Goodbye, whoever you are, the World Cup beckons

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The Independent Culture
NEXT WEEK there will be a different photograph at the top of this page. I am off, either to recreate Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 journey across the Pacific on a balsa raft, or to spend a few months slumped in front of the TV watching the World Cup, the Test matches and Home and Away - I haven't decided yet.

I have enjoyed my stint, however, and I shall miss you, whoever you are. I know who some of you are, because you have written to me (I am assuming here, of course, that only a small percentage of you have written to me - if you have all written, then there are about 79 of you, and this column has not been as successful as I would have wished). Judging from the mail I have received, you are who I thought you were going to be: under 50, liberal, thoughtful, articulate, intelligent, kind, good-looking, blah, blah, blah.

I only doubted the accuracy of this portrait once, when somebody sent one of these columns back, with some intimidatingly rude obscenities scrawled all over it. Fair enough, perhaps, but also in the envelope was a photograph of the two stars of The House of Elliott and my correspondent had drawn a large male organ over their faces. I couldn't quite catch his drift, to be honest, and so I didn't reply, even though he had helpfully provided his name and address. But whatever he was trying to tell me, he did not correspond to my mental image of an Independent on Sunday reader.

For most of my adult life I have judged people according to the newspapers and periodicals that they take. (It was not possible to judge children on the comics they took, unfortunately: fans of Desperate Dan and Kangaroo Kid, the Aboriginal boy who scored spectacular goals from several miles up in the air, seemed to come from right across the political and cultural spectrum.) It used to be as good a way as any: if I spotted someone reading the New Musical Express in the late Seventies, then the chances were that I could have a pretty decent conversation with them. It wasn't just that they would like pop music, or even that they would like a certain kind of pop music, but that they would share my enthusiasm for Kurt Vonnegut and Martin Scorsese and Raymond Chandler, as well as my political views. I never did go up to people and start talking to them just because they were chuckling away at Danny Baker's singles review, but I always felt as though I could.

When I packed in the NME in the mid-to- late Eighties, I was reading several other magazines - Time Out, The Face, When Saturday Comes, Q - but I never trusted them in quite the same way. People much younger and much more fashionable than me read The Face (even if I had wanted to talk to Face readers on the tube, they wouldn't have been seen dead talking to me); Q had too many articles about Eric Clapton; When Saturday Comes had a hardcore guerrilla anorak faction hidden among its subscribers; nearly everybody reads Time Out in London, so it doesn't exclude anybody.

Throughout this period, I only really trusted Guardian readers, until one evening I went to a Guardian readers' free film screening in the West End. I wanted to see the film, but I also wanted to see what a cinema full of Guardian readers looked like; I had imagined that we would all sit there feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for continuing to care in a vicious Thatcherite society, and afterwards we might all go out for a drink and exchange addresses and stuff. Within minutes, however, two men sitting in the row in front of me nearly came to blows. One of them was splattering his braying voice all over the film's opening scenes; the other, a few seats away, decided with most un-Guardian-

like ferocity that he didn't want to listen to him, and invited him outside for a punch-up. It was, for me, a bitter moment. I liked neither the man who had been talking nor the man who wanted to beat him up and I went home older, sadder and wiser.

A few years after this disillusioning incident, I met a woman columnist on the Guardian who told me that her mail was frequently obscene and even, occasionally, violent. What kind of Guardian readers are these? How do these men (and they are, I'm afraid, invariably male) find their way to the Guardian women's page? Why aren't they reading the Sun, or the Sport, or Hello]? What kind of Independent on Sunday reader draws penises over the women in The House of Elliott? I appreciate that these people do not represent the views of the majority of readers, and that lunatics are as likely to read the IoS as they are Taxidermy Today; but there is still a part of me that perks up a little when I see someone clutching a Sunday Review, or trying to do the Guardian crossword, especially if I am somewhere predominantly Sun-ny, like a football match, or Telegraph-ic, like a commuter train. The idea that these soulmates are going to go home, get out their crayons and draw sexual organs on the pictures of popular BBC entertainers is too depressing to think about.

I refuse to accept, however, that I can no longer judge people by what they are reading, and I will continue to look for ways to do so. I mentioned the brilliant American novelist Anne Tyler on this page a few weeks back, and it would break my heart to discover that a fellow Tyler fan was anything less than an exemplary human being. But books are not the answer. People borrow books, and plough on with things they don't like, and read bestsellers because everyone else is reading them; they are not statements of commitment as newspapers and magazines are.

What we need are more stringent controls at point of sale - a questionnaire, maybe, or some intensive personality tests administered by highly qualified newsagents. True, it would take hours to buy a newspaper on a Sunday morning, but it would be worth it: at least we'd be able to feel a kinship - proper kinship, based on blind prejudice and smug cultural snobbery - instead of having to go through all the bother of talking to people and listening to what they have to say. Thank you for listening to what I have to say, all 79 of you, and have a nice summer.