Working as a diarist meant not caring about the people you hurt

When I was a diarist, I survived by becoming two things: a serious alcoholic, and facetious.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

We were the gaudy slurry-heap, depository of rumour and spite at a time when newspapers were still respectable: we were diarists.

Our job was to be cruel, glib and, most essentially, cynical; to drink a lot, but not so much that you couldn’t telephone a copytaker with a nib for the first edition and make sense. The ideal diary story, an editor once told me, was the chief of the defence staff talking about his budgie, which ideally had died in an amusing way; or the professor of English literature at Oxford talking about his love for Wallace and Gromit.

When I heard this I felt charged with a profane duty. I didn’t care about the story or the people I hurt, just the way it looked on the page. Fonts were a fetish, pages something to be licked, and ink a drug. And, as with all drug users, we behaved monstrously.

When Rod Hull fell off his roof and died, a colleague was asked to find the puppet Emu and get his response. He taunted Hull’s agent so much that the agent screamed, “A man is dead!” down the telephone. It was unanswerable, but we laughed. Then we published.

Ours was a pact with wickedness, a quick route into newspapers, and we wanted it. A surprisingly large number of diarists made it into “proper” journalism – one now edits the Evening Standard, another is the sketchwriter at the Daily Mail – but always by the age of 30. That was the tolling of the bell. Diarists over 30 (but not diary editors; they simply grew more powerful and frightening, like armadillos) were to be pitied. They became professional eccentrics, drunks – or, worse, PRs.

Often a new person (always a toff or semi-toff) would be drafted and instructed to print confidences from Tatler friends. Once done, the baby diarist would be fired, spat out on to the pavement. Among the ones who remained, there was an odd bond: we were survivors of a naff war. We rarely stole stories from each other; how could we make enemies among our own kind, when everyone hated us anyway?

We called the Cheltenham Literature Festival “’Nam” and we meant it; our nights were full of chaos. “I know that dog!” a colleague screamed, at her nadir. “That dog was at a party last week!”

I survived by becoming a serious alcoholic, and facetious. When Bill Clinton tried to sign my notebook – being mistaken for a fan was a common anxiety – I dropped it on purpose and sank to my knees, with what I hoped was a beatific look of contempt glued to my face. I asked David Cameron if he believed in the existence of alien life (“no”) and what his favourite supermarket is (“Not Waitrose,” he said. An obvious lie). I asked George Osborne why he changed his name from Gideon Osborne to the lump in Vanity Fair; but I forget the answer. It didn’t matter anyway. 

This article appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

Free trial CSS