Sweetnes & Light

Purple Prose, Meet Blue Pencil

Line editing was once a literary art form practised at many Australian newspapers and magazines. As may easily be deduced, such editing involves a line-by-line examination of a piece before it is returned to the author for pre-publication refinement.

Quadrant, despite budgetary constraints common to the cash-restricted world of modern journalism, still employs several excellent line editors. Other publications do not. In fact, some publications known in their day for quality line editing no longer exist at all.

Back during my years at Time magazine’s Australian edition and the Bulletin—both now gone—I believed myself quite the useful line editor. It can be a delicate process, because you aim for improvements while not offending the author. After all, it’s going back to them, and you’d rather they get on with their rewrite instead of sulking and fuming.

It’s been a while. Let’s see if I’m still able to wrestle a wayward long-form piece into some kind of acceptable shape. First I’ll need a sample article. Here’s a likely one, from youthful up-and-comer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, of whom some readers may have heard. The following widely-lauded 1500-word piece lately appeared in the Guardian. Let the line editing begin:

“I recently spent some time in my childhood home of Brisbane.”

Unless your family owned Queensland’s capital, it was your childhood city.

“As we drove around the soft bend leading up to my family’s double brick house, I couldn’t help but reminisce. I’d travelled on this road many a time on almost all forms of transport.”

Not likely. Boats, aircraft, trains and dog sleds are not common on Brisbane suburban streets, softly-bended or otherwise.

“Driving in my new Alfa Romeo at 3am in the morning …”

Delete “in the morning”.

“ … walking to the bus stop when that Alfa Romeo lived up to its reputation by inevitably breaking down …”

You mean “lived up to the marque’s reputation”.

“Sitting in the passenger seat of the family car, my younger brother grown and behind the wheel, watching the familiar houses and trees glide by, I grew nostalgic.”

We’ve already heard about the unavoidable reminiscing. Move it along.

“How was 15-year-old Yassmina, running around this block, to know that a decade later, these streets would hold more than simple, happy memories of early morning jogging sessions accompanied by the soundtrack of feet lightly padding along the pavement, neatly wrapped in the still silence of suburbia?”

What exactly is wrapped in suburban silence here? The pavement or your feet?

“How was 20-year-old Yassmina to know that … six years later, she would have walked away from her dream of working on a Formula One team …?”

It probably doesn’t qualify as a broken dream if you haven’t done very much to make it a reality. Slightly more background may be required.

“As my brother parked the black Honda Civic, I was overcome with a tidal wave of heaviness, a blanket made of lead that seemed to smother my soul. There was a strange metallic taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite name.”

You just did. By the way, the colour of that Honda is as much a pointless detail as the arc of your childhood street.

“Moonlight was shining through the blinds, glinting on tears that threatened to spill.”

So by definition they weren’t yet tears. Just big wet eyes.

“I could feel my face furrowing as I tried to make sense of my emotions. I swallowed, allowing my tears to run down my cheeks and turn the pale pillow cover a darker shade of blue, and I attempted to reckon with reality.”

By this point, had I been given Yassmin’s piece for final line editing after it had already passed through several previous hands, I’d have been seriously reckoning with the throat of whoever read it last and thought it worthy of promotion.

“What was this deep, cavernous sense of loss that had opened up in my chest? What was this ache in my lungs, making every breath feel like I was drowning, trying to take in air through a snorkel that was rapidly filling up with water?”

Brisbane sure is humid.

“Why did this whole house, this whole street, this whole city now feel foreign to me …?”

Were you in the wrong place? Happened to a friend of mine once. He left the pub very late one night, got on a train, arrived at a station then walked—using alcoholic feet-memory—to his house. Except it wasn’t his current house. It was the house he’d left several years earlier, and at 2 a.m. his angry ex-wife and her second husband weren’t at all happy to see him.

“Is it better to have been innocent and lost it, than to not have been innocent at all? In all honesty, I don’t know.”

Nobody else will, either, after reading this. For that matter, their total knowledge will likely have declined.

“I wanted this eulogy to be funny. I wanted to bid farewell to a Formula One career that waited for all the lights to turn on but never quite got off the starting mark.”

Formula One races begin when the lights go out, not on. Perhaps a clue there as to why Yassmin’s Formula One career never happened. You know, it might be a good idea to just drop the Formula One mentions altogether, because by now it’s sounding like someone regretting lost Tour de France hopes when they couldn’t be bothered riding a bike to the shops.

“I wanted to commemorate a broadcasting job that took us all by surprise.”

Not really. After all, it was at the ABC.

“I wanted to talk about the highs and the lows, the bits that make me laugh, the times that gave it all meaning. And there are lots of those moments. But when I sat down to write this eulogy, all that came out was grief.”

And that’s what comes out when reading it.

“It poured out of my fingers and soaked these pages, like rainwater in a drought-stricken desert. It’s actually annoying, really.”

One can only imagine. Squirt-fingers must be a terrible inconvenience when you’re filling in all those customs forms between here, the US and the UK.

“Grief is a visitor that overstays its welcome, and no matter how much subtle hinting at the time, it’s still splayed out on your couch, eating nachos and getting guacamole on your carpet. Turns out grief does what it wants.”

Spelling error. His name is Geoff, not “grief”, and my deadbeat brother-in-law is in my living room right now doing exactly what he wants. Sleeping at midday, evidently.

“Grief will turn up when you least expect.”

Not so. Geoff’s arrivals are precisely timed according to his welfare payment terminations. I keep a chart.

“Hell, you could be watching Happy Feet 2 on a plane, and grief will pop out of the oxygen compartment above, wave its hands in your face and make you miss the rest of the damn film.”

Sounds a little too active for Geoff. Fact-check this, please.

“Girl, get a hold of yourself! You ain’t dead yet! This is eulogy for your career, you indecisive millennial, not you. You’re still here, alive and kicking Alhamdulilah, no matter how much some may wish otherwise.”

Alhamdulilah most of all. Why is he getting kicked? What has he done to deserve this?

“It appears that I live in a burning house. Death lives down the road, pain is my roommate and grief is always turning up uninvited.”

There’s Geoff again. Maybe he’s trying to rescue Alhamdulilah from all those foot assaults.

“I’ve got new friends now. But your old friends are welcome to visit, of course. Maybe, maybe they can even stay. Maybe, we can get to know each other. Come through, I’ll put the kettle on.”

Please don’t put it on Alhamdulilah. The poor fellow has suffered enough.


I ONCE travelled all the way to a windowless store in remote Butte, Montana, because I’d heard that 1970s motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel really enjoyed the pork chop sandwiches there.

Another time I drove to a tiny Lancashire village to see the wreckage of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird jet boat.

And I previously abandoned Paris after learning that some joint near the German border housed an eighty-year-old train powered by four Bugatti engines.

There is a petrol-perfumed theme to my global wanderings, but I also tackle local assignments. The Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater recently called to ask if I’d drive to the New South Wales central coast for the purpose of inspecting a 1966 Wolseley sedan.

Nick’s interest in this vehicle lay in the fact it was originally owned by Dame Pattie Menzies. So I visited the Gosford Classic Car Museum, which is selling Dame Pattie’s wheels.

The Wolseley would be ideal as an MRC showpiece, because it is so perfectly emblematic of the Menzies era. It’s upright, British, delightfully stately and probably has impeccable table manners, for a car.

Nick may own it by the time of publication. My next quest: finding Malcolm Fraser’s Lancia, a positive legacy of his prime ministership.

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