Media Types: Hero in the image of Dr Johnson: The sub-editor
Wednesday 28 April 1993
For him there are no picture bylines, no glamour of a regular column, no politicians seeking his ear or agents lunching him at Le Gavroche, no encounters with the rich and famous, no lucrative appearances on television chat shows. His gifts are unsung, his merits undervalued, his contribution scorned, his . . . (That's enough poncy phrases. Get on with it - Ed.)
Subs are the people who make sure there is always exactly enough material to fill each day's paper and that it bears some resemblance to sense. Their creative input comes principally in the form of headlines, and any gathering of the tribe eventually lapses into nostalgic recall of classics. One example of this high art must represent all the rest.
Many years ago, the Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson arrived in Southampton on a Monday, after crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary; at her dockside press conference, she complained that it had been an awful voyage and she had been violently seasick. A forgotten sub headlined the story 'Sick transit Gloria, Monday'. That, children, is true genius.
From the reporters' (or writers', as some preciously insist on being called) point of view, the sub is either friend or a tacky form of life that they are faintly surprised to discover has mastered the art of walking upright; it is a relationship now symbiotic, now hostile.
There are writers who consider their prose only slightly below God's on a good day and visibly bristle at the heresy of removing a comma; queries regarding style/ accuracy/ clarity/ sense/ grammar/ are akin to suggesting that their daughters sell their bodies nightly behind King's Cross station.
Others grasp the fact that if the sub does not understand their copy, there is a possibility the reader may not either; that an adjective should not be used as an adverb; that there really is a law of libel; that 58-line paragraphs written all as one sentence take on a certain tedious quality fairly quickly.
One common curse of the sub's life is the writer who inserts some alleged fact, adding the memo 'Subs please check'. By the time his copy reaches the subs, all known sources of checking are unavailable and the writer is in a wine bar without a telephone, surrounded by beautiful women inexplicably impressed by a 12-point byline. Back at the darkened office, the sub vainly consults the library, pores over reference books, and finally tosses a coin in despair. If the published fact is correct, the writer takes the credit; if wrong, it was the sub's fault.
But all this, of course, concerns the Good Sub. There is also the kind of sub who would brutally chop the final couplet off a Milton sonnet or cut the Ten Commandments down to six because they wouldn't fit the space; the kind who can take any well written piece and cold-bloodedly butcher it; who uses 'gilding the lily' in a headline and all the saints since Peter could not persuade him it's a misquotation.
Know him by his markings - shabby sports jacket and pullover, dirty fingernails, overweight, bored, impregnated with the faint odour of a four-ale bar, obsessed with the times of trains that take him home - and avoid him.
As the great Samuel Johnson said dismissively of the compilers of dictionaries, the sub-editor is a harmless drudge.
Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy
Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'
Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'
Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised
Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'
Islamic State: Pope is 'being targeted by Isis', Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See warns
Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton nude pictures exhibition cancelled after artist concedes photos were 'stolen property'
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
John Travolta addresses former pilot's gay romance allegations publicly for the first time: 'That was the lowest I'd ever felt'
Richard III: Two years after his body was found scientists discover how he died
- 1 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 Grandmas keep accidentally tagging themselves as Grandmaster Flash on Facebook
- 4 Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
- 5 Kanye West halts concert after two fans don't stand up - doesn't realise one is in wheelchair and the other disabled
£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...
£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...
Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketing Manager / Dig...
£28 - 36k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Senior Account Manager is nee...