Tuesday, 28 September 2010

What’s in a name? If it's Nicky, then a propensity for getting lost

A strange set of conflicting emotions seizes a parent who has lost a child. I mean ‘lost’ in the literal sense, of ‘mislaid’.

On the one hand, there is the feeling of dread that the loss may prove permanent, for which the counterpart is of course the painful hope that it will actually turn out to be temporary; on the other hand, there’s the sense of indignation, if the child indeed turns out to have been temporarily mislaid, that he or she has put you through all that suffering. Needlessly.

The worst of it is that no child is ever responsible for getting lost. It is always the fault of the parents and any other family member present. All those other people may distinctly remember saying ‘we’re going this way – here – through this door – and down that street’; the child who got lost – or rather who the others lost – knows perfectly well that they really said ‘just go that way and we’ll follow along shortly.’

The first child specialist of this kind of phenomenon in my experience was my brother Nicky. Have you ever been to Sveti Stefan? It’s one of those wonderful places like St Michael’s Mount or Mont St Michel (incidentally, those really are two different places, opposite each other across the Channel, though few people know the smaller, English version, in Cornwall). Sveti Stefan is an island off the coast of Montenegro linked to the mainland by a causeway. It has the beauty of its equivalents in the Channel, but far better weather.

My brother got separated from us in a shop on the island. The three of us are convinced to this day that we had told him we were about to leave through the main door, but it’s amazing how one can fall for a communal self-delusion of this kind: it appears we actually told him to leave by the back door, which is what he did.

A couple of hours later, by which time we had given up searching and repaired to a café on the mainland from whose terrace we could keep an eye on the causeway, with the weight mercifully off our feet, a disconsolate but clearly disgruntled figure appeared from the gate of the town and started to trudge angrily across. For a moment that is so deeply seared into my memory, I’m amazed that I can’t remember which of my parents set out towards him, but I know that when they met it was like one of those cosmic catastrophes when galaxies collide, from whose violence the observer is only shielded by distance.

Decades later, Danielle and I had our final son. Now given the history with my brother, you might feel we should have known better, but we decided to call him Nicky too. And blow me down if he didn’t take a leaf out of the book of his uncle and namesake.

One of the three best moments took place in southern Alsace, and we really can’t blame him. I was mercifully spared the pain as I was in England, but Danielle and our middle son Michael were wandering through glorious woods towards a well-known site for visitors, the Dwarves Grotto. Nicky was in a hurry and Danielle gave him permission to go ahead, as long as he faithfully followed the arrows helpfully tacked to trees and rocks along the route.

Unfortunately, unbeknown to her, the routes and their markings had all been changed. The arrows he was following no longer led to the Grotto.

There followed a several hour period of complete panic, and I’m still grateful to Danielle for not having phoned me until it was over. Fire brigade and police came out and as night fell, so did their morale as they began to switch from optimism to grave countenances and serious whispered conversations. Suddenly, however, a couple in a car emerged from a track.

‘Who are you looking for?’ they asked.

They were told.

‘We’ve just seen him!’ they said, ‘but when we tried to talk to him he ran away.’

They turned the car and drove back into the woods, where they quickly found him again near the spot where they’d seen him. Carefully sticking to the injunction not to get into a stranger’s car, he refused to get too close until they told him ‘your mother – Danielle – sent us to fetch you.’

All was well as ended well. Nicky got to climb up into the cab of a fire engine and wear a fireman’s helmet. And Danielle never really got the full urge to strangle him: the worry had been too great and he really hadn’t been to blame.

In the second event, the urge to strangle wasn’t directed at him, but at me. I lost him on a ski slope. He’d wanted to go down a red route, but we were with his cousin who was a beginner and didn’t want to chance anything tougher than a blue one. It looked as though the two would meet at the bottom, so I went down with my nephew and let Nicky take his route on his own.

The routes didn’t meet.

Back in the apartment where we were staying, the atmosphere became increasingly frosty as the night fell. The rescue services refused to act on the grounds that it was still too short a time since Nicky had disappeared. Finally I could take Danielle’s looks, with their threat of imminent divorce, any longer and as much to escape them as in the hope of finding Nicky, I left the flat and set out to walk through the village.

And there on the central square I found him. Very dutifully he had simply stood there, in increasing cold, and refusing the help of any passersby on the grounds that his ‘daddy would soon be along to collect him.’ Very sensible of him. And he was right – though it wasn’t that soon.

But the third moment was entirely of his own doing. Chronologically, it was actually the earliest of the three. He was five. It had taken us hours to find Camber Sands, in Sussex, a lovely beach on the English south coast. We finally got there, hot, irritable and longing for some relaxation.

Nicky was gone in about thirty seconds.

We spent the next two hours wandering up and down the beach asking if anyone had seen a little boy in a yellow tee shirt and red shorts. No-one had.

It turned out that this wasn’t in the least surprising. When we finally did track him down, he was stark naked. All he was wearing was an expression of hurt innocence and surprise at our fury. ‘What on earth,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘are we expected to do, when we’re five years old, and on a beach, but to get rid of our clothes and start enjoying ourselves?’

We never did find the yellow tee shirt or the red shorts.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Drink safer than baggage - official

A sign at Euston Station in North London announces that there were 37 baggage-related accidents last year and 17 drink-related ones.

Am I misunderstanding the way statistics work or does this mean that whenever I get tempted to travel with luggage, I'd do better to leave my bags behind and have a few drinks instead? I'd be safer?

Just curious.

Friday, 24 September 2010

We knew nuttin'...

I was delighted to see an advert today for NatWest Bank’s mortgage services. They proudly claim that clients will be provided with a ‘named adviser’.

Doesn’t it make you wonder how things were before? Were their advisers nameless?

That might have been appropriate. The Financial Crash showed conclusively that the banks had little idea what their people were doing.

Seems perfectly believable that they didn’t even know who they were.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Curious contrasts

Two articles in the press on successive days make great reading and a fascinating contrast.

Yesterday it was the story of the imminent departure of Eric Daniels from the position of Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank, the group which was only rescued from the bankruptcy to which he led it during the recent financial crisis, by a £20 billion bale out by taxpayers.

Today, I read about the funeral service for Eileen ‘Didi’ Nearne. During the war, she was one of the agents Special Operations Executive ran behind enemy lines. Serving in France, she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured by being beaten and having her head held under water (there’s nothing new under the sun, is there, what with water boarding being all the rage today), escaped from Ravensbrück concentration camp, was captured again by the SS, talked her way out again, and was finally hidden by a priest till released by US forces.

From time to time I wonder what I would have done had I been faced, like my father and grandfather, with having to take part in war. My father was an airman who flew single plane missions, for instance dropping supplies to resistance groups in France. He often told me about the sheer loneliness of being up there, the only plane around, in the cold and dark of the night sky, with well-armed enemies below. Would my courage have been up to doing as much? I’d like to think so, but I was never put to the test.

Not that I regret it.

In one respect at least an airman was fortunate. Once he was back from a mission, he was home, surrounded by his friends, in relative safety. He could go to sleep with every expectation of making it through to the morning. Eileen Nearne couldn’t. She worked as a wireless operator from March 1944, and every time she got her equipment running, she must have wondered whether this would be the time the German radio detection service would get her location before she’d finished transmitting, and the Gestapo would come crashing through her door to capture her. That happened in July. She’d only lasted four months, and then the torture started.

Would I have had the guts to do what my father did? I don’t know. Would I have had the guts to do what Eileen Nearne did? Out of the question. I can’t imagine coping with that level of terror.

Could I have coped with the pressure Eric Daniels was under? Without wanting to be boastful, I think I have both the moral and the physical strength to make a complete mess of one our great financial institutions, just as flamboyantly as he did. Paid enough, I could probably develop the gall to go and ask the taxpayer to stump up a fortune to make up for my shortcomings. I could probably find it in me to argue that I’m justified in taking a colossal salary on the grounds that I was taking responsibility for the corporation, where ‘taking responsibility’ means cocking up and asking other people to stump up for me.

Eileen Nearne died penniless and alone.

Eric Daniels will be collecting a pension pot worth £4 million.

I spent some time thinking of a good way to conclude this piece. But what more really needs saying?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Paid more than the Prime Minister. But is it excessive?

The Health Service Journal is the trade rag of for managers in the British National Health Service. So it’s pretty much obligatory reading for anyone like me who’s working with people in that area.

Today I was struck by the headline ‘NHS has 6,500 staff paid more than PM’. Obviously this is intended to be shocking: it's a reversal of the natural order that so many NHS people should be paid more than the British Prime Minister. But surely that depends on what they do for their pay?

Now I know that many of those highly-paid healthcare staff are doctors, who can do some pretty major damage from time to time. Surely, however, no-one could be laying waste about him to quite the same extent as our present Prime Minister, David Cameron? And with such impunity?

After all, when Mahel Goel and John Roberts cut the wrong kidney out of a patient in South Wales in 2000, they faced trial for manslaughter - and though they were cleared of the criminal charge, they still faced disciplinary action by their professional body.

Cuts just as ill-advised are about to be launched by the government shortly. But what action can we take against Cameron? Wouldn't it be nice if we could get him struck off? Sadly, that remains just a dream.

If nothing else, though, we can at least stop getting worried about people being paid more than him. They may be doing less damage. Perhaps the real scandal is that he's still being paid so much.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Travel can be miserable, but it can also sprinkle some smiles

Now that I’m working in London again, I’m getting reacquainted with one of those wonderful big-city customs, commuting on an underground railway.

At the end of the working day, I have to get from Kentish Town to Euston.

So that you can follow the action. Feeling the excitement?

Now follow this carefully: it’s terribly gripping. You see, Euston Station is on both the Bank and the Charing Cross branches of the Northern Line, even though it isn’t at the point where they meet (that, of course, is at Camden Town). That means that I can get either a Charing Cross train or a Bank train.

Am I blessed by the gods or what?

Part of the joy of work in London
But the drama doesn’t stop there. If it’s a Charing Cross train, I have three stops to go – Camden Town, Mornington Crescent and Euston. But if it’s a City train, I only have two – the train doesn’t go through Mornington Crescent. And it’s completely in the laps of gods.

How exciting is that?

Of course, there isn’t a great deal that’s joyful about travelling on the London Tube. Just like the New York Subway or the Paris Metro, it’s noisy, crowded and dirty. People jostle you at the ticket barriers. They behave infuriatingly by pushing past you on the escalators, or they behave unconscionably by getting in your way when you’re trying to get down the escalators quickly. Generally, and I’m no exception, they sit or stand around looking like the embodiment of misery, as though up in there in the light and air, life is sweet, but down here in the growling bowels of London, it’s nasty, brutish and short.

So it’s all the more heartening when you come across the occasional exception.

There was the man who was reading Private Eye, the satirical magazine, and laughing out loud at each new titbit. I haven’t taken a look at Private Eye for years; maybe it’s time to start again.

Then there was the woman who was reading Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant and smiling as she turned the pages. That’s the way to read Pratchett, to bring a little light into a place of darkness and discontent. Especially that book. You don’t know it? Get a copy today. It feels like a child’s adventure story in a magical world, and it works well that way, though I could have done without the chase and fight sequence: Pratchett went through a phase of putting those into one novel after another, and they never work – I can’t follow the description of the blows to this part of the head or that bit of the legs, the leap from the bridge or out of the boat, which villain is crouching in the reeds and which is waiting on the bridge – I can’t picture the scene, and just find myself turning the pages to find out what devilish ploy the protagonist is going to use to get out of trouble at the end.

