The first film I ever saw at the cinema was “For your eyes only”, in case you’ve never seen it, it’s a film where a ginger comedian / assassin looks for a giant calculator. Highlights include a talking parrot commanding a sexually aroused Margaret Thatcher to “give us a kiss” and in the pre-credit sequence our hero kills a disabled person by dropping him down an industrial chimney stack from a helicopter, the disabled man’s screams then morph into a sexy love song while Sheena Easton writhes out the credits.
I was 5 years old.
It is definitely one of my favourite films ever.
At the time I had never seen skiing before, let alone someone skiing down a luge run whilst fighting stuntmen. I had never seen mountain climbing before – a still exciting assault with Art Garfunkel? (see picture) on the mountaintop monastery St Cyril’s, or the old smugglers trick with cashew nuts or two unbelievably beautiful women throwing themselves at a middle aged pun merchant wearing a polo neck (actually one of them was just a sexually promiscuous child who Bond, quite sensibly, spurns and then offers to buy an ice cream). It was a crazy winter-olympics-mediterranean-diving-holiday adventure, a mishmash of what was hot at the time, culminating in Bond throwing the object he has spent the entire film chasing off a mountain. So all a bit pointless really. Luckily though they end on a high: a parrot talking dirty to Thatcher whilst Bond goes skinny dipping with a greek orphan.
You see, the thing about the Bond franchise is that Post-Connery it didn’t take itself seriously for a very long time; from “invisible cars” to Roger Moore’s karate, it coasted along with a knowing wink – Bond’s casual indifference to killing only palatable because they never suggested it was real. Let’s not forget, Lazenby aside, for all the exotic travelling there was rarely any emotional journey at all; the man who started the mission was the man who ended the mission.
But indifference isn’t cool anymore. Gone is the is the casual shruggery of by-gone heroes, the men with nothing to lose, nothing to be threatened with. Today’s audience need good old fashioned motivation. Peril isn’t really peril if there is no emotional investment in the character and in the action genre it’s vital, it’s the difference between Cobra and Rocky – the audience only feel the thrill of victory, they only cry, with one of those films.
Spectacle can no longer distract from dodgy plots and poor characterisation.
In short, these days it has to take itself seriously.
So what to say about SkyFall, the 23rd film in the mega-franchise, following 2008’s universally disappointing Quantum of Crapness?
Well, what a difference 4 years can make. Sam Mendes has delivered a film with that most elusive of qualities: balance. We have an original story, a character arc and some serious acting talent including Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Judi Dench’s M, who is given a more pivotal role than the usual “scowls and exposition”. There’s a genuinely creepy but ultimately well motivated Javier Bardem, the man with the golden mullet, playing unhinged cyber terrorist Silva and a new Q in Ben Whishaw, a move which at first suggests that MI6 are recruiting their quartermasters from One Direction or Skins but which we become quickly comfortable with. Most importantly though, we are given the man himself – Daniel Craig’s Bond. Gone is the glacial, invulnerable super-spy and in his place a conflicted, driven, human being: Does he walk away or does he stay and risk his life defending the woman who has no compunction about sending him to his death? And how much of his decision has to do with the loss of his own parents? Does M stand, in some way, for Mother?
Craig is good at unspoken dialogue, with no mention of what has gone before in the previous 2 films, his Bond wears regret, loss and sheer emotional mileage on his granite face, a far cry from Moore’s levitating eyebrows.
The requisite action sequences, from the candle lit ‘dragon’ casino to the stygian murk of the last act’s caledonian siege, are convincing, gorgeously shot and refreshingly diverse in palette; the gadgets almost non-existent and for all the usual outcry about product placement there is only one really obvious one that grates. The ending is surprisingly touching and closes the circle nicely.
With enough nods to the past to keep the die-hards happy and enough depth to ensure Bond’s future it is a well balanced entry in to the Bond canon – there is little doubt that James Bond will return.
The label ‘a British Institution’ is too readily applied to our national cultural icons; from the sublime to the ridiculous – from cups of tea or fish and chips to Katie Price’s cleavage. Forty-five years ago, in 1967, a man named Ian Messiter devised a format for a radio based panel game that was so simple and succinct that it has survived, virtually unaltered, since its inception, and on its anniversary is as popular as ever. The premise was this: that its contestants must speak on a given subject for sixty seconds, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Points were awarded by the chairman, Nicholas Parsons (himself a fully paid up member of the Institution,) for reaching the end of the time period, and for successful interruptions by rival panelists on the grounds mentioned. Unless you’ve been living up a tree and the preset buttons are broken on your digital radio (back at the show’s beginnings, I would have said tuning dial), most people would be able to put name to that program – Just a Minute.
The charm of the show is in its simple rules, which allow the right kind of player almost infinite scope for improvisation. To play well, as well as being attentive to an opponent’s errors, it is necessary to be educated, eloquent, imaginative, confident and, most importantly, witty, as bonus points are available at the host’s behest when the audience enjoy an interjection.
The ultimate achievement in the game is the ‘perfect minute,’ where a speaker continues for the entire time period avoiding any challenge. These events are rare and lauded. Try playing the game yourself, and you’ll see just how difficult it is.
The original team of regulars – often supplemented by a carousel of guests – had ample qualifications. They consisted of the writer, restaurateur and former politician Clement Freud; actor, writer and voice of ‘The Book’ in the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy Peter Jones; actor Derek Nimmo; and Kenneth Williams – he of Carry On infamy. This assemblage was as much a regular fixture on the panel as the self-selecting Arsenal back four of the 1990s. Along with an array of stand-ins to keep the familiar voices on their toes and to add spice, this quartet remained until the death of Williams in 1988.
Each brought something unique to the mix, and played in their own way, whether it was Freud imparting knowledge with paced, monotone delivery, or Williams playing up to the audience. As the original first team departed – Freud being the last, in 2009 – a new generation of talent took their place and continue to keep the show freshly entertaining. Today, Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, and Ross Noble commonly have their fingers poised on the infamous buzzers, ready to butt in and spoil each other’s flow.
Present at every recording and often, good humouredly, the butt of many panelists’ jokes, is octogenarian master of ceremonies Nicholas Parsons. His steady, unpartizan stewardship has been a major factor in its popularity. Were he to depart after such a long period in the chair he would undoubtedly be missed enormously. But, like Countdown after Richard Whiteley, even without such an integral component, the show is so brilliantly planned that it could function and go on without him. Where its television rivals for staying power, Have I Got News For You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks have become tired and predictable, Just a Minute enjoys infinite variety.
In celebration of its longevity, Radio 4 broadcast two special commemorative recordings. One, a three hour collection of highlights featuring classic and contemporary players, Just a Minute: Without Hesitation, the other an episode recorded in Mumbai and starring Paul Merton, Dominic Brigstocke and two Indian stand-up comedians. The audience, mostly, you would imagine, unfamiliar with the format, responded warmly and very quickly were playing along, booing, cheering and applauding in all the right places. A testament to this genius invention, that it can transcend cultural and language barriers.
On BBC2 on Monday 26th March 2012, at 6.00pm, Just a Minute will begin a ten episode run as tea-time television quiz fodder. This isn’t the first time it has made the transition, but now it has a chance to win over the radio-shy segments of the British public and it will, hopefully, become an idea on which the whistle will never blow.
‘It’s a gift and a curse at the same time…You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.’
Can it really be ten years since the passing of one of my heroes, writer, poet, musician, actor, campaigner and comedy anarchist Spike Milligan? His status as the father of alternative comedy and unquestionable influence on British culture has often been documented both in his life and since his passing, and this is not intended as a tribute or biography. The chronicle of his life and works have been recorded elsewhere, better and more thoroughly, and often by those who knew and worked with him.
