Earlier today, I was fortunate enough and fit enough to take part in the most exhilarating, uplifting experience available on the planet. It is nearly midnight and I am on my way home.
By the time I finish writing and editing this, the event will have ended and we will have moved on to a new, post-Queue era.
The Queue to see the Queen lying-in-state in Westminster Hall opened on Wednesday the 14th of September and will close on Monday the 19th at 6.30am.
I went to Southwark Park on the last full day of The Queue to see what it looked like, and what it felt like. I did not plan to join it. The Queue had acquired a life of its own, earned its own Wikipedia page, and was rapidly achieving cult status. It became the latest, most dignified embodiment of the celebrated British institution of queuing. The Queue had a strictly limited lifespan, which added to its unique appeal. At one point in the early stages of its existence, The Queue reached its full capacity and was temporarily paused. The queue to join The Queue was formed, and it was promptly called QE2.
When I arrived at the entrance to Southwark Park, several queue stewards in high viz were there, but The Queue itself was yet nowhere to be seen. I passed a sign saying that the queue from that point was minimum 14 hours, but still no queue in sight. I carried on walking, following the long zig-zag lines marked by metal barriers. The zig-zags gave me hope that I was on the right track to find The Queue sometime soon.
Finally, the leisurely queue to join The Queue thickened, and a few moments later wristband waving stewards appeared on the sides.
Should I? Once in a lifetime opportunity. Now or never, the funeral is tomorrow. I got this far, I might as well. But 14 hours? What if it rains later? Also, 14 hours? How do I get home at 4am? After this brief level-headed private discussion, I found myself holding a brown wristband a couple of seconds later.
The pull of The Queue had won. I joined. I was in. No food, no water, no phone charger, no comfortable shoes, no umbrella, but I was in The Queue, grinning and excited. Kafka would have had a field day with this.
The Queue zig-zagged out of the park and we entered the streets of, where were we exactly, was it Bermondsey? Within minutes, I had got myself a queue buddy, Adelaide. She was an Accidental Queuer too, who entered on the spur of the moment, unsure if she would be able to last the distance. Over the next nine hours I had learned everything there was to learn about Adelaide’s life, including her detailed medical history. We exchanged telephone numbers early on, in case we lost sight of each other at any point. We stuck together all the way, through toilet breaks and security checks.
The Queue snaked around Butler’s Wharf, moved past Tower Bridge, and was making good progress along the Southbank, until we reached the London Eye. Just when I thought we were nearly there, another sign told us that the queue was likely to be another 4-5 hours from there. In any other circumstances, my heart would have sunk, but as it was, I accepted it with calm and composure I am not usually known for. It turned out we were not crossing Westminster Bridge, the one next to Big Ben, and a stone’s throw from Westminster Hall, the location of the Queen’s lying-in-state, but we were heading towards Lambeth Bridge instead, another 800 yards further down the river. From that moment onwards, our wristbands were checked frequently by stewards asking us to raise our hands high up in the air. It felt like we were on an exciting school trip.
The spirit of friendly camaraderie set in from the start. By the time we got to Blackfriars Bridge, the Queue friendship groups had formed. Adelaide and I joined in with a couple of ladies from Coventry, a British man living in New York, a Turkish couple, a group from Los Angeles and an older gentleman from Weymouth, his chest heavily decorated with military medals. We tried asking him about the medals, but he was very dismissive of their provenance; all he said was ‘there might have been a few battles one might have fought in during one’s youth’.
A couple of hours into The Queue I realised I’d better let my unsuspecting family know what I was doing. I posted a photo of my wristband on our family WhatsApp, and asked if there was any chance any of them could bring me a pair of trainers and a phone charger. My husband dismissed my message as a joke, and continued to think that until about 10pm, when I still did not return home from my trip to London. My daughter came to my rescue near London Bridge, and brought with her a few very welcome queuing essentials. She even made me a ham and cheese bagel. My son, who was already somewhere in Central London, joined us shortly past the Oxo Tower. They both stayed with me all the way to the London Eye, and were surprised how much they found themselves enjoying The Queue experience.
Somewhere between the National Theatre and the London Eye, a chatty young woman began walking along the Queue, handing out ginger biscuits to us. She confessed she was suffering from a bad case of The Queue envy, and wanted to make up for not joining in herself by supporting it in any way she could think of. She stayed on with us until the earnest wristband checking stopped her from keeping us company any further. Although she walked with us for a relatively short time, we got chatting in keeping with the true spirit of The Queue. She told us her name was Kate, her surname was ‘like Noah without the ark’, which was Arkless. Obviously. She was also known as Space Kate. I have just looked her up. Fascinating person. Lovely biscuits.
Once we crossed Lambeth Bridge, and entered the final zig-zag around the Buxton Memorial Fountain, better known as the slavery emancipation monument, in the parliamentary gardens, the feeling of being on the last stretch descended. The Queue was nearly done, although it was to be another hour or so before we reached the longed-for security tent. Once our bags were thoroughly checked, twice, the mood in The Queue changed. Everything went very quiet, and a moment later we were on the stairs to Westminster Hall at last. Silent solemnity replaced hours of impromptu socialising.
Walking past the coffin was everything I could have wished for, dignified and profound.
There was nothing else to do after that. As decisively as it had pulled me in hours earlier in Southwark Park, The Queue now pushed me firmly out, into the balmy night air around Parliament Square, just before midnight. As Adelaide and I hugged goodnight, awkwardness creeping back in, we knew we had left The Queue.
When my daughter suggested that we absolutely must see Emilia Clarke in The Seagull, I managed to get only moderately excited about the idea. Having not seen a single episode of The Game of Thrones, I could not get fully star-struck.
I envisaged the play being Emilia Clarke’s one woman show with the rest of the actors reduced to lurking in her shadow. I could not have been more wrong.
On entering the auditorium, the first thing we noticed was a person lying lifeless on stage. The second thing we noticed was the absence of any decorations to speak of. The set was a plywood-framed box, with a stack of green plastic chairs in the corner. Over the next 20 minutes, the actors came in, one by one, climbing onto the stage, taking one chair each and sitting down, their backs to the audience. Emilia Clarke was one of the last ones to come, took her chair and sat down.
The first thing that is likely to strike you about Emilia Clarke is how physically tiny she is. We checked since she is 5’1″.
The second thing that is likely to strike you about her is how young she looks. In the good lighting, she could pass for a schoolgirl. She is 35.
When the other actors were scrambling onto the stage, barefoot, dressed in plain modern clothes, I noticed several vaguely familiar faces, but I was not sure.
It was only after the stage lights came on that I knew for sure. I gasped, and gasped again.
Sara Powell?? Really? The always calm and collected Death in Paradise and Silent Witness actress?
Indira Varma? What? I only watched her in The Capture a few days ago.
Robert Glenister? The guy from Hustle and Sherwood? Just like that? Can’t be!
It stopped being Emilia Clarke show before it even properly began and became a BBC iPlayer best bits revisited show. Christmas never came so early for me before.
The next two and and a half hours felt like I was in a dream. The play was superbly acted, every character was brilliant, the bare stage and lack of decorations did not matter, all that mattered was the dialogue and each actor giving their best. Chekhov was all there too, even if the text had been slightly updated for modern day settings, with people complaining about poor mobile phone signal.
To be fair to Emilia Clarke, she was great in it too, but it was definitely not the Emilia Clarke show.
After it ended, we walked to the stage door and waited. Emilia Clarke apparently had already left, but we couldn’t care less. We got our program signed by two actors, and got our photos taken with two others.
Thank you Emilia Clarke for making my daughter want to see you in The Seagull, it meant that I got to see a few of my favourite actors too.
I thought I’d try something different this summer. A tentative venture into holiday diary writing.
Contents Pourqoui Normandie The Ferry Jullouville Granville A day trip to Brittany Carolles cliffs walk Accidental day of abbeys Mont St Michel D-Day beaches The Finale
We are spending our statutory Two Weeks In August in Jullouville in Normandy. We are here because I succumbed to the months of relentless ‘airport chaos’ media frenzy, despite having sailed through security in record time whilst flying with EasyJet to Portugal, during, allegedly, the worst week of Easter instalment of airport chaos, and EasyJet was, allegedly, the worst affected airline.
However much our own experience differed from apocalyptic scenes depicted in the papers, I was not prepared to face weeks of stress and uncertainty whether our August flights would be cancelled, delayed or on time, so I came up with a fool-proof plan B, and booked tickets for overnight crossing from Portsmouth to St. Malo with Brittany Ferries.
Feeling smug and clever, I congratulated myself on my shrewdness and proceeded to book dreadfully overpriced self-catering accommodation in Jullouville on booking.com.
When I said above that I booked the crossing with Brittany Ferries, I was not being accurate. Brittany Ferries are the company who puts the ferry on the water, but I booked our tickets with Direct Ferries, as they offered not only a more straightforward online experience, but also, bizarrely, a better price. It was only after my payment had gone through and I had received the booking confirmation that I decided to check Direct Ferries reviews online. Oh boy, did I panic! Direct Ferries came across as the worst company to deal with, impossible to communicate with, prone to cancelling bookings at short notice, and, according to some disgruntled reviewers, it was clearly a business on the verge of bankruptcy.
And so it came to pass that I replaced stressing about flight cancellations with stressing about ferry company going bust for the next two months.
Somebody once said that anxiety is a fundamental disposition of our existence. I cannot remember who that was, possibly a philosopher with some double a’s and a lot of d’s and g’s in their name. I am inclined to believe that I embrace this premise more thoroughly than a lot of people I know.
The panic, like the majority of my routine panics, turned out to be unfounded, Direct Ferries delivered the goods and we arrived at St. Malo at 8.30 in the morning.
The Ferry 17th August 2022
The boat was called Bretagne, or perhaps it was just a fancy name of our destination, which was Brittany. The Portsmouth – St. Malo overnight crossing takes 11 hours. At the point of booking an overnight trip, you need to book either a reclining armchair or a berth. On arrival on board, we rushed to the bar, as one does, and studied the evening entertainment schedule. We proceeded to sit through a mini disco with Pierre le Bear, and an interactive quiz. Experienced school quizzers as we were, we came 10th out of 15 teams. Who knew Hereford was a breed of cow, and not a type of horse? Or that Panama not only took part in the last World Cup but that we beat them 6:1? Not us, clearly.
Our egos deflated by failing to win a portable charger set, we called it a night at 10pm, just as Lucy Beasley was welcoming everybody to the cabaret programme.
