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Thu, 21 Jan 2010 09:08
Tanith Carey started her career in national newspapers at the Daily Mirror in the days when Marje Proops was still the paper's legendary agony aunt. She went on become the paper's Woman's Editor, Features Editor and NY correspondent but has never lost her fascination with the women who long reigned over the problem pages. Tanith now writes on women's issues for a wide range of national newspapers and magazines.
Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe?
Tanith Carey: I was researching my third book, which was a collection of motherhood experiences from different eras -- and came across an article from a long-forgotten magazine called Mother and Home in 1915.
It said that babies should never be played because there was a danger it stimulated their brains!
As a parenting author, I was so appalled that mothers were told this, which is so contrary to what we know now, I decided to what other truly awful advice had been handed out in long-forgotten magazines and newspapers. Luckily there was lots of it!
Mark Thwaite:Your book is based on the "words of wisdom from the golden age of agony aunts" -- when was that golden age?
Tanith Carey:I would say from the 1860s when agony aunts become roughly recognisable in the format we know today -- to the 1960s when the advice started to get alot more sensible.
Until the 1960s agony aunts could be very prim and proper and would issue dire warnings that women would be ruined if they had sex before marriage etc.
When the Pill opened the floodgates of sexual freedom, not even their highhanded morality could keep them shut -- so Agony Aunts had to move with the times!
Mark Thwaite: How and why did agony aunts come about?
Tanith Carey: They were invented by a magazine publisher called John Dunton who first hit on the idea that his readers' own dramas were much more interesting than politics or current affairs -- as well as a very cost-effective way of filling his pages. It also maybe no coincidence that he was having a moral dilemma of his own -- he was having an extra marital affair.
However those first letters in the Athenian Mercury in 1691 were just as likely to be queries about the mysteries of the world, like the wonders of perpetual motion. But they also touched on such issues as: "Is a husband justified in divorcing a wife who tricked him into marrying her by wearing make-up?"
Soon Dunton had hired a group of women writers to answer the queries. But it was the Victorians who really turned the agony aunt column into the form we know today -- and basically used it as a way to map out and uphold their morals.
Mark Thwaite: Did they ever really give genuinely useful advice? Did society really need them?
Tanith Carey: Yes, I think at a time when information was so scarce, agony aunt columns performed an absolutely vital role. And to be fair, a lot of what was written was fair and applicable for the era in which it was written.
Mark Thwaite: When and why do you think their influence waned?
Tanith Carey: The advent of the Internet in the late Nineties meant that anyone with a problem could now find the answers to most queries within seconds. Problems pages are still popular today, but really they a quaint anachronisms, read more for entertainment, than information. The fact that many celebrities are now agony aunts -- Katie Price for example has a column in OK magazine -- shows they are more for fun than anything else -- and no longer to be taken entirely seriously, which in some ways is a great shame.
Mark Thwaite: What is your favourite bit of advice in your book?
Tanith Carey: I love the advice to a lady in 1928 who is told she can whittle away the excess pounds by rolling on the floor.
There's another from around the same time where a woman is told that you can lose as much weight visiting a museum -- through exercise of the brain -- as you can climbing the Alps. If only!
Then I still laugh at the advice given to a man called Peter in 1865 who can't swim, but wants to learn. He is told to wade into the sea, throw an egg ahead of him and dive in after him, to prove to himself that he will float!
Generally the ones I love the best are the hilariously high-handed pieces of advice -- or the ones that summon up vivid images of some of the ridiculous things people got up to in times gone by.
Mark Thwaite: Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and attempted to kiss anyone in a canoe yourself?
Tanith Carey: Well, I am not a big boat lover. The closest I've ever been in probably giving my husband a kiss on a cruise the year before last -- but the effect wouldn't have been quite the same as the boat was about the size of the QE2! The quote comes from a piece of advice given to a girl in 1895 who asked if she could go out alone with a boy in a canoe -- and who was brusquely told it was out of the question. I think she was told no because it was socially unacceptable, not because they'd tip over though!
Mark Thwaite: On the back of researching and compiling all these questions and answers, did you become very wise about the human condition!?
Tanith Carey: Well, I learned that the human condition has always been fundamentally the same. People want the same things now as they have always done -- love, happiness, advice on how dress well and look good. It's only social rules which surround us that change.
Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book Tanith? How did you overcome it?
Tanith Carey: It was just the sheer number of hours that I would spend leafing through magazines looking for new gems that really surprised or made me laugh out loud. So in some ways, it could be an endurance test. But I really loved doing it, because I would open these magazines that looked like they hadn't been read since the year they were published and the letters felt as fresh and vivid as the day they were written. I just kept going until I felt I'd made it the funniest book I could.
Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing and compiling odd books about agony aunts?
Tanith Carey: Well, this is my fourth book, so when I am not writing books, I am looking out for ideas for new ones. I also write features and opinion peices for a range of national newspapers and magazines.
Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Tanith Carey: Well, as I wrote this book, I imagined this book would appeal to a lot of different people -- but principally those with a good sense of humour. But also I felt it would appeal to those people who like history. That's because these letters bring the past alive by showing what people really thought and felt at different times over the last 150 or so years. You can actually see society evolving through the subject matter of the letters -- and the answers.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?
Tanith Carey: Well, if I am not writing books, I am often writing journalism. I am also writing another book which is a memoir about a woman whose soldier husband forgot all about her when he suffered amnesia after an accident in the Gulf -- and how she made him fall in love with her all over again.
Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer Tanith? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
Tanith Carey: I have to say I mainly read non-fiction. I like books with a different perspectives that teach me something.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
Tanith Carey: A brilliant idea will always shine through. Also it's a good idea to spend as much time as possible browsing in bookshops to see what publishers want.
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?
Tanith Carey>: As harsh and highhanded as some of the advice is, I think this book appeals so much to people because it harks back to a time when everyone knew the rules -- and stuck to them. In the past, agony aunts were very much moral enforcers -- so I think that chimes with the present day, when there aren't many morals left!
For that reason, the book seems to have attracted a lot of commentary on lots of different levels.
But my favourite comment was from a reviewer who said it was the perfect last minute present for absolutely anyone -- but the danger was that would end up keeping it yourself!
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