“Thank You” Isn’t Just About Etiquette

I’ve started dropping friends and acquaintances who fail to thank.  Be it for a present, a favour or simply for having had dinner at my home.  It’s my choice and although it may appear as unforgiving, I have good reasons for acting this way.

For me, “thank you” isn’t just a formality, or something old-fashioned to be dispensed with in this world where every rudeness and disrespect justifies itself with the word “busy”.  After all, what makes the other person’s time more valuable than mine? If I have found the time to buy a present, do a favour or cook a meal, then surely the other person – unless suddenly physically incapacitated – has the time to express his/her appreciation of my gesture.  Because for me thanking isn’t just two words to throw at someone as casually as the used, over-used and abused British “sorry”, but a full acknowledgement of the giver’s act.  It’s communicating to the other person, “I take full responsibility for accepting what you give me by acknowledging both it and you.”  It’s allowing for interaction, for dialogue, for energy to flow both ways.

Yes, I think accepting something carries a degree of responsibility because it is an exercise in choice.  You have a choice in whether you accept something from someone.  A gift is a form of engagement with the other person, and failure to thank means a failure in engaging in turn, a failure to make the gift a living thing, effectively by allowing it to fall down a black hole.  I don’t buy the cop-out “They did that for us because they wanted to – it was their choice”.  It was equally your choice to accept and denying it is deeply disrespectful and tantamount to telling those people, “You’re invisible”.

Many of us remember huffing and puffing while dutifully writing thank-you letters for Christmas and birthday presents.  I even remember a time when a couple of days after a dinner party, your guests would send you a thank-you card.  Only last week, I received one such card from a couple we’d had ’round for dinner and it was such a pleasure to see that they’d taken the time to choose and write a card.  In these “busy” times, this is a precious little nugget, and I’m usually happy with a ‘phone call, e-mail or even a text message.  Something that says, “I see you”.

Time and again, I hear friends who haven’t been thanked by their own friends, relatives or children, excuse them by saying, “Oh, they’re very busy” or, worse, “I know they’re grateful, even if they haven’t actually said it.”  I don’t think telepathic thanks count.  It’s too easy.  Too passive.  Gifts, favours and food are not given telepathically.  Gratitude, like love, isn’t a state but an action.  It’s what distinguishes us from plants.

So, if a friend or acquaintance does not acknowledge my gesture of kindness towards him/her, they are saying, “You’re invisible.  You don’t exist.”

And an invisible person cannot express him/herself.  A person who does not exist cannot possibly keep in touch with you, right?

Scribe Doll


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A Little Black Number Called Genie

I’d grieved over the meaninglessness of my first cat, Pyewacket, going missing and now felt I was ready for a new feline room mate.  Kittens in London are like gold dust, since most people have their cats neutered and spayed, but I was determined to get a kitten, this time. Pyewacket, an attractive brown and white tabby with green eyes, had been rescued from the RSPCA as a grown-up cat, and her early life had been so scarred by unknown traumas that it had taken six months before she would allow me to stroke her, and although every bit of effort I made in our relationship was definitely worth it, this time, I wanted a yet unconditioned animal I could accustom to having its claws trimmed, going out into the street with me (since I didn’t have access to a garden), and living with some of my lifestyle quirks without too much of a battle of wills.

One Easter Saturday, I took several means of public transport from Fulham to a pet shop in Hackney, where there were two kittens on sale in the window.  The first was a postcard-pretty male, ginger and white, plump, with big blue eyes.  I picked him up but he pushed against my hands, clearly not finding me very simpatica.  There was a small heap of spiky grey-black fur curled up next to him, fast asleep, the heap rising and falling with every breath, totally impervious to the world around it.  I picked it up and the furry heap unfurled into something with a big head, small body, short but undulating tail, sparse fur clumped in poo, and a pair of saucer-size, sleepy, grey-blue-green eyes.  It curled its tail around my hand and began to vibrate in something resembling a purr. When  I handed her to the shop owner, the eyes grew even wider and a little bald mouth began to open and close, making no sound but clearly miming “Miaow!”, digging its tiny claws into the woman’s hand, trying to free itself, its body language suggesting it wanted to come back to me.