At 6.30am the next morning, we were woken up by an instrumental piece, which, in other circumstances, I would consider soothing. As it was, it felt stubbornly insistent and vaguely Big Brother-esque.
Jullouville 18th August 2022
It took me a couple of days to spell the name correctly, the pronunciation remains approximate.
Jullouville is a large village rather than a small town. The centre has a supermarket, an obligatory boulangerie with queues of baguette-hungry locals forming outside from early hours, a tourist trinkets shop, and several restaurants, all of which serve moules frites, one is a pizza place, and one offers the best food in the world in the form of the most exquisite piece de boucher, which we ordered as we were curious what it was, and it turned out to be a heavenly kind of steak.
In addition to a reasonable range of catering options, Jullouville boasts a seasonal mini fun fair which comes alive every summer night, a Notre Dame des Dunes church, and a Tourist Information office.
Jullouville beach is several kilometres long, and about a 100 metres wide at ordinary low tide. During the second week of our stay the low tides became extremely low and the sea receded about 500 metres each afternoon, uncovering a maze of man-made stone fish trap enclosures, which suddenly appeared, the way I imagine Atlantis would, only to be swallowed up by the sea again a couple of hours later.
The beach is perfectly positioned for dreamy sunsets, which take place directly in front of us around 9pm in August.
One fascinating place in Jullouville is an imposing mansion on Avenue de Kairon, which happens to also be the street our house is on. When we first drove past it, my family hoped I might have booked us the mansion.
At first glance it evoked images of witches, broomsticks, bats and hooting owls. On closer inspection, and on reading a plaque next to it, the grey-stoned haunted house turned out to be the previous Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force ( SHAEF), where General Dwight Eisenhower was stationed in August and September 1944.
78 years turns out to be a very long time. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Granville 19th August 2022
The day after we arrived, it rained. We did some quick thinking on our phones, and decided to spend the day in nearby Granville, and to visit the Christian Dior museum and gardens.
The Christian Dior museum is located in the designer’s childhood home, which his parents had bought at the end of the 19th century.
When we went to see it, it was showing a temporary exhibition Chapeaux Dior! which included over 200 models of hats and some classic Dior outfits too. The exhibition seemed extremely popular with, mostly French, visitors. We queued for about half an hour to get in and the queue had built up quickly behind us. The French either hold Dior in incredibly high esteem, or they simply all had the same idea how to spend a rainy Friday at the seaside.
A day trip to Brittany 22nd August 2022
Dinan As soon as somebody says medieval city and cobbled streets, we are sold, so we knew a trip to Dinan was on the cards since the lady at the Tourist Information uttered those words to us.
Dinan is about one hour 40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville. It is definitely worth a visit, and it deserves half a day at least. Dinan’s main attraction is a long walk down the cobbled Rue du Jerzual lined with wonky medieval buildings, some of them turned into mini art galleries, others empty and neglected. The picturesque clock tower, the castle fort and old city walls complete the list of reasons to visit Dinan.
Dinard is a somewhat old-fashioned seaside resort with a scenic path around the rocky bay area and a small beach. Nice to pop in if you have time, but looking back on the day, I would have stayed longer in Dinan and skipped Dinard. Sorry, Dinard.
St. Malo Much more than a ferry terminal. A walk on top of city walls with pretty views into the sea and the port, and a further stroll among imposing grey stone buildings of the town’s Intra-Muros area are recommended. We left it a bit late in the day to visit, so the walk felt rushed and incomplete. It would have made more sense to explore St. Malo for a few hours on the day we first arrived there, but we were all tired from the night on the ferry, and decided unanimously that St. Malo town was depressingly grim and grey. It certainly improved on second impression.
Carolles circular cliffs walk 24th August 2022
2.5 hours circular walk on the cliff tops around Carolles, passing a Bourbon stone look-out hut on the way, which serves as badly needed air-conditioning on a hot summer day. Pretty views over the Carolles plage, stretching all the way up to Granville. From the viewpoint near the hut, Mont Saint Michel comes to view in all its misty dreaminess.
Accidental day of abbeys 25th August 2022
If only my daughter’s tonsil hadn’t been playing up so badly that we needed to book her a doctor’s appointment, and if only the only appointment available this week had not been at 4pm, we would not have had to revise our previous plan of spending the whole day at D-Day landing beaches today. Further on, if the weather had been beach-worthy, like it was yesterday, we would not have visited the two local 12th century abbeys, L’abbaye Lucerne and L’abbaye Hambye. Which would have been our true loss. Both abbeys are within about 30-40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville.
L’abbaye Hambye makes a dramatic statement in its sleepy countryside surroundings with a soaring sky-scraper ruin of the abbey proper and several dwellings and utility buildings scattered around it.
The ruin of the abbey is a place of solemn grey-stoned beauty. After we had stood in every corner of it, with our necks bent backwards as far as they went, and snapped it from every angle with our cameras, we sat down on a nearby bench and admired its silent majesty.
L’abbaye Lucerne is much better preserved, the abbey has a roof, walls and windows, and it looks pretty much like hundreds and thousands of other Medieval abbeys. It is surrounded by a number of stone buildings among which a circular tower called Dovecote stands out. It was designed for breeding up to 1500 pairs of pigeons. The description does not do it justice, it has to be seen to be believed.
Mont Saint Michel 27th August 2022
Today we headed to the Manche region’s star attraction.
Mont Saint Michel is on every Normandy visitor’s must-see list, which means that crowds cover every inch of this tiny tidal island at all times, or at least until 6pm, when the island begins to lock up for the day.
Planning the trip required a fair bit of logistical acrobatics. Nothing too challenging for weathered explorers like us, but beginners might falter.
Caroline from Jullouville’s Tourist Information office deserves a medal for her dedication to making sure our day worked out perfectly.
There is more than one way to play the Mont Saint Michel game. This is what we did. We booked tickets to see the abbey in advance, at our local Tourist Office.
We then booked a guided walk from Saint Michel to Tombelaine island, which sits halfway on the 7 km full crossing route from the Abbey to Genets on mainland.
We parked at the main car park, about half an hour walk from MStM, with a frequent shuttle bus also available. We took the shuttle in the morning and walked the causeway in the evening, turning back frequently to take yet another photo of the Abbey.
We arrived at the entrance to the main event at 10am and meandered up to the Abbey along city walls and many lots of stone steps.
The Abbey is huge. It took us over 1.5 hours to visit, any less time and you will feel you are rushing it. We walked through one imposing room, crypt, refectory, cloister and chapel after another. Whoever built it, pulled all the stops for greater glory of God.
The history of how the abbey came to be is a bit hazy to me, as it starts with Archangel Michael appearing to St Aubert in 708 and requesting that the saint, who was not yet a saint at the time, build him a sanctuary there. Angels giving instructions to people is not something I can personally relate to very well, but apparently that is what happened. The first church was built on the site in 966, by Benedictine monks. Why did it take 258 years to fulfil Archangel’s wishes? I have no idea, the plaque did not say, but I am sure whatever the reasons for the tardiness, God had forgiven and forgotten, because the end result is magnificent.
The building really is quite something. Religion-driven architectural greatness and posturing at its best. So much so, that it managed to evoke some vaguely spiritual stirrings in an irreverent non-believer like myself.
After the abbey, it was time for a break and a crispy baguette sandwich. We had an hour to rest before meeting our guide for the walk to Tombelaine and back.
The place was teeming with people by then, and it took us a while to find a stone ledge in the shade to sit on, and when we did, we had to share it with a family of pigeons.
Tombelaine is a small island 3km away from the Mont.
It took us 3 hours to complete the walk there and back, with frequent stops when the guide told us about salt marshes, salt-saturated local vegetation, and how it affected local sheep’s gut bacteria, and how, in turn, it gave local lamb meat a unique taste. Fascinating stuff! My husband was truly blown away by the salt and silt stories and kept asking Bernard, our guide, numerous additional questions on the subject. I could almost hear Bernard making a mental note to himself never to take the bloody British on tour again, but he indulged my husband’s curiosity with admirable patience. In fact, Bernard and his company deserve a proper plug from us. Chemins de la Baie, www.cheminsdelabaie.com
The highlight of the tour was making us all huddle in one spot and jump up and down as a group, until we all started sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand. One woman took this further than the rest of us, and lost her nerve only when the muddy sand reached the top of her thighs.
After the tour, all that was left for us to do was to have a crepe, buy a fridge magnet and walk back to the car. Mont Saint Michel – done.
D-Day landing beaches 29th August 2022
Marriage means readiness for compromise, so today we all got up early and headed North to explore 2 out of 5 D-Day landing beaches, Utah beach and Omaha beach.
Utah beach is the most famous of the Normandy landing beaches, or at least the one where the French had decided to make the biggest commemorative effort. The result feels like a shrine to American contribution to winning WWII, with the rest of the Allied Forces hardly getting a look in. The Museum of D-Day Landing, signposted as Le Musee du Debarquement de Utah Beach, holds a large collection of artefacts, personal effects of GIs who died during the June 1944 operation, a couple of amphibian vehicles, a B26 bomber, an American army Jeep which was parachuted onto the beach in a box, several German and American uniforms, helmets, machine guns, binoculars, numerous military maps, documents, and diagrams, and a lot of photographs. The exhibition includes a 20 minutes film on D-Day preparation and execution. My husband looked as if he’d died and gone to heaven.
To be fair to him, he tried his best to enthuse the rest of us about the place too. With me, he succeeded the most when drawing my attention to a homing pigeon’s parachute and cage set. Homing pigeons from England used to be parachuted down in Northern France with a note asking local people to send them back with any information on German positions in the area. I find this truly amazing.
The beach itself was very windy, the sea choppy and fittingly uninviting. We went for a short walk along the mostly deserted sandy shore, and stopped for a coffee at Le Roosevelt Brasserie, stylishly decorated in the 1940s mode.
After Utah, we drove on to Omaha beach, some 45km down the coast. The wind was even stronger there, with sharp sand lashing our faces painfully. We took photos of the imposing D-Day monument on the beach and called it a day, abandoning original plan which was to visit all the five main landing beaches in the area.
The Finale 1st September 2022
We spent the last two days of the holiday on our local beach, topping up the tan, picking up shells and making several trips to the souvenir shop to make sure we chose just the right style of beads and string bracelets. However much we tried to stretch each of the final days, they ended fast and we were back on the return ferry quicker than you could say ‘where did the two weeks go?’
