Philippa Perry Q&A: “I used to love Jane Austen – now I think she was a snob”

The psychotherapist on admiring Mhairi Black, Chopin and why her Mastermind subject would be Jane Austen.

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Philippa Perry was born in Warrington in 1957. After working with the Samaritans in the 1980s, she became a psychotherapist. She is the author of three books and is married to the artist Grayson Perry.

What’s your earliest memory?

My sister took a carving knife out of the drawer because she was going to murder the vet, as our dog, Mitzy, had been put down. My sister was thwarted in her quest; at the time I was disappointed. 

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was John Noakes of Blue Peter fame, always chipper and funny and doing stuff. My adult heroes are people who do boring, necessary things with love and dignity. We must revere them more.

What book last changed your thinking?

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. I love how he tracked the effects of trauma through generations. When a book makes you cry, it heals your hurts: it puts into words previously inchoate feeling.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I’m hungry to look up to a political figure now: someone who keeps us in Europe without writing off half the population as stupid, rather than desperate, angry and misled. I am admiring of Mhairi Black and Jess Phillips for calling out privilege and saying what they know to be true.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life and works of Jane Austen. I loved her as a young adult and read any biography of her I could get. Now when I read her I think she was too much of a snob and cruel in her dismissal of some of her characters. I will always prefer an imperfect Mary Crawford to a pious Fanny Price.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I think we ruined the world when we invented farming, so I’m going back to living in a prehistory hunter-gatherer tribe.

What TV show could you not live without?

Pointless. I love a good quiz, and Xander and Richard are such good company.

Who would paint your portrait?

My portrait has been done many times by Grayson Perry – he gets me.

What’s your theme tune?

Chopin, “Nocturne Op.9 No.2”. It was “Big Spender” but that was wishful thinking.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Everything is better when you remember to breathe. I received this advice in my psychotherapy training and I give it to myself from time to time. It never fails me.

What’s currently bugging you?

Tiny little first-world problems like our landlord being a bit slow to fix the boiler.

What would make your life better?

A working boiler.

When were you happiest?

I’m happy now: my husband and my best friends are alive, my daughter is thriving, these are the good times.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

I like selling things. When I sell the idea of a book, documentary or article, I think, “Now I have to make it.” Selling doesn’t feel like work; I am happiest at the selling stage. I would’ve made a great estate agent. The houses are already built, for starters.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, but that means we must make the best of it while we live out our finite lives, on our finite planet. l

Philippa Perry’s “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read” is published by Penguin Life

This article appears in the 08 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash