First Person Peril

The  Guardian, 7 April 2003

Writing about family and friends might provide good copy but it can also leave a trail of unintended victims, says Monica Porter, who has built a career doing it

Self-revelatory journalism is not for the faint-hearted, and there are hacks who would rather bite off their own hands than write intimate pieces about their lives and personal relationships. But I am not one of them. I have always felt that personal experiences, emotions and insights – the intensely subjective details of human existence – are not only the most vivid, but the most universally relevant writings a journalist can offer.

My penchant for the ‘first person’ piece was established right from the start of my career, when I was, in fact, a struggling, 20-year-old actress in London. My first published articles appeared in The Stage – bittersweet tales of my touring the gloomy suburbs in panto, doing the rounds of auditions, and being humiliated as a backstage assistant in fringe theatre while dreaming of the Big Time.

The pattern was further set a few years later, when I described the hiccup-strewn run-up to my wedding in a light-hearted story for Brides magazine….And two decades after that, in a national daily, I wrote about the traumas of getting divorced and becoming a single mum. By now I’ve pretty much covered the gamut: dealings with my children and my parents, misadventures with dud boyfriends, my émigré family background, turning forty, turning fifty.

My first book, published in 1981, recounted the story of a sojourn in Hungary during which I got to know my long-lost, quirky relatives. I found out later that some had not been too pleased by the descriptions of them in my book, but what was I supposed to do – lie? Anyway, they lived a thousand miles away and I wasn’t going to worry about it.

I should explain that, if I do not hesitate to write honestly about the people in my life, it’s because I was so often written about myself by my father, the Hungarian journalist and author Peter Halasz. As a youngster I gave him plenty of material for the droll stories of family life he penned for various émigré newspapers – some of which made it into hard covers.

I grew up in the belief that, with a writer in the family, you are fair game as copy fodder and it’s nothing to get uptight about. On the contrary. ‘People love to see themselves in print,’ my father used to say. ‘They are flattered to be thought interesting enough to receive such attention.’

Unfortunately, I was later forced to reconsider this cheerful view…at about the time that my ex-husband lodged a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, about my aforementioned piece on divorce. The article made little reference to him, and what I did say was rather favourable. Nevertheless, he regarded the mere allusion to our marriage and consequent break-up as an outrageous invasion of privacy.

The PCC threw the case out, of course, but I believe it was a first in Fleet Street history and I had to stop a newspaper colleague from putting an item about it into his gossip column.

I’ve since learnt that, in print, even the mildest remark can cause great consternation. Once, when writing about the frenetic extended-family Christmases I went through in my married days, I described how my sister-in-law and I would be slaving away with the cooking and the kids and the washing up, whilst our mother-in-law sat serenely, sipping tea.

She fumed about it for weeks.

We journalists who are big on personal pieces have a real conflict on our hands. While we have the urge – the obligation, indeed – to produce good copy, containing the sort of telling anecdotes which strike chords with readers, we are all too aware of this same copy’s potential to upset or discomfit those who are close to us.

This is less of a problem with people who are no longer close to us. Some years ago I was briefly involved with a Frenchman, with whom I went on an ostensibly romantic holiday to Greece. It was a disaster – from the first night, when he cut his toenails in bed, to the return home, when I realised the tightwad had paid significantly less than his share of the expenses. Naturally, I wrote a piece about it, for the Evening Standard. I had to warn my unsuspecting sisters that Latin lovers were not all they were cracked up to be. Not entirely without mercy, however, I changed a few details to protect the culprit’s identity.

I have no such qualms now. So, for the record, his name is not Philippe but Gerard, and he lives not in Paris but in Boulogne. He plays the guitar, not very well, and has a moustache.

Yep, that’s the one.

Of course, I would never write anything hurtful about a genuine loved one. But the problem is that even the innocuous stuff can get them steamed up. Especially the kids. Sadly, my two sons do not share my belief in giving oneself up willingly as parental copy fodder. Not long ago, in this very newspaper, I chronicled my younger son’s motorbiking escapades. A positive, upbeat piece, accompanied by a cool-looking photo of him on his bike. You’d think he would be chuffed. I mean, I even left out the embarrassing part about him trashing my car.

Instead, he was irked by the whole thing and made me promise never to write about him again. Reluctantly, I agreed. And I won’t write about him. Well, except for this tiny bit in the piece you’re reading now. But this doesn’t count…does it?


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