Daytime crossing from St. Malo to Portsmouth took just under 9 hours, which we spent luxuriating in our pre-booked reclining armchairs, foot rests and all. Whilst on board, we consumed the last couple of the copious number of croissants and baguettes we lived on in France.
We knew the holiday was over as soon as we saw petrol prices on the Portsmouth side of the Channel. How soon after one holiday ends is it too soon to start planning the next one? Asking for a friend.
How? When? One moment I am on a boat, enjoying my fortieth birthday party, floating slowly down the Thames, black lace, high heels and champagne, and then, somewhere between Embankment Pier and the Thames Barrier, I blink, and when I open my eyes again, in a proper time travelling style, I find myself with full head of post-lockdown grey hair, firmly past middle age.
Not old, mind you, old age has been pushed back, again, and is currently estimated to arrive in mid- to late sixties, but no longer middle-aged either, because if I were still middle-aged at 56, I would need to live to 112, and I am pretty sure this is not going to happen, as only war veteran and senior Royals seem to manage to live that long.
Not young, not middle-aged, not old. What am I? A half centenarian in denial sounds most accurate.
Fifty-six. I hate it when people my age say that age is just a number, because by the time we reach fifty-six, we know full well that age is very much not just a number. It is a message, a warning that each time this just-a-number increases, things are likely to start going wrong when you least expect them to. Sadly, nothing can be taken for granted any more. Our bodies and minds begin to betray us, often in the most unpredictable ways. Do not worry, I am not going to write about my post-middle-age-but-not-yet-old state of health; I am just saying that it is what it is, and what will be will be, and it will come sooner rather than later.
I do not feel fifty-six. I look at it, stare at it, but no matter which angle I squint at it, I feel no affinity with the number. The number might as well be 86, the disconnect is the same. I am not sure how fifty-six should feel, but I have a nagging suspicion I do not meet popular expectations. Despite outward appearances, I feel incongruously young a lot of the time, childishly mischievous on occasion, and I am no stranger to acting in an immature, irresponsible manner. The meaning of age-appropriate behaviour keeps evading me. Is crouching behind my car in the driveway for a couple of minutes until my next door neighbour goes into his house in order to avoid meeting him compatible with being a fifty-six year old mother of three and an experienced public service professional?
I am not remotely ready for the things that fifty-plus advertising expects me to be ready for. I am not ready for grandchildren. It still feels that it was only a brief moment ago, before I blinked on that boat, that my own children were cute little squishy things, and it sounds absurd that they could in theory become parents themselves in not massively distant future.
I am not ready to slow down, or to accept that if something had not happened by now, it probably never will. I am still expecting a lot to happen; I have places to be, shows to see, hair colours and cocktails to try, books to read and write, kitchens to replace, and newly-hatched turtles to rescue by carrying them to the ocean before seagulls eat them, somewhere in South America.
I am not ready to buy a funeral plan, even if the internet reminds me on most days that I should be thinking about it.
I was recently surprised to realise that I am not even ready yet to embark on the holiday aboard a six-storey cruise ship, which was the one thing I really thought I would be ready for by the time I am the age I am now. Sorry, Saga.
What else? Wisdom. I was supposed to have accumulated large quantities of wisdom by now, enough to luxuriate in it myself, and to dish it out to others, mainly to younger generations, who were, in turn, supposed to be interested in receiving it. To date this has not been worked out too well. Last time I looked I was still not in possession of a lot of wisdom to dish out, and the younger generations were showing little interest in me bestowing any of it on them.
It is true that I have acquired a few skills simply through living long enough. Living long enough has also led me to develop a certain age-related intuitions, a sort of sixth sense, which sometimes manages to impress younger friends and family members. ‘But how, how did you know this would happen?’, my daughters ask me whenever my intuition delivers the goods.
Other than that, I have not got much to show for my five and a half decades on Earth. Perhaps now is a good time to start believing that it really is just a number and see how this turns out.
My Fair Lady is one of my all time top 5 films. Audrey Hepburn is one of my all time top five actresses. English language is one of the top five passions of my life.
The current production of My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum was always going to be second best at the very best.
It is a perfectly ‘loverly’ and heart-warming, if not ground-breaking show. Amara Okereke soars in her rendition of I Could Have Danced All Night, and delivers beautiful dulcet tones in all her other songs. For a devoted Downton Abbey fan, Lady Edith’s husband as Professor Higgins is a special treat. The racing day costumes are divine. Colonel Pickering is a darling old dear. The orchestra is powerful and exhilarating.
The demands of the largest London theatre auditorium might be a tad too much for Eliza’s dad’s vocal abilities. He also mumbles his lines, never a good thing to do on stage, but especially ironic in a play about language and the art of enunciation.
The Higgins house decor could have been made to look a little bit fresher.
The 2022 production could have made a bit more of an effort to update the content for present day audiences, to wink at them a little, but instead it is a faithful replica of the 1964 film, bar the very slight, not entirely convincing, deviation from the final scene.
In the era of relentless 24/7 social media feeds, an ancient tradition of writing Christmas round robin letters to friends and family has become all but extinct.
My own children, a mix of the Millennials and Gen Z, listened in disbelief when I told them about this once ubiquitous custom.
