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Crocodile tears

23 Feb

“OH, my good lord. ‘Crocodile bites man’s testicles during Zimbabwe river crossing’.” The Misfit places her dish of Moroccan cous-cous on the desk and moves closer to the screen, screwing up her eyes and nose. “Oh, my good lord.”

“Sounds like a good story,” says the Leek Man. “Is that running on the PA foreign wire?”

“No it’s on Digg,” she says. “But I think it’s come originally from a website called the Global Post. Listen to this: ‘Zimbabwe man attacked by crocodile while crossing Chivake River suffers bites on his testicles and penis, but credits a box of tomatoes with saving his life’. Oh, my good lord. Fancy having a crocodile hanging off your penis. Fancy having anything hanging off your penis.”

The Leek Man’s back stiffens and he growls: “That is absolutely horrendous. The last part of that sentence says he credits a box of tomatoes with saving his life. How badly-written is that, for fuck’s sake? It gives the impression the box of tomatoes jumped in the river, wrestled with the fucking crocodile and pulled the man back to the bank. Don’t they read what they’ve written before they send it into cyber-space, these morons who blithely debase our language and murder professional print journalism? Jesus effing Christ.”

“Ooooh,” says the Misfit. “I was going to copy that story and slide it in as a nib on page 26 for the second edition, but I don’t think I will now.”

Leek Man: “You can still do that, but it needs rewriting.”

The Misfit: “Okay. What shall I say?”

The Leek Man, who has by now got the story on his screen: “A Zimbabwe man who was attacked by a crocodile while crossing a river suffered bites to his testicles and penis – but he managed to save his own life using a box of tomatoes. Second paragraph: Meanwhile, up river, a sub-editor from the Nitherley Observer and Bugle tracked down a bunch of semi-literate, spotty-arsed tossers from an internet news provider and crushed their inadequately-developed bollocks on a rock using a hard-backed copy of HW and FG Fowler’s The King’s English applied forcefully beneath a size-ten hiking boot.

“That do yer?”

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Window of opportunity

15 Feb

I CLIMB the stairs to the Deputy Editor’s office to find him leafing through a leather-bound volume of the defunct Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society accounts. I notice a long metal object, shaped like a truncheon, on the desk next to his telephone.

I pull up a chair and gaze around the semicircular office at the wonderful things he’s managed to amass over the years: thirteen clocks, an Imperial typewriter, a set of Russian dolls, piles of railway magazines, a cobalt-blue Codd bottle and a complete set of I-Spy books. On the floor are more metal truncheons. These are a recent addition.

“What are those things that look like truncheons?” I ask, curiosity getting the better of me. “Truncheons?”

“Ahhhh . . .” he says, peering up from his account book. “They most certainly are not truncheons. They are cast-iron weights from sash windows. This one here on my desk is from a Regency window. The ones on the floor are largely Victorian. But the history and development of the sash window can be traced back as far as the 16th Century – in Britain at least. In Holland they go back even further. Did you know that Blenkinsop’s Foundry in Pontefract was a major producer of sash window weights?”

“Fascinating,” I say. And he laughs, because he knows I’m taking the piss.

“What brings you up here to my lonely garret, Pork Chop? Not that I want to be distracted, because I’m working on a piece for my Yesterday Today series and these accounts of the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Co-operative Society are a mesmerising goldmine of facts. Did you know that one of the most popular commodities the Co-op provided in its early days was white doorstep paint? Doorsteps in Newbiggin – a colliery community – were all painted white, apparently, so that the women had to scrub them every day to keep them clean.”

“Fascinating,” I say again. “I just wondered why the Editor has been summoned down to head office. Is there something in the wind?”

“Ooooooh . . .” says the Deputy Editor. “I’d be surprised if he knew himself why he’s been summoned.”

“More jobs going? More redundancies? Another wave of terror and bloodshed about to sweep through the offices of the Observer and Bugle, Nitherley’s great family newspaper?”

“God, I hope not,” says the Deputy Editor. “I don’t expect there’s much demand for collectors of sash window weights.”

“I don’t expect there is. What about doorstep painters? There might be an opening there. Is there still such a thing as doorstep paint?”

“I say, what a splendid idea. What a marvellous way to make a living. Hang on and I’ll Google it.”

