The state of UK Public Service Interpreting for the uninitiated

A barrister, a police officer and an interpreter walk into a Crown Court. 

If this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, it’s because it is.  

The barrister and the police officer whip out their phones, flash their QR codes and are whisked through security, no questions asked. 

The interpreter puts her bag onto a tray, is asked to empty the entire contents of the bag, and to open every zip pocket of her wallet and her make up bag. Her lanyard with the National Register of Public Service Interpreter badge lies crumpled among her belongings, making no difference to the security procedure. 

Monday mornings are particularly testing when fresh cohorts of jury members descend on Crown Courts all at the same time, as per their jury summons letter, which means queues of upwards of 40 minutes are not uncommon. 

Once past security, the interpreter is reunited with the barrister, who has been patiently waiting for her, so they could go to the cells and have a pre-court conference with their client, which they are unable to do without interpreter’s assistance. 

Three highly skilled professionals whose attendance is fundamental to the running of court proceedings, and yet only two of them are treated as such. 

The Crown Court doorstep scenario can be dismissed as a minor inconvenience,  but it is symptomatic of the current  state of public service interpreting profession.    

Public service interpreters play a crucial role in the functioning of UK public services. The police, the NHS, Children Services, Housing Associations, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the DWP, the HMRC, and many others rely heavily on the competences of public service interpreters in their day-to-day business. 

Public service interpreting (PSI) attracts some of the most experienced, highly qualified language professionals in the country.  

What is the attraction? Good question. 

Answers vary. The job is challenging, keeping the interpreter on their intellectual toes, no two days are ever the same, and the feeling of ‘making a difference’ to people’s lives has no price tag. PSI allows interpreters to gain insights into a vast range of specialisms. Given time, we become second hand experts in pretty much everything, from the role of diatoms in murder scene forensics to post tibial transfer physiotherapy, from colonoscopy bowel prep to aggravated burglary sentencing guidelines, which makes us infuriating know-it-all to friends and family. 

So far so incredibly rewarding, isn’t it? You might even be tempted to feel a pang of jealousy. Don’t be.

At the time of writing, PSI is hardly a profession at all. It’s an unregulated industry, a free for all, anything goes chaotic madhouse, a trapeze act with no safety net, a chancers’ paradise and what frequently follows, a recipe for disaster for vulnerable non-English speaking service users. 

Interpreters in the UK do not enjoy the legal protection of title, which means that unlike doctors, nurses, midwives, barristers, social workers, chiropodists, or architects, to name a few, anybody can call themselves an interpreter, if they so wish. 

This leaves  the doors to abuse of title wide open to anybody who believes they have good enough skills to act as an interpreter. After all, as long as you are fluent in another language, how hard can it be. 

Registered professions, which enjoy the legal protection of title require their practitioners to be registered with their respective Councils in order to be allowed to practise.  The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), for example, is the independent regulator for nurses, midwives and nursing associates in the UK. The registration with the NMC is the condition of practice.

No equivalent exists for public service interpreters.

What does exist is the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). To an untrained eye, the name sounds like this entity would a good candidate to fulfil the same function for interpreters that the NMC does for nurses and midwives. Unfortunately, at the moment, it has no regulatory powers. The best qualified, most experienced interpreters are encouraged to register with the NRPSI, but a lot of them choose not to, as they do not see any quantifiable advantages of spending the annual membership fee. The NRPSI membership is a professional status symbol, but unfortunately not much else at present, as the membership is not a requirement to work for any of the major PSI clients, such as the NHS, the courts, and the police. Several cash-strapped interpreters see it as a vanity badge that they can ill afford in the current economic climate.

As things stand, at the moment, there is nothing stopping an unqualified, inexperienced, unvetted person, whose only credential is fluency in another language, to accompany a vulnerable non-English speaker to a medical appointment, and act as their interpreter. The overworked NHS staff are only too happy to see that their patient has brought their own ‘interpreter’, which means one less thing for them to arrange.

This opens a Pandora’s box of potentially nasty consequences. 

Firstly, there is an issue of a code of practice. An unregistered interpreter does not have a code to adhere to. Professional interpreting fundamentals, such as confidentiality, impartiality and performing to the best of one’s skills and ability do not apply to cowboy interpreters. 

Second on the long list of issues in the world of unregulated PSI is lack of accountability. In the absence of an entity to impose legally enforceable sanctions, serious errors, omissions, and inaccuracies, which would amount to gross misconduct in a robustly regulated professions, go unpunished. 

Anecdotes of incompetent interpreters doing their worst have circulated among practitioners for years. 

I would like to share here a couple of examples I personally witnessed, to give a flavour of what can happen. 

Example one. Police custody suite booking in procedure. An officer goes through a set of routine questions with a detainee, an interpreter is present.  

The officer asks whether the detainee would like to see a duty solicitor. Unbelievably, the interpreter renders ‘duty solicitor’ as ‘deputy solicitor’, which the detainee is not impressed with, and loses his temper, shouts that he knows his rights, and he is entitled to see a proper solicitor, not a deputy, and what the effing eff  is a deputy solicitor anyway. An interpreter’s embarrassing mistake causes a routine situation to escalate unnecessarily. I can only assume that the interpreter was unfamiliar with the term duty solicitor and misheard it as deputy. Oops. How on earth did she convince an interpreting agency that she was good enough to interpret for the police? Another oops.  

Example two. Physiotherapy consultation. The therapist informs the patient that she suffers from hyper-extension in her knee. The interpreter renders hyperextension as hypertension in the patient’s language, and ‘helpfully’ adds her own explanation to the patient, that hypertension means high blood pressure. The patient is very confused, and more than a little worried about what is wrong with her. Oops. 

Harm caused by incompetent, unaccountable interpreters is often more insidious than in our two ‘oops’ stories. Interpreters who undertake tasks above their skill level have been known to go to great lengths to cover up their professional deficiencies by making things up as they go along, interpreting what they think they hear rather than what is being said. They do not ask for clarification or repetition, for fear of appearing exactly what they are, incompetent. 

More often than the public has the right to expect, poor interpreting effort resembles the practice we have all indulged in on occasion, of singing the wrong lyrics to hit songs, until we realise, with a tinge of awkwardness that the Rolling Stones did not in fact sing “I’ll never leave your pizza burning”. 

Oops. A bit of a laugh, no harm done. Unlike the interpreters mishearing what service providers are saying and running with it even after they realise their mistake.

Public service interpreting desperately needs a robust legal framework, within which interpreters will become accountable for their professional conduct. It needs protection of title with all its consequences. Will I see this within my interpreting career lifespan? I sincerely hope so, although as I am planning to retire within the next few years, so I am not holding my breath. 

Hamlet at Southwark Playhouse

This review contains spoilers, but it does not matter, because I went to see it on the last day of its run, so if you haven’t seen it, you are not going to, and you might have heard already that everybody dies anyway. 

Horatio survives. The guy who made it, albeit between the commas, into the famous line ‘there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

What did you miss? 

You missed an unusual production of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Please note, unusual is not used here as a synonym for ‘interesting’, this ruthless one word condemnation of anything. 

You missed the shortest meaningful production of Hamlet you are likely to see. Meaningful is important, because I am vaguely aware of a past project by Reduced Shakespeare company, which squeezed 37 plays into 97 minutes, but we can probably safely agree that that was just nonsense. 

Southwark Playhouse Hamlet was 90 minutes, which was one of the reasons why I was attracted to the proposition of seeing it. Even if it were very very bad, it would be over in an hour and a half, and I could handle that.

It was not very very bad, but it could have been better.  

I did not come to it completely unprepared. In fact, I am going to come clean. I bought the tickets because a week earlier, my 17 year old daughter saw it with her school. They are ‘doing’ Hamlet as part of their English literature course, so it made sense. She gave it a raving gushing five star review, could not praise it enough, she was in love with the production, and everything and everybody in it. She also said that she would have loved to talk to me about it again after I had seen it. So I went. 

Highlights and lowlights.

All the actors are ridiculously young. So much so, that you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into a school production. Mercifully, it became apparent that it was not a school production as soon as Hamlet spoke. He was good. He was very good, especially when he got angry and mad, somewhere in the middle, and from then on he was pure pleasure. His to be or not to be felt a bit rushed, but then again, everything did, as there was only an hour and a half to play with. 

Laertes and Horatio were very good too. So was the actress from the troupe of players, who recited the Pyrrhus and Priam monologue. 

The ghost scenes were a little too shouty for my liking, and the light beams from the torches revealed a disturbing amount of dust particles in the air. If I were asthmatic, I would be reaching for my inhaler. 

Ophelia did not cut it for me. I also felt that her walk to the actual toilets at the venue to kill herself, which we watched on TV screens with ominous music in the background, took an unnecessary long time, especially as time was at a premium. We knew by then the only thing left for her to do was to kill herself, so the gunshot could have come quicker. 

The condensed form of the production required that big chunks of the text be removed, and this meant that the play descended into a recitation of most famous sound-bites at times.

To the manner born, frailty thy name is woman, the rest is silence, get thee to a nunnery, were all there, but it felt that without the broader context in which they are usually delivered, they lost a large part of their emotional impact and lyrical beauty.  

The three characters who disappointed  the most, were Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius, simply because of their absence. Only the young generation of characters made it into the cast. It worked well to an extent, but I did miss some deleted parts, such as exchanges between Hamlet and his mother. 

I felt Polonius, in particular, was robbed of his role. His character has a few powerful lines, and if nothing else, his brevity is the soul of wit ditty would have served as a fitting motto of the show.   

Overall, I am glad I went, it was an ‘experience’, but next time I might be more careful to part with my time and money entirely on the strength of my teenage daughter’s enthusiasm. 

Avatar: The Way of Water Review


3.30pm start time. I spent the whole morning carefully preparing for the mind-boggling, no pause button available, 192 minutes plus adverts plus trailers, cinematic experience. I stopped consuming liquids from 12pm just in  case. 

Next, I completed a risk assessment questionnaire on the NHS website in
relation to deep vein thrombosis. My score was reassuringly low, so off to my lovely local Everyman I went. 

Science-fiction and fantasy are not my genre of choice, but I loved the first Avatar’s visuals, and was looking forward to the sequel being equally picturesque. 

Aesthetically, it certainly delivered. Every law of physics-defying forest was as magical as the first time round. The creatures’ faces as mesmerising. Am I allowed to call them creatures, or does this make me alienist? 

The blue guys were now joined by the pale green water guys. Not straight away, mind you, the introduction and setting the scene took roughly an hour. 

‘The Way of Water’. There certainly was a lot of water. James Cameron’s fascination
with slow-sinking ships was strong with this one. Some third hour scenes looked lifted in their entirety from the third hour of Titanic, where random items kept sliding down at an angle and people scrambled up, being occasionally hit and crushed to death by heavy boxes and metal poles. 

Kate Winslet. A good chunk of the film’s generous running time was taken up
by me guessing which character she played, as none of the blue or gree creatures made me scream, OMG, that’s Kate Winslet! Her disguise was complete, the coquille St Jacques, which featured prominently on her
forehead, did not aid immediate recognition. 

I always wondered what actors got out from accepting roles which required them to look nothing like themselves. Watching flat-faced, giant-eyed, elf-eared Kate with loosely Māori style facial tattoo did not bring me closer to
resolving the issue. 

Other characters given alien makeover, especially the baddies, all vaguely
resembled a slew of square-jawed, thick-necked American actors, but I failed to
make a positive identification of any of them. 

Emotional moments, there were a few, but each one too predictable, too deeply ingrained in a depository of Hollywood cliches to deliver effective punches. The sheer length of time I spent rooting for the main guys meant that by the end of the story it did feel like I was a part of their blue-green
family, but by the time credit rolled, and I picked up my coat and scarf from the seat, their colours began to fade in my mind. 

The eco message, I am sure there was one, and I am sure it was profound, and sad, and we should all step back and treasure our beautiful planet much more than we do, but honestly, after 192 minutes, I could not be asked to think about that.

If you thought this review dragged on a bit, just think how the real thing
must have felt. 

January blues of a language lover

Scraps of languages battle for attention on the backburner of my brain.

Night and day, day and night, evenings too. 

English, Polish, Russian, French, and Spanish compete in the premier league, although I can no longer deny that Spanish is under constant threat of relegation. 

Every so often, I test myself whether zashchishchayushchihsya still flows effortlessly from my lips, or whether I can say ninety-eight in French without the maths getting in the way. Spanish has been the weakest link in my claim to polyglotism, but I remain positive that it could be salvaged by an extended holiday to a Castilian speaking region. 

French, with its hard-earned reputation for mocking even the most dedicated attempts at mastering its nuanced perfection, has granted me no special treatment in this respect. If that was not bad enough, the language of love has been in cahoots with that petit hibou vert, if you know what I mean. The two of them gang up on me when I least expect it. Still, I stay loyal; the pull of its beauty, c’est incroyable.    

