Ode to the ancient sub-editor

Robert Richardson, who died aged 80 in October 2021

The following verse was written by writer and sub-editor Robert Richardson to entertain the troops at the Observer Christmas bash:

It was an ancient sub-editor and he stoppeth many libels,

Fowler's Modern English Usage and the ODWE were his bibles.

We met in the Bodoni Arms, it was his favourite venue,

He sat alone, a pint in hand, and made corrections to the menu.

"Pray tell me, master sub-editor, your secrets and your tricks,

"How many prima donnas you have saved from looking pricks."

He raised his head and gazed at me with a piercing, bloodshot eye,

“'T'would be my pleasure, sir," he said, "but I am rather dry.

"A double brandy will suffice; it helps soak up the ale,

"You get 'em in, then I'll begin to tell my subbing tale."

I hastened to the bar and bought the drink that he desired,

Convinced that what he told me would be sober and inspired.

Returning to the table, I set the glass within his reach

Then sat, a humble acolyte, as he composed himself to speech.

"In the beginning was the word, but which word we'll never learn

"Because a sub deleted it to avoid a widow turn.

"And in the Gospel of St John, one chapter seems too terse,

"Where the two-word sentence 'Jesus wept' appears as just one verse.

"A sub-editor did that, my boy, and I shall tell you why:

"He had to make a par somewhere 'cos the text was one line shy.

"And so it goes, from age to age, in every realm and land,

"You'll find the diligent sub-editor, a style book in his hand.

"We guard our Mother English tongue, keep her pure and unalloyed,

"Just see what dreadful things go wrong when our talents aren't employed.

"We'd have asterisked out those filthy words Lady Chatterley learnt from Mellors

"And if Dickens had but had a sub, his books would be novellas.

"We know 'can' from 'may' and 'may' from 'might',

"And never say 'less' when 'fewer' is right,

"We punctuate punctiliously and are alert for innuendoes,

"We can all spell 'desiccated' and don't rise to crescendos.

"Of grammar and of syntax our knowledge is formidable,

"Though frankly we don't give a toss about an unstressed syllable.

"To denigrate the sub-editor is the action of a moron,

"A word that very nearly rhymes with that little twat Giles Coren.

"When it comes to writing headlines, polysyllables we eschew,

"We have a taste for shorter words, like 'mull' and 'ire' and 'rue'. "

"Your wisdom overwhelms me, no counsel could be finer,

"But can you explain to me, I beg, the role of the designer?"

"Don't speak to me of that lot!" (He gathered spit - and spat),

"A paper needs designers like an oyster needs a hat.

"Oh they'll draw you pretty pages, you can't change them 'cos it's art,

"Then once you've made the copy fit, they rip the thing apart.

"The reason why they do that is a mystery to man,

"But I've a shrewd suspicion that it's just to show they can."

I feared I had offended him, my question had been crude,

But a treble double whisky put him in a better mood.

"And tell me of your colleagues, whose work is so essential,

"That I might dare approach them with demeanour reverential."

"Right across Observer the subs are brilliant, off the scale,

"The Times can only dream of such - and fuck the Daily Mail.

"But even with such talents, sir, once the story's in the queue

"And is eighty-six lines over, what magic can you do?"

The old sub smiled and shook his head as if he were amused

At meeting one so young and green and easily confused.

"Nothing is writ that can't be cut, that is the Subbing Law,

"Give me the Ten Commandments and I'll trim them back to four.

"Thou shalt not miss the deadline, or write in 'Subs please check',

"And if perchance you use a fact, don't get it round your neck.

"But the first of all commandments you must follow to the letter:

"However good your copy is, a sub can make it better."

"And yet," I ventured cautiously, "can what they say be true?

"I've heard tell that the management wants to get rid of you."

'''Tis true," the gloomy sub replied, now glugging down red wine,

"They got rid of the NGA, now we're the next in line.

"But mark my words, young journalist, the cup they drink is bitter,

"Mistakes will sprout like dandelions and literals will litter.

"Comment it may still be free, but faith in facts will shatter,

"Whatever garbage fills the space, that's all that's going to matter.

"And there will come a day, I fear, when one sub shall remain,

"Facing those damned accountants and battling in vain.

"He'll stand astride the subs' desk like that Dutch boy at the dyke,

"Until, professional to the last, he falls upon his spike.

"And as those bastards stand and jeer, a golden age shall cease,

"But not before his dying words: 'Has the lawyer seen this piece?'

"They'll bury him with honours, even Murdoch will be there,

"FoC will read the Lesson, Rev Indent will say the prayer.

"Good Spot will start the banging out, as flags fly at half mast,

"A choir of solemn hacks will sing 'Oh Sub, our help in ages past'.

"And in the years that follow that tragic last defeat

"You'll find the Tomb of Unknown Sub in St Bride's upon the Street.

"On either side shall angels weep, and proudly in between

"You will see a pencil, blue, crossed with an eyeshade, green,

"And on Carrara marble, carved in ninety-six point caps,

"You'll read subs' eternal question: 'Who wrote this piece of crap?'"


© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre