By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker and Jack Steel)
We’ve visited this topic before, but I think it’s both a.) kind of important and b.) desperately sad that we seem to be surrounded by people who very obviously can’t spell or use English properly and who also clearly don’t care that the products of their illiteracy are displayed for all to see.
Of course, we’re all very familiar with the signs posted by greengrocers, who certainly know that a punctuation mark called the apostrophe exists and seemed determined to use it as frequently as possible, which is why you can be invited to buy lettuces’s and potatoe’s and tomatoe’s and apple’s and even, on occasion, xma’s tree’s. We’re used to that, and I think most people accept that these traders are in the business of selling us fresh fruit and vegetables and stuff, not demonstrating their command of the English language, and we simply smile and walk on.
But it’s a bit different when the same lack of even the most basic grammatical skills are displayed in the arts. Then I think we need to start worrying.
When we’re in England, we stay in Sevenoaks, a pleasant market town perched at the top of a hill in Kent. Some people unkindly refer to it these days as ‘One Oak’, because about half a dozen of the old trees around the Vine were blown down in the big storm of 1987. A few years ago, the town was frankly rather dull, staid and boring, and even finding a decent restaurant was quite a challenge, but recently there’s been an influx of new businesses and younger residents, attracted by the excellent rail service, which can get you to Charing Cross in about thirty minutes, with the result that Sevenoaks is now noticeably more vibrant and alive.
One of the old establishments in the town is the theatre, which the council tried unsuccessfully to have closed down a few years ago, possibly on the grounds that they wanted to erect a new office building on the site. That’s the charitable view. There were other mutterings about backhanders and brown envelopes, and it is certainly true that every time a large site in the town becomes vacant, the most likely new construction on it will be yet another office building that the town neither wants nor needs. Down by the mainline railway station there are three of them, all conspicuous by the fact that ever since they were built they’ve stayed wholly or partially vacant. There used to be a decent pub down there as well, but that was demolished some time ago, and most people expect that yet another empty office building will eventually arise, Phoenix-like, from the rubble, to become a fourth eyesore. But whatever the degree of corruption or incompetence manifested by the council, the decision to close the theatre provoked an uncharacteristically vocal storm of protest.
The council relented, and appointed a management team which clearly had not the slightest idea of how to run a theatre and cinema complex in an English country town. The only films they appeared able to show were French art-house productions which mainly involved the smoking of large numbers of cigarettes and the consumption of prodigious quantities of alcohol by the actors, long smouldering glances which appeared meaningful in a meaningless way, inaccurate subtitles and sparse dialogue which was banal even by normal film standards, and no discernable plot. Attendance numbers dropped exponentially, and it was feared that the council’s wish to shut the establishment would be fulfilled. But then another management team took over and simply transformed the place, showing films the public actually wanted to see, and hosting excellent stage productions.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to the point I was trying to make. I spent some time in the theatre restaurant recently, and was looking with interest at the various advertisements and posters which plastered the walls, all announcing some forthcoming production. Almost without exception, they were scattered with spelling and grammatical errors. A new production of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ was heralded as an ‘amatuer’ production. A performer had worked at some other venue as a ‘compare’, and so on. And all these were on professionally printed posters, presumably created and then approved by the theatre management staff, which implies that both they and the printers they used were illiterate.
That day, I went to London, to be treated on the train to an example of the Unnecessary Use Of Capital Letters, when the illuminated sign warned passengers to beware of the gap ‘between the Platform and the Train’. But at least the words were spelt correctly. In the evening, we had a meal in the local pub, where the theme was continued, the menu offering both ‘cellery soup’ and ‘choccolate brownies’.
We seemed unable to escape to a land of literacy. It’s almost as if there’s a complicated plot being run in the background, orchestrated by a bunch of evil faceless men, and designed to seduce people who are literate over to the dark side.
In fact, I’ve just had a brilliant idea for a book. I’ll call it Teh Iliteracky Cod by ‘Don Brawn’. It’ll sell millions.
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