So I guess it would be accurate to say that it was Genie who picked me, rather than the other way around.  On the way back home, I stopped to buy a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.  There was no way I was going to cuddle all that caked poo.  We had our first disagreement over a sink filled with lukewarm water and baby shampoo, into which I simply immersed Genie, and proceeded to rub with my fingers, while holding her to prevent her from exiting the sink.  More miming of “Miaow!” without any sound being emitted.  Then I wrapped her into a towel, and dried her.  No sooner had I finished than she bolted out of my hands, across the room and scrambled up the curtains.  She remained up there, upside down, surveying the large window and the room, before coming back down, leaping onto my futon, taking a spot in the very centre of it, taking several minutes grooming, then falling fast asleep for over an hour.

We had our second strong disagreement that first night together – about the sleeping arrangements.  Genie had decided that she would sleep under the duvet, i.e. inside the bed, with me, while I was quite adamant that her place would be at my feet, on top of the duvet.  The tug of war went on until the early hours of the morning.  She crawled into the bed, I picked her up with one hand and put her down over the duvet.  She crawled back in, and I took her back out.  When I finally fell asleep, I woke up because something was tugging at the strap of my nightgown.  Genie was finding it highly entertaining to bite at my strap, pull it away from my shoulder, then let it go so it would spring back against my skin.  Over, and over again.  I grabbed her and put her down at my feet.  I fell asleep again.  Something was tickling my back.  I was lying on my side and Genie was fast asleep, curled up against the space between my shoulder blades.  As she breathed in and out, her sparse fur tickled my skin.

The pet shop owners had told me Genie was eight weeks, but when I took her to her first visit to her vet, a few days later, he said she was barely more than six, which accounted for her lack of voice, her tiny size, and the sparse fur.  He thought she was a Siamese or Burmese mix.  He threw a crunchy on the couch.  She pursued it, grabbed it with her teeth but it was too hard for her.  She insisted, turning her head to one side, then the other, until she finally crunched it, chewed it, and swallowed it triumphantly.  The vet smiled.  “Most other kittens that age would have given up because it’s too tough.  Strong personality.”  Then he smirked at me.  “I foresee a tempestuous friendship.”

For the following six months, I went to teach every morning with dark rings under my eyes, yawning and confused by yet another sleepless night, kept awake by Genie’s nocturnal games.  My colleagues teased me and suggested that perhaps I should have a baby instead.

Then, there was the challenge of training her to use the hooded litter tray.  She would spend ages playing with the litter, pawing it out onto the carpet, then, tired from all the exertion, she would sit on the edge, her bottom on the outside, and pee onto the carpet.  I was going demented, seeing the stains multiply no matter how much Dettol I used, picturing what my landlord would charge me for the damage.  It was a friend more au fait  with the family traditions of cats who came to my rescue.  “After the kittens have eaten, the mother cats lick their bottoms to stimulate the toilet reflex.”  So I folded up a square of kitchen paper, wet it with warm water, and did what mummy cats otherwise do with their tongues.  Hey, presto! Genie didn’t need to be told twice and, from that moment on, used the litter tray as her loo.

As time went on, Genie turned into a sleek, glossy black number with a white smudge on her breastbone and a perfect white triangle on her lower tummy.  Her eyes turned into a bright amber, and she began forming a loud, protracted, modulated “Miiiaaaaaaooowww!!!!” like that of a Siamese cat.  She also began to chatter to me, responding to everything I said, sometimes even starting a conversation of her own accord.  When I came home from work, she would run up my leg, to my chest, her paws around my neck and her face buried into the back of my neckline.  I would walk around with her in my arms like this for a good few minutes, while putting the kettle on and starting on dinner.  At night, she slept next to me, on top of the duvet, or sometimes at my feet.  To this day, years after she passed away, whenever I turn in bed, I automatically wake myself up, worried I might roll over her.

At the weekend, we would go and have coffee at our local Café Tinto, on the Fulham Palace Road, with Genie in a white sports bag over my shoulder.  We would seat on the bench, I’d read The Guardian while she tore up the sports pages next to me.  The Colombian owner would offer her a saucer of milk, which she always declined.  She didn’t care for milk, but for yoghurt, thick, Greek yoghurt – full fat, of course, none of that low fat rubbish.

Genie had very definite likes and dislikes as far as humans went.  It was simple.  She either liked someone, or she categorically did not.  And one of the people she did not like, was my mother.  When, for a few years, we had to move in with her, Genie declared psychological warfare on her.  Strange, seeing that my mother is one of those genuine animal lovers to whom every cat and dog in the street flocks.  Whenever she tried to stroke her, Genie would hiss, growl and eventually strike my mother’s hand, though always with her claws sheathed.  She would also engage in provocation games where she would sit on the floor before my mother, still as a statue, staring at her, unblinking.  After a while, my mother would grow nervous.  “Why is that cat staring at me?” at which point Genie would open her mouth wide in a loud, protracted, wailing “Miiiiaaaaawwwwwww!!!!!!!” My mother would leap up from her chair.  “Oh, sweetheart, would you like some food? Oh, darling, how about some yoghurt?”  She’d rush to the fridge, pull out the carton and dollop a spoonful into the cat dish.  But the cat was nowhere to be seen until another wail was heard from the room next door, where she sat looking up at the balcony door.  My mother would hasten to open it.  “Oh, pussy-cat, you want to go out on the balcony!” But Genie would turn around and slink away, out of the room, leaving my poor mother standing there, with the door open.  “Your cat is screwed up,” she’d say.  No, not screwed up.  Manipulative.

There is so much more I could write about Genie, but how can you express in words – so limited and limiting at times – the respect, admiration, love and perfect understanding you can be so lucky, so blessed to have with an animal?

How can you describe the oneness you feel with him or her when staring into his or her eyes, and your absolute certainty that this animal knows things about Life that your brain, however developed, is just too rudimentary to perceive?

How can you explain the powerful impression you have that this animal sees parts of your soul that your fellow-humans aren’t even aware of?

How do you convey the anger, the rage, the sense of injustice, and the wish to inflict emotional suffering on an emergency vet who gives this animal the wrong injection? The heartbreak you wish this vet to experience because, at that moment, when you could howl and slam your own head against the wall, you think it’s the only way she will realize just what she has done to you? Do people ever understand other people’s pain unless they feel it themselves?

Genie understood more than either that vet or I.  It was the first and last time she ever hissed at a vet, when the needle went into her flesh.  The injection that was supposed to keep her alive.

Genie on desk


Scribe Doll

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Do people change, or is blood really thicker than water?

It’s a grey, chilly afternoon and I’m listening to Jordi Savall’s CD Orient-Occident.  I love it.  It makes me quiver all over, it makes me tingle.  It makes my blood and every cell in my body want to dance.

“You sing your English Christmas carols as though it’s Middle Eastern music,” my mother would comment when she overheard me intoning “Gabriel’s Message”, or “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, or any of the other carols I’d memorised through my obsessive listening to a tape of carols from King’s.

“The words and tune may be European,” she’d add, “but your voice modulates like that of a Middle Eastern woman.” Then she’d half-smile to herself.  “Perhaps it’s true that blood is thicker than water.”

