The spectrum of human perversion is a wide and colourful one and even our strangest desires can be accommodated by the wonderful global economy. In America, for example, you can pay to have yourself kidnapped and water-boarded. In Britain, the opportunities for the keen masochist are perhaps more humdrum: a spanked bottom here, a clothes-peg applied to the scrotum (just) there. But there is a more cerebral route to self-harm: if you can get the gig, try writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph.
The friendly men ordering lunch were reassuring. They said the column would appear on a Saturday, an edition that attracted a younger, less tribal readership. I could write about whatever I liked, including politics.
This was December 2009, when Labour supporters such as I were only just waking up from a patronising "ah, bless them" attitude to Conservatives. An article in the Guardian's G2 section, asking semi-flippantly whether Conservatives were human beings, had lodged itself so far up my nose that I was still dizzy with irritation. And the Tories in parliament had been so useless for so long that writing for one of their loyal newspapers would be a kindness. I wobbled out of the restaurant quite moved by my own humanity.
I hadn't counted on The Ghouls. This is how I came to refer to the online green Biro brigade who turned up every week to tell me what a worthless bastard I was. Every week, within seconds of the column appearing on the Telegraph's website, the great Lego cathedral of my self-esteem would be booted in by a tag-team of spiteful old men.
These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their "comments" were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell. In general, a column was supposed to be a broadly positive analysis of George Osborne's economic policy and anything else was lightweight gibberish. Ghouls think the phrase "I don't suffer fools gladly" is a boast.
Why did I read this stuff? Because it was a centimetre's scroll down from the thing I'd spent a day trying to make perfect. Surely this week they were going to get it. This week I would please all the people. Saying to some writers "Just don't read it" is like putting a bottle of vodka in front of an alcoholic and saying, "Just don't drink it."
Addicts are not rational. I knew that the life-sucking online critics weren't representative of the general reader. I knew that my boss was pleased with the column, and nearly everyone on Twitter who bothered to comment said something kind. I knew that The Ghouls were revealing more about their own rage and disappointment with life than about anything I thought or wrote. I knew all this. Still . . . they were such bastards! Why couldn't I get them to like me? Every writer needs an inner critic, but usually one who suggests: "Bit of room for improvement here?" rather than "WHO CARES??!!"
At first I tried to make them laugh. I might as well have done the hokey-cokey for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Then I caught myself trying to appease them: saying how I had no problem with an air stewardess wearing a crucifix and how Christmas cards should just say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Seasonal Hiya". For that, I was deemed a dangerous socialist in denial. Then I tried to provoke them - at least that way I'd know what to expect. One week I toyed with the idea of devoting the whole column to the beauty of windfarms just to make them go berserk. In the event, I wrote a light but well-reasoned piece about climate change. They went berserk anyway.
In a wildly misfiring act of solidarity, my wife bought me a copy of Am I Alone in Thinking . . . ?, a collection of unpublished letters to the Telegraph. I think she was trying to cheer me up by showing me that the nutters were just nutters and not necessarily out to get me. Flicking through the pages in the appropriate room for such books (presumably in the publishing world, the generic label is "Shits and Giggles"), I tried - no, strained - to find the letters charming, but to no avail. Here were my tormentors with their "humour" hats on. They were all there: the golf club bore, the mimsy "wordsmith", the cut-price pun merchant. And let's not forget the correspondent who expressed his bemusement at ungrammatical shop signs in rhyming fucking couplets, if you please. Their contributions fairly ruined one ablution but I didn't think they were quite worth two.
The psychodrama ended as the new government's deficit monomania began to take effect. Suddenly, with libraries closing and Sure Start centres being strangled, it was getting harder to treat, for example, Nick Clegg's comments on social mobility with anything other than contempt. I'd diagnosed myself as a punishment addict, but the feeling that I was the paper's biddable liberal inspired a level of self-loathing quite beyond the reach of any Ghoul.
It's one thing to get spanked every week, quite another to then get up to entertain your spanker. Especially when you've just spent a year having all your most miserable teenage prejudices about Tories powerfully reaffirmed. Determined as I was to suffer fools gladly, it turned out that some fools are, ultimately, insufferable.
And when a clown is too indignant to take a fall, he becomes something much sillier. At that point - if he's me - one of the nice men from the restaurant fires him via voicemail.
The audio file is good for parties, provided there are enough masochists. And I don't work for the Daily Telegraph any more. It feels great.
Robert Webb is an actor and comedian who has starred in "Peep Show" and “That Mitchell And Webb Look"