Love her or hate her… You can try but you can’t ignore Liz Jones. Here she reflects on the highs, lows – and ‘I can’t believe she said that!’ moments – of being Britain’s most groundbreaking confessional columnist for 20 years.
The first Monday back at work after the new millennium, 20 years ago, I met my former boss for a drink. I regaled him with the story that, on the most important date night of the century, I had been stood up. He actually snorted vodka out of his nose. ‘No!’
‘Yes! I was the only human on earth who spent Millennium Eve alone.’
Despite the fact I had a fancy new job as editor of Marie Claire, a wardrobe to match, a gorgeous house, a company car and free beauty products and spa treatments on tap, the man I had been on a couple of dates with and was madly in love with failed to materialise. Rather than see me, he preferred to go down to stand in the cold by the Thames to watch the fireworks with his mates.
My former boss thought this so hilarious, he hired me on the spot to write a weekly column. At first, he wanted to call it ‘Only Me!’, but then plumped for ‘Single File’. Bridget Jones was very much in the air as the first movie was soon to be released, and I was deemed good enough to replace her in the national psyche, mainly as my second name is Jones.
I had been editing columnists for years – Bridget creator Helen Fielding herself, Zoë Heller – and then ghostwriting for celebrities including Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Meg Mathews (then wife of Noel Gallagher; whenever he read what I’d written, he’d call up and shout down the phone. I responded with a rather lame, ‘But it’s OK to write a song about your wife? A column’s not that different’). I knew what was required: a column had to be compelling, so no boring paragraphs. End with a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked. Above all, it had to be funny, authentic and it must have a ‘voice’: ie, you pick it up and you instantly know who’s written it. Do you have to have a huge ego to be self-obsessed enough to write about yourself week in, week out? I never did. I don’t really care that much about myself at all.
And so it began. Of course, inevitably, four months later I’d met a man I described only as ‘the 26-year-old’. I warned my editors they might have to change the title of the column. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘It won’t last. Anything over a ten-year age gap won’t work.’
The moment I realised my column was a hit was during London Fashion Week, September 2000. I was approaching the Alexander McQueen show, and some students in the queue started yelling, ‘Liz! What’s in the box? What’s in the box!?’ I’d written that the 26-year-old (I was 41) had given me a small jewellery box. ‘False alarm!’ I told them. ‘Earrings. Paste.’ Everyone groaned. (My column has been spoofed endlessly since; one newspaper published a parody of the divorce period. Him: ‘I need to be a dad.’ Me: ‘You want a baby? Does Prada do them? Let’s just buy one!’
The 26-year-old was swiftly unmasked by Fleet Street – and by the fact he kept visiting me in the office and accompanying me down red carpets – as Nirpal Dhaliwal, an aspiring writer. At first he didn’t mind being in the column (he called it his ‘high-profile naughtiness’) as it was all about things like him turning up to meet me at the airport for a holiday in Thailand (we took lots of holidays), disappearing to Boots, finding me at the gate and asking anxiously, ‘D’you think 400 condoms will be enough?’
But as I became more confident in my writing, his career stalled. Then, after we got married (the column became ‘The Wedding Planner’ and then ‘Married Life’) and I discovered his infidelities, he understandably resented the column more and more. He asked me to stop writing to save our marriage. I promised him I would, and then discovered he had cheated again so of course I secretly kept on filing. I was on Eurostar on my way back from the Paris fashion shows, it was a Sunday, and he was screaming down the phone about what I’d written (there’s a four-week gap between what I write and publication). ‘You f***ing hag!’ His temper was exacerbated as only the day before a national newspaper, in an interview with him about his first novel, had put my name in the headline and all the questions had been about me. He was so awful – living off me, cheating on me – that my columns (renamed ‘Liz Jones’s Diary’), instead of being a weekly bit of light relief, became a rubber ring I clung to, its contents like those of a black box after a plane crash. I would sift through them, trying to see where I went wrong, looking for signs he had gone off me.