Polish was where it all began, but the way I speak it now sounds out of sync with the 21st century version spoken in Poland. If the RSPCA specialised in rescuing languages from their neglectful owners, my battered and bruised Polish would be taken away from me, and I would be fined for cruelty against my native tongue.  My guilt is undisputed; my sin one of sloppiness, which oft befalls long-term emigres and is exemplified by peppering one’s speech with lazy English words where a perfectly functionable native language equivalent exists. I take shameless advantage of the fact that English seems to have a neat one word term for just about everything, where Polish needs three or more.

English. I have taken it for granted for an audaciously long time. I am not proud of it, but I have treated English like long-time married couples treat each other, the way they take for granted their morning coffees, until one day, the husband oversleeps, the wife can’t be asked, or they’ve run out of milk. After a while, I put an effort into rekindling the romance and I remind myself of the early days, when I was giddy on Shakespeare and Dickens, Joyce and Donne, and a myriad other clichéd golden oldies; the days when I used to get legally high by simply chanting ‘his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead‘.  

Out of curiosity, how has your relationship with spoken words been? Written, too, for that matter?  

Murder Trial For Beginners

An Interpreter’s Story

Pure evil is rare. So, when it brushes against us, it is chilling. 

I spent the last four weeks sitting next to a convicted murderer who had brutally killed two people in the past and was now on trial for a senseless killing of a 63-year-old man. 

Why would I do that? I am a court interpreter.  The murderer was a foreign national with broken English, and was entitled to an interpreter. 

I used to see murder trials as a real scoop. Murder focused the mind of all professionals working on it, including court axillary staff. I got to work with some of the best criminal barristers in the country, a pair on each side, usually a QC and a so-called junior, which was no indication of age. Work was guaranteed for several weeks, always a pleasure for a self-employed interpreter competing for jobs with several others. 

There was always something fascinating to learn from the pathologists and other experts. Science had never been my strong point, so there was a lot to learn each time. Did you know for instance, that a lot of the time even the most renowned Home Office pathologists are only able to offer a diagnosis by exclusion to the jury and their only confident conclusion is that the exact cause of death could not be ascertained? Or that in some cases it is impossible to determine whether a brain injury sustained by the deceased, was in fact the cause of death, because the victim did not live long enough after sustaining it, for the injury to be detectable during post mortem examination? 

From the interpreting point of view, pathologists’ evidence is not as daunting as it might initially appear. Experience is everything and I know what to expect by now. Subconjunctival petechial haemorrhage and diatoms are likely to be discussed. It is also a good idea to brush up on words for hyoid bone, cyanosis, and lividity in your working language. 

Watching and re-watching all 25 seasons of Silent Witness helps. 

To a large extent, if you have done one murder trial, you have done them all. Each homicide requires similar type of expert evidence to be presented to the jury. Pathologist’s report is followed by the DNA expert, blood spatter and fibre experts. In cases where mobile phone use is of evidential value, telephone mast cell data is presented in mind-numbing detail. 

DNA experts invariably make me nervous. Did you know, for instance, that if I touch a plastic cup and leave my DNA on it, and then somebody else picks up the same cup, they might pick up some of my DNA from the surface of the cup and if they in turn touch a compromising item, say a knife, some of my DNA can get transferred onto the knife even though I never touched it myself? The science behind secondary DNA transfer puts me off crime. This and prison dinner menu.

For the first time, I did not have the slightest amount of sympathy for the defendant. In all previous murders, I saw the perpetrator as a victim of their circumstances, be it their unhappy upbringing, or their drug and alcohol addictions. I was not finding excuses for them, but I was able to find a reason, however small, to feel sorry for them. 

This time it was  different. A disturbingly realistic possibility emerged early in the case that I might have been sitting next to a serial killer who was so completely depraved and evil, that he had begun to believe in his own version of his life, where he was an unfortunate victim of mistaken identity and extensive conspiracy involving not only the crown prosecution service but also, to a lesser extent, his own defence team. He purported to inhabit an unjust land where the police had falsified his fingerprints, tampered with his interview transcript, and treated him with nothing but malice and prejudice. 

He was now on trial for the unprovoked attack and murder of a kind retired gentleman in his 60s. 

His own version of events was that he had attempted to help the victim who was being attacked by two other men. Details of his version of how the tragic incident unfolded were entirely implausible. His story of what had happened was so utterly fanciful, it was painful to listen, but listen to it we did, over many hours of pre-court conferences. 

So far so typical of a murder case, you might say, and you would be right. 

Author’s Note:

If you wish to find out why this murder trial turned out to be different from other murder trials Cordelia worked on in her interpreting career, you will need to wait until Cordelia Novak’s Back in the Dock book is published; which is likely to be around the third quarter of 2023.

‘Tis the Season 2022

December had crept upon us sooner than I was ready for it, which seemed to have become a regular occurrence of late, and now, ready, or not, Christmas is breathing down our necks once more.

What with energy prices, cost of living crisis, migrant crisis, soaring inflation, interest rates hikes, Ukraine, Liz Truss, Prince Andrew, Matt Hancock, rail strikes, nurses’ strikes, Royal Mail strikes, Border Force strikes, baggage handlers’ strikes, ambulance drivers’ strikes, driving examiners’ strikes, strep A, Harry Kane penalty miss, and Harry and Meghan, on and off Netflix; the magic had been slow off the ground. In fact, there was even talk of ‘the winter of our discontent’ making another comeback.

Still, I was sure jingle bells, mistletoe and wine would find their way home eventually, they always do.

The snow had been a big help. Everything looked more positive covered with a thick blanket of brilliant white, however reason-defying that sounded. Snow aesthetics lifted the mood, even if it deepened our strike-ridden public transport woes.
Alas, it melted.

Hamza winning Strictly brought the seasonal magic to almost within reach.

And then, on the Sunday before Christmas, my two adult children came home for the festive season, and as soon as we were five again, Christmas had arrived, and nothing could spoil it from then onwards.

Within minutes, pigs in blankets were in the oven, Quality Street on the table, and Gogglebox reruns on TV. The world stopped, the time slowed down, and life was perfect.

For the semi-empty nester like myself (youngest daughter is still at home, but only just, with one eye firmly on emails from UCAS), Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year, when I get to deal with endless wash loads, kitchen mess, siblings’ banter, and a mountain of shoes by the front door, taking me right back to the mid- noughties. The magic of Christmas at its very best.

What Not To Watch This Christmas

It’s official. Christmas on Mistletoe Farm is this year’s worst Netflix Christmas movie.

It was so bad I could not stop thinking about how bad it was.

Not wishing to sound unseasonably unkind, I was determined to look for some redeeming features, which was the only reason why I kept watching, but it was hard. After a long deliberation, I settled on a miniature piglet called Weenie pissing in people’s faces whilst held up in the air as my only reward for devoting 103 minutes of my life to this show. That should give you an idea how bad it was. 

Every scene was a cliché and every one of them felt like an over-the-top pastiche of itself. So much so, it crossed my mind it was meant to be a spoof, a deliberate mockery, and even now, after I watched it to the very last drop of its saccharine ending, I am still none the wiser whether perhaps it was indeed designed as a parody of the Christmas movie genre, and the joke was on me.

To say that the characters were wooden would be to an insult to wood. Wood can be understated, alluring, evocative of dark forests and rustic nostalgia. The characters in this film leaned more towards MDF boards. It would not have surprised me to find out that the casting director went to a shopping centre and said would you mind reading a few lines, and the first people who did not stumble over the words got the parts.

There was a middle-aged bitchy lady, working the corpo-catwalk in knock-off red Pradas.

Knock-off was a keyword throughout. Beano, the farm hand, was a blatant Nativity rip-off, Mr Poppy’s long-lost twin who had fallen on hard times, and had to sleep in the hay, but kept his prototype’s acting style down to a tee.

There was a prolific father with next no emotional connection to his five, or was it six children. The shadow of Nativity franchise extended to the children, who were awkward and shy around their father, who in turn, channelled Martin Freeman’s Mr Maddens character on and off. The only clearly defined aspect of his personality was a permanent undercurrent of irritability.  

The plot plodded on, in stops and starts, and it soon became apparent that I was watching an unrelatable tale of nothing much at all. It was neither funny nor moving, neither romantic nor sad, neither serious or overly light-hearted. It ebbed between Laurel and Hardy slapstick when the developers arrived on the farm, and an attempt at exploring meaning of life and love during the speech by the village teacher.

The village people were mildly reminiscent of the bunch of mismatched residents from Hot Fuzz, but without any dark secrets. The rendition of their eponymous song was among the most fleetingly enjoyable moments of the film. 

The denouement, when it came at long last, was flat and unconvincing, with zero chance of generating a Christmassy fuzzy feeling, which I had grown to expect from post-Halloween Netflix releases.

