I want to tell you a true story. It’s about a man I once worked with. We were both subs (copyeditors) on a daily newspaper. The work was hard, the shifts were long, but we all had four-day rotas, which meant that the blocks of graft were cemented with decent layers of days off. There was also a pub nearby which we went to at any given opportunity, and we got paid very well, so you needn’t feel too sorry for us.
And then, horror of horrors. A new editor arrived. He was ok, as far as editors go. The only limitation being that, on Thursdays, he would speak only Latin. Nobody knew why. But then that is the way, and the right, of kings and editors. ‘Quintus ubi est argumentum?’ he would demand, of no one in particular, as the newsroom hummed with shouted obscenities from the sweating subs who might have been able to write the Queen’s English, but who generally spoke only Anglo Saxon.
Every afternoon at four a news conference was held in the editor’s office, where he and his assistant editors and department editors would meet to chew the fat over what was going to be the front page splash, and what would be relegated to page two, and so on. You get the picture. It was very soon noticed that, at these meetings, the editor would always drink out of a stripey blue mug, of which he seemed very fond.
And then came the dreadful news. We were to lose our four-day shifts; we were to work longer; and what is more, we would not be getting a pay rise. The editor proclaimed (on a Wednesday, I think) that it all made Perfect Sense, that it was an Efficiency Saving, and that he didn’t see what any of us could possibly complain about.
The next day he arrived at conference looking rather harassed. ‘Vidistis mea hyacintho stripey Mug?’ he asked his assembled henchpersons. The unthinkable had happened. His mug had gone missing. The execs looked at each other rather helplessly. The sports editor, who had taken a first in theology from Oxford, said, ‘Here, have my mug,’ but the editor shook his head and sat down, trembling, at the head of the table.
Over the next few days the change in him was marked. He had a wild look about him, and from our vantage point in the middle of the newsroom, we could see him button-holing various high-up members of staff and asking if they had seen his mug.
One day, not long after that, his secretary took his afternoon mail into his office, and a few seconds later there was a terrible cry. The editor stumbled out of his office, holding a padded envelope in one hand, and in the other, was a blue and white stripey china handle. ‘My mug!’ he wailed. ‘My mug!’ Forgetting that, since this was, after all, a Thursday, he should have said, ‘Mug meum! Mug meum!’ Still, he was in extremis.
Worse was to come. There had been a note in the envelope too. It said, in cut-out newspaper words, ‘Give us our four-day shifts back, or the mug gets it.’
You would think, wouldn’t you, that there would be a happy ending to this story. That the editor would see the error of his ways, and give us our shifts back, and consequently be reunited with his mug. But it was not to be. Despite his love for his mug, the editor stood firm on the new shifts, and dark days arrived for the subs of this particular newspaper.
I said at the start that this story was about a man I once worked with. I have neglected to mention him until now, because I know for a fact that he was the mug-napper, and I cannot describe him for fear the editor, even now, might exact some kind of revenge. One must never underestimate the power of the press. However, the reason I have told this story is that, shortly after this episode, my workmate disappeared. He had a tiff, apparently, with his girlfriend, who was either a baroness or a sculptor, I can’t remember which, and disappeared from our lives after a night out in a tapas bar near Waterloo Station. So if you are the man I mean, and you are reading this, get in touch. I still have the handkerchief you lent me that night, and stuck to it are a couple of cut-out words that you probably mislaid while concocting your message. I couldn’t possibly say what they are, except that they are most definitely Anglo Saxon.