Don’t – Please Don’t – Look Back
I mean it. I really wish I hadn’t. Being limited for space at home, I decided to throw out my old paper reviews and articles, including those that my mum had insisted I keep in a scrapbook she bought for me (bless!)
When these became too numerous to track I kept just the well-written ones, and a handful of my own original articles. I re-read some stories written for magazines and found they were awful. I’ve just thrown them all out, and can see why other writers do the same. There were also many ‘style’ pieces, including coverage of a war that broke out between people I didn’t even know over something I’d said in the press. All phantom news, ghostly little storms designed to fill dead space, trivial nonsense.
At some point you stop talking about yourself in the press and other people start talking about you. When I tackled a group of zeitgeist novels about London back in my thirties, it seems people then assumed that was the life I was living. So there were articles on what I wore, where I ate and who I was seen with. There were published photographs of me sitting in very expensive clothes in dirty alleyways because it’s what the photographer thought was edgy, and there were even ones coming out of nightclubs, for Heaven’s sake. First, I hate nightclubs. Second, I’m just the writer.
It got worse. My opinions on subjects I knew nothing about were catered. This was because I had my own business, started young as a writer and for a long time looked about thirteen. When I hit fifty these articles all suddenly stopped and it was a fantastic relief, because you never have to be that self-aware again. The over-examined life is worse than the unexamined one.
There were a lot of press pieces about the film business, and reading a couple I’m shocked at how cocky I became. This process of sounding like an utter twat was relatively short-lived because my friends told me what was happening and took me down. To be fair part of my job was to keep confidence running high about my company but Hell, I wish I hadn’t said some of the things I said.
Luckily entertainment news is completely unimportant and ephemeral, and nobody can ever find that stuff now because the archives won’t have been digitized. I was almost tempted to keep one in which I was described as ‘Mr Cool, London’s hipster style guru’, an arrangement of buzzwords which just look humiliating and desperate.
I look back and think ‘Did I really say that to Eric Idle? Was I really so rude about Tyler BrÃ»lÃ©e in the New York Times? My God, did I really call Zsa Zsa Gabor ‘a wizened Hungarian serial-bride’? In my defence, until ten years ago the gloves were off, and people were far more forthright in their opinions. Now everyone’s worried that embarrassments will turn up on Facebook to wreck their careers.
The stuff I’m proudest of are the long articles on British and American history, Watergate, 9/11 and other major events. Most of these required a massive amount of research and were commissioned by the Independent, and it comes as a shock to realise that nobody in the UK publishes such lengthy pieces now. Thankfully the New York Times still runs wonderfully in-depth articles – they put our press to shame.
Having started chucking stuff out, it’s hard not to just pick up armfuls and hurl everything away. So far two binbags are full, but I have tons more to get through yet. I once wrote a story called ‘Learning To Let Go’, but you don’t have to reach the point of dying to drop the ephemera. You can draw a line under it all on a sunny day when light is streaming through the windows and release all the chattery nonsense, then get on with doing something more useful.