Search Engine Optimising (SEO) and Writing for the Web

•September 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Want to know how to write for the web?

I have just added a free downloadable PowerPoint to the beautiful Wordwrites’ website that will help you understand how to successfully target your online audience and optimise your key online messages.

If you’re looking to get the most out of your website and get good results on search engines like Google, MSN and Yahoo! you need to understand the processes behind it.

My free “Writing for the Web” PowerPoint (that’s right – free – I do these things, so that you don’t have to) will help you get to grips with the processes behind creating brilliant online content, understanding your audience demographics and getting the most from Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Download the PowerPoint if you also want to know about:

Don’t do what most companies still do – spend thousands on web design and then throw in content from some old company brochure. What works in print will not work online. You’re website is only as strong as the content on it.

Anyway, I appear to have gone a bit ‘corporate’ here. I’ll be sure to post something about Roger Moore or 1980’s televisions again soon. I’m sorry.

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Taking the ‘fun’ out of ‘funeral’

•April 14, 2011 • 2 Comments

There was a time when dying was a fairly straightforward sort of business.   

There was no trick to it – you simply stopped being alive. That was it. Often, very little thought went into it, and that was understandable because (in most cases) it was pretty much beyond your control. 

That’s all changed now. In these enlightened days of the twenty-first century, we’ve reached the point where you can’t even look forward to resting in peace, in peace. What’s more, it seems there is this desperate need for you to be constantly reminded of your impending demise. 

Even with everyday pursuits like sitting down in the afternoon to watch Countdown, armed with a digestive biscuit and a cup of milky tea, you’re unable to escape it. And this is mainly due to the fact that the advertisements that surround the programme – being targeted for an older audience – are all about spurring you on to do the decent thing and buy a funeral plan

Some old character actor (who hasn’t had a decent gig since a guest part in an episode of Bergerac in the 1980s), has been dusted down and pushed into a fawn cardigan, to stare intently into the camera and tell viewers how they can go about getting some peace of mind when they’re dead. 

According to these adverts, it is now considered a terrible faux pas to leave your funeral arrangements to someone else. Society has reached the point where the simple act of shuffling off the mortal coil is now seen as terribly selfish – unless you’ve arranged the venue, bought the casket, had a plot dug, filled in the paperwork and given the funeral party at least two weeks’ notice on the date.   

But, surely, this is all wrong? After all, what’s the point of grieving relatives if they can’t perform these duties for you? Giving them something to do was once considered a final act of kindness… 

How many times have you been at a funeral and been forced into an awkward dialogue with some lip-trembling relative of the deceased and mumbled something as trite as: “How are you doing?” Only to hear in response: “You know. Keeping busy.” 

If you deprive your family of these duties, it also means there’s a certain finality to your death. What I mean is, if you have a tightly-choreographed funeral arrangement – there’s no element of surprise. Personally, I’d prefer to leave mine a bit more open-ended. 

I have simply no idea what ghastly ideas my loved ones will have come up with on the big day – but I can be sure that they will definitely turn to the rest of the appalled congregation and assure them that whatever they’ve arranged on my behalf was definitely what I would have wanted. 

Will there be some half-arsed rendition of Auden’s Stop All The Clocks? Or will Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On be played out at nauseating volume as everyone scurries off to the pub

I don’t know. But at least it’ll be fun finding out.

Big business and the April Fools’ Day prank

•April 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

April Fools’ Day

Despite this morning’s news that the government had decided to ban Fools’ Day because it excludes non-fools (“it’s political correctness gone mad”, says Sun journalist, Jon Gaunt – usually), it seems like a number of big businesses have got involved in the day’s wacky festivities, producing stories and press-releases designed to amuse (but, more likely, confound) the public.

You Tube 

Video-sharing website, You Tube, got the ball rolling, with a video celebrating their 100th anniversary.

The celebrations remind us of a time when the Internet was nothing more than a single massive analytical engine, run out of a manor house in Bletchley Park.

Back then, the grainy, black and white videos uploaded were mainly of people with Hitler moustaches twirling walking-sticks and pretending to eat their shoes. Happy days…

BMW

BMW have a long history of running April Fools’ gags.  Some of which have even apparently been funny.

This year, they have announced a special royal wedding addition to their M3 fleet. It has ‘Will’ written on it. That’s the gag. (Yeah. Good.)

Land Rover

Land Rover announced the launch of a self-levelling tax disc to combat ‘health and safety’ issues affecting traffic wardens!

It’s political correctness gone mad – again.

Apparently, new legislation has been introduced (in Brussels, we can assume) to help prevent Traffic Enforcement Officers from developing RNS (Repetitive Neck Strain) whilst bending their necks to examine the tax discs of vehicles parked on hills.

As if anyone would do anything to help Traffic Wardens…

Ridiculous.

The Metro

Free London newspaper The Metro was not to be outdone – it ran two April Fools’ Day stories.

The first claimed that beefeaters had discovered unicorn remains at the Tower of London; the second that they had created the first ever edible news journal. (Rubbish – what about the Reader’s Digest?)

However, due to The Metro’s policy of covering news stories at least one day late, and closing their offices at the weekend, their April Fools’ Day stories won’t see light until next Monday at the earliest.

Advertising watchdog bans unorthodox ice cream ad

•March 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

 

Advertising can be a complicated business.

Gone are the days when you could think about selling potatoes by showing a picture of one, and then explaining what it is and what you do with it.

No, your modern ‘Ad Man’ would laugh contemptuously at such a ridiculous idea.

These days, in order to sell a potato, you’d need to show a Milan street-scene accompanied by some searing orchestral music. Into which would run an assiduously-oiled model in a pair of 50’s swimming trunks, heading towards the camera in slow-motion – a potato clutched lovingly to his chest. Finally, after battling adversity and fatigue, the elated model would then pound up some steps and set light to the potato in the Olympic cauldron. In front of a roaring crowd. In the rain.  

That’s how you do that. Do you see now?

Well, of course, no – that’s nonsense.  But, sadly, it’s not wildly off the mark either.  

Last week, a new ad for Antonio Federici ice cream was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for its offensiveness to Catholics

Some sort of terrible oversight? No. This was the third time in two years the ice cream maker has been censured by the advertising watchdog.

Its current campaign shows two Catholic priests about to passionately kiss each other beneath the tagline:  ‘We Believe in Salivation’.  (Surely that crap pun is the more offensive thing?)

Defending themselves, a spokesperson at Antonio Federici explained that they were actually a Catholic company and that the campaign did not set out to ‘mock’ Catholicism but reflect the ‘grave troubles’ currently affecting the church.  

Accordingly, Antonio Federici’s new campaign had set its sights on raising the issue of “gay and lesbian priests and bishops – something that had bitterly divided the Church of England over recent years and was likely to continue to do so.”

Well, that’s as maybe. But, surely, the brief was to sell some ice cream…?

Annoying sells

•March 18, 2011 • 5 Comments

It says something about the British character that we seem to actively rejoice in the ridiculous and the tawdry. It’s like some sort of endemic need for self-flagellation, that means – as a nation – we’re happy to embrace what we know to be trash. 

Only in this country would a meerkat in a smoking jacket saying ‘simples’ continue to be a brilliant prospect six years on – even producing its own spin-off merchandise. (Yes, I’m talking about the Christmas cash-in book, that, disappointingly, no one bought me!)  So successfully did the star of the Compare the Market ads capture the public imagination, it seems he’s now outgrown the brand.

Living in the post-Crazy Frog UK, there is now a growing section of marketers that have worked out that annoying sells – and they’ve set about zealously exploiting this strange quirk of our national character.  