In response, I’d fall silent, leave the room, or change the subject. I was twenty or so, had just moved to England, and not only felt more at home there than anywhere else up to then, but was devoting myself full-time to my aspiration to pass for a born-and-bred Englishwoman.  And not British, but English.  After all, my father had been English, or so I thought at the time. So I lived and breathed everything that, to the would-be English zealot that I was, represented my idea of England: the never-ending horizon of the Cambridge Fens, the pastoral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius, the silver toned countertenors of King’s College Choir, dinner at 6 p.m., scones with clotted cream, the poems of Rupert Brooke and George Herbert, Elizabethan madrigals, and the tune of “Greensleeves” played on a lute.  Oh, and drizzle.  I admit there were “English” characteristics that did bother me, some of which made me positively cringe, notably what I now do not hesitate to call stinginess (“Would you like a biscuit?” and “Is that all right, my dear, or is that too much?” when dolloping a tiny mound of food onto your plate).  Also, I hated sarcasm. Like a paper cut, slashing deep into your flesh, drawing blood, without your even noticing how it had come about.  I still detest sarcasm, although I’ve become pretty skilled at it myself.  When in Rome…

Other than that, I worshipped anything “English”.  I left Italy in a tailored jacket, elegant pencil skirt and baby-soft merino wool blouse.  I returned from England in a grey duffel coat and a thick Aran jumper I pretended wasn’t scratchy.  My mother was horrified by my look, and my grandmother spent the evening complaining that my jumper smelt of sheep.

Yes, I felt at home in England.   So at home.  As at home here as I felt hopelessly alien to my Middle Eastern mother and grandmother, as well as in my native Italy.

I disliked the tactile manner of Italians, who were always hugging you, planting moist kisses on your cheeks and placing their hands on your arm or shoulder when making a point.  I found it invasive, as I did the intent look into my eyes.  I hated physical contact and felt much safer with English reserve, world-famously wide personal space, and discreet sideways glance.  I didn’t like Italian bluntness and admired the English skill of subtle hinting.   I found the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean insistence that a guest accept the umpteenth helping of food irritating.  Everything around me seemed just too much in my face, too much smelling of Earth – too physical.  So I fled to slightly ethereal England: cerebral, elusive, concentrated in the head rather than the body.

Last 20th September marked thirty-one years since I first came to England. Over time, I have discovered more details about the roots from which I’ve sprung, and the identity I so yearned eagerly to shake off.

My father, it turns out, wasn’t as “English” as all that, but more Welsh-Cornish. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, appears to have been more Azerbaijani-Turkmenistani. My maternal grandmother remains, as always, Armenian.

As I’m growing older, my once more Western features are becoming pronouncedly more Middle Eastern.  I’m frequently taken aback when, glimpsing myself in the mirror, I see a marked resemblance to my grandmother.

A kind of shift seems to be occurring inside me, as well.

My heart does a little leap of joy when I come across Italians.  I feel my body relax and become grounded when I speak Italian, as though the energy crammed inside my skull  gently trickles down through my body, warming, like a caress, reaching all the way down to my feet, adding weight to them, making me feel balanced.  The Roman songs I used to shrink away from now bring a smile to my face, and the languid semitones of an Armenian tune give me a sense of home, even though it is a land I have never laid eyes on.

Over the past few years, food has acquired new importance for me.  I no longer eat merely for sustenance but for the sheer pleasure of it (and my weight bears witness to that). I’ve developed a love for cooking for other people, for good food as a substance for bringing people together, for binding friendships, for sharing humanity that transcends nationality, religion and education. The substance that brings the ever so comforting certainty of all of us belonging to the Earth and not just the Skies.

I find myself believing in the pleasure of eyes that look straight into mine, of the warmth of a friendly human touch, of people who are fully in their bodies.  I find myself venting  feelings of frustration in Italian.  My personality, which for over a quarter of the century had been safely cooped up inside my head, is now venturing into the rest of my body.  I’m discovering that taste, smell and touch can convey as many delights as hearing, seeing and sensing.

Most significantly, perhaps, I have gone from a young woman always hiding away from the sun because she found its brightness aggressive, to a middle-aged woman who rushes outdoors to bask in the sun, soaking in its warmth, no sooner does she glimpse its golden rays on the surrounding rooftops.

