The age of innocence

A history of agony aunts recalls the days when "bottom" was a banned word

So keen are we on tales of our sexual innocence that the BFI's much-trumpeted release of a DVD of vintage sex education films is proving popular enough to find its way into news items, furnishing presenters with opportunities to remember with longing the days when girls in ankle socks trundled their sanitary towels to school inside a suitcase.

On News at Ten, Huw Edwards's eyes literally shone after a clip of a young man failing to buy a condom in Barnet on a Wednesday afternoon in 1973. Archive Hour (Radio 4, 21 February, 8pm) mined this territory in an excellent programme on the history of the agony aunt, from the Athenian Mercury in 1695, answering urgent questions about teenage marriage ("Favour me with a speedy answer, sirs!"), to a radio doctor in 1930 asking suspiciously: "Are you a trifle windy?"

The programme was never happier than when recalling our fondness for euphemisms, our many references to certain glands and pipes, and other variants of British eccentricity. Apparently the word "sex" itself was not used in magazines before 1920, and cautious editors took to the notion at about the same speed as Geoffrey Chaucer's tour of Canterbury, but with far less filth. They were particularly reluctant to sanction the use of the word "bottom", for some reason. At the magazine Women and Home it was banned for over half a century.

These days our agony aunts reveal at length that they, too, have suffered from black depression and have walked down the aisle at least once knowing in their heart that this marriage is a cheque guaranteed to bounce. They cross Stella McCartneyed feet in their byline photos and turn their readers' certitudes on their heads. Should you leave your husband if he is texting another woman 20 times a day? Possibly, but you would do better not to hug your bitterness to yourself, and to consider the question of his powerfully controlling and recently deceased grandmother.

Me, I prefer my consiglieri to be less kumbaya and more categorical, verging on the psychic. Do not leave the house on Thursday. The moustache on your upper lip must simply be endured until you start working weekends at the local penitentiary. "My boyfriend wants to kiss me but I'm afraid I'll become pregnant. Will I?" "No." I need to know where I am with people.

I must add that the programme did seem to coax the blushing teen from inside the guest presenter, Jenni Murray. "The idea of Carla Bruni openly revealing she'd made love to 15 men before marrying the French president would have shocked 19th-century Britain to the core!"

It was striking to hear her so involved. A suspicion has stolen over me recently that Murray doesn't actually like women all that much. Or rather, that an hour in their company is as much as she can stand, preferring the chat of her rugby-playing sons and their friends.

This is at present just a theory, and I am at the moment collating data for a devastating future column with all the resolve of the Duke of Wellington at his cribbage. But suffice to say that these days on Woman's Hour Murray gives the impression that she's thinking, "If I can just get through the bloody hour, I'll live through the night." I've never liked her more.

Pick of the week

Looking for Ripley
28 February, 10.30am, Radio 4
A documentary kicking off the BBC’s series of new adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.

The Talented Mr Ripley

28 February, 2.30pm, Radio 4
Ian Hart stars as the hero-psychopath Tom Ripley.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict