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12 March 2016

It may surprise you to hear I was single-handedly responsible for keeping the Independent alive

Even as my column shrunk, my pay remained the same - until, the editor told me, only my departure could save the newspaper.

By Nicholas Lezard

By the end of the month, the print editions of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday will be no more. For ten years I was the latter paper’s radio critic, a dream job I realised I had an aptitude for when I managed, in my first ever piece, to contrive a pun, whose background would now take too long to explain, which went, “Once bittern, twice shy.”

My editor loved it, he eventually decided, although I think whenever he went through my copy he did so with the apprehension of someone receiving a suspicious package in the mail.

In a way, it was all downhill from there, I suppose, but then that was a considerable peak of achievement. Yet the Sindie didn’t think so, and it kept me on through a succession of arts editors. As the paper dwindled in size and circulation, the space allotted to me shrank, too. It first started doing so when the dance correspondent became the arts editor, and anyone who has read Scoop will be unsurprised to learn that the space devoted to articles about dance and photographs of people in tights grew mysteriously, at the expense of other visual arts. (Radio reviews can, in theory, be illustrated with a photograph, too, but I don’t think that anyone outside the Radio Times has ever done so.) I didn’t mind, because the editor at this period was so strikingly beautiful that she could have done pretty much whatever she liked with the whole paper, as far as I was concerned, but I suppose other correspondents might have bridled.

Eventually even she went, and the paper went tabloid, and my column shrank, bit by bit, from an initial 980 words to, by the end, something like 300. I was still paid the same, which meant that by the time I was kicked out, I was on about a pound a word, the fabled and increasingly rare gold standard of writers’ rates. But losing out on word count like that isn’t fun if you enjoy the work.

So, one evening, as I was giving myself, and the woman who eventually became the person my most loyal readers will recognise as the Woman I Love(d), the rare treat of a taxi ride to the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms (which I was writing about), my phone went. It was the editor of the entire paper, who said – and I swear this is true – that he had been going through the figures, and that unless I stopped being its radio correspondent, the whole edifice of Independent Newspaper Publishing, or whatever it was called, would collapse into ashes and dust.

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Well, maybe he didn’t use those exact words, except for “I’ve been going through the figures”, suggesting a long, coffee-fuelled night frowning over an ancient ledger by the light of a guttering candle.

I replied with a few choice sarcasms, after, of course, a couple of minutes of grovelling, just in case, but that was it: my overall income was almost halved at a stroke, and things were very tight indeed for some time after that.

They still kept a radio critic, but he was already on the staff, so they didn’t have to pay him anything extra – whereas the freelance radio critic is, I suppose, the frailest canary in the coal mine. (Let us salute our own Antonia Quirke, who writes like a dream, and without resorting to ridiculous puns.)

A few days ago I got an email from the final arts editor, with whom I always got on well, asking if I wanted to go to the farewell party. He was unsure whether I would, holding as I might have done an almighty grudge against the paper for which I once worked, but I don’t hold him responsible, unless the scenario went: “‘Don’t sack me! Sack the radio critic!’ ‘We have a radio critic?’”

Sometimes I do miss the job. An art critic has to go to galleries. A film critic, as George Orwell once pointed out, “has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry”. The radio critic, if he or she arranges things carefully, has only to press a button and let it all wash over him, or her. Even a book critic, who has to go down to the front door, pick up a jiffy bag, open it, take out the book and read it, holding it and turning its pages, has to put in physical effort. And a TV critic has to look at moving images, and is expected to pay attention to them. Anyway, I think I’ll go to the bash, because if I hadn’t accepted my fate with such grace, the Indie and Sindie would have folded eight years ago. They both owe me a drink for that.

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho