Crawling Slowly Out of the Dungeon

Work.  Work.  You’ve fallen behind with your work.  So you work without stopping.  Except for meals.  You can’t taste the food, really, because you keep glancing at your watch.  Time to get back to work.  When you go to bed at night, your eyelids become a screen on which the computer pages of your work are projected.  Every time you close your eyes, you see the pages of your work.  You dream of running after trains.  Of forgetting where you live.  Of walking up a mountain, carrying a large rucksack on your back and a heavy supermarket carrier bag in each hand.  You wake up feeling exhausted.  You decide to stay in bed until just after the news headlines on the radio but fall asleep again for over an hour.

You just want some rest. 

You decide to sit down and do some work before breakfast.  Just translate one chapter, then you’ll get dressed and have breakfast.  It was a short chapter, so you might as well do one more.  Get ahead.  You get stuck at a word you don’t know.  It’s a section of a Mediaeval castle.  You can’t find the translation into English in any paper or online dictionary you consult.  Forty-five minutes later, you discover that this architectural detail existed only in one region, in 10th Century Rome.  No other castle in Italy, let alone Europe has it.  So there is no English equivalent for that word.  It’s untranslatable.  Should you keep it in the Italian original and add a footnote, or paraphrase it?  You can’t think straight.  You resent the author for using such technical vocabulary.  It’s a novel, for crying out loud – how does the use of this complicated word advance the story? You resent the nameless 10th Century Roman architect who built that castle in the first place.  You get angry with over a millennium of wind, rain and earthquakes for not destroying that damned castle, and erase all evidence of that particular architectural detail.  You start feeling faint and realise it’s after one o’clock and you haven’t had breakfast yet.  In fact, you’re still in your pyjamas.  You go to the bathroom to wash your face.  In the mirror, someone with a sallow face looks back at you.  Dark rings under the eyes.  Eyes with no light.  A tired face.  An old face.  You look away and comb your hair without looking into the mirror.  Who cares how you look, anyway?

After lunch – or was it breakfast? – you decide two more chapters, then you’ll go for a walk.  You need some air.  You need exercise.  Your back feels compacted and rigid, your neck and shoulders as though there’s a metal coat hanger inside.  The ‘phone starts ringing.  Somebody needs you.  Someone close to you.  You have to help.  You’ve had to help almost every day for weeks now.  Not only that but you have to do so joyfully.  Isn’t it what we’ve all been taught? That you have to be kind?  That there are certain people you automatically, naturally love, and who automatically, naturally love you?  And what if it doesn’t come naturally for you to love them, or for them to love you? Still, you have to help.  There’s no one else but you who can do it.  So you try and help, again.   Except that inside, you’re screaming.  Screaming until you realise that the screaming has somehow escaped from your secret inside, and is pouring out of your mouth, like poison.  Your temples are throbbing and there’s a sharp pain in your head.  You’re screaming and crying – and suddenly you vomit.  You feel like you’ve smashed things, people, yourself.  That’s when the guilt sinks its teeth into you.  You hate yourself.

You just want some rest.

By the time you’ve helped whoever needed helping, you realise it’s grown dark outside.  You haven’t been out and you haven’t done enough work.

As the days turn into weeks, then months, you start feeling as though you’re not totally, firmly inside your body.  You’re there and yet you’re not quite there.  The tension that makes your muscles ache confirms that you’re alive and yet you’re somehow not entirely in your body.  Your life is not really your life.  Your e-mail inbox has many unread e-mails or, worse, e-mails that you’ve opened but don’t actually remember reading.  You haven’t seen people,  listened to the news, read a newspaper, a book, or your friends’ blogs, watched television for ages.  Come to think of it, when was the last time you did anything for yourself? You’re in a bubble of thick, sticky fog.  You’re in a cold, damp, smelly dungeon.

You decide to go to evensong at the Cathedral.  You know it will soothe you.  Forty-five minutes where your mobile can’t ring.  Where you can relax.  They’re singing Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices.  You’re about to leave the house when the phone rings.  Your help is needed again.  It’s too late for evensong now.  Evensong.  Missing it suddenly acquires a huge importance and you feel unfairly deprived.  Frustrated.  So frustrated, you lunge at the wall, and slap it hard.  You catch the soft part of your wrist against the door frame.  That’s how you get a painful bump on your wrist for two weeks after that.

