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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Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

One: A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s doctor said he charged £25 to write a (short) letter about the state of her health. I commented that it was more than people would often pay me, as a literary translator.  His response: “Yes, but I studied and I have a qualification.”

I am used to the self-importance of doctors.  Moreover, this kind of rudeness requires only one kind of response: ignoring it.

Or else posting it on Twitter in the original English and other languages, then mentioning it in a blog.

Two: An author is haggling over the price I’ve quoted for a translation. She tries the usual tactics: “But I could get someone else to do it for half that!” (What’s stopping you?) and “But I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a regular salary!” (Newsflash – I’m a literary translator, so I’m a freelancer, too).  I don’t budge.  She then says, “But I’m a single parent with two children to raise on my own!”

Paying to have your book translated off your own bat is the Vanity Project par excellence. It is not a necessity, like food or healthcare.  Would you go into Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and haggle over the price of a bracelet because you’re a single mother?

Three: A publisher offers me a job, and asks how soon I can do it.  Always a potentially explosive situation.  I can, of course, put aside what I’m doing at the moment, burn the midnight oil, work fourteen hours a day, but why do that if I don’t have to?  The publisher gives me no hint as to their schedule, and appears to throw the ball in my court.  So I give my time estimate.  The publisher gives the job to somebody else, telling me the translation was really urgent.

Four: As above, but the publisher’s question is, “How much would you charge?” then the job is given to someone else because my estimate is “beyond their budget”.

In the name of Saint Jerome*! If it was that urgent or if you had a fixed budget, why didn’t you just say, “I need it for such or such a date/This is my budget for this – can you do it for then/for this much?” in the first place, instead of playing power games?!

Five: I give an author, who assures me he is perfectly fluent in English, a translation of his novel and encourage him to make comments and/or corrections.  None of his suggested changes are grammatical.  We spend a total of sixteen hours on Skype, while I teach him basic English grammar, and wish I had charged him double.

Six: An author queries the stylistic choices I have made in my translation and, no, her English is not very good.  She wants it to be closer to the original in idioms, syntax, word order.  I try and explain that a good literary translation cannot always be literal. That a reader mustn’t, even for one second, feel it’s a translation, but a book in its own right.  “Oh, but I’m very protective of my work,” she says.  “It’s like my baby.”

When your baby eventually goes to primary school, will you sit in the classroom and tell the teachers how to do their jobs?

Seven: I receive a copy edit with track changes in red on every single line of my work.  It’s not just corrections.  The copy editor has re-written my entire translation.  It will take me longer to go through the “suggestions” than I did translating the whole book.  I ring the eager beaver and get, “I haven’t changed that much, it just looks worse than it is because of Track Changes.”

Yes, dear, I’m familiar with Track Changes.  I’ve been using it since before you left school.  There’s so much red in my text, it looks like it’s positively bleeding.

There are the writers, the translators, and the copy editors.  The boundaries should be clearly defined.

Eight: A newly set-up, enthusiastic literary agent wants to meet me to offer me a “unique opportunity”.

I visualise: the opportunity of translating a beautifully-written, meaningful novel that has won the Strega or the Goncourt prize, getting paid at least 11 pence per word, and the prompt payment of an advance, as well as of the outstanding balance at the end of my work.

I get: “We feel you’re the right person to look at our list, choose a book you really believe in and are passionate about, find a publisher interested in buying the translation rights, then put them in touch with us.

I blink.  “And what would you be paying me for, effectively, doing your job?”

“Well, we’re new you see… but we’re looking for someone who really believes in us and our books, so that we can grow together.  And if you find us a British publisher, then we’ll definitely put in a good word for you as a translator.”

I walk away, smiling, with Anglo-Saxon expletives mentally directed at the “enthusiastic” agent.

* Patron saint of translators

Scribe Doll

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How Much More Can You Bear?

H. stayed up all night, watching the election results on television.  I’d had an exhausting day, so collapsed into bed at around 11 pm.  At 5 a.m., I woke up and went to the living room.  “David Cameron is staying,” H. said.  I didn’t reply for fear of waking myself up totally.  I stumbled back to bed.  On some level, I was hoping that it had been a dream.  That when I’d finally wake up a couple of hours later, I could laugh about it over breakfast.

That didn’t happen.  What happened was the confirmation of five more years of our country continuing on its downward spiral. I am only just beginning to snap out of my state of shock, of disbelief.

I am not and have never been politically-minded.  I don’t understand politics and don’t feel sufficiently informed.  I keep up with political news for the same reason some people follow the weather forecast.  From a self-protection instinct.

Basically, I don’t understand how politicians think, or how the political machinery works.  I don’t understand the real reasons behind politicians’ decisions.  Frankly, I don’t care – and I don’t see why I should.  The proof of the pudding is in the visible results of their decisions, and I can only truly see the result as it affects the people around me, and – let’s be frank about it – me.

My partner and I have had to move to Norwich because we could no longer afford London rents.  We’re not the only ones.  Rents in London have rocketed to an obscene level, and are disproportionate to the average London salary.  Meanwhile, according to The Londonist, 61% of new London properties are bought by investors. Most of these investors are foreign and do not buy these properties for either living in them or letting them, but simply as an asset.  Parts of London are increasingly becoming like a ghost town.  I recently read an article about a woman who, after living most of her life in Notting Hill, was moving out because she felt uncomfortable living almost alone on her street after all the other properties had been sold to foreign investors who kept them empty.  Landlords get away with charging exorbitant rents for places so small, they’re unfit to be lived in.  In response to the plight of so many Londoners who are having to leave their families and friends and move away, one Tory MP said that if we couldn’t afford to leave in London, then we should get “on the trains and up to Manchester.”

Honestly, how dare he?

I don’t blame the investors, foreign or local.  It is their right to do as they please with their capital.  I blame our government for allowing this state of affairs.  Is London to become a gated community for the super rich?

How much longer can you bear this?

When you rent a flat in the UK, most letting agents require proof of regular employment.  If you’re freelance, they ask you either for an accountant’s report or to pay six months rent in advance.  At the end of the six months, the process starts anew.  Proof of regular employment, accountant’s report… or six months rent in advance. You then have to sign a document which is, in effect, your own eviction notice, where you guarantee to move out after six months.  Oh, and if you want to fix extra picture hooks in the wall, you have to tell the letting agent exactly how many, and wait for the landlord to give permission.

How much longer can you bear this?

My eighty-year-old mother has been in and out of hospital and has had at least three spinal procedures. She is in constant pain.  A few weeks ago, her pain got suddenly much more acute.  She went to A & E and, after several hours’ wait, was X-rayed, told there was nothing amiss, and sent back home at eleven o’clock at night.  For all her practically begging for an MRI scan, they didn’t do one.  A few days later, getting worse, she was once again admitted to A & E.  She stayed there for ten days before an MRI scan was finally done.  She asked for a second pillow for her bed.  The nurses said they didn’t have another one.  During the ten days, one of her consultants kept sending word that she should be sent home because there couldn’t possibly be any more collapsed vertebrae.  Clearly a psychic, since he formed the judgement without actually having seen her since her admission.  But not a very good psychic.  The MRI, when it was finally carried out, showed that, once again she had a collapsed vertebra. They operated on her spine on the Thursday and discharged her on the Friday.

I noticed the other day, that there’s a new response in vogue when you ask for anything to be done. Be it leaving a message with a doctor’s secretary, asking the doctor to call you, asking a junior doctor to find out who made such-and-such a decision regarding something, or even asking a sales assistant if they have in stock the shoes of your choice in a 5 1/2.

This response is: I can’t guarantee it.

People say it almost as a knee-jerk reaction.  Before they even say they’ll try accommodating you.  What is the matter with everyone in this country? Why is everyone so afraid of taking responsibility? Of standing up and being counted? Are we becoming a nation of evasive cowards?

They say if you throw a frog into a pot of hot water, it will leap right back out.  But if you put it into cold water, and turn up the heat, you can boil it to death.

I don’t care under which government all this started.  I just wonder how much longer you can bear all this.

I’m at the end of my tether.

Scribe Doll

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Surviving the London Book Fair

I’ve pinned my badge to my jacket lapel:

Katherine Gregor

Literary Translator


United Kingdom

The security man scans it.  A thin, red line crawls over it like a single spider leg.  I step  into the giant, dome-shaped Olympia building.  I think: Dante’s Inferno.  No, Purgatory, since there’s hope of redemption and success in all who enter.

Three days of a huge market crammed with stalls, displays, banners, desks, stages and counters, heaving with people buying, selling, promoting, negotiating, haggling.  Hundreds of voices rise to the vault and blend into a unique, steady drone that fills your skull and continues buzzing in your ears even when you go to bed at night.

In the central aisle, a row of young men and women in turquoise T-shirts offer a shoulder massage.  A few minutes’ relief from the tension within and without.  On my first morning, I breeze past them.  On the second, I consider coming back later.  On the third, I drag myself towards them, hesitate, then keep walking.  I fear that if I sit down and have a massage, I’ll melt into the bench and won’t be able to be scraped off it.

As I approach the Centre for Literary Translation, I smell a familiar scent.  One of the Arab stands is burning frankincense.  The altruistic part of me feels this is an imposition on the people around who don’t like frankincense, but my selfish core is delighted and I inhale, closing my eyes with pleasure.

My well-meaning intention of attending several talks and panel discussions evaporates within a few minutes of the start of each.  Once again, I wish more writers and translators were charismatic speakers.  I want to be entertained, as well as informed.  I am bored, my attention wanders and I don’t feel the least guilty about it.

