Face to face with the victims of your pen

Carol Sarler

 

HANDBAGS
AT dawn, it nearly was. On one side of The Ivy restaurant munched Anne
Robinson, flame-haired mistress of the withering put-down; on the other
seethed Lynda La Plante, matchingly flame-haired and feeling very much
the victim of Miss Robinson's craft. She had been outed in a Robinson
newspaper column, some two years earlier, for having sneakily lopped a
few years from her stated age – for which trespass La Plante now
stalked across The Ivy to confront her tormentor.

Robinson had
actually had her story right. Bit of a scoop, really, if you care about
such things. And yet it was Robinson who reddened and Robinson who came
over all guilty party – just as, it seems, we always do.

Catherine
Bennett has frequently lambasted Cherie Blair in her Guardian column,
for reasons honestly believed. Yet when she recently met Mrs Blair at a
social gathering, and Blair asked why she wrote so disobligingly of
her, it was Bennett who admits she pulled her punches.

E Jane
Dickson, infuriated by Michael Portillo's televised week as 'a single
mother', fantasised in The Independent about holding him face down in a
bowl of Frosties – then spent an entire evening at a reception trying
to keep out of his view.

The Daily Mail's John McEntee has
regularly, but harmlessly, teased Martin Frizell, the editor of GMTV
and husband of Fiona Phillips; when he found himself recently at an
adjacent table, however, even the infamous McEntee chutzpah tried to
hide itself behind a Daily Telegraph… ah, the value of big broadsheets,
he thought, until Frizell shouted over that he wasn't going to get away
with that.

It is sad but true that neither our honesty nor our
sincerity are any protection against our embarrassment when we meet the
subjects of either of them.

Theatre critic Michael Coveney
recalls a legend of his field, the apparently fearless Kenneth Tynan,
who had given a genuinely-felt stinker of a review to a new Noel Coward
play on the very day that he went for a pre-show bite at the legendary
Sardi's – to find that the only other person in the restaurant was
Coward himself.

Tynan shrank behind a menu, but to no effect;
Coward approached regardless. "Mr T," he said to thecowering critic,
"you are a c***. Will you join me for dinner?"

By the same token, I like to think that I may have been harsh but always scrupulously fair to Diana (yes, that Diana).

Yet
when she spotted me across a crowded room – damnable picture bylines –
she fixed a contemptuous stare. I regret to say, it was I who looked
away first.

Quips aside, this little Achilles heel of0ours can be
a strangely big problem for the trade. Matthew Norman, diarist,
columnist and doyen of stiletto prose, says that in an ideal world we
should not meet those of whom we write: "It dilutes the essence and the
purity of our hatred."

And for those who, like me, can and have
nipped out through the loo window when, say, Paula Yates walked into a
party a week after a good old column slapping, not meeting is at least
usually an option.

For specialist writers, however, such as
political reporters, theatre critics or crime correspondents – as for
any reporter on a provincial or local paper – it is usually not an
option.

The 'beat' is small, you will bump into people again and
if you begin to feel that you cannot be unpleasant when properly
required to be, it's downhill from there.

The rule, then, has to
be that if you believe yourself to be in the right, you publish – and
in any subsequent confrontation, he who seizes the initiative is he who
wins it.

I once introduced the late and lovely Jack Tinker,
hallowed theatre critic of the Daily Mail, to the actor Mark Arden.
Jack extended a hand. Mark did not: "We haven't met," he growled, "but
you did single-handedly close my Rosencrantz and Guildenstein."

Jack
didn't blink. "Oh my dear chap, how frightful!" he gasped. "Now you sit
right down here and I shall go and buy you a nice glass of wine." They
chatted for hours.

Nigel Nelson, political editor of The People,
also always takes the lead. "I approach them, look them straight in the
eye and say that I'm not sorry for what I wrote, but I am sorry they're
upset.

"I told John Edmonds, in his union days, that if something
nasty is written about you, you'll remember it forever – but the person
who wrote it can't remember it by the weekend. It's just not personal.
He was taken aback; said he hadn't thought of it like that."

Matthew
Norman says that six items a day, four days a week for nearly 10 years
of The Guardian's Diary means that he can now never go anywhere without
the expectation that someone hates him.

He, too, will defuse by
seizing the initiative; at a US embassy dinner he attended with his
wife, Sunday Telegraph journalist Rebecca Tyrell, he found himself
seated next-butone to Alan Sugar, with whom he had come almost to the
High Court. Norman spoke first: "Mr Sugar, we haven't met, I'm Matthew
Norman. We have had dealings, unfortunately, through our lawyers…"
Sugar looked away and not another word was spoken.

That wasn't
quite that, mind. Norman turned to a young woman on his other side,
explained the history and said if she didn't mind he would cleave to
her throughout the meal. The girl agreed, then looked across the table
at Rebecca. "Is that your wife? Ah. She sacked my mother, you know."

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