Increasingly often, I dream of a home in Italy. But then how could I deprive myself of the magnificent East Anglian skies? Perhaps, someday, a home in Norwich and a home in  Rome.

One for each half of the year.

One for each half of me.

Scribe Doll

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Portrait of Mother and Child

It’s a crowded train and he sits on her lap, her arms around him.  Not tight but rather soft, rounded, her hands relaxed on his lap.  So he doesn’t feel trapped. So he doesn’t feel as though there’s any danger.  So he can keep his attention on the fleeting East Anglian countryside.  “Mummy, what are the cows doing?”

“They’re having their lunch.”

“What are they having for lunch?”


“I don’t like grass.”

“It’s so green, so refreshing.  Like a salad.  Cows love it.”

His hair is fair and unruly, hers is dark and glossy over her shoulders, but they have the same eyebrows, rising sharply above the bridge of the same, small, delicate nose.  The same face that wonders at the world.  Hers looks barely old enough for the awareness in her eyes, the awareness that she holds a supreme gift in her arms, one she would defend with her life, though she doesn’t want him to know it.  Her slender body could not have been much older than a girl’s when it yielded this new life.  He can’t be more than four.  She must be approaching the end of her teenage years.

The train brakes and she raises and spreads her fingers over his tummy, ready to link them into a safety belt.  He doesn’t notice.

“Mummy, why has the train stopped?”

“There’s probably a red signal, you know, like the traffic lights when we cross the road.  It means we have to wait for it to turn green.”

The train restarts, and acquires speed smoothly.  Her fingers relax and her hands go back to rest on his lap.  He climbs down, he wants to look at the other passengers.  She lets him, but her eyes light up with new alertness, although her voice remains calm, a calm that gives him the confidence to stand, take a couple of steps, look around, and grin at the other passengers.  He doesn’t see her body tense up, her arms behind him, ready to catch him.  His face is beaming with the satisfaction of achievement, as he climbs back on her knees.  His eyelids grow heavy, and he drifts into a slumber, rocked by the train.  The change in his breath against her chest lulls her, and she places a light kiss on the top of his head.  A kiss full of gratitude.  She observes the sunlight from the window, throwing flecks of gold in his flaxen hair.  Did her body really produce this miracle?

The conductor’s voice announces our impending arrival at King’s Cross.  He wakes up, rubs his eyes with his fists, then turns and kisses her cheek.  “I love you, Mummy.”

She looks at him, marvelling. She tries to keep her voice level, almost neutral.  “I love you, too.”

He stretches his arms, and yawns, then a cheeky twinkle flashes in his eyes.  “How much do you love me?”

She blinks and looks away.  Her voice is gentle but steady.  “I love you to the moon and back,” she says, but he is watching the other passengers take their suitcases down from the racks, and is now thinking of something else.

Scribe Doll

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Château de Seneffe*

I’ve translated ten pages and that’s enough work for today.  It’s raining heavily, so I can’t go out for a walk in the grounds this afternoon.  Determined, steady rain that heralds the autumn.  Hard rain that chills the air until it seeps into your bones.  Insidious.  You notice it only when you suddenly shudder and realise that your fingers and nose are cold, and a stiffness has lodged itself in your neck and shoulders.

The eighteenth-century courtyard, where the stables and servant quarters used to be, is deserted.  There is nobody strolling around the fountain, discussing whether or not a translator should keep the punctuation choices of the original author, nobody sitting on the white plastic chairs under the sun-bleached mauve parasol, drinking a pre-dinner apétirif, nobody reading on deck chairs outside the French windows of their rooms.  No footsteps crunching on the gravel.  Just the gurgle of the fountain against the teeming rain.  A relief on the even, hard backdrop.  What’s the word for the hissing, swishing, steadily drumming sound this rain makes? The old dovecote is silent.  Its windows have been closed up for centuries.  All around the white and grey courtyard, a thick wall of trees encircling the buildings, standing there as reminders that they’ve been here much longer than this Château in Wallonia.  What are these trees called? Their heavy foliage is swaying in the light wind.  Are there words for the different shades of its rich greens? I wish I knew them.  Shades that alter as the wind moves them and the light slowly fades.

