Literary Smorgasbord: Gayle Anderson

Jackie is a magazine so iconic, there’s even a musical about it. Some scars in life run deep and I still recall the bitter disappointment of going to the local shop one Thursday afternoon in the mid 1970s to collect my regular order, only to be told that they had sold every single copy of the magazine during a lunch-time stampede of teenage girls from the local high school. I wasn’t even all that bothered about the 8-page Osmonds pull-out special – it was the words I missed. I absorbed them all; everything from the Dear Sam letters page, to the tampon adverts where you could order free samples from Sister Anne*.  But without a doubt, my favourite part of Jackie was the Cathy & Claire problem page, and so you will understand that although I am hopelessly devoted to each and every one of my Smorgasbord guests, I am particularly excited this week to be interviewing the real, actual, Cathy & Claire

*Disclaimer: My memory fails me – I can’t remember what she was called, but despite having no connection to the Catholic church, I do remember thinking she was a nun and thought it was strange that a nun was giving away free tampons. It didn’t occur to me until an embarrassing number of years later that the Sister was supposed to be a nurse.

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Hi Gayle, thanks for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’m fascinated by all my Smorgasbord guests, but as I was an avid Jackie reader back in the day, I’m particularly excited to be interviewing you.

Aww, shucks, thank you. It was a genuine privilege to work on and subsequently edit Jackie. It was a magical place. Like being at an eternal sleep-over party with your friends. Such fun! Such shenanigans!

Without a doubt, my favourite section of Jackie was the Cathy & Claire problem page. I remember one particular problem from the late 70s when a bride-to-be was worried about being overweight. The advice from Cathy & Claire was to imagine the wedding guests humming here comes the bride, forty inches wide, as she walked down the aisle.  Were you ever as caustic in handing out advice?

Ooh, that is horrendously harsh. I was definitely never as caustic. My stint as C&C was in the early 80’s. These were different times and PC as a term only applied to the local constabulary – but I would contend that your memory is quite a rare example of harshness. That is perhaps why you remember it so clearly. We tended to speak to readers as if they were our younger sisters. That’s really how we regarded them. We were answering these letters as youngsters ourselves. Often newly left home, in our first flats, coming from small towns all over the country. We understood how they felt as we’d just been through it. We understood about loneliness, not fitting in, the fear of love bites! We had a team of more mature freelance advisors to help answer the more complicated problems, pre-written advice sheets for the most common ones, and a doctor for the medical issues. I recently visited the wonderful Jackie archives at D C Thomson for research on a Cathy & Claire talk a former colleague and I gave at last year’s Dundee Book Festival . I was utterly delighted to discover that the vast majority of replies  given over the years – from the 60’s onwards -were warm and supportive and full of common-sense. Even on the most difficult of subjects, racism, sexuality, misogyny, they were in the main, answers I would happy to see given to young readers today.

What was the most unusual problem you dealt with?

Ooooh, that would be the half pence coin letter. I was sitting at my desk on Monday morning opening letters when a half pence fell out. I picked it up and began playing with it as I read the accompanying letter. It said, ‘Dear Cathy & Claire, I have a vaginal wart. I measured it with this half pence.’ Cue made dash to the toilets to wash my hands in the frantic style of Lady Macbeth…

Howling with laughter here. Did you have regular advice-seekers?

A few, but not nearly as many as you’d probably imagine. It was mostly different readers writing in every week. Girls didn’t talk to their friends about their worries in those days and in general  they most definitely didn’t discuss  emotional issues with their parents. There was no social media. No Google. We were their Google. Talking of repeat letters, I did like the fact when going through the archives that the Cathy & Claire page had the honesty to print a letter from a reader who hadn’t agreed with or liked the reply she’d been given! How many publications would do that today?

How many problems came in every week?

At Jackie’s peak, Cathy & Claire received up to 500 letters each week.  To seem hip and cool, we gave our Fleet Street address. The sack loads of letters were then transported by DC Thomson’s own lorries overnight up to our main offices in Dundee where we all worked.

Did you ever feel the weight of responsibility when dealing with the problems of a generation?

You most definitely felt a sense of responsibility. That was part of the fabric on Jackie. Our readers meant everything to us. I think they understood that and that goes a long way to explaining the magazine’ s incredible success. We understood the importance of being Cathy & Claire and we took the job extremely seriously. We were proud of the fact that every single letter that came with an accompanying address was answered. There was real job satisfaction in that.

You went from being Cathy & Claire to pop editor to editor of Jackie in a few short years – how did you get your start with the iconic magazine and what was it like to progress so quickly?

I started in Jackie as a junior doing the letters page and the horoscopes in 1981. It was general practice on magazines at that to start off writing the horoscopes. You could always tell what sign the junior was as she gave herself the best predictions! I then moved on to Cathy & Claire for a spell before becoming pop editor in 1983. It was always the job I wanted and I absolutely loved it. It was like a dream come true. From there, I went on to become Blue Jeans editor before becoming Jackie editor in 1989. In those days, there were wonderful opportunities to work hard and show your creativity and use your initiative. We were pretty much given free rein. Our only training was on the job. You were thrown in at the deep end and  learned your craft from the amazing staff around you. Some incredible women (and a few men too!) I feel incredibly sorry for young people trying to break into media today. There are so few opportunities to get in at ground level.  It’s all unpaid internships which is morally so wrong. Unless you have rich parents you will never be able to support yourself. My story of a wee Dundee girl from a council estate who ends up editing Jackie just wouldn’t happen today and that’s wrong. Oh, stop me before I go into full rant mode…

As Jackie’s pop editor, you met some of the biggest names from the 1980s music scene. Was there anyone who surprised you?

