An incredibly idle chit chat with Stuart Heritage
Stuart Heritage is a really interesting and established man. He’s a regular writer for The Guardian, columnist for Esquire, successful novelist and podcast host. A better journalist (or even just, a journalist) might have asked him probing questions about his upcoming novel, or the enormous success of his first book Don't be a dick Pete. I however, am a foolish student who apparently only wants to talk about The X-Factor and sausage rolls. Read below for a transcript of our interview, in which I redefine the parameters of ‘idle chit chat’.
Maddy Fletcher: I read your article on a plane yesterday, about your wife’s pregnancy. I know that people say that altitude heightens your emotions, but I really was in pieces reading it. I think it’s brilliant, and moving and funny.
Stuart Heritage: Thank you!
MF: Do you find that sort of emotional piece a lot harder to write? As opposed to something funny or cynical or scathing?
SH: It is harder. It’s something I’ve learnt begrudgingly: if you can tell the truth, and, argh, I hate saying this phrase, but ‘your own emotional truth’, if you can get that on the page then that always has a really big effect. But it’s always a pain in the arse to get to, because you always sort of have to … think about things …
MF: Oh the stress!
SH: Yes. But, you know, they’re my favourite pieces too, because they’re not ‘nonsense riffs on pop-culture’ that will stop existing. I get to write about stuff that’s important to me, and I think that it goes down better as well, because, it’s that whole thing if you’re very specific with something then it becomes universal. My mum died a couple of years ago, and I wrote a piece about that, and it seemed to sort of connect with people whose parents had died decades ago. So that was very nice. The danger of it is that it’s very addictive. Once you start bearing your soul, and you get a good response, you think ‘what else, what else is there!?’. And you end up trying to write very emotional pieces about basically nothing. I wrote a piece for the Sunday Times about going bald and it was written as if it was about watching someone I loved die. When I read it back, I thought, I need to show that tone some respect, you can’t just do it for anything.
MF: I guess it’s a question of when you decide to use it, and how judge that.
SH: Yeah, I mean if you just went out all the time like that, you’d just become a massive emo. It gets old very quickly.
MF: I was also reading through all your articles yesterday and I was just stunned by how many are. Just the sheer quantity of articles. I’ve written in my notes: ‘so many articles, HOW!!?!?’ I worry constantly about running out of things to say or ideas, but I can’t think that must worry you by the looks of things.
SH: No, it doesn’t really. But the answer to that ‘how?!?!’ is just financial necessity. No one pays an awful lot. It’s a numbers game. I think I write too many things. I think the things I do write would be better if I didn’t just churn out dozens and dozens of them at a time. I mean the Guardian pays I think about £100 for a blog post. You can happily print that I hate it, how little they pay you. It’s the least out of everyone. So to make a living, as a freelancer, you have to do a lot. I’ve got a column for Esquire and that pays £250 so that’s a bit better.
MF: God, it’s so interesting, because I know next to nothing about the world of journalism, but you look at it as a student and think: ‘it’s so glamorous -
MF: It’s clearly quite the opposite!
SH: I mean, some are. I think that all the time about loads of people as well.
MF: Do you wonder if your writing style has changed since you had children or do you think it’s pretty much the same?
SH: Well, um, I thought it had. The pieces about pregnancy, that’s the first time I’d written about parenting in any sort of way. It really does, and it sounds cliched, but it really does change your priorities. A lot of my job used to be live blogging The X Factor -
MF: I’ve read them and I’ve got a question for you coming up about live blogging The X Factor!
SH: Oh fantastic. I loved doing it up until a point, and then I sort of had to stop. It was very superficial and once you have kids, you can’t help but ask yourself bigger questions. Having said that, when I was a student, one of the first things I ever wrote was album reviews for this website. A few days ago someone on Twitter sent me a screen-grab of the review and said: ‘Is this you!?’ And before I’d read it I was embarrassed because it was my early work, and I thought I’d have matured and changed, but it was just the same sort of shit toilet jokes I make now. So I don’t think I’ve changed that much.
MF: That’s interesting, yeah. I’m constantly in crisis, especially with this website, where we’ve literally branded ourselves as writing frivolous, light hearted, unimportant stuff. Because occasionally, obviously I’ve not done anything as big as having a child, but I’ll read or watch something, and just rethink. For example, this might sound tenuous, did you see the BBC re-screened ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the Ken Loach film.
SH: Oh yeah yeah yeah.
