When I became the 574 478th journalist in the world to receive a forwarded link by email from a sub-editor friend in the UK about columnist Giles Coren’s little spat with subs on the Times, I knew it had to be fucking good. And it is. The letter has more bleeps than a Who Wants to be a Millionaire quizzometer with Tourette’s Syndrome.

My favourite day while living in England was Saturday, because that was when we’d buy a pile of newspapers and sneak back into bed for hours of coffee, breakfast and words. And my favourite words in any of those papers were written by Giles Coren, whose style as a columnist, and as a restaurant reviewer in the Times Magazine, represents everything I love about the genre. Forthright, funny, cheeky, audacious, outrageous, charming, impish, self-aware, informed, opinionated, publish-and-be-damned, all laced with a disarming soupçon of insecurity. And a little humility always leavens good writing, no matter how forthright the core of the piece may be.

All of this goes some way to explaining the man’s icy blast of an arguably onanistic missive to the hapless sub-editors in the Times subs room, who collectively must swallow his pique over the removal of an indefinite article from the final sentence of a restaurant review. Yes, one among their number removed “a” from “a nosh”, whereupon Coren tossed and fumed for hours before arising from sweaty sheets to throw his toys at his computer keyboard.

Like all good writers, he gets your attention from the first word. “Chaps,”

Whether in fact there are no women subs at the Times, or there are but Coren doesn’t know it, is unclear. One of the chaps is called Amanda, but I have a male friend called Beverley and another called Evelyn (who winces if you abbreviate it to “Eve”), and there’s nothing girly about either of them. Anyway, it is a columnist’s prerogative to leave something hanging.

“I am mightily pissed off,’ writes bestubbled, puffy-eyed Giles in his underpants at his keyboard, getting right to the point, as any good writer should. “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 there…” (He’s right, I wasn’t. Actually, I’ve never been there.) “… if he had been I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.” (Too right.)

To paraphrase, Coren had reviewed a restaurant in London’s Soho, opposite a venue called G.A.Y, which surely needs no explanation, and in an area flush with sexual innuendo. Getting into this spirit, he wrote a review laced with naughty nuance, ending with this: “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.”However, it appeared like this: “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.”This could be used as an example to fledgling writers who haven’t yet understood how important even the most seemingly insignificant word can be to a sentence. “Nosh” is just food. But :”a nosh”, in Coren’s bit of wordly mischief, is a blowjob. Read the paragraph again and you may be starting to empathise with the man and understand why it lost him sleep. No writer of his ilk would end a column just anyoldwhere. Damn right he should be outraged.

As he says: “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 … 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.” (Subs: do you think there’s a double-entendre intended with the ‘length issue’ comment?)

Despite provocation, I have never as a writer resorted to Coren’s demand that from now on any culled word is to be run by him. (“… 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.”) Anyway, it’s not the contributor’s place to give the subs instructions. That is the editor’s prerogative or at least the chief sub’s. One hopes that either Owen, Amanda or Ben is the chief sub.

One veteran Cape Town columnist had subs quaking for years; everyone knew that to change a word of his copy was verboten, which I always thought disrespectful on the writer’s part. It’s a two-way street and columnists are as human as the rest of us.

But, bless him, even in his ire the writer in Coren manages to come to the fore: “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.” (Subs: did he mean beard?) “You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don’t you read the copy?” (Subs: OK, there are limits. Lose the “christ”. It isn’t even capped, for fuck’s sake.)

If you thought that was the worst of it, you’d be wrong. “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.’ (Subs: Can we maybe compromise by excising two fucks and leaving two in? — Tony)

Sure, the boy is a tad too touchy about it all. But that is how it feels when a) you have the talent and skill to write well and b) a major newspaper thinks so too, and hires you, pays you and trusts you to give them your best work, and c) you deliver that … and some flunkey fucks up your copy, ruining your punchline.

The art of the sub is not to change for the sake of changing, or to cut from the bottom (unless the copy is atrocious and the writer unworthy of your professional respect), but to correct, massage, improve, trim where necessary and only where necessary, and to leave what is left of the piece wholly intact. Length really doesn’t count, if all of the essence remains.

Whoever subbed this column, by removing one tiny word, managed to fuck up the entire column, and Coren’s wrath is justified, if a teeny bit sweeping. I empathise with the man’s anger and understand how and why it kept him awake.
There’s copy and there’s copy. A lot of newspaper copy is shoddily written and is thus less worthy of a sub-editor’s respect. You pick up the piece, sigh, and get on with the job of rewriting copy that should have been written properly in the first place. It’s your job. But when you pick up a column by somebody who writes as well as Giles Coren does, you think twice and thrice before removing a word, especially in the denouement.

It seems like such a small thing, but it isn’t really. Think Mozart and Salieri and the latter’s complaint that in the former’s music there were “too many notes”. If it’s good, every note has its place and is there for a reason. Like a tower of cards, remove one and it all falls apart. That is how Coren felt about the removal of that seemingly little “a”. To him, that minuscule indefinite article represents the rudder on the ship; out of sight, out of mind, but without it the ship will go down.

My take is that the sub-editor who worked on the Coren piece was more Salieri than Mozart, or he/she may have thought thrice before hitting delete.

Giles ends his missive: “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”
Right, sorry to go on, but sometimes you’ve got to stick up for a colleague. And it’s just fucking not on, OK?
Tony

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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