WITH 15 books under her belt, almost four decades as an agony aunt and a spell as a rock journalist interviewing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Virginia Ironside has a new obsession – performing.
“I never thought I’d end up doing stand-up but I’m absolutely addicted,” says Virginia, 67, on her new one-woman show The Virginia Monologues – Why Growing Old is Great. “I’d go anywhere to perform – I absolutely love it. It’s like a drug.”
She’s performing tonight at The Customs House and I do hope she can find the venue as her geography is a little skewed (it transpires she doesn’t quite realise that Newcastle is in the North East).
But she soon exonerates herself by confessing to a lifelong love for Northumberland springing from childhood visits to Corbridge with her father. In fact she loves the area so much she holidayed in Bamburgh, Alnwick and Hexham last summer.
Full of joie de vivre (despite suffering from depression), articulate, opinionated and maybe a little bit eccentric, I’m surprised that it’s taken her this long to tread the boards. But it wasn’t until several talks at literary festivals and on cruise ships that Virginia realised she had a talent for entertaining. “It seemed to me to be very easy to get an audience to laugh and I thought I was quite good at it,” she says.
But after Nigel Planer saw her entertaining a captive audience of 400 on a cruise ship, things moved up a notch. “I was always a fan of Nigel Planer ever since I saw him in The Young Ones,” says Virginia.
“Before the talk I asked if he knew a director who could help me develop a show for the Edinburgh festival. He ran 10 miles in the other direction. He didn’t want anything to do with some mad old bat! But afterwards he said I’d love to direct you. I just couldn’t believe my luck.”
The show premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2009 and is now touring the UK at a steady pace of about two shows a month. Packed full of endearing anecdotes, it covers the joys of being old – unlimited free drugs, boring for Britain, fun funerals, grandchildren and sex (or in Virginia’s case no sex).
“The confidence you have as you get older is great,” she explains. “You don’t really worry so much about what people say. It’s great fun talking about ailments – instead of having conversations we have organ recitals. Other people’s operations are the most fascinating thing in the world to me! I don’t think the idea of death is too frightening either – we’ve all got to deal with it.”
Not being at the mercy of raging hormones is another bonus, although Virginia still cares about her looks having had a facelift at the age of 56.
As a divorced mum of one, she’s happy living alone and would never consider living with a man again, although she says someone living a few doors down “might be all right”.
“I think it’s very sad when you see people of my age still craving the company of men,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to me. I love men and it’s lovely being friends with men but I’m not desperate to go to bed with them.
“I’m a single person. I don’t want to share things any more. I’ve done all that. I’ve had relationships – long ones – and very jolly they were. But now I prefer to be on my own, lonely though it sometimes is.”
Born in 1944, Virginia was an only child. Her mother Professor Janey Ironside ran the Royal College of Art Fashion School in the sixties, nurturing such talent as Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes while her father Christopher designed the backs of the first decimal coins.
She began her career as a journalist, getting a book deal for her novel ‘Chelsea Bird’, when she was just 20 and writing a rock column for The Daily Mail. However Swinging London in the 60s wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“It was horrible,” admits Virginia. “I was wild but in the most miserable way. You were pressured into all kinds of behaviour you weren’t comfortable with. Feminism hadn’t really come in – it was more about women being like men and sleeping with everyone. To be depressed on top of that was vile.”
Virginia has talked openly about her periods of depression although it’s eased with age – another benefit of getting older.
“I still have twinges of it,” she says. “It doesn’t seem to come as much but when it does come, I know what to expect. I can put a label to it. Before I would think my life was crumbling, that I was vile and everybody hated me. Now I can think maybe it will go away because it went away before. I know to confide in people early on. I don’t want another trip to The Priory that’s for sure.”
It was her experience with depression that led Virginia to apply for a job as an agony aunt at Woman magazine in 1975 after Anna Raeburn left.
“I’d been to see every psychiatrist and taken every pill so that made me feel that I could answer people’s questions,” she says. “Looking back I don’t think I did it that well but slowly over the years I’ve become much better.
“Now if people say they want to leave their husbands after 40 years of marriage I’m much less inclined to say go for it. I’d say have separate bedrooms, have separate lives, but keep going. It’s not a good moment to start breaking things up. We all get a bit bored – it’s part of life.”
After 10 years Virginia became problem page editor for the Sunday Mirror (where she got thousands of letters a week) but the internet changed things and now her Dilemmas column for the Independent every Monday just gets “a steady trickle” of letters and emails.
“You can get so much information online now,” she says. “When I started it was so sad – you would get letters from people who were cutting themselves and they had no idea that anyone else did it. We used to have masses of leaflets giving information on self-help groups.
“I do put myself on the page quite a bit. I too have sat crying in a bedsit wanting to kill myself. People need to know they’re not alone.”
Despite the declining numbers of requests for advice, Virginia believes there will always be a place for the agony aunt. “People love reading about other people’s problems, and being healed,” she says. “It’s like a piece of music. The question is in a minor key and the answer is in a resolving major key. It’s emotionally rather satisfying. It’s very nice to feel I’ve helped people – even if it’s only a handful.”
These days Virginia doesn’t draw a distinction between work and play. Whether it’s gardening, cooking or writing her monthly column for the Oldie, she loves keeping busy.
“I don’t find much of life a chore as long as I’m on the move and creating something,” she says.
But it’s spending time with her two grandchildren, aged seven and five (“the reward you get for not killing your children”) that gives her the most pleasure in life. “I’m always desperate to see them,” she admits. “I hang about their house with a butterfly net trying to capture them!”
Looking back Virginia is much more at ease with herself than ever before. “I’d like not to have been so anxious all my life but maybe if I hadn’t been I wouldn’t have been so driven,” she reflects. “I’ve become both more forgiving and also more conscious of what is the right behaviour. So it’s a curious mixture of being all stuffy and moral, but actually kinder.”
The Virginia Monologues is at The Customs House, South Shields tonight. Tickets are £13 (£11 concessions) or £22 for ticket plus two-course meal. Call 0191 454 1234.