Language, gentlemen, please
Warning: there is some ripe language in this edition of Ranters; if you are likely to be offended, please click here and go the point below which there are no swear words of any kind.
There’s probably nothing, anyway, that you wouldn’t hear any day in the average news room, but some people are sensitive, we know.
And people who would use or tolerate bad language during the cut and thrust of the daily grind don’t necessarily like to read it – and would never write it (except in the posh papers which, lest we forget, are the only ones who print that sort of stuff).
And they don’t miss any opportunity. If you can stomach it, check out: http://www.guardian.co.uk:80/theguardian/2008/sep/29/2
However, if you want to see how the, er, tabloids can still write a cutting memo without (much) swearing, keep an eye over the next couple of days on Grey Cardigan, at http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/greycardigan/ who I hear has been sent a brilliant sample of how they dole out bollockings at the Express.
But, to the plot…
For those of you who don’t know, Giles Coren is a restaurant reviewer for The Times. But you probably do know, even if you never see the paper, because his memo to subs about dropping the indefinite article ‘a’ from the last par of one of his reviews has been running round the Internet for some weeks.
Dropping the A ruined the metre, he stressed:
‘I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.’
See what he means?
I mean… it’s good to rant, even about those nice people on the subs’ table, but there’s no need to make an effin feature of it.
There is more bad language to follow.
What we hadn’t seen, here, was the subs’ response. Nor had we seen the blast from Alan’s lad complaining about another subbing cock-up, this time altering ‘the lazy dog’ to ‘a lazy dog’ in a book review – after Coren had referred to the letter-count of the sentence.
He wrote to the editor of the paper’s listing magazine:
‘That is as bad as editing can be. Fuck, I hope you’re proud. It will be small relief for the author that nobody reads your poxy magazine. Never ever ask me to write something for you. And don’t pay me. I’d rather take 400 quid for assassinating a crack whore’s only child in a revenge killing for a busted drug deal – my integrity would be less compromised. Jesus fucking wept, I don’t know what else to say.’
Leaving aside the fact that Wapping’s subs do seem to have a problem with articles, definite and indefinite, and without going too deep into the fact that both Coren, and the author he was reviewing, got the original quote wrong (the typing test is actually: the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog – not the) which is possibly what the subs saw as a necessary and helpful correction, even though they fairly obviously had not read the copy…
Readers between the lines may have twigged that The Times, allegedly strapped for cash, pays 400 nicker for a bloody book review. Pay me that, and you can delete as many letters as you like, chaps.
Anyway, in case you missed all the fun, Coren’s memo to subs, and the subs considered reply, can be found below. Again, we apologise for the language. It wasn’t me, guv, it was those foul-mouthed buggers down Docklands.
The thing doesn’t look like going away. This week somebody did a spoof of the situation (the same film clip had been used for a piss-take on Manchester United) for YouTube. Worth a look, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNTaH_QxNVQ
There’s more bad language, sadly (but necessarily, for the story’s sake), in an offering by Alan Hart about some of his favourite put-downs – following a piece a couple of weeks ago from Paddy O’Gara.
Then there’s a comparatively very mild reaction to Rebekah Scott’s letter (last week) ostensibly correcting a piece we had run previously about pictures of the death of Robert Kennedy. Jeffrey Blyth and Brian Wells, who were both alive and working at the time of the shooting, write to say that Ms Scott – who was neither – got it wrong.
Just so you know.
But enough bickering between friends and colleagues.
To lighten things a bit, Pete Morris has passed on a piece he found somewhere on the Internet about the real meaning of a few journalistic clichés.
In the end, you see, everything is about language. And not all of it needs to be bad language, even if some of it’s a bit tired, or even meaningless.
And, if you’ve read all of it before, our apologies. At the end of the day, everything is on the sodden Internet. We were trying to have a quiet bloody week.
