I don’t know quite how to put this without sounding nauseatingly smug or dangerously hubristic, but I think I might finally have become almost-famous. The revelation occurred while I was doing Vanessa Feltz’s show on BBC Radio London. I was burbling away in my usual self-hating way about how needy I am and unappreciated, and Vanessa said: ‘You know a lot of listeners are going to be quite puzzled by that, because you’re a successful columnist with a huge audience and you’re broadcasting to thousands of people right now.’
And I thought, ‘Bloody hell, Vanessa. You’re right.’ Sure I’m not famous enough to be mobbed in the street, or get tables in restaurants, or have gorgeous random females forever hurling their bodies at me. I’m not as famous as my old muckers Toby Young, Dave Cameron or Boris Johnson. But I’m definitely famous enough not to belong any more to the category occupied by 99.9 per cent of my friends and family, i.e. not remotely famous even in the slightest. Like, the other day, I was having lunch in the rather good beach café at the end of Hengistbury Head in Dorset and, a few tables away, two men in loud tweed jackets did that thing most of us do in restaurants when we see a famous person (FP).
One of them spotted the FP and commented on the fact to his mate. Then the mate — the one with his back turned — waited a beat, before craning round in a ‘No really, I’m not looking round because I’ve been told there’s a celebrity to look at. I’m craning round because, um, because craning’s the kind of thing I do all the time’ way. Then, they discussed the famous person a bit more, as you could tell, because they kept casting further no-really-we’re-not-staring glances at him. Him being me, for a change.
When you’re a proper celeb, this must happen all the time and be massively irritating, but for me it was a delightful novelty. It’s touching the way celeb-spotters think they’re being subtle when in fact, their target knows he’s being watched from the very first flash of recognition. This is something atavistic, I’m sure. I’ve noticed it, for example, when you’re driving along on a summer’s day with your sunglasses and you pass a fit-looking bird. And even though you’re ogling her from behind your shades and, carefully, you haven’t even turned your head, and you are in but one of many cars in a busy street, still the girl tosses you a quick, nervous look. It’s the predator-check impulse. We always know when we’re being watched.
Anyway, I didn’t bring up this semi-fame thing so I could gloat and revel (really not: I never like attracting the attention of the Eumenides) but more so I can analyse how it happened. I mean why now rather than five, ten years ago? It’s not as though my writing has suddenly got less rubbish. The only thing that has changed is that I can no longer grumble about how maddening and unfair it is that editors don’t use me and that I’m not on TV and radio all the time, because they do and I am.
One reason is Matthew d’Ancona. Matt was the first editor in my entire career to give me my very own column. Sure I’ve had others — a rock column, a TV column and, long ago a book column, an internet shopping column, even a party column — but specialist columns don’t have nearly the same power or cachet as a dedicated ‘Me’ column. Newspaper editors are like sheep. If a journalist doesn’t have a Me column, he doesn’t exist. The moment he gets one, they all go: ‘Ah, well if X has given him a Me column, that means I should probably have given him a Me column too. Damn! Why didn’t I? I shall have to take him more seriously in future and eventually try to poach him.’
Talent has nothing to do with it, by the way. As you only have to realise by opening any newspaper. Of the regular featured columnists, how many of them got their jobs on merit? Twenty per cent at most. The vast majority will be there not because they are readable or interesting, but for one of the following reasons. 1. They’re mates with the editor. 2. They improve the paper’s demographic balance (young, ethnic and female trumps older, white and male every time) 3. They’ve been members of the commentariat for years and, though they can’t write for toffee, no editor dares to be the one who says the emperor’s wearing no clothes in case a rival editor snaps the lousy commentator up and makes him feel a fool.
Did I get the gig by sucking up to Matt d’Ancona, then? Quite the opposite, actually. Before I got this column, I spent half my life telling anyone who’d listen what a useless, unappreciative sod he was for completely ignoring me when all his other writers had their names splashed over the front. Diplomacy has never been my forte. Partly it’s because, despite my nostalgic affection for the old order, I’m an instinctive rebel; partly, it’s because since early childhood I’ve had this weird mental affliction where I’ve assumed everyone can read my thoughts just by looking into my eyes, so I’ve never thought it worth my while to practise lying.
Here’s the main thing that has rescued me from oblivion, though: the internet. In many ways, it’s true, the internet has been perfectly horrible for us journalists. It has stolen advertising revenue; it has devastated the print media; it means that any pillock with a keyboard and a point of view can now set himself up as a commentator; it has meant that to keep our standard of living, we poor hacks have to write twice as many articles for half as much money as we used to. Still, I’m not complaining one bit.
Why? Well, one reason is that the blogosphere lends itself particularly well to those of a libertarian conservative bent like me. This means we can write the stuff we’ve always thought, but instead of being sidelined by stuffy print editors as mavericks whose wacko views are only fit for publication in August when the regular, dullo commentators are away, we’re suddenly part of the mainstream. We’re the writers readers want to read.
And we can say this with a confidence that was never possible before. In the old days, your only gauge — a very unreliable one –— was weight of fanmail. But when you write a blog, as I do for the Daily Telegraph, you and your bosses know exactly how popular you are because of how many hits your articles are getting and therefore what your market value is. You see it in the weekly league tables, which make you hungrier than ever to write more articles and get even more hits and become more ‘popular’ still.
This ought to be anxiety-inducing, but I love it. I’ve always believed in the free market; that people should be judged — and rewarded — on merit, rather than because of who they are or whom they’ve brown-nosed. Internet journalism is the embodiment of this. There are minimal barriers to entry. At long last, success comes to those who deserve it.