A mate of mine, Steve Woods, is an Edinburgh-based illustrator.

He’s got a great range of styles and ideas. During this year’s festival he’s exhibiting work across Edinburgh. So you can now see (and buy) his work at several places in the Old Town and the New Town.

Here are a couple of his pieces.

Metro

 

Trees

You can see more of his work in the following places:

Mainline, 319 Cowgate

Dundas Street Framers, 132 Dundas Street

Lennon Art, 83 Henderson Row

 

If you’re passing, pop in.

You can thank me when what you buy is worth a fortune in 20 years.

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Grammar can cause problems when we’re writing.

Some people still like to refer to arcane rules that were taught to them in the dim and distant past. They refuse to understand that usage of language changes over time. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to excuse poor use of language or ignoring grammar rules. Rules are there for a reason. But sometimes we use them to tie ourselves in knots.)

So, what are the rules when we’re trying to work out how to communicate?

Well, that depends.

There are lots of books to reference when checking how to use grammar.

One area that constantly seems to infuriate people is apostrophes.

Generally they’re fairly simple to use (if you write for a living).

But then you get the odd thing that causes consternation.

Laura Waddell spotted a really badly-placed apostrophe on a sign in her local Waitrose, so she popped it up on Twitter.

It looked like this:

Apostrophes Twitter 1

Which is pretty poor.

It reminded me of a traffic sign where I live that had a misplaced apostrophe on it. So I shared it on Laura’s post:

Apostrophes Twitter 2

I thought the sign was incorrect and didn’t need the apostrophe.

95% of people who saw it on Twitter laughed and enjoyed the joke.

Apostrophes Twitter 3

However, couple of people said they thought the sign did need the apostrophe.

So I got out my Chicago Manual of Style, The Economist Style Guide and Fowler’s Modern English Usage and had a look. I couldn’t find any reference to using apostrophes in plurals of initialisms. Seems (from a pretty deep Google search) that it was taught in schools a long time ago. However, I’m no spring chicken and I don’t ever remember it being mentioned at school.

Which leads me on to the fact that language evolves. If you read something from many years ago the language used can seem odd. (Same thing happens if you read the Daily Mail – you start thinking it’s 1917.) I think we need to move with changing usage and adapt how we write.

Even though some people on Twitter had a meltdown about the fact that the sign is (supposedly) correct with an apostrophe, I’d still argue that it’s wrong.

The purpose of the sign is to communicate clearly and simply that HGVs should turn right. In most people’s eyes that means no apostrophe. There’s no misunderstanding if you omit the apostrophe. So let’s ask it to do one.

In amongst all the debate, I did love Banana Armour’s response:

Apostrophes twitter 4

I guess what I’m saying is that a grammar debate can be a bit dull. But always remember the point is to communicate.

And it’s best to do that simply, while avoiding complicated words, in a manner that your reader is comfortable with.

The Economist has a fantastic style guide. It gives insights and solutions to things few people would give time to thinking about. And they refer the reader to George Orwell’s six rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language). The sixth of which reads:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To my mind, using an apostrophe in the HGV sign is just plain wrong. To use Orwell’s phrase, it seems barbarous to me. It seems to go against the commonly-held understanding of how apostrophes work. And I’d go further to argue that if professional writers are disagreeing over this, then we need to do something to simplify usage before we all disappear up our own backsides.

Say no to apostrophes for HGVs.

P.S. I do get that it’s just a sign and regardless of the position of the apostrophe HGV drivers will most likely ignore it anyway.

apostrophe

This Wookiee’s a winner.

Simply a chair being pushed across a floor.

 

It’s the little things, when we spot them, that make us smile.

He may not have got a medal at the end of A New Hope, but his signature roar is a classic.

Loving Chewie. Loving the chair’s impression of him.

Make you laugh, it will.

I’ve avoided making any comments at all on the forthcoming EU referendum. I’ve done it deliberately.

There’s been no rational debate. Just mud slinging, name-calling and fear-mongering.

From both sides.

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A major problem with the debating process

It’s been like listening to a group of kids in a school playground where the loudest voice is king.

So if you say anything on social media you get people telling you you’re wrong.

Seriously!?! I’m wrong for holding an opinion?

Surely that’s the whole point of debate (and, you could argue, democracy).

People are allowed to hold a different opinion. (And I’ll let you into a little secret – an opinion is all it is. It’s all based on arbitrary figures, dependent on a person’s methods, beliefs and influences. So it’s, at best, just a decent guess.)

Something else I’ve noticed clearly is that people don’t listen to understand.

