It’s about two years since my old friend Damian Thompson approached me with a couple of yellowish rocks and a pipe and said: ‘Have a puff on this.
It’s about two years since my old friend Damian Thompson approached me with a couple of yellowish rocks and a pipe and said: ‘Have a puff on this. I think it might really suit you.’
No, of course not. What Damian actually introduced me to was something far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine. He asked me to join his elite team of bloggers at the Daily Telegraph. And now I’m having to go cold turkey and I don’t like it one bit.
The reason I’m going cold turkey — i.e. giving up blogging for a while — is that I’ve been quite ill for rather too long. It started over a year ago with a bout of swine flu, then degenerated into a debilitating condition I could never quite shake off: dry cough, headaches, bouts of nausea, shortness of breath, you name it. I knew things were bad when recently I had to give up exercise and no longer had the strength to wrestle my children when they came home from school.
Anyway, none of this is anything to worry about — I’m being treated and I’m on the mend. But a key part of my cure is taking things a bit easier, cutting out the things that have been doing me most harm. Foremost among these is my popular Telegraph blog.
I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.
And the reason for this is that, as Damian rightly suspected, I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.
Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’
Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.
I know lots of bloggers and I can’t think of a single one who makes even half of a living out of it. Well fine, you may say, that’s not what blogging’s about. But actually if that isn’t what blogging’s about then there is something very wrong, because what you are doing, for little or no money, is providing a much-in-demand service (gossip, entertainment, news, analysis) for which for at least the last two centuries you would have been quite handsomely rewarded.
Consider my friend Richard North, whose EU referendum blog has just had its ten millionth hit. His areas of interest and expertise are so broad, from the EU to defence procurement to Afghanistan to climate change to the NHS, that you need scarcely bother with newspapers: go to North and you’ll get more accurate reporting and usually more scoops than almost anything in the print media. North performs this valuable service gratis because he happens to be a workaholic in a state of constant fury about the injustices of the world which he hopes (mostly in vain) to avenge with his burning sword of truth. It will, I fear, be the death of him.
A lot of bloggers share this suicidal missionary zeal — and that’s our downfall. As Arianna Huffington discovered when she came up with the brilliant business model of setting up a website where your staff work for free and then flogging the operation for a cool $315 million, it’s amazing what you can get a blogger to do for little or no dosh. ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ said Dr Johnson. But that was before the internet.
I can’t see this lasting. The reason is the burn-out rate. There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.
When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.
And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 16, 2011