Tony was our chief sub on the weekly paper. He wore jeans with a crease down the front and a shirt with no tie, which was quite daring in those days. If he had a question about your copy he would stand behind you, while you were typing or on the phone, and wait. Not in an obsequious, I’ll just wait for your convenience kind of standing, but an I’m here, I’m God, you have done something terrible, and I will make you squirm, kind of way. Subs are always like that, I know, I was one.
Anyway, the possibility of having Tony standing behind you, with your copy in his hand, was frightening enough to make sure that we checked our stuff over and over again. Had the jury been sent out while the judge was making these remarks? And if so why was I risking a prison sentence for contempt by quoting him? Why was there no age for Mrs Snetterton, who had won the iced buns challenge in the Disley produce fete? How did I know that the mayor hated mice? And so on. Every statement had to be backed up with a quote from a real person (none of this, a source close to, that you see so often today). Every story had to check out, or Tony would spike it, and that would be that.
Of course what we had absolutely no control over, were the headlines. Tony liked a pun, Dave, who smoked a pipe and stroked his moustache a lot, was fond of twisting biblical phrases. Thus, every week you would be sure to find fete accompli over some picture of a garden party, or perhaps, amazing Grace about the musical talents of some six-year-old girl who had won a piano contest (which was ok if her name was Grace).
Editing copy was one thing, but it wasn’t until I got to an evening paper, as a sub myself, that I really began to appreciate the difficulties of writing headlines. First, obviously, it had to fit. You might be able to shave some of the space between the letters, but you couldn’t shrink the type. And it had to make sense. And it wasn’t to be boring. Unless the editor suggested it.
The search for a perfect headline has always led to some bizarre places. You get so into what you think you are saying, that you don’t always appreciate that your readers might see your headline in a completely different way. Pity the poor sub who wrote Queen Mum can’t come, and Burglars in below empty flat. Then there’s the famous World War Two offerings of Monty flies back to front, or English thrust bottles up the Germans. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Father of 10 shot – mistaken for a rabbit.
On the nationals the search for a perfect headline often became rather surreal. Vince, on one tabloid that prided itself on its high quality subbing, would lie almost full length on the subs table with arms outstretched, as if he were listening for trains, and mutter possible combinations of words to himself. Another bloke I worked with would, if in difficulty, go for a pee and write on the wall. Perhaps it was he who crept intothe ladies, and wrote under the towel dispenser,(an Advance Towelmaster) and be recognised.
Meanings were stretched to impossible lengths, but on occasion genius flared. Who can forget (well quite a lot of people actually, ed) the glorious line on the story about a couple who lost all their luggage on the way to their honeymoon in the Seychelles? Just a sarong at twilight. Of course. Or, the picture of a Native American, in full dress, complete with feather war bonnet, newly arrived in London and hailing a black cab. The headline was Where to, chief? Isn’t that brilliant? I always thought there ought to be a sub deck of him replying either, Bow, or Harrow.
But the prize for the most fabulously tasteless and bang on the money headline has to go to the now defunct News of The World. The executives were grumbling about the fact that the latest picture of one of the Kray twins in prison was rather boring, because it was just him having a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. That was until a passing sub looked at it and said, ‘I could murder another McVitie.’