#introducing talent from the Edinburgh International Book Festival. What’s new to us may be new to you..
Standing in a queue in which the average age was 70 and the average gender was female, I could have very easily felt out of my depth. I was waiting to hear Irma Kurtz talk.
For those of you who don’t know Irma Kurtz is one of the U.K.’s leading agony aunts. Naturally she’s from the U.S. but she has spent more than 40 years advising people this side of the pond what to do with their lives and how to be happier: leave your husband, believe in yourself, stop being such a muppet etc. etc. On Thursday she spoke about her life and how she ended up becoming the empress of agony.
Rewind back to the 1950s and Kurtz was en route to become a wife to some fancy lawyer in Connecticut – or so her family would have hoped. Mid-talk, Kurtz divulged: ‘I didn’t like having my destiny laid out in front of me. So I became a waitress for two and a half years and bought my freedom.’ Powerful words. It’s one thing to rebel against your family’s wishes when they clash with your own, it’s another to pay for your emancipation of your own accord.
After her stint in the restaurant circuit, Kurtz moved to Paris to enjoy the bohemian lifestyle; a lifestyle she believes to have all but ‘evaporated’ from the city today. ‘It can’t exist anymore. Money has taken over and now everything is based on sales. The art the bohemian period tried to promote is gone. Commercialism sits in its place.’
It’s no surprise then that with well-put phrases like this, Kurtz was a straight-laced journalist before heading into agony. She travelled all over the world, in fact- from South Africa to Vietnam, documenting the treasures and the horrors to which they lay claim. The apartheid was rife in South Africa and the Vietnam War was ongoing. ‘I learned a lot.’ Kurtz says, her voice suddenly taking on a more sombre tone. ‘A lot.’
So how did Kurtz end up in agony? Candidly Kurtz confessed that her move to advice giving was not exactly a career choice but more of a necessity. She was pregnant and wanted to settle down to start a family. As a ‘proper’ journalist – Kurtz rolls her eyes when saying the word ‘proper’ – she travelled the world. As an agony aunt, she would have the chance to settle down and raise her child, whilst still being able to work in a field that she loves.
In fact, it’s this talk of family which leads Kurtz to expand more on her profession at hand. Many of the women (and some men) who write to her are those who have families or are planning on starting ones of their own – and Kurtz’s experience as a mother helps when giving advice. She knows what it’s like to raise a child, she knows what it’s like to be hurt and in return to hurt someone you love.
However, to be an agony aunt, she believes motherhood and family life are far from essential. ‘Common sense is what’s needed and it’s more than an education, it’s an observation.’
A vast majority of emails Kurtz receives today concern online dating – a subject of which she has never had any direct experience – and yet still has plenty of advice to give based on what she has witnessed during her life. In the case of online dating, her thoughts are succinct: ‘it’s impossible to fall in love with a man you’ve never smelled.’
Her opinions on other matters, however, vary from case to case, and it’s not just the situation she takes into consideration but the way in which people see themselves within a situation. ‘I shouldn’t generalise too much’ Kurtz says giggling, ‘but for the most part – American women are concerned with how they’ve been wronged – why would he do this to me? Whereas, British women tend to be much more meek. I get a lot more of – what have I done wrong? – over here. The situations may be the same – but the issues are different.’
This leads Kurtz to assert that she never considers what she does to be rule-giving. ‘I am not telling people what they should do. I am giving advice based on what I see day-to-day. People have a choice whether to take it or not.’ And it’s this which makes Kurtz so appealing. She doesn’t boss people about, she just lets them in on the wisdom she has garnered through leading a life of observation; taking nuggets of common sense from the mistakes and successes of, not just herself, but those around her.
As the talk draws to a close, the subject of approachability arises. ‘Young people always come up to me with problems, at the bus stop, in the cinema – asking me for advice. It’s strange but I think it’s because I’m old. I’ve reached that safe age where it’s okay to strike up a conversation with a stranger. That’s it – it’s because I’m old.’
The audience laugh. It’s true, old ladies can be very approachable. Something tells me though, as I leave the tent, the same old folk I walked in with grinning around me, recounting details from Kurtz’ talk with glee, that it’s not just Kurtz’ age which makes her approachable – it’s Irma.
Irma Kurtz’ autobiography My Life in Agony is available for purchase now and the Edinburgh International Book Festival runs until August 25th. For more info on the festival and to get tickets, check out their website here: EIBF.
Sam Prance is the Editor of Prancing Through LIFE. He studies French and Italian at the University of Edinburgh. His favourite novel is Cloud Atlas and he has Madonna marathons on a regular basis. He is currently writing this auto-bio in the third person. He will now stop writing this third person auto-bio in order to save himself some embarrassment.
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