When I first left university I worked briefly for an investment bank. The phrase 'fish out of water' doesn't cover just how unsuited I was to this job, to that whole world. But I did learn some useful skills. One thing that the bank took very seriously, oddly, was the written word. Documents and letters were always checked again and again.
One day I was responsible for a letter to a client called Angus. The letter was, as always, checked by a number of senior people before it went out. But despite all that no-one noticed that the letter was addressed to 'Dear Anus.' The spell check didn't pick that up because 'anus' is a word.
Of course, Freud did have a hand in this. The client was a horrible man and we all secretly wished to insult him. But, for me, the incident has stayed in my head mainly because it demonstrated how a number of well educated people can look at a document carefully, even a short document, and fail to notice a significant mistake.
This experience came back to me recently when my memoir went off to be copy edited. I was pretty confident that not many issues would be raised. I've checked the book many times and a friend who used to work in publishing has also read it and picked up lots of minor mistakes. All done, I thought.
But I'd forgotten that lesson I learnt years ago. The copy editor came back with twelve pages of notes. They were all minor but also important. I really enjoyed going through those notes because they taught me many things I didn't know or had forgotten. Copy editors are amazing people. They know so much about language.
They can explain to you exactly whether it should be 'which' or 'that.' They know when Mum should have a capital letter and when it shouldn't. They sort out your en dashes and your em dashes. They make a decision about whether it is going to be 'ize' or 'ise' and standardise the document.
They raise issues such as - you say you travelled from Indonesia to Bali but Bali is part of Indonesia. Dead right. It should be Java to Bali. On one page you say that something was one hundred yards away but in the chapter before you say that something else was one hundred metres away. Do you want to go metric or imperial?
I have to say I love all this and I'm really impressed by it. I suppose I enjoy it so much because, as a word nerd, I don't often have the chance to spend time with people who are even more word nerdy than me. I also want my text to be as near perfect as can be.
And all this happens before we get onto the proof reading which is the last and final check. Again I'm thinking - oh the proof reader won't find anything much. But I'm probably about to be surprised again. That lesson I learnt so many years ago is one that none of us ever quite learn, I think.
Having said all that, I better check through this now and get rid of all the mistakes. Except I won't be able to, will I? Because I don't have that vital distance that enable the copy editor and the proof reader to do their job so well.
There's a Russian phrase I have always loved - no-one lies like an eye witness. Often it is true that the person standing closest sees least clearly.
(This photo is the first of the images in my book).