There was no chemistry at all, zip, zilch, nada, nothing between the father and his supposed love interest, and then, inexplicably, they kissed, and voila, ex-machina happy ending.

I would love to know what the director, the producer, the scriptwriter were thinking, as well as what made one actress of reasonably good vintage to add her name to this production.  

When credits rolled, I set off on a search for an antidote; it took half an hour of Love Actually for my faith in silver screen Christmas magic to be restored.

Everybody needs good neighbours

This is a short story of my neighbour, her dog, her dementia, and a few other things.

My neighbour has dementia, or it might be Alzheimer’s. 

I am not sure how old she is, but when we moved in to the house next door to her ten years ago, I thought she was already old. 

This is the story of my neighbour’s dementia, her dog, and me, their neighbour. 

First things first. Before I go any further, I should give my neighbour a fake name, to protect everybody who needs protecting, even though in this scenario I feel it might be mainly me. I have spent a disproportionate amount of time googling old-fashioned names, and got bogged down in fascinating etymologies. Did you know that Stacey is a shortened version of the Russian name Anastasia, but also of Eustace, which is Greek. 

After a lengthy deliberation, I have settled on Ethel. You cannot get much older than Ethel. 

I first realised that everything was not quite right with Ethel a few months ago. I was about to get into my car one spring morning when I noticed Ethel on her doorstep, in her nightie, dressing gown and slippers, visibly upset. When she spotted me, she walked unsteadily towards me. 

-Excuse me, do you live here? Are you my neighbour? 
– Yes, Ethel, how are you? 
– Oh, good, you know my name. I want to ask you if you have seen my partner, Eduardo, this morning, perhaps he is in your house? 
– No, I didn’t, why, what happened? 
– Eduardo is my partner, whom I love very much, and I think he has left me. Naturally, I am very upset about it. If you see him, do you know him, have you met Eduardo? 
– Yes, Ethel, I know Eduardo.  
– Oh, good. Well, if you see him, please tell him that I miss him and I would like him to come back home. 
– Ok, Ethel, I will. 

With that she went back to her house. I bumped into Eduardo a couple of days later and asked him if he had been away recently. He said he had not, and then I told him about my encounter with Ethel. Eduardo looked mortified and exasperated. He apologised for Ethel, and added that she had been acting strangely of late.  He said he had gone out shopping that day, and was not going away anywhere. 

Eduardo had been Ethel’s unlikely life partner for many years. He looked younger than her, but that might have just been due to the cruelty of fate, which made women age quicker after a certain cut-off point. His English never progressed beyond basic survival skills. Ethel did not speak Spanish. Still, their relationship persevered. Either the sex or the cooking must have been phenomenal. Despite being well past retirement age, Eduardo continued to work at a Colombian restaurant in North London, a true home from home.

As it happened, Eduardo did not remain true to his word, and went back to Colombia in the summer. I saw him briefly before he left. He looked emotional and said something about needing a knee surgery, or rather he pointed to his knee and contorted his face in an impressive imitation of agonising pain. 

A few months before Eduardo went away, I asked him if he needed help caring for Ethel. Proud man as he was, he admitted he was struggling, having to juggle looking after her with holding a job in the restaurant, and doing all the house chores all by himself. I suggested referring Ethel to adult social services and he agreed. Nothing happened for considerably longer than the statutory 28 days, but eventually Ethel was assessed and declared suitable for at home assistance. 

A carer would visit Ethel three times a day for a wellbeing check. The visits were confusing for Ethel. She invariably greeted them with her bewilderment, as she could not understand, for the life of her, why they were there and what exactly they were meant to help her with. Whenever I visited Ethel, she referred to the carers as ‘these women who come to do something, but what exactly they are meant to do is beyond me. I don’t think they do any cleaning’. I could vouch to that; they did not do any cleaning. Ethel was not too bothered either way. The only problem which seemed to preoccupy her was how to deal with a gaping hole in her life made by Eduardo’s sudden departure. With no family or friends to visit her, Ethel’s loneliness was complete. 

Her basic needs were being met by the carers and the cheerful Meals on Wheels man bringing her unappetising, beige looking lunch and dinner, and by the dog walkers taking Jasper for a daily run in the park. The council’s money did not stretch to emotional needs and wishes. There were no funds available to secure happiness, contentment, and companionship.  