Prevalent in his life, and what most interests me, underlying every endeavour – The Goons, Puckoon, his war memoirs, the various Q series, his humorous and serious verse – was a long battle with mental illness. The term manic depressive – bipolar disorder, to give it its contemporary label – might almost have been coined for him, struggling as he did against extremes of madcap creative genius and complete mental and physical inertia, accompanied by the darkest, sometimes suicidal and even murderous, contemplations.
The often cited trigger for his depression was an incident during his war service in Italy, in which he came under heavy shellfire resulting in a lengthy hospitalisation and a number of complete breakdowns. Shellshock, as it was known then, or post-traumatic stress as you would now call it. He was removed from front line service, although he remained in the army and in Italy until after the war, which was the period in which his entertainment career began.
But according to his confessional appearance on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr. Anthony Clare – originally recorded in 1982, but transmitted as part of Radio 4’s recent programming* in honour of the late Milligan – his anxieties and many of his psychosis can be traced back to his upbringing in India when he was a awkward, introverted child, sometimes beaten by his mother, without his army-absent father, alone until a brother came along eight years later. As a result he grew up overly-sensitive and with little tolerance. His extroverted persona and lunatic behaviour were compensation for an underlying shyness.
With his depression at its worst, Milligan opted for an induced narcosis for three weeks, when he simply could no longer cope with his issues. This hit during what most would consider the pinnacle of his career – The classic, surreal radio comedy, The Goons. He wrote the scripts on automatic, like a production line, and would come to resent this period of his life. The fact that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress and mounting psychosis, he turned out an impressive body of ground-breaking material, is an astounding achievement, and what most impresses and inspires me.
I have my own experience of mental illness, both personally and affecting those close to me. When asked if he would swap the illness for a more balanced life, Milligan, as is common with those who suffer with bipolar disorder, declined. Like a sine wave, the unbearable troughs are countered by soaring peaks, in which he and others are capable of their greatest works. Medication, although it takes the edge off the lows, can dull other things too. Being a long standing admirer, I know something of Milligan’s life story, but learning details of the depths he reached, and how he coped with his illness, for me, earned him a new level of respect.
As he aged, he learned to cope better with his problems, although he was never free of them. His controversial epitaph, inscribed in Gaelic on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill,’ sums up the man. He maintained his sense of humour throughout, even when facing the end.
I’m always conscious of avoiding direct comparison between my efforts and those of the subjects of some of my articles. I am not a creative genius, nor have I ever plumbed the depths of despair like Spike Milligan, but I can appreciate in my own way what he went through and what it meant to have still been able to write through it all.
* The Spike Show: Milligan Remembered, a compilation of new and old programming, presented by Milligan’s secretary Norma Farnes.
‘No offence, but…’ is a phrase which is slowly but surely sweeping the globe. An increasingly common method of insult which allows an individual to guise deeply personal criticisms as casual observation, ‘no offence, but…’ is used to create humour at the expense of a typically unsuspecting and undeserving victim, for the benefit of a non committal audience.
This expression is basically a self served license to insult someone by stating something typically personal and often irrelevant to the ebb and flow of the current conversation. The phrase is used as a flag, a method through which one captures an audience’s attention; say ‘no offence…’ in any social setting and everyone within earshot will pause to hear the outrageous and insulting quip you are about to discharge. The beauty of the term is that as well as removing any possible guilt or remorse from the mind of the insulter, the very wording of the phrase simultaneously forbids the subject from becoming openly offended. Since no offence was allegedly intended, the victim is expected to take it on the chin, to the point that any serious response or reaction on the subject’s behalf will immediately appear both unwarranted and uncool in the eyes of bystanders. After all, can’t you take a joke?
As a high school teacher, I have been gifted a rare insight into the dynamics of the adolescent social clique, and I am pained to witness on a daily basis the many cruel ways that children treat one another. Girls, I am ashamed to say, are the most vicious. I have seen boys literally knocking each other flat as a result of a ‘ya mum’ joke that went too far, but a hard and fast smack in the eardrum does a lot less damage to an individual when compared to the drip, drip, dripping of malicious insults, tapping slowly and tortuously onto the forehead of another. Of course, the issue on which I am basing this rant is by no means confined to young people; there are countless adults who can be as callous, if not more so, than the children for whom we are supposed to be setting an example.
