Don’t You ‘Actually’ Me! – What I Really Think about The Guardian’s ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ column

Let’s get this clear from the start: I wouldn’t dream of reading any newspaper other than The Guardian – except perhaps possibly maybe The Independent – but the What I’m Really Thinking column which appears in the Guardian Weekend magazine renders me puce with apoplectic rage every Saturday morning.

The idea of this column is that you send in your real thoughts about one of your roles in life, those vile horrible oh-god-what-an-evil-person-I-am thoughts: so, for example, I could write in as Woman Who Chose Not To Have Children and bitch on and on about the people who’ve referred to me in the past as ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ and then I could follow that up with comments about how secretly I pity them because they are obviously slaves to their biology, that sort of thing. You see? It’s really not nice. The column’s purpose – if it has one – is probably something drippy such as ‘dispel stereotypical notions surrounding the role in question’, but what it actually provides is usually some pretty nasty-minded voyeurism along with a replacement set of stereotypes designed to satisfy the self-important reader.

Guardian Weekend would have us believe that the column is written by a different person each week, but, mysteriously, the writing style is always the same. I’m prepared to believe that the substance of the column is provided by Guardian readers and that one member of the editorial team works it up every week, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I haven’t spent years studying literary style for nothing.

However…I can’t resist reading the damn thing. I try not to. But the temptation to start my weekend by working myself up into a state of frothing bile is just too strong and one day not too long ago, when my fury had apparently attained its zenith, I was sufficiently enraged to tweet my objections and to voice my hearty disapproval in a public forum (rather than bending poor Dr B’s ear about it again). So I tweeted thus:

I didn’t really expect to hear anything in reply and, to be honest, my fury had been sated by simply putting that tweet out there. But reply they did:

Now, I wasn’t going to have some prissy pert little madam saying ‘actually’ to me. My rejoinder was as follows:

I see your ‘actually’ and raise you a ‘Pffffft’. Five Fs in my ‘pffffft’ were all I could manage with just 140 characters, otherwise I would have added more. Pfffffffffffffffffffffft.

I’ve already outlined my first objection – that the column isn’t the product of anonymous contributions as is claimed – and my second objection, that the column is poorly-researched, I’ll explain by way of elaborating on my comment on the ‘Exam Invigilator’ – you can read the original column here. This, as I mentioned in my retaliatory tweet, is outdated nonsense. The writer’s comment that ‘[t]his is the sharp end of the educational treadmill: three years of study distilled into a few hours of pure pressure’ refers to the kind of university finals that just don’t exist anymore – not outside of Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Durham anyway. Nowadays, most undergraduate programmes are assessed by means of appropriately weighted coursework submitted over a three-year period. And the invigilator’s final comment too is a piece of pure poppycock: he or she writes ‘[s]o am I a fan of exams as a method of assessment? Yes, sure. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job’. A moment’s thought is surely enough for most people to work out that no one can make a living as an exam invigilator. Exams take place once or twice a year and the pay for invigilators is minimal. I know this because I work in university administration and it’s part of my job to organise exam invigilators. They’re often PhD students looking to make few bob on the side – about sixteen quid, usually. I’d like to know how our Guardian Exam Invigilator survives for a whole year on just sixteen quid. My conclusion? This column is poorly-researched bollocks.

But I haven’t finished yet. My third and – for now – final objection harks back to the question of stereotypes I mentioned earlier. The Guardian Weekend team seem to be on a mission to persuade readers not to judge people by the job they do. Nothing wrong with that – a person is not their job, after all. People do the work they do for all sorts of reasons. But if you could believe what you read in this magazine, you’d be led into thinking that every person in a job obviously considered menial by the Guardian Weekend editorial team is actually a university student just filling in time and earning a bit of pocket money. The shelf-stacker tells us that ‘[w]hen I hear you shout, “Oi you, over here” in my direction, I smile and put down the crate of bottles I’m unpacking. I’m thinking, at least I’m studying for a science degree and I’ll soon be out of here’, and the call centre worker joins in with ‘[t]he thing is, the job’s not bad, your stories make for good anecdotes, oh, and I’m going back to university next week’. Well, I have news for the editorial team. Some people do these jobs all the time – yes, all the time. Why are their voices not represented? You see, the column is headed with a definite, not an indefinite article: the shelf-stacker, the call centre worker, the supermarket delivery driver, the effect of which is to induce us to believe that the words which follow are representative of every single member of the profession in question and not just a single spotty student whiling away the summer months in Asda.

Clearly the Guardian wants us to replace the notion that people do certain jobs because they do not have a university degree with another equally damaging assumption that everyone is really a budding Stephen Hawking in the making. Surely someone, somewhere amongst the editorial team must have some idea how patronising this is. But I’m guessing that person isn’t the Little Miss Pert-Arsed Prissy Pants who ‘actually’-ed me.


By way of afterword, and plonking myself firmly in Hypocrite’s Corner, it’s only fair to point out how much I enjoyed the outpouring of venom from Guardian readers that greeted the GP’s Receptionist when it was her turn to contribute a column. The Letters page the following week was full of it. I was enormously cheered by this because I have in the past been reduced to sobbing down the phone when trying to reason with a cow-bag receptionist who ‘[found] it hard to care about a bladder infection’ and it was only when I threatened to go to A&E that the doctor intervened and made her give me an appointment. Yeah! Suck on that!

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