Memo to subs
I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda and Ben because I don’t know who I am supposed to be pissed off with (I’m assuming owen, but I filed to amanda and ben so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here – if he had been I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.
I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that fucked up my review on Saturday.
It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.
I wrote: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh.”
It appeared as: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.”
There is no length issue. This is someone thinking “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and I know best”.
Well, you fucking don’t.This was shit, shit sub-editing for three reasons.1) ‘Nosh’, as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German ‘naschen’. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, ‘nosh’, means simply ‘food’. You have decided that this is what I meant and removed the ‘a’. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, ‘nosh’ means “a session of eating” – in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of ‘scoff’. You can go for a scoff. Or you can buy some scoff. The sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what I meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something I didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? It’s easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.
2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, I was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as “sexually-charged”. I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word ‘gaily’ as a gentle nudge. And “looking for a nosh” has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. “looking for nosh” does not have that ambiguity. The joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don’t you read the copy?
3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I am sorry if this looks petty (last time I mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word I got in all sorts of trouble) but I care deeply about my work and I hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think “hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips” – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on Sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. Weird, maybe. But that’s how it is.
It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. I’ve got a review to write this morning and I really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and I’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.
I’ve been writing for The Times for 15 years and I have never asked this before – I have never asked it of anyone I have written for – but I must insist, from now on, that I am sent a proof of every review I do, in pdf format, so I can check it for fuck-ups. And I must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way I can carry on in the job.
And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.
Right, Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose. All the best Giles
- I wouldn’t presume to attempt to correct Mr Coren’s copy but I suspect that, in his second numbered point, he intended to type that Jesus had a ‘beard’, rather than a ‘bear’. – Ed.
Sub-editing is a noble profession. It is also a thankless one – particularly when your writers call you a “useless cunt”.
There was a sharp intake of breath when your e-mail hit the inbox of subs throughout the industry this week – that was after we’d stopped laughing. Not that we didn’t think you had a point. Yes, tinkering with copy just for the sake of it and without consultation is wrong. It is disrespectful and arrogant. And we can see why you’d be furious at the loss even of an indefinite article.
There is nothing more irritating than a sub-editor who thinks they know better than a writer, particularly one who cares deeply about his work. But did you really have to be so rude?
Laura Barton stated in Friday’s Guardian that there’s “something of a long-standing tension between writers and sub-editors”. Do you wonder why? Contrary to your belief, we don’t “believe we know best when we know fuck all”.
If you could only see the state of some of the raw copy we have to knock into shape. It’s badly structured, poorly spelt, appallingly punctuated, lazily researched. We’re not saying your writing falls into that category – on the contrary, your journalism is highly accomplished. Never having worked on your copy, we can only take your word for it that it is beyond improvement in its pre-published state. Strange as it may seem, many writers do not possess your grasp of language; indeed it is sometimes difficult to believe that English is their mother tongue, and they don’t give a damn about what they produce because they know that a good, often highly educated sub-editor will correct it, check it and turn it into readable prose.
None of this, however, can excuse your nasty, bullying, “know your place, you insignificant little fuckwit” e-mail. Yes, it’s funny, in a way that pieces that use “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” so liberally often can be, but, please – someone made a mistake. They surely had no intention of sabotaging your deathless prose. So you don’t like what happened to your piece – have a word with your editor. The hapless sub will no doubt already have been soundly thrashed and had their dictionary privileges removed.
Some years ago, a colleague of ours had a T-shirt printed up with the legend “xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx is a cunt” on the front, which he wore every week when having to deal with the writer to whom it referred, because he, like you, became so disproportionately abusive when his use of language was questioned. We’d hate that to happen to you, because you can actually write, and having “Giles Coren is a sanctimonious little twat who needs to get over himself” could be quite costly in T-shirt lettering. Subs are no more infallible than writers. So, let’s all try a little mutual respect, shall we?
