Last week’s research reveals that three in five of us drink to cope with the stress of everyday life. For others, the stress of everyday life serves as a respite from the relentless romantic demands of dame alcohol and her salty handmaidens, crisps.
Like many functioning alcoholics, I quit drinking on New Year’s Day, as usual. But when my rheumy eyes fell on the first tabloid edition of the Guardian last Monday, the paper’s proud eagle wingspan ignominiously clipped to sparrow size, my world and all its attendant certainties seemed to shatter and I reached for the morning’s first bottle of Baileys Irish Cream in a spirit of defeat.
Bollocks! It took me two decades to work out a way of writing columns for a broadsheet. It was still a work in progress, but I was beyond my social comfort zone. When I got a place at university, suspicious older family members warned me: “Don’t learn so much that you go doolally, like all those professors on TV – Magnus Pike, Patrick Moore and Joe 90’s dad.”
I am sure they would have had the same anxieties about my becoming a liberal broadsheet newspaper columnist. “Don’t think so much you end up doolally, like Polly Toynbee and Hugh Muir and Simon Tisdall and all them. And just because they sit around cross-legged on the floor eating with their fingers there’s no need for you to. That’s not how you were brung up.”
But, as of this week, I write for a broadsheet no more. I write for a tabloid, meaning the faux-arrogant columnist persona I have developed since 2011, of a man who suspects he is a cuckoo in the nest, trying to justify his highbrow broadsheet appointment through the use of verbose language and holier-than-thou moralising, is seriously compromised, now it appears in a populist format.
I wish I’d been warned about the Observer’s forthcoming shift from broadsheet months ago, to allow for a more gradual transition into a different writing register, instead of this sudden sickening lurch. Andrew Rawnsley rang me from a Fleet Street boozer on Wednesday lunchtime, coughing and spluttering, to say he is experiencing similar tonal difficulties with his political commentary, now it is marooned in a tabloid.
Though my irregular columns here may appear ill-considered and crass, they are operating as part of a carefully planned narrative arc. When this current run is finally collected in book form by Faber and Faber in a few years, the emotional journey of the character of “Stewart Lee, broadsheet newspaper columnist”, who hates the rock band Queen and understands the world through the means of 60s Italian westerns, would finally have become clear, but the sudden descent into tabloid format has already ruined this carefully planned progression.
(I suspect Rod Liddle, in the Sunday Times, may be working to a similar schematic, but on a far greater and more ambitious scale than I, his TV panel show appearances all part of what will one day be revealed as an ongoing “furious man” performance art project.)
Never mind. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, unless you are Nigella Lawson, in which case make lemon tendercake with blueberry compote, and let the drizzle drip down the noble ridge of your Mount Rushmore jaw, before swiping it away with a manicured finger and smiling, as if at some half-remembered midnight secret. Perhaps there was a way of using the new format to increase my exposure and, by association, the attendance levels of my lucrative live performances?
Last week, the tax-avoiding, free-market privateers Virgin decided to use their spurious moral conscience as a marketing tool, suggesting that the clearly economic decision to drop the poor-selling Daily Mail from their trains, as they have every right to do, was the result of some ethical objection to the paper, this statement intended to capitalise on the growing majority of people for whom the Daily Mail is a pulsating death’s head symbol of all that is wrong.
An equally spurious storm of complaint suggested that Virgin, by not stocking the four copies of the Mail they sold daily across all their networks, were now “censoring” the public’s right to look at 16-year-old starlets in their bikinis, read demonstrable falsehoods and chomp the stinky hate guff of Sarah Vine.
I have recently contributed improvised shouting to a new record by the industrial jazz combo capri-batterie. Called Bristol Fashion, its climax is a half-hour channelling of postwar Birmingham through the mind of Telly Savalas, and Virgin Trains are not stocking this either, a clear and censorious infringement of my freedoms, as both a consumer and a content provider.
Branson’s beard of lies dragging on the carpet of Paul Dacre’s office as he cowered to his true master, the vile shit-sheet has promptly been restocked, Virgin’s hastily discovered ethics dissolving on contact with air. I spied a window of opportunity and emailed Virgin, in the persona of a weird old man.
“Dear R Branson. I haven’t travelled on a ‘train’ this century I am afraid but I am going on one of yours this Sunday with my ‘friend’, Lemuel S Innocent. However, I see from all the news you stock the Daily Mail, the Mirror, and the Times. Now the Observer is tabloid-sized would you consider stocking that? If not, are there ‘shops’ near where the trains go from where I could buy it?” Needless to say, Branson, riddled with shame, never replied.
There! My first tabloid column is finished and I am unscathed! I will now go to the Turkish cafe and eat my lunch, my first lunch as a tabloid columnist. What do tabloid columnists eat for lunch? I wonder. The trick is, I suppose, to enjoy the very process of discovering. It’s sure to be something both delicious and surprising! Won’t you join me?
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