For Whom The Bell Tolls
Sunday, 22 February 2009
I have to stop looking at the Observer website. Every week, I write my column imagining a particular kind of reader: smart enough to be buying a paper, liberal-leaning enough for it to be The Observer; lazing about on a Sunday morning, leafing through pages of newsprint, hoping to come across a joke, or an interesting thought, or something to inspire a conversation over Sunday lunch. This woman (or man) is someone I like. He/she is someone I’d be friends with. And I think that is what most of the readers are like.
But it’s hard sometimes, looking at the comments on the website, not to picture them all, suddenly, as a crazed shouting mob, cross-eyed with rage and hatred, waving broken bottles. Why are they so ANGRY? It’s not like I’m an especially controversial columnist. I write pretty gentle stuff, usually with a few jokes in and a fairly soft world view.
Partly, I think, it’s because they imagine I earn a lot of money from the column. I don’t. I’m not ungrateful, it’s nice to get anything. But it is statistically likely that anyone who posts a comment on that website (assuming they are an adult, and employed) is earning more per year than I get from The Observer. I was offered a column in The Sun once. If I’d taken that job, they’d be right.
Others seem angry because my father was famous, so they assume he must have massaged me into the workplace with a series of smooth introductions, calling in of favours and possibly bribery. But no. My father wasn’t a mover and shaker in that way. He was a man who didn’t even stick around after the News Quiz for a drink with the other panellists. He just wanted to hurry home, bolt the door and have fish and chips with my mum. They did have a dinner party once. My brother and I were allowed to creep out of bed when the doorbell rang, and look at Terry Wogan from the top of the stairs. Sadly, I failed to snaffle a job from that experience.
Having said that, obviously it’s easier to have the confidence to try and write for a living if you grow up in a house with someone who’s already made a success of it. I don’t think it’s massively different from the way that children of plumbers become plumbers, or children of butchers become butchers: you see how it’s done, you understand how the living is made, you admire the role model and you fall in behind. Before my dad diverted the Corens into media domination, we came from a great long line of fishmongers. I probably had cousins who were told that they only got to handle haddock because their fathers had paved the way, the lucky little shits.
This week, I thought I might cleverly pre-empt the nastier of the web comments, by actually admitting in the column that it’s easy for me to sound off in public because my father was a writer before I was. It was a column about Jade Goody, wishing her luck with the wedding today, comparing her to my old friend the brilliant John Diamond, and saying how much I admire her - mostly for the natural expressiveness and creative/professional drive that made her a successful communicator despite a tough background and an unlucky education. Unlike me, who had all the advantages.
Underneath that column, on the website, somebody has written this:
As for death, who can argue that it’s a subject you’re not familiar with? Your regular anecdotes about papa are building into quite the shrine.
But is there something else with which you share in common with Jade? Did you also meet a quaintly dressed stranger, holding a violin, standing at a crossroads, offering you a contest? And now that stranger has come a calling. After all he held up his end of the bargain - “7 years of A-list celebrity hype until your dying breath Jade.” I wonder what your forfeit was Vicky? Half a million bucks with a European crown and no musical talent ! No wonder you toss and turn during sleep. Or perhaps it’s just another example of the universe’s quirky name-game irony.
“That stranger has come a calling” ? “I wonder what your forfeit was” ? Is this angry fellow actually saying that I’ve DONE A DEAL WITH DEATH and he’s about to call it in?! That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m really asking. Have I read it wrong, or is that what he is saying? And my God, if they’ll say this kind of thing to someone who occupies a quiet little corner of a newspaper, I hope somebody filters Jade Goody’s mail.