All the best,
Mia Aimaro OgdenJoanna DuckworthSenior sub-editors, The Sunday Times
Another language warning, here
By Alan Hart
On the recent topic of eloquent journalistic put-downs, I offer my three favourites.
In the early 1970s there was a tragic fire at the Summerland holiday centre on the Isle of Man in which many children died. Dozens of Manchester-based journalists were sent over to cover the disaster.
The ones I think I remember were Bill Jenkins and David Stoakes from The Sun, Jim Stansfield and Harold Pendlebury from the Daily Mail, Gordon Hughes, Reg Jones and Harry King from the Daily Mirror, Ken Graham and John Moore from the Sunday People, Don Blankley and Don Mackay from the Daily Express, Trevor Bates and George Turnbull from the Daily Telegraph, and Howard Reynolds from the Sunday Mirror.
Some of us were having a winding-down drink at the bar of the Palace Hotel in Douglas as midnight approached when we heard a commotion from the casino area. A bouncer was ejecting an overtired and emotional Alex Higgins, world champion and enfant terrible of the snooker world.
It transpired he had lost all his money and wanted to play on credit. The casino decided otherwise. As he was being ejected, The Hurricane was heard to utter, in his distinctive Ulster accent, those immortal words: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’
To which the doorman replied in a contemptuous voice: ‘Why sir. Have you forgotten?’
It was a welcome moment of light relief from a harrowing story.
My second entrant for dismissive bons mots came from Ted Macaulay, from the Daily MirrorManchester office, who was a feature writer and motor racing correspondent.
In the late 70s the Mirror had a direct line phone installed in the press box at Oulton Park, near Chester, on which Ted filed his reports. During one meeting Ted arrived at the press box to find his seat occupied by a Granada TV sports commentator called Elton Welsby.
Ted pointed out that Elton was sitting in his seat. Elton indicated other vacant seats and invited Ted to sit elsewhere. Ted responded by telling Elton it was his fucking seat, his fucking phone, and Elton should fuck off forthwith.
The fresh-faced Elton, who thought being on the telly was a cut above scribbling for a living, then uttered the fatal words: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Ted, never at a loss for the mot juste, replied: ‘I don’t have to be a gynaecologist to recognise a cunt when I see one. Now fuck off.’
But my all-time favourite involved a legendary conversation which took place before I joined the News of the World in 1971. It involved the editor, Stafford Somerfield, the news editor, Charlie Marcus, and a reporter whose name I can only remember as Graham (possibly Hall).
In those days it was perfectly normal for editors and heads of departments to mingle in various hostelries with other ranks. Outside the office we were all considered equals and this often led to a free and frank exchange of views.
After several drinks, this trio moved on from The Tipperary on Fleet Street to the London Press Club, where the reporter and Charlie Marcus became involved in a heated argument.
While it was raging, Stafford was standing next to them having a separate conversation with another drinker.
At some point Charlie tugged at Stafford’s sleeve and asked: ‘Did you hear what he just called me?’
‘No,’ said Stafford, with ill-disguised disinterest.
‘He just called me a little Jewish cunt,’ said the outraged Charlie.
‘Well,’ said Stafford, weighing him up and down, ‘you aren’t so fucking big are you Charlie?’
Another Kennedy story shot down
From Jeffrey Blyth
Afraid Ms Rebekah Scott (Letters, last week), who admits she wasn’t born when RFK was shot in LA, has not quite got it right. I have checked with Harry Benson who confirms that Ethel Kennedy was in the kitchen when her husband was shot, and not in Hyannisport, as Ms Scott suggests. She was a few paces behind her husband.
It is true a busboy was first to hold the dying Kennedy. Harry took that picture first. But Ethel pushed the busboy aside. In one of Benson’s other pictures she is clearly seen trying to push his camera away. It is true Kennedy died in hospital the next day (I was there by then) but he was dying from the moment he was shot.
From Brian Wells
Well, this was quite a ‘rant’ letter from your reader, Rebekah Scott.