Christmas round robin letters served one and one purpose only. Under a thin disguise of catching-up with long-time-no-see friends and relatives, it provided the author with a platform for unbridled brag fest.
A typical round robin letter started with a catalogue of one’s offspring’s achievements, including exam results, musical grades, always passed with distinction, Ivy League university offers, and record-breaking sporting triumphs. The letter then moved on to one’s own career successes, only just falling short of providing the reader with salary details, and finished off with a list of long-haul holiday destinations.
Once complete, the letter was inserted into a Christmas card, and posted off.
Christmas cards, another item on the list of endangered inanimate objects, served mostly as seasonal heart emojis, unless, on opening, the neatly folded round robin fell out, in which case you knew you were minutes from finding out what a pathetic failure your own life was in comparison.
In the pre-WhatsApp times, there was no easy way of muting round robin messages, except doing something so bad as to be taken off their authors’ Christmas card list. Literally.
In the time of round robins’ peak popularity, I never got to write one, which felt a bit like always a bridesmaid, never a bride at the time. The simple reason was that I had nothing to boast about in the 1980s and early 1990s. My career was an eclectic mess of hits and misses without a clue or direction, and I did not have an offspring yet, so I was not able not live my life vicariously through them like I am doing now.
Which brings me conveniently to today’s day.
Today, I am going to take advantage of a long summer day to treat you all to a Midsummer Robin. I apologise if you feel ambushed right now, but since you’ve stayed with me all the way up this point, you might as well carry on reading.
My first born got himself a paid job. Despite asking several times, I am still not entirely sure what the job entails, but it’s something to do with adapting a previous pauper and prostitutes’ burial place in Central London to modern urban community needs. We are all immensely proud of him.
My second born completed her first year of university and was invited back in September to continue her studies. She had initially planned to work during her long summer holiday, but in the end opted for horse-riding in Spain instead. We are all immensely proud of her.
As we age, we learn to live for rare and unexpected moments of joy and delight, and today I am delighted and overjoyed.
Today, I woke up to the news that a good friend of mine was awarded a Theatre Goer of the Year trophy by a theatre foundation in her home town, Łódź, which happens to be where I come from too, but that is utterly incidental.
Ilona has indisputably earned her award. She is fanatical about the theatre in question, she has seen all their shows many times over, she makes sure that all her friends, relatives, friends of relatives and relatives of friends go and see their each new production, she supported them in lockdown and continues to sing their praises repeatedly on social media.
Larger than life and passionate by nature, she single-handedly does more for the theatre group than any PR company could hope to achieve.
In her impromptu acceptance speech, Ilona said that the more accurate term for her level of devotion to the theatre would be Worshipper, rather than mere Theatre Goer. I agree with her.
The theatre is run by Kamil Maćkowiak, a man who had arrived in Łódź from Gdańsk many years ago and stayed. This was the first thing that endeared him to Ilona, who loves Łódź like very few people I know love Łódź
Maćkowiak had proved to be the force of nature, and after initially working on the stages of other theatres in Łódź, he opened his own. With Ilona’s support, the sky is the limit for Maćkowiak and his team.
Theatre Goer of the Year. Just imagine theatres over here acknowledging their biggest fans with a mantelpiece ornament and a goody bag. Andrew Lloyd Webber shaking hands with Jonathan from Orpington for seeing Phantom 23 times, with an honourable mention going to Ania Heasley from London for seeing Les Mis 9 times and counting, in regular intervals over the last 30 years.
Those who know me might have noticed that I tend to judge my country of origin rather harshly, but on this occasion, well done Ilona, well done Poland, well done Łódź, and really well done Kamil Maćkowiak Foundation for giving credit where it is due.
During a recent book signing event in Central London (I thought I’d just drop it in here), I was asked whether I ever come across any words, during my court interpreting work, which I see as untranslatable.
‘Untranslatable’ is a term which had been getting language professionals hot under the collar for decades.
One school of thought is that everything can be translated, because there are no untranslatables, only the limitations of translators’ competences.
Internet is full of compilations of allegedly untranslatable words from languages around the world. German traditionally hogs most space on those lists, which is not entirely fair, as the German language has a habit of stringing a number of words together, calling it a new word, and looking smug about it, which is simply not cricket.
I do not think of words which do not have a one-to-one lexical equivalent in other languages as untranslatable. They can still be successfully translated, they simply require the use of additional words to render their meaning in another language.
An example of such word is Polish ‘kilkanaście’ which means a number between 11 and 19.
I have heard this word interpreted rather nonchalantly as ‘a dozen or so’, or ‘umpteen’, but if accuracy is of fundamental importance, it requires the translation to state ‘between 11 and 19’, or ‘more than 10 and less than 20’.
The concept of a number between 11 and 19 (or more than 10 and less than 20) is easily understandable in both language communities, but the exact word for it does not exist in English and requires descriptive translation. I do not consider this an example of an untranslatable word.
Everything I interpret during a trial is important, and it is highly desirable that I remain on top form at all times, but when the quality and accuracy of my interpreting matters the most is when the defendant gives live evidence to the court, and I become their voice.
My language pair is English and Polish, so naturally my examples are drawn from my court experience with these two languages.
During my working day, I come across numerous scenarios where subtle differences between the two languages conspire to trip me over.
The Polish word ręka can mean either arm or hand. A separate word for hand does exist, (dłoń), but ręka is often used instead. Where accuracy matters, I need to ask for clarification, but before I do, I need to ask permission to ask for clarification, and possibly explain why I am asking for clarification of such a common word without raising suspicion about my professional competence.
The English word nephew does not have a one-to-one equivalent in Polish, but rather the Polish language always specifies whether the nephew in question is the son of your sister, in which case he is your siostrzeniec, or the son of your brother in which case he is your bratanek. The same rule applies to the word niece.
Whenever I hear the word ‘nephew’, which needs to be interpreted into Polish, I have a choice to run with the Polish word for ‘your sister’s son’, which of course has a fifty-fifty chance of being correct, or it might elicit a fully justified response from the Polish client, ‘I don’t have a sister’, in which case I need to intervene and ask the asker of the question whether they meant their sister’s son or their brother’s son, at which point the asker might wonder why on Earth this detail is relevant to the interpreter, which then brings on an utterly irrelevant diversion whereby the interpreter educates all parties about linguistic differences between sister’s son and brother’s son in the Polish language, distracting everybody from the matter at hand.
Several other words expressing family relations open themselves up to potential confusion. Polish seems to have a larger number of words which specify a variety of family relations, drawing distinctions between blood and non-blood relations. In English, sister-in-law can mean either husband’s sister, or brother’s wife. Polish has a separate word for each one, whereby husband’s sister is szwagierka, and brother’s wife is bratowa. Another case of fifty-fifty chance of either getting it right, or being informed by the client, ‘my brother doesn’t have a wife’. Russian roulette rules apply.
Moving on from general vocabulary to terms which are specifically likely to be used during court proceedings, I have learnt to anticipate them and to negotiate them accordingly.
An example of this are the words inference and conclusion, both of which are commonly used by lawyers and judges during the course of a criminal trial. They are commonly translated into Polish using one word, ‘wniosek’ for both. This is likely to cause interpreting problems towards the end of many crown court trials, when the judge provides the jury with legal directions that they are obliged to follow during their deliberations. In cases where the defendant either gave a no comment police interview, or chose not to give evidence in court, or both, the judge gives the jury an ‘adverse inference direction’ and tells them that they can draw an adverse inference from the defendant’s silence, but only if they are sure that it is fair to reach such conclusion.
None of the above examples are untranslatable.
What I mean when I say that a term is untranslatable, I think of scenarios where a concept itself either does not exist in another language, or is not as widespread, or has different cultural and historical connotations and implications in each language community.
This proposition is veering dangerously close to the realm of linguistic relativity theory, which, in unforgivingly simplified terms, is the academic hypothesis that the language we speak affects, or in extreme cases determines, the way we think about and interpret the world around us. It has been a couple of decades since I last approached language from an academic, rather than practical perspective, so I am not entirely sure whether linguistic relativity is still a ‘thing’, or whether it has been dismissed to the archives of science, as a fatally flawed argument. I should probably google it.
Polish language is famous or notorious, whichever way you prefer to look at it, for their endless litany of progressive diminutives.
Where English has a dog, doggy, a little dog and a little doggy, Polish has a separate word for dog, doggy, little dog, little doggy, tiny little doggy, tiniest littlest little tiny doggy, and so on. Polish diminutives multiply and gemmate ad lib, until they begin to dissolve in their own absurdity (pies, piesek, pieseczek, psiak, psiaczek, piesunio, piesuncio, psina, psinka, psineczka).
Diminutives serve several purposes. They are used when talking to children, shrinking the world and all its objects to child-friendly proportions, although child psychologists have recently condemned this technique as potentially damaging to children’s development.
Diminutives are used, excessively between lovers, as terms of endearment. It is common to hear a man great his loved one with, how is my tiny little froggy today? To which he is likely to hear in response, I am fine, and how is my tiniest littlest doggy doing?
The list of animals on this love talk register is endless. Apart from the more obvious little cat, little dog, little bunny, you are likely to be called by your beau a little mouse, rat, hamster, squirrel, tiger, bear, monkey, as well as a vast number of domesticated and wild birds names, including all common poultry species.
Creative use of diminutives might become an issue for a court interpreter when they are requested to translate text messages between ex-lovers after the relationship had gone sour and the estranged partners meet in court as warring parties.
I am not saying that a vast assortment of diminutives available to a native Polish speaker is completely untranslatable, but their nuanced use cannot be easily conveyed in English, which simply does not rely on them to a similarly large extent.
Two Polish words which come the closest to being untranslatable into English have their origin in the specifics of Polish post-war history, and the ‘resourcefulness’ of Polish people which allowed them to carve up a decent existence during Communist regime.
Skombinować and załatwić are the words which describe sorting something out, achieving, arranging, obtaining, facilitating or organising something in a rather vague, possibly underhand, possibly borderline illegal, way. Both words have a long history of describing how generations of Poles living with Communist era shortages of basic products, from meat and sugar, to fridges and washing machines, resorted to various degrees of wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving to overcome the stark limitations of their lives.
Several English translations for these two words are available, and I have been using them interchangeably, trying out which work best, and they do work, they do their job as well as they can, but they fail to convey the connotations that are immediately obvious to every Polish person, but inevitably lost on the English audience, because sorting out, working out, fixing, getting something done, arranging or organising something does not convey the baggage of all the unconventional thinking and inventiveness that over forty years of Communist era instilled in Polish psyche.
