I’m curious about what you think about your online fandom. I know you mentioned that you’re aware of it when we emailed.
I’m not on Twitter. But I’ve got a look at what’s happening. And then when I suddenly see my things going sort of viral, it’s often because somebody’s taken the piss. “I can’t believe he’s written this.” I get a bit despondent, then somebody says, “Oh no, some people like it.” And, look, if anybody’s reading anything that I’ve written, I’m just pathetically grateful.
Now, if people compliment me on some television I’ve done presenting soccer matches, it’s nice to get a compliment, but really those programs aren’t about me. If somebody stops me in the street and says, “I read your Guardian column,” that, to me, is nirvana.
The most recent one that went viral was about man bags—
That only happened because I was on my motorbike driving back from the north, and it started raining and I was halfway back to London, and so I stopped at my friend’s house in the Midlands. I went down the pub with him and I was desperately thinking about what I’m going to write up. “Oh, I know, I’ll do those man bags. That’s right, the man bags.”
I’ve got some quite sophisticated Italian cousins because my mom’s from Croatia and part of her family went off to Italy. They gave me, for my 14th birthday, a leather man bag. It must have cost a bloody fortune. I was quite proud of it and I carried it outside once in Birmingham as a teenager and I was laughed off the streets. I could’ve written another thousand words about that humiliation then.
You once wrote a column about how Your number one fear in life is being boring. I imagine that must cause some anxiety when you’re trying to come up with column ideas.
I suppose some stuff is boring. But what can you do? I mean, there’s so much boring stuff to read.
Do you have any sense of which of your columns have been the best received, the most popular, and the most controversial?
Well, sort of, but I hide away from all that. Through doing the column, I met the editor of The Guardian and we are getting married next year.
I didn’t get the job because of her. Not that it matters, but I didn’t meet her until I got the job, three months in. She has all the analytics, but I just hide from that. We just generally try not to talk about it because it can all get a bit awkward. But I remember there was one where she said, “Oh, look how many people have clicked on it.” But then there’s also data as to, did they read to the end? And it was almost nobody. I go, “Fucking hell.”
There was one I wrote which got picked up, when I made the mistake about writing about, well, vaginas. Basically about how boys have got a nice name for their thing, which we call “willy” and girls haven’t got a friendly little name for it. And I think it says something that boys have got a friendly name for their bits, but girls haven’t for theirs. But I caused such bloody outrage with that column, that I thought, I must just be wrong.
That led to some surreal conversations because I started talking about the Croatian childish words for penis. And then the Croatian ambassador in London got my number from somewhere and told me I’d got it wrong. I thought, “Oh, sorry, your Excellency.”
You caused an international incident.
Well, not quite. I’ve done 200,000 words now or something, having done it for two and a half years. I mean, that’s a lot of words to inflict on people if they’re no good. So if anybody’s read any of them, I’m just grateful. I’ve written a book, actually, about alcohol. It’s interesting how that’s a totally different process. I fear that going out there and people being rude about it. I’ve put so much into it, it’s just too much to bear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.