On CMJ, and stickling


There’s nothing like a well timed death to boost sales.  Dark thoughts rose to the surface when I noticed the autobiography of the cricket commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins, recently deceased, enjoying new prominence on the shelf at WH Smith. Not that the stackers are all that reliable I suspect, to judge from the presence of The Faringdon Branch Line and Uffington Station, a slim paperback volume of local history optimistically priced at £17.99, on the best sellers shelf alongside Miranda and Jamie Oliver.  Perhaps the author of The Faringdon Branch Line and Uffington Station works at WH Smith.

CMJ was not on my shopping list but I leafed through a copy hoping to find details of an incident when the commentator found himself at the centre of an ugly political row in the Caribbean, with rioters demanding his head for something he had said on air, or perhaps written.  None of the obits or tributes had found space for this story among the cheerful accounts of CMJ going to the wrong cricket ground, losing his golf clubs and trying to phone the newspaper with a TV remote.

I could not find the story but lit instead upon a passage that has CMJ complaining about the way his copy was subbed at the newspaper.  The heat of his fury, undimmed by the passing of decades, steamed from the page.

Since I was too mean to buy the book, I am paraphrasing from memory:

‘I would send something like this (long and intricately woven sentence of many subclauses) and I would read something like this (another very long sentence, much the same as the first but with a small omission, compression or punctuation change).  Unbelievable!’ 

This came as no great surprise, having read CMJ on his travels through the broadsheets, and found him to be a punctilious and schoolmasterly writer whose sticklish approach to his craft sat more comfortably in the honorable tradition of factual reporting than soppy modern colour writing.  On one of many occasions when CMJ – the late CMJ, as he was known long before his passing – was late for his turn at the microphone, one of his colleagues suggested that he was probably looking for the semi-colon button on his mobile phone.

I like the semi-colon too, and am often derided for my exaggerated reaction to tiny changes in published articles. Of course I remember every instance.  How long have you got?   Only the other day – well, all right, three and a half years ago – a literary editor who done ought to know better changed ‘… but that was in the nature of the subject’ to ‘… but that was down to the nature of the subject’.  Unbelievable!   

I once had an article published in The Guardian about off-piste skiing, from which the word ‘off’ was repeatedly omitted. No one noticed.  

You expect this sort of thing when dealing with newspapers and magazines, or should do.  But I assumed the book world would be different and was shocked to find the Provençal village of Bourdeaux changed to Bordeaux and the word ‘sadly’ misused, as in ‘the Hotel du Louvre, sadly closed,’ along with other sly changes that had been slipped in without reference to me.   I fired off an email to the publisher demanding the right to make corrections when they do a reprint.  That day has sadly yet to arrive.    

On other occasions, perhaps more often than we know, we owe our editors a big thank you for correcting our howlers.

I was all set to choke on my Horlicks when I noticed that the proof reader had changed the title of Michel Polnareff’s pop classic ‘La Poupée qui dit non’ to ‘La Poupée qui fait non,’ but luckily checked before registering my complaint, because the mistake was mine.  Well spotted, indeed.

One of my favourite sub-editorial howlers is in a cutting from The Times of Nov 16th 1935, on display at Aberdovey Golf Club, in the Bernard Darwin room.  It is a golf article about slicing, in which BD recalls the man who at eight of Aberdovey’s first nine holes, as they were then laid out,  ‘sliced his ball from the tee on to the railway line and in one instance the ball was carried in a passing train to Glandovey Junction where it presumably changed for Bath and Aberystwyth.’  Some clever clogs on the desk had uncorrected Borth to Bath.  I doubt ‘our special correspondent’ was best pleased.       

CMJ and I are not the only fussy ones.  Listen to John ‘proud to be a pedant’ Humphrys.  Lynne Truss’s surprising success with her grammar books confirms that stickling is in fact rather fashionable.  Radio presenters on pop channels are forever correcting one another about less and fewer.    

My cycling friend Galaxy is another.  He has so many hobby horses, they could contest  a busy steeplechase.  If you want to wind him up, say “Not sure I’ve got my keys.  Hang on while I double check.”  If you ring up on Tuesday and ask him to come and stay ‘next weekend’, he will accept gladly and turn up on Saturday week.  If you meant ‘this weekend’ you should have said so.  

When a national newspaper attributed the word ‘nice’ to him, as a description of a ski run, he kicked up the most awful stink.  Naturally, I worried that some of the things I wrote about him in France On Two Wheels might annoy him, and for the sake of our continuing friendship showed him the draft in advance, offering to consider if not necessarily implement any changes he wanted.  

To my amazement, he had only one serious objection.  I had quoted him as saying to the keeper of the implausibly cheap Auberge du Truel, ‘can I move in?’  He would never be able to face his mother in law again if that appeared in print.  Kindly change to ‘may I move in?’ 

I declined, on the grounds that no one would say ‘may I move in?’ in that context, and furthermore he hadn’t.  We agreed on a compromise: ‘do you mind if I move in?’ 

I am sure CMJ derived huge satisfaction from exposing the sub-editors’ crimes after all the years.  Now I have a blog, and no one to blame for my solecisms and sloppy sentences.   


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