MF: SO, I watched it the other day, and sat there afterwards and just went ‘who the fuck do I think I am? I’m writing articles about pasta, I’m a joke, this is pathetic, why do I think people should read this?’ And also, bear in mind, no one is reading this except for my mum and dad and maybe a few extended cousins. And I just started to worry. But then I think, don’t worry, it’s nice to write. Sorry, I’m rambling, but I think there is always space for light-hearted stuff.
SH: Yeah, absolutely! Don’t do yourself down. You know if everyone wrote like they were a Guardian columnist, if everyone in the world was Owen Jones, I mean I like him a lot, but if everyone was like him, it would be fucking intolerable. You need to read a mixture of stuff otherwise you’d just go nuts.
MF: I think you’re right. Speaking of The X Factor column. I think I dedicated more hours of my childhood to X Factor than just about anything else. I am so well versed in it.
SH: Do you still watch it?
MF: Uh no, and I think it’s really weird if people still do.
SH: Yeah, it is.
MF: It quite clearly peaked and then had a steady decline. You can literally timeline it’s demise from ever since One Direction were on and Matt Cardle won it -
SH: YES! This is my exact theory!!!
MF: It then just plummeted! Because the year after that was the year Little Mix won, and yes they were big, but can you name me one other person who was on that show? No. Not a soul.
SH: No! It was as soon as Simon Cowell got too big for his boots, he overstretched and he left to do the American version -
MF: YES! AND HE GOT GARY BARLOW IN -
SH: Gary FUCKING Barlow!
MF: I know!! It’s an outrageous replacement.
SH: And that was 7 or 8 years ago now.
MF: I think 2010 was when One Direction were on it, or maybe 2009 -
SH: No they were on in 2010.
MF: Oh where they? Ok. Sorry, I forget I'm speaking to a man with a PhD in this.
SH: Yes, that was the year that Matt Cardle won and Harry Styles went up to him -
MF: And said you’re going to get so much pussy now!!
MF: It is awful. But this is what I love about it, this would not happen on TV anymore. Have you ever seen the interview the next morning when Matt Cardle is being interviewed and Holly Willoughby asks ‘How was performing a duet with Rihanna’ (side note, absolutely mad that Rihanna was on The X Factor in hindsight)
SH: Yeah that is crazy.
MF: Anyway, Matt Cardle says, deadly seriously: ‘Oh I was just really concentrating on not getting a boner if I’m being honest with you’.
SH: Oh my god!!!
MF: It is just so bad. And that wouldn’t happen anymore!
SH: No, that would destroy a career.
MF: Maybe it did destroy his career?
SH: No, what destroyed his career is that he thinks 9/11 was an inside job.
MF: You’re joking.
SH: Look it up!
MF: I think you can clearly define the glory years of X Factor from being Leona Lewis to Matt Cardle. That is like, peak X Factor. I have got a very fixed answer for this, but can you pick out the most iconic moment of X Factor for those years?
SH: I think, ahhh, well; for those years, definitely Jedward. But, I think Wagner might be my all time favourite.
SH: He co live blogged with me.
MF: Did he?!
SH: Yeah. I’d just split up with a girl and I’d moved into this dingy house share sort of thing. I didn’t have a proper living room and I worked from my bed, like the Grandparents in Willy Wonka. Anyway, my editor said ‘I think we can get Wagner to help you live blog, can he come to your house?’ and I just said absolutely not. So in the end he would just text me his thoughts and I'd paste them into the article.
MF: You know what I can’t quite picture Wagner in my head so I’m picturing Bill Bailey because that’s the closest thing I can picture to Wagner.
SH: It’s a very similar look!
MF: They're both sort of almost bald, almost the opposite of bald.
SH: Yes, really over compensating for baldness with as much facial hair as possible.
MF: So you really think Wagner is the most iconic moment of X Factor, interesting.
SH: Yeah, what’s yours?
MF: Beyoncé performing with -
SH: Alexandra Burke.
MF: Yeah, I mean can you just appreciate: that. is. nuts. Imagine if they got Beyoncé to
perform now. I re-watch it sometimes and question if it’s real life.
SH: How did that happen???
MF: HOW? What a coup, honestly.
MF: I remember my mum saying to us after ‘we’ll never see TV like that again guys’.
MF: Yeah, she was stunned.
