Tabloids have never been the preserve of shrinking violets, but human cacti; watered with little praise and able to flourish under blistering heat. It is a work culture that begets broad shoulders, without which a fortnight ago I could not have typed a scathing resignation letter to my media mogul boss, Richard Desmond, copied in another national newspaper, and, finger trembling, clicked send.
Two years I'd spent in the tabloid trenches of the Daily Star, sporting the ink-stained suits and moral tinnitus to prove it.
Then came a front page "Exclusive" that shocked me into clarity, a truly rank tale that the English Defence League were set to become a political party. Except I knew they weren't – and this time I wasn't prepared simply to turn the page.
Since then, much outrage has been focused on my public disclosures about how I was ordered to dress in a burqa or ambush Muslim women while dressed in just my underwear.
But I don't want to give the impression my red-top career has consisted solely of dressing up and doing idiotic and offensive things. Sometimes they let me wear my own clothes.
Here are a few snapshots of the life I've left behind. I do so with gladness, smatterings of nostalgia but, for the most part, just relief...
4 February 2011
Sombrero. Check. Poncho. Check. Fake moustache. Check. Eight burritos. Check. Two bottles of tequila. Check. I was ready for work. Last month the TV presenter Richard Hammond offended the Mexican ambassador to Britain after branding his nation "lazy, feckless, flatulent and overweight" during an episode of Top Gear. An apology was demanded. With few qualified for such a delicate diplomatic task, it fell to me, a tabloid hack from Britain's great beacon of cultural sensitivity, the Daily Star, to step in.
So it came to pass that on a Friday morning, photographer in tow, I poked a finger from beneath my poncho to ring the doorbell of Ambassador Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza in Mayfair.
"Can I help you?" inquired a bemused receptionist.
"Hola, senorita, I'm here with a gift from the Daily Star," I replied, a gust of wind clawing half the moustache from my upper lip.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No, but I have tequila and burritos – chicken, steak or pork?"
She slammed the door.
Perhaps emotions were still running high. There was only one thing for it. Ring again.
Ten minutes later, and with a gaggle of Japanese tourists having joined the fiesta, the door repeated its muscular swing. A sharp-suited man introduced himself as Ariel Moutsatsos Morales.
He shook my hand, following it swiftly with a demand that I go away.
Removing my sombrero, I laid out the situation. "Look, mate, I can stand out here all day and keep ringing on your door or you can do a quick picture and I can go home. Deal?" Deal.
27 April 2009
It had became clear that Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle was struggling to cope with the whole world gawping at her, often while laughing or making cooing noises. So reality TV execs, in an act of humanity unseen among their species, allowed their cash cow to go into hiding, only leaking enough personal information about her to keep the newspapers writing and the public leering.
But the tabloids know that there's plenty of dosh to be made from exploiting celebrity mental illness.
Yet soon it became apparent the descent of the Scottish spinster with mild learning difficulties was not quite synching with our tight deadlines. There was only one thing for it – dispatch me on a bear-prodding expedition to Scotland. My mission (dare I not accept it): buy a kilt, some roses, a ring... and propose.
There's sod all else to do in Blackburn, West Lothian, but drink, preferably heavily, but with the anomaly of a teetotal tabloid photographer in tow, I was forced to traverse the suspension bridge of bad taste perilously close to sober. With my best executioner's smile I began by knocking on the doors of Susan's friends and family, an approach that can go one of two ways.
During a person's initial flush of fame, hacks may find themselves on a couch, tea in hand, relatives thrusting forward baby albums and blurting tales of Club 18-30 holidays and trysts with Spanish waiters.
But after a few missing photos re-emerge beneath lurid headlines the tide inevitably turns, a reporter's rap on the door suddenly welcomed by a used nappy sailing from an upstairs window. Although my kilt, complete with waistcoat, long socks and sporran, provoked enough pity to save a fecal barrage, the whispered tips and potential leads turned out to be just as useless.
And so I found myself bursting into Aberdeen Cathedral mid-Mass after being informed that Susan was due to be singing in the choir. She wasn't. Nor was she staying with a cousin in some hope-vacuum of a Glasgow tower block. My Deep Throat informant couldn't remember the number, so I knocked on every door, asking in my politest estuary tones: "Is Susan Boyle in there?"
A week in and matters were getting desperate. I'd run out of pants, for one thing. As I sat in the canteen of a Tesco near Livingston on a Wednesday morning, my newsdesk ranting "how hard can it be to find one ugly, hairy woman in Scotland?", I realised I was now so far into my dignity overdraft that I had nothing left to lose. Straightening my kilt I returned to the home of Boyle's neighbour, who I'd sensed last time I stuck my foot in her door had found me particularly pathetic.
"Look, no disrespect to your lovely town, but I'm desperate to go home because my grandad is sick and I'm moving house and I think I might be depressed," I lied. Her town wasn't lovely at all. "Just get Susan to speak to me for 30 seconds and my bosses will let me go back to London. Please."
Glancing from my wilted roses to ketchup-spattered shirt, she said: "Gimme five minutes, dear. I'll get her to meet you. She's only staying 30 seconds round the corner."
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I emitted some sort of canine yelp, and asked if I could use her loo. From inside the toilet I texted my photographer the glorious news. After a week together we were no longer on speaking terms.
On cue the subtly named "Hairy Angel" appeared on the garden path. I surged forward, and, spotting camera in place, fell to one knee.
"Susan, will you marry me?"
She looked at me bemused, as well she might, before chiding: "Get up, lad. Stop taking the piss."
Glancing back I saw the kindly neighbour shaking her head at me in disgust and, as the local children brushed past me with their autograph books, the pair disappeared from view.
I turned to my snapper: "Did you get that?"
Back to London, in silence, we went.
1 April 2009
It was the height of the credit crunch, and the G20 protests had given London's bankers something to stare at from their windows. I'd spent much of that morning smoking roll-ups with a bunch of anarchists at a squat in Shoreditch. Not too sure why. Going undercover just seemed a proper journalistic thing to do.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I soon found myself on the front line of demonstrations near the Bank of England, where white people with dreadlocks took it in turn to be battered senseless by riot cops. It felt like some live art installation about the implicit violence of capitalism, which, in its own way, I suppose it was.
Not that the Daily Star was interested in my cultural analysis of proceedings. They were much more excited by the news that Russell Brand had turned up.
After much aimless wandering I'd managed to corner the rebel in Prada jeans, who imparted his wisdom about "the sense of community, karma and beauty around the protest", all the while ducking cans of Special Brew hurtling overhead.
A baton across the ear suddenly didn't sound so bad. I headed back to the front line, wondering if, rather than protecting me, holding aloft my Daily Star press card might in fact guarantee I ended the day with a limp.
My phone rang. It was the fellow red-top reporter I'd seen earlier, kicking round a hacky sack with some Rastas and handing out eggs.
"Where are you?" I asked, having run out of cigarettes. He was having a beer, at home, watching events unfold on Sky News.
"When the office calls I just get the missus to clatter some pots and pans, and shout a bit," he gloated.
At that moment a bottle winged over my left shoulder, shattering against a riot cop's shield and soaking me in its contents. Piss.
I wiped my phone screen with my coat sleeve, and hung up.