But a Pratchett novel is far more than an adventure story, and The Fifth Elephant is an incisively insightful presentation of the behaviour of a large minority community with customs that define it and which it protects – see the Jews or the Moslems of our own world. The whole is painted with both love and humour, making for a seductive combination.

There was I thinking that commuting on the tube was just going to be a new chore in an overloaded day. Something to be suffered and got through as best I could. Turns out there are odd moments available even down there in those unpromising surroundings which could make it much more than that.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s these flashes of contact with other people that add spice to any kind of travel. Today I’m about as far from London and the Northern Line as I can be without leaving the Kingdom, and not just geographically – a little market town not far from Edinburgh, where my granddaughter lives (and her parents too).

East Linton, near Edinburgh. A different world
In the queue in the shop this morning, a grandmother pulling coins out of her purse to pay for some buns, commented ‘I hope I’ve got enough money’.

‘Puir granny,’ said her granddaughter.

Grandmother and shop assistant burst into laughter.

‘Och, ne’er you worry about your granny,’ said the shop assistant, ‘she’s got plenty of money.’

Granny spluttered. ‘Don’t you be minding anything your aunty Vee says’ – everyone’s an aunty or an uncle in these warm-hearted little towns – ‘she talks complete rubbish.’

A pleasant change from the London tube. Or is it just the same thing in a different guise?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Welcome to the NHS reform merry-go-round.

When I first began to work in healthcare in England, I got caught up in the so-called ‘Griffiths reforms’ of the mid-eighties which moved responsibility for managing hospitals away from geographical organisations known as Health Authorities and to the hospitals themselves.

Within a couple of years, the transformation was complete. Acute (short-stay) hospitals were more or less responsible for their own destiny, with other services run by just under 200 District Health Authorities, each responsible for about 250,000 patients.

Although this measure had been brought in by the administration of Mrs Thatcher, the government (which meant her) decided a while later that reform hadn’t gone far enough. So it introduced the concept of GP (General Practitioner) fundholding, which meant that GPs – or at any rate GP practices – or at least some of them – would hold the funds that paid for hospital care and purchase services from them.

This led to a reversal of the ‘Christmas Card test’. Up to that time, generalists would send hospital doctors a Christmas card each year in the hope that they would remember the gesture when it came to choosing which GP’s patients to treat first. After the introduction of GP fundholding, the traffic was reversed, with hospital doctors sending GPs Christmas Cards in the hope that they would remember them when it came to referring patients for acute care.

One of the benefits of the system was that GPs could provide some of the services themselves, such as minor surgery, so they could divert some of the funds they were receiving to pay for such care, into their own practices.

I’m sorry, I mean of course that it gave them an opportunity to provide services more efficiently on behalf of their patients.

When Labour got into power in 1997, they moved to put an end to this system. It was costing too much and favouring certain patients over others: those who had a fundholding GP could expect preferential treatment, and certain GP practices simply didn’t have the means to set themselves up as fundholders. So instead we got Primary Care Trusts (PCTs; originally they were Boards but soon they became Trusts – that’s how exciting the blistering pace of reform became.) There were about 300 of them, covering over 150,000 patients each.

To compensate GPs for the loss of earnings from fundholding – sorry, to make up for the loss of a means to help improve healthcare delivery – the government put in place nice new contracts that guaranteed them a fair remuneration, of about five times the earnings of ordinary mortals. Nothing to worry a banker, who makes us much in a year as a normal man in 50, or 100, or sometimes even 200, but nonetheless nothing to be sneezed at.

Then the government decided that there were too many PCTs, so in 2006 they brought the number down to 150 covering some 300,000 patients each.

Now of course we have an exciting new government that wants to do things differently. It wants to get back to GPs calling the shots in acute hospital care. I’ve heard it said that this may not be unrelated to the fact that the wife of the present Minister is a GP herself, but you can imagine how shocked I am that anyone should utter a thought so cynical.

