Feast and famine in the freelance world is a hazard of the job - that's if you consider long periods without a commission as a form of employment. In 1996, I was pitching articles to support my young family and buy some time to write my first novel. With no guarantee of a decent income at the end of each month, it was a haphazard and stressful experience. So, when teen magazine, Bliss, asked if I'd like to try out writing a monthly problem page from a boy's perspective, I jumped at the chance.
Naturally, my wife 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, here was a chance to get paid on a regular basis. At best - and it beat beans on toast for the duration - I figured I would last a few issues. As it turned out, I held on a bit longer than that.
This April, eighteen years later, I will be writing my final column.
The very first letter I pulled from the post 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 had a shower, I realised there was nothing funny at all about what I'd been asked to do here. 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. In fact, I became passionate about the importance of providing balanced advice to young people 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.
I found myself addressing conferences on the subject, wrote advice books and national health awareness campaigns, and got into trouble for discussing masturbation on television before the watershed... in fact, before The Chart Show started one Saturday lunchtime. Presenters always had a twinkle in their eye when they introduced me as 'agony aunt, Matt,' but I was beyond all that. I had found my calling, all thanks to a basic fear of being freelance and destitute.
As the years ticked by, and as much as I loved what I did, I often asked myself how I was still in the job. I wasn't getting any younger, after all, while the magazine readership constantly renews to stay eternally youthful. Now that my tenure has come to an end, and the column goes in-house, I can reveal the secret to my staying power:
- Despite delivering a column every month, 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.
- The picture of me used to front the problem page was taken in 1996. Nobody ever thought to change it. I'm sure if it had, teen readers would take one look and think: 'Well, he's no Justin Bieber, I might as well be asking my dad!' Instead, I appeared to remain as fresh as the day I began. Even the shirt I was wearing for the shoot has come back into fashion several times over. In effect, across nearly two decades, I have been the Peter Pan of the problem page.
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. If there's one thing I've learned from the experience, it's this - in the world of freelance journalism, don't ever be the stay-at-home contributor who says: 'Hey, let's do lunch.'