They listen to respond.

So there’s never any point where they consider the other side’s view.

They just think of a bigger / scarier / more outrageous fact to throw at their opponent.

It’s sad. It’s divisive and it’s not acceptable any longer.

We need to stop people preying on fear.

Where are all the intelligent arguments for the positives of staying or leaving the European Union?

It’s been very difficult to find any commentator who has been rational and forensic about the forthcoming vote.

It will have a huge impact on the future of our country, perhaps for generations.

If you can’t see your way to a sensible, non-hysterical debate try thinking of your children.

Imagine them in the room as you start frothing at the mouth.

Hopefully that should help you maintain a modicum of common sense.

We should all be free to vote however our opinion tells us to.

That’s the power of democracy.

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The basis of a free democracy

Respect each other. Even if you disagree with each other.

Our ancestors fought wars for the right to vote and for the right to freedom.

We, currently, show no respect for their sacrifice.

We have turned into a country unable to have a rational debate. We’re in danger of creating a schism in our society we never fully recover from.

Don’t listen to the loudest voices.

Listen to the quietest ones.

Because they’re confident in their beliefs so they don’t need to shout about it.

If you only ever listen to the loudest voices you’ll live their life.

If you listen to the quiet ones you’re free to choose the path you want.

I almost signed off by saying may the best campaign win. But, sadly, I think that would mean no one would win.

Each of us can make a difference to the debate.

We can behave reasonably.

Remember to respect each other.

And remember there are no absolutes.

It’s all just a big mess of grey.

Cast your vote how you want to.

And remember when it’s all over, just because someone didn’t vote the same way you did, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. They just have different views to you.

An outstanding story of selflessness and believing that you should stand up for what is right. It’s something we can all learn from and be inspired by.

In 1996 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It was a strange choice of location, as Ann Arbor is a multicultural place, where extremists like the KKK are generally not supported or welcomed.

Much like any KKK rally, there was a large police presence. And a huge number of people gathered to demonstrate that far-right views were not welcome.

It started like any KKK rally with the police (in riot gear armed with tear gas) keeping the small number of Klansmen separate from the protesters. There was a fence separating the opposing sides too.

Then one of the protesters noticed a man wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt in amongst them. The Confederate flag is often seen as symbolic of far-right views and has unsavoury connotations. The man also had an ‘SS’ tattoo on his forearm.

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The KKK ‘undercover’ man is spotted

A shout went up from the crowd “Kill the Nazi”. The man started to run. He was knocked to the ground. The mob surrounded him and started hitting, kicking and beating him with their placard sticks.

And the pack mentality took over. When part of a group, people often behave in a manner they never would if they were on their own. Things looked bleak for the middle-aged white supremist.

Until a teenage girl, who happened to be black, decided to make a stand. So she did the only thing she could think of to save the man. She threw herself on top of the man to protect him from the blows.

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Keshia protects the KKK man

The photographer who captured the images, Mark Brunner, could not believe what he was seeing. He said: “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her.”

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Selflessness in action

The teenager who performed this amazing act of bravery and selflessness was Keshia Thomas. She herself had experienced violence and had always wished there had been someone there to help her – to make it stop. She said: “Violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”

She never heard from the man whose life she saved. But she did have an amazing moment a few months later. She was sitting in a coffee shop when a young man approached her and said: “thanks”. When she asked what he was thanking her for he told her that the man was his dad.

That meant so much to Keshia. She realised that she’d not only helped the father, but she’d potentially stopped the son from following down a path of violence. Now, 20 years later, she tends not to think about the incident. She prefers to look forward.

In her own words: “I don’t want to think that this is the best I could ever be. In life you are always striving to do better.”

You can read more about her story on the BBC site.

At a time when the world is changing faster than ever before we should all try to be more tolerant. To be more understanding of other people’s views.

In short, we should all try to be more like Keshia.

 

 

All images © Mark Brunner

Last week, my friend Julie bought a cover for her new phone.

She bought it in Carphone Warehouse.

Unfortunately the cover didn’t actually work.

It cost £40 and offered “some functionality of your phone through the touch sensitive front cover”.

The cover didn’t stay shut, so it was useless as a product.

uk_EF-ZG935CSEGWW_001_001_silver

The offending Samsung cover

She returned it to the shop where she bought it only to be told “we don’t do refunds”.

She pointed out that the cover wasn’t actually able to do the job it was sold for and that she thought that meant she was entitled to a refund.

The shop told her she was wrong and that all they had to offer was an exchange.

So she told me what had happened.

She thought I might be able to help.

