Some years ago, in the days before Christmas, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, and a group of slightly menacing children was standing on the doorstep. One of them held out his hand. "We just sang a carol," he said. "Oh," I said, and handed over some money. It seemed a good enough arrangement.
Finding myself in this Christmas section of the New Statesman, I am tempted to do something similar. This, almost unbelievably, is the 14th Christmas for which I have written this column. I must have written every possible variation on the Christmas column. I have written in favour of Christmas and against it; I have recalled Christmases past; in recent years, I have cobbled together a sort of Christmas quiz. If, that first year, I had begun with a column about the partridge at two years ago and would now be well into the three gifts or the seven dwand followed it, in successive years, with Christmas columns about the turtle doves, the French hens and so on, I would have run ourfs.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this is my final New Statesman column. When I told a friend that I had decided to stop, she wondered aloud how I would manage without my sucking blanket. That's one way of looking at it. I've found it hard to settle on the right image. Am I throwing away my crutches? Wings? Ball and chain? Soapbox?
The name Erisychthon may not ring a bell. Ovid tells his story. He is such a complete bastard that Ceres, the earth goddess, condemns him to endless, insatiable hunger. He spends all his money on food and drink, but that isn't enough. He sells his house, all his land. That isn't enough. He sells his own daughter and buys food. Finally, he eats himself.
I know how he felt. I once wrote - back in the 1980s - that you start as a columnist by writing about things you know and care about. After a bit, you move on to things you care about but don't know about. This is followed by things you know about but don't care about. Finally, in logical progression, you are left with things you neither know nor care about. I never got to the stage of things I didn't care about, and I did make an effort - not always successful, as eagle-eyed readers pointed out - never to write the same column twice. The price was that, since late 1987, wherever I was, whatever strange, sordid thing I was up to, there was always a little voice in the corner of my brain, whispering: "Can you use this? Will this make a column?" I was once cycling along Kentish Town Road when someone in a parked car opened his door and I hit it at full speed. The door was bent almost off its hinges, and I flew over it. While still in the air, I was saying to myself, "Well, that's this week's column sorted", and I think I even had the opening sentence before I hit the ground. Kentish Town Road has been good to me. I once saw a dead body lying there. It had just been run over by a brewery truck. That was another column.
I suppose I ought to say something like "It's been fun", but that seems wholly inadequate. When I started the column, I was 28. Now I'm 41. It's been about a third of my life - the most interesting third, too. Admittedly, some things haven't changed. Early on, I announced my plan to read the whole Bible. I had read somewhere that you could cover the entire book in a year if you read five chapters a day. I've been stuck somewhere in Kings for about nine years. But not much else seems the same.
I've had all sorts of encounters with readers. Mostly, they have been generous. People have sent me books in attempts to aid my feeble autodidactic efforts. A couple of times, rather imprudently, I had dinner with readers, which sounds like the basis for a rather scary thriller. I was once introduced to John Cleese's very nice wife. "Sean French," she said, as if rolling the name around on her tongue. "I know that name. Have you worked with John? You've been to the house, right?" I ummed and erred, not daring to say that my name sounded familiar probably because I was the only person in the world who had written unfavourably about A Fish Called Wanda.
The real end of the millennium (yes, I had to get that in one last time) seemed like a good time to stop. But what am I going to do about the things I want to say? If, one of these days, an unshaven, balding, bespectacled figure shambles up to you and starts muttering about something interesting that happened to him earlier in the week, be nice to him. It'll probably be me.