The beauty of putting the GPs back in the driving seat is that it’ll make decisions much more local, much closer to the people affected. Obviously, you can’t get right down to the most local level of all – a single GP. I mean, how do you manage things like major organ transplants at the level of the individual generalist? In some years, he or she might not order a single one. To be honest, even one practice may be a bit too small. It looks like we’re going to have to work at the level of consortia of practices.

In fact, the government thinks we could probably work with about 500 Consortia covering 100,000 patients each, although the British Medical Association has announced that to get the proper coverage, we’re going to need about 100 Consortia, each handling about 500,000 patients. Obviously, in the BMA’s approach it’s hard to see just how the much-vaunted localism will be achieved.

We’ll probably end up compromising on about 200, rather like the number of District Health Authorities and somewhere between the first number of PCTs and the final number.

It’s great how these things keep going round and round. It gives the old hands like me a sense of familiarity, a sense that we recognise the landscape. Again.

The thing to admire in all this coming and going is the consistency. Through all these reforms, there have run some unvarying golden threads:
  • Each is designed to do away with the obscene inefficiency of the previous system, and to deliver better care at lower cost
  • Each of them costs a fortune to implement
  • Each of them has been deemed a complete waste of money by the next lot, even when the next lot is just the same lot following a change of mind.
  • The next initiative is designed to usher in a golden age of better care for less money.
A couple of other constants is that no managerial staff ever get the chance to see any initiative fully-implemented, and most of them turn up in the next embodiment of the NHS in much the same role or perhaps with a small promotion.

The doctors, of course, always end up with a smile on their faces. And aren't smiley faces just what we expect in a fairground?

Monday, 13 September 2010


Approaching speed bumps as I drove into a car park the other day, I was struck by a sign reading:


Why do people write such rubbish on signs? The ramp (and why do we call a bump a ramp anyway?) was clearly not slow, it was firmly fixed to the road, just as it should be.

On the other hand, I had no trouble believing another sign on the way home, ‘Slow men at work’. As often as not, the men don’t seem just slow, they’re quite simply absent. However, when they're there at all, ‘slow’ does seem to sum things up pretty accurately.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The end of redundancy

Sometimes it may seem worrying that one feels ambivalent about so many things. However, when you think that nothing is usually either wholly good or wholly bad, ambivalence seems only natural.

I’ve now completed two days in a new job. Since it’s in London and it’s going to be a while before we can move, I’m having to do an hour and twenty minutes each way by train, plus travelling at each end. As I want to walk the dog before I go, I have to be up at 5:00 to be sure to catch the 6:53 train. After two years of living a five-minute car ride or eight-minute cycle ride from work, this represents something of a shock to the system.

That’s the downside of finding work again.

The upside is no longer being unemployed. It’s strange how bad I felt about being out of work. Funnily enough, it was when walking the dog that I found it most painful. Frequently, I’d meet people out with their own dogs. If it was early, I’d realise they were getting the walking done before going to work, which gave me an unpleasant sense of exclusion from the world of gainful employment. If it was late, and I got a pleasant greeting from the pensioners, housewives or househusbands, I felt bad about being among them with no legitimate reason.

Either way, I felt bad about it. The luxury of time off was spoiled by the feelings that go with redundancy. After all, ‘redundant’ seems such an awful expression: it suggests that you were surplus to requirements, which doesn’t do a lot for your self-esteem.

Now of course I meet dog walkers at half past five in the morning, and get the warm glow of shared solidarity between people who are not just working but having to get out there on a limb in order to do their work. You know, the kind of insufferable types whose very behaviour seems to be saying ‘I really have to earn my salary. What about you?’

At core, my problem was all to do with the difference between heart and mind. In my mind, I was sure I wouldn’t be out of work long. Unfortunately, I had no idea where a new job was going to come from, so my heart was frequently subject to attacks of anxiety – even, occasionally, at 2:00 in the morning, of panic.

