Brian Viner: 'Like all columnists, I'd rather be abused than ignored by my readers'

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The Independent Online

A few years ago in these pages I related an anecdote about a young curate and a fierce dog. It was a funny tale told to me by an elderly clergyman friend who assured me that he had been that very curate, and yet by an unfortunate coincidence the same story had appeared in the Independent's property section just the day before, presented by an estate agent as having happened to him.

I didn't know this until a few days later, when I opened an envelope to find my column and the property feature clipped together, with an arrow pointing at my picture by-line alongside the single word, "twazzock". This had been sent anonymously, so was vaguely unpleasant in the way that anonymous post always is, yet it also made me laugh. And at least it had arrived in the post, whisking me back to the 1980s when I first joined a local newspaper, and old-fashioned letters – or in extremis, telephone calls – were the only means of communication between writer and reader.

That all changed with the invention of the email. Folk who might not have got round to writing a letter, had only to tap their computer keyboards a few times to let a journalist know what they thought of his or her words. Sometimes this electronic feedback is aggressive, in which case the best course of action is not to reply, and certainly not to enter into sustained dialogue. Nobody wants a poison pen-friend. And yet it's often hard to resist. Not long ago, I received an email angrily calling me "incredibly self-possessed". I wrote back, politely saying "don't you mean self-obsessed?" No, my critic thundered, I mean self-possessed. "But," I replied, "it's a good thing to be self-possessed, it means being in full control of your faculties. I'm sure you mean I'm self-obsessed." "Don't tell me what I mean," came the reply, and so our correspondence continued, with me offering advice on the correct invective.

And now we also have the blogosphere, making it even easier than the email for readers to register contempt or, indeed, support. Either way, the journalist's work has never before been subjected to such an instant and public assessment which, good or bad, can be a hugely positive force, although there are also some remarkably intemperate people out there. Colleagues such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown know this better than I do; the abuse she gets is shocking. I write about more mundane matters, and am less pilloried. But not long ago I had to ask The Independent's IT people to remove a comment referring to me as a four-letter C-word that wasn't 'clot', after I'd owned up to being ... a Volvo driver.

All this was meant as a prelude to writing about the play by Pentabus Theatre Company based on my book Tales of the Country, now in rehearsal prior to its world premiere in Shrewsbury next month. I approach the subject tentatively, because last time I wrote about it, a blogger accused me of delivering the longest book plug he'd ever read. Still, if it's any consolation to him, Nick Warburton, who has adapted the book for the stage, liked the twazzock story so much that he has my character being called a twazzock repeatedly. In Shrewsbury, I'll be the one watching through his fingers. Which is also how I'll read the online comments following this column. I just hope there are some. All columnists would rather be abused than ignored.

Anyway, while I'm shamelessly if not twazzockly plugging my own books, I might as well mention the next one, about the British on holiday. I have two friends who run travel companies, and some of their stories make me realise that a journalist is mere grapeshot-fodder compared with the cannon fire these guys occasionally get from people dissatisfied with their holidays. Which is fair enough, if the complaints are justified. After all, a holiday is a rather more significant investment than a newspaper. But one elderly Englishwoman returned from a very upmarket African safari incandescent that she had found a frog on her verandah, and demanded a portion of her money back.

My other friend runs cycling holidays in Europe, and employs a dozen reps. Last summer, one of his reps found the stress of the job too much, so stripped off in the middle of an Italian piazza and set fire to his clothes. The hazards of writing for a living suddenly seem rather tame.