You just want some rest.

An acquaintance calls you and starts telling you his or her problems.  You nearly hang up on them.  You nearly tell them to go and get lost.  You wind up the conversation quickly, abruptly and – you know only too well – rudely.  You just can’t bear it.  You don’t want to understand anyone anymore.

You just want some rest!

Finally, you press the “send” button and dispatch your completed work.  You decide that you can’t want to help anyone for the time being.  No.  Why lie? The truth is, you don’t want to help anyone.  You’re at the end of your tether.  It’s your first day of relative freedom but you’ve been indoors for so long, you’re slightly apprehensive about going out.  Somehow, you propel yourself to the coffee shop near the market place, and order a cappuccino.  You start reading a book.  An actual book.  One that you want to read.  There’s a blind young woman sitting next to you, with a cream-coloured labrador guide dog.  You ask the young woman if you can stroke the dog.  “Of course,” she says.  You pat the dog and he walks up to you and sniffs the air around you.  You think he must smell how bad, how weak, how angry and how toxic you are.  A dog must be able to detect the black poison, like tar, inside you.  That there is no hope for you or in you.

The dog’s dark brown eyes bore into you.  They are soft, deep and totally un-judging.  He stares so deep into your soul, that for a moment, you lose yourself in his eyes.  You feel wrapped in a warm, soft blanket of totally unconditional love.  You’re at one with the dog, with the Universe, and with yourself.

You wish you could ask the dog’s forgiveness for all you have done and all you are.

The dog comes close to you, and begins to lick your hand.

Scribe Doll

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On a Train from Norwich to Cambridge

The day is grey and very, very still, self-contained in drowsy introspection.  But maybe it’s not sleeping at all but quietly meditating, plotting an event, contemplating crafting its next miracle.

The fog is blurring the silhouette of the trees, like pencil drawings rubbed with a ball of cotton wool.  The dark green tops blend in with the pale grey fog and, in the distance, the horizon merges with the never-ending East Anglian sky.

We pass a field with pigs.  Pale grey and black ones, ears twitching, eating something off the ground.  There’s a sow with large, dangling udders.  I think of what they are intended for – to nurture life, and feel slightly queasy at the thought of all these pigs being especially bred for human consumption.  Especially bred.  The phrase has something metallic and unnatural about it.

Further, there are sheep grazing in an enclosure.  Meek, dependent, accepting.  Created by and for man.

Two magpies, for joy, skipping by the waterlogged furrows left by large vehicle tyres, flicking their long tails.  Alert, clever, nervous.

A weeping willow trails her weary autumnal yellow mane in a stream.   A congregation of ducks loitering in the water, like perky gossips.

A stretch of brown land with patches of black soil and occasional clumps of bright green grass.  A row of naked trees, their trunks all inclined in the same direction by recurring winds.

A peregrine falcon flapping its strong wings, whizzing in perfect parallel with the horizon.

A conference of rooks.  Glossy, jet-black splodges on a vibrant green canvas.

The train pulls into a station.  On my right, up on a hill, the imposing stone towers of Ely Cathedral.  I gasp in awe at its imposing beauty.  Yet something in my heart tightens.  There is something unforgiving about it.  Something at odds with the impartially accepting stillness of the day.

Scribe Doll

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The Busker

It was a voice carried by the wind through the semi-deserted streets of a Norwich Sunday afternoon. A voice that sang not into your ear but into your heart. I started walking towards it.

He was standing outside NatWest Bank, on London Street. He looked about fifty but I suspect his weatherbeaten face was adding several years to his true age. The ruddy cheeks of someone used to being outdoors. Not the complexion of a man from the city. I wondered if he was a farmer. Or perhaps a fisherman? His jacket was threadbare in parts, and there were indelible stains on his trousers. Something that looked like an old anorak was spread on the pavement at his feet. A few coins were scattered on it. How else did this man make his living? I wanted to ask him why he was standing on the street corner. What had brought him into Norwich – or what had pushed him out of his home outside the city. Instead, all I could pluck up the courage to do, was walk up to him with a few coins, drop them into the palm of his hand and say, “You sing so beautifully.”

He smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”

I was angry with myself for having only small change in my purse. I stood for a while, listening to that voice. A voice with no training, no polish but which shone as clear and bright as the East Anglian sky. There was no artifice in his performance. He sang from his heart. A song as simple and true as the earth. It was a folk song – but not the kind you hear at folk festivals, with acoustic guitars and mic-ed up voices and deliberately uncombed hair. This was a song of the people who work with their hands and are true to their hearts. I imagined it must be a Norfolk song. It was so simple, so straight, so innocent and yet so full of strength. I felt my heart expand up to my throat.

A few days later, I saw him again. This time, he was standing on the corner of Castle Street. He was wearing a clean blazer. Once again, the anorak on the pavement at his feet, a few coins strewn over it. I opened my purse. With the excitement of a child, I walked up to him with a banknote. He looked at me as though he recognised me.

I stood across the street for a long time, listening to that voice. That simple, straight singing, as honest as the soil, and the wind and the East Anglian sky. My heart expanded once again. This time, it pressed against the back of my eyes, and I slowly walked away, trying to stop tears from dripping out.

I hope I hear that voice again.

Scribe Doll

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Clocks Take a Step Back, So Take a Step Forward

It’s my favourite day of the year.  I go to bed with a feeling of hopeful anticipation, after setting all the clocks in the flat back by an hour.  As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to wake up to a new year, bursting with new possibilities.

I hate it when the clocks go forward in the spring.  That one hour when I need to wake up earlier makes makes me jet-lagged – something that flights to and from the US and China have never done – for a couple of weeks.  My body feels robbed of something.

In Italian, British Summer Time is called ora legale.  The legal time, by the laws you had nothing to do with setting up.  Human laws.  When the clocks go back, however, they revert to the ora solare – the sun time, as decreed by the Sun god.

In England, we revert to Greenwich Meantime, the meridian from which all other meridians take their lead.  Again, it feels like the last Sunday in October is when the more truthful and correct way of marking time resumes.  Just like autumn feels like the touchstone come to test the seriousness of our intent for the cold months to come.  The rest of the year, it’s just fluff.  An illusion.

The last Sunday of October, ahead of Hallowe’en, magic takes place.  A gift.  A small miracle.  We receive the gift of an extra hour’s sleep – and yet still wake up early enough.  A gift of an extra hour to do at least one thing we have not had the time to do over the past few months.  There is something redemptive about this magical extra hour.  It’s like a second chance, a chance for a new start.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day working.  Then, in the afternoon, I remembered I had that extra hour stashed away.  I used it on repotting a basil plant I bought from the supermarket a few weeks ago, and which has unexpectedly grown beyond all expectations.  As I pushed the fresh soil around the roots of the plant, I sipped hot water with lemon juice, ginger and honey.  When I’d finished, I took another pot and filled it with soil.  Then I collected five pips from the lemon I’d just squeezed, arranged them in a star shape on the surface, and pushed them deeper into the dark soil.  I sprinkled water, and placed the pot on the sun-flooded kitchen windowsill.  “Grow,” I whispered.

A new year, a new chance.  God willing, a new lemon tree.

Scribe Doll


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No (Proper) Post Today

Scribe Doll is busy packing and saying goodbye to Brussels.


For further information, see Westvleteren.

Scribe Doll

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The Castle of Translators

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.”

Seneffe Commons

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.

Seneffe Chateau

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.

Seneffe 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.

Seneffe Mound

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.

Seneffe Courtyard

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.

Scribe Doll

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Pandolfi’s Violin

There’s 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,  part-joyful.  Now, he plays the notes  measuredly, mathematically, in deference to the accompanying continuo, and now he runs away, flies, does somersaults, walks upside down on the ceiling.  The violin plays by the rules of music and nature, then breaks free 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 on genius.  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.  Not yet.

He’s 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)

Scribe Doll

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