Thursday, August 25, 2011

How we went on holiday by mistake

“We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!”

That line should ring bells with anyone who's seen the 1986 film Withnail and I, in which two booze-riddled, drug-addled, out-of-work actors head out of London to spend a paranoid weekend in a country cottage that turns out to be a little less luxurious than they’d hoped.

Not that the Dixon family holiday was anything  like that, you understand. But after we got back from a wet week in Wales and girded our collective loins for an extra two nights under canvas in supposedly sunny Hampshire, it did start to feel a bit like we’d wandered onto a movie set.

The camping trip was intended as a celebration of our wedding anniversary, although it’s hard to see how two days without mod cons qualifies as any sort of celebration.

Dixon Junior had run away to sea for a week in preference to living in a tent with his parents and younger sister. We remaining three crammed the car with camping gear, mosquito repellent and portable video games and hit the road.

Into the worst rainstorm to hit the south coast of England. Ever.

For this was Thursday, August 18, the day that flash floods struck Bournemouth and environs, roads were awash, the wind howled and all was absolutely frightful.

By some quirk of fate, though, the rain stopped just as we reached Lymington, and the campsite appeared to be well drained.

All thoughts of escape were suppressed as we gritted our teeth in the last blusterings of the gale, hoisted the tent, bashed in the poles of the windbreak and set up the stove for a brew.

What could possibly go wrong? Well not much, funnily enough. Friday dawned crisp and clear, and we took the ferry across the Solent. Which is a bit like going abroad but staying in England – as you drive off the good ship Wight Light in Yarmouth you wonder for a moment if you should be driving on the left or the Wight. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

One of the best bits about camping, though, is watching the other campers and feeling smug about your own set-up.

A young couple pitched up that evening, and pulled out the floweriest, flimsiest tent ever to be seen outside the glamping enclosure at Glastonbury. They spent hours positioning it just right and getting the guy ropes completely straight, and then started the barbecue. At dusk it became clear that in all their perfectionism they’d forgotten to bring a torch. By 8.30 or thereabouts they were cooking in the dark.

We got our comeuppance for our smugness a couple of hours later, though, as a noisy, sweary bunch of people arrived and put up their tents by the headlights of their Land Rover. By midnight other campers were yelling at them to shut up, and at seven on Saturday morning they packed up their tents, still swearing and shouting about needing bacon sandwiches, and moved off to another part of the site.

Oh well, we thought, as we headed back to Bath.  We only had to put up with them for one night. Their families are stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Greengrocers and apostrophes: what went wrong?

Drive north out of Bath on the A46, and before you reach the all-day playground that is the M4, you’ll see a stall selling soft fruit.

At least, you can assume that’s what they’re selling. There’s a blackboard advertising their wares, but what it actually says is Strawberrie’.

At that point, whoever was doing the chalking must have run out of board. There’s a quite unnecessary apostrophe, but the final “s” is nowhere to be seen.

Or at least, it wasn’t last Sunday, when we trundled by. “Watch the road, Hugh, not the board! EEEEEEE...!”

Journey over with no further incident, there was time to waste a few minutes of reflection on that degenerate scion of English punctuation, the greengrocer’s apostrophe.

People have trouble with apostrophes: greengrocers more than most. Because even if the people selling summer fruits by the side of the A46 had squeezed a final “s” on to their board, they’d have been wrong.

The first rule of apostrophes is that they don’t go with plurals. But look at any display of fruit and veg worth its name, and you’ll see the problem. If you don’t fancy the pear’s, then choose some apple’s. How about some carrot’s with the roast tonight? And then a couple of mangoe’s for afters.

Those are the greengrocer’s apostrophes.

The second rule is that apostrophes show possession. If something owns something else, then the owner has an apostrophe and an s.

A couple of examples from the animal kingdom may be helpful here. Think of the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, the dog’s...

No, not those, cheeky.

The bee, the cat and the dog are the owners of the knees, the pyjamas and the... all right, dinner. So the three animals get an apostrophe-s.

It gets more complicated when you combine plurals and possessives. They go s-apostrophe.

So if two bees had 12 knees between them, they would be the bees’ knees. If four cats wore pyjamas, they would be the cats’ pyjamas. And as for the dogs, well, you get the general idea.

Rule three: apostrophes show that something has had a letter or two left out. “The cat’s outside” means “The cat is outside”. Simples.

Rule four. There is no such word as Its’. “Its” means “belonging to it”. “It’s” means “it is”. As in “It’s time the cat had its dinner.” You just have to learn that one.

To go back to our original roadside example: “Strawberries” is the plural of “strawberry”, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe.

The only time you’d put an apostrophe anywhere near strawberries would be if something belonged to those strawberries – for example the strawberries’ flavour, or the strawberries’ colour, or the strawberries’ tendency to get snaffled from the fridge before yours truly has a chance to sample them.

(Have you ever stared at a word for so long that it starts to look wrong even when it’s right? It’s happening right now with strawberries.)

So if you’re (shortening) in a greengrocer’s (possessive) shop and you see a sign advertising “Strawberrie’s”, you should now be able to explain confidently to them where they’ve gone wrong.

Although whether the greengrocer would thank you for the explanation is quite another matter.