Perhaps we should forgive her her grave error due to the fact she was not born when Bobby Kennedy was shot? Perhaps not. Has she ever heard of research?
I simply enclose Alistair Cooke’s words of that night :
‘There was ahead on the floor streaming blood, and somebody had put a Kennedy boater under it, and the blood trickled down the sides like chocolate sauce on an iced cake. There were splashes of flashlights, and the infernal heat, and the button eyes of ETHEL KENNEDY turned to cinders. She was wrestling or slapping a young man and he was saying , ‘Listen, lady, I am hurt, too.’ and THEN SHE WAS ON HER KNEES CRADLING HIM BRIEFLY, and in another little pool of light on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child ‘s effigy on a cathedral tomb.’
Here is the account of Juan Romero, first to RFK:
Juan slipped a hand under the back of Kennedy’s head to lift him and felt warm blood spilling through his fingers.
‘People were screaming, ‘Oh my God, not another Dallas!’ ‘
Ethel Kennedy knelt down at her husband’s side and pushed Juan away. Juan looked on, angry and stunned, fingering the rosary beads in his pocket.
‘When I was in trouble, I would always go and pray to God to make my stepfather forget what I’d done, or to keep me out of trouble the next time. I asked Ethel if I could give Bobby the rosary beads, and she didn’t stop me. She didn’t say anything.
‘I pressed them into his hand but they wouldn’t stay because he couldn’t grip them, so I tried wrapping them around his thumb. When they were wheeling him away, I saw the rosary beads still hanging off his hand.’
Hyannisport is quite a long way from the now gone Ambassador Hotel. I know. The last time I was there with Senator Ted Kennedy and his mother, Rose, Ethel Kennedy greeted me with: ‘May I offer you a cup of hemlock, Mr Wells?’ But, that’s another story.
So, just so you know, Rebekah.
Glossary for hacks
From Peter Morris
When a newspaper uses a term like ‘informed source’, what does it really mean? Here are some other clichés.
According to published reports: We got scooped
Activist: Will talk to press
All American: White kid caught in criminal act
Allegedly: He did it but we can’t prove it
Beautiful: A woman who’s been murdered
Beloved: Someone who’s been around so long no one can stand them anymore
Blonde: See ‘beautiful’
Brutally raped: Raped
Byline includes ‘With News wire services’: No original reporting whatsoever — we just changed the lead.
Celebrity: Someone that has a publicist
Choked up: Definitely could have been crying
Confirmed bachelor: See ‘Flamboyant’
Conflagration: What was a fire in the first paragraph, a blaze in the second and an inferno in the third.
Controversial: He did something bad but we’re not sure what
Couldn’t be reached for comment: The reporter didn’t call until after 5 pm.
Dapper: Hasn’t bought new clothes in 20 years.
Diminutive: Under 5 feet tall
Effervescent: She won’t shut up
Elite: See ‘prestigious’
Embattled: He should quit
Entrepreneur: Hasn’t made it yet, but we’re doing a nice story about him
Exclusive neighbourhood/school/club: The reporter can’t get in
Exclusive: No one else returned the publicist’s calls
Family Values: Right-wing idiot
Feisty: Short, old female
Full-figured: tits out to here
Gentleman bandit: He wore nice shoes, rather than sneakers
Good Samaritan: Too stupid to run away
Guru: See ‘Self-styled’
Heiress: Able to hire a pricey divorce lawyer
Hero cop: He got killed.
Hero fire-fighter: He put out a fire.
Highly placed source: One who would talk
Hot button issue: Only editors care about it
Informed source: Reads our newspaper
Innocent bystander: Too slow to run away
Intensely private: Not promoting anything right now
Investigating: Waiting for someone to drop a dime
Knowledgeable observer: The reporter
Knowledgeable observers: The reporter and the person at the next desk
Legendary: About to die
Long-time companion: They had sex once
- More of this next week. – Ed.