The columnist's art: No paws for thought for Richard Littlejohn
Ridicule over his misplaced side-swipe at an unmarried mother-of-five won't gag him... for he is made of sterner stuff
Richard Littlejohn is a journalist and occasional writer of fiction, apparently spends quite a lot of his time in Florida, gets paid in the region of £800,000 a year and, to judge by the byline picture I'm squinting at, is a bit fat. There are some descriptive conclusions that we could draw from these points; I'm not going to say they're "facts" because I haven't bothered to check them, but they'll do for the sake of this column that I'm trotting out without thinking about it too hard.
A hack, for example! A morally dishonest member of a discredited profession who produces his predictable think pieces between restaurant courses. A novelist, too, sort of, by which I mean a scruffy scribbler, hidden away in his garret, chewing on his pencils and simpering to himself every time he comes up with another overworked metaphor. A millionaire who spends a lot of time in the United States, which means he's out of touch with the man on the fabled Clapham omnibus, perhaps because he hates Britain. And a porker, of course: standard for Yanks like him, who are also lazy, most of the time, too busy stuffing their faces with cheeseburgers to get some exercise. So: a corpulent milksop traitor with no purchase on reality and no qualms about distorting the issues for his loyal readers. What a specimen this version of Richard Littlejohn seems to be. Does it bear any relationship to reality? To borrow one of his favourite, libel-dodging get-outs: we aren't told.
And who cares, anyway? We are, after all, operating by Littlejohn rules, whereby the accuracy of your observations is subordinate to the rhetorical force of your argument. He applied them again on Friday, to the food blogger Jack Monroe, and this was one of those occasions when you could see why he's paid so much. Because to dislike Jack Monroe, you have to work really, really hard.
Jack reluctantly left her job in the Essex fire service in 2011 because she couldn't negotiate the flexible hours she needed to care for her son. Over the next two years, with a great deal of hard work, she carved out a happy ending (or happy beginning) for herself by becoming the creator of imaginative recipes for people on the tightest of budgets. By being a very likeable person, and a very good writer, and a very good cook, she got herself a newspaper column and a book deal. It's a story, really, that ought to inspire the most staunch critics of the welfare system: Jack isn't someone who stagnated on handouts. She's someone who found an escape route.
The brilliance of Littlejohn lies in his ability to find helpful hooks for his rage in even this story. A plucky young mum, down on her luck, who finds a way out of poverty through her own hard work: "move along", your average scavenger of outrage might regretfully conclude, "nothing to shout at here".
But not Littlejohn. Littlejohn goes deeper. He saw the gift of a welfare story about Cait Reilly – a benefits claimant forced to work for free at Poundland, who successfully took Iain Duncan Smith to court over the policy – and immediately put the two together. Monroe a plucky young mum, he scoffs? Not a bit of it. This woman is a blogger! She has tattoos! She likes kale!
Littlejohn's tone is so overwhelming that it doesn't really matter what he's saying: every word takes on the patina of that brute irony. Monroe's recipe for kale pesto pasta, he says acerbically, is "a snip at 42p a portion". He seems to be taking the piss here, implying that her tastes are comically luxurious for an austerity chef. But 42p a portion genuinely is an absolute bargain. And it works out, I warrant, a damn sight cheaper than one of the slap-up steak suppers that an overpaid gout-ridden bloater like him is almost certain to love.
Monroe wrote a widely shared riposte to all this, comprehensively debunking the litany of factual errors in Littlejohn's piece: in sharp contrast, hers was a masterclass in controlled fury. For the rest of us, fury is probably a futile response. What is the point in being angry with an institution like Littlejohn? Might as well rail at the weather for all the good it will do. This is a man, after all, who once wrote an indignant tailpiece about Kate Pong, a mother of quintuplets who had been christened Beyonce, Tyra, Bobbi, Barack and Earl. "There's no mention of a Mr Pong, or any father's name for that matter," Richard tutted, and you could understand his outrage – except that the Newport family in question turned out to be a set of Labradors. To borrow the columnist's inevitable conclusion: "You couldn't make it up." If that cock-up wasn't enough to cow him, nothing else will.
That, of course, is the awful coda to Jack Monroe's response: lacerating and irrefutable though it was, it will land on deaf ears. The chances of her target reading it and changing his ways are about the same as one of his beloved 'elf 'n' safety nuts letting a kindergarten go piranha hunting with sticks of dynamite, or whatever other character-building activity he wants them doing. His world is too tidy to be messed up by anything so prosaic as the facts.
This suggests that, for the rest of us, the best response should be to take broader aim. For Littlejohn's piece does not exist in a vacuum. The benefits claimant who he was writing about, Cait Reilly, had been lambasted by IDS as part of a demographic of "job snobs" who think themselves too good for hard work; in the past year, the welfare state has been tied to the arson that killed Mick Philpott's children and blamed by the Government itself for the fecklessness of the "scroungers" in need of its help. This is the ecosystem that makes it possible to suggest that kale is too good for poor people, even if you can buy it on the cheap. And this is where the greatest problem lies. Not in the argumentative force of a single columnist, but in the culture that has talked millions of us into taking his word for it; people who still think, despite all the evidence, that somewhere in Newport, Shropshire, five whey-faced siblings are suckling on the teat of the state.
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