Sunday, 26 February 2012

A punctuated tale

It was the noise that caught my attention at first. A gently rustling, down amongst the weeds and wind-blown litter trapped under the bushes. Some sort of wild animal, a cat, perhaps? But as I moved closer, I could hear something else.

A gentle sobbing.

Pulling aside the branches, I saw him. And what an odd figure he was. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell what I was seeing at first. He was about four inches tall, no arms, legs or head. In fact, there were no features at all. He was vaguely rectangular, slightly thicker at one end and dark grey in colour; almost black, in fact.

And he was crying.

The shock hit me as I realised I recognised this figure. It was like discovering an old friend who’d fallen upon hard times. “Hang on,” I gasped, “I know you.”
He stopped crying momentarily and turned towards me. Well, at least I think he did. It was rather difficult to tell, what with the lack of a face.

“Go away,” he said. His voice was low, trembling. “I don’t want to speak to anyone. You’re all the same, you people. All those years of service I gave, only to be cast aside.”

For the first time I looked at the building in front of us. It was a fairly anonymous-looking place - a book shop - one of the major chains to be found in most large towns. And then I understood. I crouched down to his level. “You’re an apostrophe, aren’t you?”

“An apostrophe? The apostrophe.” He made a sound that was, I reckoned, the nearest thing to blowing a nose a punctuation mark could make. “For decades I was quite happy. I sat there, on that sign,” he indicated the fascia of the shop. “But then they decided that I wasn’t right for the digital age.”

“I heard about that. Something about apostrophes not being used in web addresses, that sort of thing, yes?”

The apostrophe harrumphed. I tried to brighten the mood.

“It’s not so bad, apostrophe. Look, for what it’s worth, not all of us humans feel the same.”

“Well, that’s as maybe. Right now I’m out of a job.” He paused. “I could use a drink,” he said, hopefully.

I picked the apostrophe up and dusted the leaf debris from him. Placing him carefully in my jacket pocket I went looking for a bar that didn’t look too busy. I didn’t want to attract too much attention, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what the licensing laws had to say about punctuation and hard liquor.

Twenty minutes later the apostrophe and I were installed in a booth at some place up a side street. I had a beer; he sipped fitfully from a Cosmopolitan in a shot glass.

“It never used to be like this,” he said. “There was a time when we were respected.
People knew how to use us and valued what we brought to the written word.”

“The indication of ownership and missing letters in contractions, you mean?”

“That is right. Or, that’s right, if you prefer. I mean, I understand that the English language changes, but we served a purpose. An apostrophe’s job is to make things more clear.” He hiccupped gently.

“I must admit, apostrophe, I never knew punctuation marks did much drinking.”

And as the empty glasses began to build up, he talked. He told me about the different personalities out there. Question marks are never satisfied, apparently. Always inquisitive, never pleased. Permanently on the lookout for answers. The apostrophe’s voice shows a hint of sadness as he spoke about them, as if he felt the question marks’ constant struggle for truth.

“And then there are the exclamation marks. Absolute berserkers, the lot of ‘em.”


“Oh yes. They start out a little excitable, like Labrador puppies. But over time they get a little...’Viking drinking hall’. You know what I mean?”

“I understand....I think. What about semi-colons?”

“Semi-colons; now there’s a bunch of drinkers for you. Seriously hardcore, those fellas. Completely the opposite from bullet points. Those boys are scarily organised. Almost obsessive-compulsive. Oh yes, we’ve all got different personalities, you know.” He snorted. “Just don’t get me started on full stops.”

“Full stops?”

“Smug little gits. The Internet has a lot to answer for, but promoting those jumped-up little specks of print is one of its worst crimes. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about the others. They can speak for themselves. Especially the quotation marks.”

“So when did it all go wrong for you, apostrophe?”

“I blame the greengrocers.” If he had a brow, it would have furrowed. “What’s so difficult about writing signs? I mean, I had a little sympathy when they were dealing with potatoes and tomatoes. But ‘apple’s’ started to creep in. What’s that all about? I ask you.” The apostrophe sighed, turning his attention back to his drink.

“I see.”

“And don’t get me started on ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’, or ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’ just brings me out in hives.”

“I’m sorry?”

He was getting his second, vodka-fuelled, wind. “It’s not as if it’s rocket science, is it? But the common-or-garden apostrophe has had its usage well and truly mangled for years. It’s enough to drive you to drink.” He regarded the latest empty glass, hungrily.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.”

The apostrophe’s tone darkened. “That’s the problem with your lot. You never realise. You invented us, you know. We didn’t just appear from nowhere. You came up with punctuation marks to make things easier. More clear, more efficient. You thought you were so clever. But misuse and abuse is all you know.”

“We’re not all the same. Some of us care about this sort of thing.”

“Pah! I can’t understand you lot. You come up with wondrous works of art. You’re cultured, apparently. You can put a man on the moon. You invented pop-tarts.” At this, he sounded almost wistful. “But most of you still can’t tell the difference between an em-dash and an en-dash. Christ on a bike. You’re all bloody hopeless.”

There was an awkward pause. I had essentially just been upbraided by a symbol. I cleared my throat. “So what are you going to do now?”

“Well. Now I’ve lost the Waterstone’s gig, I’ve got all this free time on what you might call ‘hands’ if I had them. So I’m going to rest up for a while, do some things for kicks.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“A bunch of us are thinking of going up to Toys ‘R’ Us.”

“What – so you can feature on their sign?”

“Oh God no,” he shuddered. “That’s just wrong on any number of levels. But have you seen what they’ve done to the letter ‘R’? It’s just hilarious.”

With that, the apostrophe was gone. And as I stared into the bottom of my beer, I wondered how many people would even notice.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

This one deserves a Booker Prize

I received a letter the other week from the people who manufactured my car. Well, not the actual workers. I think Jurgen and Klaus are probably a little too busy doing arcane things with arc-welders in a Bavarian factory to be engaging in customer correspondence.

Ok then. The company that made my car wrote to me. And although I'm used to corporate communications, I must admit this letter made be do the whole 'look once, do a double-take, then check your tea for strong liquor' routine that you normally only see in cartoons.

The letter was sent to tell me that they'd identified a problem with my car. Would I mind awfully taking it to the nearest dealership so Jurgen and Klaus's English equivalents could do equally arcane things to it with a set of spanners? But it was this bit of the letter that threw me. See if you can see the particular phrase that did the trick:
As part of an ongoing quality analysis, it has been established that an electrical short-circuit may occur in the area of the fuel filter on your vehicle. In unfavourable situations if a short-circuit occurs when the vehicle is in motion, this may lead to a thermal incident in the vehicle when it is switched off.
Whoa. Hold on a minute. Did you spot it? 'Thermal incident.' Thermal incident? Hang on a minute - what could that possibly mean? Something getting a little hot in an uncontrolled manner?

I tend to call that a 'fire'. Or, perhaps, if we'd like to be dramatic, 'explosion'.

You have to be sympathetic to the wordsmiths at the Bavarian Motor Works, though. They want drivers to take notice of these vehicle recall notices. But on the other hand, no-one's going to admit that their vehicles are all explode-y, are they? That's not the type of thing your lawyers want you to put in writing.

But if we accept this, where does it end? Here are some new phrases for the motor industry:
  • Unplanned vehicular/arboreal interface - crashing into a tree
  • Lack of rotational support - a wheel has fallen off
  • Interior environmental supplement required - your Magic Tree needs replacing
  • Sub-optimal motivational situation  - won't start
  • Moisture-related cessation - you have driven into a lake
(And before you get worried - I have had the car looked at. You can safely accept a lift from me - this is an explosion-free zone).

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

This one goes up to 11

I spent most of last weekend with a ringing in my ears. In fact, that's not quite right. It was in my right ear more than the left. Which was odd. But I had no-one to blame but myself. You see, I'd been regressing, if not into childhood, then something pretty close.

I can do subtle when it comes to music. I really can. There's nothing quite like some celestial harmony, gentle counterpoint and clever lyrics to get my toes tapping. But, let's be straight. Putting yourself in front of some Marshall stacks and experiencing a gale force blast is good for the soul.

As part of brother number one's birthday present, I'd bought tickets to a night of gentle, sophisticated musical entertainment. Well, actually we went to see an evening of tribute bands covering Deep Purple, Rainbow and Whitesnake from the seventies and eighties. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, if I'm honest. While I was aware of the concept of the tribute band, I hadn't really experienced it first hand. Part of me wondered if this evening was going to be a little iffy, somewhat ragged around the edges, perhaps.

