Sparking the minds of readers
A decent columnist must always be honest with themselves. I’d sooner chop off my pinky finger than put a false opinion out there. If readers hate what I say, or love what I say, that’s fine, but I want their reaction to be based on the fact that I’ve been true to myself. I’m in no political party – though clearly that doesn’t mean I’ve no political opinions, I’ve lots of them – so I wield this pen for no other reason than the joy of engaging honestly with an audience. A rare pleasure; an honour, in truth.
A column is often the “working out” of an idea, hopefully a relatively original one. The purpose of this “working out” is to elicit an intellectual response from readers. I’m not in the game of seeking anger or shock – unless, of course, anger and shock seem a fitting response. But I am in the game of exploring ideas. A professor of my acquaintance recently told me that he most enjoys columnists he disagrees with, as they make his “mind spark”. I sincerely hope that as my own mind sparks, unravelling in words how I feel about issues which affect us all, that readers’ minds sparks too. It’s the sparking which matters, not the agreement or disagreement.
As a journalist, I’m an old-school Reithian. It’s our job to educate (in the sense of uncovering “news”), entertain and inform. The “entertaining” is really important. Someone could write “the idea that changed the world” but if they bore you to death nobody will care.
A columnist also needs to possess pretty thick skin. I think I was born with elephant hide. But it’s not just readers’ boos – or, thankfully, applause sometimes – which columnists have to prepare for, it’s also the act of baring one’s soul a little. I write across a range of issues, from the political to the personal. When I delve into my own life for material I do so, often, to try to illustrate a sense of what I see as the human condition. You won’t get stories from me of my great successes, but more of how sometimes events which I’ve struggled with may reflect the struggles in the lives of readers. To be told that those columns have helped people, is the greatest joy of this job.