The second day of the festival is a non-fiction day for me. The two women whose events I attend are Rachel Bridge, author of How to Make a Million Before Lunch and Irma Kurtz, who I’m sure many of you will recognise as Cosmopolitan’s agony aunt of 40 years. Her event is one of the best I’ve ever attended.
The Opera House is buzzing when I arrive for Bridge’s event. There’s a wide range of people from school children in uniform accompanied by their teachers to post-work suited and booted/high heeled business types to over-60s in casual wear.
Bridge comes on to the Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), her gold dress sparkling in the spotlights. She’s very enthusiastic herself as she tells us that entrepreneurs are the most inspiring, enthusiastic, optimistic people in the world. She then proceeds to give us the rules that will take us to a luxury yachts with a cocktail in one hand and a big cheque in the other (surely a bank transfer entry on our banking app these days?).
#1 – be madly passionate about what you want to do
#2 – do not invent anything
#3 – keep it simple. Don’t be the first in.
Between these, Bridge gives examples of successes and failures from entrepreneurs. By this point, I’m getting irritated because, besides a quick mention of the dragons from Dragons Den, they’re all men. Are there no female entrepreneurs?
She also gives us some tips between the rules such as ‘A lot of ideas are had in the pub. Write it down!’ ‘You’ve got to make a profit otherwise it’s not a business, it’s a hobby.’
#4 Don’t even think about opening a shop. You’ll be stuck inside while people are buying things on the internet. Sell on the internet or through other people’s shops. Shops are expensive, inflexible and restrictive.
#5 Don’t borrow lots of money to start up your business, it will weigh you down.
#6 Find out if there is a demand for your idea. This is the bit everyone forgets, Bridge says. If you’re stuck for ideas, think about what drives you mad.
#7 You have to be very focused and single-minded.
Bridge takes a tangent here to plug her forthcoming book Ambition. She tells us that successful people fit more into their day and gives us the examples of David Wolstencroft, creator of Spooks, and Bill Muirhead, advertising executive and Agent General for South Australia in London. Bridge met Wolstencroft at the baggage reclaim in LA after a flight from London. During the flight he’d edited a script and written two chapters of a book. He says if he has 15 minutes, he uses it, even if it takes five of those to fire his laptop up. Muirhead tells everyone he meets with that he only has 10 minutes for their meeting before he has to leave for something else, so all his meetings happen in 10 minutes. This sounds like the dream to me.
Bridge’s top three tips learnt from ambitious, successful people are:
- carry a to-do list everywhere but only do three things at a time;
- stop multitasking;
- just say no – be selective about the events you go to and make the most of the ones you do attend
Then it’s back to the entrepreneur rules.
#8 You don’t need to be alone. Every successful entrepreneur has a team.
#9 Just do it! Don’t wait for everything to be perfect, there are always reasons not to start. The hardest thing about starting a business is actually starting it.
Bridge ends by telling us about her favourite entrepreneur, who is a woman (she has mentioned a few more by this point). Judy Craymer decided she wanted to write a musical. She spent 10 years working on this and came up with Mamma Mia. She didn’t write the music, she didn’t write the words, she didn’t invest any money in it. She made £90 million.
Bridge leaves the stage to Abba’s Money Money Money. On the way out a woman asks me what I thought. ‘I’m inspired,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an idea and I’m buzzing.’ I’m wondering about Judy Cramer and how I can make a fortune without much hard work at all. I think I might have missed the point…
It’s a very different audience for Irma Kurtz. Mostly women aged between thirty and sixty, those of us for whom Kurtz was our agony aunt. She’s interviewed by Jersey broadcaster, Murray Norton.
He begins by asking her about the term ‘agony aunt’ and whether she minded it. ‘I insisted on it’ and that the column be called ‘The Agony Column’. Kurtz points out that she’s not a counsellor or a therapist, her degree’s in English Literature. ‘I’m a writer.’ She likes to travel alone, listening to strangers. She’s curious and that makes her a writer, she says.
She began at 14, advising a 16/17-year-old about her boyfriend. She says the key to her success is that she’s avoided telling people what to do. Should means ‘Because I say so’. She’s empathised and suggested what people could do. They then find the solution within themselves. ‘The real tool is common sense.’ ‘And wisdom?’ says Norton. You’re born with common sense, she says, wisdom takes time, observation and experience.
Being lonely because she’s an ex-pat and away from her roots has been key to who she is too. She’s from Jersey City, New Jersey which sparks some impressions of native New Jersey accents which continue throughout the event and a discussion about the differences between the island we’re currently in and the state in America and how one came from the other.
She mentions some of the anti-Semitism she experienced in her youth. In particular a group of boys who used to throw snowballs at her with rocks in the middle. The shouted, ‘You killed Christ’ at her. This confused her, ‘I thought Christ was a good Jewish boy.’
Norton names a number of prominent agony aunts including Claire Raynor. Before he’s reached the end of the list, Kurtz is adding names to it because she knows the connection – they’re all Jewish. Why does she think that is? It’s ‘the kitchen court’. While the men were philosophising, the women were in the kitchen arranging marriages. And common sense is portable.
