Sweat the small stuff. It’s the right thing to do. Probably. Or (k)not).
For reasons too exhausting to explain the Husband, 13-year-old and I have been undertaking knot-tying practice. Backs of chairs, radiators and even rolling pins are covered with a variety of nautical tassels. Sailors amongst you will find our endeavours vanilla. Even so, learning a few basic knots has proved almost as complex as mastering Rubik’s Cube. Particularly the bowline – tricky on a range of levels. During a frenetic but marvellous season being blown to and fro across the mouth of the Tweed with Berwick Sailing Club, we were shown how to make this knot. Unfortunately, after the third repetition of the instruction ‘the bunny comes up the hole, behind the tree and back down the hole’, my rope hung limp in my hands. I had drifted to a place where everyone else tied knots and I sat quietly drinking gin from the bottle through a straw.
However, some four years on I have finally mastered the bowline. Whether I’ll be able to do it on anything other the back of my kitchen chair remains to be seen. More importantly, I am rebelling over how it’s said. Apparently it’s Boleyn as in Anne rather than the more obvious ‘bow’ ‘line’. The Husband says I have to say it right ‘otherwise sailors will laugh at you’. My riposte? ‘Good! I shall mock them for being so precious about something that matters so little.’ And there the battle lines (lins?) are drawn. Why do certain seemingly pointless things concern, trouble and downright infuriate us? Why do we feel that others should do/say such things ‘properly’?
When we first moved to Berwick we were corrected on a variety of pronunciation issues. The ‘o’ in Lowick, (the village a short hop down the A1), should be as in ‘cow’ not ‘sew’, we were told. The Whiteadder certainly not ‘white’ adder but ‘whit’ adder. The Cheviots (‘e’ as in cheese not chess). Subsequently I’ve heard all these said in various ways. I have even heard myself correcting others on their pronunciation. The thing is, as long as we understand each other, does it really matter? My Dear Old Ma spent years drumming into me and my brothers that we must say ‘I’ as in ‘eye’ rather than the more Suffolk ‘oi’. Of course, it paid off – I’m considered a posh southerner now we live up north.
It’s interesting because many of us spend a lot of time bucking against rules (speed limits, using phones when we’re asked not to, parking, dropping litter), and yet we often have very strong views on the ‘right’ ways of saying or doing something. Things that apparently have no impact on the overall state of life, the universe and everything.
Leave it! It’s not worth it. Or is it?
The so-called greengrocers’ apostrophe has some tearing their hair out – the world, they say, will crumble if the apostrophe is not tamed into submission by all of us, from first graders to market traders. Others, quite frankly my dear, don’t give a damn: they’ll eat carrot’s and carrots, potato’s or potatoes as long as they haven’t got rot or blight. And talking of fruit, should bananas be kept in a different bowl from other fruit? Tomatoes in or out of the fridge? Mushrooms washed or just wiped. I’ve known people argue themselves into near nuclear eruption over such things.
There’s a saying: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. Well, perhaps sweating the small stuff plays an important part in our identity. Maybe trying to stamp our opinion on the arbitrary – like accent and dialect – is a way of sharpening our ‘right’ muscle so that we can wrestle effectively over the things that really do matter. Or maybe it’s a coping mechanism – a way of feeling in control when so much is out of our control. Maybe, this stuff really does matter. Or not. You could tie yourself in knots over it.
(A version of this article was printed in the Berwick Advertiser on Thursday 4th June 2015)