It’s my final column: so long and thanks for the flak and the fan mail
This is my last column for Guardian Family, and I contemplate with mixed feelings the prospect of 2018 lacking an outlet for my frustrations, recollections and ruminations. I have shared, and shared deeply, with my readers over the past six years. They have helped me to walk through my guilt at nearly breaking my daughter’s ankle in a bike accident, the death of my beloved father, a cancer scare and the lightly disguised ins and outs of my 17-year relationship with the mother of my two younger children.
During this time, I have been through depressions, crises and times of loss and disappointment – as well as much joy and satisfaction. I have struggled to save my marriage – as did my wife – without final success. I have tried to be a good father, but have failed inasmuch as I have once again left my children in a so-called “melded family” (“broken” is a better word). I have tried to be as honest as I can – while always seeking the approval of any members of my family before I allowed anything to be published.
This has not always been enough to stop the column being a source of conflict in my family life. Oddly enough, after all the controversial topics I have written about since I started, the most incendiary was a piece I wrote about household finances. This produced such conflict that my wife and I separated for a short while over the consequences. I will not go into details, even now – but suffice to say that writing a family column, however superficially desirable, is not risk-free by any means.
Which is why I have mixed feelings. Because in some senses it is a relief to put an end to all this. I first exposed my personal life to public gaze in 1996 when my memoir, The Scent of Dried Roses, was published. Since then, newspaper editors have paid me to make “confessions” about my private life, and I have taken their coin – partly because I needed the money, and partly because I thought that, by showing to the world what most people would prefer to keep private, I was at least reassuring some people that they are not alone in their trouble. We are all flawed and it seems to me that the more we are able to admit it, the more we might see our common humanity. But the consequences can be, and sometimes have been, excruciating.
I am not trying to cast myself as a victim. It is my choice, and I have benefited from it and take responsibility for it. All the same, it has left me very reluctant to open up any more in public. Unwittingly (as the internet was hardly a thing when I started) my entire life is now online; not a consequence I planned for. When I started journalism, you told a story and it was forgotten the next day. Now, those stories are immortal.
Much of the downside of writing such a column now is the brutality of some of the below-theline commentary. It hurts. In the end, I learned to be selective in reading it. I had the option to have it switched off, but I wanted my readers to have a forum to respond to what I had written. As a result, although I come in for flak – a lot of it – I have had hundreds of messages of support and recognition. And if my justification for writing the column lies in anything, it lies in those messages, which have reassured me that what I have been doing has had many positive consequences, even concretely helping some people. That seems worthwhile.
So now I have to say farewell to my readers, with sadness, gratitude and relief. It has been a great unburdening to share my stories. The rest, as they say, is silence.