I watch his fingers – more used to clattering the Imperial typewriter – fumbling across his keyboard. The clocks begin to chime 9pm. One buzzes.

“Gosh. My goodness. There’s plenty of doorstep paint on the market. Ronseal do tins for £6. That’s cheap.”

“Charge £10 a doorstep.”

“It’s the future. My word, the past is the future.”

“Yesterday Today.”

“Everything that goes around comes around.”

“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

As I rise to leave, he says: “I can’t go into business by myself, Pork Chop. I’ll need a partner or an apprentice – someone to stir the paint.”

“Put my name down.”

“Can you come up with a snappy company title?”

“Step On It.”

“You’re hired.”

The bus stops here

14 Feb

NITHERLEY Borough Council has spent £5,000 on installing a bus stop on a road where no bus has ventured for four years – and the residents are fuming. This is the Nitherley Observer and Bugle’s splash for tomorrow and the Leek Man is working on the Front Page. A small group of people has gathered behind him to watch the page come together – and offer advice.

Conversation 1 – Search for a headline:

Editor: “We want something snappy – not your general splash headline. Is there a catchphrase from On The Buses that we could use?”

Tony Malone the Assistant Editor: “You ’orrible little man, Battler.”

Editor: “Thank you. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘Stop this madness’. Gerrit? Stop, as in bus stop? And we could do the word ‘stop’ in red.”

Leek Man: “What about: ‘Bus stop ding-dong’?”

Editor: “Ding-dong! I like that.”

Tony Malone: “But why ding-dong? What has that got to do with buses?”

Leek Man: “Because when you’re on a bus and you want it to stop at a bus stop, you push the button and it goes ding-dong.”

Tony Malone: “No it doesn’t. It goes ding-ding. ‘Bus stop ding-ding’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Leek Man: “Jesus. Split fucking hairs, why don’t you? ‘Bus stop ding-dong’ is just the ticket. It says it all and it’s witty as well.”

Tony Malone: “It sounds like Leslie Phillips should be involved.”

Editor: “I know. What about: ‘Stop this ding-dong’? The word ‘stop’ would be in red. Or, better still, what about ‘Stop this madness’? Have I said that already?”

Conversation 2 – The headline comes together:

Editor: “Right. This is where we are. We have the words ‘Bust-up’ in big red letters, and below have an underline that says ‘over bus stop’. ‘Bust-up over bus stop’. That’s great. What do you think?”

Leek Man: “I think it would look better if we had an overline instead of an underline. It would have more impact.”

Editor: “Yeh? Go on. Elaborate.”

Leek Man: “Something like: ‘Ding-dong over bus stop ends in . . .’ and then have ‘Bust-up’ in fucking big in-yer-face 124 point caps underneath.”

Editor: “Like it, like it. ‘Ding-dong over bus stop ends in . . . Bust-up’. Great stuff.”

Tony Malone: “But isn’t a ding-dong the same thing as a bust-up? Aren’t we saying the same thing twice?”

Editor: “Yes. It just needs some more work. But we’re on the right road. Unlike the bus stop.”

Leek Man: “What about ‘Bus stop mix-up leads to . . . Bust-up’?”

Editor: “Yesssss . . . Back of the net. That’s it. Go with that. Get it on the page and print me a proof.”

Conversation 3 – Fine tuning:

The Deputy Editor has emerged from his office with a pile of I-Spy books under his arm. The Editor calls him over.

Editor: “What do you think of the Front Page? Get this headline. ‘Bus stop mix-up leads to . . . Bust-up’ What do you think of that?”

Deputy Editor: “Hmmm . . . Do you need a hyphen in Bust-up?”

Editor: “For fuck’s sake. Of course you need a hyphen. Bust-up has a hyphen. It’s the sort of word hyphens were made for. It demands a hyphen.”

Deputy Editor: “Then shouldn’t bus stop have a hyphen as well?”

Editor: “No it fucking shouldn’t. Bus stop is a noun.”

Deputy Editor: “Bust-up is a noun.”

Editor: “Yeh, but bus stop is a different sort of noun, innit? It’s a real noun. One that exists.”

Leek Man: “I’ve got a better idea. Scrap the whole thing and just have two words: ‘BUS STROP’.”

Editor: “Yesssss . . . Another in the back of the net. BUS STROP. Does it have a fucking hyphen?”

