24 July 2008

Sprat or prat

First the publishers took away the editors. Then they came for the sub-editors. Now, it is rumoured – and these days, rumours are so often true – that they are coming for the books pages.

Soon, all that will be left are the publishers on mahogany row, and a few underpaid, junior writers filing from home. What will the publishers do when – not “if” – they get a letter like the one below? I know what sub-editors would do: the next time this writer makes an error, they would be very tempted to “miss it” and leave it in. But then they would think again, remember their professionalism and loyalty to a publication, even if it wasn’t respected or rewarded by management.

The letter is by Giles Coren, the restaurant critic of the (London) Times, abuser of the shift key, winner of a Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and occasional host of TV programmes on topics like retro-food. He is clever, but not nearly as clever as his father Alan, the genius at Punch for so many years. (Apologies in advance for the foul language; I wouldn't want to cut any of his darlings.)


I am mightily pissed off. 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 here - if he had been I'm guessing it wouldn't have happened.

I don't really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn't going to happen anymore, so I'm really hoping it wasn't you that fucked up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. 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.

I wrote: "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."

It appeared as: "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."

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 for three reasons.
1) 'Nosh', as I'm sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German 'naschen'. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, 'nosh', means simply 'food'. You have decided that this is what i meant and removed the 'a'. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, 'nosh' means "a session of eating" - in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of 'scoff'. you can go for a scoff. or you can buy some scoff. the sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what i meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something i didn't mean? I don't know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And 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.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as "sexually-charged". I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word 'gaily' as a gentle nudge. And "looking for a nosh" has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. "looking for nosh" does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. 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. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don't you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. 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.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you've been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think "hey ho, it's tomorrow's fish and chips" - well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that's how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. i've got a review to write this morning and i really don't feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and i'm going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I've been writing for The Times for 15 years and i have never asked this before - i have never asked it of anyone i have written for - but I must insist, from now on, that i am sent a proof of every review i do, in pdf format, so i can check it for fuck-ups. and i must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way i can carry on in the job.

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.

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.
All the best

“Jack Sprat” image by B Clarke.

21 July 2008

Grease is the word

Continuing this musical gastronomy theme, I just found this memoir of the 1960s Australian rock band the R’Jays. It includes an entertaining (if dumb) chapter on their mid-60s sojourn in New Zealand and, elsewhere, this account of the legendary New Zealand jazz singer Ricky May:

A week at the Brighton with Ricky May was a musical treat. Ricky had a great casual attitude to life and was beloved by musicians one and all. His incredible sense of time and an uncanny ear for chords always kept you on your toes, and the band never knew what was going to happen next. I had played many times with Ricky before in a sophisticated nightclub situation so it was always going to be fun to see what he would to do with the pub crowd at the Brighton. Ricky wasn’t too pleased when he found out from his manager, Barry Ward, that as well as doing a spot every night he was also required to do one on Saturday afternoon. Ricky had just been around to the fish shop and returned to the bandroom with about twelve pieces of fish and a giant pile of chips and scallops.

When Mick Leyton introduced him we played his usual till-ready chaser and Ricky came on still wiping the grease from his hands. He then went amongst the Saturday afternoon audience and prompted them to clap along to the chaser. When he succeeded to get them all clapping in time, he ran through the audience and disappeared out the front door. We continued on with the chaser for about ten minutes until Barrie finally waved the band to stop. Mickey Leyton went out the front and apologised. “Look I’m sorry about this but I don’t think he’s coming back!” said an embarrassed Mick.

Followed by a few boos, we slunk back into the bandroom only to find Ricky sitting there with his feet up on the chair, gorging himself on fish and chips. Ricky smiled broadly and threw up his hands. “I’m sorry guys, I was so hungry I went round the block and came in the back door. I had to come back and finish my lunch,” said Rick.

