Eats, shoots and leaves (Hong Kong)
Matt Fleming watches his grammar when Lynne Truss tells all about her cruise to HK
As a sub-editor of many years’ standing, I’m afraid of few people when it comes to having a good command of the English language. However, Lynne Truss scares the hell out of me. The Eats, Shoots & Leaves author is famous across the globe as the go-to authority on correct English grammar – and now she’s coming to Hong Kong, I’m quaking in my boots.
Truss is due to sail in on a cruise ship early next year – but when I interview the author prior to her arrival, I’m watching my ps and qs so closely it hurts. “I think I’m seen as the sub’s sub,” she tells me. “But I honestly think I don’t have any particular authority! It’s weird the way book sales made people defer to my opinion about things.”
Truss was born in 1955 in the UK. She went to grammar school – obviously – then attended university before starting her first job on the Times Higher Education Supplement as deputy literary editor. After that, she worked at the ‘softest end’ of journalism, as she puts it, writing arts pieces, book reviews and columns for years. From 1990, she graduated to freelance writer and worked as a critic and columnist for The Times, writing novels, stories and radio plays. For four years she also wrote about sport.
She didn’t, however, make household-name status until 2003, when Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a witty tome on punctuation and grammar, was published. Almost immediately, she became the authority on English – although she admits there was a downside as ‘I was pigeonholed as a grammarian, when the thing I’m most proud of is my versatility as a comic writer’.
It’s been success from there – right up to her most recent book, Get Her Off the Pitch!, about her life as a sportswriter-who-didn’t-have-a-clue-about-sport (she tells me the film rights have just been bought by a Hollywood studio to be made into a romantic comedy, bearing ‘no relation to the actual events I wrote about in the book – but I think the main character is great, so I’m feeling quite optimistic about that’).
And now Truss is visiting Hong Kong on a cruise. She’ll steam in on February 24, next year, having sailed for 20 days on Silversea’s Silver Whisper after leaving Sydney, Australia. She’ll no doubt be chatting away to passengers (‘I’m always happy to talk about writing’) throughout the journey, which is part of a 115-day cruise featuring an array of authors and experts, including former hostage Terry Waite and BBC anchor Michael Buerk.
“I’ve been twice to Hong Kong,” she says. “Once in the early 1980s and again in 2004, when I gave a couple of talks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and another one for the British Council. I’m very excited about coming back. I was offered different legs of the cruise – and asked for this one. I just wish I could bring my dog, as this is a long trip and I’ll miss him. But I love being at sea.”
Truss admits to being ‘ignorant’ of our literary scene – but she does say ‘one of the best things about travel is visiting bookshops and getting local recommendations’. “I remember there were some very impressive bookshops in HK,” she says. But, of course, she has a penchant for grammar. “I think the amount of writing we’re all doing has highlighted quite a few problems with literacy,” she says. “The reason Eats, Shoots & Leaves sold so well was the timing. Millions of people were going crazy about the state of written English: grammar hadn’t been taught for a long time because it doesn’t fit modern relativist education ideas. So when I made my ‘zero tolerance’ stand, I was almost killed in the rush – and it was as surprising to my publishers and me as it was to everyone else.”
Indeed. But it was a launchpad of sorts for Truss. She’s just had a short play hit the stage at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and she’s recently been commissioned to write radio dramas and a horror novella. But, for my part, I’m just looking forward to her visit. I’ll double-check the punctuation on the welcome sign, though…
Get Her Off The Pitch! Is published by Fourth Estate Ltd, priced $208. To clamber aboard the Silver Whisper with Truss, visit silversea.com. (Photo credit: Barry Lewis).