Working on The Independent in the mid-Nineties felt like you were hanging with the cool crowd. It was liberal, it was intelligent, it was edgy, it was full of integrity, it was – well – independent.
We were in a scruffy office, piled with bits of paper, in London, close to where Shoreditch House is now. You were allowed to write really long pieces about obscure topics. I once wrote a 6,000-word article asking, “Whither the Countryside?” It didn’t really get anywhere or come to any conclusions, but I had a nice time wandering around the countryside, asking people whither it was going and from whence it came.
It was the time when post-Modernism was all the rage, and I wrote a piece trying to work out what it was. I rang Jean Baudrillard and asked him what post-Modernism actually meant. He replied, huffily, in a French accent: “I cannot explain and I will not explain.” They still ran the piece.
It was pre-email, but there was an early form of email in the form of an in-office messaging system. There were a lot of office romances going on. I once wrote 2,400 words in a day in messages and no words for the piece I was supposed to be writing. There was a “secret” romance going on between two of the stars of the paper and someone printed out all their messages and hung them on the notice board. People were still smoking all over the place and coming back drunk from lunch. Office life was really fun.
It was on The Independent that I started writing Bridget Jones. I’d been playing with the character in a BBC pilot called 30s Panic, which never got made. I’d been trying and failing to get a column for the imaginary character for a while. It was the time when “column frenzy” was at its height, with people going on and on about their lives.
The Independent asked me if I’d write a column about single life in London as myself. I said no because (ironically enough) I thought it would be embarrassing and exposing. Then Charlie Leadbeater – a senior editor – suggested I write as an imaginary character, and I thought “Yessss!”
I never imagined it would last more than a few weeks. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues it was me who was writing Bridget. I was working alongside a lot of very clever, seasoned journalists who were writing about New Labour and Chechnya and I felt stupid writing about calories and alcohol units and why it takes three hours between waking up and leaving the house in the morning, Then we started getting letters praising the column, I started boasting, “It’s by me, meeeee!” and things snowballed from there.
I’ll always be grateful to The Independent for giving me the freedom to write anonymously in an idiosyncratic voice. If I’d known so many people were eventually going to read Bridget Jones, I would never have dared write it. Creativity always finds its path. In the new world of online media, there are endless ways for people to get their voices and humour heard: blogs, YouTube, Twitter, mimes, vines. It happens much more quickly and easily now than it did through the print media.
But I’m very sad to see the printed version of The Independent go. We live in a time when attention spans are short, and news is given in brief and superficial bursts. Leaving aside the likes of me, Bridget and “Whither the Countryside?”, The Independent employed serious, committed journalists who really knew their subjects and were given space to share their knowledge in the confidence that people would take the time to read and understand.
I hope the end of the printed Independent doesn’t symbolise the end of an era.
‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’was published in ‘The Independent’ from 1995 to 1997
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