So how should we respond when this septic term is uttered, whether as the victim or a member of the audience? At the outset, it needs to be noted that anyone who uses the phrase is a spineless tool, and for two good reasons. Firstly, if the person in question wants to say something insulting to someone, they should be brave enough to own their comment, rather than hiding behind a pathetic preamble. Secondly, if the individual feels the need to put someone else down in order to make themselves look good, they are probably neither nice or interesting.
Unfortunately, as a victim of the pandemic there isn’t a whole lot you can do. I would suggest falling back on your humility with the consolation that everyone present who possesses half a brain realises the speaker is a cretin making a cheap shot at your expense. As the audience however, you have a bit more power in this scenario (no one has instructed you not to take offence, after all). What I have found works particularly well is aiming a ‘no offence, but…’ back at the speaker. In doing this, you must be very careful to ensure that your retaliation has both more bite than the antagonists, and that it references their ridiculousness (so that those people within the circle of conversation who have a even a hint of intelligence can witness your outstanding wit and superior sarcasm).
So next time you hear a fool making a shallow and unreasonable statement in order to boost their own ego, close them down. Because if we can’t get rid of idiots, we can at least shut them up.
Footnote: ‘Nothing personal…’ is the evil twin of the above phrase. Ironically, this term is only uttered as a preface for something profoundly personal. Unfortunately, the irony is typically lost on the speaker, who isn’t trying to be clever, just mean.
He looks disdainfully at the cases of bitter.
He audibly tuts at the wines.
His countenance darkens at the alcopop selection (and I have to say I’m with him on that, alcopops are a disgrace to drink and a symptom of What’s Wrong With This Country. I’d ban them instantly).
Eventually he points at the stack of Carlsberg 18-packs, which bear the enlightening, informative yet succinct slogan, “CARLSBERG – 18 PACK – £10.99”.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you?
“How much is an 18-pack of Carlsberg?”
Keep calm. You need the job. There’s a Global Economic Crisis on, and no matter how much fun it’d be to paint the words “TEN NINETY-NINE YOU COCK” onto a shovel and smack him in the face with it repeatedly, trying to explain it at interviews would be, at the very least, somewhat of a drag. Eight, nine, ten…
“They’re £10.99.” The days of calling them “sir” have long passed, but at least I didn’t swear or spit at him.
“Oh.” Pause, two, three, four… “They’re £9.99 in Asda.”
“But…” I stammer, “we…I…OH MY GOD! A thousand apologies, sir, I realise this must be a distressing time for you. I am but a minion here, but please accept my humblest and abject apologies. I will pass this higher up, to someone who has the power, if not to set things right – what could be right, after THIS disgrace? – then at least to make some gesture in the direction of recompense, to mitigate our shame! General! GENERAL!”
A deep, bass voice rumbles from the back room. “What is it?”
“General, I think you should come and witness it yourself…”
The door flies open, and there he stands – The General. A legend in the low-margin, high-volume retail booze world. Unlike me, he does not wear the 100% polyester polo shirt – he wears a hand-made 100% polyester dress uniform. The light of the lager fridge reflects from the gold braiding on his epaulettes, glistens on his cap badge, coruscates on the row of medals adorning his left mantit – the Croix du Vin, received for valour in the field of sub-£5 Merlot; the Grand Cross of the Knights Of Trampfuel, pinned on him even as he stood, bloodstained and unbowed after a 16-hour shift, by the Duce Giacomo Lambrini himself; the Order of Cider, First Class, awarded after single-handedly shifting 278 crates of tainted Frosty Jack (some apples had inexplicably been involved in its manufacture).
“What is it, boy?” He growls, fingering his swagger-stick and chewing his cigar.
