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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A Herb Garden on the Windowsill

I’d planned to work today.  After all, for one reason or another – mainly to do with accumulated tiredness, I spent all last week doing dolce farniente.  However, when I woke up this morning, after ten hours’ sleep, I remembered it was the first Sunday of the month.  Hey, a new month, a blank page rich with new possibilities.  I had to do it justice by beginning as I mean to carry on from now on.  Well, from now on, I plan not to work on Sundays.  Deep breath.  Exhale any professional remorse.  There.  I do not work on Sundays.  Sundays are for resting, planning, dreaming.  Even repotting plants.

I’ve never had, or ever wanted to have, a garden.  I’ve inherited my mother’s unease about living on the ground floor.  Assuming money were no object, I would like a first or second-floor flat, preferably on the top of the building, so as not to have any neighbours over my head.  A top-floor flat with a large terrace, wide enough for a table and chairs.  And a sun bed for me to lie on during warm summer nights, star gazing until I can’t tell if the sky is falling on me or I am falling into the sky.  A terrace filled with herbs growing in pots.  Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme.  Also flowers.  Deep blue morning glories to cheer you up at breakfast, and bright yellow, sweet-smelling petunias blooming at night.  Curly pink geraniums unfurling over the banisters.

In the meantime, our first-floor Norwich flat is overrun with pot plants, many of them herbs, occupying every inch of the living room and kitchen windowsills.

I spread the pages of an old Radio Times over the dining table.  It’s a useless precaution, since I never fail to spill soil on the carpet, but it makes me feel as though at least I am trying to be neat.  My gardening utensils are always borrowed from the kitchen: a plastic measuring jug in lieu of a watering can, and a tablespoon acting as a mini-spade.

I place all the herbs for repotting on the table, and open the sack of multi-purpose compost.  The rich smell of black soil penetrates my being.  Powerful, yet forgiving.  And very, very comforting.  The kind of smell that makes you feel safe.  I ease the basil I’ve just bought at the supermarket out of its constricting pot.  Its roots are coiled around the outside of the moulded earth.  I stand it on a few inches of soil in the new, larger pot, and spoon extra compost all around it.  The leaves are an honest, brilliant green, and I breathe in their punchy, slightly peppery fragrance.  A smell of loud laughter, of dear friends cramped around a table that’s slightly too small, of spilled Chianti.  I wonder how long I’ll keep this basil plant before, like its two predecessors, it grows into an unmanageably large bush that no longer fits on our windowsills, and has to be given to friends with a garden or greenhouse.

I repot the thyme.  I notice its mane has got tangled up while growing in the supermarket cellophane, so I gently run my fingers through it, freeing the ends.  It responds with a moody perfume that brings back childhood memories of cyan-blue skies, hat-tearing Mistral wind, and the nasal vowels of a Niçois accent.

It’s the turn of the most elegant of my herbs.  The lady.  The skullcap.  No real scent, but tall, slender, with tiny blue flowers.  A herb that knows its own mind.  A gift from a wise herbalist.

The sprightly, refreshing scent of mint hits my nostrils.  Light, playful, innocent.  What you smell is what you get.

I turn my attention to the French tarragon.  Its grey-green leaves are homesick for a drier climate, so I hope I can make it feel at home here.  I love its subtle fragrance.  Chewing a leaf then drinking cold water that then tastes like silver.

I glance at a herb with leaves flopping about like they don’t care, that has grown three times its original size in as many weeks since I bought in in the market.  One of my favourites: sage.  I gently rub a leaf and bring my fingers to my nose.  A tart, slightly bitter, yet richly aromatic fragrance.  The leaves are perfect roasted in olive oil.

Once I have finished repotting and, as usual, vacuumed the soil off the carpet, I run my hand through all the herbs.  The living room is alight with bright, healing scents.

Scribe Doll

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Exeunt, pursued by bedbugs

Our first holiday in years.  We entered my acquaintance’s Paris flat, immediately expressing our gratitude to the moon-faced ginger tom who had made this possible.  We could not have afforded a hotel, so free accommodation in the exclusive, almost central 7ème Arrondissement, a walk away from the Eiffel Tower, in exchange for cat-sitting was a wonderful stroke of luck.  H. was particularly excited, determined to show me areas of Paris he was certain would vanquish my indifference to the city.  I’d been to Paris twice before, albeit very briefly.  I can’t help it – it leaves me cold.  It’s like trying to grasp a pink soap bubble.  I just don’t get it.  Still, as a passionate lover of polyphony, I was looking forward to seeing Notre-Dame, la Sainte-Chapelle and other Gothic churches where it was born.  Moreover, after the half-hearted East Anglian attempts at summer, feeling genuinely hot sun rays on my skin was an indescribable relief.

On our first evening, we strolled on the edges of the Quartier Latin, listened to a brilliant street jazz band in Rue de Buci, had dinner in a modest but cosy restaurant where the food – perhaps unsurprisingly for Paris – was scrumptious (I don’t want to touch English-made baguettes ever again).  H. showed me an 18th century café that had been frequented by Voltaire, Marat and other pre-Revolution thinkers.  We planned to get up early the following morning, to beat the queues at Notre-Dame.

Neither of us slept more than a couple of hours, that night.  Mysterious, itchy red bumps seemed to be multiplying on H.’s body, some of them in neat, equidistant linear patterns.  The bumps quickly turned into welts.  Mosquitoes? We hadn’t heard anything buzzing.  He tried reading on the living room sofa, but more bumps appeared.  In the early hours of the morning, not knowing what else to do, I went to find some salt in the kitchen, diluted it in water, and began dabbing it on his welts, to soothe the itchiness.  I inspected the bed and found pinhead-size red bugs.  Squashing them left blood stains on the sheets.  A larger specimen was discovered promenading on one of the sofa cushions.  Bedbugs.  I stared in utter disbelief.  My grandmother used to say she didn’t like whiskey because it “smelled of bedbugs”.  When I asked her if she’d ever actually sniffed one, she said, “Of course not.  Bedbugs are found in gulags and dirty places.”  H. immediately corrected my assumption and told me he’d heard before that bedbugs were on the rise even in clean, exclusive hotels.  We spent much of the rest of the night reading anything we could find on the internet about these blood-sucking critters.

Strangely, although I have always been a strong point of attraction for mosquitoes, spiders,  and other stinging insects, this time I was completely unscathed.

In the morning, exhausted from lack of sleep, H.’s body now covered in over sixty stings, we went to the nearest pharmacy.  The pharmacienne confirmed the identity of the corpses scrunched up in tissue as, indeed, bedbugs.  Any effective pesticide might prove unsafe for our host cat or for us.  So we bought essential oils of rosemary, lavender, and eucalyptus citriodora which, according to my nocturnal internet research, were supposed to be bedbug deterrents.  That night, we sprinkled it all over the bed and rubbed some on ourselves, though I was wary of putting undiluted essential oil on our skins.  I found the smell unbearably pungent.

I rang my acquaintance.  Naturally, she was mortified.  It turns out she doesn’t react to the bites, so only discovered the presence of the infestation when she had visitors, at which point the Mairie had come and given her flat the anti-bedbug treatment only six weeks earlier.  How could they be back again and so soon?  It turns out Paris has severe bedbug problems.  It seems even a couple of five-star hotels recently had to close down for a few days, in order to fumigate their premises.  Someone told me these are a Canadian, pesticide-resistant strain.  Interestingly, the critters seem prevalent in the more exclusive Paris districts.

We were too late for Notre-Dame so, instead, H. took me to the famous  Shakespeare and Co.  and we strolled around the Île de la Cité.  The lack of sleep made everything look rather fuzzy.

The following morning, after a few more hours sleep, I woke up with over a hundred welts all over my body, swollen and itchy.  It seems I’d had a delayed reaction to the bites.  There were many more tiny smears of blood on the sheets.  At 4 a.m., the cat marched into the bedroom, tail in perfect vertical with the tip bent, announcing his return from some neighbourhood feline party, demanding to be scratched under his chin, totally impervious to our plight.

We went to Notre-Dame.  I found it somewhat lacking.  I can’t say why.  However, the stained glass windows of the Sainte Chapelle took my breath away.  A myriad of colourful jewels glowing in the Gothic church.  I was transfixed.

Another sleepless night brought more bites.  H. now had over a hundred and I over a hundred and fifty.  When I finally fell asleep, at dawn, I dreamt that King Louis IX was using bedbugs as a way of exterminating political undesirables.  I woke up, unable to shake the dream for a couple of hours, my lips slightly swollen, and a temperature.  I was irrational.  Perhaps I’d also overdosed on the essential oils.  I begged H. to go home.  This wasn’t a holiday but a nightmare.  Of course, moving to a hotel was out of the question, for fear of taking the bedbugs with us.  It seems they can hide in luggage and be carried from hotel to hotel that way.

As we arranged for the concierge to take over cat-sitting duties, and booked a new set of Eurostar tickets, our hearts heavy with disappointment, we thought of the numerous cheap and dirty hotels we’d stayed in in the past, and yet not encountered bedbugs.  And now, in a clean flat in an expensive area.  We wondered when we’d next have the opportunity for a holiday.

