So mainly I’ve been writing fiction. The interests narrow as you get older (and I was always a narrow-minded and obessive fellow anyway) and there is a new urgency to it, hurtling towards thirty and feeling this need to get everything down. Fiction fills most spare time in what is a busy schedule – work, new friendships, DVD boxsets, plus I still need to get at least five hours of drinking a day: it’s tough, the life of the mind.
Since joining Twitter I have built up a network of loyal followers, including a Boston wedding planner (who presumably knows something I don’t) the captain of the Lansdown Cricket Ladies XI (which must never be confused with their hated rivals Bath Cricket Ladies XI) and a rapper named Tylee Crawford who declares that he dislikes ‘bored bitches’ and ‘broke niggas’. I love the immediacy of it: eyewitness reports of Egypt demonstrators being fired on by Mubarak’s army ripple into my liberal-creative timeline.
It seems like every Monday there is a Daily Shriek piece that causes hours of outrage and ridicule and response. It began with the infamous Jan Moir article on Stephen Gateley, in which she insinuated that, contrary to postmortem findings, the gay singer must have been fisted to death. Since then there’s been the astonishing and insensitive Liz Jones thinkpiece on Joanna Yeates’s murder, Melanie Phillips’s struggle against gay maths and a column by Richard Littlejohn in which he had some fun at the expense of a disabled protestor dragged out of his wheelchair by police.
Talented leftwing bloggers like Steven Baxter have made their names by taking on the lies and hate of the Daily Shriek and its companion, the Daily Squawk. I do wonder, though, how serious the controversialists are. There aren’t many jobs in journalism and graduates go where the work is. The Daily Mail is no doubt staffed by the kind of cokey metropolitan shag-happy hipster that its readership believe has brought the country to its knees. What the hell. Tomorrow’s fish and chips. And say what you like about Melanie Phillips, there is a powerful intellect underneath the absurdity. Surely she can’t really believe what she writes? Perhaps the life of the newspaper columnist is a quest for attention and nothing more.
Phillips, Moir, Littlejohn and generations of panel-show comedians have realised Michel Houellebecq’s truth: that to succeed as a celebrity or polemicist in a liberal democracy it is not enough to have talent. You don’t take on the government or the bankers – there’s no percentage in that. You must hurt the weak, the lost, the broken, the old, the poor, the sick, the lonely: you must laugh at disabled children. What thrills the masses of this silo nation isn’t sex but the breaking of the taboos that liberal democracies create to protect people who can’t fight for themselves. If you are to succeed in comedy or media, you have to tap into instincts of cruelty and the will to power that all good civilisations rightly repress.
So maybe the Daily Shriek Monday morning meeting goes like this. ‘Right, we really need to piss off the liberals on Twitter today. Mel, Jan? Ideas?’ ‘Tell you what Paul, I’ll do an editorial advising sexually confused teenagers to commit suicide.’ ‘Fantastic!’ The journalist David Hepworth summed it up: Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells turns into Appalled of Stoke Newington, firing off aerated responses to pieces with titles like ‘Time to decriminalise marital rape,’ ‘Dorries for PM,’ and ‘Abu Ghraib: What’s the Problem?’ Paul Sims echoed this: ‘I wonder how we’ll all feel, Twitter, when they eventually pull back the curtain and reveal that the Daily Mail was actually just for us?’ The Very Public Sociologist has theorised that the Shriek articles are deliberately tuned to hit liberal Twitter nerves, increasing click rate and web advertising revenues.
Still, if you read the comments under any Shriek piece (or indeed on any regional or local newspaper website) you’ll see that there are many people who genuinely believe what they read, even if the writers don’t believe it. Sincere or not, the Daily Shriek worldview is fast becoming conventional public wisdom. And it is getting nastier. This week we have seen a national newspaper come out in support of a fascist party for the first time since the 1930s. There could come a day when a Daily Mail reader decides that he needs to save his country from the politically correct conspiracy by blowing up a pub or a tube train. What’s certain is that our public discourse and our public life is going to get even more miserabilist and spiteful and censorious, with a self-pity so malignant and curdled that it borders on conscious evil.