In my heart, I felt terrible about having been regarded as dispensable. In my mind, of course, I’ve always known that no-one in a company is indispensable, that I was no more essential than anyone else. I knew too that being made redundant wasn’t my fault, but simply the response to a financial problem. In fact, the wrong response, as it happens, in my not particularly humble view.

But in my heart I knew that perhaps I was at least in part to blame. ‘Telling the truth to power’ is always presented as a virtue – I remember an episode of The West Wing when one character asks another, ‘do you have what it takes to tell the truth to power?’ Well, I’ve always gone out of my way to tell the truth to power. The trouble arises when power doesn’t agree that what you’re saying is the truth, or recognises the truth but just feels uncomfortable about it. In which case insisting on your point of view, as I do, doesn’t make you courageous or principled, just a pain in the backside. The kind of irritation that power would far rather be shot of.

Teach me to believe anything I hear in a soap.

Anyway, feeling that perhaps I’d brought my own misfortune on my own head didn’t make me feel any better about it.

You can be absolutely sure that getting up at five and travelling four hours a day is a small price to be free of all that.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A journey - to Casablanca?

Walking past Waterstone’s bookshop yesterday I noticed that our exciting recent literary phenomenon, Tony Blair’s A Journey, was on offer at half price.

Nothing expresses my reaction better than an exchange from that classic film Casablanca. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is listening to Ugarte (Peter Lorre) trying to justify selling an exit visa to refugees who can’t afford to pay the price charged by the chief of police, Renault (Claude Raines):

Ugarte: Rick, think of all the poor devils who can’t meet Renault’s price. I get it for them for half. Is that so… parasitic?

Rick: I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut rate one.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Love the bookburners as thyself

Don’t you just love Pastor Terry Jones? He’s the ‘Christian’ minister from Florida who’s organised a Koran-burning session on 11 September. This is because nine years ago on that day a few dozen people, out of the billion and a half to whom the Koran is sacred, mounted their terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

You’d think that a Christian Minister would have read as far as the Gospel of St Matthew (it’s the first), though maybe he never made it as far as chapter 7, verse 12, where we’re told to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I’m not sure how this fits in with burning other peoples’ holy book.

In any case, it isn’t clear to me that book-burning has a particularly attractive track record. Some fairly unappetising people have engaged in it.

Book burning: not the best of track records (Berlin, 10 May 1933)
Of course, I suppose that all I’m doing is accusing him of double standards. But then all of us have double standards, don’t we? I know I do. For example, I’m a strong believer in tolerance towards religions and their spokespeople. But when I come across someone like Pastor Terry Jones, I start to feel an irresistible urge to put a stake in the ground and start piling brushwood around it.

Anyone got a match?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Never give up on distant friends

There was a time when people were born, grew up, lived and died in the same place. I remember Rabbi Hugo Gryn telling the story of a Jew who’d been born in Austria-Hungary, gone to school in the Ukraine and university in Poland, been persecuted in Germany, and lived out the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. ‘He moved around a lot,’ a journalist commented. ‘No – spent his whole life in the same village,’ came the reply.

Well, these days few of us stay still that long. We go from place to place doing either the same thing or, at best, the next: from one level of education to the next, one job to the next or one spouse to the next. The latter, by the way, is often curious to watch: it generally bears out Oscar Wilde’s view that a second marriage demonstrates the triumph of optimism over experience (for the record, my wife is an optimist, while I’m perfectly satisfied with the experience). Down the years, I’ve moved through a series of homes in wearying succession. My grandmother once told me I’d completely filled the pages for one letter in her address book.

Generally, those who do move around this way don’t usually do it by choice. We live like corks among the waves, buffeted first from one side and then from the other. One aspect of this existence which seems particularly sad is the way we make friends, grow close to them, and then have to part again. Recently, though, I’ve decided that it’s far less sad than I thought.

