Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

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.

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David at 3:38 pm on February 22nd, 2009

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with newspaper correspondence or internet blogs must be alarmed, like me, at the amazing amount of irrational anger and madness “out there”.  The anonymity these forums allow brings out the worst in people. Genuinely frightening.
Worse than that, the trend seems to be that this noisy minority is being listened to more and more.
I imagine the mailbag is distorted because 90% of all nutters reply to these forums, compared to, say, 10% of the rest of us. At least I hope that’s the reason.
Your column today was nothing but good (but maybe not common) sense
I notice your correspondant calls you Vicky, which at least seems kind of affectionate. Think what he would have written if he didn’t like you.

Brian at 4:53 pm on February 22nd, 2009

I gave up reading readers’ comments 3 weeks ago, after your sweet article about first love/Steven Berkoff provoked some insomniac keyboard hero to write (at 1am!): “What on earth is the point of this rubbish?” At least he wasn’t personally offensive, and didn’t accuse you of being in league with the devil, but again, what kind of man (I’ll bet it was a man) could feel driven to write something like that? I (and several other galahads) answered back on behalf of fun and jollity, but I don’t think I’d ever leave a comment saying either “I agree, you’re brilliant” or “I disagree, therefore you’re a fool/corrupt/waste of space”, and don’t understand why anyone would. But I suspect it’s something to do with wanting to look big, clever and important.

Jonathan Young at 5:10 pm on February 22nd, 2009

I appreciated your article in today’s Guardian. I lost my mother to cancer last July and she also faced her illness and death with admirable honesty and strength. Dying and death are not topics we want to discuss and it is important we face them.
J. Young

Alan Glaum at 6:26 pm on February 22nd, 2009

Comment spaces do seem to attract weirdos. I saw a comment yesterday that football phone-ins seem to have become quieter because the really vicious ones are now all on the blogs. 

So ignore the rubbish you see posted under the article (particularly from me!)

LC at 1:17 am on February 23rd, 2009

I do occasionally comment on articles online, but never to spout bile at the author (unless it happens to be The Times and Jeremy Clarkson is being too reprehensible to ignore…)

But the pages on certain papers, or even the BBC’s “Have Your Say” are too depressing to bear, what with the overuse of “Tony Bliar” (yes, still!) and “Gordon Clown” and such from people mouthing off with their clichéd opinions. I think they like to think that someone gives a toss.

What must be remembered is that the nature of the internet can make people behave in an irrational manner. It is too often the case that normal person + internet pseudonym = nasty piece of work.

For some commenters, the comfort of a username just seems to encourage vitriol. Much is bravado, and most is to be ignored anyway.

Jack Hood at 2:58 am on February 23rd, 2009

I would like to add my agreement with the above posters, in that you should not read too much, or indeed anything, into comments posted on any web based article. Hardly anyone metaphorically bends their keyboard to in a supportive fashion. It is much more effectual for them to post in a deliberately negative fashion, because by doing so they expect to be noticed and subsequently commented on. They might well be psychologically imbalanced, though they could easily say “you would say that wouldn’t you”, but I fear I’ve given them too much oxygen of, whatever.
I would just like to say I enjoy all your witterings both poker based and non, they are nicely wrote.

Thanks and Non illigitamus carborundum

Sam at 10:16 am on February 23rd, 2009

Have your say sections are utterly brilliant.  They contain some absolute comedy gold dredged from the mire of the collective British consciousness.  For some awe inspiring examples I heartily recommend

I think only Charlie Brooker is the only person who gets unanimously positive praise, so not to worry.  At least people are reading you!

Dan H at 2:45 pm on February 23rd, 2009

I remember reading that comment and finding it really bizarre.  It’s too strange and serious in tone to be a joke, but then you’re left asking “erm.. what’s the basis of THIS?!”

It’s a relief to have it confirmed by you that you haven’t been to the crossroads.

wiggy the wigger at 5:08 pm on February 23rd, 2009

I never leave comments. Well, until now that is.

Peter H at 8:11 pm on February 23rd, 2009

“Haters”:  Diddy’s got them and now you have too, although yours appear to write more cryptically than his.  Embrace it as a positive sign.  Don your oversized sunglasses and shake your own brand vodka at the camera.