It’s not just the frog and the meerkat. There’s also Go Compare’s deeply irritating would-be Italian opera singer, shouty ‘Barry Scott’ from the Cillit Bang ads (recently muzzled after a string of complaints from the elderly), Juan Sheet from the Plenty kitchen towel commercials, ‘Churchy’ from the Churchill Insurance campaigns (Oh yes!), the wacky DJs in the Halifax ads – and the thousand or so advertisements incorporating talking babies…

Terrible as these are, daytime viewers are spoon-fed a diet of even cheaper advertising. If you’re unfortunate enough to be watching commercial television during working hours, you’ll unhappily enter a world where a succession of dull-eyed ‘normal people’ stare dimly into the camera, communicating their apparent surprise that ‘used gold’ is worth money. Or, alternatively, they’re cherishing the memories of how they serendipitously mounted a ladder on top of a roller-skate and have thus been enabled to sue their company for £500. You might even get to see an ex-cast member from The Bill attempt to bully viewers into calling the telesales team of a company which is apparently entirely populated by lawyers (even the guy that cleans the toilets – he’s a lawyer).         

What depths will lazy advertisers plunge to next? Considering the stuff that actually seems to strike a chord with the British population, it’s really anyone’s guess…

What about a couple of badly-dressed, heavily-overweight blokes mugging furiously to the camera, whilst simultaneously shouting and jumping up and down on the spot?

No, wait, that’s the Jacamo ads.

Authorship question: The Case for Mr. Shakespeare

•February 21, 2011 • 3 Comments

 

“Who wrote Shakespeare?” is for some a pointless tautology; for others, a question of serious literary enquiry.

Was William Shakespeare just an Elizabethan glover’s son from some provincial backwater? Can it really be the case that the foremost genius of the English language was just a middle-class boy from a small town with only a basic formal education?  

Well, actually, considering the lack of available evidence, we can’t even say that for sure…

To date, no records relating to William Shakespeare’s schooling have ever surfaced. It is assumed that when his father, John Shakespeare, was elected to the position of Alderman – in their hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon – that this appointment granted his sons a free education at the local grammar school – but this is by no means certain.

All we can say for sure about William Shakespeare of Stratford was that he was born, died, had children and was embroiled in a number of petty legislative matters. He was married to Anne Hathaway, famously bequeathing to her his ‘second-best bed’ in marginalia of his Last Will and Testament – the same document which conspicuously makes no reference to his books or writings…

To suggest Shakespeare was a mysterious or elusive figure isn’t completely accurate – but it isn’t completely inaccurate either. During his so-called ‘lost years’ (that is, the years from 1585 – 1592), he disappears completely from historical view – the same period when, presumably, he left his wife and children behind him in Stratford, travelled to London and became a successful actor and writer in an improbably short time.

Due to the persistence of a legion of devoted researchers poring over ancient records, the number of documents about Shakespeare continues to grow. However, much of the information they contain is either so dry or at odds with the preconceived notions of Shakespeare’s greatness, that they’re almost irreconcilable. Could the writer of the plays and sonnets, truly be this rascally, possibly non-educated, tax-evading, petty law-breaker that they seem to show?  

For many, the slowly building picture of Stratford’s William Shakespeare is simply too hard to square. As a result, a number of other names have been proposed as perhaps ‘more likely’ authorship candidates.

Francis Bacon

For reasons now obscure, after a failed love affair, an American woman, Delia Bacon, became convinced that the Elizabethan lawyer, philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, was the ‘true’ Shakespeare. Her only published work – The Philosophy of the plays of Shakespeare unfolded – although only alluding to her namesake as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, did start a precedent for the numerous Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories that were to follow.

Though, it has to be said, there are certain similarities between some passages in the Shakespeare canon to lines and phrases found in Francis Bacon’s unpublished ‘wastebook’, The Promos, this can only be coincidental because, despite what Baconian theorists would have us believe, Bacon actually hated the theatre and attacked it as a frivolous waste of time in many of his essays. So, unless this was either a baffling subterfuge on his part or he was one of those self-hating playwrights (like, presumably, Ben Elton), it is unlikely that he was Shakespeare.

