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

Freelance 

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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Fifty

One finger for every pie.

One colour for every intention.

The first thought that flashed through my head when I saw the gloves.  I was in a Norwich shop called ‘Head in the Clouds’ – apparently, UK’s oldest head shop.  I didn’t know what a head shop was, until a friend explained it to me, a few weeks ago.  Knitted gloves with garish stripes, like a Naïve rainbow.  I want these gloves.

When I was twenty-five, I wore black leather gloves with tiny golden clasps on the wrists.  So fine, I could fumble for small change in my purse without taking them off.  In those days, I would ensure that my shoes, handbag and gloves matched.  Never one brown, the others black.  I would never, ever have worn anything so loud and garish, so look-at-me.

I decide to buy the gloves as a fiftieth birthday present to me from my twenty-five-year-old self.  The self that wishes she had been less afraid, had had the courage to be herself, and live, instead of spending the next quarter of a century only dreaming, planning, rehearsing.

When I bring them home, I notice that they give off a slightly overpowering, heady scent.  It’s what you always seem to smell in crystal and New Age shops.  I think it’s sandalwood.  I lift them up to H.’s face.  He immediately retreats with a snort.  “Camden Town, 1971.”

I call the shop and ask what the scent is.  The sales assistant is enthusiastic.  “Oh, it’s Nag Champa.  It’s very popular – we have three different kinds.  Next time you come in…”

As politely as I can, I explain that I don’t actually like the smell – but reassure her that I’m not complaining but merely enquiring.  Just curiosity, that’s all.

I make a mental note to fumigate the gloves in frankincense when I am next burning some.

Rainbow gloves with red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and purple stripes.  Red thumbs, orange index fingers, yellow middle fingers, green ring fingers, turquoise little fingers.  Gloves not afraid to be noticed – and they invariably are noticed and commented on when I go shopping, see friends or stop off for coffee.  A friend says they particularly stand out in contrast with the rest of my – conservative – appearance.

Bright, bold colours to empower my hands, to endow them with creativity and courage.  A finger for every intention on my fiftieth birthday.

Red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise.

This finger for writing.

This finger for music.

This finger for drawing.

This finger for translating.

And the little finger for… for discovering new skills.

Both hands for receiving and accepting gifts.

I’ve done my preparing, my growing up, my sowing.

The time has come for doing, for living, for reaping.  For enjoying.

Half a century.  Wow.  Fifty years young.

As Georges Guétary says in An American in Paris, I am now “old enough to know what to do with my young feelings”.

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Scribe Doll

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Baucis and Philemon

P. and T. kiss in public.  A swift, light peck on the lips, so full of tenderness and respect.  T. squeezes P.’s hand and he holds it, drawing strength from its warmth and reassurance.  I watch them in awe.  They are a handsome couple.  Tall, slim, with undeniable presence.  There is something unique about them.  A beauty I can’t put my finger on.  A quality of being fully alert, fully in the present, fully alive.  The beauty of survivors, of those who have grown a garden full of flowers despite life’s storms and gales. A silvery glow surrounds them.  Silver dust particles float in the air and gently land on you if you come close enough.

At T.’s eightieth birthday party, the many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren she and P. share have erected a marquee in the garden, because the house isn’t large enough to accommodate all those who have travelled to join in the celebrations.  There’s a jazz band.  The place is heaving with friends and relatives of all ages.  These aren’t just guests.  They’re individuals whose lives have been in some way or other touched by P. or T., or both.  A friend comes up to me, who has known T. and P. for several decades.  “They truly enrich other people’s lives,” she says.  I agree.

All of us there have a speck of silver dust embedded in our skin.

P. has an authoritative yet velvety storyteller’s voice that changes fluidly from North American to English.  I love listening to him reading poetry on the radio.  I also love sitting at their massive, round, pale wood kitchen table, sipping whisky and listening to him explaining life, death and the universe according to Samuel Beckett.  His lean face is lined with furrows life has filled with passion for words, ideas and, of course, the theatre.

We are sitting in the lounge, by the fireplace, P.’s blue-green eyes light up and he gets carried away expressing his admiration for Tennessee Williams.  He has forgotten that there’s a bowl of olives in his hand, and that it’s slowly tilting.  T. comes out of the kitchen.  She presses her lips together.  “P.!!” she finally snaps with loving frustration.  He rushes to his feet, his bushy eyebrows raised, and begins to pass around the olives.

When we go to stay with them, I feel as though I’ve come home from home.  Digging into the heartiest, richest, most comforting cauliflower and cheese you’ve ever tasted, w give T. our various bits of news.  To everything I say, she reacts with intensity.  Her surprise is genuine, her shock outraged, her sympathy deep-felt, her delight joyful, her excitement passionate, and her laugh like a gurgling spring that rises from the depths of the earth.  There is an impish twinkle in her dark brown eyes.

T. and P.’s friendship is not a static feeling, it is an action that carries, depending on the need, hugs, advice or weapons to defend you.  If they wrap you in their friendship, then they don’t merely stand and watch your life but take part in it.  For them, to love is to get involved, and not be a dispassionate bystander.  They will nurture you, and fight for you. They are the kind of friends you know it is an indescribable privilege to have in your life.  A glow with silver particles that land on your skin, and become embedded in it.

Scribe Doll

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Crawling Slowly Out of the Dungeon

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

You just want some rest. 

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

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

You just want some rest.

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

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

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

You just want some rest.

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

You just want some rest!

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

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

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

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

Scribe Doll

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On a Train from Norwich to Cambridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scribe Doll

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