You've got to fight for the right to party

Schmoozing on behalf of a gossip column is not for the faint-hearted or the easily embarrassed, writes The Times’ Esther Walker

AUBERON WAUGH once commented
that life on The Daily Telegraph’s Peterborough column was “well suited
to an idle man”. A day’s work consisted of filing “one or two
paragraphs, seldom requiring more than a telephone call or a lunch
engagement”.

Forty years on, life is not quite such a doddle for the young diarist. The gossip market is overcrowded.

Tabloid
newspapers and Heat have raised the bar in terms of salacious tales of
threesomes, coke habits and celebrity slanging matches. When readers
eagerly turn to the gossip column of their paper, they expect to be
entertained – and not just with stories of what the diarist’s old
school chums did in their holidays.

New diarists are expected to
bring in stories immediately. Gone are the days when hopelessness went
unchecked; in these cash-strapped times, if a new reporter consistently
fails to turn up stories, it’s all over. These days, you don’t even get
an overnight fee (payment for going to a party whether your story is
used or not), so no useable story means no more work and nothing for
your efforts either.

Despite these grim odds, fresh-faced girls
and boys queue up to trot off to diary parties. Sorry, that should have
read diary “parties” as they are, in fact, more like a bizarre sort of
performance, designed for the sole purpose of plugging a new book, bar,
film, play or lingerie range, whatever. “Diary parties are, by their
very nature, pretty strange,” says Guy Adams, editor of The
Independent’s Pandora column. “They are commercial events dressed up as
parties and guests aren’t there to have fun. They can be pretty
ghastly.”

The dramatis personae at diary parties are as follows:
the PR people, all dressed in black; the photographers, who click away
at anyone familiar and murmur, “Do remind me of your name”; the
celebrities, or rather, celebrity (careful scientific studies have
shown that there is an average of 1.3 famous people at every diary
party); the liggers, hangers-on and freeloaders; and finally, our young
heroes, the diarists.

Most wannabe diary reporters’ first parties
are also their last. Five excruciating, self-conscious minutes hopping
from foot to foot behind Salman Rushdie, waiting for him to stop
talking to Martin Amis can trigger a violent existential crisis. “This
is journalism?

I’m going back to the City,” thinks the wannabe,
and leaves. But every now and again, a wannabe turns into a gonnabe. He
catches Rushdie’s eye and smiles winningly. “Hello,” he says. And a
diarist is born.

Of course, it’s not always as easy as that. The
combination of alcohol, celebrity egos and the youth of most diary
reporters can result in sticky situations.

It’s not unheard of
for diarists to be pinned up against a wall and told to stop asking
“f****** stupid questions”; or to be called “scum” and pelted with ice
cubes by Jade Jagger; or to get so drunk out of nerves that they start
a fight and get chucked out by security. Everyone has got a famous
person’s name wrong, and everyone, but everyone, has been told, with
varying degrees of aggression, to Foxtrot Oscar.

But, as on the
rest of Fleet Street, self-deprecating tales of bungling are the
diarist’s medals of active service. In fact, if you have been on the
party circuit for a while without vomiting down yourself, insulting
Richard Branson, or being issued a writ, you’re doing something wrong.

So
what does it take to be a good diarist? It’s a common misconception
that it’s all about guts: most young diary reporters are terrified. In
fact you would, frankly, have to be a bit of a blank-eyed psychopath
not to be anxious about going to a party where you don’t know anyone,
let alone one where you have to persuade a bored and unco-operative
celebrity to make a newsworthy comment. So, for the first few parties,
diarists sweat pure fear. The only thing that drives them onto the
bayonet of talking to Gordon Ramsay is the prospect of turning up to
their shift the next day with no story.

The other fallacy is that
diarists must have an arsenal of toxic questions. Some do, but most
begin conversations with a chummy: “Hello. How are you?”

Or, if
they know someone a bit: “Hello! How are you?” Greeting Freddie Windsor
as “Frederico” is not advised unless you and he go way back.

The
final delusion about diarists is that they do it because they like
parties. “My friends all thought it was very odd when I said I was
going to be a diary reporter – I’m the first one to opt for a night in,”

says
Louise Hannah, freelance diarist. “But actually, it’s quite useful as
it means I see the parties as work, rather than a chance to get really
pissed.” Most diarists, if they don’t dislike parties at the start,
definitely do after about a month.

So what is it? What separates the decent diarists from the outstanding ones?

It
is, in fact, the ability to keep a conversation going. This is far
harder than it sounds. Your 10 minutes with the one (or the point
three) celebrity at a party is usually spent beating people off.
Blacksuited PRs grasp them by the elbows and prise them away, their
friends roll up and interrupt with abandon and the celeb themselves
will probably be looking for an exit.

It is a real professional
who doesn’t slink off, thinking “sod it”, into the baying crowd to seek
out Christine Hamilton for an easy quote.

The trick, apparently,
is to get the celebrity to actually enjoy talking to you. This is
mostly as simple as smiling broadly and looking very interested,
thereby appealing to their transparent and fragile vanity. What’s not
so simple is to do all this smiling and looking fascinated while being
fairly forcefully jostled by a roaring crowd and battling against the
silent – and sometimes not so silent – waves of “GO AWAY” radiating
towards you.

But once you’ve mastered that and when you get
really good (when you’re, say, the Pelé of diarists), you know exactly
how long to wait after the celebrity seems to have finished talking
before asking another question. It might be that that little silence
begging to be filled is enough, if you’re lucky, to prompt him to start
telling you about the affair he’s having with a member of the shadow
cabinet.

Well suited to an idle man? No. Excellent fun?

Yes, yes, yes.

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