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Interview with Claire Rayner

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-05-07

Claire Rayner

Agony aunt to millions Claire Rayner

As the UK's best-known agony aunt publishes her autobiography, How Did I Get Here From There?,'s Caroline Westbrook catches up with Claire Rayner for a chat.

Did writing your autobiography bring back fond memories for you?

Some of it was fun, and some of it wasn't - it was very mixed, as lives are. There were some terrible memories, but also some fun ones. I had to leave masses out - I mean, I had 72 years of life to fit in! I've produced an awful lot of novels, I've done a lot of conference work, but I thought it would be boring to include all of that. I feel a bit guilty now, giving short shrift to the various organisations I work with, but there's only so much you can put in and I was worried it was getting longer and longer.

There's a lot in the book about your time as a nurse and midwife - did you miss the profession when you left?

Oh enormously! I loved the hospitals, I felt comfortable there and I fitted a treat! Even when I came out, to have my own baby, I still missed it. Which was why I started writing really, much of what I was writing was what I knew - it was nursing stuff, it was childcare, teaching - I'd been teaching people as part of my job for donkey's years. So writing was a good substitute, and then when the agony column turned up of course, it was a total substitute.

Was there any rivalry between you and that other Jewish agony aunt, Marge Proops?

No, not really. She was 20 years my senior, and she went on until she was over 80, and people kept saying to me that what kept her going was that I'd get her job if she didn't! She was a nice old bird, but one of those curious coincidences, her only niece was my secretary for years. She lived up the road, our kids went to school together, so when I asked her if she wanted to do some typing, and Judy turned out to be Marge's niece, which was extraordinary.

Do you have fond memories of your days performing amateur dramatics at Maccabi?

Oh yes, it was enormous fun. I wasn't a member of the drama section until I turned up and they were doing the play Tonight At 8.30. Then I became desperately interested, and went into this production. By that time Des (Claire's husband, who produced several Maccabi plays), and I were an item, so we were kosher. Even after I'd married we went on for a while, I remember someone coming along and saying 'how do you get a part in these productions', and I said, 'Oh you have to sleep with the producer!' I enjoyed it hugely. Des carried on professionally, he's 74 now, bless him, but he still does odd shows. He was in something the other night, went to see him in Haebeas Corpus.

What does being Jewish mean to you?

Ethnic, only ethnic. Spirituality is a deeply suspect word to me, it doesn't mean very much, I think it's a phoney word. You can have spirit, yes - I hope I'm a spirited person - but spirituality goes horribly close to those people who have séances, which is not for me. I'll celebrate everything, if I have my way -and I have done, I don't any more, I don't have the energy - but we would have Seder parties, Christmas parties, and I always said if I knew when Ramadan was I'd have celebrated the end of that too!

How Did I Get Here From There? Is out now from Virago publishers.