The salt of another earth

9 Feb

IT was the second shock of the evening and it rocked the building. The first was the resignation of Fabio Capello as England manager. That caught everyone on the hop.

But we rallied instantly and ripped apart the Front Page. The previous splash – a story about more deep cuts at Nitherley Borough Council – was relegated to Page 7 to allow Capello’s face to glare gloomily beneath a banner headline that said CAPELLO OUT: REDKNAPP IN?

The page was finished for 10.30pm. We sat drinking coffee and watching the press reviews on Sky News, unaware that an even greater quake was about to shake us from our chairs and dislodge ceiling tiles.

One by one the front pages of the nationals were held up to the camera. Capello was there, his spectacles glinting, his downfall sudden and complete. Then came the surge of magma that cracked the walls – the Daily Express’ splash headline:

8 INCHES OF SNOW IN NEXT 24 HOURS

Editor: “Jesus fucking Christ. What the fuck are they on at the Daily Express?”

Leek Man: “Another fucking planet, that’s what.”

Big Bernard: “It’s fucking winter. It fucking snows in winter. That’s not news.”

Deputy Editor: “Absolutely splendid. Another bizarre Daily Express weather-related front page for my burgeoning collection of bizarre Daily Express weather-related front pages.”

That was last night. The world has recovered and the tectonic plates finally settled. I rise mid-morning, and after breakfast glance at the online version of the Express, just out of curiosity. The intro reads:

BRITAIN is braced for up to eight inches of snow today as temperatures fall to -15C.

I glance out of the window. It’s raining softly here in the North-East and feels quite mild. I might do a spot of gardening. But the second paragraph leaves me scratching my head.

It will be so cold that even the salt spread by gritters may not work.

A strange use of words. Does salt work? Can it be broken or malfunction? Would you return a packet to the supermarket and say: “I’m sorry – but this salt doesn’t work”? Perhaps the Leek Man is right. They’re on another planet at the Daily Express. A very cold one. Where the salt doesn’t work.

Taking the myth . . .

7 Feb

BIG Bernard is sifting through emails on the newsdesk. He suddenly recoils in alarm.

Big Bernard, to the subs desk: “Hey. We’ve had a complaint about the public toilet competition headline in this morning’s paper. Listen to this:

“Dear Sir. May I draw your attention to the story about Harrogate public toilets winning the lavatory of the year award and record my utter revulsion and disgust at the headline: ‘Public loo is top of the plops’. No doubt this gave some of your intellectually-challenged staff a chuckle – perhaps all of them – but it is yet another example of your publication descending into the gutter of popular media and immersing itself in filth.”

Leek Man: “Tell him to get a life.”

Big Bernard, thrusting back his chair: “Hey. Should I write back and say our original suggestion for a headline was: ‘Town loo is cracking crapper’? But we changed it because although crapper is a genuine word – coming from Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the Thunderbox flush toilet and the man who gave his name to crap – we took into account our ill-educated, intellectually-challenged readers getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and being unnecessarily offended. So the headline that actually appeared was in fact a genuine attempt to please the largely ignorant public and raise a smile on a dull February morning with some wittily-crafted words. Shall I do that?”

Leek Man: “It would certainly be one avenue to go down.”

Big Bernard: “Or should I just point out that ‘plop’ is not an offensive word?”

Leek Man: “That would, I think, be the safest option.”

Meanwhile, as this conversation is taking place, I consult Wikipedia – the destroyer of false truths and urban myths – which has discharged into the sea of polluted knowledge the following nugget:

Thomas Crapper: Contrary to widespread misconceptions, Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. He did, however, do much to increase the popularity of the toilet, and developed some important related inventions, such as the ballcock.

It has often been claimed in popular culture that the slang term for human bodily waste, “crap”, originated with Thomas Crapper because of his association with lavatories. The most common version of this story is that American servicemen stationed in England during World War I saw his name on cisterns and used it as army slang, i.e., “I’m going to the crapper”. The word crap is actually of Middle English origin.

Which just goes to prove something or other. But I’m not sure what.

Going out of style

4 Feb

IT’S late at night and the office is empty. I’m waiting for a phone call from a man eighty miles away who, I hope, is going to tell me he’s received all the pages for tomorrow’s edition of the Nitherley Observer and Bugle and his press is rolling. Then I can go home and sleep.