“Sir, I…I’m not sure how to put this, but…”
“Directly, and immediately, is how to put it!” His face darkens. He does not like to be dragged to The Front – he has served his time there, and these days gets, if not pleasure, a grim satisfaction from sitting at his desk, a martyr to gout and dyspepsia, plotting exactly how we will, this quarter, finally put an end to bastard kids nicking the seasonal confectionery.
I swallow nervously. “Well, s…s…sir, this gentleman has told me that…”
“OUT WITH IT!”
“We’ve been undercut by an out-of-town superstore, sir.” I feel a palpable, physical sense of relief at having said the words. What worse can follow? And before my eyes, I see the proud, Grand Old Man falter for perhaps the first time in his long career.
“I…I…Oh sweet Jesus.” Before my eyes, his posture sags. The old man has been through hell in his time – they say early on, as a greenhorn assistant manager in Kilburn, he stared down 200 navvies annoyed about the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, using only three bottles of Jamesons and a Watneys Party Seven – but now, he suddenly looks his age. He turns to the customer, clears his throat, and tries to regain his dignity, but the fire has gone out in his eyes. “I’m sorry, sir,” he croaks, “I never dreamed it would come to this. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen,” his eyes mist over, “whole towns under the sway of MD 20/20…the Vodkat debacle…a tramp who’d shit himself, setting his beard on fire outside a pub called ‘The Shoulder Of Orion’…but I never, NEVER thought I’d see the day when a small, franchised off-licence in a shit end of Preston would be undercut by the world’s largest retail conglomerate. Sometimes, it just seems like it was all a waste of time…” He gazes into the middle distance.
The customer and I bow our heads, knowing, but not wanting to acknowledge what we both know must come next.
The General snaps back to attention. I salute, tears welling in my eyes.
“Stand easy, soldier,” he hoarsely whispers, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “It comes to us all. We never die in bed. Tell Rosie I loved her.” With that, he climbs atop the Bitter cans stack, and, left foot on Caffreys and right on McEwan’s Export, raises his sword high, before plunging it into his stomach. I move forward to support him, but he motions me back with his free hand as the other forces the blade sideways, all of nature’s hideous internal, visceral intricacy spilling over his cummerbund. After a few seconds that feel like a lifetime, his enormous bulk crashes atop the stack; the blood pours, then drips, then pools at the base of the Tetley Smoothflow; his drained white face, the eyes staring and empty, takes on a sudden peace as I reach across and close them; and, unable to help myself, I kiss his forehead and whisper, “goodnight, sweet prince”.
I turn to The Customer.
“You don’t have a brother who knows how much everything used to be, do you?”
We never did find out who Rosie was.
So, we got busted by Trading Standards/The Filth. And just to get serious for a minute, how the bloody hell is this legal? If an undercover copper approaches you and asks you for drugs or sex, it’s called entrapment and gets thrown out of court, but if they send an undercover 17.8 year old in to buy a bottle of Kopparberg, that’s us in the shit. They went about it sneakily as well:
Yeah, I know, blah blah antisocial behaviour blah blah public nuisance blah blah corporate responsibility, you know as well as I do that’s horseshit. Everyone who works in the shop lives within 3 streets of it, we KNOW who the little trouble-making shites are and don’t serve them. Not that it makes a blind bit of difference, as their white-trash parents just come in to buy chemicider, WKD and own-brand vodka-type substance for them anyway. But it’s one more result for the crime statistics, so we get hit.
End result of which is: one of my comrades loses his job, gets an £80 fine and a caution on his record. Which, when you’re a year away from graduating and competing for jobs, is a bit of a kick in the nuts. Also, we now have to operate “Challenge 25” – anyone who looks below that age gets asked for ID. And the local 5-oh were very clear on this point; The only forms of acceptable ID are a photo driving license, a valid passport, or a PASS card. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Cut to two nights later.
