In praise of Alan Coren

My fellow Cherished Colleagues might know that I have a thing about Alan Coren. Every time he crops up on this site, I tend to leap in to trumpet my lifelong (from age 14) passion for the man’s writings. The last time he was mentioned directly was pb’s post

In my comment thereon, I said that I was off to find and re-read the tale of the retired ‘Grauniad’ proof reader. I am nothing if not a focused individual, albeit of the tortoise persuasion if Janus is to be believed.

So, been there, found it, read it, enjoyed it and intend to share it with the Cherished Colleague community. I know it’s a bit long but I believe it’s worth the effort. As background for those who do not know, the ‘Grauniad’ was notorious for years for misprints and complete gibberish, proof reading-wise. Much better in that respect in this digital age, but why spoil a good joke? This is the tale in question:-


The Head Proof Reader at the Guardian retired last night

He strolled to the window, and gazed out over the darkling garden. It was strange, not to be girding his loins for the office, not to be sharpening his pencils, not to be buffing his eyeshield, not to be drawing on the snug regulation armbands to hold back his spotless cuffs against the omnipresent threat of undried ink.

He sighed and murmured:-

‘The curlew tolls the knee of farting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’r the leg,
The ploughman homeark Rangers 3.
Luton 788 (after extra tile).’

He sighed again and turned from the window, and glanced at his fine presentation bracket clock bearing the brass-plated legend GOOD DUCK FROM YOUR OLD FRIENDS AT THE NAURGIAD, and even as the tear pricked his eye, a blush suffused his cheek: he was no prude, but seeing the word DUCK in print like that, no asterisks, did, he had to admit, go against the grain. Ah, well, times changed; this was, after all, 9128.

The clock struck forty-three, and he reached for his coat.

‘Shdrlg!’ he called. ‘WzWzWzWzWzWz.’

‘All right,’ his wife called back from the kitchen, ‘but don’t be long.’

They had been married for many years.

How odd it was, being out in the evening, in his local, yet unfamiliar streets: all his working life, he had never been out much. Nights were spent at the Guardian, days were spent either sleeping or struggling with the crossword. He had started it in 1937, and it had become a totally absorbing hobby: once, early in 1953, he had nearly got a clue, but it eluded him at the last hurdle. He felt in his bones what the answer to ‘Did it carry Hannibal’s trunk?’ must surely be, but enelurg did not have the specified eight letters. The crossword was yellow, now, and brittle, after forty-five years of devoted fingering, but he was a persistent man, and and he would not give up easily. Perhaps now, with the elbow-room of retirement . . .

But it had inevitably meant that his local experience had been severely restricted, and it was not without a certain frisson of excitement that he entered the tobacconist’s, thus breaking the purchasing habit of a long lifetime spent in the kiosks of EC4, where the familiar traders well knew his little ways.

‘Good evening,’ he said, ‘may I have a packet of pork-tipped Serion Verses and a box of cont. foot of page 4, column 6?’

The girl twitched the sari more snugly about her slim shoulder, and looked uncertainly at him.

‘I am begging your pardon? She said. What are these items that you are requesting?’

He rolled his eyes, and shook his head. Years of meticulous attention to the Guardian’s egalitarian pages had, of course, left him free of all prejudice, but it had to be said that righteous impatience tended to take hold of him when he was confronted with those whose English did not quite conform to the lawless standards set in Farringdon Road.

‘Good heavens, madam!’ he cried. ‘You act as if you had never heard of them!’

At the cry, the proprietor himself emerged from the back of the shop.

‘What is appearing to be the trouble?’ he enquired.

‘This gentleman, replied the assistant, is asking for some, er -’

‘Serion Verses,’ snapped the ex-Head Proof Reader. ‘A perfectly ordinary packet of figs.’

The proprietor beamed broadly, and slipped the brass knuckles back into his apron-pocket, discreetly.

‘Aha!’ he exclaimed. ‘That is immediately explaining it! We are not selling figs, sir. This is not being our business.’

‘Dog Almighty!’ cried the customer. ‘I can see the bloody things on the shelf behind take in additional copy Minister said toady upon returning to 1 7/8 Downing Streen where delete South China sea insert Her Majesty the Queer!’

The proprietor slid his hand into his apron-pocket again.

‘If you are not leaving my premises immediately,’ he muttered, pushing his weeping assistant for her own safety behind a sturdy display of slightly shop-soiled and greatly reduced walnut whips, ‘I am having no other course which is being open to me but to call the policemen. Good evening.’

The customer ground his teeth, and clenched his fists, but turned, finally, upon his heel, and stamped out of the shop.

‘Send ‘em all back to Panistak!’ he cried; but not until he was well out of earshot, and not without an uneasy pang at this shattering breach in what had hitherto been a lifetime’s unwavering commitment. Indeed, so disturbed was he by the incident that he did not see the group of youths until he backed heavily into them.

‘OY!’ shouted the leader. ‘Are you asking to have your bleeding face trod on, grandpa?’

‘Are you asking to carry your teeth home in your bleeding hat?’ enquired a second.

‘Would you care to end up,’ said a third, removing a cycle-chain from his boot, ‘as two gross of Bic Macs?’

The ex-Head Proof Reader raised placating hands.

‘Lads!’ he declared. ‘We at the Naurgiad have always been on your side! We understand your problems. The Hole Secretary is a crenit, it is theenviro6 which is set this italic bold condensed, it is the lack of yobs which is the cause.’

‘What?’ said the leader, through gritted teeth.

‘Yobs!’ shouted the perspiring well—wisher. ‘That is what is at the bottom of street violets! Britain’s yob-centres are -’

‘He ain’t ‘alf asking for it,’ grunted the second youth. ‘Shall we do him?’

The leader put his face close to his victim.

‘Eff off!’ he snarled.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Spell it out for him, Brian.’

So Brian spelt it out, The ex-Head Proof Reader smiled, and tutted, and shook his head.

‘No, no, no’ he murmured. ‘Forgive me, but it would have to be Dee off. Not, of course, that one blames you, the shocking state of our education syrglb is -’

After they blacked his eye and he was sitting on the pavement, they aerosoled the word upon his mackintosh, so that he would no longer be in doubt, and strolled whistling away.

It was thus not entirely unsurprising that when he eventually struggled to his feet and staggered in the hope of assistance towards two women, one of whom was wheeling a push-chair, they took one look at his wild expression, his torn collar, his disarranged clothing, and, above all perhaps, the bizarre message printed on his coat, and immediately screamed: ‘RAPE!’

He reeled, horror-stricken.

‘No!’ he shrieked ‘Me? Have you any idea to whom you are in yesterday’s edition we refurned to Ms Manny Whitehouse as Ms Manny Whitehouse, this should of course have read Ms Manny Whitehouse, we have always been -’


‘- the leading spokespersons in the defence of ladypersons against the oppression of gentlepersons! Great Dog in Hendon, ladypersons, we have stood up for buttered wives, yob equality, gay liberace, onanparent families, 7689.34%, on demand, free contraceptive pails, we have Errol Pizza, Jim the Tweeny, Pony Siddons …’

‘I’m afraid we had to put him in this jacket, madam,’ said the first policeman.

She stared at the wretched face gazing out of the swaddling canvas at her.

‘Didn’t he try to explain?’ she enquired.

‘It was after he tried to explain,’ said the second policeman,’ that we put him in the canvas jacket.’

The police surgeon came into the charge room, wiping his hands on a paper towel. He smiled.

‘Well,’ he said, he said, ‘he was definitely not drunk. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything you can charge him with.’

‘What’s his trouble, then ?’ asked the first policeman.

The police surgeon crumpled the paper towel, and tossed it into the metal waste-bin.

‘I’d say,’ he replied, weighing his words professionally. ‘that he was suffering from an inability to distinguish between the Guardian and real life.

‘There’s a lot of it about,’ said the second policeman.

The ex-Head Proof Reader’s red-rimmed eyes swivelled towards the police surgeon’s face. He licked dry lips.

‘ Is there a worm for it?’ he said.’ ‘

11 thoughts on “In praise of Alan Coren”

  1. Yesterday’s Guardian managed two howlers in one article, though not of the proofreading variety, more subediting. The Guardian’s being awfully European this week and had some recommendations from readers about their favourite places in France. One was for a restaurant we have visited a couple of times with a spectacular view of the Med, but it was described as being a few hundred miles away from the Med simply because the village where the restaurant is has the same name as a town between the Lot and the Dordogne. Nobody checked and it took me two e-mails to get it corrected. Another item had moved Saumur from the Loire valley to Provence. There were also some comments from German readers, complaining about misspelling of German words and sloppy reporting in the “special articles” on Germany.

    Thanks for the entertainment, JM.

  2. Hello John – I’m sure it must be difficult to step out from under you’re father’s shadow when he cast such a large one, but I wish that Giles Coren could be as incisive and witty without the expletives. If they must be used, at least use them for effect and not as a lazy substitute for a witty solecism. [#1]
    Of corse it may b that i’m just a silly old fart who can’t c that txtin is blurrin with rytin and expletives are really Chinglish were the meaning is in the inflection.

  3. Peter, have you noticed that even cherished jokes hereabout depend on f-words for their effect? 😦

  4. Difficult Janus – My sister (12 years younger), my daughter in law, some (senior)colleagues I used to work with, all bringing the f-word into general conversation. I couldn’t believe my effin ears at my first meeting with these colleagues. The nuns where my sister worked used to say ‘effin’ – perhaps aways accompanied by a silent ‘hail Mary’. Many years ago I watched a TV programme about a cultural event in the west of Ireland – swearing was the norm – so what the f*** do I know!

    PS Can’t recall Dave Allen swearing?

  5. Although I usually love word-play, this Coren article left me cold. It appears to me to be forced, over-egged, tedious and naff. But perhaps I’ve lost my sense of humour.

    Dave Allen, on the other hand, is always funny; thanks Pseu. 😎

  6. Bearsy :

    Although I usually love word-play, this Coren article left me cold. It appears to me to be forced, over-egged, tedious and naff. But perhaps I’ve lost my sense of humour.

    Surely not.

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