I quit my monthly Guardian column yesterday. I thought I should explain a bit here about why, in case anyone who reads the column regularly is wondering where it’s got to. The column, which was called The 21st Century Yokel, covered nature, country customs, folklore, landscape, family and my small adventures in rural Norfolk and Devon and the North East Midlands, and had been a fixture of the paper’s Life And Style section since spring 2011. It ran online-only because only a fool would hope that something so utterly separate from the zeitgeist or news or celebrity, containing such a dearth of controversy, soul-bearing confession or shit-stirring opinion would run in the print version of a modern newspaper. It was easily the most poorly paid of all the work I do, I received no travel expenses for the research trips I did for it, and I put a huge amount of time and love into it. I accepted all this and enjoyed it a lot, though, because it was a space in a newspaper where I had a fair bit of freedom to write about subjects you don’t tend find in newspapers, in a very non-newspapery sort of way. It also provided a complimentary portal to my last few books: a way of showing people who would typically be apprehensive about reading cat books (people, in other words, like me) that what they would get in my cat books was often not the sort of stuff you normally find in cat books.
At the same time – while I hope the end result was more or less the same – I approached the writing of the column with slightly more trepidation than the way I’d approach writing about the same subjects for my own blog or one of my books or even a magazine that didn’t appear online. Although I’d long since stopped reading the comments beneath the columns, and those I had read had been broadly positive, as far as the murky world of Below The Line went, the voice of a certain kind of London-based Guardian reader echoed in my head as I wrote: someone with absolutely zero interest in badgers or firewood, who might approach one of my columns with the exclamation “You call this news?” then read it anyway, because getting high on their outrage was one of few joys they still had left in life. I don’t, of course, call what I write “news”. I’d be hard pushed to even call what I write “something you might find standing on the other side of a ravine, waving to news”, and I understand that this has been a slight problem for the Guardian’s Life And Style section. I had come to dread their clickbait headlines which, in an attempt to get the attention of the kind of people who wouldn’t enjoy my columns anyway, were often somewhat misleading. When I wrote a column about the notion of belonging and being local and my deficiencies as a proper rural Norfolk person (easily my worst 21st Century Yokel piece, incidentally), the headline presented it as a feature about a London person trying and failing to fit into country life. I lived in London many years ago, for two years and four months, and never felt truly at home there. For almost the entire remainder of my life, on either side, I have lived in the countryside.
We live in a world of technological pond skimming and this is not something likely to change any time soon. Amongst other new and surprising facts I’ve been told about myself on the Internet in the last couple of years by total strangers are that I write picture books about cats (I don’t; I write some books about golf and slightly more books about my life through the prism of what can be loosely termed cat ownership which also serve as a veiled way for me to write about place and rural eccentricity and tell stories about my dad and toads) and that I’m a typical middle class Guardian-writing Oxbridge graduate (I don’t even have any A-levels, let alone a degree; I spent most of my childhood living in a North Nottinghamshire mining village and my parents grew up on council estates in Liverpool and Nottingham). But there are people out there making far more wildly inaccurate knee-jerk online judgements about writers than they make about me. A fact that writers, or any kind of creative spreading their work in the online sphere, are having to learn to accept about the strange new world we live in is that getting your work to reach its intended audience means sending it on a sometimes thorny journey past its unintended one. It’s a tariff for this mindblowing new way we have of getting our writing out to the world, and the odd misleading headline could be viewed as part of that tarriff. The kind of people who’d only read the headline of one of my pieces then sound off or a make a quickfire judgement are typically not the kind of people who’d enjoy my books.
So I was aware that I was a difficult proposition for Guardian headline writers, even had some sympathy for them occasionally. I hope my columns cohere, but I do like to be a little discursive, and I don’t attempt to have a very simple hard-hitting agenda. I’ve found, in fact, that being more discursive and not attempting to have a very simple hard-hitting agenda are two of the bedrocks of my improvement as a writer over the last few years. This approach can still be packaged in a book by a publisher’s marketing team, but it’s difficult with an online article where there’s pressure to get traffic, and I have felt for the Guardian’s subs. On the one hand, you’ve got “Been With Boyfriend Three Years But He’s Only Made Me Climax A Few Times.” Easy! On the other hand, you’ve got me, writing about the time a cow licked my foot then segueing into a story about a sunshine pop duo and a moorland river legend. Less easy. The one rare time that clickbait and a genuinely representative headline for one of my articles coincided was with August 2014’s ‘Has That Cat Got Semen On Its Back?’, for my column about the time the stray cat I’d adopted spunked on my other cat’s back.
