If Martin Luther had taken some Vitamin C…

In my final year at University, where I was reading for a degree in French Literature, thanks to a new syllabus tried out by the French Department, I was allowed to specialise by choosing four options.  I was only too happy to drop 19th-century Romantic moaning (as I saw it) and 20th-century anxiety and depression (as I saw it), and throw myself into (again as I saw it) the certainty and serenity of the Middle Ages, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.  This covered, among others, a course entitled “Literature of the Reformation”.

Eager to get ahead, I took a walk to the Theology Department, and asked if I might attend the relevant lectures, to gain better knowledge of the historical and religious background of the French literature I was about to study.  Dr F., a specialist in the subject, was thrilled with my enthusiasm.  “Yes, of course, you’re very welcome to come to my lectures. It will be a pleasure to have someone from the French Department,” he said in his soft Irish accent, green eyes sparkling with eagerness to share his scholarly passion.

His classes were popular, and for good reason.  Dr F. not only seemed to know everything there was to know about the Reformation, but – unlike some of his fellow academics – was a good communicator and a charismatic teacher.  And, yes, he was also a very good-looking young man.

Then, one day, he set an essay about Martin Luther’s doctrines.  “Oh, no, that’s all right,” I said. “I shan’t trouble you with extra marking –” (Meaning: I don’t want to have to write an extra essay on top of my French Department workload.)

“Oh, please do write it.  It will be a pleasure to have your essay, too.”

He may have added something about how interesting it would be to have the point of view of a non-Theology student.

I was stuck.

It was approaching midnight before the morning the essay was due.  I sat in my room with a mug of coffee, staring at a blank page from my Oxford pad, with no idea whatsoever what to write.  I glanced at Owen Chadwick’s book about the Reformation, on my desk.  I hadn’t read it yet and it was a little too late to start.  I chewed on my pen, put another Lyons’s coffee bag into my mug, reached out for a chocolate hobnob, and thought of Martin Luther.  The monk who married a nun.  The monk who brought Protestantism to Germany.  I suddenly remembered something else Dr F. had mentioned: that Martin Luther suffered from constipation, and spent a considerable amount of time on the loo, where he thought up many of his theories.  Constipation.  I wondered why.  Come to think of it, what caused constipation? I decided to take a little break from the essay and consult my slowly-but-surely growing collection of layman medical and nutrition books.  I had recently developed an interest in medicine, health and anatomy/physiology, and read anything I could lay my hands on on the subject, and which was formulated in a language I could understand.  While leafing through my books, I remembered once accidentally causing myself diarrhoea by taking an excessively high dose of Vitamin C.  Consequently, would a regular intake of ascorbic acid or a diet rich in Vitamin C alleviate constipation? I knew that chronic constipation contributed to toxicity in the blood stream, which – I assumed – could then affect one’s perception.  I also suspected that spending hours shut in a toilet, just waiting for your body to make up its mind to evacuate unwanted matter, could give you a lot of time to think and develop philosophical hypotheses.

Suddenly, I was on a roll, chasing after a crazy theory.  I scattered all my nutrition books on my desk.  I can’t remember the exact details of what I thought I discovered on that long autumn night, twenty-five years ago.  What I do remember is not going to bed at all and writing pages and pages about the effect of a vitamin or mineral deficiency on our cognitive abilities and even emotional states, about the optimum dose of specific vitamins in terms of units and milligrams, of the anti-oxidant effects of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, and its benefits to – among many other things – a healthy digestion.  Having been drilled by my French academic education that every essay should follow the Introduction-Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis-Conclusion pattern, I set out to prove that Martin Luther’s theological doctrines and thought process was heavily influenced by his chronic constipation which, in turn, had been caused by a vitamin deficiency.  If Luther had taken some ascorbic acid, there may not have been a Reformation.  QED.  I wrote and wrote, almost feverish with enthusiasm for my “discovery”.

By morning, the top knuckle of my right middle finger was black with ink, and, despite the total lack of sleep, my eyes were wide open with satisfied excitement and elation.  I picked up my essay and, after a quick breakfast, went to put it into Dr F.’s pigeon hole.

