First, I’ll declare a professional interest. I’ve spent the last 16-and-a-half years on both sides of the subbing desk. I’ve seen my own copy butchered, and I’ve done the butchering too. Not without believing it needed it, for reasons of space or whatever, but that’s not the point.
However many times I read this, though, I can’t see it as anything other than a very minor celebrity with a vastly inflated sense of their own importance throwing their weight around in the knowledge that their victims can’t bite back. Bullying, I think they’d call it in most workplaces these days, and if I was one of the subs involved, I wouldn’t take it lying down.
Where to start? Well, there’s the fact that poor, sensitive Giles has been lying awake worrying about a single word in his column, and the fact that changing it ruined his would-be joke. Well, if they had mangled the facts, or changed it beyond recognition, I’d be with him all the way (in terms of the content of his letter, not the tone). But get a sense of proportion, for God’s sake – the lameness of the joke is all the proof you should need that this is not worth worrying about. Why doesn’t he just suck it up and live with it, like any number of writers? There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your work, but it’s not poetry, it’s not a novel, it’s not an academic textbook or a manual on which lives will depend. It’s a cruddy restaurant review that will already be chip wrappers. If he really is as witty and funny as he clearly thinks he is, why does he have to spend so much time explaining his jokes?
Much more annoying is the way he chooses to make his point. I’d be willing to bet he wouldn’t be too chuffed if the subs at The Times chose to write ranting letters (and leaking them into public) every time they came across some careless error in his copy. Why does he think it’s OK for him to do so? Quite apart from anything else, if they’re like the subs on every paper I’ve ever worked on, they’ll have a great deal more on their plate each day than a single sentence in a single article. Giles, on the other hand, has a succession of free dinners on his plate, and then gets paid handsomely for writing about them, in a style that can only be described as a third-rate imitation of the already terrible AA Gill.
If the style of the letter is anything to go by, he’s clearly one of those writers who thinks that even the most basic steps towards making an article ready for the page (using capital letters, for example) is to be left to the subs as well. If he hasn’t got the courtesy to make an effort, why should the subs, especially when the time they should be taking in fine-tuning his article has to be spent tidying up his slapdash presentation?
Probably the most arrogant part of it is “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”. Yes, because no one could possibly have a better ear for English than Westminster and Oxford educated Giles, could they (although you might think the foul-mouthed near-illiteracy of his letter makes a strong argument against that)? As for the Yiddish, how does he know that none of the subs know it better than he does? And finally, he’s writing in English, not Yiddish. Whatever the origins of the word ‘nosh’, the way the subs used it is just as correct, so tough luck if it ruins your pathetic pun, Giles. You’re writing for the mass-market, not your own private amusement.
As for demanding prior approval, and that the subs never change a word of his copy again without his say-so, well I guess that comes down to the contract he’s on. If he’s effectively a staff writer at The Times, though, I hope the chief sub is telling him even now where he can stick his prior approval.
“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.”
Can you feel your heart bleeding for him? Here’s an idea, Giles. Don’t write for the magazine, if you don’t want to. My guess is that your greed and lust for more and more media exposure will quickly overcome your scruples, though.
Last of all, there’s the put-on cheeriness at the start and end of the letter, so that he can always claim “it was just a joke” if anyone gets upset. And they will have done, I’ll be willing to bet, except they probably won’t fancy their chances in the editor’s office against this posturing fool, so they’ll stay quiet for fear of getting their P45. What they should do is get angry, angry enough to acquaint the pompous ass with employment law and their union rep. Or, failing that, the business end of a pair of Doc Martens.
There is one consolation, though, and it would have occurred to a restaurant critic whose head wasn’t firmly wedged up his own arse. I’d have thought every sub on The Times will now be queuing up to sub his column, giddy with glee at the prospect of coughing a large, metaphorical mouthful of phlegm into the tepid sludge of his prose. Good luck sleeping, Giles.