Category Archives: Writing
A couple of weeks ago, during a pleasant weekend in the country, my friends took me to one of those garden-centre-come-overpriced gift-shop-come-expensive-interior-design–come-a-bit-of-everything sort of places – I believe the correct name is shopping village. (Who thought that one up?) In this shopping so-called village there were two restaurants, both heaving. When we finally got to sit down in one we ordered a perfectly adequate meal of the baked-potato-with-toppings and soup-and-a-roll variety. Not a Michelin star in sight; that was fine. We weren’t expecting gourmet.
What wasn’t fine was the sheer effrontery of the place. When it was time to choose a pudding (I will not call it a dessert in this context) each of the three items on the menu stated - and I quote – ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream’. I’m not sure what prompted me to check, apart from my suspicious nature or perhaps my passion for words and the English language. For whatever reason, I asked the waiter to confirm that these items came as part of the pudding.
‘Oh no,’ I was told. ‘They are extras.’
‘But it says ‘comes with,’ I protested. ‘That means they are part of the dish.’
‘Oh no,’ he repeated, ‘you have to pay extra.’
‘It says,’ I insisted ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream.’
‘It does come with them, ‘ he answered, ‘but you have to pay for them.’
Arguing was pointless since he didn’t get the point. I gave up. I did, however, draw the offending text to the attention of the owner, assuming it was some sort of typo. He didn’t exactly apologise just acknowledged my comment and thanked me in a lukewarm sort of way. Which was somewhat cancelled out when he sauntered up to our table and said that I was the first person who had remarked on the wording in eight years. Any hopes of a goodwill gesture – ‘so sorry, have the custard/cream/ice cream on us’ was obviously out of the question.
Eight years! Jeez! He’d been getting away with that for eight years. At least. If this sounds a bit of an extreme reaction on my part, let me tell you there was more. The pudding selection consisted of three items on the menu. With prices. Plus a selection of cakes not on the menu but displayed in a case. With no prices. The bill wasn’t itemised. How did you know that your bill was accurate? You didn’t. Bad as that is from a trading standards perspective, the thing that bothers me just as much is the general ignorance about the use of English.
These days, while there are still many people who care passionately about the use of language, there are far more who don’t. Some from indifference. Even more through no fault of their own but rather as a result of failures in our system of education. So, why should any of them care anyway? What does it matter after all? It matters. Language is constantly evolving, which is a good thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is clear communication. That’s what grammar is all about. Clarity. The placement of a comma affects the entire meaning of a sentence. Sloppy language can signal sloppy thinking. It could lose you a job or, in the case of my grammatically challenged restaurant owner, a visit from the trading standards officer.There are many great books on the subject. Just to cite a few examples there is the splendid Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Troublesome Words and my bible, English Today, by the redoubtable Ronald Ridout.
The first time I met them, three or four years ago, my attention was caught by this tall man striding along the raised pavement on Upper Street, a ginger cat trotting along at his heels. That was my first sight of James and Bob. I followed them and had a chat with James. I was a little concerned – Bob was so tiny among all those feet rushing headlong along the pavements. James reassured me. And of course there was absolutely no need to fear – James would never allow any harm to come to Bob.
I’d see them from time to time, in the following years, maybe on the bus, sometimes in the street, James playing his guitar, Bob sitting quietly at his feet. Or draped around James’ neck. There was nearly always a small knot of people clustered round them. I’d stop for a quick word and to give Bob a stroke. Seeing them always made my day.
A while ago James mentioned something about a book. I remember thinking that I hoped he would get something out of it, that it would really make a difference to him and of course to Bob too. I’m delighted to say that the book is out and it really is going to make a difference. When I met them on the 38 bus, a few weeks ago, James handed me a flyer advertising his book signing saying he hoped I’d come along. Try to keep me away! As soon as I got home I put it in my calendar and last Tuesday, in spite of a wonky foot, I took myself off to Waterstones on Islington Green.
I got there early but the press had already set up outside the store and I could see people being interviewed. I went in, bought the book and hung around chatting to others as we waited. More and more people arrived; before long the queue was out the door. A ripple of excitement. Bob and James appeared on the stairs and made their way down. Before the signing could get under way there was a paws – sorry – for photographs. Bob took it all in his stride, sitting on James’ shoulder, posing beside a pile of books, standing on his hind legs to nibble a treat.
James signed book after book, writing individual and personal messages. Bob, with a little help, added a paw print. Half way through the evening the book was sold out, but there was a promise that they’d be back to sign the many other copies on order. I was one of the lucky ones who got my book signed. I only had time for a quick read during the week but this weekend I sat down and read it from cover to cover. It’s a great story and very moving. It really is true what James says that they rescued each other. I really hope it will help a lot of people be more understanding.
James, a street musician, writes honestly about the life he led when he was a recovering heroin addict, about the battles he’s had to fight, about the loneliness of life on the streets and about how meeting Bob helped him turn his life around. I have nothing but admiration for him – it takes guts to beat an addiction. It takes a special sort of bravery and determination to pull yourself back up when you are alone and down. When one dreary day follows another, when it’s hard to see any future. If he hadn’t had such a big heart, if he hadn’t taken pity on the scruffy, sick street cat things might have been very different.
He wasn’t looking for any reward when he took Bob in, he couldn’t possibly have known what the future would bring. Now, because of his own act of kindness, James has hope and a new life. Man and cat had already rescued each other when agent Mary Pachnos approached them to suggest a book. It’s a lovely book, heartwarming, and they’ve got a great agent who will look after them and I wish them a very happy and contented future together, whatever they’d like it to be.
Post Script. I had talked about the book signing on twitter, and I’m sure many others had too. What I hadn’t expected was the reaction the following day – people were twittering from the USA, the Ukraine, Brazil – everywhere. The story was covered globally including by CBS news and China Today. I’ve never seen anything literally go viral before – it was amazing. Well done to everyone who helped in any way.
This is the link to the lovely video. Word Press will not allow me to embed it …! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdAFjB7AeYA
I’m a writer – I love writing. I love reading too. So that’s what this blog will be about, in the main. Writing and writers. Books and reading. Language in all its forms including rants about the misuse of English.
I earn my living copywriting and writing blogs and articles and advising businesses, large and small, how to make the best use of their advertising and marketing.
Personal, idiosyncratic and quirky stuff is in my other blog Form an Orderly Queue – just click on it in the sidebar. And click on Articles to read other pieces I’ve written.
You can also find my work in Eat Me Magazine, both online and in the paper version.