Something to cheer us up on a Monday morning:
Bills are written by newspaper sub-editors. They are displayed by shops to tempt innocent passers by, and are part of that list of weird slogans yelled by street vendors (‘orrible murder, gitcher news ‘ere, standard! standard!) But, sometimes, the sub in question has an off day…
Images courtesy of Alistair McIntyre at the Daily Drone, the world’s greatest website
All pictures via Creative Commons.
Some more weird headlines:
If you are thinking of writing for children, I am going to tell you something vital: children are the last people who will read your book.
Really. Think about it. Ok, so you may have read your story to your kids, or your neighbour’s kids, but if you want to get it published and in a book shop you will have to get it past your agent, a publisher and an acquisitions panel. Never mind the adult who will wonder if it is suitable to buy for their child. And none of them is under 12.
Most authors starting out just think in terms of getting an agent. But as you can see, that is just the first in a long, and increasingly uphill, line of hurdles. I’ve had several children’s books published, and when you are writing to a publisher’s brief, however elastic, the process is pretty simple and very civilised (I have to say here that Oxford University Press are a really lovely bunch to work with). It’s when you go off piste and come up with your own ideas, that the problems start.
Let me tell you what happened to me. I wrote a story about a little girl who does something very naughty, but very funny. Agent loved it. Publisher (not OUP) loved it. Even my kids liked it (which was the biggest thrill). But the next step is the most important. This is when your book makes its way in front of the people who really matter; the accountants. Everyone involved at the publishing house gets together; editors, sales and marketing and yes, the bean counters, and they decide how much they are going to spend, and how much they will make. (Because, never ever forget, this is a business).
My book sailed through the first meeting (yay). Everyone round the table agreed they wanted a whole series about this girl and her adventures. (drinks all round, ed) but then I was told that the American branch wanted another look.
‘Piece of cake,’ said my agent, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Couple of days later, agent rang me up.
‘Can you make her older?’
‘Can you make the girl older? The publishers are saying that children never read about children who are younger than them. If you make her older, obviously, they will sell more.’
I thought about this for a bit. The girl in my story had originally been six, which was probably a bit young. I could make her eight, or possibly at a really big stretch, ten…but that was pushing it; any older and the whole glorious innocent silliness of what she does would be lost.
‘Can you make her 12?’ relayed my agent. ‘Because they could really maximise sales, then.’
I thought about it. I thought about it really hard. I was being offered the chance to launch an entire series of books, here and in the US about a character who made me laugh while I wrote about her. If I made her 12, I would have to change everything. She would no longer be the character I’d fallen in love with. I thought about it some more. I probably went down the pub and drank more than I should have done.
And then, I rang up my agent and said no. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t change her. And that was that. Publishers withdrew. Story put on virtual shelf and I went back to writing headlines for a living. Occasionally I wonder if I did the right thing. If I was in this situation now, maybe I would find some way of negotiating round the problem. Maybe not. But after writing this piece, I fished that story out of my files and I read it again. It still makes me laugh.
Picture from Canham, E. (2005) ‘Cinderella Stories’, in Driver, J. (ed) Oxford English Quest, Companion 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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.’
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.