A week later, we all got our essays back.  Dr F. kept mine till last.  I waited impatiently to see what mark I’d received.  He approached my desk with a slightly puzzled expression.  He handed me my work.  There was a slight frown.  “I’m afraid I haven’t marked it,” he said.  “To be honest, I didn’t quite know how to.  What you say is very interesting but, well, it doesn’t really belong in the Theology Department.  I’d say take it to the Medical Department, but there isn’t one here…”

He was very kind, not once suggesting I’d been a smart arse.  I collected my work with a sigh of slight disappointment.  In retrospect, I realise I was lucky he didn’t throw me out of his class.  He stopped setting me any more essays, though.

Scribe Doll

Posted in Odds & Ends | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Translator or Writer?

I used to write.  A lot. I never set time aside to write but grabbed it as and when I came across it.  At home on a Sunday afternoon, when I had a twenty-minute Tube journey and could get a seat, in a coffee shop between clients, in a classroom while my students were sitting a test.  I wrote while working as a teacher, and as a theatrical agent. I produced short stories, plays, half a novel and a weekly blog.

I write even more now.  Two or three novels a year, short stories, non-fiction and even the odd play.  My style is more versatile than before.  Historical novels, crime, travel, popular women’s fiction, high-brow women’s literature, fairy tales for children.

And yet now I can’t even manage a blog post scribbled à la diable once a week.

Because I now work as a literary translator.  I spend all day writing, yes, but writing other people’s words.  Correction.  The words are mine but I choose them with care, so they may convey other people’s intentions as faithfully as possible.

In order to achieve this, I must shut away my own inner Scribbler in the basement, under lock and key, to stop her from interfering with my work on behalf of other writers.  I must become a medium, a go-between, a bridge.  I must be creative enough to produce a text that doesn’t limp, supported by the crutch of its original language, but one that walks head high, freely, and at the same time remember that it is animated by invisible, yet ever-present, strings.  A ventriloquist’s job, in a way, for which one must develop impeccably-controlled, obedient muscles.  Creative – and shrewd enough, at times – to know when it’s judicious to improve on the original text, which, sadly, is all too often under-edited – if edited at all – because of misplaced and unhelpfully exaggerated reverence towards the original author on the part of the publisher.  After all, you need to watch your back.  When critics and readers like the book you’ve “Englished”, then you’ll be lucky if they take the trouble to mention your name at all (and this omission can, in itself, be a compliment to your seamless translation), but if they don’t like it, they sometimes blame it on the translation, in which case they do mention your name.  You’re not there to protest, “But I’m not responsible for this piece of overwritten, self-indulgent crap! I just translated it!” And so, very often, you tweak the odd word, rearrange a sentence here and there, polish a paragraph, or carry out a barely perceptible cosmetic procedure.  Even so, tempted as you may be to act like Cyrano with Christian, you restrain yourself, always remembering that, as a literary translator, you are the servant of the text and not its master.

In the evenings, after a day of translating, I go and let my inner Scribbler out of the basement.  In the beginning, as I unlock the door, she bursts out, flings her arms around me, spins around the room, tap dances on the ceiling, and runs out into the sunshine glad of the exercise after a day in the basement.  I pick up my fountain pen and write to my heart’s content, pouring out on paper all the ideas I’ve ignored during working hours.

As my workload increases, I let out the Scribbler later and later, often long after the sun has already set.  She greets me with a warm smile but I can see that she is disappointed to have missed out on the daylight.  As time goes by, sometimes several days pass before I can go down and unlock the basement.  I notice that my Scribbler doesn’t smile any more but trudges up the stairs and slumps on the sofa, complaining that she’s tired.  Never mind, I think, we’ll spend some quality time together over the weekend.  I pick up my fountain pen but the words come out with difficulty, spasmodically, and I can’t get my current translation project out of my mind, no matter how hard I try.

That weekend, the first of many, is spent on translating.  A publisher has given me an extra book to do.  Sorry, please help me out, it’s urgent.  OK, I say.  I need to keep on the right side of this publisher.  And other publishers.  I need the money.