2012 and 2013 were terrible years for a lot of people who made their living writing for newspapers and I was one of them. I lost my two main forms of journalistic income, got dropped by my then publisher and had to sell my house. Next to this, The Guardian telling me that I could only continue writing the 21st Century Yokel column if they cut my pay in half was a fairly minor set back. I agreed to the pay cut because I didn’t seem to have any other options available to me, but also because I was getting a lot of positive reader tweets and emails about the column, and I increasingly enjoyed writing it. One sign I increasingly enjoyed writing it was that what my first drafts were getting longer and longer. I assumed this would not be a problem: it wasn’t for the print version of the paper, so it did not have a specifically allocated finite space on a page. By getting more off me, it could be argued the Guardian were just getting more for their money, but I knew that wasn’t how it worked. My editor asked me to keep the word count down: because it would “take longer to sub-edit” and because of the perceived diminished attention span of the modern online reader. Typically, after writing the column, I would spend another hour or two editing around four hundreds words out of it whilst trying to keep the general thrust of it together. This was more unpaid work but I felt it was ultimately worthwhile. I was becoming more widely read and there was more of a sense that much of this writing would have a future life in my books, which might actually even find a willing publisher.
From autumn 2013, my working life took a distinct turn for the better. I had a top ten bestselling memoir published, got out of debt and, in spring the following year, moved to my favourite part of Devon: a county I’d long yearned to write about. The previous winter I’d wondered if I would even be able to carry on making my living the same way I had since 1996, but now I got two more books commissioned and offers of other writing work started to come in thick and fast: all of which, while no route to early retirement, were at least marginally more remunerative than my Guardian column. From any purely financial standpoint the logical move would have been to quit writing it. But that wasn’t the way I looked at things. I have yearned, for years, like many writers, not to be well-off, but for creative freedom: to be able to write the numerous books that buzz around my head every day without the terror of whether I’ll be able to pay next month’s rent or mortgage, or at least with only a manageable amount of terror, rather than the terror that keeps you awake all night, staring at the ceiling, because, let’s face it, a bit of terror is very important to the creative process. Now, with the terror briefly diminished, my Guardian column seemed a part of my new freedom, as, over the last year or so, it had contained some of my best writing. Devon, too – its wildlife, its folklore, its people, the diversity of its terrain – had made the column more colourful. I continued. I did not ask for the pay to be returned to its original level. I did not point out that I was bringing more readers to their page via over half a million followers on Facebook and over a quarter of a million on Twitter. I considered asking if The Guardian might make my column fortnightly, instead of monthly, as I had so much new material for it.
I noticed, however, that my Guardian column was becoming more time consuming, in an unanticipated way. There was the time it took to research, the time it took to write, the time it took to edit and the time it took to share online, all of which I was fine with. Less enjoyable were the corrections I had to send to my editor after it had been uploaded. Some of these were my own typos that I’d missed and the subs had missed too. Others were chunks that had been taken out of the copy rendering a joke or observation virtually meaningless. Then there were glaring errors that editors or subs had inserted themselves. After the column I wrote this February about assisting with a pony drift on Dartmoor was published, I had to correct a photo caption which referred to a Dartmoor hill pony as a Dartmoor pony. No big deal, although an important distinction for those knowledgeable about the subject, and one equine pedants who read the column would be sure to point out. But in the headline Haytor was referred to as “the Devon town of Haytor”. When I pointed out that Haytor was a tor, not a town, this was changed clumsily to “the Devon tor of Haytor”. This is the kind of stuff that reinforces the sense of The Guardian office as an island in King’s Cross full of people who have never seen a cow, but it also associates me with the errors: not everyone who reads a newspaper column knows its author is not responsible for its captions and headlines. The Grauniad has long had a reputation for typos and I’d fallen victim to it many times years ago, when I wrote about music for them: the time a copytaker changed my spelling of “Tom Waits” to “Tom Waites” in a headline, for example, or the time a sub decided that I was wrong to state that Waylon Jennings wrote and sang the Dukes Of Hazzard theme song and changed its composer and singer to Willie Nelson. But now there was sometimes the sense that, if I’d sent my friend’s three year-old poodle in to sub-edit my copy on a monthly basis, it would come out in a more finely honed state. Nonetheless, because I’m not Giles Coren, and because I know the Guardian is criminally understaffed, and because I’m grateful for the fact I no longer work in Tesco or a factory, I did not complain. I just politely and meekly sent my changes each month. I ignored some subbing errors, as not to bombard them – for example, the bit where they changed “southern wanker” to “southern moron” (does anyone actually use the phrase “southern moron”?).