The other translators are at a seminar, or in the library upstairs, or working in their rooms.  I’ve made the long, oval dining room table my space for today.  A bored fly lands on my laptop keyboard, then scurries around the amaranth-red tablecloth, drawn to the clusters of breadcrumbs left over after lunch.  What’s the word for the tiny trunk the fly extends to suck up the food?  It lands on my head, then on my hand.  I wave it away and it whizzes off with a frustrated buzzing.  A wasp crawls up the window-pane.  The glass offers a safety partition between it and a perfectly engineered spider’s web that occasionally stirs in the wind.  In the distance, the caw of a lonely crow as it flies across the pale grey canvas of the sky and vanishes into the rich texture of swaying, breathing green.  Emerald, avocado, Kelly green, Spring bud, dark olive green.  No.  None of these words convey the exact colour of these trees, because none of them captures the breath that imbues them.

I fill the chilly dining room with sounds from the music in my laptop.  Sounds that best match the colours and feel of the day.  On a day like this, I want the languid notes of a period, languid violin.  Pandolfi.  Von Biber.  Hume.  Baltzar.  Passionate yet vulnerable.  Introspective.

Someone walks through the dining room and I suddenly feel the space around me shrink.  “Ooh! It’s cold in here,” she says.  “Why don’t you come and work upstairs in the library? It’s a lot warmer.”

“No, thank you, I’m really quite comfortable here,” I reply, slouching over my laptop.

She stands looking at me for a moment, then slowly walks away.  And I sense the space around me start to expand once again.

* Please also see The Castle of Translators

Scribe Doll

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Religious Tolerance – Yes, But From Everybody, Please

I ask a man I’ve just met what he does for a living.  “I build boats,” he says, “like Jesus – I mean Noah –” he darts me a concerned look and holds out his hand in a halt sign, “I mean, not that I’m religious.”

The quasi squeamishness in his tone and body language not only implies that being religious is in some way objectionable, politically incorrect, or embarrassing, but also his absolute certainty that I share his view.  As though anybody in his or her right mind would.

I’m in a pub with a group of writer friends.  Somehow, the conversation turns to religion, and a joke is shared about people who believe in God.  “I believe in God,” I say.

Complete silence as they all turn to me with an expression of shock mixed with disbelief.  One of them says, “How can a woman as intelligent as you believe in God?”

I remark that if I were to ask him how a man as intelligent as he could possibly be an atheist, I’d be quickly condemned for intolerance – and rightly so.  So what gave him that right over me?

Another man says, “But you might as well believe in Santa Claus.  I mean, you can’t prove God exists.”

“No,” I said, “but can you prove He doesn’t?”

Why would my inability to provide irrefutable proof be considered inferior to his? I wasn’t proselytising but merely demanding equal rights for expressing an opinion without being derided or ridiculed.  Or at least simple good manners.

Every US dollar bill has the words In God we trust printed on the back.  When President Barack Obama took the oath of office, he concluded it with the words, “So help me God.”  He is one of many US presidents to have done that and nobody finds anything strange or untoward in that.  I shudder at what would happen if David Cameron ever referred to God.  Twitter would explode with a hashtag along the lines of PMsaysGod, and he would be interrogated by the journalist on duty of Radio 4’s Today programme the very next morning.  “Prime Minister, in your speech at the Commons, yesterday, you actually said ‘God’.  Now how do you reconcile your choice of word with Britain as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, inclusive society?”

That’s right, inclusive is the buzz word in present-day Britain.  So why not include everybody – believers and non-believers alike?

Several councils have stopped using the word Christmas in favour of the allegedly more inclusive Winter Festival.  A vague term that could refer to a number of other seasonal celebrations, including Chanukkah, and which therefore lacks precision.