When I next see my Scribbler, I notice she’s put on weight around her middle, and her shoulders are hunched.  She huffs when she sees me, and goes to vegetate on the sofa without a word.

I have three books to translate at the same time, so I can’t see my Scribbler for a little while.  I forget how long exactly, but not very long.  When I finally go down and unlock the door, Scribbler isn’t standing there as usual.  I look inside the basement room.  She’s sitting on the floor, her eyes blank, her complexion grey, lethargic.  There’s no persuading her to come out.  “I have the whole day off,” I say.  “Let’s spend it together.”

“I’m too tired,” she replies.

“Tired? But you haven’t done anything for days –”

“Years,” she replies, interrupting me.

The shock silences me.  Has it really been years since I’ve written anything substantial of my own? I can’t believe it, I won’t believe it.

I go back upstairs alone, take out my notepad, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen.  The nib leaves blank scratches on the paper.  The ink has dried up.  I find the bottle of black ink and syphon some in.  I draw a squiggle in the corner of the blank page, then stare at it.  And stare at it.  Then I write “Word”.  I can’t think of anything else to write.

I go back down to the basement and slowly pull Scribbler up from the floor.  My ventriloquist’s muscles are now strong enough for me to lift her but hers are too weak to stand up unaided.  I put my arm around her and gently lead her out of the basement room.  She rebels.  I coax her.  She takes slow, sporadic steps.  Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled.  It’s a struggle to climb the stairs.  She groans, she moans, she shouts, “I hate you!”

Tears are streaming down my face.  I wish I could tell Scribbler I’m sorry.  “Come on Scribbler,” I say. “We’re nearly there.  Just a few more steps and we’ll be back in the sunlight.”

She looks up and I see the light from the upstairs windows glow in her eyes.

“Come on, Scribbler, just one more step.”

Scribe Doll

 

Posted in Odds & Ends | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Summer Night in Trastevere

Streets bustling with tourists who walk slowly, looking up, right and left, mouths half open, stopping abruptly to take a photo, holding up the locals, those whose footsteps have a specific destination, who no longer look at the sights because they carry them within them.

Italian, French, Japanese, German, as well as Old and New World varieties of Spanish and English bounce off the terracotta walls and escape towards the sky.  Waiters outside restaurants displaying tourist menus catch your eye and gesture invitations to sit at outdoor tables covered with crisp, white tablecloths.

Standing or sitting against the walls are sellers from ethnic groups as varied as their merchandise.  Wreaths of plastic and fabric flowers to be worn by girls and young women over their straight, long hair, like Mediaeval maidens.  Silver rings, bangles, bracelets and earrings arranged on brown or black velveteen.  The sellers have Native American features.  An Italian with fine brushes and a large magnifying glass is offering to write your name on a grain of rice.  A South-East Asian is selling a large variety of embossed, leather wrist straps.  A large-bosomed, wide-hipped Central African woman in a brightly-patterned dress and headscarf sits on a low camping stool.  There’s a wooden bowl full of seashells at her feet, and a square of grey cardboard that says, You can see everything in the shells. She makes me think of the character of Minerva in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Rolls of colourful scarves stacked on foldable stalls, jewellery made of wood, paper butterflies you can stick on the wall, towers of straw hats.  A bearded, long-haired man, pale eyes glowing from his suntanned face, is reading tarots on a makeshift table, a candle flame inside a glass jar casting the shadow of its ritual fire dance on the card spread.

In Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere an artist is trying to create a painting in a set amount of time.  He’s practically juggling with cans of spray paint, like a histrionic cocktail barman.  The acrid, chemical smell of the paint pierces through the inviting aroma of pizza, olive oil and rosemary that fills the air.

A slim young man who could be from the Indian subcontinent is shining a peculiar kind of torch which casts a multitude of bright green dots on the sampietrini and the arches of the Basilica, where the regulation beggar blesses passers-by and reaches out, palm upwards.  I think what fun it would be to shine one of these on the façade of Norwich Cathedral or Castle, but the seller is asking sixteen euros for it.  “Two years’ guarantee,” he keeps assuring me as I walk away.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is lit in a soft golden glow, gently illuminating the 13th-century mosaics.  High up on the campanile, protected in her niche, the Byzantine face of Saint Mary, severe yet oddly accepting, watches over the piazza.