After all, what sort of people willingly set themselves up to copy 35-year-old acts for the amusement of others?

About ten seconds into Speed King I had my answer. Supremely talented ones. However, my right eardrum was already pleading for mercy. "Bloody hell," I said, to no-one in particular. The band soloed and riffed and did things that hard rock bands are wont to do. It was like the Montreux Rock Festival, just with Banks's Mild on draft and a counter selling chips with curry sauce. And the band played on, note perfect.

In the interval I looked at the other audience members. Acres of denim, the odd bit of leather. And hair. Lots of hair. Waist-length in some cases, permed here and there. Some of the women were even worse.

The quality was maintained by the other acts, direct covers of Rainbow and Deep Purple. Dungeons & Dragons from the former, pelvic thrusts from the latter.

As the ersatz 'Ronnie James Dio' sang his moon-and-star-spangled heart out, I was transported back to the family living room, circa 1980. It was a Sunday - it was always a Sunday. Dad would be sitting in the armchair, a column of pipesmoke rising from behind the newspaper. Brother number one would have convinced him to switch off the light classics he'd been playing on the radio so he could put his latest LP on. It was the same one pretty much every week. Or at least it seemed that way. We would sit through the onslaught of tracks like Gates of Babylon, Kill the King, Eyes of the World. The only other thing we would be able to hear, if we'd listened very closely, would be Dad's eyebrows rising gently as he scanned the Sunday Mercury.

"Well, that was, um, interesting," he'd say, with infinite patience as the final chords of Ritchie Blackmore's guitar faded away.

So, gentle reader, what I'm really trying to say is this. Even the most nonsensical, loud, overblown and pompous music has its place. Whether that's standing in a room, pint in hand, with 300 other blokes, or sitting at home before a huge Sunday dinner. Whatever works for you is fine.

Now if you don't mind, I need to shake my hairy head backwards and forwards. I need to get rid of this ringing, you see.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The write stuff

I may not have mentioned this before, but I'm a fan of the US TV series The West Wing. And when I say 'fan' I really mean it. I liked this show a lot when it was on. In fact, it's fair to say I loved it. I mean, really loved it. I would quite happily have married this show and had lots of little West Wing babies with it.

I think I've made my position relatively clear.

One of my favourite characters was Sam Seaborn, Deputy Communications Director for the White House. He was great with words - as you'd expect from someone in that position - and was passionate about getting them right. In one episode, he'd been given the ostensibly simple task of writing a birthday message from the President to some middle-ranking government figure - a Deputy Transportation Secretary or some such. It was by all accounts a quick message, but he just couldn't get it right. Over the course of the episode we saw Seaborn - a man used to writing the State of the Nation Address - descending ever further into frustration as he struggles to find the right words for a slightly-glorified birthday card note.

I loved that portrayal because I know exactly how that feels.

The other day I spent best part of an hour struggling over the creation of a 70-word section of text at work. It was a little more important than someone's birthday message, but nevertheless I was having no luck. I had it at 120 words. It said everything that it needed to say. No important points were missed. But it needed to be shorter - the page for which it was intended was tight on space as it was. But I was struggling. I couldn't edit it down without missing some of the piece's vital meaning. I re-read it. I got up and paced around. It just wouldn't work.

Eventually I got it right. But it was painful. It said everything that needed to be said, and I didn't have to reduce it to stupid point size in order to get it to fit. Because that would have been cheating.

But when I sat back and looked at the words, I remembered that it was this part of my job that I enjoyed. I still consider myself lucky that a large part of my paid employment involves writing. No-one - least of all me - is going to claim that the stuff I produce between 9 and 5 is going to change the course of human history. But I like to think of writing as crystallised thoughts. What goes on in your head is put down in words and sentences, preserved for posterity and communicated far and wide. Or, in my case, sent to people who sell mortgages for a living. Look, it pays the bills, OK?

The other thing it reminded me was that I have a manuscript of a novel that I need to dust off and edit so I can show it to other people without dying of embarrassment.

It's like the whole 'tree falling in a forest with no-one to hear it' thing. If a book gets written, but is never read by anyone, does it actually exist?

Time to get the red pen out.



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