Thursday, 18 June 2020

Thoughts on editing

Though I set up this blog to write about my writing, I rarely do that. The subjects covered are wide ranging and mainly stimulated by happenings in my day-to-day life and often focus on travel. So, back to books for a change and to that great improver of one’s writing – editing.

When I decided to write about this topic, one which is so close to the soul of anyone who writes, I happened to be reading Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words where he remarks that whenever anyone writes about editing there will always be an elephantine abuse of English somewhere in their text. So look out!

The professional editor’s basic role, as I see it, is to remove grammatical errors and typos, clarify unclear English and impose the house style of the publisher (things like the use of inverted commas, capitalisation, use of numbers such as 100 versus one hundred, use of slang, etc). Even this can cause problems between the editor and the edited.  When I wrote technical books they were mostly published by US-based publishers and it was one of these that changed the verb following a word I used extensively (data) from singular to plural: where I wrote ‘data is’ they substituted ‘data are’. However, general usage had settled on data as both singular and plural and the singular (datum) was little used. The publisher tried to insist on ‘data are’ so I checked out five previous books that they had published – all of them used ‘data is’ extensively. Other battles were not so easily won.

Many years ago, I met my first self-proclaimed lesbian in a bar in Georgetown, USA. The conversation began because she had a broken leg and her plaster cast occupied the stool between us, but that is by-the-by. It occurred around my ‘data is’ period just mentioned and I needed a shoulder to cry on, so I told her about it. She then confessed that she was not only a lesbian, but also an editor. However, her writers called her the ‘stealth editor’ because when they read the edited manuscript they could not detect what had changed, yet proclaimed that the outcome was better. I wished then, and many times since that she could edit my writing.

Before that incident, in fact years before I published my first book, I met an editor in a bar in Ipswich, UK he was, actually a sub-editor of the local newspaper. I was a minor contributor to that rag at the time through the correspondence column and my activities as chairman of the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. We were talking about beer and I asked him if he had read my latest article. What he said surprised me: “Oh no. I don't read content when I’m editing, if I did then I would miss the errors”. That’s the sort of editor I like, I thought.

Later, when I started up on my own, I launched a newsletter called VINE which stood for Voice in Europe. I wrote all of the content and felt very exposed since I had no one to check it over before printing. Fortunately, my old boss, Hugh Daglish, had retired just then and was at a loose end and agreed to layout each issue for printing and to check the grammar. His mother had been an English teacher, he had written a book on fonts and he knew little and probably cared little about the content. Perfect qualifications, and it worked well until his sudden death in Israel. I sold the newsletter soon after that.

Nowadays, I have two stalwarts who valiantly read through the books I write before I let anyone else see them. And, though we occasionally disagree about things like capitalization and starting a sentence with ‘and’, the process is amicable and enjoyable. And I am entirely grateful to them for spotting typos, grammatical errors, and so on. They also make useful suggestions about content which I often act upon. You know who you are, so thank you.

What has really spurred me into writing this blog is this: the editing of my latest book has been hell. The first phase went reasonably OK, though there were minor problems about English usage and so on – all exacerbated by the fact that the publishers were based in India. That done there was then an unexpected and very long second phase where a committee was formed to overview content. Now, admittedly, I was writing on sensitive subjects including potted histories of various famous figures from the Indian sub-continent, but my sources were all identified and I had no axe to bear in recounting their lives. The committee had axes! Whole swathes of the book were rewritten in a florid style completely unlike my own and including opinions, in my name, that I did not hold and could not justify. I was horrified and indicated that, despite my own considerable time and money expended on the book, I could not agree to its publication.

In the end, of course, compromises were found, tempers cooled and the book was completed (as I write it is yet to be published). But it will never be mine, not in the way that my others are. And I still dream of that stealth editor with the broken leg.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

End of an era in Oxford

Just recently I was asked to write something about being a walking tour guide in Oxford by the local Guild of Guides. The unexpurgated version of that article follows and provides a brief account of my transition from the world of telecommunications to that of guiding some fifteen years ago. As explained there, most of my work came through the vistor information centre in Oxford and today I heard that the centre is to close its doors for good: an early victim of Covid-19.