Scribe Doll

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Santa Sabina

When we were in Rome, a couple of weeks ago, I insisted we go and see “my favourite church in Rome”.  The first church I ever liked, to which I owe my introduction to, and love for, early sacred music.

It was all because I was a teenager with a crush.

I was sixteen and attending the French Lycée Chateaubriand in Rome.  In the morning, I’d leave home earlier than I needed to, in order to reach the Aventino, where my French soon-to-be first boyfriend and his family lived, and, with some luck, “happen” to find myself on the same bus as he.  This required major planning with the help of maps, bus time tables, and psychic abilities to be able to predict when the Rome buses would actually be running.

That morning, through over-eager miscalculation, I arrived on the Aventino nearly an hour before I’d expected to.  The winter morning daylight had barely broken, and not wanting to loiter in the street, in the cold, I walked into a church.  Santa Sabina.

I’d never seen a church like this before.  From an early age, I had been both drawn to and frightened by churches.  I’d always found something unnerving and menacing about High Baroque Roman churches.  As a child, I couldn’t find the right words to articulate what it was, exactly.  Now, I realise it evoked for me something deeply powerful and unforgiving.

WP_20160617_001

Santa Sabina was different.  An open, wide nave with two rows of plain stone pillars, and no seats for the congregation.  Further down, before the altar, a separate, secluded area where, I guessed, there were a few seats, although from where I stood, hidden behind the first pillar, I couldn’t see who was there.  But I could certainly hear them.  A regular, repetitive, lulling chant by male voices.  Gregorian chant, although I didn’t know that’s what it was called, then.  Nor did I know that Santa Sabina was a 5th Century church, and that the singers were Dominican monks.  All I knew was that, for the first time, I was in a church that I not only found far from menacing, but positively inspiring in a way I’d never known a church to be.  I felt a strong pull, a deep sense of longing, like the yearning to come home.  So new and yet so familiar.

I was mesmerised by the regular, even chanting.  It wasn’t imposing, like the great masses in the large basilicas.  It was deeply comforting.  A balm for my anxious soul.  I listened, entranced, leaning against the quietly strong, gently reassuring stone pillar.  I wanted to stay there for ever.

After that day, and even when, a few months later, I started going out with my French boyfriend, I would often leave home early, just so I could go and stand in Santa Sabina, behind the pillar, for a few minutes, and immerse myself into that dimension of peace created by the ethereal, and at the same time comfortingly grounding, music.

Scribe Doll

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Brexit – The Hairline Fracture*

H. and I have just come back from a two-week holiday in Rome.  We left Great Britain, we left the United Kingdom, and have come back to Little England, with everything this implies.  For the first week after the Referendum, the first thought I woke up with every morning was that it had all been a far-fetched, stupid dream.  We would get up, have breakfast, stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine then, once the holiday was over, go back home.  Home.  But as we got up, had breakfast, and read the newspapers and Twitter feed on my iPad, we went for a stroll in the blazing Roman sunshine with icy unease in our hearts.  Home.  Would England still be home?

I am not a devotee of the European Union as such, but I am a European to the core, and, as a result, I feel that the European Union is the best option in an imperfect system.  I can’t claim to be politically all that well informed.  However, when I saw the encouragement Brexit would give the extreme right-wing, anti-immigration, at times xenophobic factions rising throughout Europe, there was only one way for me to vote in the EU Referendum, and that was to Remain a part of the EU.

My British father (with some Cornish and Welsh) played no part in my growing up.  Other than a blood connection, I had no legal or moral claim to Britain.  When I first moved here from Rome, aged nineteen, this country couldn’t have been more alien to me.  Shops closing at 5.30 p.m., electrical appliances sold without plugs, first-class-stamped letters arriving the very next day, people under-dressing, under-eating and understating.  And then there was the language.  Language is not a birthright.  My early childhood at an American school had been followed by nine years in the French education system.  In my first week in England, I went to see Chariots of Fire, and had difficulty following.  Colloquial, non-bookish English, was incomprehensible to me.  Sarcasm, dished out by my landlady with considerably more generosity than food, was something I couldn’t see coming until I felt it sting like a paper cut.  People seemed amused, though in a disapproving way, I sensed, by my American accent.