This year, the focus is on Mexican writing, and I go and listen to Valeria Luiselli and Juan Villoro at the PEN Literary Salon.  Their passion for writing, their commitment to life, their political awareness are refreshing, inspiring.  I want to read their books.

The highlight at the Literary Translation Centre, for me, is a translation slam, or duel.  I always enjoy those.  Two translators are given the same passage.  The result is always different.  This time, the writer is present.  A word lover’s treat.

Upstairs, in the International Rights Centre, rows and rows of small tables with agents and publishers leaning forward towards each other, buying and selling book rights.  I picture them as characters in Renaissance Flemish paintings.  Velvet caps and tunics with many soft folds.  Gold coins stacked up on the tables.  Tiny scales for weighing them.

As I walk down the aisles on the ground floor, the people I pass glance at my badge, and I at theirs.  We quickly decide if the other person is the one we are looking for, or potentially interesting.  Potentially useful.

At the various food stalls, the sandwiches are expensive and inedible.  Thick slices of bread with little filling.  I search in vain for something I actually feel like eating.  All I can see is chicken salad and tuna sandwiches.  There’s a lonely egg one, but it looks far from appetising.

It’s lovely to see other translators you last saw this time last year.  What are you working on at the moment? Who’s the publisher? You know what it’s like – feast or famine. I’ve read this book I love: I want to pitch it to a publisher.  Does that ever work? Sometimes.  So they tell us at various seminars.

It’s lovely to be among people who practise their profession out of love.  People passionate about languages, books, words.

Writers Centre Norwich has organised a drinks party.  I take my customary glass of still water and edge my way among clusters of people, all absorbed in conversation, as though it’s been going on for hours, as though they’ve all known one another for years.  As though an “on” switch has been flicked.  I’ve always wondered how they do it.  I’ve never felt at ease at parties.  After a few minutes, I go and stand on the fringes of the party area.  I prefer the view from there.

I say hello to some of the publishers I’ve worked for.  We don’t talk about business but about our families, about travel, about books we’ve read and enjoyed.  A little parenthesis of human warmth.

By the third day, I drag myself around on automatic pilot.  My feet feel as though they’ve been mangled.  It hurts to walk.  I bump into a writer friend.  “Are you having a good Fair?” she asks.

“I’m having a Fair,” I reply.

We look at each other and admit in unison that we – we hate it.

She asks me if I’ve seen one of the banners showing the location of the various departments, which says, “Writers.  Remainders.” and we burst into an exhausted giggle.

Pretty much everyone’s eyes are glazed over with tiredness.  I decide that, next year, I’ll take two weeks’ worth of vitamins and minerals, early nights and rest before I come to the Book Fair.

I exit Olympia, take off my badge and throw it into my canvas bag, heavy with books – gifts from publishers.  Books in different languages, which I shall relish reading.

Yes.  It was worth going, after all.

Scribe Doll

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Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

“You can really tell if it’s Byrd or Tallis from the first few bars?”

H. likes some Early and 16th Century music, but is more of a Romantic and 20th Century man.  He likes passion in music.  I like post-white-ruff composers but need serenity and the reassurance that the world makes sense.  So we meet in the middle, at J.S. Bach.

I know that, sooner or later, he will test me.  My eyes dart around the room and I chew on the inside of my cheek.  “Yes,” I finally reply.

It takes six months.  Then, one day, he remembers and pulls out a couple of CDs from the shelf.  I sit on the sofa, ready for my aural exam, somewhat anxious I’m about to fall flat on my face in a sticky puddle of embarrassment.

He plays the first few seconds of eleven separate pieces.

“Byrd.  Byrd.  Tallis.  Byrd.”  I get ten of them right, even though I can’t actually name the pieces.

H. gives me an enquiring look.  I’ve never had to explain it before, and I realise that, as I try, I lack the fundamental music terminology to express my thoughts.  My ears seem to know but the road between them and my mouth hasn’t been built yet.

Thomas Tallis is harder, I start saying.  Like a white light, a moonbeam.  William Byrd is gentler, with copper and gold tones.  Tallis is like white stone – limestone – cool to the touch.  Byrd is like timber – like mahogany – smooth, with a warm red sheen to it.

Then, in Tallis, there’s that straight line, can you hear it? (H. looks at me with good-humoured amusement.)  There’s always that very straight, constant line, like a laser beam, running through the music, and all the rest rises and falls around that constant, ever-present, blindingly white line, whereas in Byrd, it’s like bursts of deep reds, browns, burnt sienna and maybe a hint of forest green.

Tallis is a glorious, glamorous display of music as architecture.  His music bounces off stone fan vaulting and flies across the ether.  Byrd is more intimate, more wistful, a caress.

There is daring and confidence in Tallis.  There is hope in William Byrd.

Scribe Doll

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