I got the sack the other day from the London Evening Standard, where I’ve been a weekly columnist for about a decade. ‘Belt-tightening’, I was told: Osbornean austerity claims another victim. As Fleet Street sinks giggling into the sea, a mini-tradition is emerging for long-serving hacks to grumble in the Spectator diary about losing regular work. Here, in recent months, have been Rachel Johnson (heave-ho from the Mail on Sunday) and Lynn Barber (heave-ho from the Sunday Times), so it was nice of the editor to offer me the opportunity now it’s my turn. Distinguished company, and the ritual serves everyone. As Kingsley Amis wrote:
Life is mostly grief and labour
Two things get you through.
Chortling when it hits a neighbour
Whingeing when it’s you.
It’s not my financial wellbeing that concerns me so much as my psychological outlook. If you’ve been writing columns once a week for any length of time, you get used to having opinions on things — even if, like mine, they’re generally of the toothless liberal-democratic kind. Opinions strike me as being a bit like boils: they need lancing if they’re not to turn nasty, and columns are a good place to lance them. But columns, of course, engender those boils in the first place. The natural and decent state of the ordinary person is not to hold opinions with any regularity. ‘Whatevs,’ sayeth the wise man. ‘Search me,’ sayeth the honest one. Having opinions is a mild form of mental disturbance, in other words, that can sometimes be turned to profit. My friend Philip Hensher, also an ex-columnist, assures me the condition passes after a few months. But the digital age may have changed that. Any fool can start a blog, and most of them have: the internet has made columnists of us all, with who knows what consequences for the general level of sanity.
One’s thoughts traditionally turn to revenge in these circumstances. I think Rachel’s and Lynn’s did, a bit. And who can forget the man who contrived to hide a packet of fishfingers behind a panel in his former editor’s bathroom? But I’m a pacific sort of person, quite capable of letting geese pass without saying ‘boo’ to them, and besides, there doesn’t seem much point openly plotting the downfall of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer when there are so many others in the same game. Anyway, my last great enemy ended up editor of the Sun, which wasn’t quite the nemesis I had in mind. I shall wish George well in all his future endeavours and hope that does the trick.
Speaking of vengeance, the thriller writer Lee Child — whom I interviewed for this week’s books podcast and in this week’s issue — made a whole second career out of it. He was pissed off enough when he got made redundant by Granada Television in the 1990s that he invented Jack Reacher — a man who wanders around America knocking seven bells out of anyone who annoys him. Lee has sold 100 million books, so he must have struck a chord.
Another person who recovered well from sackings was Kenny Everett. He was always being given the boot from radio stations so he graduated to being given the boot from television stations. There was a man who failed upwards. He’s on my mind because I’ve been watching his late-1970s TV shows, just released on DVD. You see different things in them these days: references to Saturday afternoon wrestling and the test card; or the very soothing old logo of Thames TV, now gone the way of the London skyline it depicted. And imagine a show which felt the need to warn its viewers that it ‘contains naughty bits’.
There’s a different sort of nostalgia in something that’s more bingeable than Kenny: Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s gory and silly and, oddly, quite interested in theology. Also, which will interest or dismay James Delingpole, it’s the ‘wokest’ thing I’ve ever seen on telly. Makes the new Dr Who look like Bernard Manning. Proof that being right-on doesn’t mean being po-faced, if you ask me. The best joke is that they got sued by Satanic Temple ‘activists’ who claimed they owned the copyright in an image of Baphomet. When did Satanists get so whiny?
Anyway, in our trade getting the sack is — if not quite a point of honour — at least kind of routine. My continuing contributions have at various times been found surplus to requirements at the Telegraph, the Mail, the Guardian, Prospect, the Sunday Times and the Wall Street Journal Europe. I haven’t yet bagged them all, but I’m a little proud of my progress. The trick is to wait for the people who fired you to get fired themselves, and then you can sort of sneak back in. Mind you, if The Spectator joins the roll of honour I’m not sure where I’m going to find to whinge about it. Perhaps I’ll start a blog.