Arriving back home, we took all the necessary precautions.  Suitcases were unpacked in the driveway and all the contents securely tied in plastic bags.  Everything that could be washed was washed.  Everything else wiped, disinfected, checked.

Even now, several days later, we jump at the sight of a dot of ink on the table, a tiny piece of fluff in the bed.

I guess someday we’ll laugh about it.  Soon, I hope.

Scribe Doll

Scribe Doll

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Norwich Animals

Every morning, half a dozen or so large seagulls gather on the roof of the house opposite H’s study window.  Well, perhaps “gather” isn’t the right word, since they’re never all there at the same time.  They compete for the premium locations: the tops of the two chimneys.  They chase one another off them with an intense campaign of plaintive squawking and swooping, their huge white wings practically glowing in the sunlight, or like cardboard cut-outs against a lead-grey sky.  Sometimes, they bring a take-away breakfast, which they feast on at leisure, often in pairs.

My new friend, just a few doors away, is a grey tabby with a fondness for climbing motor vehicles.  She’s often found sprawling on the roof of a car or mini van.  Once, I even saw her promenade on top of a removals van.  Whenever she sees me, she runs towards me, greeting me with a loud, protracted Miiaaaooooooooww! Miiiiiiaaaaaaaaoooooooooooowww!! The kind that makes passers-by turn around and give me puzzled looks.  I scratch the right side of her chin, she cocks her head lower and lower, pressing against my fingertips, until it’s practically resting on the pavement.  I start scratching the other side and she immediately straightens up and dives to her left, her eyes half-closed with pleasure.  When I try and keep walking, she bounds ahead of me only to prostrate herself on the pavement right at my feet.

The first thing I do when I switch on my laptop in the morning, while drinking my hot water and lemon juice, is to go onto the Norwich Cathedral website and follow the links to  the webcam spying on the family of peregrine falcons, and check what they’re up to.  For weeks, I’ve watched the chicks go from bundles of white fluff with bright pink mouths to handsome, grey and white birds with forbidding, sunflower-yellow eyes and jet-black pupils.  Now there’s a reality show worth watching.  Now that the three surviving chicks are fully-fledged, you can see them circling the cathedral spire, surfing the wind, gliding up there, way above the rest of us.  There’s something very focused and almost mathematical about the flight of a peregrine falcon.

There are many dogs in Norwich, and H and I have made up a classification system for them.  There are the petits bouts de chien.  I’m still not sure if these are actual dogs, or rodents mistaken for canines, at some point in History, by visitors from another galaxy, and so the misapprehension persists to this day.  These include, mini-Yorkies, Dachshunds, and the least dog-like of them all – the Chihuahua.  One struggles to fathom how any of them could have ever been bred from wolves.  They have high-pitched, ear-drum-piercing barks, seem permanently nervous of their surroundings, and angry with you for being, in their view, so inconsiderately tall.

Pooches cover anything vaguely small or medium-size, fluffy, friendly, tail-wagging, undemanding, doe-eyed, sweet-natured, and – in H’s opinion – with long ears. Westies, King Charles Spaniels, and miscellaneous sweeties.

Hounds are those huge, naive-looking creatures that generally stand next to their owners with their mouths ajar.  When I approach them to put my arms around their necks, they lift their bulks on their hind legs and place their heavy paws on my chest, making me lock my knees so I don’t fall over.  Then they swipe my face (generally my mouth) with a soft, wet, tongue kiss.

Then there are the doggy-dogs, small to average build, highly-strung, purposeful,  with a gravelly bark, always looking very busy, trotting ahead of their humans – the Artful Dodgers of the dog world.  Jack Russells, Parson Russells, and other intense, no-time-to-waste kinds of dogs.

All other canines awaiting classification, we simply refer to as “dogs”.

When you take a walk by the river in the evening, bats whizz past the weeping willows, along the embankment wall, doing air acrobatics at phenomenal speed, as though someone were after them.

On the river, swans glide silently in pairs, stretching their necks towards you, then drifting away.  You’re not worth their time if you have nothing edible to give them.  In the past few weeks, fluffy grey cygnets trail behind them, trying to learn all about style, grace and dignity before their first birthday.

Scribe Doll

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A Soundtrack to Growing Up

Not long ago – I forget where – I read an article in which several writers listed the most influential books of their childhood; books that changed their lives and inspired them to become writers.

