Saturday, November 05, 2005

The nine stages of the newspaper columnist's life

Stage one is INDIVIDUALISM: either as a working hack or some sort of pundit, you are identified as having something to say and the stylistic arsenal to say it well. So you get a column.

Stage two is ECCENTRICITY: Loveable, preferably, but the whiff of sulphurous, ranting rancour can have its appeal. You're special, some readers turn first to your outpourings. Alas, you're beginning to appreciate your own specialness a tad too much.

Stage three is EGOCENTRICITY: You've never been that easy a person to deal with; now you start making whimsical decisions about content, attacking sub-editors physically and in print should they mess with your deathless prose, demanding serious Adobe Photoshop work on your byline picture and crucially, more money. Amazingly, your needs are pandered to.

Stage four is UBIQUITY: The occasional request to review the papers on radio has turned into a flood. You now won't go anywhere near a radio studio without taxis being booked by the hapless researcher, and a substantial fee agreed with your recently-acquired agent. You are affectionately known to said researcher and colleagues as "a gob on a stick", a "media tart" or far worse. TV projects are discussed with dozens of independent production companies. One gets commissioned. You get your teeth fixed, go on a diet and consider using Botox and/or Regaine.

Stage five is NARCISSISM: You are supremely confident that all your readers want to know about is you and your opinions. You write about how the world impinges on you, and you rejoice in the certainty that you are not only right on every subject, but that even the smallest details of your experience are worth writing about. In fact, your eye for detail is, you feel, one of your great strengths. You bought a pencil the other day - what a wonderful sensation it was, the graphite slipping silkily over hand-made paper. You break up with your wife and abandon your children - how movingly you describe the sensation of being alone, then of pursuing and wooing a lissome 19-year old coke fiend model/singer/DJ. How beautifully you analyse your inner turmoil, confident that thousands of men will identify with you, and thousands of women want to sympathy-shag you. Only you matter. It's your duty as a columnist, your duty to your readers, to tell all. All about you. And if others suffer by their portrayal in your column - well, didn't Graham Greene say that every true writer has a chip of ice in their heart? And you are a true writer. Oh yes.

Stage six is SOLIPSISM: Really, there's not much point in writing about anyone or anything else but yourself and how you feel about yourself. That's what people are buying the newspaper for. Not that you read it, apart from your own column. Strange how those telly and radio invitations have begun drying up. You've stopped going out. Food gets delivered. The lady who does has stopped doing. The editor keeps wanting to talk to you, but you never return his calls on principle.

Stage seven is ONANISM: This is really the fulfilment of a condition which has been developing since stage three. You keep writing your column, but unknown to you, it's no longer published. You never see the paper, don't do anything but eBay on the net, don't check your bank statements. Finally, the house is repossessed, you're declared bankrupt and you end up selling the Big Issue and sleeping in a hostel.

Stage eight is REDEMPTION: you start blogging, using an internet cafe; Canongate offer you a book deal. Your memoir ("Hacked Off") is a worldwide success. George Clooney buys the film rights. You get offered a column, but you insist that blogging is the future. You move to tax-free Ireland and die of cirrhosis. To provide for your family (you've spent all your royalties on Powers and Murphys) you agree to write one last series of columns, and your terminal decline is described weekly in a column called "Liverish". It gains your highest readership yet, considering it is published only in the Caithness Courier.

Stage nine: HALLUCINATION. It was all a daydream. Too much absinthe at breakfast. There's still the SWRI reports and the fish prices to do. Fire up that Amstrad 8256, mate! Get to work!

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