In the first place, there’s a pleasure that doesn’t fade in remembering times spent with friends. A statement on the lines of ‘Do you remember when we got stuck in the snow with Alice and George?’ usually leads to something much more enjoyable than the original experience itself. There are also incidents which were pleasurable both at the time and in recollection. While we were living in Germany, we were introduced for the first time to the celebration of the Chinese New Year – twice with a Chinese friend who will no doubt head back to China in time, and on three other occasions with friends who turned up at our place to prepare a meal for us, and who are now back in Singapore.

But there aren’t just pleasures of memory. Because ultimately friendship is about contact with someone, today, not just in the past. And that matters not just because it’s a pleasure, but because it’s an expression of what matters most in life: a link to others.

Friendship gives links that last. I say links deliberately, because bonds are something else: they bind, they tie us. That can be a source of just as much happiness – if you’re lucky, bonds with your family are invaluable, if you’re unlucky they’re murder (if Sartre was right and hell is other people, surely it’s at its most hellish with bitter relatives). So the friend you haven’t heard from for years remains a friend for all that: we saw a friend some months ago for the first time in seventeen years, and only a few months before her death. The real tragedy would have been to have missed the chance to see her again, and we’re both delighted to be in touch again with her widower.

We were able to see her again because the Internet brought us back together. It’s fashionable to knock contact via the Internet, but to me it’s a tremendous tool to maintain old relationships. We’ll exchange messages with a friend several times in a couple of weeks, and then perhaps won’t hear from them again for several months, but it’s wonderful to know that the exchange can happen again. It can even maintain a new kind of friendship: I had a message the other day from a friend, now in Shanghai, whom I’ve never met; Danielle corresponds regularly with a friend in Minnesota she’s never met.

Then one day someone will write and say ‘I can come and see you on such and such a day’, or you can say ‘I’ll be with you in two weeks.’ Soon you see a smile coming towards you at an airport or a station and a burst of recognition, not just of the person, but of the joy you had in being with them.

And the most amazing thing? With a good friend, at least, it’s as though you’d never been apart. You pick up the conversation as though it had been interrupted only minutes before. I’d like to say that it’s as pleasurable as slipping into a jacket that you love for its familiarity, except that’s only half of the feeling, because familiarity is comforting but not uplifting. The other half is the feeling you get when you hear a burst of music that you’d loved as a child, and you sense again the well-being it gave you then. Well-being isn’t so common that we should ignore any chance to experience it.

So keep in touch with your friends, however distant they may be. You never know when paths can cross again. And you must know as well as I do what a magical moment it is when they do.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Italians

In a couple of weeks I’m due to sit an exam for a position as a translator for the EU. I have mixed feelings about the prospect. I’ve done translation work for years, but almost entirely out of French. The EU requires at least two languages of member states. Now German, alongside French, would probably open more doors, but Italian, the language of my country of birth, just comes more naturally to me. I had to offer it, if only so as to play to my strongest suit.

That leaves me with two problems to overcome.

The first is my approach to translation itself. My philosophy is to ask ‘what would a mother-tongue English speaker have said in the circumstances?’ This has proved an interesting task on occasions, as I’ve tried to express myself as an Anglophone psychiatrist or histopathologist might. This has led to exciting challenges since I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a histopathologist.

Now some people really like this approach (I once had a French computer scientist I’d translated telling me ‘I really like my written English style’). Others think it’s a real cheek on my part. They want their words, expressed their way, as far as English allows. I was turned down for a translator’s job on the grounds that my translations were too literary, which I think means that they weren’t literal enough (amusing distinction since both words have the same root).

The second problem is that it’s been years since I’ve translated out of Italian. Perhaps that doesn’t matter a lot. The crucial language is the target. I have sometimes worked into French, a language I thought I’d mastered, but the results were frankly sad. To adapt my principle of translation, I was expressing myself in French just as a mother-tongue English speaker would.

