Yes, Giles Coren is absurdly thin-skinned, but aren't most writers?

The restaurant critic's Twitter "flounce" is typical - writers are just terribly insecure people.

We’ve all been there. You’re merrily pottering away on Twitter, minding your own business, laughing at hilarious Essex lion parodies, when all of a sudden something rather smelly turns up in the @-mentions column.

What happens next? Depending on your mood, you can simply ignore it, write something polite in response, write something angry in response that you’ll regret, or "do a flounce". The web flounce is a time-honoured tradition of pretending you’re so upset you’re going to leave, getting lots of people to tell you you’re lovely and you shouldn’t leave, then leaving... and sheepishly popping your head back around the door a while later, like someone who’s stormed out of a pub but forgotten their coat.

Poor old Giles Coren. The “what I had for dinner” correspondent says he didn’t flounce, and accidentally deleted his account – but he did get a wee bit angry when someone called him (and steel yourselves for a truly abominable insult that will have you reaching for the smelling salts) a “numpty”.

Despite not really liking anything he’s ever written, presented or done, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. Who can say they haven’t misread the tone of what someone else said, overreacted or written something they shouldn’t have done? I know I have; you probably have too.

Then again, Giles hasn’t exactly trodden a delicate path through the lawn without squashing any daisies along the way. He once looked back on his early career, saying: “I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’”

Sounds like some of us can dish out out but can’t take it, then. Giles was so devastated when a sub-editor weakened a feeble joke some years back he sent a stinging missive of petulant complaint which has since passed into legend. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is not to upset the subs – they might wreck one of your weaker jokes, but 19 times out of 20 they’ll save you from looking like a tool. Giles, however, decided to ignore that rule and go nuclear – and guess what? He ended up looking like a tool.

What is it, then, about writers that makes us mimophants – slightly bizarre beings who go trampling into an argument like a rampaging elephant, but curl up like a shy, sensitive little mimosa when we’re subjected to the slightest bit of criticism?

I don’t think it’s just writers, by the way, but creative people in general. Some of them even search for their own name on Twitter, and end up fizzing off expletive-laden tweetbombs at hapless proles – cuddly Simon Pegg, of "used to be funny" fame, couldn’t resist a peek the other night, with disastrous results. When has searching for your own name ever had a happy ending? So you have to wonder, why do they do it, these fragile types?

I think writers (including columnists, and especially bloggers) are the caricature of stand-up comedians: representing a strong persona when they’re up there holding court (on stage or in print), but terribly needy at other times. Most writers have the thinnest of rice-paper-thin skins when it comes to writing a headline, or changing a single word of text; from scribblers at the crappiest little parish pump newsletter to the biggest publications in the world, we are deeply sad individuals who desire constant praise, and magnify even the mildest criticism to a gigantic scale of enormity.

Take comments, for example: most writers don’t read them, unless there’s a gun pointed at their head. Why not? We just can’t take it. The right thing to do is to engage with your readers and try to keep a lively debate going, while encouraging the right kind of commenters who really add something to the discussion... but the easy option is to publish, then run away and hide in a dark corner, waiting for it all to go away. It probably goes to the heart of why we became writers in the first place: the need to communicate to others in a mediated way, because we were too shy, or too awkward, or too introverted, to be able to manage it effectively face to face.

So, I think we should cut Giles a bit of slack. He was a bit rude, I’m sure he’s said sorry (he has said sorry, hasn’t he?) and now he’s back, after having accidentally deleted his Twitter account. It’s not his fault; it’s just that writers are terribly insecure folk, on the whole. RT IF YOU AGREE!


Giles Coren's Twitter page.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.