A decision I made during my struggling spell from 2011 to 2013 was that journalism wasn’t for me any more. My focus would be books and, if I couldn’t make those work, I’d swallow my pride and find another career. With my fortieth birthday looming, I gave it one more big push and, fortunately, happened to write a bestselling book that has been translated into several languages. I’d always wanted to be an author, not a journalist, and my writing style had become less and less suited to newspapers. If a newspaper or magazine asked me to write a piece, and I liked the sound of it, I’d still do it, perhaps, but I would never again do anything at the expense of the time I would devote to my future books. Books, I have always believed, are where you’ll find the best writing, not newspapers, and in a world where newspapers are fighting for their lives with desperate clickbait and sub buzzfeed crud, this is more true than ever. Despite the 21st Century Yokel being published by the Guardian, I do not view myself as a Guardian writer. I do not even read The Guardian. If I read, I want to read something that’s great fun or likely to improve me as a writer or, better still, happens to be both, so I read books or The New Yorker magazine. I am a book writer who happened, until a couple of days ago, to also write a column for The Guardian. Saying this probably won’t do me any favours as far as getting my future books covered in the paper, but, what the hell, people aren’t honest about this sort of thing often enough, because they’re too terrified about not getting work.
On Monday morning, I filed my latest column, which was about visiting my local Owl Club and going to look for cuckoos on Dartmoor with a National Park ecologist. It was a little late, but my editor has always made it clear that tardiness doesn’t matter, in the case of the 21st Century Yokel. Actually, I got the sense that if I failed to file a column for two or three months, she would have been too busy with more important stuff to notice. For the last five months, she also forgot to pay me, every month, and would surely not have done at all if I hadn’t eventually reminded her, a month after each column was published. I originally wrote this latest column at just over 2000 words, then edited it down to 1600: around 100 words more than my previous column. I was excited about what I’d written, and didn’t want to edit anything else out, as I felt like the piece would become a lot less entertaining, and I’d miss out some crucial facts and humour. My editor, however, was adamant that it could not be over 1200. “It’s not just the average attention span of the reader but also the subbing time,” she explained. I thought again about the subbing on the pony column but refrained from mentioning it. I asked if she could run just this one at full length and that I’d make sure the subsequent month’s column did not stray over 1200. She refused, then added that the column had “had a good run” and she was “going to suggest maybe another three then call it quits”. At this point, keeping in mind everything else I’ve detailed above, it took me approximately 0.1 seconds to decide to quit on the spot. I then uploaded my owls and cuckoos column to this blog. If you’d like to read it, you can do so by clicking here.
There was a time, many years ago, when I nurtured an optimistic belief that working very hard on improving as a writer would bring you more success and stability. I’m glad I believed this, even though it’s not true, as it made me work harder at the time. The reality is more complex: working very hard on improving as a writer can on ever-diminishing occasions bring you more success and stability but it very much depends who you’re writing for, and who you’re relying on. In the late 90s and early 2000s I had offers of work for magazines and newspapers coming out of my ears. Was it because I was a bit younger and prettier than I am now? Because it was a more fruitful time for journalists? Because it happened to be the exact short period I was living in London? Because someone needing to make a quick commission vaguely remembered me from a launch party they’d been to? A bit of all four? It can’t have been much to do with my skill as a writer because, though I was probably passable for my callow years and knew a fair bit about my subjects, I know for a fact that I’m about five times better at what I do now. Yet there’s no correlation between that improvement and the amount of newspaper work I’ve been offered in recent years. When, during my conversation with my editor about the owls and cuckoos column, I finally, after many years of not mentioning it, alluded to the fact that she paid me less than anyone else I worked for, she countered with the argument that, for the same length column, she’d pay most other people £90, as opposed to the £150 she paid me. I found scant consolation in this, in much the same way I’d find scant consolation if someone handed me an almost whole eight week old KitKat from a shed, then told me that everyone else was only getting one finger of an almost whole eight week old KitKat from a shed.