Colm at 10:55 pm on February 23rd, 2009

There is a knee-jerk assumption that anyone in the public eye is extremely rich irrespective of what they actually do and a blog allows a degree of contact that a letter, or even a phone-in, couldn’t provide. So some get annoyed, or in this case go completely doo-lally, when any opinion is offered, especially about another ‘celeb’.

I do like the image of the celebs queuing up at the crossroads to sign their contracts though; maybe they moved the old sets of the motel there so they could freshen up beforehand?

The piece about Jade was excellent. As someone who has tried to ignore her through most of her career the idea that she would gather herself for one final hurrah through the day-job to secure her children’s future is quite poignant.

Niall at 12:00 am on February 24th, 2009

Don’t worry, Victoria. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, complain on the internet.

Kenn at 2:54 am on February 24th, 2009

Victoria, I think yes the “mentalist” is saying you have made a deal with death, quite unfounded assumption I would believe, not that I know you but you don’t seem the scythe wielding reaper friendly kind of gal. And as far as his comments about your father and your referencing of him goes, his inability to make his points and state his view in a respectful and non (apologies for this) dickheaded way only shows the limited brain capacity with which he is operating. Your father was an important figure and huge influence on your life, as far as I am concerned you don’t over refer to him and even if you did, that would just be you being you, if he doesn’t like that he shouldn’t read your work. Ignore the narrow minded fool.

AndytheDealer at 6:15 pm on February 24th, 2009

This is all Margaret Thatcher’s fault.

The comments have obviously come from an insensitive lunatic, who ordinarily would be wearing clothing that does up at the back.

Not only has he/she got the freedom to walk around in the community, they’ve also got access to the internet…..probably plays on pokerstars, calling my AA all-in pre-flop with J5 off…..the rest of this story you’ve heard before.

John at 6:47 pm on February 24th, 2009

Mmm, and I bet Terry Wogan is a real Blankety Blank at a dinner party, particularly with the bread rolls.

Nick at 9:45 am on February 25th, 2009

I think the suggestion is that you (and Jade Goody) have done a deal with the Devil - the bit about the violin and the crossroads is an allusion to ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, I think - to become famous for a certain period of time (7 years) and then die. I think he’s suggesting that anyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame, as long as there’s a firing squad at the end of it.

Yes, a very charming individual, just what I wasn’t thinking too.

davejnick at 8:25 pm on February 25th, 2009

Most writers’ columns used to be safe - as long as you avoided Littlejohn, Bushell or Hitchens, you were pretty much guaranteed a lunatic-free read. Now it’s not the writers you have to worry about, it’s the nutcases who comment on the columns online, responding to a light-hearted article about the rising price of daffodils with a rant about asylum seekers.

Only one solution - get your bro to reply to them all on your behalf. Tell him they’re all sub-editors, mutter something about randomly inserted commas, and watch the boy go!

R at 3:27 pm on February 27th, 2009

It’s at least a bilateral thing, if you come under fire.
Especially if they are given lots of ammunition. Friendly fire is very sad and regrettable.

Unilateral fire is tragedy:

**If someone does not like splatter movies and reconstructive plastic surgery, don’t watch!!!**

In my opinion, the equation “normal person + internet pseudonym = nasty piece of work” is not valid. I would not classify these “persons” as “normal”, whoever they might be.

Ian Fitchett at 8:04 pm on February 27th, 2009

Dear Victoria, the article you did about the elderly was brilliant. I live with two 80 odd year olds, and I count myself lucky to do so. It’s my turn to pay back some of the love I have had over the years. We fill our days with much laughing. It can be hard sometimes, but we just look at each other and smile.
Magic happens sometimes.
Also, I am doing a writing course from home at the moment, and I always print off your column every week. You and your father’s writings give me so much to go on, Thankyou.
Don’t let the “dickheads” get to you!!

Mel Brown at 7:04 pm on March 1st, 2009

        I can remember a letter after your first column regarding your keen sense of humour and a great successor to your late and sadly lamented dad, just you hold onto that girl. I’ve always found you very funny and entertaining with a vey funny penchant for swearing in the right places. keep up the good work and I would also mention that this is the first time I have bothered to email any blog, which says something about your popularity with a young 70year old (that will probably damage your street cred a bit)  Mel Brown

Victoria Coren

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