How not to make a mark

Image of Susie Boyt

This year, for Lent, I have given up exclamation marks. Although I was brought up to think they were the last word in bad style, I always had a soft spot for punctuation’s gauchest child. The exclamation mark is modest. It is both cheery and awkward. It blushes, it fumbles, yet it does valuable work. Exclamation marks bring things down to earth, to the playground, to the circus ring. They can puncture a grandiose sentence, putting it in touch with its seaside-postcard side. The fact that people despise them so thoroughly in itself makes them interesting. They can unsettle and bluff and prevaricate, on occasion.

Yet my strange pity for them, a sort of fellow feeling I suppose, has led to overuse. They dilute my words, make me seem as though I intend to come across as madcap and girlish when, in reality, why would I wish to do that?

“What, even on texts, no exclamation marks?” people ask me, reminding me of a youngster at my daughters’ school who said, “I am giving up ketchup for Lent but not on chips.”

“Even on texts,” I say. “Yep.”

When you give up alcohol for Lent sometimes, out and about, your smile does odd little things: against your will it stiffens or goes woolly, making for a flat or mean-looking result in greetings and in photographs. Without exclamation marks, my prose has similarly had to stand a bit straighter with its head up, chin out. A poet I spoke to recently described something as “at once both voluptuous and astringent”, causing me extreme embarrassment, so rest assured I won’t be going that far, but ... but – you get the picture.

In an emergency I have prefaced emails and texts with a small disclaimer: “NB I have given up ! for Lent, so please insert if required.”

Then, of course, something genuinely worthy of exclamation happened, something correctly breathless and schoolgirlish and rum. A good friend gave me a bound book containing colour copies of more than 200 letters I sent her between 1983 and 1992. They contain pages and pages of piggy-knitting writing about nothing at all: the strange habits and get-ups of our teachers, sports fixtures, Latin homework fatigue, all written in fountain pen, often in rhyme, some on pink notepaper, some on blue.

I wish I could speak of their restrained and intelligent prose, their astute literary critical aperçus, their analysis of the great debates of the day, that well-positioned, devastating simile, that scandalous socio-historical titbit of libellous content, but I cannot. They are not terribly distinguished. I’m afraid some are slightly pompous in tone, suffering from the dusty whiff of the after-dinner speaker’s cummerbund. Quite a few are plain boring. There are dreadful jokes, most of which are lacking in that one essential ingredient: humour. But they are full of love, and they are very lively. There are limericks and drawings and a few snatches of a cartoonstrip I had made up about our antics.

Yet, despite their embarrassing ardour and poor grammar and fleet of exclamation marks, they prove something about my life, these letters. Quite a bit of it must have been good. Who knew?

I had this feeling once looking at some of my father’s early childhood drawings. Bursting with colour and charming, playful scenes, I allowed them to tell me this: he must have been happy as a boy. It was wonderful news. Somehow, I had never quite asked him.

The decade that passes between the first letter, sent from my aunt’s cottage in Gloucestershire and the last one, written from the Dublin waxworks museum, where “Michael Jackson is next to Jesus and there is an apostle in the Last Supper tableau who I never heard of called Thaddeus” could not be called uneventful, yet very few actual events feature. Content is limited, style bears little examination, yet there are, as in even the worst poetry, some good lines:

Dear Alex,
This summer I am going to play tennis every day and get very fit and get married. (I was 16).

Dear Alex,
I am in the library writing a very experimental essay about Tennyson, involving a small amount of algebra.

Dear Alex,
Unlikely as it sounds I seem to have become addicted to BBC Radio Wales.

Dear Alex,
Did I tell you I met Boy George’s dog today? It’s been a quiet week. I went to a good fashion show where one of the models was drunk and lifted up her dress to reveal no knickers.

Dear Alex
Everyone in London is wearing flares and smiley badges. Oh, the horror.

Dear Alex,
There is still no man in my life BUT in Coronation Street Curly, the brainy pasty-faced dustman, and Shirley, the sizzling black machinist from Baldwin’s Casuals, have moved in together. So that’s something.

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