A short history of wankers: As a Times obituary celebrates a drunken, misogynist 'icon', Giles Coren keeps up the tradition...

One Fleet Street f*cker dies. Another keeps adding to his 'legend'...

If you’re an arsehole and spend a long time in an industry, there’s a high chance that you’ll end up as ‘legend’. Distance tends to scab over bad behaviour and leave the kind of scars that people think look cool from a distance.

Journalism is particularly afflicted with that disorder; complete fuckers end up memorialised as ‘characters’ rather than contributors to a toxic culture that kept other, better, smarter writers down — often writers who weren’t white, male, or straight.

I don’t believe in ‘too soon’. When I die — I nearly wrote ‘if’ there, which tells you a lot about how afraid I am of death — I hope anyone who thinks I’m a prick keeps calling me one. I don’t need people who didn’t like me when I was alive having a damascene conversion when I’m dead.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at The Times’ obit for Fleet Street ‘legend’ Paul Callan, who died on November 21, aged 81:

His reputation as one of the last of the old-style Fleet Street “big beasts” parodied in Private Eye as “Lunchtime O’Booze” was hard-earned.

Sent to Belgium by the Daily Mirror in 1987 to write a piece on the victims of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, he freely admitted that he had arrived “too pissed to file”, yet his byline was considered such an asset that back in London the news desk composed a piece in his colourful style and put his name on it.

… or, he was so unprofessional that he fucked a huge and sensitive story and colleagues back in the office had to scrabble something together.

The obituaries in The Times are often very good, but this one soft soaps Callan’s life so much you’d think he’d emerge bone white. And yet, even with that approach, the writers cannot make Callan seem anything less than an arsehole:

Gregarious and proudly politically incorrect, he was in his element holding court to his peers in El Vino, even after the ending of its males-only policy, a change of which he deeply disapproved. He had been to the fore in an infamous battle in 1970 when feminist journalists invaded the Fleet Street watering hole in protest at their exclusion.

As he shouted “repel boarders!” and aimed a soda siphon in the direction of the insurgents, one of them kneed him in the groin. Typically, he claimed £50 compensation for an industrial injury from his then employer, the London Evening Standard. Needless to say, it also provided him with a good story for the following day’s paper.

For many years he posed as an alumnus of Eton and Cambridge, fictitious claims that he even propagated in the notices of his 1973 marriage. One of those who saw through him was the Prince of Wales. At a reception at the British embassy in Delhi while covering a royal tour of India, Callan fell into conversation with the heir to the throne, who noticed his striped Old Etonian tie.

“Surely a man from the Mirror did not go to Eton?” Prince Charles inquired. “Certainly not, sir,” Callan admitted. “But it’s a nice tie!”

“Proudly politically incorrect” means he was a misogynist and didn’t care to conceal that. His “posing” as a former pupil and student at Eton and Cambridge was repeated deception, used to get him a career and then deployed throughout it to get ‘scoops’. And a man who can get ejected from a dinner because of a huge argument over a silly matter is… well… a dickhead:

While covering Cowes Week one year he got into an argument over dinner with a fellow journalist, Christopher Wilson, about whether the baroque music playing in the background was by Tartini or Scarlatti. The dispute became so heated that the proprietor threw them out, adding tartly that they had both been wrong.

If Callan’s career was an anomaly that would be one thing. But the fact that his approach and behaviour were the inspiration for Private Eye defining an archetype of journalist — Lunchtime O’Booze — says a lot.

British journalism, particularly British tabloid journalism, venerates angry, sweary, entitled men who do whatever they want to get a story. For decades upon decades, it has rewarded them with columns and cash. In the worst cases, those rewards have been generational.

Nepotism is as central to British journalism as cheap booze and sub-editors.

One person who has benefitted hugely from nepotism and name-recognition is Giles Coren, brother of the more talented Victoria and son of the much-missed Alan. Giles Coren is the turd that British journalism just can’t and won’t flush.

I first became aware of him in 2008, when his letter to sub-editors at The Sunday Times became a minor media scandal. It’s a long and tedious screed which hinges on the removal of a single word from one of his obviously precious restaurant reviews. The following section gives you a flavour of his foul-mouthed fulminating:

I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time I mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word I got in all sorts of trouble) but I care deeply about my work and I hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you've been subbing Joe and Hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think "hey ho, it's tomorrow's fish and chips" - well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on Sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that's how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. I've got a review to write this morning and I really don't feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and I'm going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I've been writing for The Times for 15 years and I have never asked this before - I have never asked it of anyone I have written for - but I must insist, from now on, that I am sent a proof of every review I do, in pdf format, so I can check it for fuck-ups. And I must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way I can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I'd like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

The Sunday Times subs replied with withering class. The quote below is just an excerpt, but I recommend reading the whole thing:

Dear Giles,

Sub-editing is a noble profession. It is also a thankless one - particularly when your writers call you a "useless cunt".

There was a sharp intake of breath when your e-mail hit the inbox of subs throughout the industry this week - that was after we'd stopped laughing. Not that we didn't think you had a point. Yes, tinkering with copy just for the sake of it and without consultation is wrong. It is disrespectful and arrogant. And we can see why you'd be furious at the loss even of an indefinite article.

There is nothing more irritating than a sub-editor who thinks they know better than a writer, particularly one who cares deeply about his work. But did you really have to be so rude?…

None of this, however, can excuse your nasty, bullying, "know your place, you insignificant little fuckwit" e-mail. Yes, it's funny, in a way that pieces that use "fuck", "shit" and "cunt" so liberally often can be, but, please - someone made a mistake. They surely had no intention of sabotaging your deathless prose. So you don't like what happened to your piece - have a word with your editor. The hapless sub will no doubt already have been soundly thrashed and had their dictionary privileges removed.

