Like the Duke of Clarence in Richard the Third (or Tupac Shakur in ‘Death Around the Corner’), I predicted my own demise. I’d been writing a column in Good Weekend, a supplement of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, for about 10 years, when it occurred to me every industry I had entered had collapsed. I began my working life as a typesetter, a trade that was devoured in a mouthful by the ravenous, patricidal beast of desktop publishing. I became a subeditor, and watched as tables of once-respected subs were devalued, demoralised and finally dismissed, their skills drowned in a sour cocktail of spellcheck programmes, Wikipedia and management apathy that broadened into open hostility. I edited men’s magazines, and that market sector collapsed. I began to write books, and the publishing industry quickly tumbled into an unprecedented decline. In my second Good Weekend column of 2012, I mused that there’d been a lot of ‘lifestyle’ columnists around a decade before, waxing whimsically and repetitively to a diminishing audience, yet I was one of the last men standing. One issue later, the new Good Weekend editor, Ben Naparstek, axed the column.
I wasn’t sorry to see it go, but I was surprised. After all, it had survived the savagery of the focus groups that killed off my erstwhile colleagues, Maggie Alderson and Stephanie Dowrick, whose columns the readers had supposedly ceased to read. And the column’s return after the New Year’s break was flagged with the cover-line ‘Mark’s Back’, which implied a certain permanency to the arrangement. But I figured Naparstek might have made the right decision. A column should live for two years, not ten, and I’d become increasingly weary of living with such a high public profile.
My photograph accompanied the column’s text—a full-body photo-byline, as was the inexplicable fashion of the day—and, by 2011, I would be recognised by strangers every second time I left the house. Their intentions were invariably friendly. They always said, ‘You’re Mark, aren’t you?’—although they rarely introduced themselves—and wanted to either shake my hand or, occasionally, hug me, and thank me for making them laugh. It was gratifying but unsatisfying. I wanted to know something about them too, before they vanished back into the mise en scene.
At first, I found it embarrassing, especially if I were with somebody else when approached by a ‘fan’, but I got used to it and, inevitably began to crave it—especially when I was with somebody else. I wanted to be seen to be seen. If nobody came up to me in a bar, I wonder how they could possibly be ignorant of the celebrity in their midst. Didn’t they even read the paper?
Also, people seemed to confuse the column with the author. The morning after the ‘Mark’s Back’ cover-line appeared, I walked into my local pub, the William Wallace, to be greeted with a hearty, ‘You’re back!’ by the publican. Since I had no clear memory of the night before, I thought I might have chanced upon an important clue as to how I had acquired a black eye. ‘Was I in here last night, then?’ I asked him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I mean, you’re back in the paper.’ Oh, I see.
Before I killed off ‘men’s-lifestyle’ publishing, I ran the ‘lads’ magazine’ Ralph, where I grew used to readers phoning up and demanding to talk to Ralph. When I told them I was the editor and there was no actual Ralph, they’d often reply, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah. So, er, how’s it going, Ralph?’
Although I knew there was no Ralph, I was initially less certain if there was a Mark Dapin. The column had changed (I hesitate to say evolved) a lot in its lifetime. At first, I felt I’d had to create a persona, something close to the classic lads’ mag protagonist, a cross between Charles Bukowski and Karl Pilkington—an idiot at home, with a beer in one hand and bruised knuckles on the other.
My column stuck to the facts of my life, but it seemed as though this other less idiosyncratic and less vulnerable character were living it for me. After a few months, I stopped hiding behind my tattoos and started to be myself. This left me dangerously exposed—because if people didn’t like it, they basically didn’t like me. However, I assumed nobody except the editor even read it. Why would they? Who cares what I’ve been doing?
I began to write about politics in the column, focussing on the gloating theatrics of the last Howard ministry, with its cast of ghouls such as the disingenuous, oleaginous and ultimately shameless Peter Reith (watch him on The Howard Years, dissembling with merry contempt); the cryogenically frozen Philip Ruddock, wearing his Amnesty International badge on his lapel as if it were foreign matter expelled from his heart; and my favourite senator, Santo Santoro, who, while presenting a media awards night, gave a speech attacking journalists. I resolved to refuse my award if it meant I had to shake hands with Santoro—but then I didn’t win anything anyway. I cheered when the Coalition was voted out of office in 2007, but quickly came to miss its ministers, especially the ovine Alexander Downer, cloned like a sheep from his father, Alexander Downer. They were replaced by a deliberately characterless government whose members seemed bent on presenting themselves as nothing more than vessels through which policy flowed like recycled water. It was oddly galling to watch Peter Garret submerge himself into the lifeless ranks of union researchers and labour lawyers. With dour glee, he baldly refused to talk about himself, leaving frustrated journalists with notebooks full of the management-text pidgin in which the Labor government chose to couch its ambitions for the country.
I suppose I also felt the Labor Party were on my side, in some limited way, but my reservations about parodying them ran deeper: there’s something more tragic than comic about social democratic politicians in office, as they instantly distance themselves from their own beliefs in a scramble to embrace what they imagine to be the values of the people who believed in them sufficiently to vote them into government in the first place. When Julia Gillard said she opposed gay marriage, I despaired: not because I supported gay marriage, but because Gillard obviously did. There is no room to caricature people who are already mockeries of themselves.
There was nothing to play with anymore, so I walked away from the game. In the column, I concentrated on my home life again. Anything I wrote about my feelings for my children—or my feelings about anything else—attracted cyber-bags of love mail. This generally came directly to me, through the email address on my website. Perhaps hundreds of other readers were complaining to the editor about my shameless self-indulgence, but I never got to see their letters. Every Sunday morning, I would wake up to a barrage of love bombs on my computer screen.
For every ten compliments, I received one complaint. I took no notice of the first, and learned by heart each word of the last.
The things that moved my critics to anger usually came as a surprise to me, because I generally hadn’t written them. When I started out in journalism, I assumed I would receive hate mail from the kind of people I hated. I thought I’d stir up the racists, gay-baiters, chauvinists and chickenhawks. I had some initial success, and I was proud the morning I was attacked on the neo-Nazi web forum, Stormfront, for a feature I wrote about Jewish MP Michael Danby. But I came quite late to the understanding that psychotic bigots did not, on the whole, read Good Weekend. However, I repeatedly mentioned in my column that I was Jewish, because I hoped it would annoy anti-Semites. In fact, it seemed to annoy Jews.
I used to travel a lot, and I noticed there were often Hasidic Jews at the airport. I put this in a column, and a man wrote in to accuse me of anti-Semitism. Why didn’t I say I always saw Catholic nuns at airports, he asked, or Buddhist monks? Well, because I didn’t. And because I’d hoped that casually mentioning the Hasidim might make them appear less alien, and more like an ordinary part of life. But my correspondent knew my motives were murkier. I hated the Hasidim, he said, because I thought they were social parasites who sucked resources out of the society by studying Torah instead of working, which is what I had implied with my suggestion they had nothing better to do than wait around in airports. In parenthesis, he added ‘(this may be true of many)’.
This and a couple of similar letters coaxed me towards what Lionel Shriver, in Standpoint magazine, described as:
the unremitting revelation that so many readers cannot comprehend standard prose—that so many people prefer to make up what they wish you had written so they can object to it; that, not to put too fine a point on it, readers cannot read—[which] exposes the whole business of writing comment pieces as utterly pointless.
Shriver advocated not engaging with cyber-critics, but unless the writers were clearly insane—and, at least once, even when they were clearly insane—I’d write back and challenge them, ‘Would you speak to me like this in person, or is there something about the distancing of email that appeals to you?’
If they replied at all, they would often offer the distant relative of an apology. They were surprised they had offended me because they had, on some level, assumed I wasn’t a real person. And they were flattered I had given them a response.
The allegations of misogyny and homophobia generally left me puzzled but unmoved, but I found the accusations of anti-Semitism disturbing. I had grown up doing the shopping with my Jewish mother, who regularly challenged checkout operators about the freshness of supermarket vegetables, so it was no surprise to me that some people complain about anything—but I felt their energies might be better spent hunting a more dangerous beast than a Fairfax columnist. However, as well as both a columnist and living human being, I led a parallel existence as a novelist, which took me to writers’ festival all over the country. At last year’s Melbourne Jewish Book Festival, I realised many Jewish people see Fairfax journalists generally as bitter enemies of the State of Israel and, by extension, the Jewish world. Although I was received with limitless affection, my audience was concerned to learn how I dealt with anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the workplace. I explained they would be more likely to encounter a singing fish at the Sydney Morning Herald than an open anti-Semite, but I suspect the crowd just thought I was unusually thick-skinned.
My debut novel, King of the Cross, won the Ned Kelly Award for First Fiction, and sold, as they say, moderately well. I’d assumed that, since Good Weekend claimed more than a million readers, if only one in a hundred enjoyed my column, I’d have ten thousand guaranteed book sales. In fact, King of the Cross seemed to have been bought by virtually no-one from my Good Weekend audience. When I asked readers why they had bought the book, they were more likely to cite the striking yellow cover than my name as a journalist.
Earlier, at Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, I’d asked Morris Gleitzman, who’d preceded me as both a Good Weekend humour columnist and author of (children’s) fiction, why my public profile didn’t appear to help market my books. He said he’d had the same experience. He thought audiences had trouble carrying more than one idea of a writer in their minds. They could either be a funny back-page guy or a serious author, but not both. And I remembered comedians such as Alexei Sayle and David Baddiel, who’d written reputable books that I’d never think of reading—because their authors were, well, comedians.
I was at yet another writers’ festival last year, in Castlemaine, Victoria, when I received a single-line email, ‘I find your political correctness pathetic.’ ‘I wonder if you’d say that to my face’, I replied. ‘Gladly’, said my correspondent. The name of his company was part of his email address, so it was easy to figure out he was in Melbourne. ‘You’re in luck’, I told him. ‘I’m in the area.’
When I first came to Australia, I was in my mid-twenties, and sometimes, when I was walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend, a boy would shot ‘Fagggoooooooooooot!’ from a passing car, presumably in the hope I might forget, for a moment, the difference in locomotive capacity between human beings and motor vehicles, and chase him down the road.
I felt that cyber-sneerers were a (not very) grown-up version of the hoons in their Valiants, and probably couldn’t move as fast. I looked forward to finally meeting one, and either finding out why he felt he could write something he would never dream of saying, or spending time in the company of a true sociopath. I wasn’t going to hit him, but I was hoping he might try to hit me. Of course, he never replied. I wrote to him from the departure lounge at Tullamarine Airport expressing my regret that I’d wasted a moment’s time on him, and pointing out that, in his first email, he’d managed to misspell his own name.
He wrote back from a safe distance the next morning, calling me ‘precious’ and suggesting that, if we met, we’d probably find we were both good people. But I had no interest in shaking hands with a South Yarra Forrest Gump. I wanted to duck punches from a corporate Chopper Read.
I started telling people about the email exchange, and I realised they thought I was crazy. Their argument was compelling. What on earth did I think I was doing?
As far as I could gather, the reader had been offended by my suggestion that teachers shouldn’t hit children with sticks. Perhaps he’d extrapolated that I believed nobody should ever be hit with sticks, which is definitely not the case. Either way, my attitude didn’t seem the kind of view the Strasserite goons of talkback radio might call ‘political correctness gone mad’. But so what? He was just a reader, expressing an opinion. I thought it was probably time I stopped writing the column.
But nobody else did.
I had often tried to give up the column – and sometimes escaped it for months on end – but it seemed to be extraordinarily popular, and I was repeatedly lured back with a mixture of flattery, money and threats by the editor, for whom I had great regard. I found the column easy to write but difficult to live. It was exhausting to trawl through each week of my life, looking for an episode that could be distilled into 650 words, given a beginning and an end, a punch-line and a point. Partly for this reason, I had begun to write about roundabouts.
I’d seen a book called Roundabouts of Great Britain, which was a guide to the supposedly thriving (but actually non-existent) British hobby of ‘roundabout-spotting’. I wrote a couple of columns about the aesthetic appeal of the various roundabouts in my life (I couldn’t comment on their effectiveness as instruments of traffic control, because I can’t drive). Roundabout-writing attracts a huge amount of reader feedback. Everyone has a story about a roundabout. None of them are in any way interesting.