Ethel had a dog, Jasper, a terrier looking type of Jack Russell, I was not very good with dog breeds, there was no point in asking Ethel what breed he was, as she would only get needlessly frustrated by not knowing the answer to the question. I was not sure how old he was, and, again, there was no point asking Ethel, and there was nobody else to ask, so I would never know but he looked and acted young and energetic. Despite not being properly looked after since Eduardo had left, Jasper remained a trusting and loving pup. I began taking him for walks in the park on Sundays, the dog walkers’ day off. Every time I returned with Jasper, we went through the same routine. 

I rang the doorbell, and after a minute, Ethel’s high-pitched, slightly irritated voice enquired, who is it please? 

– It’s Ania and Jasper.
– Ah, Ania, and Jasper. Wait a minute, please, I will unlock the door for you. 

A familiar key-searching ritual followed. 

– I cannot seem to find my key. 
– Ethel, it’s probably in your bra. 

The door opened. Ethel was holding her landline handset next to her ear. She pressed it to her chest and beamed me a big smile. 

– I am on the phone to my partner, Eduardo, the man whom I love dearly, and who loves me, and who is currently in Colombia visiting relatives. He just called me and I am very happy that he called me, we’ve been chatting for a very long time. 

I smiled back at her. 

– Goodnight Ethel, I will see you tomorrow. 

I walked back home thinking that on the balance of probabilities or simply because life is a bitch, Eduardo did not call her, they had not been chatting for a very long time, and he no longer loved her dearly, if he ever had done. 

With time, Ethel’s confusion deepened. Every day was a struggle, a lonely battle against time, and against all the events which kept crowding around her, and of which she was less and less able to make sense. Eduardo was never absent from her thoughts. She mentioned him every time I saw her, telling me the same story of where he was and why he went there. According to her, Eduardo needed to go back to his country to deal with an urgent family matter. She did not divulge any details about the nature of that matter.

Despite her circumstances, whenever I visited her, Ethel sounded cheerful and upbeat, unnaturally so, laughing loudly at random moments in our conversations and finding unexpected things hilarious. 

I remember one exception, early on, on a mellow September Sunday. I had not seen the dog walkers pick up Jasper for a while, and so I went in that day with a mission to find out what was happening with that. Ethel and I sat down on the sofa in her living room and after the usual preliminaries when Ethel told me  that her partner Eduardo had gone back to Columbia to deal with an urgent family matter, I decided to discuss Jasper’s dog walkers. It did not go well.

-Ethel, I haven’t seen the dog walkers for a while, do you know why that is? Why they stopped coming? 

– The dog walkers stopped coming. Do I know why they stopped coming?  Is that what you are asking me?

– Yes, I am. Jasper needs to go out for walks and I don’t think…

– Who do you think you are? Who are you to come to my house to tell me what my dog needs?! 

– Ethel, I am only trying to help…

– Well, I don’t need your help! I never asked for your help. You keep coming into my house and you try to tell me what to do. I do not need your fucking help! 

The outburst came out of the blue, unprovoked and passionate.

– Ethel, I can see you are upset today, I think it will be better if I leave now, perhaps I’ll come back another…

I made a move to get up. 

— You are bloody right I am upset! You will fucking stay right where you are! Sit down! I will tell you when you can go! 

I sat down again. If Ethel aim was to sound menacing, she failed. I was bemused, but neither threatened, nor offended. I never felt more sorry for Ethel than at that moment. She was lashing out at the only person within earshot. I let her rant a bit longer, not entirely sure what to do or say next. 

The doorbell rang. ‘Saved by the bell’ flashed through my cliches-prone mind, and I tried to get up again,  but it was not to be. 

– Stay right where you are! It’s my house and I will decide when you go.  

The Meals on Wheels man brought Ethel a tray of semi-congealed brown goo, said a cheerful hello and goodbye and off he went. It did not occur to him to enquire whether this was a hostage situation. 

I learnt a valuable lesson that day, and never again had I attempted to discuss any problem with Ethel logically, or suggest a rational plan of action to solve it. 

I kept my distance for a few days, and when I went to see Ethel again, she was very happy to see me. 

Regular visits to Ethel’s house to take Jasper for his evening wee in the garden had started to take their toll. I remember one day, shortly before Halloween, I caught myself thinking that if I heard one more time about Eduardo, the man Ethel loved, and who loved her back, going to Columbia, where he was from, to deal with an urgent family matter, I might be pushed to commit a crime of violence punishable by a lengthy term of imprisonment. Perhaps it was time for me to step back, but it was not easy.