The first week, I cried a few times.  The second week, I went to evensong at King’s, and fell in love with Cambridge, the dramatically changeable East Anglian skies, the flat Fens where the horizon is so low, the land seems to go on for ever and ever.  So I decided to conquer myself a place on this island, and set out to work.  I was determined to be accepted, to be at home here.  Every evening, I sat memorising words from the Oxford Concise Dictionary.  I made myself keep a journal in English only.  I watched how people moved, how they spoke, how they dressed.  I aped their speech, their accent, their cadenza, their tone.  The way it rose and fell.  I swapped my green MaxMara jacket for a gun-metal grey duffle coat, learnt to add milk into my tea, cycle on the left-hand side of the road, and the true intended meaning of the adjective “interesting”.  I acted English… until I became English.

I’ll never forget the boundless pride and joy I felt, a few years later, the first time I went to see a Shakespeare play without reading it first, and understood it.  Or when I directed a production of The Duchess of Malfi, and the actors asked me to explain some of the Jacobean language.  Or when I got my first job teaching English as a Foreign Language, at a British Council accredited school, after qualifying at International House.  I write in English, I translate from Italian, French and Russian into English.  People ask me which language I think in.  I laugh.  I don’t think in a language but in concepts.  Doesn’t everybody? Heavens, if my thoughts needed sentences in order to be formed, I’d be a really slow thinker!

I have lived in this country for over thirty years.  I have loved it and felt at home here.  To the point where I feel entitled to make lovingly sarcastic public remarks about its flaws.

I feel at home here, except for the odd hiccup, like a needle scratching a record, when somebody, in a shop or at a party, suddenly catches me unaware by asking, “What’s your accent?” Then, for a few minutes, I feel as though I am seen as a usurper, as someone who doesn’t really have a right to be here, perhaps even not entitled to speak English quite to this standard.  But it’s only a few minutes of discomfort.  Then I feel at home again.  My accent is what betrays me.  An accent that has been described as French, Dutch, Irish, American, Russian, but mostly – and unfathomably – as South African.  Perhaps it’s the way I clip my consonants.

Other than the sticky accent issue, I can honestly say that I have never experienced any xenophobia directed at me.  Some might say I’ve been lucky.  I can only make a judgement based on my personal experience.

But now, in the light of the xenophobic episodes that have taken place since Brexit won at the Referendum, for the first time in over thirty years I feel anxious.  As someone rightly said, it’s not that half the country is racist, it’s that the handful of racists so far muzzled by political correctness thinks it now forms half the country and consequently entitled to express its xenophobia without restraint.  Poet George Szirtes wrote a very poignant article in The Guardian, yesterday, which illustrates how I feel.  Unlike him, I am not a refugee.  But I have started from scratch in more than one country, and more than one language.  When I was nine, we moved from Italy to Greece.  A year later, we moved to France.  Six years later, it was back to Italy.  When I was nineteen, I moved to England.  I know what it is to learn a new language, new customs, new gestures, new ways of dressing, new ways of eating, new ways of thinking.  I know what it is to shapeshift in order to survive.  I know what it is to leave everything behind, sometimes through choice, sometimes not, and start from scratch. I do not want to be forced to do it again.  Will I walk into a shop, one of these days, and will someone, upon hearing my accent, say something insulting to me?

We are, all of us on this island, originally from another land. Some of our Leave camp politicians seem to have forgotten that their forebears were immigrants or refugees, however many years or centuries ago.

We had a German exchange student at my college.  One evening, while chatting over coffee in my room, he said, “When you’re German and people ask you where you’re from, and you say you’re German, you sometimes feel as though you should add, ‘I’m sorry’ because of our history.”

My friend, born in the 1960s, was no more responsible for the horrors connected with mid-20th-century Germany than I am for the 52% who voted in favour of Brexit, and yet many of us, rightly or wrongly, feel a share of responsibility in the actions of the countries where our blood – or at least some of our blood – comes from.

