Some columns come easily. Something happens that triggers off the idea, and it mulls around in my head a little bit and then when I sit down and start writing, it just kind of falls out.
Other columns are a little more stubborn and they take a little longer to coax out. I get the idea and then spend months working on it, going back to it every now and then, adding a line here, or a thought there, until it finally pulls itself into some kind of form.
Yesterday’s Sunday Times column is one of the later. I’ve been working on it for quite a few months. In fact, it was initially inspired by my second novel This Way Up:
Gratuitous book promo shot
You see the heroine in my book is a sex agony aunt, so i had to do lots of research on the subject, and that left me with all sorts of residual thoughts and ideas.
So that’s the backstory, but here’s the column. I hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, write and tell Alice, I’m sure she’ll know what to tell you.
A MILLION MILES FROM NORMAL – Paige Nick
ASK THE AUNTY
I once had a geography teacher who used to say that there was no such thing as a stupid question. In fact I think that might be the only thing I still remember from class. That and how to paint my fingernails with tip-ex.
These days if you have a question, any question, no matter how stupid, all you have to do is type it into the Google machine. In fact you don’t even have to have a fully formed question in mind, just type in ‘how do you…’ or ‘what is a…’ and the computer will climb into your mind and suggest the rest of the question for you. And then provide two hundred and sixty five thousand, four hundred and one possible answers.
When I typed in ‘How do you…’, the computer suggested, ‘How do you tell if someone is cheating on you?’ and when I went for ‘What is a…’, the computer finished my sentence with ‘What is a virus?’ Clearly these are the things humanity is questioning most around the world right now. Cheating and viruses. One worries.
But you have to wonder, before there was the great big internet in the sky, who did we turn to if we had a difficult, private, or embarrassing question to ask? The kind of question even your friends didn’t know enough to answer, and you couldn’t possibly ask a parent, teacher, or God forbid, your pastor.
Agony Aunts were big back then. Just about all the magazines had them. Full of questions like: Dear Abby, my one boob’s bigger than the other one, should I be worried? Or Dear Abby, my mom won’t buy me Rick Astley’s new record, Never Gonna Give You Up, but my friends Mandy, Candy and Sandy all have it. Why is life is so unfair?
Even the name ‘agony aunt’ makes me smile, the word agony brings to mind a person writhing around on the floor in pain, or bleeding from the eyeball, not just somebody looking at themselves in the mirror wondering whether it’s normal to have a zit the size of Burundi on their chin, or whether the oddly shaped rash on their penis is anything to be worried about. (PS: YES IT IS! See a doctor immediately!)
I’m fascinated by these columns. Mainly by the kinds of questions people ask, but also by the answers. In fact I’m so enthralled by them that I made the heroine in my most recent novel a sex agony aunt, just so I could trawl the internet doing research on the subject, and make up ridiculous questions for my character to answer. Which is how I came across a very unintentionally funny website called ‘Go ask Alice’. Poor Alice, I think some days she really does have her hands full.
‘Dear Alice, my boyfriend kisses with his eyes open. I’ve heard you’re not supposed to trust people who kiss with their eyes open. I naturally kiss with my eyes closed (except to peek occasionally to see if his eyes are open). What’s up with him kissing with his eyes open?! What does that mean?
Of course Alice’s answers are always polite, informative and most importantly, non-judgemental. She’s very good at this, our Alice. I probably wouldn’t have been able to restrain myself and would have responded with something like:
Dear Sneaky Peeker, maybe he doesn’t kiss with his eyes open either, maybe he’s also just peeking to see if your eyes are open at the same time that you peeked to see if his eyes are open? Now he doesn’t trust you either. I’m sorry to say it, but your relationship is doomed.
Here’s another of the kind of awkward questions Alice has to deal with on a daily basis:
‘Dear Alice, I’ve been having this problem with my girlfriend. Whenever we make out, I get the impression that she wants me to do something with her breasts… but I don’t have the foggiest what to do. – Clueless.’
I don’t know who to feel more sorry for here, ‘Clueless’, or poor Alice?
The truly great thing about the Agony Aunt column, and possibly the reason why they’ve stood the test of time and still exist today, is because they really do seem to help out a ton of people who have nowhere else to turn, and also because, well, when you read them you just can’t help feeling a little bit better about your own life.
Because no matter how many times you’ve been dumped, or how flawed your sex life, or how rashy your rash, you can always read one of these and feel slightly grateful for the fact that you will probably never have to write a perfect stranger a letter like this one:
‘Dear Alice, should you talk during sex or just make grunting and moaning noises?’
I may have to argue with my old geography teacher here, perhaps there really is such a thing as a stupid question.