However, despite this, Bacon’s candidacy as an alternative Shakespeare was expanded upon in Ignatius Donnelly’s The Great Cryptogram, published in 1888.

It is known that Bacon (like Shakespeare) had a keenness for word-play and anagrams – but he also had a penchant for code-breaking and using cipher systems. Donnelly’s book conjectures that the plays of Shakespeare were actually written by Bacon and laced with a series of secret codes revealing their true author.

Using a mathematical cipher popular in Renaissance times – a bizarre formula using prime numbers, logarithms and square roots – Donnelly was able to extract the following message from a Shakespeare text:

Seas ill (Cecil) said that More low (Marlowe) or Shak’st spurre (Shakespeare) never writ a word of them

For Donnelly, the results of this spurious methodology was final clinching proof that Bacon was the writer of Shakespeare’s work – having produced the plays and sonnets to conceal ‘the inner history of his times’.

However, no sooner had Donnelly published his book and professed his findings irrefutable, did a British clergyman, named A. Nicholson, using the exact same methods as Donnelly, found the following in the text of Henry V:

Master Will I Am Shak’st spurre writ the play and was engaged at the curtain

Wow, that must of stung…

Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford

 

In 1920, a school-master from Gateshead named J. Thomas Looney (a strong name!) first proposed the Earl of Oxford as the writer of Shakespeare in a detailed examination of his work titled Shakespeare Identified.  

The book is an attempt to address the perceived wisdom that William Shakespeare – that is, that slavering rustic type from Stratford – lacked the scope and polish to have written the plays attributed to him. They must have been written by an aristocrat, or at least someone who had been to university.

If this was indeed the case, then certainly, the Earl of Oxford seems, on the face of it, like a pretty reasonable alternative author. He was known as a writer of plays and poems, he knew the ways of court, traveled extensively (including, notably, to Verona), and had a connection to Shakespeare’s sponsor, the Earl of Southampton. He also, crucially, (and unlike his erstwhile rival, Bacon) had strong links to the theatre.

It is regrettable for supporters of the theory, then, that Edward de Vere actually died several years before Shakespeare – at a time when he was still seemingly turning out plays. Indeed, many of Shakespeare’s later plays actually contain references to events that the Earl of Oxford never lived to see.

Oxfordians explain this away by suggesting that his ‘later plays’, considered to be collaborations, were in fact reworkings of Oxford’s plays, revised after his death. However, they do struggle to explain how Macbeth (neither collaborative or a ‘later play’) appears to make references to the Gunpowder Plot – which took place in 1605, a year after Oxford’s death.

When Lady Macbeth tells her husband to:

Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

(1.5.74-5)

This is thought to be a reference to a medal which James I had specially commissioned and given to his supporters in the aftermath of November the fifth. The medal’s emblem was a snake amidst flowers.

Where it really falls apart for the Oxfordians is Shakespeare’s dedication in his first published work, Venus and Adonis. The likelihood of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, writing so gushingly to Henry Wriothesly, the Earl of Southampton, is so breathtakingly remote as to render the whole argument ludicrous.

In obsequious, almost groveling, language, Shakespeare, (that is, the writer of the dedication) chastises himself for ‘choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden’ – imagining that de Vere, the senior aristocrat of the two men – and Wriothesly’s elder by a good twenty years – would do such a thing is enough to reduce the argument to the absurd.

It also seems unusual that Edward de Vere, who did, himself, support an acting troupe – the Earl of Oxford’s Men – would choose to farm out his best work, under pseudonym, to The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whilst retaining much middling work for his players…

Christopher Marlowe

In 1955, an American journalist named Calvin Hoffman published a book entitled The Murder of the Man who was Shakespeare.

The ‘Marlovian theory’, which Hoffman outlines, proposes that Christopher Marlowe (previously thought to be a brilliant early contemporary and major inspiration of Shakespeare’s) faked his death in 1593 and then wrote the Shakespeare plays and sonnets himself, whilst in exile.

