gave up on marriage too easily, because they could? Things have advantages and disadvantages. This current obsession with mental health helps a lot of people. But it does hinder others. In the old days people might not have dwelled on things. Dwelling and ruminating on one’s psyche – as I do – is not a good thing to do. I don’t know, it’s swings and roundabouts. I speak as someone who’s been in The Priory three times with nervous breakdowns. I’m not talking lightly about this; my mental health is so precarious. I seem so together but actually “Phut” and I’m gone. There are so many rubbish therapists and people in mental health who have their own agendas. Many therapists have their own self interests at heart– and they want people to keep coming.
In the last 18 months, we’ve faced a lot of bereavement in this country. Are we getting better at talking about death?
We’re not accepting of death, that’s the problem. A lot of people think we ought to live forever. I’m very cold and realistic about death. For instance, I think I’ve passed my sell-by date. I hate this sentimentality about death. Also, this obsession that when you’ve been through a bereavement, you’re going to come out the other side better and more “whole”, more complete. Maybe. But I just feel it’s just absolute s**t, and not something I want to happen to me. And the stages of grief – it’s like putting a structure on something that is chaotic and anarchic. Saying, “Don’t worry, first you’ll go through denial, then anger, then you might pop back to denial. Here’s the route, here’s the map – you’ll pop out the other side to wonderful enrichment.” It’s not true. I’m still angry about bereavement! Incidentally, my book on the subject is still in print after 20 years. [You’ll Get Over It: The Rage of Bereavement”, Penguin]
What do you think about the word “old”?
I’m fine with it. I wrote a sharp piece for the magazine of the Association for American Retired People; I got the proof back and they’d taken out the word “old”! I asked why and this very quavery, old voice on the phone from America said, “At AARP, we don’t like to use the word old.” I thought, you’re mad! You’re in denial – tell the truth! It’s not going to help pretending you’re something else. I feel very strongly about that. People aren’t honest enough. Once you are, life isn’t quite so bad. You’re old. What you’ve got to do is accept it.
Finally, can you tell us what is (still) great about getting older?
I made a list. I think funerals are fun. I like looking good. It’s a very nice thing to look good when you’re older. Because so many contemporaries “let themselves go”. One of the great things about getting old is that you’re going to die soon. I really mean that. It’s wonderful. A relief. That really will be the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. I don’t believe in life after death. But if there was another life, I think I’d like to come back as an olive. I’d spend a long time in the sun and finally end my life very briefly in a sea of alcohol, before being swallowed.
For more information about Virginia Ironside go to her website: www.virginiaironside.org
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