I returned to the subject time and again, until I reached a point where readers were sending me photographs of their favourite roundabouts. At this point, once again, I realised my time was coming to an end.
At the writers’ festival in Byron Bay, about 70 people had turned up to listen to me speak for half an hour. I couldn’t understand what they wanted to hear. I asked them why on earth they read a weekly column about nothing. They replied it was because I was such a loser, it made them feel better about their own lives.
This was not the way I’d hoped things would turn out for me.
The editor of Good Weekend moved on, and I thought I would grab the chance to escape. But, when I had the chance to jump, I had a change of heart. I realised it was a privilege to diarise in public, to record and share the more important moments of my life. I looked back over some of the earlier columns I’d written, and saw that I’d forgotten most of the things that had happened to me—but there they were, written down and laid out, typeset, proofed and printed. It was fantastic, in a way. It was as if my life mattered.
And I knew that was what angered the more disturbed readers. The fact that the column existed meant to them that I thought my life and opinions were more important than theirs. They raged against me because they wanted to be me. The internet has given a platform to the bitter, untalented and failed. People who would never have had the wherewithal or fortitude to write and post a letter can dash off an email and press ‘send’, even if they can’t spell their own name.
I read a piece by Laurie Penny, a columnist on The Independent in the UK, who generally wrote on weightier matters than roundabouts. For criticising what she called ‘neo-Liberal economic policy making’, she was told by a reader she should be made to fellate a row of bankers at knifepoint.
‘An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet’, she wrote,
Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you…‘Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and the odour and capacity of my genitals.
Penny saw this as an attempt to silence women specifically, but the deranged ravings of the newly enfranchised emotional and intellectual underclass have the potential to drive out the meek—and not so meek—of either gender. Not everyone enjoys a fight.
It takes confidence to be a columnist. You need a measure of self-belief, and even the sociopathic trolls can sense that. They want to chip away at your base, cut you down, make you into one of them, an empty vessel of howling rage, wallowing in its own sense of frustrated entitlement.
I was saddened to read an on-line piece by my friend, the relentlessly funny Sydney Daily Telegraph writer Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand, who describes himself with charming olde-worlde manners as ‘a Labor man’, said while the right-wingers in his audience affectionately ribbed him for his bias, and ‘politely point out’ his ‘various delusions’,
many if not most of the self-proclaimed left-wingers I encounter … bombarded me publicly (but almost always anonymously) with the most foul, nasty or snide abuse … I’ve just been shocked not only at the extraordinary level of viciousness but the fact that the abuse almost entirely seems to come from lefties. And it is not just a handful of incidents but scores and scores —probably hundreds.
What upset me most about the piece was it wasn’t funny. He had let them take his sense of humour from him. Hildebrand said he was ‘big enough and ugly enough’ to handle the abuse—and, it’s true, he is hideously deformed—but I know it hurts him still.
Late last year, there was a small internal restructure at Fairfax, and Good Weekend was brought under the stewardship of ‘national editor of the Metro Media division’, Garry Linnell. I had a meeting with Linnell in which he gave me his set speech about the future of the magazine. He told me the tone of the writing was going to change. ‘When was the last time’, he asked, ‘that you saw something in Good Weekend that made you laugh?’
I realised then that the writing was on the wall for the resident humourist.
In my penultimate piece, about the way I destroyed every industry I entered, I wrote: ‘A men’s magazine says all it has to say in its first couple of years, then repeats itself ad nauseum until the readers finally notice and stop buying it. (The same thing’s true of women’s magazines, but they seem to last longer, for some reason.)’
In response, a reader wrote, ‘You’ve completely lost me this week in your stated view that (me paraphrasing) you think that women take longer than men do to realise that magazines targeted to them are repetitive. Oh, is this the male ego rising above the the (sic) intelligence of the little woman??
‘I now think your laissez-faire way of writing is an insult to the intelligence of Age readers. Get over yourself and get a column of substance. Try to work a bit harder to keep the confidence of your readers. Otherwise, you are a waste of space.’
Like Shriver, I could see the whole exercise had become pointless.
I wrote back and said, ‘Good news: I’ve been fired.’
The reader replied, ‘Oh, that is great news. Thanks, mark.’
© Mark Dapin 2012