“Next please!” He puts 8 Stella on the counter. I scrutinise his face. Could be 26. Could be 22. Could be some freak with a gladular problem specifically picked out by the Babylon just to get me in trouble. Play it safe. “Do you have any ID please sir?”
“ID?” He looks baffled. His girlfriend giggles slightly.
“Passport, driving license…?”
“Uh…no. I’ve got this though,” he says, and pulls out…
A Lancashire Constabulary warrant card.
“I’m sorry sir, this doesn’t have your date of birth on it.”
“Your colleagues were very insistent on this point sir. I’m afraid I cannot accept it.” I hand back the card and put his beers behind the counter. “If you’d care to return with a passport, driving license or PASS card showing your date of birth and the PASS hologram we’d be delighted to serve you. Please close the door on your way out.” He looks as if he’s about to kick off, but thinks better of it, just gives me the Standard Issue Copper Hard Stare and walks off. At least two people in the queue behind him are openly laughing as he leaves.
Petty regulations? We can play that game too, you bastards.
She looks approximately 18.
HER: Hiya, you OK? Just this please [hands me a bottle of Jacques]
ME: OK…sorry, it’s policy, do you have any ID?
HER: I haven’t. Sorry.
ME: I can’t serve you then. Sorry.
HER: [Breezily] Oh, that’s ok. See ya!
Must have been the test purchaser. No swearing? Civil? Not pointlessly abusive to people with a job?
It has to be some kind of elaborate trap.
Well, thank Yahweh we didn’t serve them, eh? We’ll just get on with our legally mandated business of serving enormous amounts of poison to people who should, but never will, know better, and by stopping some poor sod from having a couple of pear ciders after their GCSEs have finished, we’ll pretend we’re saving the cocking planet.
Really, I’ve spent the best part of two years at the front line of selling booze to idiots, and I feel I have some expertise on the subject – THE PROBLEM IS NOT 16-YEAR OLDS. It’s not even 18-year olds. The problem is grown-ups.
When I got this job, I thought I drank a lot. I don’t. I may drink more than the guidelines say you should, but compared to many, MANY people, I’m abstemious. And the scariest thing is that many of these VERY heavy drinkers are your friends, your neighbours, the guy in the next cubicle/classroom/office…the white trash, with their 3-litre cider bottles and knowing winks and cheap roll-your-own baccy, worried me, but not half as much as the ones who came in dressed respectably, the ones with a copy of the Guardian or Telegraph under their arm, the ones carrying 30 exercise books all ready for marking, looking frazzled, and asked for two litres of QC and a half of the cheap vodka, and while you’re at it 20 Regal…
I’m not having a go at these people, by the way. I’m sure their life would make me drink. Just pointing out that chemical dependency is not something the poor have a monopoly on.
“Have you got any of these chilled?”
“Yes sir, indeed we do. None are in the fridge – that fridge, right there, the one IN THE SHOP – but many are in our special walk-in fridge out the back, where we stock every single brand of beer in the world, chilled by specially-calibrated thermostats, including what I notice is your drink of choice, McNasty’s Super-Strength Bus-Shelter Fuel. But beware, that fridge is available only to the most select brethren of the crappy off-licence; those who have been initiated into it’s mysteries. For behind the facade of just the one fridge, of a shop surrounded by low-ratable value multiple-occupancy housing, charity shops, one extremely off-brand boutique and a well-known local brothel, behind and beneath lies a sordidly glamorous hellfire club of chilled beer, hot gypsies, and the spirit of Bacchus.”
I lowered my voice.
“But they take it too far, sir. You must have noticed, you’re in here every day, that we’ve lost two serving-wenches already this month? It isn’t right what they do in there. A gent like you shouldn’t get involved with them animals, sir. You’d be best advised to just drink the same thing you drink warm every other day of the year without complaint, and stop asking stupid fucking questions of poor bloody offy drones who are stuck inside earning a godamned living on the hottest day of the bloody year, while you, due to your reluctance to pay the £1 premium for big-name brands, are drinking 7% of regrettably warm lager with your unemployable mates and your fucking pitbull, on that patch of grass between the Spar and the Community Centre. If you ask me.”