There is certainly some truth in the fact that Marlowe had a lot to run away from. At the time of his ‘death’, he was facing trial on charges of heresy and atheism (on what seems to be fairly reasonable evidence) and would, as a result, probably have not survived long in any case.  

In 1593, at the age of 29 (he was two months older than the man from Stratford), Marlowe had already had an exceedingly accomplished writing career, having penned the plays Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great and The Massacre at Paris – all of which enjoyed considerable commercial success – at a time when Shakespeare was failing to set the theatrical world alight.  

On May 30th, with his trial looming and his prospects not looking good, Marlowe decided to go drinking in Deptford. And, like many a night out in Deptford, one imagines, it ended in disaster…

The official line is that Marlowe got in a heated argument over the bar tab, attacked one of his companions with a knife and, in the ensuing struggle, got the blade turned back on him.  

To Marlovians, though, this is simply a cover story. They believe that Marlowe faked his death to escape prosecution and continued to write plays under an assumed name – that assumed name was, obviously, ‘William Shakespeare’…

The central claim of the Marlovian theory is that until Christopher Marlowe’s death, there was no writer known as ‘William Shakespeare’. The first time that name appears in connection with his works, seems to be shortly after Marlowe’s death.

Venus and Adonis was registered with the Stationers’ Company on 18 April 1593 (a month prior to Marlowe’s death) with no named author. But when it went on sale on the 12 June (just after Marlowe’s death), Shakespeare’s name had, mysteriously, been added to the cover.

Proponents of the Marlowe theory are quick to point out that if you accept that Marlowe’s death was indeed a sham, the sonnets actually take on a more literal sense.

In Sonnet 25, Shakespeare talks of how cruel fate has denied him the chance to ‘boast of public honour and proud titles’. In Sonnet 75, when Shakespeare mentions a cowardly death coming from ‘a wretch’s knife’ – it had previously, and rather unsatisfactorily, been assumed to be a reference to Death’s scythe.

Similarly, in Shakespeare’s plays, Marlowe’s ghost is never seems far from the scene’s edge.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Evans enters singing Marlowe’s famous song ‘Come live with me’. In As You Like It, in an odd addition to what would otherwise be a moment of comic relief, Touchstone intones:

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

The reference to ‘a great reckoning’ makes this manifestly suggestive of Marlowe’s death.   

Of course, it does not necessarily follow that Shakespeare was Marlowe just because of a few oblique references in his plays. A more sober analysis of the available evidence would seem to suggest that Marlowe and Shakespeare were, in fact, different men in the business of producing popular entertainments for similar audiences. However, Marlowe was obviously a massive influence on Shakespeare and remained a massive influence on him.

Whilst Marlowe and Shakespeare’s work may be similar in terms of style, theme and poetic expression, it is quite unalike in terms of characterisation and outlook. Marlowe never wrote any significant female parts in his plays, whilst Shakespeare lacked Marlowe’s trademark gloomy pessimism.

William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon

 

Even in his own time, Shakespeare’s modest, provincial background was clearly a source of considerable anguish for him.  

In 1592, the pamphleteer and self-proclaimed ‘university wit’, Robert Greene, attacked the young Shakespeare for his conceit – branding him an ‘upstart crow’. Clearly there was something enraging about Shakespeare’s work – because Greene was actually on his deathbed at the time…*

Greene’s book Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance (registered 20th September, 1592) openly attacks Shakespeare for having the nerve to compete with him and his university-educated chums.

Greene complains:

Beautified with our feathers, with his tygers hart wrapped in a players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.

The ‘tygers hart wrapped in a players hyde’ is a play on ‘O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’ in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3.

Though Greene’s intention was obviously to malign Shakespeare, in the long-term he actually did the playwright a tremendous good service – identifying him as a young, non-university-educated author of plays – and actor – before anyone else (so far as we can tell) had committed anything about him print before.