Listen in the world of 80’s pop – NOTHING surprised you! That was the secret to it all – expect the unexpected! I suppose I was most surprised by Andrew Ridgely of Wham! He was number 1 in the charts but still living at home with his mum and dad in his teenage bedroom. He invited me round and we watched Blackadder and ate Mr Men biscuits! He even posted me on look-out while he had a cigarette at the back door  – he may have been a pop icon but he was petrified that his mum would catch him!

Morrissey surprised me too. I thought he would be difficult but he was lovely – especially with a reader we took to meet him. He really got into the spirit of things and had her feeding him grapes in the photo-shoot.

Who did you particularly like?

I liked George Michael – a wonderful, generous and sensitive man. A real family man. The Spandau boys were always up for a bit of a wild night out and a laugh as were Bananarama and Jason Donovan always remembered you.

Was there anyone you didn’t like?

Let’s see…generally, everyone was  lovely  but I do remember  leaping on stage at Nick Kershaw’s soundcheck  at The Playhouse in Edinburgh and having a few words because he was being sniffy about a pre-arranged meet and greet with a Jackie reader. Again, it was all about the reader. She was crying and I lost my cool! I also found Paula Yates difficult.

What was your strangest and/or funniest encounter?

Interviewing Simon Le Bon whilst he was in his bath ranks right up there. Luckily, there were a lot of bubbles. He greeted me by shouting, ‘Captain Invincible!’

What were you like at school?

I was, much  like I am now,  a bit of a rebel,  a non-conformist.  I attended a Catholic academy and it was pretty strict. I was constantly being sent home for trying to wear cheesecloth shirts and no tie or non-regulation hippy clogs instead of sensible shoes.  I was a bit of a secret swot too though and stayed on until sixth year. I particularly loved English and the debating society which was run by Sister Mary Bernadette. She was a giant Irish nun who cruised the corridors like a scary black battleship, clipping wrong-doers around the lugs as she passed. She and I really got on. She had a deliciously dry sense of humour.  I remember   I was debating at the rather posh Morrison’s Academy in Crieff when my opponent  completely lost his temper and called me a, ‘communist bastard’.

Sister Mary Bernadette came  up to me after our win put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘ Sure, he got that wrong, Gayle…..you’re definitely not a  communist…’ There was definitely a twinkle in her eye as she said it.

What advice would you give to the young Gayle Anderson?

I’d say,  ‘ Be bold, be brave and enjoy every single second. Oh, and always remember to stick your taxi fare in your shoe before a night out.’

Who inspires you?

Strong, talented women inspire me . Arundhati Roy, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Burke,  Dorothy Parker, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison,  Audre Lorde, Carol Ann Duffy, Joan Eardley, Frida Kahlo, Joni Mitchell to name but a few.

What are you working on just now?

At the moment I’m working on my autobiography – here’s a bit of blurb about what to expect…

“I learnt the true meaning of ‘beards’ and ‘handbags’ as a naïve 19-year-old pop editor partying with George Michael. Before that, as Jackie’s iconic agony aunts, Cathy & Claire, I’d  helped thousands of  teenage girls deal with love bites, loneliness and medical queries that all too often involved sending me their scabs stuck to Sellotape. But  it was many more years before I faced up to my own issues, addressed my shed-loads of secrets and lies and finally admit that I was gay. Join me on a riotously funny and at times painfully raw road trip to the end of my rainbow. You’ll discover that it’s never too late to  come out, or to wear double denim. Warning: an embarrassingly high level of name-dropping will be involved in the telling of this story.”

Can’t wait for the name-dropping. You write stand-up reviews, Gayle. Gary Little has been a Smorgasbord guest and I have an interview with another stand-up lined up – I wondered if you have ever considered taking to the stage?

No, never – I know as a reviewer just how incredibly difficult it is! I admire stand -up comedians  so much. Baring their souls on stage night after night – they are brave, talented people. I do love being a bit of a pub raconteur though and I would love to write comedy – either for TV or radio. I’m working on a  treatment for a six part female led comedy series. I’ve also appeared  on a few radio comedy quiz shows.

If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

It would be Maya Angelou – my heroine. We’d probably kick back in Barbados  at a beachside bar drinking rum with her reading her poetry to me and me reading Rabbie Burns to her. She loved Burns. I met her once after a poetry reading in Glasgow in the 1980s. She was charm itself. A 6ft vision in a gold lame frock…… and that voice!!

Who would play Gayle Anderson in the film of your life?

It would have to be Frances McDormand – especially like she is in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.  Small, feisty, determined and allergic to bullshit.. Scary on the outside but a softy underneath.  A ball breaker par excellence!

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy or The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

Author:

Margaret Atwood

Drink:

Mount Gaye Barbados rum.

Film:

Some Like It Hot

Music:

Billie Holliday, Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen,  Bob Marley, Massive Attack,  George Michael, Curtis Mayfield. A mixture of hip and hippy!

TV show:

New comedy show  by Roisin Conarty – it’s a breath of fresh sit-com air. All time favourite show – The Wire.

1980s pop icon

Gotta be Debbie Harry.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. I got a signed copy as a Christmas present from my partner.

Where can readers find out more about you?

Oh, it would be great to hear from fellow Jackie fans. No problems letters though, I’m a bit rusty!! Good to hear from  other lovers of the arts and comedy too.

Twitter : @puffedtweet

Instagram: gayleandersonx

Thanks, Gayle. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the Smorgasbord.

You’re most welcome –  I’ve had fun on your posh Pick ‘N’ Mix!

Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times trilogy is also available from Amazon.

Find out more about LG Thomson at Thrillers With Attitude.

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