natmegevans

Natalie Meg Evans' blog

When in despair, stay on the chair

I believe I am guardian of the worst sentence written in the English language, ever.

A big claim?  Read on.

In an earlier manifestation as a shoulder-padded, briefcase wielding London girl, I earned a living as a copywriter.   I wrote glossy corporate stuff, the kind that sits on coffee tables in company lobbies.   Sometimes I wrote company magazine articles and press articles.   Once, I wrote a long love letter for an illiterate ex-convict, begging his wife to come back to him, reminding her of all the good times they’d shared.   He talked (and cried) and I put it into words.

Jobs could be easy or otherwise, depending on the client’s ‘vision’ but I will never forget the most tortured phrase a client ever stunned me with.

In good Ronnie Corbett style, let me digress to explain why the sentence I term ‘the worst in the English language, ever’ pulled me into the abyss of despair.   I had left a safe job in a PR company to have a baby.  Going it alone as a freelance was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now.  People told me I was ‘brave’ in that tone of voice that implies, ‘doomed’.   Anyway, I gave up the day job in 1988 and it sort of worked.  The wolf hung about the door, but was kept from entering by good luck, credit cards and the fact that mortgage rates were low.   Electricity and gas bills were a laughable £60 a quarter.  I mean, that’s half a tank of petrol now.

Then came the exchange crises of the late ‘80s/early 90’s, and over a series of black Mondays and murky Tuesdays mortgage rates shot up to 15%.    In the same hideous week, I was sacked by all my mainstay clients who chucked their non-payroll staff over the side.   My husband (I had by then married the father of my babe) was steering a small business through the rocks and was unable to pay himself a salary.   Our outgoings shot to £1000 a month which was huge back then, with nothing coming in.   In desperation, I got a job phone-selling replacement windows.  I managed to sell not a single one.   I had a man eagerly sign up to buy a double-glazed conservatory, but that fell through when it turned out he lived on the eighth floor of a tower block.    At some point in this bad dream I was contacted by the client-of-a-former-client.  They were desperate to get a brochure out in time for a trade fair, and their PR company (my former client) hadn’t time to write the copy for them.  Would I?

Indeed, I would.  The client made recording studio equipment, and this was long before recording was digitised.  Their product range was speakers, synthesisers and big, black thingy-bobs covered in levers, knobs and buttons.   Their approach was deeply technical, they spoke a form of Klingon and they wanted two thousand words by Friday.  Oh, it had to be upbeat and sexy, short columns wrapped around photographs of their gizmos.  Plenty of quotable quotes too, please.  Normally, I would visit the company, stroke their products and interview the main parties.  But as it was now Wednesday afternoon, we agreed they would simply fax me background info so I could get going.    I stood by the fax, mentally preparing myself for a couple of late nights.   The fax beeped, and out came yards of close, black typeface.    Headings, subheadings, sub-sub-headings and biblical columns of Klingon.  They had photocopied and faxed their technical user manuals.

I tried to pull a story from it, a thread, a theme.  I worked clean through Wednesday night.   Thursday, having taken my infant to nursery, I carried on until it was time to pick him up again.   The minute my husband came home, I went back to the computer and worked continuously as night fell.   I am not a panicker by nature but I was facing the reality of having to ring the client and say, “Ummm you know your vital deadline?  Well, I blew it for you.”  At four am on Friday morning, I crashed head-first into that sentence.   I cried and prayed, please stop Friday happening.

At four-forty-five am, I heard the clink of the milkman.  Friday was by this time unstoppable.  So I stopped hyperventilating and thought;  write.  Just write.  Stop belly-aching what you don’t understand, jump in.    Start off each section with a verbal drum roll, as in:

“Sound-industry professionals love the broad choice available from La-la-la Company.  Backed by solid research and development, each and every one of La-la-la Company’s systems provide sound engineering solutions for a vast range of production environments. “

Bollocks, indeed.  But by now, the toddler was up and holding onto my knees in his pyjamas.  Having chewed pencils and paperclips for about thirty-seven hours, I got the thing written in eighty minutes.   Yes, it relied heavily on the marketing tripe I had digested over a ten year career in PR but La-la-la Company got its brochure to take to its trade fair.   I got paid.  I forget how much, probably about £500 which kept Team Us on the road for a couple of weeks.   And the experience taught me a hugely valuable writer’s lesson which I pass on to you in short sound-bites.