The pressures? It’s not like working down a mine, but do bear in mind I never, ever get a week off. So for 20 years (approximately 800,000 words; there are 587,000 in War and Peace, and 783,000 in the King James Bible…), whatever I’m doing (in hospital having my fibroids removed/in Jamaica falling in love with my future husband/up a mountain in Pakistan after an earthquake) you will find me scrabbling around at 3am trying to find a phone socket/signal. I try to file my copy before the man in my life wakes up and asks what I’m doing. I even kept filing during an earthquake in Los Angeles, when my chair actually moved across the hotel room.
The column also makes me strangely detached. It’s as though I have an invisible shield. On an African island with my husband, learning of yet another woman he’d slept with, a huge part of me was thinking, ‘Great. This will make a two-parter!’ The act of writing things down makes them less real. Less hurtful. It’s as though my life is not really happening to me.
The same detachment happened the day my mum died. I got to her house, kissed her cold alabaster forehead, and my immediate response was to prise open my laptop. My eldest sister was aghast. ‘How can you write your stupid column at a time like this?’ But I can. It’s years of training. It’s cathartic. It saves me. I know, sometimes, it saves you, too. The other day, having lunch with my dogs, a woman came and perched next to me. ‘Liz, your writing has got me through the hardest times of my life,’ she whispered, squeezed my hand and disappeared. In a deli the other week, an ancient farmer’s widow, who it turns out lives alone in the middle of nowhere, came up, grasped my elbow and said, ‘How’s David? You can come to me if he goes off on one this Christmas!’
My column lost me not just lovers – the millennial no-show, whom I only referred to as the Osama Bin Laden Lookalike (he recently blanked me in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club); and a mystery man in Australia who balked at being exposed – but numerous friends as well, often for the most innocuous of reasons.
But it has gifted me (or dug up, depending on your point of view) David, who would otherwise have been lost to the mists of time. Because over the years he had read about how much I was in love with him back in 1983, he had the courage to eventually get in touch (it’s also how I met the Rock Star; he emailed me after reading a column about past celebrity crushes, ‘I hear you’ve gone off me’). Well, that’s not strictly true about David getting in touch: he’s far too indolent. His mother read my column, saw her son’s name and called me, asking me to get in touch with him as he had fallen on hard times and was living in a hostel. Which I did. The thought process being? Yes, you guessed it. I thought meeting him for lunch would make a good column (I’ve been known to sit and type during arguments).
I’ve written that he can’t ejaculate, has few teeth, an ex-girlfriend who uses cheap hair products (she left them behind in his flat) and has the conversational skills of a potato. I keep betraying him, saying what I do is just a job, but he knows it’s more than that. He knows if it’s a choice between him and the column, the column will win. But, unlike most relationships, there are no secrets in ours. He knows what I’m thinking. He knows what infuriates me. The column can sometimes be a love letter. It can sometimes spit with rage and disappointment. It’s often a great way of wreaking revenge.
The kindness of my readers, the only people I’m loyal to, has been the biggest revelation of the past two decades. When I wrote about being made bankrupt and losing my house, women would turn up, unload boxes of dog food and place them wordlessly on my doorstep. I received thousands of cards when a cat or dog or horse died, as well as poems, paintings (often of me) and prayers. One woman in Sheffield even recognised all my stuff on Ebay, and bought it to help with Gracie’s vet bill (collecting a lamp, she got to meet Gracie, an encounter that made all of us cry). Humbling, truly: three close friends are all readers who bothered to get in touch.
In return, I try not to short-change my readers. When I sit down to start each column, I always picture you in the bath on a Sunday night, desperate to find out how I am, and know I cannot let you down with a lazy list (actually, I think I have done a couple of lists), or a missive about how to load the dishwasher. I suppose this is why the column has lasted this long (five house moves, two lost London flats, two dead siblings, numerous departed beloved pets, one divorce, one face-lift and three proposals; not that many men, to be honest: we could have done with a few more). The only constant has been me or ‘Only Me!’
I don’t pretend everything is great. I write about going through betrayal, poverty, adult acne, incontinence, my new beard, severe depression and the menopause so that my readers know they are not alone in their own complicated, messy lives. Often, I’m so ashamed to tell you what I’ve done (had Botox, lied about my age, dated two different men in one weekend, gone to a cashpoint to discover I only had £3 in the bank), but I know you will understand, as so many of you have been there too.
So, Happy Birthday, me! Happy Birthday also to anyone who’s been with me for the ride. Sorry it’s been so bumpy.