So we sat down together and called Carphone Warehouse on their customer service number (0370 111 6565).

Our first call was answered by a man called Khanyo.

I explained that the phone cover didn’t work and explained that we’d like a refund.

He told us they only do exchanges.

I pointed out that UK consumer law, under the Consumer Rights Act, states that faulty goods are eligible for a refund for 30 days.

He repeated that they only do exchanges.

So I asked to speak to his manager.

He told me that his manager would just tell me the same thing.

I pointed out that I’d asked to speak to his manager, not asked him to guess what his manager would say.

I had to ask five times before he finally relented and went to get his manger.

We spent six minutes on hold.

Then Khanyo comes back and tells me that his manager had told him to tell me that they don’t do refunds.

I bit my tongue and asked him to please get his manger to come to the phone.

If nothing else, I thought he might be interested that their interpretation of company policy broke UK law.

So he went away again.

This time only for two minutes.

Then Khanyo’s manager came on the line.

He was called Fabian.

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Trying to use humour to create a connection

I then patiently explained to Fabian that the cover wasn’t fit for purpose and that the Consumer Rights Act states that Julie should be given a refund.

He then asks if I’m an attorney.

I replied “I’m sorry, we’re not in America.”

He then asked if I was a barrister.

I told him I didn’t make coffees.

He didn’t get it.

I then spent eight minutes basically arguing with Fabian.

I kept asking him to ask someone in the company who knew the law if we should get a refund.

He continually refused.

So I asked if I could speak to his manager.

He refused.

Then he told me his manger was on holiday.

But he did give me her name.

She was called Shereen.

But he spoiled it slightly by telling me that even if she was in he wouldn’t let me speak to her.

I asked him if he was serious.

Then the line went dead.

I swore a wee bit.

Then I called back.

This time Glenville answered the call.

I asked to speak to Fabian.

Fabian told Glenville to tell me that he wouldn’t come to the phone.

I asked Glenville to ask Fabian to have the common decency to come back to the phone.

He went off to ask again.

He returned to tell me that Fabian had gone for lunch (with, apparently, impeccable timing).

Glenville refused to put me through to a manager.

So I hung up and called Carphone Warehouse head office.

And remarkably I got through to the same office as the previous calls.

This time, however, we get to speak to Aneesa.

She was a star.

I explained the story about the cover, the previous phone calls and the fact that the law states Julie is entitled to a refund.

And she agrees.

We are entitled to a refund.

She’s very apologetic (and also pretty disappointed with her colleagues’ behaviour).

She takes a few details and asks if we would mind taking the cover back to the shop Julie bought it in.

I asked if she would mind if we called her when we got to the shop, as I was pretty sure the manager of the shop would still refuse to give a refund.

Aneesa agreed. (That’s what customer service should be about – making sure the customer’s expectations are met.)

So Julie took the phone back to the shop.

When she got there she called Aneesa. (The person who answered refused to put Julie through for almost three minutes!)

Aneesa came on the phone and asked Julie to hand the phone to the shop manager.

So she handed the phone to the shop manager with the words: “It’s for you.”

She only heard his side of the conversation.

But his opening line, after establishing who was on the phone, was: “We don’t do refunds.”

Aneesa put him right.

So Julie got her refund. Eventually.

There’s a really simple lesson for companies here.

If you empower staff to make decisions on your behalf, make sure they know enough to not be actively breaching UK consumer law while they’re doing it.

Or at least have an escalations system that ensures your customers’ fate isn’t down to the randomness of where a call to a call centre ends up.

With social media allowing people to share bad experiences to a wider audience than ever before, it’s increasingly important to get things right.

Come on people – it’s not that difficult. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and you’ll find the answers present themselves.

The flip side is when people go that wee bit further to keep their customers happy. Like this example from Chester Zoo. Imagine how you’d feel about the zoo if you returned to your car and found this.

Excellent customer service

Great customer service can really make people love your brand

Hats off to Chester Zoo’s car park team. Customer service really isn’t that difficult. As long as you don’t put people in charge who don’t actually want to help customers.

And thanks to Aneesa at Carphone Warehouse. She’s what all your staff should aspire to be. And if her manager happens to read this, give her a raise and promote her. She’ll do more for your brand than you can imagine.

The government seems to be unsure of how to educate children nowadays. They seem to think that constantly putting children under pressure is a good way for them to start life.

Everybody is a genius

We should all aim to inspire, whenever we can

Don’t get me wrong, learning to cope with pressure is an important part of any person’s development. But having children learn about things that are completely unnecessary is counterproductive. It harms confidence and can lead to children thinking they’re “not smart”. Everyone is smart – they might just be better at things that don’t involve knowing what a fronted adverbial is.

