THE Gadfly column is now 18 years old, though not necessarily at the age of maturity (nor, indeed, consent). Since we decided that local politics was beyond the pale - or, more truthfully, were misdirected along such lines - nothing has occupied readers' attention more than the aberrant apostrophe.

The campaign, initiated by the late and much-loved Hunwick Primary School teacher Peter Nesom and by Darlington councillor Eleanor Young, still attracts regular correspondence.

Only last week, a Hartlepool reader who asks anonymity pointed out that her local Tesco advertises "Lunch boxe's" and that a charity shop has "quality ladie's clothing".

The battle has long been joined by Lynne Truss, presenter of a righteously indignant and much acclaimed Radio 4 programme called Cutting a Dash and now author of a book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves, sub-titled "The zero tolerance approach to punctuation."

It's dedicated, she says, to the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters "and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian revolution".

The book holds out for proper punctuation, from the all-purpose apostrophe to the humble hyphen, as endangered as the white rhino and as put upon as the bairns in Fagin's kitchen.

Much abused for her fastidiousness, Truss urges unity among fellow grammarians - "we have nothing to lose but our sense of proportion".

The jolly little volume (Profile Books, £9.99) accepts that language is changing. "In the not too distant future," she concedes, "the conventions of the printed page as we know them will inevitably look dense and mysterious to the untutored eye."

Doubtless the lady is right. In the meantime, we must stick, and be sticklers, together.

LYNNE Truss's book title reprises what may be the world's only punctuation joke, though Gadfly readers may - of course - know differently.

At any rate, a panda walks into a restaurant. He orders a mushroom omelette, devours it, then draws a gun, fires two shots into the air and makes for the exit.

"What's going on?" demands the manager.

The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife guide and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The manager turns to the relevant page. "Panda. Large black and white bear-like mammal. Eats shoots and leaves."

JOHN Constable, former Butterknowle brewer, is clearly another who is punctilious about punctuation. However diligent the Constabulary duty, however, he may be derelict compared to John Humphrys.

Humphrys, heavyweight anchorman of Radio 4's Today programme, wrote a review of Truss's book for the Sunday Times, from which John Constable forwards it.

Humphrys claimed to have declined an honour from "one of our better universities" after the vice-chancellor's letter was addressed to John Humphreys.

"It was silly of me," wrote Humphrys. "I should have attended the ceremony and, instead of delivering a gracious acceptance speech, I should have produced a horse whip and set about the culprit in front of his thousand guests. No jury would have convicted."

He also considered that perpetrators of slogans like "Good food at it's best" - and similar outrages - should struck by lightning, kizzened on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.

John Constable agrees. "It's my favourite bit," he says.

STILL playing the words game, a gentleman in Darlington passes on an extract (right) from a learned magazine. The academics may well have a point. There's hope yet for the column's massively mistyped e-mails.

ABSENT apostrophes notwithstanding, O'Briens - the Irish sandwich bar chain which has just opened a franchise in Darlington - offers in its newsletter an "A-Z to Irish slang."

It includes arcane terms like ages ("long time"), bog ("toilet"), bucketing ("raining heavily"), dope ("idiot") and drawers ("underwear, mainly ladies.")

North-East folk may not find it Irish at all.

SIMILARLY, Another Newspaper (as we say when affecting coyness) includes a guide to "charver" speak. A charver, apparently, is a late teen or early 20-year-old who dresses in Burberry and scruffy trainers and tries to get into nightclubs which don't like the look of him.

Among terms said to be unintelligible to all but the kicked out crowd is hockle, which they've been doing in the North-East - in Shildon, anyway - for the past 150 years.

Doesn't it make you want to spit?

SOMETHING else to put to bed, we bought the other day Bob Abley's newly-published history of Sedgefield General Hospital, full of nostalgic photographs from the days when nurses wore frocks.

Bob, who probably wore trousers, began as an auxiliary straight from school in 1959, was on the wards on his first day and was taken to a side room where he noticed a strong "earthy" smell.

"When I lift him off the bedpan, you wipe his backside," said the senior man. That, says Bob, was his introduction to nursing.

It is not for such bare-all reasons that we invested £9.99, however, but to confirm the story which put Sedgefield General into the Guinness Book of Records.

It was the first Saturday of January 1958 when, the banks having closed at dinner time, surgeons at the General decided to open up the chap known as the Human Money Box.

He'd been admitted suffering from loss of appetite, which in the circumstances, seemed understandable.

His stomach contents, said the Guinness Book, amounted to 366 ha'pennies, 11 pennies, 17 threepenny bits, 26 sixpences, four shillings and 27 bits of assorted wire.

Coining it, two buckets were needed to carry it all away. The 424 coins, said the Guinness Book, totalled £1 17s 5d plus 5lb 10z of scrap metal.

Bob Abley confirms the arithmetic exactly. No change there, then.

BOB also recalls the patient, transferred for surgery from the nearby Winterton Psychiatric Hospital, who was (he says) "a little eccentric".

In the middle of the night, he found the chap standing on a locker in the corner of his room.

"I'm waiting for the Favourite. I'm going to have a look down to Stockton," the gentleman explained.

Rather neatly, so it seemed, young Abley told him he'd have a long wait because the last bus had gone two hours previously.

The patient duly returned to his bed, but next morning was nowhere to be found. In pyjamas and dressing gown, he'd left for the first bus at twenty past seven - an early Favourite, if ever.

...and finally, a PS to last week's story about Chilton, the County Durham village - population 3,500 - where councillors suddenly pronounced themselves a town council because it sounded more important.

Colburn, near Catterick Garrison, has not only assumed town council status but now has a mayor as well. They meet in the village hall.