Sunday, January 19, 2014

Blissed out

The Love Doctor 1996 - 2014

In 1996, I was working as a freelance journalist to support my young family and buy some time to write my first novel. It was a haphazard way to earn a living, with no guarantee of a decent income at the end of each month. So, when Bliss Magazine asked if I'd like to try out writing a monthly problem page for teenagers from a male perspective, I jumped at the chance.

Naturally, my family and friends fell about laughing at the offer. I saw the funny side, too. I'd written a couple of features for the magazine, but never saw myself as the caring, sharing type. At the same time, however, a column struck me as the kind of writing that paid on a regular basis. At best, I figured I would last for a few issues.

In April this year, eighteen years later, I will be writing my final column.

The very first letter I pulled from the mail bag (there was no email back then) served to wipe the smile from my face. It also caused me to drop it to the floor, reading something like 'Dear Matt, you probably can't help me but I think I've got pubic lice. Please find taped to the back of this letter...'

Once I'd got over the shock, and the ick factor, I realised there was nothing funny at all about the role. This poor young lad had written to me - a total stranger - desperate for help. For whatever reason, he felt unable to turn to his family or doctor, and was effectively suffering in silence. Like all the questions I've answered since then, every word in response had to count.

I learned a lot, very quickly, and became passionate about the importance of providing balanced advice to young people about issues central to their lives so that they can make informed decisions. In this respect, I've never told anyone what to do. In my view, a good agony column lays out options as well as sources of dedicated help. It isn't counselling in a one-to-one situation where you can talk around a problem. When all you have is a strip of paper torn from an exercise book that says 'Help, I'm 14 and pregnant. Does this mean I should stop having sex with my boyfriend?' then we're talking about supportive signposting.

As the years ticked by, I often asked myself how I was still in the job. I wasn't getting any younger, after all, while the readership constantly renews to stay at a certain age. Now that my tenure has come to an end, and the column goes in-house, I can reveal the secret to my staying power:

1. Despite delivering a column every month for 18 years, I never once visited the office. Editors came and went, but I didn't meet any of them face to face. In the world of freelance journalism, I consider this to be the ultimate in keeping your head down. 
2. The picture of me used to front the problem page, as seen here, was taken in 1996. Nobody ever thought to change it. I'm sure if it had, both staff and reader would take one look and think 'F***k me, I might as well be asking my DAD!'

So, there you go. It's been emotional, and a great honour, over a ridiculously long time period. It's also high time I moved on, which is why it came as a kind of relief when I got the call I'd been expecting for the last 17.5 years. I want to thank everyone I've worked with on the magazine, who must now realise why I wasn't the kind of contributor who said: 'Hey, let's do lunch...'

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