When you write a column for a long time, you tend to repeat yourself. More than once, I’ve told the story of Nancy Astor returning to Virginia after her honeymoon and introducing her new husband, Waldorf, to her beloved Aunt Liza. ‘Why, Miss Nancy,’ her old nurse cried, ‘you sho’ done outmarried yo’self.’ And how many times have I hauled out my grandmother’s dictum that ‘manners are more important than brains’? Even this, my last column for the time being, has a déjà vu feel to it. That’s because I wrote one along these lines a while ago. On December 17, 1998.
Which might make you think that I have a restless heart. The thought worried me so much that, when I returned to this space two years later, I promised myself that I’d match my first three-year residency. In fact, I’ve almost tripled it. Other things also happen when you write a weekly column for 12 years. You see the world through a 700-word lens. You think that you can set the
You accumulate heaps of papers and newspaper clippings and Post-it notes scrawled with ideas and facts. And when you read other writers’ reflections on the subject of columns, you stick those in a box marked ‘save’. Inside mine is Ellen Goodman’s des-cription of writing a weekly column: ‘It’s like being married to a nymphomaniac. As soon as it’s over, you know you have to begin again.’ And William Safire, a master of the form, who likens it to standing under a windmill: no sooner do you feel relief that you have ducked a blade than you look up and see a new one coming down.
And yet, even as the weekly deadline smites the conscience, races the mind, adds to the anxiety quotient and punishes the ego, it is one of life’s great privileges. Writing in this space is the most gratifying job I’ve ever had. I’ve been blessed with an understanding editor, who gave me complete freedom. I’ve had patient sub-editors who tolerated endless last-minute ‘tweaks’ when, on reading the final proof, I suddenly encountered an errant noun or verb that sounded to my ear like
a needle scratching a record. And I’ve had the pleasure of knowing that my words would appear on the best piece of real estate any writer could desire. I feel as reverent towards Country Life today as I did when I first arrived back in 1996.
So why am I leaving again? I turn to another writer, the scientist Olivia Judson, who compared having a column to owning a pet dragon: you feel lucky to have it, but ‘it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals’. I need to work on my meat supply, to read a book from start to finish, to walk out into the morning without seeing my journey as an exercise in which to turn a flimsy idea into one substantial enough to fit the page.
My hero, the writer E. B. White, once described his hero, Henry David Thoreau, as a man torn all his days between two awful pulls: ‘the gnawing desire to change life, and the equally troublesome desire to live it’. I know the feeling. I long to change the world and I love to write about life, but the time has come to give in to the desire to live it.
And finally, to my readers who wrote me wonderful letters. That unanswered pile hurts me every day of my life. Every time I sat at my desk, I had to choose between writing letters or writing this page. Ruthlessly, I chose the page, consoling myself with the words from Emily Dickinson, writing in her narrow spinster room: ‘Here is my letter to the world.’ That’s what the ‘Spectator’ column has felt like to me, a letter to the world of readers, seen and unseen, who have become friends, who know me almost as well as I know myself and who have brought out the best in me. My gratitude is beyond words.