Staying ahead of the late-night reverie

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 1996, 12:00am

Readers' enthusiastic response to last week's column, which dealt with classic witty headlines, has persuaded the Spice Trader to return to the topic. Here's an inside peek at how the tradition developed.

Picture the scene. We're in a shockingly untidy office in Fleet Street, London, circa 1985. Your Humble Narrator is staring at the grizzled old news editor before him and the words of a song flash through his head: 'Hold me, love me, hold me, love me, ain't got nothin' but love, babe, eight days a week.' The words of the Beatles' song did not sum up my feelings towards the crabby old man, as death by torture would have been preferable to touching him.

No, they referred to the working system imposed on the newspaper business by British trade unions. News editors hiring headline writers had to pay them a day's wage for every seven hours in the office. This meant eight days' pay or more for every five days' work.

The unions also had ensured that work took as long as possible - they had banned computers, so all the writing had to be done with scratchy ballpoint pens.

The result was a communal and creative atmosphere at the tabloids, as teams of sub-editors would sit around developing puns until the early hours.

The Guardian had started the tradition to have puns in headlines early this century. (A classic British headline from the war: 'Eighth Army push bottles up Germans'.) But the London tabloids and a few US newspapers (such as the New York Daily Post ) had picked up the habit in the 1970s. By the 1980s it was a competitive art form.

So for sessions of seven or 14 hours (or sometimes more - this writer once did 28 hours) we sat there, dreaming up title after title.

Tutor castigated for spreading communism while teaching? - Black marx.

Welfare scrounger caught working for firm fixing leaks in welfare payment office? Fiddler on roof Here are 20 gems from the collection of Fritz Spiegl, a British media-watcher: 1. Meat shortage: MPs attack minister 2. Queen sees Fonteyn take 10 curtains 3. Man who received trousers loses appeal 4. Ex-alderman dies: one of eight axed by Tories 5. MPs cheer Bill on homosexual behaviour 6. Councillor had to go in a hurry 7. Foot to head joint body 8. Our women lick male sportsmen 9. Mounting problems for young couples 10. Man in Thames had drink problem 11. Girls plump for new university 12. Newly weds aged 82 had problem 13. Councillors to act on strip shows 14. Spotted men stealing salmon 15. Minister to stand firm on fish 16. Neutron bomb talks 17. Fish talks 18. His Gas Comes From A Hole 19. No Water - So Firemen Improvised 20. Women who smoke have lighter children Today, the tradition has spread worldwide, and humorous headings can be found in newspapers around the world (including, very occasionally, in the China Daily).

Almost no topic escapes the punster's reach.

Remember last month's scandal about the Scottish Roman Catholic bishop who ran away with a woman? The Sunday Express told readers: 'Shamed Bishop Seeks Missionary Position'.

Bizarre headlines often appear on business stories because of the jargon used. Last Saturday, Bloomberg titled an electronic news item: 'Investors Are Going Bottom-Fishing in Thailand'.

A story title from the sports pages which made sense to those who know sports terminology, but amazed others: 'British Girl Has to Scratch'.

The crime pages often feature absurdity: 'Police Shoot Man With Knife'.

Old sub-editors reckon it was the need to enliven long, late-night working sessions that led to the creation of the funny headlines.

But the unsocial hours mean tired writers often write titles which are embarrassingly obvious.

These examples from US morning newspapers were sent in by Amrita Dhanji, of Baguio Villas: Study Finds Sex, Pregnancy Link - Cornell Daily Sun Malls Try to Attract Shoppers - Baltimore Sun Teenage Girls Often Have Babies Fathered by Men - Sunday Oregonian Low Wages Said Key to Poverty - Newsday Fish Lurk in Streams - Rochester Democrat and Chronicle But boy, was it intense. I can recall the first time I had to say 'no' to old Zak, my old tabloid news editor in London. He was filling in the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week work roster when I broke the bad news to him.

'I'm not coming to work on Saturday,' I said. 'I'm getting married.' He didn't even look up. 'What time you are getting married?' he asked.