NOT LONG AGO I sat down to conduct a little exercise that I generally carry out at this time of the year, in advance of the taxman's depredations: adding up how many pieces of freelance journalism I wrote in the preceding twelve months. The total, laboriously arrived at after much head-scratching and frequent trawls through the workbook, came as a shock. Granted, it had been a busy year. Granted, we had just moved house. Granted, I have three children between the ages of ten and two who need to be fed, clothed and educated. Even so, the 194 individual items that I had turned out for the national press between January and December 2002 seemed rather a lot. No doubt about it. I told myself, scanning the already dog-eared piles of print (dinky little Guardian comment columns, sedulous contributions to the Times Literary Supplement, book reviews for this publication and half-a-dozen others): you, my boy, are a hack.
Until fairly recently, to refer to someone as a 'hack' - certainly someone in the upper reaches of professional journalism - was almost actionable. Randolph Churchill once issued a writ against the News of the World on precisely these grounds. Curiously enough, I have always been rather proud of being