Scribble, scribble, scribble!
Yes, it is nice to be back, and particularly pleasant to be writing at last for the newsletter of The Society of Editors (Victoria). Readers with long trunks will recall that I was unhappy in 1979 when our colleagues in Sydney decided to call their association "The Editors" (even more unhappy in 1982 when we almost became "People in Publishing"). Now, in the space of eighteen months or so, I have been delighted to see the formation of The Society of Editors (Tasmania) and the official name changes of The Society of Editors (NSW) and The Society of Editors (Victoria). I think I cheered when the constitutional amendment was passed at our AGM. I don't remember that night in June as clearly as I might, actually, having very mixed emotions at the time; it is not every week, after all, that I move house, feel my car disintegrating around me (I have since written a little song about that: "A Pug With No Gears") and am made an honorary life member of something. But I do remember some things.
Stephen Murray-Smith made a very gracious, indeed impassioned, acceptance speech, in his inimitable manner making us all feel very proud to be part of this glorious profession. A hard act to follow, is Stephen. So I said: "This Saturday [27 June] it will be exactly two hundred years since Edward Gibbon finished writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- and do you know, there are still some people who haven't read it." I went on to say some other things equally appropriate to the occasion, until Vane Lindesay, on a point of order, asked the President "Is it too late to withdraw a nomination for honorary life membership?" and I sat down. Then it was Teresa's turn, and she was so overcome by exultant disbelief that she told us the one about the nun and the gorilla.
The best-known lines of Robert Burns
Gang aft a-gley
-- as I discovered when I checked them to correct my learned author's misspelling of "a-gley". (My learned author misquotes from memory in four languages; nor is he to be trusted in matters of fact; but I remind myself that his is the life of scholarship, mine but a check-it career.) "The best-laid plans of mice and men" -- no, that's not what Burns wrote, and even my learned author may be surprised when he reads in his own book "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley."
There are, I suppose, two kinds of misquotation. The first is simply getting the words wrong, and is fairly simply remedied. The second is the misuse of the quotation, whether the words are right or wrong, and I am not sure what you can do about this (except scream). My wife gets quite irritable when I correct or argue with people on our television set, which happens a fair bit. "Since then it's grown like Topsy!" says some amiable idiot; "It has not!" I cry. "It's more honored in the breach than the observance," says another, who means exactly the opposite, as I point out to him. "Aha, that's the very exception that proves the rule," says yet another, and proceeds to demonstrate that the "exception" is only apparent, that it in fact supports the rule -- by which time I've lost interest in explaining to him what galley proofs and "the proof of the pudding" have to do with exceptions proving rules. (And Sally has left the room, wondering why no-one ever warned her against marrying an editor.)
It is possible to look these things up. It's even better to read books that tell you about the pitfalls of misquotation, just in case you don't recognize them. Two such books, which I am enjoying immensely, and I hope am learning from, are Stephen Murray-Smith's Right Words: a guide to English usage in Australia (Viking, Melbourne, 1987) and John B. Bremner's Words on Words: a dictionary for writers and others who care about words (Columbia University Press, New York, 1980). It is obvious from their titles that they are about much more than misquotation. I will not presume to review them, not yet, but I will recommend them to you strongly. These are dictionaries to read.
I beg your rotten question!
There are fads in written and spoken English, words and expressions that appear suddenly, like a rash, and usually about as welcome. In the last six months I have noticed an extraordinary number of people in Melbourne writing and saying "This begs the question", when they mean that it raises or invites or provokes the question. Begging the question, as any dictionary should tell you, is assuming the truth of something that is to be proved. Bremner gives as example: "If you are trying to prove the existence of a deity, you beg the question if you state that a belief in God's existence is essential to man's sanity." SMS and Bremner also point out that begging the question does not mean evading the issue. Stephen quotes a professor saying "I'd like to beg that question." The professor possibly meant that he'd like to beg off that question, which, however inelegant, is at least English (as the bishop said of the actress). But I remind myself that, as Confucius said, he who pontificates should not burn bridges before coming to them.
The Society of Editors Newsletter, October 1987
The AGM, 1990
It was a drak and stromy, cold as brass, and the clocks were striking 18 as the boss and I walked up Grattan Street to the Asti. All I really need to know, I said, I learnt at the Editors' AGM: keep low, stay sober, don't volunteer. You skipped kindergarten too? she said. Oh yes, I said, the day I turned 3 I was out doing paper rounds. I don't believe you, she said, And you watch yourself, JB, or you could end up on the committee. Yes, ma'am, I said, but I knew I'd gone too far before we even walked into that room. The roar of blue biros, the smell of the crowd -- how it all comes back! Not that there was much of a crowd when Jenny and I arrived -- just Maître D and us, in fact -- but it wasn't long before the place was swinging, and I felt at home, dammit.
The AGM followed the accustomed routine: lots to eat and drink, Colin Jevons taps glass, President rises and welcomes everyone, committee members deliver reports, President delivers report, committee stands down, Vane Lindesay assumes chair, new President elected, new committee elected, everyone goes home. This year Basil Walby introduced some general business. He had been present at the RMIT School of Journalism's graduation ceremony and noticed that exceedingly valuable prizes were being handed out to people who topped their classes -- except in the Editing and Publishing course. Since our Society got this course going and takes much pride in it, Basil suggested that we go a step further and establish some kind of, well, you know, not the sort of thing that the multinationals can afford, prize. His motion to this effect was endorsed unanimously, and I can report that the committee has since allocated $250 for this purpose.
When it came to electing a new President, some fool with a sense of history exceeded only by his odd sense of humor and lack of decorum nominated Barbara Burton, who graciously declined, and Janet Mau was elected unanimously. . . . At the committee meeting on the following Monday specific tasks were given to the new committee members, and in line with ancient tradition the key posts of Secretary and Treasurer were given to absent members -- Michelle de Kretser (in Paris at the time) and Geraldine Corridon (in Mexico).
Ruth Siems, on behalf of the assembled and absent members of the Society, moved that the outgoing committee be thanked for their work, and this was passed with unconfined acclaim.
You blew it, JB, someone said. Yeah, back to the paper rounds, I said. Anything left in that bottle?
The Society of Editors Newsletter, July 1990