Many in the UK may remember the case, a few years ago, of the nurse who almost lost her job for offering to pray for a patient.  What kind of person would feel offended by this sort of offer, which is tantamount to an expression of good wishes? It seems that the patient declined the offer, and the nurse respected their decision.  Why report this nurse? Interestingly, this nurse was apparently in breach of her code of conduct on “equality and diversity”.  That does strike me as a contradiction.

I must admit that, these days, when a certain spring Christian festival approaches, I hesitate before wishing strangers a happy Easter, in case they take offence.  Sometimes, I even ask, “Is it all right to say ‘Happy Easter’?” And yet  I have Jewish friends to whom I regularly wish a happy Chanukkah – and who wish me a happy Chanukkah in return.  Far from offending me, I feel glad and honoured by the fact that they somehow include me in their celebrations.  After all, it is a good wish that relates to celebration that falls on a specific date on the calendar.  Believing or not believing does not alter that date or event.  Whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, belong to another creed, or are an atheist, 25 December is Christmas Day.

I appreciate the fact that this trend is a reaction to the uncountable harm religion – Christianity, in this case – has done over the centuries.  Every school child knows about the Inquisition and the persecutions.  Without the need to go that far back in history, I myself witnessed intolerance, ignorance and cruelty inflicted on people in the name of religion while an undergraduate at what was considered the third most prestigious university in England – both on the part of Catholics and Anglicans.

What I find sad and, frankly, unacceptable, is that many people should act as though being in turn intolerant towards religious beliefs helps somehow redress the balance, but bigotry is bigotry – whether religious or atheist.

Much is made, nowadays, of freedom and, in particular, freedom of speech.  I don’t see how exercising the freedom to offend or insult can do honour to a human being.  Any fool can express his or her opinion, seeing the Law allows it.  But perhaps it takes an intellectually and morally superior person being to weigh the situation and, if need be, temper his or her free speech with respect towards a fellow human being.

Scribe Doll

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The Yellow Dress

Through a writer with whom we’ve recently formed a pleasant acquaintance, we were invited to a small dinner party given by a prince belonging to one of Italy’s oldest and most illustrious houses.  The kind that owns a collection of two millennia’s worth of fine art and one of Rome’s most stunning palaces.  The kind that, a few centuries ago, produced a Supreme Pontiff.

“What can we take him?” H. asked.  “We can’t afford the kind of wine he’s probably accustomed to drinking.”

Meanwhile, I was searching through our books.  “Where’s my Debrett’s?”

“Your what?”

“My Debrett’s.”

“You own a copy of Debrett’s?”

“Of course,” I replied as one who takes it as read that a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners is as staple in any household as a city street map.

My mother had given it to me on my sixteenth birthday.  “I can’t afford to throw you a coming out party but I still expect you to be polished by the time you’re seventeen,” she’d said sternly.

A coming out party.  The words evoked glossy magazine pictures of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco in a suitably demure white evening dress and pastel flowers in her hair.

For my mother, manners – like languages – constituted a key into yet another world.  In this case, one she had fallen into elegantly as a young woman, and in which she was determined I should build my future life, totally impervious to the fact that our very pronounced lack of funds might prove to be a hindrance.

Still, I learnt to walk, sit and even serve tea with a book on my head without so much as rocking.  “A gentleman must always light a lady’s cigarette first if he uses a lighter,” she said, “but his first if matches.  Why? (there would be the usual pause, to prompt me to answer) Because when you first strike a match it has an unpleasant smell of sulphur.”

Then, there was “If you ask someone to post a letter for you it is very impolite to seal the envelope.  It’s as though you don’t trust the person.  You must always hand it open and it’s up to the other person, as a mark of appreciation for your trust, to seal the envelope right there before you.”