Yoda Star Wars Education Fronted Adverbials

Yoda channels the force of fronted adverbials

My own daughter is now at secondary school and I’m seeing for myself the sometimes disjointed approach to learning. And it’s tough as a parent to not react to some of the crazy decisions that are made. Don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of teachers who do a great job. But the government’s ‘test everything to death’ approach surely doesn’t help? I spotted a clarion call against this sort of madness on The Writer website (which is always worth a visit). They looked at the requirements of the SATs that kids sit. And the English test looks like a) a nightmare and b) a bit of a waste of time.

They quite rightly point out that many, many writers (OK, almost all of us) don’t know every granular detail of grammar. They also point out that spelling and grammar are important – they’re the basic fundamentals of how we communicate when we’re writing. But being a good writer is more than knowing the rules. It’s connecting with your audience. Giving them something they’ll be interested in. Writing it in a way that appeals to them. And it’s fun. It really is. (Or it bloody well should be.)

So here’s The Writer’s article, reproduced in full. If you have a child taking SATs you really want to read this. Then give your kid a hug and let them read it too.

 

A letter to primary school children in England

Dear kids,

We’ve heard all about the spelling and grammar test you have to do as part of your SATs. We think it sounds pretty tough.

Not just the test itself, but all the months you’ve spent learning about things like fronted adverbials and expanded noun phrases and subordinating conjunctions. We’re willing to bet you wish you’d spent a bit less time doing that, and more time making up funny poems, or writing your own adventure stories.

Well, there’s something we wanted to tell you.

We asked our team of 15 professional writers whether they knew what a fronted adverbial was. How many do you think said ‘yes’?

One. And that’s because she has a daughter in primary school, just like you.

The rest of us didn’t have a clue. Remember, we all earn our living from writing, and helping other people to write better. And we’ve all managed to get this far without the words ‘fronted adverbial’ ever entering our minds.

We did try, honest. We looked up ‘fronted adverbials’ online, and spent a good few minutes frowning and scratching our heads. We couldn’t really understand it, and then we decided not to worry about it anyway, because fronted adverbials make sentences sound a bit weird, like they were written by Yoda from the Star Wars films, and we went off to make a cup of tea instead.

All this isn’t to say spelling and grammar aren’t important

They are. Our writers all know where to put apostrophes, and what semicolons are for.

And we understand how grammar choices can affect how writing comes across to the reader. Like how passive sentences can be unclear or – worse – make it seem like you’re trying to hide something.

But we don’t know what every single little grammar thing is called. And we don’t need to.

Trust us. We’ve helped thousands of grown-ups all over the world get better at writing. And we’re going to tell you the same thing we tell them: it’s okay to sound like yourself when you write.

You don’t need to use long, complicated words to sound important. You don’t need to use fronted adverbials or expanded noun phrases to be a good writer (we think you’ll be a better writer if you don’t). And it doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t recognise a subordinating conjunction if it clonked you over the head.

If you find those things hard, it doesn’t mean you’re no good at writing.

What makes someone a good writer?

You’re a good writer if you sound like a human being, not a robot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a story about robots.)

You’re a good writer if you’re kind to your reader: if you don’t write long, boring sentences, or bang on for pages without getting to the point.

You’re a good writer if you have something interesting to say, and you’re not afraid to say it.

You’re a good writer if you make your reader change their mind about something. Or look at something differently. Or do something they might not have done otherwise.

You’re a good writer if you can make your reader feel happy. Or sad. Or indignant. Or motivated. Or reassured.

You’re a good writer if you can keep your reader interested, even if you’re writing about something really boring, like gas pipes, or tax.

You’re a good writer if you can take something really, really complicated, and explain it so simply that your granny could understand it.

And, most importantly, you’ll be a good writer if you enjoy writing, have fun with words and even break the odd rule now and again.

Don’t worry about the test. Really.

Love,

The Writer

 

And to all those who think it’s disgraceful that people don’t know every detail of grammar, I point you in the direction of the genius that was Dr Seuss:

Dr Seuss Cat In The Hat Truer Than True Youer Than You

He was pretty successful and had an astonishing connection with his readers. He made up words, constructed sentences with fun in mind and blew a giant raspberry at dull writing. Long live creativity and writing that sets out to entertain and engage. And, as for teaching primary school children about minute intricacies of grammar, well I’m not at all in favour of it.

Father Ted Down With This Sort of Thing Craggy Island Protest

Careful now