The only artistic outlet of Shakespeare’s that Greene fails to rubbish is his poetry. However, fortunate for posterity, a few years later, Francis Meres, did just that. Author of Palladis Tamia (1598), Meres gives a mixed review of Shakespeare’s work – praising his plays but calling him ‘mellifluous’ and mocking him for passing ‘sugared sonnets among his private friends.’

In the same document, Meres attributes various plays to ‘Will Shakespeare’, including four which were never published in quarto: (Two) Gentlemen of Verona, (Comedy of) Errors, Loves Labours Wonne, and King John. He also identifies plays that were only published anonymously before 1598 – Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV**. (Unhappily for Oxfordians, Meres goes on to list other writers of note, including ‘Edward, Earl of Oxford’ as a writer of comedy.)

At this time, William Shakespeare was an associated member of the acting company ‘the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’. We can say this with some measure of certainty because on the 15th March 1595, the Treasurer of the Queen’s Chamber paid the acting troupe for performances at court in Greenwich the previous Christmas. The receipt of payment records:

William Kempe, William Shakespeare & Richarde Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberleyne

Cleary, the aristocratic Bacon and Oxford were not actors (and, in any case, they were both well known in court circles), and Marlowe – assuming he wasn’t dead – was supposed to be in hiding.

On 13th March 1602, John Manningham of the Middle Temple wrote the following anecdote in his journal:  

Upon a time when Burbidge played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come to her that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III. Shakespeare’s name William.

The way Manningham really murders the punch-line by qualifying it with Shakespeare’s Christian name, may suggest that the playwright wasn’t especially well-known at the time.  Or, possibly, it just says more about Manningham’s ability to tell a gag. (Tellingly, Manningham is one of the few Elizabethan figures whose name has not been put forward as an authorship candidate.) Either way, his diary entry is more documentary evidence of William Shakespeare’s association with Richard Burbage – the principal actor in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

In 1618, fellow playwright and poet Ben Jonson made a walking tour of England and Scotland. During this time, he spent two weeks as the guest at the house of the Scottish poet William Drummond – who recorded much of their conversation together. Jonson, being something of a gossip, spent the majority of the time waxing lyrically about the London literati. Though Shakespeare was by this time already dead, Jonson is recorded as being somewhat unkind about his late colleague, suggesting he ‘wanted arte’ and mocking him for foolishly attributing a coastline to Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale.  

The ‘First Folio’ (1623) was a compilation of William Shakespeare’s plays put together by Henry Condell and John Hemminges, two actors from his theatre company. By way of an explanatory note, they state:

Without ambition either of selfe-profit, or fame; onely to keepe the memeory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive, as was our SHAKESPEARE, by humble offer his playes.

Ben Jonson also lends his name to the pages. In a long dedicatory verse, he famously refers to the Stratford man as the ‘sweet swan of Avon’  (a fairly unambiguous reference to Stratford, you’d think) and gently mocks him for his lack of education – stating that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’.

All in all, a good deal of Shakespeare’s contemporaries name him as the author of one or more of his plays and sonnets. Including the poets Richard Barnfield and John Weever, the dramatist John Webster and the academic Gabriel Harvey.

The whole anti-Stratfordian mission is simply one of applied snobbishness – a snobbishness which seems hardly to have moved on from the days of Greene and his university wits. Anti-Stratfordians perpetually draw attention to the plays’ portrayal of aristocratic characters and maintain that they couldn’t have been written by this commoner from Stratford. But, of course, this is willfully ignorant of the facts – Christopher Marlowe, son of a cobbler, and Ben Jonson, son of a bricklayer, didn’t write exclusively about members of their fathers’ class – and, yet, no one is suggesting they are not who they say they are…

The death records in the parish registry of The Holy Trinity Church, where William Shakespeare is laid to rest, refer to him simply as ‘Gent’. Of course, predictably, anti-Stratfordians have questioned why this does not read ‘dramatist’ or ‘actor’. In fact, for the Shakespeare family, acquiring a level of respectability was something of a hard-won mission.

