In November 2022, I was walking down the road in the village where I live and it struck me that something had changed. It was a relatively minor thing. What had happened was that the road sign for St Mary’s Terrace, a quiet side street, had been removed and replaced by a new one.
Nothing unusual in that, I supposed, but as an ex-English teacher and a writer of grammar textbooks, I spotted immediately that there was no apostrophe on the new sign and that it said St Marys Terrace. I pointed this out to a friend of mine who lives in the street and that was where my involvement in the subsequent developments ended. My friend, who is called John, got together with some of his neighbours in the street and they agreed that they didn’t approve of the new sign. Apart from the missing apostrophe, they also objected to the change of style from a rather pretty cast-iron sign to a much blander and less attractive modern version.
After some discussion, they decided to get in touch with our two local city councillors, who set about righting this wrong with a certain amount of alacrity. The campaign eventually reached the dizzy heights of a full Winchester City Council meeting, where various unexpected aspects appeared during the discussion. One of these, according to the leader of the council, was that there was in fact a newly-introduced national policy to avoid punctuation on road signs. The slightly implausible reason for this is allegedly that it might cause confusion to the drivers of emergency vehicles and delivery or postal vans. Another completely unexpected comment pointed out that local author Jane Austen herself was reputedly prone to playing fast and loose with punctuation.
Meanwhile, because I have an “in” with the local newspaper, I sent in a small paragraph to their jokey feature at the back of the paper that identifies quirky little stories. The paragraph, accompanied by the necessary photos of the contrasting signs, pointed out that omitting the apostrophe was not only incorrect grammatically but was also incompatible with both the Land Registry and the Ordnance Survey, in which the road name does indeed contain the vital item. There was no response to or interest in the small article and I forgot about the whole thing.
Then, last month, I received an excited email from John, in which he enthused about the fact that the original sign had now been returned and reinstalled by the council. I had had no idea that any of this was going on, but of course was delighted to receive all the details. Our extremely resourceful and energetic local councillor had taken it upon herself to visit the council dump, plunge head first into a skip and emerge triumphantly clutching the original artefact. The City Council had agreed that it should be reinstated and arranged for a renovation to be undertaken. This involved shot-blasting the cast iron sign, which was then handed over to John’s young daughter, who painted it with specialist metallic paint, but not including the errant apostrophe.
In John’s email, he invited me, as the original person to spot the problem, to take on the privileged task of filling in the missing punctuation mark. As I did so, my wife kindly took a photo of the event. At this stage, I thought it might be fun for the Hampshire Chronicle to print the “after” photo as a demonstration of a bit of people power. I duly sent in a brief update, which again was printed in the back pages.
Then something even stranger happened. I received an email from something called the Solent News and Photo Agency, saying that they had spotted this item and wondering if they could come and interview me and take a photograph. Because we have a local BBC radio station called Solent, I assumed it was something to do with them and that what could be expected might be some brief coverage of the story by them. I had no idea of what was about to happen.
Within two days, my photo and a not completely accurate series of articles implying that I was some crusty old retired colonel-type with bigoted attitudes to traditional grammar were to be found gracing the pages of all the national UK newspapers apart from The Sun. My inbox was pinging every few seconds with amused emails from friends spotting the online versions of these articles in far-flung places like America, Canada, Australia and various European countries. Before I knew it, I was being interviewed on the phone by the Canadian national broadcaster for a programme that turned out to be syndicated across the US as well.
“My god, you’ve just been on the six o’clock news!” exclaimed a neighbour. I found myself at one stage turning down a live interview with BBC Radio 5 live because I would be in charge of my grandchildren that morning, which would have made for quite a chaotic and interesting bit of audio.
One particularly interesting aspect was the different angles taken by the various papers. The first one I saw was a very long piece taking up most of a page in The Guardian. The writer had done his homework and everything in it was accurate and fair, also largely supportive and uncritical. The i newspaper also covered it accurately. The Express, meanwhile, tried to turn it into a council-bashing exercise, which actually was the complete opposite of the truth, because the council had been pleasantly supportive. The Mail, of course, homed in on house prices in the village, while the local paper in Southampton somehow dredged up an author who wanted to turn it into a culture wars item, calling me, whom of course he had never met, a “hectoring ignoramus”.
A friend in Ireland called to tell me that there were over 300 comments on The Times webpage, but it was behind a paywall and I sure as hell wasn’t going to give money to Rupert Murdoch. I tentatively asked if I was being trolled and was relieved to hear that nearly all the comments were supportive of correct apostrophe usage.
A quirk of Facebook is that messages can sometimes not appear immediately, so it was a few days later that I discovered a whole raft of communications from various publications and broadcasters around the world, all wishing to me to share my words of punctuation wisdom with them. Among them was, oh god, an invitation to appear on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s programme on GB News. Instead of replying that I would rather cut off my own head then be in the same room as that worm, I merely deleted the message and blocked the sender.
Anyway, all that stuff about lining budgies’ cages and being today’s chip paper is absolutely true, because within 48 hours the entire thing had calmed down and blown away. The only reason I had been featured in the photographs in the first place was simply that the reporters arrived on a weekday, when everybody else was out at work. One thing I will say is that they did their job extremely well. They were exactly as you might expect reporters to be, young, slightly unfashionably-dressed guys, one with a spiral notebook and pen and the other contorting himself into various positions in order to get different angles on his camera. They certainly did a brilliant job in elevating an extremely small and mundane event into an international news story.
Me, I’m just happy that it turns out that Andy Warhol was right. Yes, even after fifteen minutes, people do stop me in the street and say “Oh, you’re that apostrophe guy”.