I do not know Stephen Ryder personally but I know where he lives. I know that he is married and has a young family. I know what he does for a living, where he likes to go at weekends and what his tastes in television are.
He didn’t tell me any of this directly; I read it in the papers and online. Stephen writes for a national newspaper, as do many of his friends and family. He’s not what you’d call famous but he is well known to the middle-aged middle classes. And me. Because I know where he lives.
Stephen, I should add, is not his real name. I’ve given him a new one to protect his privacy. Sort of. See, all that stuff about his job and his tastes he wrote himself and let it be published. His frank, open style is part of what makes his submissions entertaining. He’s written about his family, friends, holidays and working habits. But the one thing he categorically did not give out what his address. Yet I know it.
Here’s how. Stephen’s style is not only open, but detailed. He’s not shy of describing a pub as his ‘local’ or mentioning an ammenities centre ‘at the end of [his] road’. Over the weeks and months I read his contributions, I built up a pretty good mental map of his local area. More than once I’ve visited these same roads and shops, always half-excited in case I bumped into the illustrious man. How cool would that be?
Not cool at all, is the correct answer. I’m not that kind of nutjob and I don’t wish to be. Here’s the crucial thing: it’s my local area too. (Or was before I moved to Latvia.) I recognise all those shop and pub names because I walk past them each day, down the same roads that he does. The only reason I know where he lives is because I live there too. So that’s OK right?
Well, maybe. First off there’s Google Search, Maps and Street View. I don’t really want to dwell on the great privacy panic of the 2010s but it is worth noting that in previous times one would have to know an area to – like me – recognise its shop names from a newspaper article. Nowadays one can plug the names into the all-knowing fact machine up pops an address, complete with handy instructions on how to get there. You can do that from Canada, sure, but you’re unlikely to cross the Altanic to visit Stephen’s favourite pub. He’s not that famous.
The cross-referencing isn’t always deliberate though. Here’s another thing I know about Stephen: he’s related by marriage to a famous comedian. It was an accidental discovery made by reading two articles by two different people. One mentioned a circumstance but no name, and another mentioned a related circumstance and a name. Together, I could make the match. I didn’t want or need to know this, and I feel a little bit awkward that I do, as to my knowledge it’s never been mentioned publically. I know I have my heroes but I hate to intrude. Not a stalker.
I have an odd relationship with fame and the famous these days. I used to think I was ‘above’ the gossip-mongering of Now! magazine and the like, but I’ve realised recently that I’m not. I have people I hold in esteem and I quietly enjoy their twitter feeds and the FYtumblr streams dedicated to them. I get excited about their lives and like to watch them through my collection of little glass screens. Just because Victoria Coren isn’t as ubiquituous as Victoria Beckam, doesn’t mean that my interest is any more appropriate.
But it is OK as long as there’s a distance. Other people are not my property. Only, when I like things, I like them lots (cf. Manic Street Preachers, Sherlock etc). So I try to be principled: only know what’s public, only ask what’s relevant. The distance can be through space (I will not go to Newport to hunt down Nicky Wire, because it’s inconvenient. And wude.), metaphysics (Sherlock Holmes was not real so I can happily visit his fake address and buy branded pens), or time (Michael Palin’s diary were written in the 1970s so walking down the same road now is fine). So while I like what Stephen writes, while he lives just around the corner from me, now, in real life, it would not be OK to persue that.
Knowing about Stephen’s half-hidden comedy connection isn’t really bad, it’s just a bit weird. While it does make me feel uncomfortable, it’s still just a piece of information. I imagine that all the people involved know about it – of course they do – and to anyone else it’s meaningless if good gossip.
What is seriously not OK what happened the other day. I was walking in the Camden area, having been for a stroll on the heath, and took the route back to my house, which happens to run along the street where Stephen lives. It’s a long road, but as I passed one of the houses, I immediately knew he lived there (or if not there then next door). Some tell-tale recent building work, also mentioned in his regular output gave me the final clue. Now I know not just where abouts he lives, but his actual address. And then, presumably, post code, phone number whatever – should I want to.
I really do not want to. I’m angry that I even know this much. Suddenly, without even trying, I’m one of those weird people that the police know about. All because I read newspaers. Screw Stephen and his compromised privacy. I feel violated.