I know how lucky I am right now. I know that getting the chance to write for a living is a rare privilege in a world where endless people want to write for a living and can’t. But I’m 40 now. Since March 1996, when my first piece of paid work was published, I’ve worked fucking hard, written hard, read hard, been through some difficult times, and been entirely devoted – especially devoted, perhaps, as someone with very little proper education – to making myself better and what I do. Even looking at my first 21st Century Yokel columns, from 2011 and 2012, I can see stuff that annoys me, that I’d change if I had chance to write them again. But, for that twenty years of struggle and improvement, modern journalism’s award is “You get paid £60 more for a week’s work than some other people we’re totally ripping off.” My editor has told me that all The Guardian’s headlines are put together in collaboration with their SEO team. I didn’t know what SEO stood for, since I’m allergic to acronyms, so I looked it up. It stands for Search Engine Optimization. Essentially, in a world of Search Engine Optimization, if you want to write a humorous, honest, tender article about walking in Derbyshire where your granddad’s ashes are scattered, and looking at bracket fungus, you’re bollocksed. You would be far better not working on your writing at all but writing something short and quick which would suit a headline such as “Should I stop eating quinoa?” or “Is my online dating profile photo putting people off?” Then, when you’ve done it, you can churn out another, for another £90. Another acronym often used on the Internet is TLDR. It means “Too Long; Didn’t Read”. It’s thought to be a phrase favoured by adolescents with an electronically compromised attention span but it also sums up what The Guardian’s attitude to comic life writing has become.
When I started out as a writer, I viewed myself as intrinsically inferior to the newspaper editors I worked for: I came from a very different world from most of them, felt incredibly honoured that they’d give little me the chance to work for them, and believed everything they told me more or less unquestioningly. Some of them were great and taught me a lot; some of them weren’t and didn’t. Editors have been breaking the facts of how things are to me for years and it’s often been bad news. But another fact of how things are is you don’t have to work for free, you can retrain as a plumber or a forester or a gardener and be paid something reasonable for what you do. If not for the success of my last book, I feel almost certain this is what I would have decided to do. Maybe I still will have to, one day. But I no longer view newspaper editors as superior overlords who wield important power and keep me afloat. Many of them are just struggling, compromised employees of a struggling, compromised industry.
What I’ve felt in the twenty four hours since quitting my Guardian column is mostly a feeling of immense gratitude to the people who’ve read my books and supported them via Twitter or Facebook over the last few years. If you’re one of them, thank you. You have helped made me realise that, as a self-employed writer in the modern age, you don’t have to view the old-fashioned media – people you’ve often never met, who live far away, in a different world – as a boss to kowtow to. There is sometimes another route. For all its headaches and trolls and pond skimmers, social media – my @MYSADCAT profile and my Facebook page, especially – has allowed me to gain an international readership, far more than the Guardian ever could have. It has also directed a lot of people to my Guardian pieces, although I’m sure the paper view that as barely a few more grains of sand on the beach. I’d be pleased if another publication took my pieces about my life in the countryside but if not, I’m happy to publish them on this blog. They will perhaps not be as widely read, and might contain a few typos, but they hopefully still will be read. Subsequently, a lot of the material in them will end up in one of my books, where it will be edited properly, by talented people who care – who still have the opportunity to care – about the quality of a piece of writing. I am pissed off that I’ve not been treated better by the Guardian, or valued by them, but I sort of understand. It must be hugely difficult being a newspaper editor in 2015, with the pressure of SEO, the need to constantly up advertising revenue and ever-diminishing budgets and staff. To the few in that job – and I want to believe you’re still out there – who still prioritise a nice piece of writing in such an environment over a quick and easy attention-grabbing one, I salute you.