Leaving The Argus

Argus title : Farewell – and thank you all for reading

This will be my last column, at least in this newspaper and for the time being. I’ve been writing it for four and a half years and it seems strange to think I will be stopping now.

My family won’t regret the demise of what my daughter and I called “scary Thursday”, the day before the Friday deadline. If I was going to be anxious or grumpy, that was the day it would happen.

In other respects, writing for the newspaper has fitted very well around family responsibilities. It allowed me to earn some money while helping care for my father in the last year of his life. Since then, I’ve been able to fit writing days around my mother’s care and I’ve been grateful for that.

Caring for people with dementia is stressful and mentally taxing. Carers have to engage with lost memories and distorted perceptions – and though they must be alert at all times, they have also to operate largely without intellectual stimulation. So I’ve been lucky. Writing has allowed me to explore new ideas – and at the same time to step away from the anxious delusions that rule my mother’s world.

I am deeply grateful to the Argus for hiring me as a columnist. In 2003, when I first approached Simon Bradshaw the Argus’ then editor he took a great risk in taking me on. He can have had no certainty that I would be able to deliver on a weekly basis. I had absolutely no training as a journalist and had written only once for commercial publication.

In fact, there have been times when I unexpectedly couldn’t deliver, always due to family demands, but Simon – and subsequently Michael Beard the present editor – remained supportive.

Of course, Michael Beard would never express it in terms of good employment practice or commitment to equalities. He’d laugh and say “It’s cheaper when you don’t write. You’re too expensive anyway.” Of course, I wasn’t, but nobody expects good pay on a local newspaper.

Several people have asked me whether I found it difficult to think of things to write about, but it was no problem. As I’ve often said “The column’s just a way of getting rid of my temper”. I haven’t really been joking.

In the years before I had the column, I would fume impotently about what I had read in the newspaper or heard on television. Once I had the column I would cease ranting and simply write about it. It was hugely cathartic.

The problem has been the opposite. There have been too many topics. As the years have gone by I have found that I have been approached on a regular basis by people wanting to promote particular ideas or causes. Many have been from charities and I’ve been happy to oblige.

Some have represented more controversial organisations and in their case I have helped when I could. In general, I’ve had a remarkable amount of leeway, though from time to time subeditors (and lawyers) have removed what I have considered to be the best bits.

Very occasionally the editor has put his foot down and removed whole articles, but to his credit that has been extremely rare. I am very conscious that not many local newspapers engage columnists who are declared socialist feminist christians. There can hardly have been a week that I haven’t managed to seriously rile someone. And some of the people I’ve upset have been very powerful indeed – though most I think have forgiven me.

Fortunately, there have been many who’ve enjoyed reading the column, even though some of the ideas expressed there may have seemed challenging. I’ve been intrigued over the years to notice a distinct pattern of response. Pensioners, community activists and socialists – and the old communists and peaceniks who thrive in our city – tend to like the column and have used it well, frequently contacting me to politely insist I cover issues of importance to them.

Middle aged men and Conservatives have tended to say, kindly and I think sincerely, “I often don’t agree with you, but I enjoy reading the column”, while male manual workers often tease me by telling me it’s not controversial enough. Some radicals (usually young males) have veered between being graciously patronising when I write what they want or grossly insulting when I don’t – while interestingly their female counterparts tend to claim loftily that they “never read the Argus”. Fortunately for me other women do read the Argus and in general seem to like the column.

In fact, the thing that has brought me the greatest professional satisfaction over the past few years has been walking into shops, supermarkets and the occasional office and hearing staff behind counters and reception desks say triumphantly “I know you. I read your column”. On these occasions I’ve always left exhilarated.

Many people think the column is written for Guardian readers, but it isn’t. I write for people who buy The Argus – and I’m very conscious that for many of them, this may be the only newspaper they have money to buy or the time to read.

This is why, though I know the editor would have liked me to focus more upon local issues, I’ve often chosen to deal with national or international issues, though almost always with a local perspective. There are not many people who have the time to read 3 or 4 newspapers a day as I do. I have trawled the broadsheets and, as readers will know, have unashamedly pillaged and quoted from journalists I admire – such as Johann Hari, Robert Fisk, Joan Smith, John Pilger and Polly Toynbee.

There are 2 things I regret. One is that I was often unable to respond to readers’ letters. I apologise for that. The second is that there were articles I wanted to write and didn’t. I wanted to do more on the Tubas delegations to Palestine, on the EDO factory and St Peter’s Church, but couldn’t for reasons that were beyond my control. However, there were other articles I could have written, but didn’t. In several cases I gathered information, even interviewed people, but something blocked the process of writing.

Looking back on it, I realise that the people I couldn’t write about had often been involved with me in the Labour Party of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a painful time during which disciplinary action was taken against local Labour activists and councillors, of whom I was one.

I tried and failed to write about Ian Fyvie, a gentle man and former Labour activist, who for years has promoted folk music in the city. I admire Ian’s dedication to the music of the people and I wish I could have written about it. Somehow the words just wouldn’t flow.

I wanted to write about Joyce Gould, a former senior Labour party official who was on the other side of the dispute. At that time we called her the “witchfunder general” – but subsequently I came to know a different side of her, as a good friend and trusted colleague working for women’s rights. While we would never have agreed on Labour Party history, it should have been possible to write about her – but I never achieved it.

The unwritten article I most regret is the one I planned in honour of Rod Fitch. I wish beyond anything that I had written about him. A former Labour parliamentary candidate and anti-fascist organiser, he could be gentle like Ian, but was as iron-willed and fierce in his loyalties as Joyce. He was a man of formidable gifts and his death was a waste and a tragedy. I wanted to write about him, but it simply hurt too much.

I suppose there will be people who are delighted at the demise of this column. Some will be sad as I will be and others will disapprove. Still others, like my friend Tony Greenstein, will be furious, and say that it is a lost opportunity. I am sure that Rod would have agreed.

However, I have a part-time job at Age Concern to go to – and a book to write. And if I don’t do it now, it will never get done.

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