The questions I am asked the most
Do I ever make anything up? Never. I think readers can tell if you’re not 100 per cent authentic. I wish all of it had been fiction.
Who is the Rock Star? I could say I wanted to keep one area of my life private, but the truth is he set his lawyers on me, especially after the bit where I wrote his penis would need a book, not a mere column. If it hadn’t been for my Diary, I would have had a rich and famous husband. No question.
Do I regret writing anything? Of course. I tend to file my column, then hope by the time it’s published I will be dead/he will be dead/the internet will be down. I wrote that on my wedding day the best man took me aside and said, ‘If it all goes tits up, call me.’ Which almost lost my husband his best friend.
Worst moment? When I returned home to Somerset to discover my postbox riddled with bullet holes, it made national news. This led to me hiring a security firm and putting my farm on the market at a grossly deflated price. The police told me much later the shots were fired by ‘boys who wanted to see if they could get a mention in your column’.
Has it shaped my life decisions? When I got divorced, I was living in a gorgeous Georgian townhouse in an Islington square. But life was boring after my husband moved out and I thought, what next? So I rescued a horse and moved to the country. Huge mistake.
How does David stand it? He knew I was a columnist when he asked me out. His feeling was that writing about him was fine as long as I didn’t hurt him, which of course I did. After a row over me writing I’d emailed a man in Australia, he swore never to read the column again. But it won’t last. He’s obsessed.
How on earth did I become bankrupt? I’ve always been overgenerous in a bid to be liked. I bought my sister a cottage, which felled me. My chance at getting back on track was to do Celebrity Big Brother; unfortunately, this meant I was sacked from one of my positions, halving my income overnight. HM Revenue and Customs said I could keep the cottage and live in it but lose my lovely house in the Dales. I said I couldn’t do that to her. I lost everything.
What will I write about for the next 20 years? I always write every column as if it were my last. My friends don’t call me Eeyore for nothing
Oh, the beauty of hindsight
Liz looks back on some of her most memorable columns
My first column for YOU Incredibly, I was still happily married
March 2006 …then he did the dirty on me
October 2009 Ostracised by the locals in Somerset
August 2010 Sweet music with the rock star
September 2018 My very lonely big six-oh
What a legend, Ms Jones
The things some people do for a story… Liz recounts her greatest hits (and misses)
CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER
I never, ever envisioned the day I would do reality TV. But in 2014 I was being hounded by HMRC, and I saw this as my only way out of a deep hole. I threw up with stress every night in the loo. I had no idea what anyone was arguing about as, being deaf, I couldn’t hear a word. The day I got out, my agent called, said he had to see me… Bad news. I’d been sacked from a job I loved.
A TATTOO? WHY NOT?
People think I do crazy things because I’ve too much time on my hands. I don’t. Getting a tattoo in 2012 was an assignment the same as any other. I guess I’m famous in the business for never saying no. As I was features editor on a daily newspaper for years, I always appreciated writers who did as they were told, never complained, instead of saying what one was famous for whining when asked to interview an author: ‘But the book’s really looong!’
MY SPAT WITH RIHANNA
In 2013, this made all the big news bulletins in the US and was the most retweeted story for days. I had criticised her for drinking champagne from the bottle while in skimpy undies. My line was, well, most young women don’t have security guards to ensure they get home safely. She called me a ‘menopausal mess’. At least she didn’t say ‘postmenopausal’…
DISASTER IN SOMALIA
In 2011, a humanitarian crisis was happening on the border of Kenya and Somalia. The editor asked me to go. Thinking it would be life-changing, I jumped at the chance. When I got there, someone in the UK started impersonating me on Twitter, saying, ‘Oh, I’ve lost my Vuitton suitcase.’ Then I fell out with the photographer as my deafness meant I needed two translators. And I wrestled an iron pipe off a child when he was beating a donkey…
MY FACE LIFT
I was initially sent to see Mr Karidis, a plastic surgeon, in 2011 to see if there was something noninvasive he could do for my eye bags and sagging jowls. A cream he could recommend. Oh no. It had to be the scalpel.
Liz’s debut novel, Eight and a Half Stone, will be published on 14 May (Matthew James Publishing, £9.99). To pre-order a copy for £7.99 with free p&p, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk