Scribe Doll is busy packing and saying goodbye to Brussels.
For further information, see Westvleteren.
Scribe Doll is busy packing and saying goodbye to Brussels.
For further information, see Westvleteren.
Seneffe. H. is beaming as we walk into the courtyard. It is girdled by a horseshoe of former 18th century stables, now turned into guest rooms. In front of us, beyond the railings, are the tall trees belonging to the domaine. He points beyond the fountain, in the centre of the courtyard. “That’s the room where I stayed in ’96. It was the first year they had the Collège des Traducteurs here. They pulled out all the stops – we were driven here from Brussels, waiters in white jackets serving dinner, the Directrice getting all the translators to tell a joke at the table, to break the ice.”
H. has been on a translator’s retreat in Seneffe half a dozen times. There are photos of him in that first-year album. Darker hair. Slimmer build. The same dreaming expression hidden by the glasses.
The château of Seneffe has been turned into a museum of silverware. The Commons – former servant quarters and stables – host every summer a retreat for literary translators from all over the world working on books by French-language Belgian writers. We take a walk around the grounds of the domaine, which are gradually being restored to their original 18th century design. There are the symmetrical hedges of the French-style gardens, an aviary with brightly-feathered budgies, and two lamas grazing in an enclosure. There is the thick, luxuriant woodland, with tall, dark trees, very still against the grey Hainault sky. At the bottom of a shady, tree-lined path, the silhouette of a tall man in a wide-brimmed hat – a statue – standing in front of a stone bench. From where I’m standing, it looks like a quirky painting by Magritte.
I stop to admire a rusty iron bridge that curves across a pond, to a kind of mound with a flat top. Monet would certainly have painted this, if he’d seen it. The kind of mound you could stand on and recite Shakespeare at the top of your voice.
Later, in the seminar room, translators from Rumania, China, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and England take their seats at a large, oval table strewn with dozens of books by French Belgian authors. Two writers are introducing a literary magazine about to celebrate its three hundredth issue, Marginales. A magazine that launched many an illustrious career.
At dinner, the chef steps out of the kitchen to announce the composition of every course. Apparently, it is the tradition at Seneffe. Tonight is a special occasion, the birthday of one of the translators. The Directrice makes us wear party hats as the chef places before the birthday boy a strawberry cake with a steel tube sparkler pouring out a flow of shooting stars. We all cheer. I listen to everyone talk about the books they are translating from French. I feel as though I’ve been introduced into an international family of wordsmiths., of language shapeshifters. Some of them are regulars at Seneffe.
In the morning, after a couple of hours of working on my translation, I go back to the seminar room and start avidly looking through the books on the table. To be invited to a residency at Seneffe, the requirement is that you translate a French Belgian writer. So I’m looking.
There is a twinkle in the eye of the violin in Pandolfi’s sonatas. He teases, provokes, confuses – then bursts out laughing. An impish laugh, part-threatening and part-joyful. Now, he plays the notes measuredly, mathematically, in deference to the accompanying continuo, and now he runs away, flies, does somersaults, and walks upside down on the ceiling. The violin plays by the rules of music and nature, then breaks free and breaks into a frenzy of sobs and curses before running at you and covering you with kisses. And, as he kisses, he gives you a light bite. He fears if he stops surprising you, he will die.
There is something discontented in Pandolfi’s violin sonatas. Unhinged. Perhaps a trace of madness. The kind of madness that borders with genius. The kind of fierce intelligence that can never be satisfied with keeping still. An inquisitive mind that screams Why? Why? Why? Why? and only uses every received answer to generate thousands more Why?s. A spirit that knows too much to be calm but not enough to find peace, yet.
He is easily bored. His attention wanders and he entertains himself with endless variations on the theme he is ordered to play. Ordered. This violin resents orders, so he follows them with histrionic hysteria, gasping for air, for novelty, for a purpose.
Pandolfi’s violin is a chameleon, a shapeshifter. He is fire, he is air, he is a fountain glistening in the sun, and the ambiguous smile of a gibbous moon. He can turn on a sixpence, from a scratch to a caress.
This violin has an artistic temperament.
He is moody.
(Please listen to Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonatas for Violin and Continuo)
Sorry, Scribe Doll is snowed under with work.
Wind-swept, East of England skies. Shapeshifting clouds. Swirls of white puff that stretch into mountains, curl into castles, swell into dragons, rise into chariots, then metamorphose into angels. Skies mottled with lead-grey, steel-grey, velvet grey with undertones of purple, shades of pink, hints of blue and glints of gold. Ever-changing skies. Skies so big, they come all the way down to your feet.
Elms that rise proud against the sky, copper beeches that glow in the afternoon sun, weeping willows swaying by the river, oaks – hundred of years old – that stand strong against the hurricanes. Trees that have witnessed generations parade before them. Trees with stories full of magic to tell, if you would listen.
Winds that howl in the night, winds that rattle wooden window frames, gales that push against you as you struggle to walk up the street. Winds that tear off scaffoldings. Passionate, exhilarating winds that stir your soul.
The river that rushes beneath your favourite bridge. The bridge that overhears your secrets you whisper to the river. The river, that washes away your worries and to which you confide your dreams.
Autumns of scarlet, ocher and gold. Springs bursting white pink and white blossoms.
Contrasts. Passion. Change. Light. Colour.
The news of the Red Room closing down reached me at a time when I especially feel the need for continuity and something solid under my feet.
I am preparing for my fourth house move in eighteen months. A few close friends and family members are going through very challenging times. Challenging. Challenge. I hate these words. This isn’t a sporting event, or a job interview, or a Power Point presentation, so let’s call a spade a spade. These friends and family members are having serious problems. There. Problems. No point in putting a positive spin on it. Positive. Another word that makes me wince. Let’s use happy, instructive, fortuitous, optimistic, or any other specific, meaningful adjective and leave the insipid positive to blood groups and polarities.
But I digress.
So, on the morning of 4th July, I dragged myself out of bed after an almost sleepless night full of worries and a draining sense of powerlessness. Sipping my lemon juice and warm water, I switched on my laptop, checked my e-mails and saw Ivory Madison’s message about the Red Room becoming part of Wattpad, and going offline on 8th July. As you can perhaps imagine, coming on top of every other instability, the news made me feel as though I was standing on a boat that had suddenly been rocked by a wave.
The Red Room is closing. Slap!
Closing down in four days‘ time. Slap!
This isn’t happening.
Is there anything stable in my life?
Four days‘ notice to migrate to Wattpad. Slap!
Four days only?! What are they thinking?! Where’s the fire?
What the hell’s Wattpad, anyway?
I stood up and walked to the French window in the living room. After a day of glorious sunlight, the Brussels sky had recovered its customary bleakness. I felt oppressed by greyness. Sun. I need sun. I need colour. Light.
I switched on Radio Klara and the light, colourful notes of Baroque music breathed life into the living room.
Meanwhile, my brain was trying to process the information received and its consequences. A list ran through my mind of all the people whose blogs I regularly read on the Red Room. Wonderful writers whose thoughts, whether in prose or poetry, have inspired me, encouraged me, given me joy, provoked thoughts, made me laugh, taught me and – in a way – gradually made a better person out of me. People whose writings have broadened my horizons. I thought of these women and men. The one with a subtle, wise and deeply humane outlook. The one with the fierce intelligence and the courage to expose the harshest realities. The one whose zany stories make me giggle out loud. The one who describes food and smells in a way that touches your every sense. The one who doesn’t balk at describing pain and trauma in raw detail, yet keeps a sense of the goodness of the world. The one who takes you travelling – often on foot – to magical lands. The one who captures the seemingly most insignificant human story and turns it into a microcosm of warm-hearted humanity. The one who writes poetry that touches the heart with the clean, innocent touch of a child’s heart. The one who writes elegant verses that bewitch you. The one who entrances you with sophisticated poetry and fascinating historical figures. The one who drops brain-stretching non-sequiturs. The one who weaves words and music into a harmony of colours and sounds. The one who – but I cannot list them all. My yet un-met friends. That’s what I realised. Even though I have never met them, over the past couple of years since I joined the Red Room, many of us have become friends.
Suddenly, my plans for the day were capsized by the need to do everything I could to keep contact with these un-met friends. I checked whose personal e-mail addresses I already had, and exchanged them with others. I tried to find out if anybody published their blog anywhere else besides the Red Room and immediately subscribed to it or bookmarked the site. I noticed many other Redroomers were doing the same thing. Rushing to exchange contact details, thanking one another, sharing sadness at the closure of the Red Room, saying goodbye, expressing hopes of meeting again, on new roads, in new lands.
My heartfelt thanks go to Huntington Sharp and Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons for the kind retweets and generous Editors‘ Picks, and to everyone else at the Red Room for creating a unique writing community that has meant a great deal to me – perhaps more than I had realised until now.
And, of course, my gratitude goes to all the writers who have shared their prose and poetry, and read and commented on my scribblings.
Please, let us keep in touch.
To quote Robin Goodfellow,
“So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends”
The journey from Norwich to London was supposed to take two hours. It took a little over four. When we left Norwich, all seemed on schedule. Then they got us to leave the train and wait on the platform in the cold East of England wind. By the time we got loaded back on, the Abellio Greater Anglia train company had somehow managed to squeeze three trainloads of passengers onto one (if animals were to travel like that the European Union would probably intervene).
Next to me, a young woman, apparently impervious to the discomfort of close physical proximity to her fellow passengers, pulls on a ball of wool at the bottom of her tote bag on the floor as far as the thread will reach, and resumes crocheting. I’m not sure whether to get irritated by the space – already reduced by circumstances – she lays claim to, or admire her refusal to have her plans altered. I stare at the purple and orange egg-shaped dome forming between her fast-moving fingers. Is it a future baby mitten? Or an aspiring sock? Leaning against the gangway wall opposite me, H. is absorbed in a volume of Georges Simenon. I wonder if I have enough room to open my Donna Leon novel and hold it far enough for my long-sighted eyes to focus on the print. My reading glasses are in my rucksack, and there’s definitely not enough space to turn around and take it off my back.
I ask if delays are usual on this line. Heads nod, long suffering. The tall, youngish man on my right has earphones plugged into his ears. “Are you listening to the match?” I ask.
“Yes, do you want the score?”
“Belgium’s just scored.” He looks around, as though checking for anyone who might be listening. “I’ve probably spoilt it for everybody else now.”
A slim, elderly lady with a short, blonde, spiky haircut with a shock of pink, overhears. “Are you Belgian?” she asks.
“No, but we’re currently living in Brussels. Have you been there?”
She shakes her head, while the man nods, saying he’s been there once, briefly.
“It’s quirky,” I tell them. “Fantastic Trappist monk ale.”
The train stops in the middle of the countryside. Are we in Essex or Suffolk? There’s an announcement on the loudspeaker but it’s too faint to hear.
“Excuse me… Excuse me…” A very young man wearing glasses, in train company uniform, edges through the crowd. I tell him we can’t hear the announcements. He nods and says that’s what he’s here for. He steps over people’s bags, feet and bodies and finally reaches the staff cubicle to make an announcement. This time, it can be heard loud and clear over our heads. We’re informed that there’s a broken down train ahead of us, and we can’t move until that’s been removed. Sadly, though, nobody has any idea when that will happen. Then he fights his way to the buffet and brings out a large bagful of small bottles of still water. They get passed around. I hand one to H. “Aren’t you thirsty?” he asks, offering it to me. “Yes, but there’s no room to get to the loo, afterwards,” I say.
The train moves. A man in a suit wants to get past me, and I squash myself against the wall to let him through. He says he needs to get off at the next stop. No sooner does he speak than the train slows down and grinds to a halt.
The man with the earphones turns out to be a book illustrator. He often travels from Norwich to London and says such delays are not infrequent. “Oh, so that’s why Norwich rents are so low,” I say.
He says the train company has received funding for new trains which will travel a lot faster. The only problem is that no funding has been received yet to upgrade the rails. So the fast new trains will have to go slowly, anyway, since they can’t whizz on the old rails.
The train starts again.
The lady with the shock of pink hair asks me about Bruges. I tell her it’s beautiful but that she should also visit Ghent. “How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix,” says the man in the suit. “Or is it from Aix to Ghent?”
The illustrator and I stare at each other for a second, trying to remember. I don’t recognise the quotation. The lady with the shock of pink hair thinks it’s “from Ghent to Aix”.
I turn to H. “That’s one for you.”
He looks up from his book. “‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ – Robert Browning.”
The train reaches the next station, and the man in the suit gets off, saying goodbye to us.
The illustrator slides his finger in the screen of his smartphone. “Here it is. ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.”
He hands his phone to the lady with the shock of pink hair. She reads:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he:
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
I feel my knees have locked after hours of leaning against the wall. Outside the train, the East Anglian countryside is flooded by a magenta sunset. The train speeds up. We listen to the lady with the shock of pink hair.
And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ‘twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgess voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.
Outside the train, it’s now dark. The train pulls into London Liverpool Street. We say goodbye to our fellow passengers. Everybody smiles. “It was really nice meeting you,” we all say.