Some years ago, a colleague of ours had a T-shirt printed up with the legend "xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx is a cunt" on the front, which he wore every week when having to deal with the writer to whom it referred, because he, like you, became so disproportionately abusive when his use of language was questioned. We'd hate that to happen to you because you can actually write, and having "Giles Coren is a sanctimonious little twat who needs to get over himself" could be quite costly in T-shirt lettering. Subs are no more infallible than writers. So, let's all try a little mutual respect, shall we?

It may seem unfair to reheat — ahahaha — a controversy about a restaurant review after 12 years, but it is just one of many examples of Giles Coren acting like a cock. In fact, acting like a cock is his schtick, as his column in yesterday’s Times proved once again. It’s worth noting before we start that Coren has said repeatedly that these columns “[never contain] a single true sentence”, providing himself with preemptive protection from accusations that he writes complete horseshit three times a week.

Coren’s topic this week is the apparent wussiness of the modern British character versus his own timeless Dunkirk spirit. Coren was born in 1969, subs to check, but seems to imagine that he slogged through Passchendaele, then stood proud and undaunted on the brow of a D-Day landing craft, before single-handedly cooling the whole Korea situation, freeing the Falklands, and sticking it to Saddam. That he is a pampered and petulant food critic whose privilege is as thick and rich as custard escapes him often. Afflicted with Marina Hyde Disorder — the main symptom of which is a surfeit of portmanteau swearing — he writes:

That’s where being a massive soppy wuss about pain and discomfort gets you, Mr Hancock. It gets everyone dead from not fancying a vaccination. While in Britain we will roll up our sleeves and take the needle (like “little soldiers”) and then get on with rebuilding our economy. Same as at Dunkirk but without all the drowning. Like Agincourt except with smaller arrows. Like the Charge of the Light Brig… actually, no, that was a less good one.

Some national stereotypes are true, and some are not. And some are good, and some are bad. But who the hell is Matt Wancock to tell us which? How dare he tell us that 1,000 years of the stiff upper lip must give way to the blubbing and malingering of other nations? One sniff of a slightly annoying virus and a senior cabinet minister wants us to rebuild the whole national personality? What lunacy is this from a Conservative government? What else, Mr Spankcock, from the great storage chest of our national characteristics, would you have us chuck overboard?

Presumably, the fear of receiving yet another huffy letter from Giles stops the editors and sub-editors from suggesting little tweaks like ditching ‘Matt Wancock’ as something a Year 8 would consider perhaps a little lowbrow. The xenophobia I can understand as it’s entirely on-brand for The Times, which on most days swerves between mild disdain for other countries and outright racism depending on the story.

Coren’s description of his childhood and his mother’s alleged approach to illness brings us back to his repeated insistence that basically nothing he writes is true:

As the child of a doctor — a consultant anaesthetist who smokes, drinks, won’t touch fruit, vegetables or water and has bashed on merrily into her eighties, the bane of whose life is people coming up to her at parties to bore her with their imagined ailments — I was never once allowed to take a day off school in 15 years of education. If my fever was over a hundred (in old maths) she gave me six ibuprofen and helped me into my uniform. If I broke an arm on the climbing frame, she splinted it and dropped me at the bus stop, just as all British mums, doctors or otherwise, have always done.

As some of my more pedantic Twitter correspondents noted, Ibuprofen only became an over-the-counter medicine in 1983, when Giles Coren was 14, and a dose of that size would be quite dangerous. But, of course, Coren is simply engaging in hyperbole for comic effect, which would be fine if his overall point — that it were tough in his day — wasn’t absolute bollocks. Coren wrote back in 2010 about his primary school days at The Hall School, Hampstead. He wore a pink blazer and cap, which made him and his compatriots easy targets for state school kids in the area.

Coren’s high school experience was at the even more expensive and exclusive Westminster School. In an interview with The Independent School Parent he claims, “..in the eighties, Westminster and St Paul’s were unquestionably the only London schools that you could conceive sending your child to.” My mother, an alumna of Enfield County School for Girls, will be surprised to hear that.

In his absurdly cushy career, Coren has…

  • sent the abusive email to sub-editors

  • referred to Polish people as “Polacks” in print and claimed that Poles used to burn Jews in synagogues as Easter entertainment

  • tweeted a violent fantasy about his next-door neighbour’s 12-year-old son who was learning drums (“Do I kill him then burn it? Or do I fuck him, then kill him then burn it?”)

  • flagrantly breached legal injunctions — again on Twitter

  • used a sock puppet Twitter account named after a character from his terrible novel to accuse people who criticised him of being antisemitic

… and that’s before you even consider the many instances of racism in his columns and the very bizarre articles he wrote about how sexy his infant daughter was and how he thought his son was getting fat.

For someone without the in-group protection and privilege afforded to Giles Coren, in part as a result of his father Alan Coren’s sainted position, any one of the controversies he has created would have been enough to be fired. But Coren seems to be coated in a smarmy kind of Teflon.

The Times’ editors delight in Coren’s antics, presumably considering the ‘engagement’ he generates to be worth the hassle, and I suspect because they, being a group in which arseholes are over-represented, actually think he’s funny. After all, this is the same paper that prints ‘jokes’ by Matt Chorley.

When Giles Coren eventually dies — and I’m not wishing it on him soon — I expect his son and daughter, having seized their birthright and ascended to their own columns, will pen indulgent pieces about their dear old dad.

The real horror will be the obituaries that cast Coren, just like Callan, as a man who had a lot of scrapes and japes but was ultimately a “total legend”. In a way that’s fine but only if you define legends as bloody awful things that happened a long time ago and which now seem faintly unbelievable. Sadly, Giles Coren is all too real.

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