My very first column
Fairfax Media have insisted that all their contributors sign a new contract. Unfortunately, this means I can't post Grey Urbanist columns here ... until 3 months after publication in the Nelson Mail.
Dread began stalking me as soon as I agreed to write a column for the Nelson Mail and on the eve of deadline, it had me firmly between its jaws. A large part of this dread originates in that fact that my column will appear in the very spot recently vacated by Teresa O'Connor. She has left behind very large shoes to fill although her feet are, in actuality, remarkably small. However, like Ms O'Connor my predecessor, I've got Irish forbears and the Irish proverb "What is nearest the heart is nearest the mouth" applies to us both. I'm just as maddened as she is by foolish bureaucracy, by venality and injustice. And I’m just as moved by small, unheralded acts of generosity and kindness: the grace moments of everyday life.
Writing is an odd business and writing a column is odder still because it’s so public. Nelson is a very small place. Your name and photo are printed right there on the page for everyone to see. If you write personally and truthfully for the same readership over a period of time, you inevitably reveal something of your character and your personal life as well. Readers tend to develop a hatred or affection for the person they think they discern between the lines. Teresa O'Connor's willingness to call a spade a bloody shovel won her both friends and enemies. I’ve got very thin skin so this worries me. I’m comforted by the fact that it worries Peter Carey too. In spite of his established reputation and literary awards, he admits to the "anguish in making the thing and then, after that, well, it's awful to be criticised and it's awful not to be liked”.
Fortunately, it’s not all fear and loathing. If you are lucky, some muscle, hitherto not much exercised, is activated when you become a columnist. The world is transformed into a marvellous circus: one giant column waiting to happen. Your private amusement at the parking signs outside a lawyer' office (Traffic Cases, Family Cases, Dishonesty Cases, Hard Cases) and the note in the barbershop window (No coffee, no music, no flash mags, just a darn good clip around the ears) suggests a column about the human predilection for jokes - which surely have no evolutionary purpose? When you spot a pair of men's trousers discarded on a bench in Hardy St, then come across a gutted pregnancy test kit lying on the concrete floor of a public toilet you wonder if these two anonymous acts of abandonment might be sufficient material for a column. One day in Nelson you see a husky dog leashed outside a shop. It's howling very, very quietly, with the utmost politeness, almost under its breath, as it waits for its owner to complete her shopping. Then, a few days later, just a few streets away, the body of a murdered woman is found crammed in the boot of a car. A column suggests itself. Is it man or beast who should not be allowed off-leash?
But inevitably, and very near deadline, the circus will suddenly fold up its tents. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd . . . it's all gone. You're stranded alone in front of a yawning column-shaped chasm, clutching nothing but a fistful of tinsel and sawdust, and a few threadbare ideas scribbled on scraps of paper.
When I’m feeling more sanguine, I accept that the struggle with dread and deadline is a very reasonable price to pay for the privilege of having a public voice, especially when so many have none at all. And I find myself grateful that a little anxiety is all I must exchange for an exemption from the normal journalistic constraints of balance and impartiality.
But to be truthful, I've only arrived at this perfectly balanced and impartial perspective on the perils and pleasures of column writing because my word count is rapidly approaching target. I can feel my heart lightening as I near one thousand words. My toes have started tapping. Pah! I sneer in the face of deadlines! Bring on the clowns! I have no fear of tomorrow, for tomorrow will be spangles and candyfloss, horses with plumes on their heads and daring young men on flying trapezes!