My worry now, is that, for the rest of my life, whenever people ask where I come from, I will bow my head and, with a heavy heart, reply, “Britain.  Sorry.”

Sorry, my country was the earthquake that caused the hairline fracture that spread into a crack, then a crevasse across Europe, shattering something which, with some reforming, could have been a truly creative, fruitful, and, above all peaceful union of countries.

Scribe Doll

*Please also see:

https://scribedoll.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/the-british-obsession-with-accent/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-eu-referendum-racial-racism-abuse-hate-crime-reported-latest-leave-immigration-a7104191.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/racist-incidents-feared-to-be-linked-to-brexit-result-reported-in-england-and-wales?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=179242&subid=2346909&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/02/brexit-we-want-out-and-we-want-you-out

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Wine and Politics

We were in something of a celebratory mood, so, being in London for the day, went for lunch at one of our favourite Italian restaurants, in Bloomsbury. “Let’s go there,” I said to H. “Last time we were there, the manager promised to get a bottle of Strega in.”

I like a glass of Strega after a meal. I like its golden colour, its fragrance of mint and fennel, its sweet, aromatic flavour. I also like drinking a liqueur that lends its name to Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant in Britain, before ordering, I ask if they have Strega. If they do, I forego the wine with my meal, saving my very low alcohol tolerance for a drop of that magical nectar. Sadly, very, very few restaurants serve it.

Perhaps predictably, when we arrived at the Bloomsbury restaurant, the manager was different and, sadly, no Strega in stock.

Directly behind us, sat a middle-aged American couple that were engaging in conversation with two Scottish women at the adjacent table. The American man was telling a joke.

We didn’t get the joke entirely but began to eavesdrop on the conversation and enjoying the general good humour and joviality behind us.

As we tucked into our scrumptious food – in my case pasta with courgette flowers – there was a roll of thunder and the skies broke open and sheets of rain teemed onto the street. I heard someone – not sure who – comment that “it always pours in England”. A remark that, after years of teaching English as a Foreign Language I am, frankly, sick and tired of hearing. “Ever tried Milan or Brussels?” I snapped, swinging around.

The American woman, who was sitting back to back with me, also turned round, and asked about Brussels. I told her it could be very, very grey, so it wasn’t fair that England should, alone, carry the reputation for miserable weather.

We got talking. It turned out the Americans were lawyers, as well as film lovers and wine connoisseurs.

Suddenly, the man asked out right, “How are you all voting in the European Referendum?”

Silence. Dense, palpable silence.

He looked at the adjacent table. One of the Scottish women was looking absent-mindedly at the table cloth. The other replied with a grave tone, “This is a very personal question.”

Feeling merry and particularly loquacious as a result of having drunk half a glass of Nero d’Avola – twice my usual amount of alcohol intake – I was only too happy to open my mouth wide and unleash all my opinions about how I felt about this topic, allowing them to gallop freely, like a wild mustang over sun kissed mountains. H. joined in and, after a while, the Scottish women also dipped their toes in the debate. There were crusaders, devil’s advocates, apologists and fence-dwellers, each of us taking turns to assume these roles. The course of the discussion inevitably veered to the US Presidential elections. More dense, palpable silences, dissent phrased as questions, and – when it came down to it, a shared wish for a better world and a peaceful world.

The American man ordered a bottle of Amarone and six glasses. “The grapes are left to wilt in the sun first,” he said, “which gives the wine its intense flavour.”

We all stood up from our tables, dropped our napkins on the tables and, with them, all our political differences, and clinked glasses in the uniting pleasure that an unexpectedly stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance can bring.

The red wine glided down, smooth, rich, warm. As warm as, a little later, the goodbye handshakes, exchange of business cards, and hugs, while the tall-stemmed wine glasses gleamed in the afternoon sun.

Scribe Doll

Posted in Odds & Ends, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

What Exactly is Your Job?

Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing members of the Norwich Stonemasons‘ Guild perform a Mystery Play outside the doors of the Cathedral.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a brief summer interlude before putting our coats, scarves and gloves back on in time for June.  The first Mystery Play to be acted by a Norwich guild for five hundred years – Cain & Abel.