  • Believe in You
  • You can pull off tricky writing projects by gritting your teeth and staying on your chair.
  • Write through the sticky stuff
  • Five hundred words of clunky, cringe-making burble is worth any number of blank pages.
  • Once you’ve got black on white, you’ve got something to work with.
  • Forget perfection, forget dark night of the soul.  Ask, what does the client/reader want from the end product and just go for it.

Oh, and the Worst Sentence, Ever?   It was on page 47 of that fax and I’ve kept it by me for reasons even I don’t understand.  Here it is, with its original sub-heading:

  • Stereo Subgroup Module

This module provides a balanced mix to the stereo bus of the input channels which are routed to it, stereo width and balance controls being provided in the same way as on the stereo input module as well as eight auxiliary sends, one insert send, internally selected as either pre or post fader and talkback or tone to be selected to the group output as selected on the talkback or oscillator modules and each module can be routed to eight of the stereo group buses but self exclusion is built-in to avoid howlround problems.

Howlround problems?  I’ll say.  I’m crying all over again.

Thanks Phanzeen for translating this so brilliantly for me.  See comments.

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4 Comments

  1. It’s all about SOUND.
    The sound goes around.
    It can be eight times drowned or found,
    Before that same sound comes around
    Again. Imagine, you catch a bus numbered one to eight,
    Without hesitation or deviation, you thereon meet a mate.
    He’s a Dalek, very antisocial and in fact,
    He feels excluded and just shouts, “Exterminate”.
    Suddenly, like a Number Eight bus,
    The howling that was the word’s scream
    Stops. Trust us.
    Or that Man on the Clapham omnibus,
    Who knows, incontravertibly, what a sound
    Is and what it can be,
    As it grows and flexes, honed by his Libran rebus,
    Like Prometheus, bound or unbound.

    • Hey phanzeen, you've blown my mind.
      I thought I'd find
      a comment or two,
      trying to explain
      the insane
      but you've taken my head on a bus ride
      to the vortex where thoughts slide
      and words fly and
      ideas collide.
      I love your vision
      your rhythm innate
      I'd want to put your words
      up
      on a wall
      in the Tate

      • Thank you for the book token and mainly for the recognition by a Harry Bowling Prize Winner!! Just one more thing:

        Psychic Phenomena with an Omnibus
        With only about 36 hours notice of your competition to rewrite the worst “stereo” sentence, I did what you said and went for it. Later I thought of two better comments:
        “Best wraparound sound offering since the invention of the balaclava”; “Complete with manual that’s easier to read than a bus timetable.”

        However, I hadn’t actually read your Dark Flowering when I submitted my translation, (Dark Flowering has just won the Harry Bowling Prize – congratulations).

        Bearing in mind, when not writing, editing and promoting books and other enterprises, I work some of the time as a psychic MEDIUM, I have now read Dark Flowering, the extract. Wowee. There in the extract that’s available on your http://www.wordyhood.com site is the full reference to: “JEU DES OMNIBUS ET DAMES BLANCHES.”

        That really did blow me away. In itself it’s explained (paraphrasing your own words) as a pun on the genteel eighteenth century card game “Omnibus” (meaning “about everything”) and “dames blanches” is contemporary argot for the newfangled horse-drawn omnibuses in Paris. Obviously omnibuses went “around everything” as well as being “for everybody”, which is a better translation from the Latin, I suppose.

        As a final flourish, this “visual rebus” appears on a silk scarf by Hermes – no doubt previously the one they called Trismegistus, and guess what: he also wrote the first known treatise on Alchemy, which I am afraid is my lifelong poison.

        I’d say that’s what psychics call confirmation, hope we will find out “of what” in the not too distant future.

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