A Recent Q & A With a Very Nice Person Based in Wales (The questionnaire)
- You are best known for Eats, Shoots & Leaves – looking at your all-encompassing CV is that something you are happy with?
Well, it’s hard sometimes. I wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves 14 years ago – but I think it’s fair that if you have a bestselling book, people identify you with it. All I’ve done to prevent any further pigeon-holing is NOT write another book on language, which was a disappointment for my publishers, but I was so worried about becoming the Barbara Woodhouse of Punctuation that I was determined to muddy the waters as quickly as possible. Versatility has always been an important quality to me – I love trying out different types of writing. I’ve written literary criticism and novels and plays and short stories, and also sports journalism. My novels deal with stuff form the 19th century and the 18th century, and the latest one is set in the 1950s. It did seem ironic that when I tried yet another genre – a very niche one, actually, which I thought would be a very small book in every sense – I woke up to find I was the Queen of Punctuation and nothing else!
- Do you think the British are obsessed with grammar/ punctuation? Or do you think the archetypal greengrocer’s board with apple’s and pear’s is something we should just accept?
It turns out – after 14 years – that my sympathy for pedants isn’t infinite, but I did write ESL out of a sense of their pain, so I have a duty to support them! Personally, though, I don’t always notice misplaced apostrophes. I get much more annoyed by people cycling on pavements or driving too fast in areas that have a limit of 20mph.
- You are a fan of Tennyson – do you think he is misjudged in modern eyes?
He’s still quite unfashionable, I think. Still surrounded by a miasma of Victorian gloom. Which is a shame because so much of his poetry is beautiful. I did a little book for the National Portrait Gallery about the Isle of Wight’s amazing Freshwater Circle in the mid-19th century – Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, G.F. Watts and so on – and although there were great stories to tell, and great portraits to draw on, there was no way to title it that would get anyone to buy it! It had to be Tennyson and His Circle. Tennyson’s very name seems to strike dread into people.
- What do you plan to talk about at your Penfro appearance?
Ooh, I am going to start by talking about punctuation, of course! But I will also do a reading of a couple of pieces written for the radio – one a monologue about a woman whose husband doesn’t come home form work one day; the other a set of replies to Christmas newsletters, designed to discourage – and indeed, roundly punish – the senders of such newsletters.
- You spent four years writing about football – almost unheard of for a woman in the 1990s. Do you still follow football? And (I speak as the wife of a sports journalist!) is sport really that important?
I keep thinking I’ll pick it up again, but then I remember how much of my brain got colonised by all those scores and facts and footballers, and I think “Nah.” But for four years I allowed myself to think football was important, and I have to say that as someone whose previous career was all about minority stuff like books and art, writing about football was fantastically rewarding, because in terms of newspapers, Sport is the winning side. It truns out (and I really didn’t know this before) that people buy newspapers for the sports coverage, not for the features about 19th-century photography! I really enjoyed thinking about sport, too: for instance, is it just a glorified form of entertainment (and an enormous rip-off)? The life of travelling between nasty press boxes was tiring and annoying, and I was incredibly lonely (I wrote a book about it later). But I felt I was doing something quite special, and that the subject was a big one. I often remember the point when the editor of The Times offered me the job of film critic (I weep to remember this, actually), and I turned it down in order to stick with sport.