They talk about Agony Uncles and why they didn’t work. Kurtz puts this down to them wanting to be therapists or counsellors. They needed an overarching theory to work under whilst women examine the everyday. ‘Gossip is a good thing when it’s used in a good way.’ Also, she says to much laughter from the audience, ‘The women were often in agony and the men were often causing it’.
She follows this up by saying she’s been in trouble for saying men and women are different but over the 40 years she’s been an agony aunt, the essential issues haven’t changed: lack of self-esteem and the immense difference bearing children makes to your life.
She talks about the recent Daily Mail article, ‘Irma Kurtz says rape is the victim’s fault’. She’s emphatic when she says, ‘Not in a million years’. She says it was painful to be accused of that and she couldn’t fight back. She does clarify that she said ‘don’t get so drunk’ and it’s a shame Norton doesn’t follow-up on this as it’s clearly a problematic piece of advice in this context.
In 1971, she decided she had to have a child. As her partner was an artist, she took the job at Cosmopolitan for a year, thinking it would tide them over. Later she says she never took a rise, making sure she did other things. She never questioned how equipped she was though, ‘I felt sisterly, I felt companionship. Sometimes annoyed, sometimes spooked.’ She’s ended the job this year because answering emails isn’t as attractive to her as answering letters even though, ‘The postman hated me’. She was receiving 500-1000 letters a month.
Whenever Cosmopolitan started up in a new territory, she would do the first few months of the advice column until they employed someone local. This means she’s recognised some differences in the types of advice asked for around the world. In Japan it was ‘endless in-law problems. Mother-in-law problems’. South Africa she found difficult. Usually she would travel to the country but it was during apartheid and her union wouldn’t let her travel which meant she didn’t know the local organisations, ‘What was open to the white women wasn’t open to their black sisters’. American women are angry, while the English are self-accusing. She attributes this to the American constitution and war. The constitution includes entitlement to the pursuit of happiness and she thinks many mistake this for an entitlement to happiness and it leads to anger when they don’t get it. The English have seen war in their own land and she thinks this is what affected their mindset. Although, she says, we’re much more homogenised now so the contrast has shrunk.
The big issues haven’t changed though: love, sex, sexual jealousy, family, friendship. However, the questions around sex have changed from worrying about being pregnant to not wanting to have children ever. Kurtz says she was glad when the sexperts arrived in the 1980s and she could hand these questions over! She says during the rise of feminism in the 1970s, she received many letters from women saying they didn’t like the ‘woman on top’ position and thought this was a betrayal of feminism. Others weren’t enjoying sex and some were falling in love with other women’s husbands. This was the only time she told them rather than advised. She said they’re ‘collaborators rather than a lover’ and they needed to know that.
Norton asks about the men in her life. ‘Let’s not, we haven’t time.’ She talks about moving to New York City, to Manhattan, as soon as she could. Going to Greenwich Village and listening to the poets (apart from Dylan Thomas who used to sit in the corner drinking but never reading his work). Despite her parents’ disapproval, she raised money waitressing to go and live in Paris but struggled there. After someone bought her a ticket to see a production of King Lear she decided ‘to go where the language comes from’ and moved to London as a way of avoiding returning home to ‘I told you so’. This was 1968 and when a well-off friend moved out of her flat, Kurtz paid £8 a week to live on Kings Road.
She returns to the letters. She’s had death threats from America when she included abortion as an option for a pregnant 15-year-old. She can spot a fake letter – she says it’s harder with emails. The fake letters were often from men and began with what they were wearing! She’s only had one letter that shocked her. It was from a woman who’d had an argument with her boyfriend and then gone out for a drive. During the drive, she picked up a hitchhiker, took the gun from her glove compartment, shot him and pushed him from the car. There’s a collective gasp from the audience. Kurtz says the postmark was from a state where there was capital punishment, so she couldn’t answer the letter in print, no editor would take it. She wasn’t supposed to answer letters that weren’t printed but of course, she did.
Kurtz ends by telling us more about her ‘complicated, exciting’ life. Throughout her career, she’s also written articles on a variety of things including the Klu Klx Klan and the Vietnam War. When she interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Klan, he heard her name as Curtis, which she wasn’t about to correct. He took her to the Klavern where the woman who opened the door said, ‘I can tell a Jew by the look on their face’. Kurtz said, ‘It was an interesting experience. I smiled. There was a look on my face’.
As for the war, ‘I’d never really seen a warzone and I wanted to see a warzone’. She compares this to Londoners visiting Bedlam. ‘I’ve always been a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to see a warzone and glad I did.’
She tells us that Tennessee Williams saved her life: she was due to interview him, he changed the interview, the plane crashed. And finally that her son complained when the boys at school discovered she was an agony aunt, ‘I was living in Soho at the time, it could’ve been much worse’.
She’s currently working on some fiction but then she’ll write a memoir. With a life as fascinating as this one, I can’t wait to read it.