For the most part, my mother’s strict etiquette instructions have remained at the level of theory in my life, with the rare exception of a few dinners at Cambridge, where my ex-husband was doing his PhD, in the early Nineties.  The Master of the College, formerly headmaster of Eton, would sometimes invite graduate students for dinner at the Lodge.  The first time we went, I gave my name to a man in a black morning coat.  He appeared a little ruffled.  “If you would please give your name to the under-butler, Madam,” he said, directing us to another, as far I could see identically-dressed man on the opposite side of the hall.  The latter then swung open the door into the parlour, and announced, “Mr and Mrs –” while ushering us through.

At dinner, the main course was accompanied by beautifully-cut, thin dry slices of salted potato, the sort commonly known as crisps, which provided a challenge even to the most skilled knife-and-fork operators.  A few, in fact, were purposefully ignored while flying across the dining room like shooting stars.  After dinner, the Master’s wife rose from the table, and invited all the ladies present to “join [her] for coffee in the drawing room upstairs,” while the men passed around a decanter of whiskey, smoked cigars, or took pinches of snuff from a lion-shaped silver tobacco holder with a head that swung open thanks to a tiny hinge.  I wondered if any lady guest in history had ever declined the invitation and stayed downstairs with the gentlemen.  I don’t suppose so. Not in a world where the only way to win is to play the rules to your advantage.

Our writer acquaintance had assured us that the prince was very “easy-going” but I  worried that, when applied to an individual with at least six centuries of aristocracy behind him, this adjective might refer to the invaluable skill of – there’s no other word for it – somewhat lowering your usual standards in order to make the less sophisticated or educated feel at their ease.  I wanted to be up to the occasion, whether or not I found my Debrett’s for a quick revision session.

While trying to recall the basic principles of what my grandmother called “good breeding”, I studied my wardrobe.  I wanted to show respect to our host with a smart outfit but, this not being London, I had to take care not to overdress inappropriately.  I settled on a pretty lemon-yellow dress with white embroidery on the front and back, which I’d bought from Laura Ashley’s a few weeks earlier but had not yet had the opportunity to wear.  The kind of dress my mother would describe as “an afternoon dress”.  Midnight-blue suede and patent sling-back shoes, and a black pashmina, should the evening turn chilly on the way home.

As H. and I were walking towards the appointed address, I suddenly noticed passers-by staring at me.  For the briefest of seconds, I flattered myself that they were looks of admiration, before I realised that I was engulfed by a retinue of tiny flies.  The front and back of my dress were covered in them, and there were several dozens inside the dress, on my skin, too, all the way down, ahem, to my waist and tummy.  We walked the rest of the way with H. vainly trying to brush them off without squashing them.  We couldn’t fathom what was happening.  I often wear yellow, and have never experienced anything like this – one or two flies at the most.

When the prince opened the door with a welcoming smile, he was confronted by the spectacle of me trying to shake the flies down from inside my dress, and H. whipping me with my shawl, looking up and saying, “Oh, hello.  It’s not how it looks – I promise I’m not a wife beater.”

My entrance provided the topic of conversation during the apéritif, with the other guests engaged in earnest speculations as to what might have attracted the swarm of storm flies.  Perhaps they’d thought I was a Christmas-size helping of pollen.  I sipped my wine and smiled politely, fully aware that I need not trouble myself with providing any effervescent conversation for the rest of the evening.  The impression had been made as Enter, pursued by swarm of storm flies.

A few days later, I walked into the Laura Ashley shop, explained the situation, and asked for advice.  After all, I hadn’t bought the dress to wear it just the once.  Predictably, I was met by puzzled, knitted eyebrows and “Nobody else came in to say this.”  A couple of sales assistants suggested I go to the camping shop next door, and buy insect repellent.  “I’m not going to smear myself with pesticide!” I said.  One lady thought perhaps I had just been unlucky, and walked past a nest.  I left the shop without a viable solution.

I have worn the yellow dress several times since that evening and, oddly, only attracted one or two flies, which have been easily brushed off.  I still have no idea what happened that first time.  Perhaps the swarm of storm flies felt it had to rise to the occasion.

Scribe Doll

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