So, farewell then to the greatest stories never told
Sunday 02 January 1994
Sometimes I thought I was throwing away all the best material, because I was too soft- hearted. People's lives were falling apart in front of me; they were getting pregnant, sleeping with mad strangers, taking drugs, entering alcoholic decline; they were lying, fiddling their taxes, going bankrupt. One person was, in an indirect way, shielding a murderer. (I wrote that one, in the end.) Some of the things that happened were so tempting I could feel the words forming in my head. But I didn't write them down. This was normal life; these were my friends and neighbours. Often it was a choice between keeping my friends or writing good stories.
At first, writing a weekly column wasn't difficult. I had about five things I wanted to write about; dramatic, or at least memorable, things that had happened to me. I'd been researching a story on a hunt for a dangerous criminal who'd shot a man; by bizarre coincidence, the police took me in because I answered his description. They wanted me for the identity parade. I'd been in endless bomb hoaxes; I wanted to write about the odd things that happened when people were massed together outside stations, sometimes waiting for hours. Then there was the football violence, the beggars, the weird strangers I always bumped into. One girl begged me to take her home because, she said, her father was abusing her sexually.
Then I had a think; pretty soon, I realised, I would run out of these nice, safe dramatic incidents that had happened to me. The list of things I didn't dare write about was growing; I was saving them for an emergency. I was writing down more and more stuff about relationships; the better it was, the less people wanted me to write about it. Particularly in a newspaper. A book would be different, some people said. I asked why. At first they couldn't say. Then they said it was to do with people all reading it on the same day; it made people feel doubly exposed. Some weeks I went into work thinking: what do I care about most? These people, or this story?
And then I realised that there was plenty of other stuff I could write about. I could write the truth about people's relationship with their clothes, their diet, with religion, even with money and death, and they wouldn't really mind. Death was the big surprise. It turns out that, as a society, we don't really have much of a taboo about death. You can write about it to your heart's content, and people don't mind; they even like you for it. It's sex people are terrified of; people spend their sexual lives in a state of wilful self-
delusion. It's almost impossible to describe, too - you find yourself straying into pornography, or else moralism, as soon as you start to explore. Also, this is a family newspaper. The column that produced most letters was one I wrote about the etiquette of having bisexual friends. Has the guy told his new girlfirend? Should someone mention it to her? Some of my friends thought so. I wasn't sure. But, my God, people went wild at me for even raising the issue.
People kept asking me: are the things you write true? And I said: do you really think I'd make up stories about people going to church for the wrong reasons, or about what happens to you when you give up being a vegetarian? Of course they were true. Have you tried making things up? It's much harder. You make one thing up, and you have to arrange everything else so it fits around the one thing - you find yourself constructing a whole parallel universe.
People used to accuse me of making things up, and tell me that I didn't deserve to be paid so much for writing fiction. Well, if I'd been writing fiction, I'd have asked for a lot more money.
Writing a column about your life does change things; it makes some people around you behave in a strained, tense way; it also makes some people let themselves go. Of course, you can't quite tell whether they would have done the things they did anyway, but I've seen more spectacular displays of vomiting and trouser-dropping in the last couple of years than I did before. At least I think I have.
Another thing is: people recognise me, in pubs and trains and shops. The first time this really hits home is when you've been picking your nose or something, and somebody says: 'Aren't you . . . ?' It means you don't pick your nose in public any more. Not a great loss, in the end.
But I'm going to stop writing about myself in this weekly format, for the time being anyway. And this will be a strange experience. Once you start writing about yourself, it changes your attitude to writing; you realise that you were writing about yourself all along, but pretending not to. As a journalist, you're encouraged to pretend that you are objective, moral, decent, courageous and informed. I am none of these things, and I hate having to pretend that I am, so it's been great, for two and a half years, to write as myself. Also, I've been consistently astonished at my response - a mixture of adulation and hatred, of course, but a highly-wrought, detailed, flattering mixture. Insults, basically. But what amazing insults. Thank you all very much. Now I'll try to write a book.
Nick Hornby begins his column here next week
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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