Sunday, December 3rd, 2000
Life section

Nice work if you can get it

Star columnists in London can get $500,000 a year or more for writing (only!) two columns a week, and we certainly can use that kind of money

IN LONDON, where people still read newspapers, columnists are stars who are paid huge sums of money.

A columnist writing for, say, the Independent or the Guardian, gets paid between $1,000 and $1,500 a column, and we're talking about one who isn't in the big league. The two papers pay their star columnists many times more.

The rates are higher on The Times and The Telegraph, who sell a lot more copies than the other two broad-sheets and even higher on the tabloids. There, a few star columnists make $500,000 or more a year, for writing two columns a week.

One Matthew Perris of The Times was rumoured to have turned down $750,000 to work for the Independent, last year. Another star, Suzanne Moore, was paid a signing-on fee before joining the Mail On Sunday, and got about $350,000 a year for writing (only!) one column a week. I don't know if she's still writing it - a columnist is as good as her last column, and her shelf life can be short if she doesn't have the range.

When I read these figures recently in the essay, What Columnists Are Good For, by Stephen Glover, one of the three founding editors of the Independent and now a columnist who writes for at least two papers, I thought, Aha, my editors must know about them, too.

Those of us who write a regular column in The Straits Times, do so on top of other duties, and we certainly can use the kind of money these full-time columnists in London pocket. What a civilised way to earn a living, to toss off a couple of columns and do nothing else for the rest of the week.

In the 1980s, I used to follow avidly the columns by Peregrine Worsthorne and Alexander Chancellor, in the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday magazine, respectively. Both were also writing for the Spectator magazine, which Chancellor edited from 1975 to 1984, before he went over to the Independent.

In 1975, when she was 25, and fresh out of Oxford, the now celebrity editor Tina Brown tried in vain to get into the Spectator. She flirted with Chancellor and told him he had the longest eye lashes she had ever seen. Rebuffed, she would later describe people like Chancellor and Worsthorne as 'gentleman hacks', and she couldn't have found a more apt term.

These gentleman hacks took three-hour lunches at fancy restaurants and exclusive establishments like the Groucho Club, where they imbibed an immoderate amount of wine and port, and sometimes fought over a particularly luscious waitress.

Afterwards in their offices, they would have editorial meetings, where port would be passed round again ceremoniously, much like a high table dinner at Cambridge or Oxford.

They would knock off by five, and adjoin to a pub.

Their leisurely way of life was reflected in their columns, fine writing touched with mordant wit and just a dash of acerbity. What a joy it was to read them.

Of course, they wrote about politics and worldly affairs too, and were taken seriously by their readers.

Chancellor would, in the 1990s, join Tina Brown's New Yorker, and be pushed unceremoniously to leave before he could even settle down in the Big Apple.

His chronicle of that short period in the book Some Times In America (1999) was pure delight for me. The book's dust jacket says he's now a freelance writer, but I can't find him in the papers. I do so miss his columns.

Worsthorne was sacked by the Sunday Telegraph in 1997, after 36 years as its star columnist.

The present crop of British columnists I cannot relate to, least of all the ugly Will Self, who wears his former heroin addiction like a badge of honour.

I stopped reading the Spectator when my favourite columnist Jeffrey Bernard died finally. It was a mark of Chancellor's editorial genius to have hired him to write a column called Low Life in the high-brow weekly, this man who spent his days tossing back vodkas at the Coach & Horses bar in Greek Street in sleazy Soho, when he wasn't at the race tracks.

Bernard's column was like a long suicide note in weekly instalments. Often, the dateline at the head of the column would be the Middlesex Hospital or St Stephens Hospital, from where he retailed the varying degrees of wickedness of the nurses who denied him his cigarettes and liquor.

Just as often, his column would not appear. There would be a line saying: Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. This eventually became the title of a West End hit starring Peter O'Toole. Written by the prolific tabloid columnist Keith Waterhouse, it was based on Bernard's life. Of course, I caught the play, and enjoyed it immensely.

Besides being amusing, what are columnists good for? Stephen Glover, whose essay is collected in The Penguin Book of Journalism: Secrets Of The Press (1999), which he also edited, says a good columnist is a generalist who can 'bring a single, organising and moral intelligence to the wide variety of human experience', something which specialists do not deign to do.

Because he needs to write about the external world, the columnist may often have to stray into areas in which he is far from expert. The specialist may sneer, but can he do better?

'We all live in our tiny boxes, knowing a lot about a little, and the columnist moves between us, making connections we may not have understood as individuals, attempting to explain a more complete picture to those who have seen only part of it,' Glover writes.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F