Which reminds me that the Hardest Working Man in the Musical Fish & Chip Shop even called his group the Grease Band. This will be familiar, but maybe not as translated for a birthday feast:

18 July 2008

Sticky Fingers

Hat-tip for albums to: Our Lady of Perpetual Obsolescence Vinyl Rescue Mission and Orphanage

17 July 2008


Sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word. In the same week that the Pope congratulated Australia for its “courageous decision” to apologise for the injustices done to Aboriginals (and then apologised for the paedophilia scandal), an album by an Aboriginal singer has topped the Australian independent music charts for the first time. This is a significant moment in Australia, where over the years the charts have been a whiter shade of pale.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is 38, blind, and grew up in poverty 600km from Darwin. He speaks only a few words of English, is extremely shy, and sings in his native language: Yolngu. He taught himself drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo – all by ear, he doesn’t read Braille – and critics have been raving about his voice. It sounds like he is being groomed as the heir to the world-music-pop throne of Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic Bruce Elder wrote that the first time he heard Yunupingu, “My immediate response was that here, as far as I was concerned, for the first time was an Aboriginal voice of absolutely transcendental beauty.” Yunupingu may be new to being a solo artist, but he spent many years with the well-known Yothu Yindi band before forming his own Salt Water Band (the coastal version of LRB?).

Paul Hester once told me about the time he recorded an Aboriginal band in his Melbourne home studio. He asked them where they came from. “Fitzroy,” said the band leader, naming the inner-city shabby-chic Melbourne suburb that was then being gentrified. Naah, c’mon, said Paul: where did you originally come from?

“Fitzroy,” the band leader said emphatically. “Listen mate, we’ve been here for 10,000 years.”

14 July 2008

Here's Johnny

Wallowing in the 1970s and 1980s to dig the Rip It Up retrospective out of the archives tends to bring these things up.

When the news was announced that John Mellencamp would be touring New Zealand in December – for the first time, apparently – it was inevitable that my mind went back to when he first became known here.

It was a small but unforgettable story in Rip It Up, 30 years ago. John Mellencamp was an angry young man. He was 26, his career was going nowhere, he’d had a fight with his manager, and he had a wife, a seven-year-old and a 60-cigarette-a-day habit to support. And they wouldn’t even let him use his own name.

So when the mild-mannered reporter of a fledgling rock paper asked him the wrong question, Cougar - as he was then known - showed his claws. He went all Gordon Ramsay (the printer deleted his expletives), and to many people here, thats how he was remembered.

Five years later he would have a breakthrough hit, he'd eventually get his own name back, and become the Walmart Springsteen of the cornbelt. But at this stage he hadnt learnt one of the rules of rock’n’roll: be good to the people you meet on the way up, because you will meet the same people on the way down.

Left: the issue that caused offense, May 1978, and the eventual Cougar issue, September 1978.
What – no cover story?

Cougar pic © Murray Cammick

07 July 2008

Shaken not stirred

Number 8 wire and chewing gum can take you a long way. Back in March my friend Rosie told me about her friend Joseph’s “Rube Goldberg” machine Crème That Egg. It took its inventor Joseph Herscher six months to build (“and some very patient flatmates”).

At the time, it had 1000 hits on YouTube. It was given a generous piece on Campbell Live, and then it went gangbusters: it has now had 425,000 hits. The New Yorker featured it on their website. So did David Hepworth at The Word. Even better, Joseph has emailed to say some great things have come out of it:

I am going to San Francisco where I will be making a live Rube Goldberg machine for a gallery/museum in collaboration with another artist.

I just got back from Nelson. A high school flew me down to do a workshop making Rube machines.

I just finished another video, this time commissioned by 42BELOW vodka. Here is my latest Rube [below].
The Falling Water cocktail machine is filmed by Rewa Wright, and a recipe is included for those without the right equipment.

Hey Joe! Where you goin’ with that screwdriver in your hand?

03 July 2008

Funky Fried Chicken

Prince Tui Teka left the Ureweras at the age of 15 to join an Australian circus. He was billed as Prince Tui La Tui of the Royal Polynesians, and danced and sang. The audience didn’t need to know that he also drove one of the trucks and cleaned up the elephant dung. He eventually formed his own group, Prince Tui Teka and the Maori Troubadours. They had a convoy of caravans and Tui drove the truck.

His hobby, according to fellow bandmember Gugi Waaka, was collecting dead snakes that had been run over on the road. Some of them were up to seven feet long, and he would hang them off the bullbars. “At one time he had 54 of them, flopping around on the bullbars.

“Tui was the snake cooker as well as the snake collector,” Waaka told Mana in 2002. “The Aborigines told us us to cook ’em up, so Tui cooked them. They tasted just like chicken.’

Why does everything exotic – alligator, ostrich – seem to taste like chicken?