WP_20160528_001

As an eager crowd gathered outside the Mediaeval Benedictine cathedral, the Beadle of the Guild, in his black velvet cap and cloak, and gold-tipped staff, announced, in imperative tones, “You will enjoy it. You will laugh,” triggering the first giggles among the willing audience.

I couldn’t begin to describe the sheer delight and fun of this ten-minute performance.  I couldn’t do justice to its highly imaginative props, to the brightly-coloured, makeshift set, to the hysterically funny performance by the actors, who, fuelled by the audience’s laughter, gave into corpsing themselves, thereby increasing the overall giggling.  There was something so earthy about the whole event, so uniting.  Inevitably, I thought of the Mechanicals of Athens performing Pyramus and Thisbe.  An unwitting trigger to laughter was also the organ player in the Cathedral, where that evening’s concert was being rehearsed, whose notes from Fauré’s Requiem thundered through the stone walls at a couple of appropriate Biblical moments.

WP_20160528_004

 

At the end of the performance, after the cheers and bows, the Clerk came on and spoke of the history of this Guild, and repeated the last line of the performance, “Perfection in an imperfect world.” Summa Inter Mediocria, the St Stephen and St George’s Guild motto.

WP_20160528_007

These words sent a tingle up my spine.  I often walk past the Church of St Clement, and catch a glimpse of the stonemasons at work, complete with their square white caps.  Everything about their body language and that of the Master Stonemason who supervises them oozes something we seldom see nowadays: fierce pride in one’s work.  A refusal to produce anything less than as perfect a job as any human can aspire to.

Over the days that followed, I pondered over something that has been much on my mind, recently.  Job titles.  Pride in one’s job. A sense of achievement when performing a task.  The refusal to compromise quality and “make do”.

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  The words immediately tells me clearly what the jobs entail.  It took me ages to work out what a CEO did.  Chief Executive Officer.  What’s that? What’s wrong with “boss”? Or MD.  Managing Director.  What is “manage”, exactly? Is it to regulate? To direct? To organise? When I taught Business English, the majority of my clients’ job titles weren’t words but abbreviations.  I often had to ask them what they did exactly and, in most cases, still couldn’t put my finger on what precisely their professions involved.  After many a lengthy explanation, I frequently yearned to ask “What do you actually make? What is the tangible, physical result of your work?”

I once worked for an oil company for two months.  The second month was to work out my notice.  My job title was also an abbreviation.  Much of it seemed to involve entering long serial numbers into a computer.  I wasn’t quite sure why.  One day, when one of the top honchos of the company circulated through our department, shaking everyone’s hand, and asking what they did, I embarrassed myself.  His question suddenly stumped me and I replied, “I don’t know.  I’m not really sure what I do.” He laughed politely, probably assuming I was joking, but I was totally serious.  Inappropriate for the occasion, but serious.  I had no idea what I actually did.  I couldn’t be proud of a job I didn’t understand.

Recently, at the London Book Fair, I asked a woman if she was a publisher.  She replied, “No.  I facilitate publishing.”

I stared, totally at a loss.  What’s “facilitating publishing” when it’s at home?

In one of the very executive London language schools I used to teach (“executive” – another hermetic word for me – executing what?), we weren’t called teachers but “trainers”.  I wondered if the management considered the word “teacher” to be too authoritative, too passé, or – what the heck – too politically incorrect.  Similarly, students were referred to as “course participants”.  I went around feeling like a rubber sports shoe, facilitating learning rather than teaching – which is what I’d signed up to do when I qualified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (there, the word is “teaching”!).  As for “course participants” as opposed to “students”, the difference in connotation made me somewhat uncomfortable, the latter suggesting in my mind individuals who were simply required to attend my classes and not necessarily learn from them.

Other job titles that have recently puzzled me are “Community Banker” referring to the advisors/clerks at my local bank, “Presentation Team” printed on the uniforms of cleaners,   and anything with the nouns “Consultant”, “Executive”, “Corporate” and “Officer” (outside the military) attached.

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  These I understand.  But perhaps I’m too simple-minded.

Scribe Doll

Posted in Odds & Ends, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment