"You're probably the most famous female journalist in the UK," Tanya Gold is telling Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones. Liz screws up her face, "Nah...what about Julie Burchill?" And so begins an audience with Liz Jones, undoubtedly one of the most talked about writers in the press, who comes across as shocking and hilarious as her writing is. I went to see her in a live Q&A at The Other Club, hosted by Gold, a writer who I also find brilliant and compelling. Tanya is based at The Guardian, Liz at The Daily Mail, would intellectual sparks fly? Of course they did, but not the predictable ones you might imagine. Over the course of ninety minutes we laughed, we were shocked and saddened, and we found out that Liz earns £500,000 a year, has been shot at, owns 113 animals, and hates India Knight.
This event was actually called Liz Jones: In Therapy, and boy did it ever live up to its name. Tanya made a sensitive and thoughtful therapist, and was unflinching in her questions; "Liz, why did you never have children?", "When was the last time you tried to kill yourself?" Liz answered everything with staggering honesty, the one exception being who the identity of her mystery rock star boyfriend is. "Liz! You've found a boundary!" Tanya laughs. Liz says children are also a boundary, she won't write about her nieces and nephews...until they turn eighteen. "I've got the date of my nephew's 18th circled in the calendar," she says, probably only half jokingly. They had been discussing Liz' lack of boundaries when it comes to her confessional writing; a controversial example being the time she got a Daily Mail photographer to document a day she spent caring for her sick and bed-bound elderly mother. Liz explained that her siblings have since disowned her in an email, which caused her a great deal of sadness, though she defends the article, and angrily tells us about her brother taking money from his sick mother's bank account to go to Austraila - asking us if this is more justifiable?
The donkey of this post's title was one that Liz saved in Somalia. she had been sent there by The Daily Mail to write an article on the work of a charity. She saw a boy hitting a donkey with a metal pipe and angrily snatched it from his hand, saying "If I see you hitting that animal again, I'll hit you." A charity worker took Liz aside and said this wasn't very caring, they were all about education. Liz' reply was "fuck education!" and she explained to the charity worker that letting this boy abuse the donkey was not teaching him right from wrong, and he was also destroying his family's only way of carrying water, thus not helping people help themselves. When Liz wrote about this she was criticised, but she explained that writing a sentimental piece about charity work would be showing off to the reader and not being truthful - "I'm on the side of the donkey. You've got to work out whose side your'e on." Liz was very articulate about how and why to write, more on this later.
We were one rapt audience.
Here are some more gems from Liz -
- "I've feared ageing since I was 25. I felt I hadn't achieved enough: I didn't have sex until I was 32 and wasn't married until my 40's."
- "My least favourite journalist is India Knight. She wrote that I pretended to know her, but she gave a reading at my wedding. She said that I masturbate my cats and she called me a Rancid C**t even though I'd given her money."
- (On being asked if she thought the Daily Mail might be setting her up) "They wouldn't dare."
- "I wish I had some of Samantha Brick's confidence. Most of us aren't confident enough. But the papers said 'is she the new Liz Jones?' No, she is not."
- "I turned down writing an article about an elephant because I was having a facelift."
- "I'm deaf and I lip read."
- "I've never looked in a mirror. If I did, I'd probably kill myself. And I've tried in the past."
- "I've had a facelift, I've had my eyes done, my hands done. They take fat from your behind and put it in your hands."
- "The fashion industry is all about selling things. You'd never get women to buy stuff unless they felt bad about themselves."
- "Victoria Beckham has been the worst person to me as a journalist. She refuses to let me in her shows. I tried to get in to the New York one and the bouncer pushed me out the way and said I was blocking the entrance. How can I block the entrance? I'm a size 8."
- "I got called anti-feminist for writing that article about Kate Moss' cellulite. But that's not anti-feminist; the Kerastase advert with her is. She looks inhuman, that's not what women look like. My article was in support of women's flaws.
- "What gets me is women attacking other women."
- "My post box was shot at. I had eggs thrown at my car. At first I thought it had been my hens, but the eggs were from Waitrose."
- "I've got this disease where I can't be happy...last week I went to a tarot card reader who said I'm my own worst enemy."
- "I was calling Holly Willoughby a goddess in my article on her, but when I went on This Morning Philip Schofield had a go at me just before we went live, saying how dare you attack her looks. They didn't get it."
- "I look at not having kids as I wasn't lucky enough. But I also think I wouldn't have made a good mother. I'd pass on my neuroses."
- "My favourite book is I Capture The Castle, it's the first confessional I read about not having enough money or any boyfriends.
- "I had my tattoo and my facelift done for money. I actually made a profit on the facelift."
- "My deathbed professional regret would be not fighting for what I believed in at Marie Claire [as former editor]. I have no personal life regrets, everything that has happened has led me to where I am now.
- "I'm in love and I'm going to get married." (To her mystery rock star boyfriend).
- "The thing I'm most proud of in my life is getting TV cameras into slaughter houses."
- "I'd like to write a screenplay about having a romance with someone a person met thirty years ago."(This is what happened with Liz and her boyfriend, she said she met him thirty years ago and has been in love with him this whole time).
The fact that Liz works for such a right-leaning paper was something that of course came up. The Daily Mail is known as being, lets just say a bit close-minded and not very liberal. On the subject of feminism Liz was asked about the notorious sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail's website that pours scorn onto the private lives, bodies and dress sense of celebrities (mostly female ones). Liz admitted the sidebar was compelling reading, but explained that Mail Online is a different brand to the Daily Mail newspaper where she works. She said that people found it easy to pigeonhole her into the "racist persona" of the paper, and that it's almost a "knee jerk reaction". It must be tough being a controversial writer for a controversial paper, Liz tells us that even her boyfriend's friends were saying "how could you go out with her? She's vile." She has also had death threats and rape threats, and had to hire a private detective to remove her home address from public and online records. I'm sure the £500k salary helps to ease things, but no one deserves to feel threatened and scared just for writing a newspaper column. As Tanya put it, the only person who has the right to feel offended by an article that Liz writes is the person she is writing about.
As a journalist herself Tanya was pretty damn good at putting things into perspective for us non-journos. She said that at the Daily Mail everyone interviewed has to be either 'amazing or shit", there's no middle ground (which is why writers can sometimes come across as being a tad harsh). She said that the Daily Mail is full of male middle-level editors who change articles that women write, adding things they think a woman would say. You could tell that as a feminist Tanya was protective of Liz being attacked for being a woman, she stated that "when I see these Twitter storms about Liz, from both men and women, I think 'you think you're so left wing and so right-on, but all you really want is to shut Liz up'."
Both agree that women have carved a niche for themselves in journalism, and often make the best interviewers as they can get more out of people. They talked about women writers being regarded as less credible, Tanya said: "as a female journalist the compulsion to be trivial is enormous." Both Liz and Tanya worked their way up the journalistic ladder, before becoming columnists. Tanya explained that she used to do confessional writing about her alcoholism, but backed off because "I thought it would destroy me". Perhaps Liz' long experience of reporting on her life and the lives of others has given her a more relaxed view about protecting privacy. She told us about writing for a newspaper where they referred to people they researched as 'coma boy' or 'drowned woman', and "the hunt and the chase was relentless". Liz defended the invasion of privacy in papers as normal, because 'we all love tragedy'.
Here are Liz' thoughts on what makes a good writer -
- "The worst kind of journalism is armchair journalism, where people write about things they haven't personally experienced and know nothing about."
- "The best writing comes out of failure."
- "Good writing has to have doubt, and you have to question yourself."
- "I can't write to a headline. I've made lots of mistakes, but I've never told a lie in print."
- "The more you write, the more you condition your brain and fingers."
- "I wrote four pieces today, one on blouses, one on stay at home mums, one on the M&S Christmas advert, and one... you know, when you write so much you easily forget what the last piece was about."
- "You lose people in your life through the articles that you think won't offend them. I wrote an article about a comment my best male friend made to me. He said that being a parent is not always enjoyable. I thought it was harmless and truthful, but after the article was printed he cut me out of his life. But the best novels and articles about people betrays them."
- "You make a choice: you're either going to be a writer or a liked person."
- "In the end, you do sell your soul. The bits people want you to edit are the most interesting. I've written about having no sex for years, about having a post-menopausal beard... if you're going to be a columnist you need to sell your guts for money."
- "If you press 'send' [on an email to an editor] and you're not going 'oh god!' then you're not a writer, you're a PR."
- "A lot of the time readers don't realise I'm joking. Women aren't allowed to be funny or truthful."
- "I like nothing better than sitting with my laptop and saying 'right, lets have some fun!'."
- "You can't write for sensation, you have to believe in it."
- "I'm doubtful that men could do what we do [confessional writing]."
- "The one thing I wouldn't write about is anything anti-animals."
Liz finished the evening by signing copies of her autobiography Girl Least Likely To, and was happy to chat to anyone with more questions for her. I think she came across well; frank and funny, very inspiring. Obviously mad as a bag of spanners, but you'd definitely want to go for a glass of prosecco with her instead of say, Holly Willoughby or Samantha Brick. I thought Tanya was brilliant too, a wonderfully warm and knowledgeable woman. Thanks again, The Other Club, you continue to spoil us with these events!
What do you think about Liz Jones? Let me know, I'd love to hear your thoughts.