October 19, 2007
FRED WEHNER retrieves the back bench bibles from his bookshelf for a refresher about how subs were supposed to do it, when they did it.
GIANT CHEESE KILLS TWO: THE LESSONS OF LESLIE SELLERS
Leslie Sellers isn’t God. Yet to anyone of the journalistic persuasion then at the very very least he’s Heaven plc’s Mass Media Supremo (Print Branch).
He was Production Editor of the Daily Mail, whose style lived on not just through him at that one newspaper but all over the Street. Still does today among those who care.
Here’s one line of his: ‘The full stop is the greatest aid to simple English ever invented’. You can’t put a finer point on it than that!.
Here’s another: ‘Always try to make the first word do some work. Make sure it’s a strong one’. All of this man’s pronunciations were equally definite. Like a headline he proffers in a chapter on style: ‘Giant cheese kills two’.
Back in 1968 I wrote for Campaign magazine. But the page to which I always turned first was the one with the picture of this pipe-smoking gentleman wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a determined look.
Here was the ‘Sellers On Style’ column, an enormously gratifying and fun read every week, guaranteed. The wizard of words also did three books on subbing and writing, details on which later.
Right now, however, bores and haughties beware! With his wand raised and sharpened, Sorcerer Sellers is out to pop you.
He rails against long-windedness, especially the tortured sub-clauses that put the reader through a mental mangle. ‘Say as much as is needed to make the meaning absolutely clear – and no more’. Therefore: ‘Nothing that can’t be absorbed at first reading ought to appear in a newspaper,’ he growls. ‘Yet day after day, week after week these jigsaw puzzles get into print’.
I will spare the reader his examples at this point.
And he hates pomp and posh. The bride wasn’t ‘attired in’ – she wore. It wasn’t ‘prior to the luncheon’ - it was before lunch. And he didn’t ‘endeavour to suborn the chief sub’ – he ‘tried to bribe the swine’.
In places Sellers is obviously dated, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. He mentions the ‘chairman’ of the British Women’s Total Abstinence Union, not, as the politically correct Nazis would force us to write today, the ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’.
For reporters and writers, he outlines what is and isn’t news, though. For instance if the aforementioned Abstinence bigwigette (clearly a female who’d be no fun at all in bed) gets pinched for drunken driving – of course it’s news.
A lot of this is just common sense, just enjoyable to read in the Sellers style.
There’s a warning about the over-use of adjectives and a long list of misused words. His own much favoured word is ‘nadgers’; he christens a pop group The Nadgers and a blind fit thrown by the printer as ‘the screaming nadgers’
His favourite place is Oswaldtwistle and in general the names he uses in his various examples are often smile-inducing. There’s the mechanic Fred Slopstone, the clerk Charlie Slot, Brigadier Archibald Node, the Bugsworth Guardian...
Foreigners? In addressing Arabs, for example, have no consistent order of names, he says. But ‘large numbers of them are colonels or generals,’ easing the problem of how to include them. If still confused, best to wait for an established style to emerge from the country in question, which ‘should be within hours of the coup d’etat anyway’.
Also: ‘Far Eastern names have the surname first. That splendid Korean gentleman Lee Bum Suk, was Mr. Lee’.
Which brings us to double meanings. Here, he says, journalists need a dirty mind – in order to avoid the sniggers. He quotes two splashes in major newspapers: the Evening Standard smirker ‘Out Comes The Wilson Chopper’ and The Sun’s ‘Chichester Conquers The Horn’ about round-the-world sailor Francis. Plus a Sunday newspaper he doesn’t name censuring a naughty priest with: ‘Go Unfrock Yourself’.
All this notwithstanding, the pleasant-looking man with the Sir Geoffrey Howe look, the briar and the oh-so-Fifties parting on the left, abhors vulgarity and attacks it on several fronts. Wallowing in sex cases is a major no-no, with the exception of the News Of The World, but otherwise... can’t even use ‘crumpet’.
And yet; ‘French Push Bottles Up German Rear’. This heading from Sellers might send those politically correct Shtummtroopers reaching for the duct tape to shut him up. Can Frogs and Krauts still be insulted in this fashion?
Some of his pet hates: Three-deck splash headings, straplines, abbreviations in headlines that slow the reader down. Also ‘if’ intros, misquotations, circumlocutions, officialese... But he likes appropriate use of cliches and Americanisms.
Leslie’s lectures are illustrated with highly entertaining examples, sometimes pictorially. In his sermon about captioning he cites a story about a guy’s ‘hair-raising trip’ and then shows the accompanying picture. Sure enough, the fellow’s a baldie.
And a warning to reporters who like to juice up their prose. ‘Beautiful blonde Gloria Stretch’ then the picture: ‘an old scrubber with a navy-blue parting and one of her false eyelashes falling off.’
Great stuff on how to crop – even turn - a photograph to create a particular effect. Nine different ways, for instance, of treating a head-and-shoulders for ‘bringing out the features’ or the ‘gay tilt’ or ‘a bright come-on look’ – these latter not solely for radio’s Julian and Sandy.
Sections cover every possible aspect of subbing. How to keep marks neat for the printer, write headlines, choose the best font - ’Oh Mr. Univers are you the type for me?’
The drop intro? He doesn’t like them (gulp! because I like using them). Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s wrong, he says, because the average punter is reading it standing in a bus or in the 4 ½ minutes he’s waiting for a train and wants it quick. But then he’s really talking about news here, not features.
Sellers’ books weren’t cheap thirty-odd years ago at 45 bob up to L5.50 (Pounds 5.50). Today anyone fixing to buy one should be prepared to spend between 50 and 150 quid, although occasionally you might find a dog-eared copy of one for at a bit less.
That one’s The Simple Subs Book (1968 Pergamon) which I’ve seen for thirty nicker and here one should note the missing apostrophe in the title that, grammatically speaking, ought to come after Subs. It’s a beautiful omission that creates a sly little double entendre. A grammatical felony he would allow in, in certain extreme circumstances, to make a point.
His initial opus was Doing It In Style (1968 Pergamon again) which was probably God-the-Father to the other two, and the final tome is the 258-page Keeping Up The Style (1975 Pitman).
They were, all three of them, Back Bench bibles. Still are. A bit preachy, yes, but full of what one reviewer called ‘the roisterousness of behind-the-scenes in editorial offices’.
There was only one printing on all three, which is a sad thing because whatever Fleet Street has become today Leslie Sellers’ straightforward approach to subbing and writing will always be the guide. At the Daily Mail Chris Clark was keeper of the faith.
I am fully aware that we’re waiting for the full story on ‘Giant Cheese Kills Two’ - the murdering curd.
Yes, well he doesn’t explain whether it toppled and flattened the duo or whether the greedy bastards ate themselves to death on it, but none of that matters. The point he makes, by contrasting this with another in which ‘Giant ape kills two’ is about correct spacing and balance in headlines, ‘one of the most important aspects of newspaper design’.
Not even whether the French pushed it up the German rear. Sorry.
Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.