Of course I fucking didn’t. But a man can dream.
1. “Do you have some ID?”
“22nd September 1990.”
“22nd September 1990.”
“No, you see, I asked if you have some ID. That’s not showing me some ID, that’s just you saying a date. If it was that simple, I wouldn’t be working here, would I? I’d just go down the social, say ‘4th June 1917’ and spend the Winter Fuel Allowance on beer and pies.”
“So you’re not serving me then?”
2. “10 L&B.”
“Any ID on you?”
“Can’t serve you then.”
“Come on you tight cunt!”
“Oh go on then, seeing as you called me a cunt.”
Honestly, what sort of shop does this guy normally go to, where calling the staff cunts makes them more likely to look upon you kindly?
3. “Do you have some ID please?”
[Shrieks] “I’M 21!”
“That’s as maybe, we check anyone who looks under 25.”
“Well I haven’t got any on me.”
“I can’t serve you then.”
“Fuck’s sake. That’s it, I’m not coming in here again.”
“Gutted. Without you coming in to buy a £2.99 bottle of wine-style fluid and the cheapest rolling baccy we’ve got, we’ll all be on the fucking dole in a week. Shut the door on your way out and leave me to my bitter, desperate tears, you rancid harridan.”
There’s others, but they’re all pretty much variations on those themes.
The much abused and maligned apostrophe has suffered greatly at the hands of the barely literate. Now, as bookstore chain Waterstone’s has decided to drop this humble piece of punctuation from its store fronts, even the supposedly literate have decided it’s just not required.
Its widespread and inconsistent misuse can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes humorous results, typified most famously by the “greengrocers’ apostrophe.” Superfluous apostrophes in “sprout’s” or “cabbage’s” [sic] used to be a common signage mistake – common until the supermarkets put them out of business, at least. But, in their honour, the supermarkets continue the tradition, with signs in Tesco advertising “mens magazines” and “kids books,” omitting them where they are required.
The reason given by the high street store is that, in a digital age, it is cumbersome and confusing – in other words, when typing in a website address. The excuse is a little paper-thin, as an internet search either with or without the apostrophe brings up their website as the top result. I have to question whether the business they feel they are losing due to this niggardly difference sufficiently outweighs the cost of completely rebranding their image and re-signing their store fronts.
Elsewhere on the high street, mixed messages abound. Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s get it right, Morrisons and Greggs don’t. Ultimately, it’s entirely the choice of the business to decide what it is or isn’t called, just as we pedants have an obligation to point out they are wrong.
Place names are another rich hunting ground for the elusive mark. In 2009 Birmingham city council dropped possessive apostrophes from their road signs and council literature, so the likes of King’s Heath or Acock’s Green became Kings Heath and Acocks Green. They were considerably behind the rest of the world in dropping the pesky punctuation. America dropped them from place names from as early as 1890 onwards, maintaining them in just five locations as of today – in, for example, Martha’s Vineyard.
In its defence is the Apostrophe Protection Society, whose campaign for correct and accurate use began in 2001. Its intended function is to inform, not criticize, those who are responsible for misuse, and a downloadable explanatory letter is available to be forwarded to offenders. I find it sad that it is necessary for such an organization to exist.
As a graphic designer, I daily receive copy for advertising that needs correcting. I need to be sufficiently literate to spot the errors. Aside from spelling and grammatical mistakes, apostrophe abuse ranks highly – from nightclub “DJ’s” to garages that sell second hand “car’s.”
Here at The Camel’s Hump – note correct use – the apostrophe is our friend. It’s such a small, unassuming curve, whose inclusion, omission or misplacement can change the whole meaning of a sentence. For example “The Camels’ Hump” would mean the hump possessed by more than one camel, where “The Camel’s Hump” means the hump owned by just one – a significant difference. It’s so simple to get right and Waterstone’s, a purveyor of literacy, should know better.