Inevitably, I thought back to my own childhood, trying to recall the books, or even one book, that had made a definite impact on me, whether mentally or emotionally.  For a long time, my mind was a blank.  I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed.  Had I read nothing, as a child? Eventually, memories of swashbuckling novels by Alexandre Dumas, detailed longitudes and latitudes in Jules Verne, the cosiness of Louisa May Alcott’s poor but ever so good Little Women, and the exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic bad luck of Victor Hugo’s characters, began to trickle through.  Even so, I can’t honestly say that a book ever inspired me to write.

In many ways, reading was tantamount to homework for me while I was growing up.  I started to read at six, in Italian, and was sent to an American school at seven.  At eight, my grandmother began teaching me to read Russian.  At nine, we moved to France, so it was learn French or get kicked in the shins during recess.  No sooner did I get used to reading in one language, than I had to change.

My mother actively discouraged me from reading fiction in my mid-teens.  “Novels are for children,” she used to say, leaving on the kitchen table books about philosophy, mysticism, medicine, history and – above all – self-improvement.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  Then, at high school and university, I read what I was told to read, while an increasingly frayed non-fiction book on some highly-cerebral topic moved from my bedside, to my rucksack, to my desk, to my handbag, then back to my bedside.  The bookmark progressed at a snail’s pace…

What did inspire me to start writing, paradoxically, was music.

I can remember every significant episode of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as accompanied by music.

According to my grandmother, when I was about three I avidly watched the Italian children’s song contest Il Zecchino d’oro on television, and asked my mother to buy me the record of one of the songs.  I couldn’t yet hold a tune but kept repeating a couple of words from the refrain.  We went to the record shop but the seller had no idea which song I meant.  I just said those couple of words over and over again.  He humoured me, and began playing one record after the other.  I kept shaking my head.  Then, finally, after half a dozen or so, there it was – and with the refrain I’d remembered.

My earliest musical memory was one evening, when I was about four, a new Phillips record player being delivered to our flat.  I’d already gone to bed but got up and went into the living room.  My mother was trying out the new record player with a 45rpm of “Strangers in the Night”.  I stood in my pink pyjamas, transfixed by Frank Sinatra’s voice filling the room.

I always wanted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 to be played when I built houses with my Lego blocks.  When I lost my first milk tooth, I asked my mother to tell the tooth fairy to bring me Swan Lake.  We didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother said the tooth fairy was too small to carry the heavy records.

When I was about eight, my mother sat with me on the Persian rug, the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot open on her lap.  She played the records and told me the fairy tale about the cruel princess and her three riddles.  I was swept away by the power of the music, so violent and yet so tender.  Everything about it felt so important, so overwhelming.

A couple of years later, my grandmother allowed me to stay up late and watch The Flying Dutchman on television.  The hairs on my arms stood up at the colourful chords in the Overture.  I could feel the despair of the wandering Dutchman, and Senta’s devotion to him.

I began writing poems and stories when I was twelve.  I’d come home from school, do my homework, then put on a record and, once enveloped in the world created by the music, start scribbling away, trying to convey words on a page the immensity of the emotions music triggered in me.  I wrote fairy tales with the mystery and melancholy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  I wanted my words to engage in the haunting, spinning dance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Stravinsky’s Firebird.  

When, at the age of nineteen, I moved to Cambridge, a nightly helping of Evensong at King’s instead of the dinner I had to skip because my landlady served it at 6 pm, gave wings to my bicycle on my way back up the only hill in Cambridge.  Once back in my freezing attic room, I tried to write like the moonbeam trebles that rose and quivered beneath the fan vaulting, like the counter tenors that gave a strange, eerie yet fascinating edge to the responses, like the booming, thundering organ chords pushing against the stain glass windows.

The one and only time I was consciously influenced by advertising, it was because of music.  I didn’t know what it was.  It accompanied a clip of a pretty French girl with a heart-shaped faced and a dark, glossy bob, walking down the street, taking off her beret, looking back because she thought she heard someone call out her name, Lou Lou.  I was twenty-two.  I went to have my hair cut in exactly the same bob, bought a beret, and went to the department store to buy the perfume advertised in the spot – “Lou Lou” by Cacharel.  The magic of mesmerising music only worked so far, though.  Once the sales assistant at the perfume counter produced the baby blue and burgundy bottle – which I found deeply unattractive – and let me smell the fragrance – which made me wince and walk away – I’m afraid I went and spent my treat money on a bottle of “Cabochard” by Grès, instead.  Still, the mysterious, longing tune remained in my head for years until, one morning, they played it on BBC Radio 3, and gave it a name – Fauré’s “Pavane”.  And so I tried to write words and sentences that would reproduce its wistfulness, its haunting quality, its sophistication.

Even now, I often play a CD to spur me on when I write.

I hear music in my head when I write.

I think I write words because I cannot compose music.

Scribe Doll


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