Bel Mooney is one of the country's leading writers and has published six novels and over 30 books for children - but she is also well known for her career as an advice columnist - firstly on The Times and currently on the Daily Mail, where her words in both print and online are read by millions around the world.
Bel told us in her uplifting talk on February 12th that, at first, she was hesitant when the Features Editor of The Times asked her to become the paper's advice-columnist, thinking she was totally unqualified. But then it occurred to her that she herself had been though life's wringer, including the break-up of a marriage after 35 years and other major emotional upheavals - and so perhaps she was well-placed, after all, to make meaningful suggestions to readers based on her own first-hand experiences.
She was to discover that readers often shared the same problems and needs, whether it was the upmarket The Times or the middle-of-the-road Daily Mail - ranging from low self-esteem, bereavement, an inability to find love or, at the extreme, how to deal with the loss of a child and even suicidal thoughts. However, Bel - whilst not overtly religious - came to the conclusion that everybody is capable of happiness, but first there must be a willingness to embrace change. She read several extracts from her latest book, called Lifelines -Words to Help You Through - which is an anthology of Bel's writings, plus quotations from great writers, as well as an essay of what being an advice-columnist had taught her.
As an illustration, she quoted the letter from one woman (all names are changed for publication) who was in late middle-age and felt the future offered nothing to her - and that the only way forward was to head for the Dignitas clinic, in Switzerland, for an assisted suicide. Breaking her usual rule, Bel wrote a hand-written note to the woman, pointing out the many reasons she might have to be positive, happy and grateful. In order to embrace change, Bel suggested that the woman might like to join her, along with her photographer-husband, Robin, on a literary tour of European battlefields. The woman agreed and they are all now expected to be on the same tour-bus - as a first step towards new horizons. In a significant mark of approval, a professional therapist in the audience congratulated Bel on the outcome of this challenging situation.
Bel told us she receives about 30 letters a week - mostly e-mails, but some are hand-written. One man wrote to her, saying he was over-weight and thought himself unattractive to women and considered his future looked quite bleak. Bel urged him to maybe smarten up, get a hair-cut, perhaps lose some weight and to go into his local library to try and acquire some computer-skills. The man followed her advice and found he had an aptitude for computers and, with attendant good fortune, soon met a woman with similar interests - and they are now stepping out together.
However, to prove that Bel herself has sometimes needed help, she told how she had visited a clinical psychologist in the past - and after their session, the psychologist refused any payment and simply suggested that a hug would be enough. Bel told us she rarely reads other advice-columnists, although she greatly admires the work of the psychologist,Tanya Bryon, writing in The Times - but she was far less effusive about another columnist offering advice in one of the Sunday newspapers.
At the end of Bel's talk, there was a range of incisive questions, with one person asking if Bel was her real name. Indeed, she was christened Beryl but her family pet-name in the humble Liverpool council flat where she grew up was Bel. Perhaps the most meaningful question was what Bel considered to be the definition of happiness. She pointed out that scores scores of books have been written on the subject - but perhaps it came down to finding contentment within one's own spirit and that life has so much to offer, even though everybody has to deal with its troughs at one time or another. And that support during those lows can be the key to helping people through, with Bel telling us that the behaviour of her young grandchildren can be an endless source of pleasure.
Over 110 people attended the evening, with Bel travelling with her husband from their home in a village near Bath. She sold several copies of her book, Lifelines, in addition to a selection of her children's books - and the audience yet again commented on the range of sumptuous sandwiches and cake on offer following Bel's highly illuminating and and sometimes emotional talk.