SH: At the end of the 2010 series, someone from I think The Los Angeles Times rang me up and said: ‘why is it so big?’ And I think I remember, much like your mother, saying ‘it cannot get bigger, there is no possible way for a television programme to get bigger than this, it’s downhill all the way’ and it was.
MF: How much longer did you have to keep writing about it? I think I stopped watching about Little Mix year, but did you keep going for years after that.
SH: Yeah, I stopped in about 2015.
MF: That is all too recently.
SH: It was to an audience of nobody, and, ahh, it was just miserable. I hated it. BUT my favourite ever ever ever thing that’s happened to me as a journalist. It’s the only I’ve ever felt sort of marginally famous. So this is again, when I lived in the basement with these people. They went out after an episode to a bar and they found a bunch of people reading a live blog out loud to each other, and they just overheard it. And one of them said to the girl reading it ‘oh I live with him!’ and then ended up getting off with her, as a result of me, and it’s the most famous I’ve ever felt.
MF: You know what, that is very cool.
MF: Do you not feel at all famous then? Not even after the book?
SH: Not really. I mean, I live in Ashford, and I work in a shed all day. I barely go out. So I don’t feel very well known at all.
MF: Do you ever get recognised?
SH: No, not really. My wife gets recognised quite a lot, she’s quite short and has a very specific look. I think when we are together people notice and put two and two together. I’m the most completely down the line white male person. I don’t stand out in a crowd.
MF: I have read that you have met and cooked for Nigella Lawson.
SH: Yes! I did, yeah!
MF: It's something my flatmates and I discuss so regularly. We always say, if you had to cook for Nigella, what would you cook?
SH: Wow, what would you cook for her?
MF: Think about it all the time. It would have to be a pasta. I think the goat's cheese and tomato one I just wrote about for the website.
SH: That sounds very nice!
MF: I read that you cooked her a crumble.
SH: Yeah, mistake.
MF: I was about to say: genius.
SH: No! She’s not a very puddingy person!
MF: But it just seems so her, it’s so wholesome -
SH: That’s what I thought! But she said she liked it because it was quite ‘sour’. So if it had been just a full on sweet pudding, I would’ve lost her.
MF: Interesting. So you wouldn’t cook the same thing again?
SH: I don’t think so, but I don’t know what I would cook.
MF: Well, have a think. Are you a fan of Greggs?
SH: Yes, obviously.
MF: Right so, how do you feel about the introduction of their vegan sausage roll.
SH: I’ve not tried it yet but, yeh of course I’d eat it.
SH: They have cheese and onion pasties, and no one is complaining about those!
MF: Yeah, I know but do you just not think -
SH: Oh no, are you siding with Piers Morgan!?
MF: NO! I’m not siding with him. I just wonder, if it might upset the vast majority of people who go to Greggs.
SH: I don’t think it does, does it? Yes, if they swapped out all their normal pastries for Vegan sausage rolls, then I would take an issue with it. But so long as they have the sausage and bean - that’s my favourite one.
MF: I like the bacon breakfast sandwich, and then I get a free sausage roll because I’m a student.
SH: DO YOU?
MF: Yeah, too few people know about it, and I’m reluctant to -
SH: Wait! Whatever you buy they just give you a free sausage roll?
MF: Yeah, if you show them your student card.
SH: That’s insane! That’s AMAZING.
MF: Or a free pastry of your choice, but who in their right minds would get that.
MF: And I only found out about it in my third year of uni.
SH: Oh no. I’m just, I’m amazed by that. I used to work in a shop, called The Three Cooks, which was Greggs before Greggs. And my favourite part of the day was at the end we got to take bags of all the unsold sausage rolls and donuts and eat them.
MF: That’s lovely.
SH: It was my favourite. I feel like that’s made up for my lack of student sausage rolls.
MF: I know someone who used to claim that his Great Grandad sold Jack Gregg his first ever oven -
MF: No, wait for it. It was a very cool story until he got to secondary school and Jack Gregg’s granddaughter, Laura Gregg or something, was in his year.
SH: Laura Gregg!
MF: You can never trust someone with two first names as well.
SH: No, that’s what I thought too.
MF: But if I married into Gregg’s dynasty I would obviously take it though.
SH: I wonder how they live.
MF: The Gregg’s?
SH: Yeah the descendants of Jack Gregg.
MF: Well, I’d like to think very humbly, but I suspect it’s the opposite.
SH: It’s lavish.
MF: Yeah, it’s about as opulent as it comes.
SH: It’s a house made of pastry.
- Maddy Fletcher