Another phrase which arose from years of mastering these unique survival skills is ‘A Pole can’ (Polak potrafi). It is used nearly exclusively in an ironic, sarcastic way, which alludes to the abovementioned ducking and diving methods of negotiating live under Communism.
English has its own list of similarly untranslatable words, the words so deeply rooted in British culture that a translation will always only scratch the surface and sound only partly correct.
There is a tight competition for the title of the most British concept ever. My favourite word for the trophy is awkward. I mean the actual word awkward.
Feeling awkward is the British default state of mind in social situations in the way that is unmatched in any other country on Earth.
An exclamation, ‘Awkward!’, is difficult to translate, because you can only translate the word itself, leaving behind the excruciating embarrassment, the skin-crawling unease, the palpable discomfort, the utter mortification it inflicts on a British person in the middle of an awkward situation.
English is great in creating precise, one-word descriptions for specific behaviours or concepts. To translate each of them into Polish, I need three to five words.
I come across such words many times every day, because English is so full of them. Sometimes, I allow myself a luxury of reflecting on the language around me, rather than rush to complete the next sentence. I allow myself to stop and stare, and admire the incredible agility of the English language.
Gaslighting, gazumping, brinkmanship, whiplash, scaremongering, warmongering, serendipity, cold turkey, are just a few examples of such concise, semantically pleasing words. Some of them are reminiscent the German level of untranslatability.
This is what it takes to render each of the above words in Polish:
Gaslighting – manipulowanie czyjąś percepcją rzeczywistości
Everything I discussed here is only a tip of an iceberg on the subject of untranslatables and untranslatability.
Academically inclined linguists have probably begun pulling their hair by now, which is as good a point as any to end my musings.
*Cordelia Novak is the author of a book on court interpreting, View from the Dock, available on Amazon. I have it on good authority that Cordelia is currently writing a sequel, with the working title Back in the Dock. Publication date of the sequel is as yet unknown.
I come dreadfully late to the game, but at least I have made it in time for the next month’s Jubilee. I started watching The Crown last weekend and completed the whole 4 series in 5 days, which allowed me to cut my previous personal best in Netflix binging by over 24 hours. My first impression, which, incidentally, I have altered since, was my dear God and Garden Fairies, what a ghastly show this is.
Everybody is miserable all the time. The Queen hates her job and looks deeply and utterly unhappy. She never smiles and she never ever sees her two oldest children who hop around vast corridors of Buckingham Palace without anybody taking notice.
Philip eyes everybody with suspicion and keeps his head oddly askew at all times. He is permanently grumpy and complains about everything, which is not an unusual male behaviour, we all know at least one such specimen, and many of us live with one, but I for one have always been led to believe that Philip was the Queen’s rock and anchor who offered her unwavering support for seven decades.
I am willing to concede there are a few redeeming features; the Queen models a stunning collection of 1950s dresses. Claire Foy who plays the young Queen in the first two seasons, has grown on me. The young Princess Margaret is brilliantly feisty and glamorous. Matthew Goode is young Tony Armstrong-Jones.
Season 3 brings a complete cast change. This takes some getting used to, as I have developed an attachment to Claire Foy by now and have begun to feel oddly protective of her.
Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter took over the roles of the Queen and her sister. The true heavy weights of their profession, they felt wrong for the first couple of episodes, not the least because they were both a decade older than the women they portrayed.
Prince Charles deserves a special mention. I can almost feel sorry for the real one, if he watches. Almost. The series makers are determined to present him in the worst possible light, from a weakling child who refuses to even try to complete any physical challenge, to a grumpy idiot during his university years. Charles’ first day of his reluctant participation in the Welsh language tuition shows him attempt to interact with a recorded lesson. Comedy gold. Unless you are Prince Charles.
Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher wins the tight contest for the biggest irritation of the series. Her butchered Thatcher accent sounds like a slow-motion comical take on the real thing, and makes season 4 almost unwatchable.
This quickly becomes of small importance, as from the moment Diana comes on the scene, the whole thing is mostly unwatchable.
I understand that The Crown is an American-made tale of British monarchy, and as such it was always going to be somewhat of a disaster, but some things stand out more than others in this unintentionally comical parody of life in Britain in the 20th century. One curious omission is the 1966 World Cup. It does not get a mention, not even in passing.
Whilst the world is in the grip of an abhorrent war, and we are probably all doomed; the soaring energy and food prices make everybody more than usually angry and miserable; I have busied myself reaching further depths of shallowness, proving that shallowness can be very deep indeed. I am quietly confident I have now secured my place among the highest echelons of the Very British Problems brigade. This morning, I wrote a complaint to John Lewis expressing my disappointment in the fact that my new Denby Imperial Blue mugs are of a noticeably different shade to the rest of my Imperial Blue crockery range, which my family and I have grown to love for their unique and distinctive shade of blue. Sadly, the recently purchased mugs are so much darker from the rest as to be almost navy. Yours sincerely. I can see very clearly whoever draws the short straw to read and respond to my complaint make a pained ‘why me’ facepalm gesture. I know I would.
I am sure you now all feel much better about your own lives and find them full of previously un-appreciated purpose and meaning. Not a bad feeling for Monday morning. You are welcome.