It had become apparent to everybody, that with Eduardo gone, Jasper was in urgent need of a rehoming. The social worker suggested, matter-of-factly, moving him to the Battersea Dogs’ Home.

The callousness of this proposition sent shivers down my spine, and shocked me into immediate action. I asked Ethel’s daughter – yes, Ethel had children – and the social worker to grant Jasper a short reprieve, so that I could secure him a happy ending.   

Luckily for Jasper, our street had a robust WhatsApp group chat , a legacy of lockdown community spirit, and it was through there that Jasper got his, fingers crossed, happy forever home.

I knew I was doing the right thing. Ethel was no longer in a fit state to look after a dog. Still, the day I picked him up from her house for the last time, I felt like a criminal mastermind dognaper. What bothered me about my underhand rescue mission was that nobody had consulted Ethel about it. Her daughter and the social worker decided to remove Jasper from Ethel’s care without preparing her for it. I rescued him from Battersea misery, and made his new owner tearfully joyful. Ethel was to remain in the dark, until the day her daughter was ready to explain all of this to her. 

The only question was, what the hell was I going to tell Ethel, in case she asked me if I knew where Jasper was, but that was a worry for another day. 

All the words

A satisfied client in a recent family case made my day when she said, ‘Miss Ania is great, she knows all the words!’ 

I wish that was true. I wish I knew all the words and how to use them, but some days, it feels like words desert me before I can use them, they drain from my brain in a manner not dissimilar from the way blood is described to drain from a face, leaving the owner of the face looking deathly colour. The word drain leaves me staring blankly at a sheet of unwritten words, struggling to string the few remaining ones together. Today might be one of these days. Then  again, so far so good. So far so not too shabby. I think I’ll quit when I am ahead. 

The world without

Warning: A staunch royalist’s pov. 

News reporters had used every possible mourning cliché available to them in the English language and every single one of them resonated with me deeply, and will continue to do so probably for the rest of my life, to use another cliché. 

Grandmother of the nation, a unifying force, a symbol of stability, a lifetime of an unwavering sense of duty and service, dedication and sacrifice, a beacon of dignity and poise, a constant source of reassurance and comforting continuity.  

Governments changed, wars started and ended, we won the World Cup, we lost penalty shoot-outs, we joined the EEC, we left the EU; the Queen was always there. 

Whoever said nobody was irreplaceable, could not have been talking about Queen Elizabeth II. 

One of my biggest regrets is that I had never met the Queen in person. That did not stop me, like millions others, to have adopted her as my longest surviving grandmother. As she got older, the Queen’s physical appearance reminded me more and more of my own grandmother, and my mother in their last years of life. The resemblance was uncanny. I was far from alone in that thinking, of course, as I have heard the same sentiment repeated word for word by friends, family and countless people in the media.

Listening to extracts from the Queen’s speeches has been a great comfort over the last couple of weeks. As I go over the soundbites, I celebrate her extraordinary life. 

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. 

I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.

I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else – I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom.

Perhaps we make too much of what is wrong and too little of what is right. The trouble with gloom is that it feeds upon itself and depression causes more depression. In times of doubt and anxiety the attitudes people show in their daily lives, in their homes, and in their work, are of supreme importance.

Over the years, those who have seemed to me to be the most happy, contented and fulfilled have always been the people who have lived the most outgoing and unselfish lives.

If I am asked what I think about family life after 25 years of marriage, I can answer with equal simplicity and conviction, I am for it.

No age group has a monopoly of wisdom, and indeed I think the young can sometimes be wiser than us. But the older I get, the more conscious I become of the difficulties young people have to face as they learn to live in the modern world.

Grief is the price we pay for love. 

I am going to miss her. I miss her already. With time, I will miss her more, the way we miss our nearest and dearest more, not less, the longer they have been gone. 

I will miss her dry sense of humour, and her famous twinkle, her grandmotherly smile, her old-fashioned yet outrageous outfits, and her attentive listening. 

In three months’ time, on the afternoon of the 25th of December, I will miss her calm reassuring voice wishing me and my family a very happy Christmas. 

But more than all that, I will miss the feeling that no matter what happened next in the world, what inept politicians, airheaded celebrities and anybody else threw at us, at least we had the Queen with her ability to make it all a little more dignified, and a little bit better.