Reader, this is our anniversary. I began my life as a child columnist (yes, I still need ID to buy a scratch-card, even though I am 24) nearly a year ago today. What happens, I wondered on the strange morning when I was offered this job over breakfast in Simpsons on the Strand? I had worked for the
New Statesman in the year since I graduated from university. Nobody from my family had ever gone to university, never mind into a swanky newspaper job. I had absolutely no idea how being a columnist worked.
Reader, this is our anniversary. I began my life as a child columnist (yes, I still need ID to buy a scratch-card, even though I am 24) nearly a year ago today. What happens, I wondered on the strange morning when I was offered this job over breakfast in Simpsons on the Strand? I had worked for the New Statesman in the year since I graduated from university. Nobody from my family had ever gone to university, never mind into a swanky newspaper job. I had absolutely no idea how being a columnist worked.
Would I get a tap on the shoulder from Deborah Orr and be whisked away to a secret club beneath Fleet Street where Polly Toynbee slaps around Richard Littlejohn? Would I start to get enraged phone calls from Alastair Campbell explaining that he knows where my granny lives and where she hides her front door key? Would I be summoned to see the Prime Minister and told state secrets?
Actually, behind the myth of omnipotence that columnists encourage (particularly absurdly in my case), it's fairly straightforward. You learn something about an issue, figure out what you think, write it, and the readers explain how much they hate you for being so stupid. My very first piece prompted a tsunami of rage. You all seem to have picked up on one especially heinous thing: my by-line picture.
"Aren't you ashamed to be pictured in a national newspaper looking like that?" asked Keith Burrows, one of the kinder respondents.
Every now and then, a genuinely concerned reader will e-mail, saying they like my writing and then tentatively add that perhaps I could get a new by-line picture pretty soon. Alas, I must tell you all, this - for all its horrific flaws - is the best picture of me in existence. Really.
After the snap was taken, I strode up to the picture desk and said: "Can't we digitally alter it so I look really fit?" The picture editor shook her head sadly and said: "I'm really sorry Johann, there's a limit to what computers can do."
Sometimes the feedback is of a more political nature. A few of my early articles were posted by readers on a far-right US website called freerepublic.com. This prompted a 43-page discussion of what a "pinko faggot" I am, interrupted by a lengthy argument over whether I am a man or a lesbian.
An old picture of me was exhumed from the BBC website, but this did not resolve the issue. "You just can't tell!" one e-mailer complained. Finally, the debate was concluded when one correspondent said: "Let's just agree that whatever it is, man, lesbian or beast, it's damn ugly and fuckin' stupid too."
I quite like being attacked from the right. It is much harder to deal with the attacks that began from the left after I argued that we should support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It was a weird experience for a young, leftish, gay man to suddenly be damned as a "reactionary", a "fascist", and worse. No less an authority than Noam Chomsky said I was "beneath contempt" and "depraved". A friend texted: "And Chomsky hasn't even seen you on a Saturday night."
About once every fortnight, I have a burst of fretting and gibbering and I become convinced that journalism is a disgusting act of triviality and that I should quit to work for an aid agency. (Increasing my daily intake of Seroxat usually pokes this anxiety away).
The best a columnist can do, I have figured out after a year, is - twee though it sounds - to encourage good people doing good things. As Spencer Tracey says in Inherit the Wind, the role of a journalist is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".
Whether it is Iraqi democracy activists, supporters of asylum seekers, or a Labour government spending more on the NHS, at least we can make decent people in tough circumstances feel better about themselves. That's not a bad niche.
The job does change you in strange ways. The structure of opinion writing infects everything you do. Sitting in a café in the East End the other day, trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, I found myself mentally writing a polemic in favour of eggs and bacon. And then an enraged piece in favour of toast. Next, a sidebar advocating fruit salad suddenly appeared. There are mornings when I awake from uneasy dreams and expect to discover I have been transformed into an immense newspaper.
Oh, and I did get invited to have a chat with the Prime Minister (although there were no harassing calls from Alastair, which is a shame because I think he's lush).
I saw Tony Blair with my colleague Don Macintyre, and I did my profession proud by gibbering and making irregular high-pitched squeaks whenever he looked at me. There - whoever said it was absurd to employ a child as a columnist?
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