On writing a newspaper column

If you write an opinion column on a regular basis for a national newspaper, you will soon, in this great age of email interaction, discover the issues which most excite your readers. In the Independent, where I am a columnist, hunting used to be a great inbox-buster; smoking still is. Make a joke about poets – and who can resist doing that? – and a mighty keening from the nation’s versifiers will follow. Mention religion and sweet, sincere vicars will try to convert you. Dare to suggest that the supporters of Millwall Football Club are not always gentle, saintly folk and an orchestrated campaign of e-yobbery will follow. Alternative comedians turn out to be startlingly thin-skinned.

But, personally, my greatest surprise has been the doctors. I had written about the sloppy and insensitive treatment of a friend, who was later found to have a brain tumour, at the hands of two local GPs. My article had been prompted by the news that the average wage of a GP had just passed the six-figure mark and that some earned as much as £250,000 a year. I suggested that the days when doctors could be excused incompetence on the grounds that they were underpaid and overworked were gone. They were now a business and should be judged by business standards.

All hell broke loose. A few patients wrote to me with similar stories, a couple of health professionals were sympathetic, but the vast majority of emails were from enraged and often astonishingly abusive doctors. One suggested that I had made the story up. Another wrote that, since my friend turned out to have been under a death sentence anyway, I was making a fuss about nothing. When a doctor on his blog described my piece as “outrageous” and “one of the most unpleasant, nasty articles about doctors I have ever read”, I read it again, and with renewed bewilderment. The doctors’ rage was, and is, a mystery.

The Independent’s columnists live up to the name of the paper, covering a wide spectrum of opinion – a rare dinner for the team couple of years ago was a raucous affair of sharp political disagreement that ended with one senior writer pouring a glass of wine over another. Its readers are reassuringly independent-minded, too. Apart from the occasional unanswerable communications (“You wispy-haired twat!’ was the simple message from a reader after I had made a joke about that great sacred cow of comedy, Billy Connolly), most of the emails are either supportive or thoughtfully argumentative.

They are also unpredictable. When Edwina Currie was being widely reviled for going public about her affair with John Major, I wrote – rather movingly, I thought – in her support, pointing out that, when it comes to marriage and infidelity, it was simplistic to see one party as the evil temptress, the other (and his wife) as befuddled victims. Bracing myself for a wave of moral outrage, I was surprised to find that readers took a gentle, forbearing attitude towards Currie and her past affair. There were heartfelt outpourings from those in a similar situation to hers. For a day or so, I was the adulterer’s friend.

It is tougher than one might think to come up with a point of view twice a week, coherent and strongly enough felt to carry one through eight or nine hundred words but opinion, one soon discovers, is a muscle that develops with use. Getting in touch with my inner Mr Angry (sometimes Alexei Sayle, sometimes Victor Meldrew), I have found that I now have startlingly strong feelings about all sort of things which, in my civilian days, would have left me cold. Now and then, it is true, those opinions are a little under-developed and are like child soldiers being pressed into battle, but they are at least genuinely felt.

There are authors who are snooty about this kind of writing – a novelist of my acquaintance has what he calls “crap journalism days” and boasts that he can knock off a column in 45 minutes – but for me it is a pleasure to be allowed a small voice in the clamour of opinion which has become such a part of the contemporary media. Just now and then – for example when I wrote about my friend and his hopeless doctors – it can be personally cathartic. I take writing a column as seriously as any of my work, writing by hand, revising and generally fretting over the copy in a way that most full-time journalists would find hilariously unprofessional.

But in a sense, the novelist who sneered at opinion-based journalism was right: there are dangers in it for the writer of fiction. Writing a column involves being succinct, pithy, sometimes expressing oneself with a confidence which you do not entirely feel. Fiction demands the opposite: ambiguity, uncertainty, exploration. Sensibilities can be coarsened; the very table-banging opinionising which works in a newspaper is disastrous in a novel.

It is probably unwise to agonise over such matters in public. Years ago, when I had a first, unsuccessful stab at being a columnist, I confided to readers how the job of forever looking for material had impinged on everyday life. “When I go to a restaurant,” an irritated reader wrote, “I do not expect the chef to come out of the kitchen and tell me how difficult it has been to cook my meal. I just want him to cook it.”

A short-order cook, serving up a view for the day, to be consumed and quickly forgotten: that seems about right.

Autumn 2007