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The underdog bites the dust

It was April 1998. I was living in a flat in London after my marriage had gone belly-up. I had been working on my novel Kill Your Darlings and was so stuck that it felt as if it was killing me. I was not, as they say, in a good place.

Simon Kelner had just been appointed the new editor of the Independent. Although I didn’t know him personally, he had commissioned me to write a few pieces for Night and Day, then the colour magazine for the Mail on Sunday. In a wild, what-the-hell moment, I wrote to him, suggesting that maybe I might be a columnist on the paper.

He wrote back, suggesting a three-month trial period. For the next 16 or so years, I wrote for the Independent  –  an op-ed column once or twice a week and, occasionally, a daily humour column. The work picked me up at a bad time, and in a way changed my life.

So my reaction to the news that the printed Independent titles will soon be no more is rather personal. Although our relationship had its rocky moment down the years, I have come to realise that no other newspaper would have suited my view of the world and my writing – and possibly my character  –  as well as the Independent did.

There was no gang there. Or, rather, there must have been a gang but I was never invited to join it. That was just fine by me. Not by nature a team player, I liked being an arm’s-length, semi-detached contributor. I never had a contract, never visited the offices. On my copy days, I rang the comment editor, we agreed on the subject on which I would write, I filed and later was paid –  not particularity well, but paid all the same.

It was a writer-led paper. When a stroppy reader wrote to me asking how I could disagree so radically about something with my colleague Deborah Orr had written, I simply reminded him of the name of the paper. Columnists were not expected to agree with one another. There was no party-line to to or no-go areas to avoid. To have this kind of freedom was, I now see, a rare – possibly unique  – luxury in the British national press.

Only now and then did the personal and political disparity among Independent columnists become apparent. After we were voted Newspaper of the Year, Simon Kelner hosted a celebratory dinner in an upstairs room at the Groucho Club for regular contributors to the comment pages. It started decorously enough, with little speeches and raised glasses, but deteriorated soon after the main course had been served.

At one point, the editor sang his favourite song, Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, with me on backing vocals. I have an uncomfortable memory, while delivering the di-di-di-di-di-di-di-diii at the end of the chorus, of looking across the table at the astonished, not entirely approving faces of Howard Jacobson and Andreas Whittam Smith.

It got worse. As we became progressively relaxed, Johann Hari called Bruce Anderson a fat fool; Anderson retorted (the Algonquin round-table it was not) that Hari an arrogant little pup. After I had left, one of the Deborahs – Ross or Orr – was said to have poured a glass of red wine over a fellow-columnist’s head.

I liked the fact that we didn’t bond, as colleagues were meant to at the time. Not only were we not singing from the same hymn-sheet, we weren’t even at the same service. That bloody-mindedness was what made the comment pages so enjoyably unpredictable, with a riotous variety of arguments and opinions in play.

Maybe the more orderly way of doing things, that favoured by the Establishment titles, whether they were smugly liberal or snottily disapproving, was more adult. I liked the mad playground that was the Independent at its best.

There was, of course, always a crisis. A proprietor was trying to sell. There were cutbacks, rumours of closure. Sneery media correspondents from other newspapers eagerly reported every drama and setback. Beside the press giants who owned the big national papers, the Independent always felt like an underdog, with the world against it. That was what appealed to many of its readers and, for me at least, what it made it so interesting and enjoyable to write for.  We were on the outside and were making the best of it.

I hope that the online version can maintain that tradition. Now more than ever, we need an independent spirit in the press, the bark of the underdog.