I feel a bit sorry for Liz Jones.
It's something I've been trying to wrestle with for a long time, but hear me out. I know she showed no shame in receiving so many donations from people recently, despite spending £9 on toothpaste, £26,000 on a bat sanctuary and many more thousands all over the place. I know all of this.
I know, I know. It's easy to mock. Easy, and right. But in the case of Jones, there are two possible explanations that come to mind; and it's something that I've struggled with in the past, if you take a delve back through the archives. I know, titles such as Liz Jones fucks it up, Liz Jones: I'm really just a fucking tool, to be honest and Liz Jones: abysmal shite might lead you to the conclusion that I'm not entirely enamoured with her body of work.
And I'm not. But I'm constantly torn between two conflicting emotions: pity for someone who appears to be suffering from something which we needn't speculate on; and anger towards someone who I suspect is manufacturing a cockamamey literary persona, a dislikeable ditsy idiot which sucks others (like me) in and makes us feel sorry for her faux-naive clunkiness.
Of course there could be all kinds of shades of grey in the middle. And I suppose we will never know. But if you take Jones at face value, and if she is what she purports to be, and nothing more, then is it right for people - like me - to criticise? Sure, she says that shop assistants are dirty, insults foreign workers when she stays in a Premier Inn and calls homeless people 'smelly and scary' - but is this the work of a professional troll, or just an insight into the mind of an ordinary person whose worldview is very different to ours? It's hard to call. If it's a literary creation, then it's a highly unpleasant one, with a seemingly cruel streak towards anyone in the service sector, or poor people in general, and an infuriatingly oversentimentalised anthropomorphisation of animals to the point where she sees her pets as being more valuable, human and interesting than her human counterparts.
But what if it's real?
Liz Jones was recently on the receiving end of some donations from readers after she expressed her feelings of suicidal depression because of debt. It's a subject she has written a lot about - in many ways one could cynically argue it's replaced her messy and all-too-real details of divorce as the heart-string-tugger in her columns nowadays - and has led to some of the columns I've been angry about in the past.
Now, it's not a new thing for her. You can see from this article back in 2007 that she said she was struggling with borrowing and debt even then - and even there there's a textbook bit of Jones button-pressing, where she says:
Yes, my London house made me £500,000 in 18 months, but these 'profits', for normal people like you and me, are merely relative, unless we don't buy another house and merely move into a (privately owned, local authority financed) hostel.
There's always got to be a dig against poor people, hasn't there? But here's the thing. In that 2007 article she admitted her 'profligacy' and overspending; in her recent article thanking people for their donations - including one reader apparently earning just £46 a week at a Spar shop (ironically the kind of shopworker previously criticised by Jones for being unhygienic when compared to her dogs) who forked out £2 on a EuroMillions ticket for her - she says "People assume when you're in debt it's because you're lazy or profligate".
It's that element of denial that makes me wonder. Is this person deluded or not? Are they for real or not? Are they just writing the same story over and over again, trying to elicit a bit of sympathy, trying to get people to warm to them, trying to induce pity, looking for attention? And if so, does that mean that - perhaps - it might be the case that they are suffering from some real problems?
I know. I know you'll think I'm a terrifically stupid bleeding heart; or a hypocrite for having criticised this person in the past in really strong terms, and now attempting to feel sympathy for her; or maybe you think I'm both. But what I think is this: in the absence of true knowledge, and no matter what I might suspect about this character being a fictional persona, or a caricature of a real persona tweaked to try and provoke outrage or infuriation, I find myself having to give Liz Jones the benefit of the doubt. I have to.
Am I foolish? Naive? Stupid? I don't know. But if there is someone saying they are miserable, and suicidal, and depressed, then I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt, no matter what you might suspect to be the truth. Because if you're wrong, it could be a really terrible mistake to make.
And yes, I don't doubt that Liz Jones is entirely to blame for her situation, but then so are so many other people - people who self-medicate, people with impulsive personalities, people who end up before the courts, people who are addicts, people who are alcoholics and don't seek any help, and so on and so on. Do I feel contempt for them, and think they should be just left to regret their mistakes, and that no-one should help them? No, I don't, so I think it might be wrong of me to think that of someone else, just because they manifest their shortcomings and their problems by overspending or ending up in debt, rather than by (for example) taking drugs or self-harming, and just because they're wealthier than me, as well. I can't bring myself to do that. I'm torn, but I think I have to come down on the sympathy side now, whereas I haven't before.
My silly bleeding heart wins out, after all. As someone who's been through stupid impulsive behaviour, and getting things wrong, and writing stuff to be provocative, what can I do about it? I do feel sorry for Liz Jones. I do. Because compassion is the right thing to have, even when it's misplaced - and I don't care if it is or not. It would make me no better than those sniping commenters on Daily Mail stories about drug addicts who say "It was their own fault!", and I don't want to be that. It would make me no better than Liz Jones's Daily Mail colleague Janet Street-Porter
and I don't want to be that kind of blithely dismissive "never did me any harm" cold-hearted type of person. That's the kind of pissy attitude I find truly repugnant and appalling, not Jones's bleatings and self-pity.
So I'll be giving Liz Jones the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't excuse the unpleasantness towards other people that she displays, or the casual nastiness towards other human beings, and so on; but I think I have no option other than to try and show sympathy and compassion. If that means I'm a soft touch, then so be it; I'd rather be a soft touch than a hard-as-nails type like Janet Street-Porter. That's who I am, so that's how I have to be.