I’m browsing the internet and have landed on a site called Grammar Party. It’s a blog about the finer points and intricacies of the English language, written by a young woman who is obviously passionate about the subject. She’s just uploaded a piece called Titles of works: italics or quotation marks. She delves into the Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Style Book.

When you care about words, how sentences are constructed, how to get your message across with clarity and accuracy, you read stuff like this. It reassures you. It touches a nerve in your brain that warms your body because the realisation dawns that there are other people in this world – perhaps thousands of miles away – who share your concerns. So I read her piece as I wait for my phone call.

Then I leaf through this morning’s paper, and in a story about illegal travellers’ sites notice the word Gypsy spelt in two different ways. And I recall a conversation from the previous evening.

Trout Man: “I say, how do we spell Gypsy these days? Dashed if I can remember.”

Mrs Strop: “Upper case G with a Y.”

Trout Man: “Could have sworn it was lower case G with an I.”

Mrs Strop: “No, it’s upper case G with a Y. They facking changed it.”

Trout Man: “Gosh. Just as well I asked. Things do reinvent themselves rather rapidly these days. Can’t keep up.”

There was a time when we adhered, with an almost religious fervour, to the Westminster Press Style Book, as did most British regional newspapers. Style was upheld, it was the identity that shaped your product, a benchmark of quality – and it was enforced by an angry man with an em-rule who barked across the office if you inadvertently spelt “advisor” with an E instead of an O.

Now style has become a casualty of the headlong race for the digital Holy Grail. It’s lying in a ditch at the side of a road while people who don’t give a toss about the English language upload badly-written copy onto newspaper websites in the unproven belief they are the vanguard of the future.

Meanwhile, people like me – sitting in an empty office while the rest of the world sleeps – are being made redundant in their hundreds, while clinging stubbornly to the certainty that readers don’t just want a stream of real-time information, they want quality, an experience, and reassurance that values still exist and are zealously defended.

The phone rings and a man says: “Wi hev aaahl yer pages, marra. Divvent hing aboot. Get yersel hyem.”

The English language: it bends and it flexes, it plunges and soars – it binds and enlightens. I switch off the lights and walk through a dark and empty newspaper office, comforted by the knowledge there are tiny beacons of hope all around the world.

When in France . . .

24 Jan

IT’S afternoon conference and Barry the Business Editor’s having trouble pronouncing the word “barrage” – as in Thames Barrage. He pronounces it like a posh person might pronounce garage.

A few words of explanation. Up here in the North we pronounce the word garage “garridge”. Whereas posh people tend to opt for a pronunciation which, when converted into ink, might be spelt g-raahge. And that’s how Barry is pronouncing barrage. He’s saying b-raahge.

“Yeh. Like. This Doncaster firm called SpikSpan has a contract that’s going to create fifty new jobs doing engineering work at the Thames B-raahge.”

I can see eyes making contact with other eyes in the room. I get the impression something has been discussed after the lunchtime conference concerning Barry’s pronunciation.

The Editor says: “Say that again.”

Barry says: “Say what again, Boss? The whole thing? Didn’t you catch it?”

Editor: “No, just the word b-raahge.”

Barry the Business Editor senses something is amiss, like he is being set up. His smile does not alter, but something flickers in his eyes. I feel a little bit sorry for him. But he has a rubber skin, and stuff bounces off him like welding slag off a steel plate.

Barry, with a good-natured smile: “Thames B-raahge.”

Chuckles throughout the room. The Editor throws himself back in his executive’s chair like executives do: “Barry, I bet you pronounce garridge as  g-raahge, don’t you?”

Barry: “Yeh, well, I think you’ll find that’s the proper pronunciation, if I’m not mistaken.”

Editor: “Yeh, well it might be in France, but we’re up here in the north of England. And up here a g-raahge is a garridge and a b-raahge is a barrage. And on top of that, I don’t think the proper pronunciation of barrage is b-raahge anyway.”

Barry, still smiling: “Well I’m terribly sorry and I’ll just fuck off back to my desk and write my story.”

Editor: “Yeh. Bon v-yaahge.”

And despite feeling sorry for him, I’m wishing someone would ask me what I had for dinner so I can say boiled beef with c-baahge. But no one does. Which is probably just as well.