The source language you just need to understand. So what I have to do is get myself working and thinking in Italian a bit more – not something I’ve ever completely stopped doing, as I regard La Repubblica as one of the best newspapers out there, on a par with The Guardian. Of course, Berlusconi can’t stand La Repubblica which counts for an awful lot in my book.

Still, I think I need to read a lot more Italian over the next two weeks. In a Waterstone’s the other day, I saw a couple of books of Italian short stories with English facing translation. Ideal: good Italian writing with good translations from which I can clear up any vocabulary problems I may have, as well as pick up some clever translation hints (or will they be too literary?)

Anyway, I’ve been reading these stories with fascination. I’ve just been through three that were set in the years leading up to the Second World War or during the War itself. One by Elio Vittorini describes how he became a writer during the Fascist period. When his first novel appeared – the Fascists were less effective censors than the Nazis – he was hauled up in front of the Milan committee and threatened with expulsion from the Party, to which he replied that unfortunately they couldn’t expel him, since he’d already been expelled by the Fascists in Florence. The Florentine lot had made him pay a lot of money, to bring his subscriptions to the party up to date, since he hadn’t paid any since being forced to join while at school. Once he was paid up, they expelled him.

In Milan the Fascist leader ended up apologising to him, and pointing out that since he couldn’t expel him, there was no further action he could take.

Much sadder was the story by Mario Rigoni-Stern about fighting in Russia on 26 January 1943. Ten years to the day before my birth, making the story all the more poignant for me. It was curious to read a first-person narrative from someone who’d been fighting alongside the Germans, but the real impact was the ending: ‘That was January 26th, 1943. I parted with my dearest friends that day.’

I have to say that I would have translated ‘I miei piú cari amici mi hanno lasciato in quel giorno’ as ‘My dearest friends left me that day’, which is odd, because I’m preferring the literal to the literary, or perhaps saying they’re the same in this instance. Just me thinking I know best again, I suppose. Could cost me marks in the test.

Finally, I read a story by Beppe Fenoglio about a partisan group taking on a Fascist detachment. It wonderfully evokes the infinitely frustrating, and frightening, experience of fighting a much bigger and far better armed enemy, where landing any blow is a victory.

That reminded me of one of the finest moments in the Italian partisan war, the liberation of Genoa. The city showed extraordinary courage throughout the war. Towards the end, the Germans laid mines throughout the port so that they could blow it up when they left. The dockworkers would watch them during the day and sneak back at night, at peril of their lives, to remove the mines.

As for the partisans themselves, they were growing in numbers and confidence in the hills nearby. Eventually, they invested the city with such dynamism that on occasions they seized German artillery positions and turned the guns on the fleeing enemy.

The Allies made it to the City a few days after the partisans had liberated it. The American General commanding the troops met a British agent from the Special Operations Executive who had been fighting with the partisans. The American asked him to interpret for him.

They met the Mayor and the General asked the Englishman to say that he was proud to have been able to liberate the city which he was delighted to hand back to the Mayor’s civilian control. When the Englishman hesitated, the American asked him ‘what’s the matter? Can’t you translate that?’

Just at that moment there was a noise from the street outside, and they went over to the window. Winding down the middle of the road, between ranks of jeering Italian civilians, was an apparently endless column of German prisoners guarded by a handful of partisans. The men in the Mayor’s office watched for a few moments and the General turned to the Englishman.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘I understand your problem now. Tell him I congratulate him on having liberated his city and I’m proud to count myself among his allies.’

A happy ending. Not one I expect in two weeks time. I’ll be chasing one of 20 posts from a field of 200 candidates or more, the vast majority of whom will certainly be at least as well qualified as I am.

At least the process will have got me reading some interesting material that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across, and reminding me how much I like Italy and the Italians. Despite all that Berlusconi does to spoil their charm.