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 …

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