Four letters

6MT puzzle

Let me tell you a not-so-little story. It involves a four-letter word, but I won’t reveal that just yet, no sirree.

Before I went to nursery school – back in the days when a single year of vague socialisation was seen as quite adequate for taming small children before they were dumped on hapless Grade 1 teachers – I fretted that I was woefully unprepared for school. I didn’t know how to write!

I would stare hopefully at the envelopes that arrived in our letterbox: handwritten ones, typed ones, plenty of them brown with funny little tracing-paper windows that made mom blanch. I would faithfully copy the letters on the typed ones but was only able to replicate the cursive ones by doing bouncy up-and-down wavy lines that (I hoped) would be intelligible to readers, somehow.

Walking through the doors of the church nursery school (hours: 9am to 12pm, daily), I discovered that nobody was going to expect large volumes of writing from me. In fact, they wanted me to colour-in and draw, mess with the sludgy beige-turning-grey homemade playdough that was mixed every week in the nursery kitchen, and submit to the torments of rowdy boys in OK Bazaars t-shirts and shorts. Writing was a non-issue, and the only reading going on was from one of the teachers just before hometime.

After being taught the basics of The Teacher Is Boss, I was hustled off to Grade 1 at a school under the benign dictatorship of one of the finest educators this country had. To this day, Frank Braun is remembered as the ideal headmaster, beloved by children and parents, alike. The school was run like no other that I have heard of before or since.

Within days of starting Grade 1, I was unleashed on the alphabet. Mom had to help me find some words that started with A – my first homework. (None of this namby-pamby easing kids into learning with toys and sitting in fun little groups on colour-coded mats). Problem… mom is a crossword puzzle freak. Back then she was highly competitive to the point where she and a good friend would enter every single crossword puzzle competition available in the Sunday papers (yes, dear former ST colleagues, I cut my teeth on those bloody crosswords when I could barely read, so taking on the management of that puzzles page in the mid-2000s was a doddle – I’d plotted the coup for years…)

So darling mom, the crossword-puzzle maven, supplied me with “A” words like “apple”, “ant”, “asp”. Yes, asp – the biblical-Egyptian slithery dude. I still remember Miss Morrison’s blank stare as I handed her my page of words.

From there it was a quick journey to the “clever row” at the back of the class – the blue row, where five or six of us ruled like mini-despots. Green row in front of us contained the aspirant eggheads, yellow row had the battlers, and red row was – to the blue tyrants – the lost causes. In fact, it’s possible that most were dyslexic or had valid learning difficulties, but that was not yet a field of diagnosis in 70s South Africa. You passed a year or you failed a year, simple as that. And you wrote tests or exams from Grade 1.

Spelling tests became a competition: see who remembered the list most accurately, then write it down faster than Miss could call it out during the test session. When we hit the higher grades and standards, the same applied to the spelling-and-dictation tests: remembering the word list and the dictation passage verbatim, then slamming down your pen so that the message went out to the other “clever kids” that you’d got it done first. (We must have been the most incorrigible bunch to deal with, this diminutive oneupmanship was never-ending.)

In those early years, my brother and I were cared for by my granny during school holidays. Daycare was not A Thing. My mom was a rarity, a working woman. Most kids had their moms at home, or else a nanny. We had granny. And granny had what was known as the sunroom: a comfortable room where there were a few hundred books to read, the radio to listen to, an electric heater in winter, comfy old lounge suite, and A Typewriter. One of those old things that could have been used as a defensive weapon against invading hordes: cast-metal frame, hefty keys, a teeth-shattering mechanism that could be slammed back violently when doing a carriage return.

The day I was allowed access to it was like heaven had opened. I would now be A Writer.

Poems. Prose. Stories. Nonsense. Rewinding the typewriter ribbon over and over again because nobody wanted to replace it – money didn’t grow on trees, and we could still read the letters that got thwacked onto the back of pages ripped from my grandfather’s war-engineers club AGMs.

I wrote and illustrated any number of stories. When TV came along in 1976, it was a non-event because there was no money for one of them. So, reading and writing remained, and listening to the radio was fuel for the imagination (I am still quite at ease listening to the TV as a form of radio – I only have a look when the commentary or soundtrack no longer explains the action).

Alas, my further school career was a study in boredom. I hated it. Only three subjects interested me: English, Art, and Geography. My highest Matric mark was for English, but even that was not stellar, a dismal C. English, if delivered by shellshocked teachers who have washed up on the hills of southern Joburg, would never inspire greatness.

There followed art college, where I did my best, tried clever prose in mock campaigns for imaginary products, graduated with middling marks, and then hit the big time.

I landed in a newsroom. The crossword-grammar-spelling kid had arrived. There was a dedicated editing system (pre-desktop-PC) called Atex. Oh, it had newsfeeds from all over the world, read-only access to my colleagues’ works-in-progress, a messaging system similar to email, and the ability for me to use my personal log-in to Write Stuff. Heaven.

Came the 90s and we went digital, we little graphic artists. On Apple Macs. The joy. My personal fiefdom in a beige box on my desk. Write and read and imagine. Make sure that the words I put in my graphics make sense. I began a particular journey.

At some point in the late 90s, I realised that I was correcting the text my colleagues provided, but I said nothing, and I don’t know if they realised it was me doing it – could be that they thought I was getting it checked by the subs?

Mid-2000s, and I enacted my coup to manage the puzzles section of the ST. Attention to detail was supreme – have you ever had to deal with an enraged chap from a retirement village in Sedgefield? Or his countrywide cohorts who have nothing better to do from Sunday to Sunday? A misplaced number or letter would mean a deluge to the paper’s email complaints inbox. And woe betide any sub-editor who failed to put the correct grid in place.

At some point, it became accepted that I would tidy up copy if it didn’t fit a graphic, or come up with a workaround on a promotional piece. Brainstorming with section editors for headings, captions, and sub-heads. I was in my element, especially when what I’d come up with went straight through the editing process and was published. I also loved to bug the revise sub on a minor tweak or definition of something.

One memorable December, the then-editor of the ST came to me with a proposal: produce a broadsheet page blockbuster of a crossword for the holiday edition on Page 2. Where would we get it? What would it cost? And that’s when I realised he was looking at me rather intently. WE were to do it. WE. Us. Me, with help from the silly-season staff and him. I drew a deep breath, said “YES!” and then contemplated the time frame. It was Wednesday. Deadline was Saturday at 5:30pm.

Short-story-made-long: we did it. Questions were given to me. I sourced pics. And began drawing up the grid, slotting in the clues, making the words fit. Checking, cross-checking. Those three nights all I dreamed was CROSSWORD PUZZLE.

And now, here I am five years later. No longer a staffer at the ST, an artist once again, a designer still, and now we get to that four-letter word.

I edit other people’s words and work. For a living.
I edit their blogs before they publish them. I do proof-reading on existing websites because the owners are aware that something isn’t right, or it’s unclear, but they don’t know how to fix it or have the time, anyway.

I make no pretence of having any tertiary qualification in English, although I would like to change that and have my love of this weird world of words given some stamp of approval and recognition.

Four letters.



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