My Brother’s In Trouble Again
Friday, 25 July 2008
I see my brother’s in trouble again.
I was standing at the till in Marks & Spencer, queuing patiently to spend £50 more than necessary on some basic household items, when my old friend Michael Arnold from the Vic called my mobile.
‘I think you might be interested’, came his familiar laconic drawl, ‘in pages 14-15 of today’s Guardian’.
There were newspapers near the till so I picked one up and leafed through it. Yes, my big brother has been harassing some poor sub-editor at The Times again, shouting and swearing (via email) at some decent, hard-working, underpaid individual who does a less glamorous job than Giles on the same newspaper. But while I was reading – am I a bad person? – I alarmed my fellow queuers by laughing out loud from start to finish.
If Giles had taken the issue of the missing ‘a’ only a LITTLE bit seriously, and been only a little rude, I might have told him off for it. But the language is so ludicrously hyperbolic that only a pompous arse could read it without laughing. Knowing my brother, he was probably laughing as he wrote it. Laughing and swearing and banging his fist on the table. (I may, at some point, have him sectioned.)
But the fact is, Giles is right. He’s 100% right. The ‘problem’ with his email (as expressed by dozens of disapproving online commentators) is that he is taking the precise details of a sentence too seriously. But the reason why he’s so infuriated is that he is sending an email into a world where people who work in newspapers can actually think it is possible to take the precise details of a sentence too seriously. Wouldn’t that infuriate anybody? Anybody who cared?
I remember going to a drinks party when a former editor of mine, one of my all-time favourites, was leaving. Another colleague entertained the group with a speech about my editor’s famous pedantry. Historic emails were read out, in which he had questioned exact grammatical constructions and pieces of logic in fastidious detail. Ooh, the audience fell about. Hohoho, what a loony! And I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill them for having jobs on a national newspaper – writing jobs, subbing jobs, editing jobs, which so many hundreds of thousands of people try and fail to get - and then thinking it was funny that somebody cared about language.
It just isn’t fair. Not fair. Those of us who grow up as linguistic ‘pedants’, who love the quirky, twisting internal logic of English spelling and try to respect it, who feel queasy at the sight of an apostrophe in the wrong place, who know that a joke can be made hilarious or humourless by the exact placing of a stressed syllable, should be able to get jobs as teachers or writers or editors without our colleagues taking the piss out of us for being wankers. Those are supposed to be the areas in which it’s okay to care about how things are written. If those people don’t care, who does?
A sub-editor on the Guardian should be ashamed to argue, as one of them does here that Giles’s email ‘lacks a sense of proportion’. What does he mean?
If David Marsh (the author of that piece) was a surgeon, a soldier, a fireman, or perhaps the nightwatchman in a cancer hospice, he might reasonably argue that Giles’s feelings about the importance of the last sentence in a restaurant review are disproportionate. But he’s a sub! He’s got a job in the writing trade! He should think that sentences are more important than anything else in the world! And if he doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be his job to order and edit and change and ‘correct’ the writing of people who care more than he does.
It’s particularly important with columnists, who write personal opinions with photographs of themselves at the top. We’re the ones who’ll get the hard time from people who disagree – we’ll get the online criticism from people who think we write badly, the hate mail from nutters. So we should at least have the right to make sure it is our own words that people are reading. If we aren’t the best judges of what makes good and funny writing, we should be fired and replaced. Until that happens, we should be allowed to make the final decisions about exactly what appears under our names – or at least be consulted.
You might say that Giles still shouldn’t have expressed himself so strongly. I can’t help feeling awfully sorry for the person who originally received that email – despite the fact that he or she then leaked it for revenge. But I don’t know that my brother wasn’t sensible to get the rudeness in first.
I once sent an email to an editor who had cut the end off one of my columns without telling me. Just chopped the end off and put it in the paper. I needed to tell him that it wasn’t okay to just remove things I’d written, and misrepresent what I was saying, without even warning me. But I opted for saying that in a rather cringing, apologetic, embarrassed tone. I wrote, inter alia
“I know you’ll think all of this is silly, and it is in a way – plenty of much easier people will just send in the stuff, ignore the word count, never even bother reading it on the page and wait for the money. But I care a lot… and it’s really demoralizing to get chopped and cut without any consultation, as if the words are just so much ink to be moved around for reasons of page shape. It’s been going on for years, literally hundreds of jokes have been ruined by editing of one sort or another. When you write comic stuff, you have to feel confident or you just stare at the screen in a spirit of misery and self-loathing. But I really am genuinely sorry to be difficult, and I will have another go next week if you’re up for it?”
He wrote back
“Don’t dare be so arrogant and presumptuous. The column was better without the ending.”
That’s where being apologetic gets you. So I can’t help admiring my brother, in making a point which is (in principle) absolutely right and proper, for making it with a bang rather than a whimper.