When subs attack: or, how I learned to stop worrying and not read what I wrote

As a callow youth of around 25, I landed what, for a guitar player, was the equivalent of a weekly op-ed piece in the Sunday Times Magazine: I became rock columnist for the Guitar Magazine. I wrote like a fool, naturally – a witty fool, but a fool nonetheless. But people liked my foolishness, and unlike my peers, I produced pretty clean copy on time, and to order (I discovered how difficult it is editing musicians during my sojourn as techniques editor). Now I never read what is published, in case I end up doing a Giles. Once, however, I did just that.

Picture a telephone conversation (ignore the rather mixed metaphor). An old student calls: ‘Robert Plant is going to sit in with my old guitar teacher’s band. Sing some Elvis covers in a country pub outside Birmingham. Fancy going?’ Oh, if I must …

Well, less a pub than an extended living room, with a landlord dedicated to sampling his wares, and, wouldn’t you know it, impersonating Elvis. Cue one set in full Las Vegas regalia. Then the special guest does his thing, and afterwards I ‘mention’ my guitar-journo demi-god status to a couple of guys. I promise I’ll refer to the gig in my next column – a reference only twenty or thirty people can hope to get, and only two will actually read. But two happy readers …

It went something like this: ‘ … and that’s about as likely as turning up to a country pub outside Birmingham to find Robert Plant singing Elvis covers while Elvis himself is serving behind the bar.’ Perfect. Two happy readers with the ‘I was there’ smugness.

Publication. I read ‘ … and that’s about as likely as turning up to a country pub outside Birmingham to find Robert Plant singing Edith Piaf covers while Elvis is serving behind the bar.’ Cue Giles.

The sub’s excuse? It was funnier. ‘But’, said I, ‘it isn’t true, whereas what I wrote WAS.’ I fumed. They pretty much stopped subbing me (dammit, I didn’t need it anyway).

And the lesson? Hell, I don’t know. It’s just the story I tell every time I meet a sub. Oh, no, the moral is simple. When it comes to stuff that isn’t grammar and spelling, or elegance of expression, and you find something that looks a bit odd … just mail the damn writer! They may just know something you don’t. True, they probably won’t, but the one time you don’t check …

Semiotic trichology

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of greying hair does not want distinction. Women, on the other hand, tend to treat the first indication of silvery whisps with horror, as if they are usurping threads deserving only of immolation. Well, maybe just dying. Or ought that be dyeing?

Hair, wherever it is found (and yes, the pillow counts, too) occupies an uniquely interstitial place with regards our identity.

The body is, give or take a few gym sessions, stable. It is rare that it can shift far or fast enough to materially affect either our sense of self, or others’ sense of us. Yes, it’s true to say that there are corporeal changes which can radically adjust our sense of self, but these are generally deeply traumatic, or involve the mere giving of a name to a problem which already exists. The assignation of an emotive word to a purely physical problem invariably causes problems. To whit a recent headline in the Guardian:

Comedy is a way to survive

Laura Linney on TV after her father’s cancer death

Now, there are several problems with this – and, note, it was an article serving as PR for the aforementioned actress’s new vehicle, The C Word. I’ll maybe bleat about that soon.

The first is the rather dreadful phrase ‘her father’s cancer death’. As was pointed out to me, this rather implies that this was merely one of his deaths. Presumably it was the final, fatal one.

I also wonder about ‘Laura Linney on TV’. Does this mean that for her TV has been changed by his death, or that she’s, er, on TV after his death (in a sort of temporal sense)?

[disclaimer – by the way, I’m talking about the headline and standfirst. I cast no aspersions on either the actress or her late father. If you misconstrue, then it’s you, not me.]

Perhaps the most pernicious is ‘Comedy is a way to survive’. Now, I don’t know about you, but when you have the words ‘survive’ and ‘death’ in the same construction, it suggests to me that they are connected. Plainly, her father didn’t survive. Just as plainly, the actress did. I presume Ms Linney was never in any danger, so comedy didn’t make any difference to her. I also presume that she has not been at death’s door since. It certainly didn’t help him in the survival stakes.

[I refer the hyperventilating reader to my previous parenthesis].

So, utterly fucking stupid bit of subbery. Don’t use survive as a metaphor (it’s crap, anyway) for ‘cope’ when you use death in its literal sense (that is, death) immediately afterwards.

So, adding the word ‘cancer’ makes people feel much, much worse (and those around them much, much more mother Theresaish.

So. the body can change things, but only slowly. The speedy change comes verbally.

Clothes can effect instantaneous change. But clothes are an accoutrement. They are not part of us, but a facade erected in front of our us-ness to enable us to assert ‘what we want us to be-ness’. You are most certainly are not what you wear. You merely wear it.

The hair, however, is very different. It is simultaneously part of us and a facade. Simultaneously us and not-us, real and contrived. If you meet a woman you haven’t seen for a while, you automatically compliment her on her hair. It’s practically foolproof.

There is nothing quite like the hair for allowing instantaneous and radical changes to both our sense of self and that of others. Shaving off one’s beard, for example, completely changes the way you feel, and how people look at you – especially if, like me, your beard is speckled with grey. It’s especially effective if you’re a girl, of course … consider how many looks a girl can rock. She can go from slut to sophisticate, from chav to cheltenham ladies college in half an hour.

The simple quantity of elderly men who rock the 50s rocker’s DA is astonishing. Old habits, and old signs of tribal allegiance, or perhaps simply old projections die hard. (with or without comedy). Style your hair as you did when you were 18 and you feel 18 again. If only for a moment.

Styling one’s hair changes your mood. If you have long hair you can wear it down, or up … it changes your mood completely. And for those of us with long hair, considering chopping it off is utterly terrifying. It’s saying goodbye to one’s youth. One’s youthful identity.

Fuck. It’s growing up.

Next time you visit the hairdresser, don’t tell them how you want them to cut your hair. Just tell them how old you are, and how old you want your hair to be.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always comedy.