At one time the information part of the centre’s activities was funded by the local council, as most of these things are. That funding has run down over time and the centre then had to derive most of its income from the provision of walking tours. Apparently finances were not in a good state and, as with many marginal businesses, the pandemic has provided the final cut.

It is sad for me. I got to know many friendly and helpful people who worked in the centre and really enjoyed leading the so-called public tours with an audience made up of a variety of people from all over the planet. Still, nothing lasts forever and new blooms flower on the earth enriched by the old. Here’s the article I wrote, it may be my valediction.

Images of a tour guide vary so let me start by saying this: I only carry an umbrella when it is raining, I do not invent everything that I say (in fact I am not capable of that) and finally: I do not work for nothing – who does?

I started on the buses. I aspired to be an official walking tour guide in Oxford, but soon found that entry into the Guild of Tour Guides was not easy. Aspirants had to take an examined course and there were none scheduled at that time. Later I learned that courses are only run when a sufficient number of older guides had passed on so, short of arranging early demises for existing guides, I had to wait. So I started guiding on the buses: green ones at that time and labeled Guide Friday, presumably chosen to create an image of Robinson Crusoe’s native guide on his desert island rather the day of the week.

For that I was paid £5 per hour and was whipped around Oxford in that hour. This was a tad less than my rate as consultant in telecoms at that time, but hey, this was about changing my life, not about the money. The job was a bit repetitive, but had its challenges. At times we were racing around at a breakneck speed of twenty miles an hour, at others the bus was ensnarled in Oxford’s dense traffic or stationary whilst a crowd of tourists embarked each paying the driver in cash. This certainly improved my ability to prĂ©cis stories or to lengthen them. I became an elastic band of sorts. More exciting still were the sudden re-routes to avoid closed streets, accidents, etc. Suddenly I would find myself in a part of Oxford that I barely knew and one that often had no buildings of historic interest, in fact of any interest. So, I learned to improvise – but no, that still did not mean making things up.

I was back-packing in Turkey when I heard that the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides were planning to run a new course, presumably a sufficient number of older guides had expired at last. The course fee was quite a lot, I would have to pass an interview and there would be exams and test walks. All that was OK, but did I really want to do it? After my experience on the buses I wondered if, and this may sound arrogant, the role was stretching enough. I need not have worried. The course was great. I learned so much about Oxford that this in itself was worth the fee. And then the scope of the city’s history is so enormous that any attempt to master it is arrogance in itself. There is such a bottomless well of stories, characters, events and buildings in Oxford that the elastic band will always be stretched.

My very first walking tour, led just by me with no back up, no notes and no printed imagery (my own choice), was stretching. I was challenged just before the tour by an employee of my pimp – the then Tourist Information Centre.

“Where’s your badge,” she demanded crossly, “you must have a blue or green badge to lead the official tours.”

I tried to explain that I had passed the course and was now a member of the Institute of Tourist Guiding, but the badges had not yet been made. She was not impressed and I was discombobulated, but marched out to do my duty.

Outside a group of around fifteen people quickly assembled around me and I began my introduction, but was quickly interrupted by a large American lady.

“Will there be much walking on this tour? She asked, adding “I cannot walk very far”.

Nothing in my excellent training course had prepared me for this, so I answered, rather lamely, “Well, it is a walking tour.” Then, recalling that customers are always right, added, “but Oxford is a compact city. I’m sure you’ll be fine”.

One of the skills we were introduced to was crowd control, especially drawing in the group when the guide is speaking. Soon after my first public tour I led a private group, a group of policeman who were attending a bonding course of some sort. For all my efforts they insisted on standing well away from me and each other as if they had anticipated social distancing.

“What’s the matter?” I asked with a smile. “Don’t you like each other?”

“No,” they replied in unbonded unison.

I’ve been an Oxford guide for many years now and do regard the job as a profession. Through it we probably meet a greater diversity of people than in most other trades and I hope they are as enriched and amused by our brief encounters as I am.