I was not in great shape when I started to write for the Independent. My marriage had just come to an end, and I was living in a friend’s flat in Fulham. One day, in a spirit of nothing-left-to-lose recklessness, I wrote to Fleet Street’s newest editor, Simon Kelner. Was there any chance he might consider me as a columnist for the Independent?
He did, earning my lifelong gratitude.
That was almost 16 years ago. Since being taken on by Simon, and surviving a trial period of three months, I have written every week for the paper, rarely if ever taking more than a couple of consecutive weeks’ holiday. I started with a single opinion column. For a while, I would stand in for Miles Kington when he was away, a task which, thrillingly, involved writing every day for the paper. In recent years, I had been writing twice a week. In March – the cuts, you know – that was reduced to one. Then, a few weeks ago, one become none.
When I was first hired as columnist, I was allowed to play myself in gently. Now, at the other end of my Independent career, I am quietly playing myself out. Over that awkward and unpleasant phase, the notice period, I have been popping up in different parts of the paper or even online. Next week that month is over, and I shall no longer be writing for the paper every week - although I will continue to write for the Independent on a less regular basis.
A professional writer becomes used to knocks and setbacks: disappointments have a way, if you keep your nerve, of leading to new opportunities. All the same, I was surprised by how winded I was by the loss of my column.
Writing your opinions in a newspaper gives you a small voice in the national conversation; you feel engaged in daily events and discussions in a way that can never happen in the slow-motion business of writing a book. Readers respond within hours of your having written a view; sometimes there are reactions from other parts of the national or international media. It is exciting and, now and then, gratifying.
Although as columnist you are closer to the organisination paying for your words than an author can ever be to a publisher - you are talking to them about what you should write week after week – it is an odd, semi-detached relationship. Once, when I asked a deputy editor at the paper whether I should not have some sort of contract (something I never managed), he was sympathetic and said he saw my position clearly. He entirely understood why I would want to feel more of the team.
I never asked for a contract again. Those words made me realise that the very last thing I wanted to feel - or to be - was a team-member. I have always preferred being, well, independent.
Not that there a noticeable esprit de corps among columnists. One of the rare occasions when we gathered was for a columnists’ dinner hosted by Simon Kelner after the Independent had been voted Newspaper of the Year. It started decorously enough but, like the Peter Sellers’ sketch in which an Irish folk group start playing a song in a pub and end up in a boozy punch-up, the camaraderie soon began to wear thin.
A left-wing columnist called a right-wing columnist a fat fool. A loud, highly personal row ensued. There were inappropriate songs - I seem to remember singing along with the editor to Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, and trying, without great sucess, to get Andreas Whittam-Smith and Howard Jacobson to join in. The evening degenerated. In the early hours of the morning, one eminent contributor emptied a glass of red wine over the head of another. As a team-building exercise, it was not an unqualified success.
Now I have books to write, stories to tell. I wish the Independent well in the future and am grateful to the editors and those on the comment desk with whom I have worked down the years. My fellow columnists, both at the paper and elsewhere, have been a terrific support.
Above all, I would like to thank any Independent readers who happen to read this blog – for the friendship, the passionately held views, the tolerance (mostly), and for simply being part of what the great Methodist Donald Soper used to call “the fellowship of controversy”.
I’ll be sounding off here and elsewhere and I look forward to the future. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the past 16 years.