“I’m someone who makes mistakes” – Dawn French talks failure
An hour spent in the company of Philippa Perry passes in
a flash. She has that rare gift of being able to make you feel you’ve known her forever: she chats easily, she’s unthreatening, she’s interested as well as interesting and, above all, she’s sorted.
Given that she’s a psychotherapist and million-selling author who’s just published her fourth self-help book and has been married for 31 years to artist Grayson Perry, she certainly should be sorted. Except sometimes, it turns out, she isn’t.
“I can often be awkward,” she admits. “I don’t always feel comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes I think I’ve said the wrong thing.”
She pauses. “But feeling uncomfortable is quite good, because then you can do something to make yourself feel better.”
Over the past few years Philippa has become everyone’s favourite putter-righter of everyday psychological problems. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) has sold almost a million copies in the UK (and two million globally) since 2019 and has been translated into 40 languages.
“I don’t always feel comfortable in my own skin – sometimes I think I’ve said the wrong thing.”
Her new book focuses on how we behave as adults and where that behaviour emanates from. It’s titled in a similar vein, The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t), and it’s threaded through with the same thoughtful common sense.
To Philippa, the ‘how’ question is central. “We tend to ask why is something happening, but the answer is always: because the other people are wrong and I am right,” she says.
The ‘how’ question goes deeper.
“How am I behaving that is causing this? How is it I fall out with everyone I meet within six months?” The point, she argues, is to look at our ‘process’ (how we act) and to separate it from the ‘content’ (what happened) and the stories we tell ourselves.
“Look at the process, so you can change your content if you need to,” she explains. “Think about your own behaviour, because that’s the only behaviour you can control.”
As an agony aunt, she sometimes gets readers writing in about, say, their mother-in-law. “And I’ll say, try looking at things from her point of view,” she says. “And then in the comments people ask, ‘Why should she?’ The answer is because she, the questioner, wants the change.”
Two days before our interview I broke my foot and Philippa sympathises with me having to be on crutches; she had a hip replacement not long ago and is still trying to wean herself off her stick.
“But then I’ll remember I’m going to a do, and I’ll be on my feet all evening, and I think, “Not quite yet”,” she says.
“I think what’s good for our relationship is that we both go out into the world and then when we’re back together we’ve always got new things to talk about.”
There are certainly plenty of ‘dos’ in her life: just as she’s the toast of the self-help world, Grayson is the toast of the art world, famous for his ceramics, tapestries and his cross-dressing. His alter-ego is Claire, whose brightly coloured, boldly patterned outfits he often designs himself.
Together he and Philippa – now Sir Grayson and Lady Perry since he was knighted earlier this year – are a later-life power couple (she is 66 this month, he’s 63). So, is this their best time?
“I don’t do best times,” Philippa replies.
“This is the time, because we’re together. I think what’s good for our relationship is that we both go out into the world and then when we’re back together we’ve always got new things to talk about.
“He’s not the same person every day, I’m not the same person every day. There’s an element of getting to know someone all the time, it doesn’t stop.”
Philippa with Grayson and their daughter Florence
As far as being in a long-term relationship is concerned, there’s a pivotal bit of research that makes sense to her.
“We all need attention, and we make bids for attention, though we don’t think of them as that,” she says.
“So I might go, ‘Look at that squirrel!’ And Grayson has to stop reading, look up and say, ‘Wow’. That’s a bid for attention. Research says if we honour seven out of 10 bids, our marriage will probably be OK. It’s certainly a better indicator than how great and how often sex happens.”
“I think, in my inner self, I’m quite lonely, and I’m always trying to get less lonely.”
She remembers a holiday in Corsica when their daughter Florence – now 31 – was a baby. “We made friends with a gay couple, male nurses – they were hilarious,” she recalls.
“They said to me, would you be terribly upset if we had Grayson for a threesome? And I said yes, I think I would – and I think Grayson might be even more upset!” She kept in touch with them for a long time afterwards; she loves making new friends.
“I think, in my inner self, I’m quite lonely, and I’m always trying to get less lonely,” Philippa says.
“I grew up in the country, and if I wanted to play with friends I had to beg to be driven somewhere. So I never take fun people for granted – I want to make the most of it, to have fun.”
Getting older allows her to do more of what she loves, she says. “I’m planning to do more painting, more sitting in a deckchair, more cold-water swimming.”
She studied fine art, and was last seen on TV in Grayson’s Art Club, the lockdown series where the couple invited viewers to send in their artwork. It was a winning formula at a tricky time, cementing the pair as national treasures (although as Grayson likes to joke, being a national treasure is a bit dangerous these days).
The couple met on a creative writing course in 1987, after Philippa had divorced her first husband.
How that marriage ended is a glimpse into her future in psychotherapy. She’d always felt she was nothing without him, but one day when he was away, she was preparing lunch for friends and hurt her hand badly, ending up in hospital.
While her friends rallied round, her husband later dismissed it with an impatient, ‘What have you done now?’ The lightbulb clarity with which she realised she had to rid herself of this man was, I suggest, impressive.
“I was able to separate myself, instead of being completely absorbed in the moment,” she says. “I was able to step back, observe and say, “This is interesting”. It was all so crystal clear, but it hadn’t been until then.”
“To learn more, you have to go on other people’s psychological journeys.”
Her psychotherapy training started with volunteering for the Samaritans, and she says she learned a great deal while going through her own therapy journey.
“To learn more, you have to go on other people’s psychological journeys,” she says. Which she does with her clients, versions of whom are described in her books.
One man’s narrative was always that those in authority had let him down. When Philippa eventually got to the core of his issue, it was that his stepfather had sexually abused him, and his mother didn’t believe him.
“And because of this, he was bringing his past into his everyday life,” she says.
“When he got it, it was like a weight coming off: he didn’t have to make everyone around him into his mother. Because when we have got unfinished business we tend to put it in the present, to try to finish it off in the present.”
“You’re never too old to have a problem, and you’re never too old to do something about it.”
It’s all about living in the present with your past dynamic, she says in the book: dealing with the past so it doesn’t taint or overwhelm the now.
It’s never too late to address issues, Philippa believes.
“A lot of older people write to me. You’re never too old to have a problem, and you’re never too old to do something about it. When people talk about ‘getting their affairs in order’ they’re thinking money and possessions, but what about those unanswered questions about relationships, like why have I never hit it off with my sister? If we tie up things that matter, we can lie down more peacefully on our deathbed.”
Deathbeds are something Philippa knows a bit about, having had a near-death experience since finishing the new book. It was after her hip op in May: her blood pressure dipped dangerously and she was taken to intensive care, where she remained for five days.
“I was lying on the bed very ill, but feeling quite cheerful,” she says.
“I was having a lovely time: my husband was there being lovely, my daughter was there being lovely, my friends were there being lovely. I thought, if this is the end, I’m enjoying it.”
She says she’s sometimes asked what she’s aiming for now in life. “And I always say a good deathbed scene,” she smiles.
“People think I’m joking. But do you know what? I’m not.”
The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) by Philippa Perry (Cornerstone Press, £18.99) is out now