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{Wed 10 December 2008}   Apostrophising the apostrophe

Apostrophising the apostrophe

“Oh, great squiggle in the sky, insert yourself into our empty spaces,
Deliver us from plural confusions and possess us with your graces!”

Tia Azulay

No, I’m not starting a new religion, or being lewd, but I confess that this is a shameless grammar and punctuation plug, as well as a plea for the improvement of our reading environment. While I’m sure that none of us at Master’s leveli would ever dream of intentionally inflicting on others a piece of work for reading or review without running it through MS Word’s spelling and grammar checker first, the simple truth is that this less-than-beloved software doesn’t pick up everything, so we simply have to learn a few rules if we want to be writers.

Of all the errors that grate on my reading nerves, the misuse of the apostrophe definitely tops the list.

Good and bad (use of) apostrophes

I love apostrophes, because they’re really useful. However, they’re pointless when used in the wrong places. In fact, they’re worse than pointless then, because they actually interfere with smooth reading. A bad apostrophe is not neutral, it’s negative! In the worst cases, it alters the meaning, but even when the context tells me that it just can’t mean that, just one bad apostrophe in a paragraph, even in an entire page, makes whatever I’m reading seem unprofessional. I immediately find it difficult to focus on the content, even if I’m really interested in it.

I’m very lucky in that I was well-drilled in spelling, grammar and punctuation at my school (we were always a backward lot out there in the colonies, so we didn’t “benefit” from educational fads like the “grammar inhibits creativity” one that has betrayed recent generations of UK children), but I still come up against the occasional grammatical situation where I have to think twice about the apostrophe.

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{Sun 7 December 2008}   The meaning of “home”

The meaning of “home”

Another recent creative writing exercise for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media) was also based on a popular trAce project, now archived at http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/home/

It asks several questions about the meaning of home … here are the questions and my responses.

Q. What does the word “homemean to you?

“Home” conjures images of open spaces, blue skies, trees, grass, animals; freedom to walk barefoot when and wherever I wanted to, room and time to run, play, think and read, read, read – this is not my present home, but one of those that I believe I knew and for which I yearn. There was also much, much aloneness, but I did not call it loneliness then.

Q. Please describe the home of your childhood.

I lived in South Africa until I was thirty. There were many homes, but one stands out in my memory, particularly from the period before I went to boarding school at the age of eleven. We moved to Bryanston, Sandton, when I was eight. It was a three-acre property with a lovely farm-style house that my mother had inherited from my grandmother. As a younger child, I had visited her there a few times before her death, and had even stayed with her for a week. Then, I had found the house strange and cool, musty and lonely, because grandmother herself was strange to me. However, once we had moved in, it very quickly became our house.

I remember the whole property as beautiful, and I remember the additional delight that each new beautification brought to all of us, but especially to my mother, who energised each change – the extension to the lounge that brought light in everywhere, the oregon pine floors that I proudly helped my father to lay, the enormous new main bedroom with built-in cupboards lining its entire length on one side, big enough to hide a built-in sewing station and to give access through a cupboard door to a magical en suite bathroom with a huge picture window.

I loved my father’s study. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that he had built himself from golden pine. The lines of books were broken with staggered double volume frames that gave space for lamps and objets d’art, so the small room was never oppressive, even with its thousands of books. There were good science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and bad science fiction from Andre Norton, good romances from Georgette Heyer and bad romances from Barbara Cartland, good westerns from Zane Grey and bad westerns from Louis L’Amour, good thrillers from Graham Greene and less good thrillers from Ian Fleming; there were adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and Greek myths and fantasy novels and children’s stories, including the complete series of Biggles, Just William, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. All of these, and more, he and I devoured. From that study, I took my heroes out to the garden to become them there. I was Tarzan (my brothers were the apes), I was Lord Greystoke, I was John Carter of Mars, I was Hiawatha, I was Robinson Crusoe, I was Peter Pan… I was never a girl, because they were seldom heroes, although Georgina from the Famous Five was alright, because she was a tomboy and could climb trees, like me.

The garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my younger brothers. Pretty Jacaranda trees lined the boundary with the busy main road. There were also two huge Acacia Elata trees, with dark brown bark and dark green leaves, that were easy to climb all the way to the top. Unlike our neighbours, we had no wall or fence along that road, although my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. I loved to sit at the top of the tallest tree, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, sometimes for hours. Inside the main garden, there were a syringa and a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Chinese oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in Autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio which my brother called the helicopter tree because of its winged seeds. From its huge branches hung our car-tyre swing and the birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. As they were not caged, the population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see them coming and going about their bird business.

The other animals were our beloved dogs, including Juno the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, and a succession of others — Buster, a black pointer, who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, at least two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, from whom my mom bred a few litters. Watchdog duties were performed by the geese. I also always had a cat — Mischief, Peculiar, Malkat (mad cat) and then Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf albino who always came late for everything. For my eleventh Christmas, my best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered gelding called Butterscotch. My younger brother, Ian, received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony called Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them for hours, bareback, in the garden, or saddled, through the surrounding countryside. They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and my uncle had built and fenced in the acre to the rear of the house. Every so often, we would wash the horses with apple-scented shampoo and set them free in the garden to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

Q. Please describe the scent, taste or feel of home.

As I look into that word-picture, I smell new-mown grass, wet dog, apple-scented horses, brown bread baking, my mother’s Lanvin perfume, and the fresh air that I took absolutely for granted then.

Q. Which object most evokes home for you?

A purring cat.

Q. Where do you feel you ‘properly belong’ now?

I do not know. But my cat is purring.



et cetera