In 1568, William Shakespeare’s father, John, applied to the Heralds’ College for a coat of arms – but, falling on hard times, allowed the application to lapse. Twenty years later, his – now successful – eldest son William applied for the coat of arms again. It was granted in 1599. Thereafter, John Shakespeare and his sons were entitled to sign ‘gentleman’ after their name. 

The stigma of Shakespeare’s humble origins was obviously something he felt very personally. And, which, despite his best efforts, he never managed to get away from…

Not clever, not funny: a review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves

•January 20, 2011 • 2 Comments

 

 

Thought I’d start the New Year by collating a series of wry (and slightly patronising) observations on the English language, in the style of Lynne Truss and her seminal work, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

In the book – subtitled ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ – you will discover that the British public are essentially a breed of moronic, grunting oafs, barely able to form a coherent sentence.

But, surely, this is only half the story.

Considering the massive popularity of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the British public must also be a bunch of university-educated pedantic bores, happy to sneer at the rest of the population for misplacing a few apostrophes.

According to the book’s back page blurb, Truss sees ‘ignorance and indifference everywhere’. (Not just at her book launches then?) And, thus, she has set herself up as English grammar’s defender – sending a rallying cry to others to be ‘sticklers’ too!

“Its Summer!” says a sign that cries out for an apostrophe. “ANTIQUE,S,” says another, bizarrely. “Pansy’s ready”, we learn to our considerable interest (“Is she?”), as we browse among the bedding plants.

Don’t worry, gentle reader, the sign didn’t really cry out for an apostrophe. Truss has deployed what we in the business call ‘personification’. It’s a clever, linguistic device used by clever, linguistic people writing prose to give inanimate things life. You probably wouldn’t understand. But Lynne Truss is clever. She’s done an English degree and everything.

In a fairly hectoring tone, the assault on the British worker continues, with Truss bemoaning instances in which she has apparently spied a shop sign, a greengrocer’s board and a notice in a garage forecourt, all displaying some matter of minor grammatical incompetence.

Surely, most people who go to a garage probably want to get their car fixed – something they are unable to do themselves. Knowing where to put a possessive apostrophe won’t really help them. And that feeling of smug superiority – that often comes from reading a poorly-written sign in a garage forecourt – is likely to be lost when they then have to turn to the same mechanic and ask for his help – and, later, pay him.

In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss seems to forget that other people have different values, ideas and motivations to her – something that is made very clear in the section of the book in which she discusses the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Whilst the rest of the world was horrified by the footage of aeroplanes crashing into the Towers and the indiscriminate loss of innocent lives, Truss and her band of grammar twats were getting worked up “because people on the radio were saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’.”

Yes, of course, well done, that was the thing to get upset about…

As we all know, being good at English is not something that one can acquire through practice or learning. It is more like a gift from the Gods. As such, earning a living writing stuff (as many of my poorest friends will attest) is simply ineffably better than doing something practical, like fixing cars. Sure, the money is bad and the job’s probably just as dull and repetitive, but, at least, if you’re like Lynne Truss, you can wallow in the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you’re a self-congratulatory dullard that thinks that human beings should be resigned to some lower-order if they incorrectly use a comma.

After a while, the whole carping, supercilious tone of Eats, Shoots & Leaves just puts the reader in mind of that episode of I’m Alan Partridge in which he chastises a sales assistant from Currys for not having a basic grasp of Latin. And, like Partridge, in all Truss’ anecdotes (needless to say) she has the last laugh…

Anyway, in an attempt to woo the 50% of the British public that can actually read (and apparently love this sort of thing), I’m going to try my hand.  Please bear with me.

Ahem…

I walked by a French sandwich shop on Canterbury High Street earlier and saw that on the blackboard outside they had misspelt ‘salads’ as ‘salades’. Idiots.

Happy New Year. One and all.

(For a list of grammatical errors in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, read Louis Menand’s review of the book in The New Yorker.)