Temperatures are now between 25 and 30°C, so high time to re-arrange my daily wear, putting winter clothes in the basement and summer clothes in my day-to-day wardrobe. The road to hell is paved with garments – especially trousers – that left in the dark have shrunk several sizes since last summer or the summer before last.
This sounds like an echo of a post from about a year ago: no progress made, I’m afraid. It’s easy to blame Covid for my extra kilos, gained while sitting around on the sofa, but if I’m honest I know it’s all my own fault. Too many carbs, too few steps.
This begs the question of what to do with things that looked OK on me 3 or 4 years ago but are too truthful for my present much rounder shape. Last year and the year before, they were carefully put away in the hope that miraculously some of this too, too solid flesh would melt. It hasn’t. In fact it’s even more solid. Consolidated, I might say. At least 10 kilos extra. And the mirror tells me that trousers, whether long, short or mid-calf, are definitely OUT. As is anything fitted. Bell tents are IN. Alack and alas! Shoes still fit, thank goodness – but can I walk in them? Goodbye heels!
Most things in my wardrobe are still wearable, not noticeably dated and of decent quality. I’m sure someone the right size would be glad of them but charity shops are very fussy nowadays. I think I’m going to shove everything into a big suitcase and drop it off at the refugee centre.
When I pop my clogs, my daughter and granddaughters will inherit a few things that they may not be terribly enthusiastic about – but woe betide them if they dump them, because then I shall surely come back to haunt them! Be warned, my sweet Swiss Rose, and your equally sweet rosebuds!
Here is one of them: one of my earliest playthings, this brass hare served as a doorstop in my parents’ house for as long as I can remember – how they acquired it, I have no idea. My father had a habit of picking things up “that might come in useful” or that took his fancy, so he could have found it anywhere. It originally came from an Alvis car, made in Coventry, England, around a hundred years ago.
I discovered that there had been at least four different versions of the hare mascot and they are still being manufactured today by the Louis Lejeune mascot company. I can vouch for the fact that mine is even older than me, and indeed it’s one of the earliest, known as the “big paws” model. From 1928 onwards they were chrome-plated and carried the signature of their maker AEL (for AE Lejeune). Mine, however, is brass, has never been chromed, and has no signature, making it pre-1928. Its age was verified by Mr Dave Rees of Red Triangle Customer Service who told me:
There were many different versions of Hares used to embellish the radiator caps of various Alvis cars, the one depicted in your photo I have seen on a 10/30 from 1922. There are only 2 10/30 cars known to exist still, one of which is in restored condition and the other has not been restored and I couldn’t tell you the condition of that one.
Whilst your hare may not have originally come from a 10/30, it most certainly would have been from a very early Alvis car made in all likelihood before 1923.
The mascot that was similar to yours that I have seen in use was not chromed and the owner is very thorough about his restorations, so I believe that having it the finish yours is in would be correct.
The 10/30 was a beautiful car so I ordered a print of a coloured drawing showing a 1921 10/30 Alvis with my hare sitting proudly atop the radiator. That’s probably the nearest I’ll ever come to reuniting him with his original vehicle.
A number of people have asked me where I live in Switzerland, but are often none the wiser when I tell them. And yet my village has been world-famous for its high-class spa since the belle époque, when it welcomed many of the crowned heads of Europe and whoever was among the great and glorious of their time. It’s also part of the location of the children’s story of Heidi, as this is where her friend Klara was staying in the grand hotel.
Bad Ragaz sits on the bank of the river Rhine; not far from the border with Austria, just south of the Principality of Liechtenstein, and at the entrance to the canton of the Grey League (Graubünden / Grisons / Grischuna / Grigione in the national languages of Switzerland). In addition to its natural hot springs, it’s also a winter ski resort and a very pleasant place to spend a hiking holiday the rest of the year.
At the moment, spring is bursting out all over and the short walk from my home to the station on Wednesday took me an extra five minutes as I stopped to admire and photograph some of the beauty en route.
I was on my way to visit my daughter and son-in-law who live two hours away in the picturesque little town of Frauenfeld, capital city of the canton of Thurgau. I took the train that runs alongside the Rhine and then veers off westwards to St Gallen, and disembarked in another small town that few foreigners have heard, of called Wil, where I was met by my daughter and my five-year-old great-granddaughter.
Like many other obscure small Swiss towns, Wil has a gem of an old town and an attractive pedestrian shopping area leading up to it. This week, the pedestrian-only high street is showcasing a garden competition – not quite Chelsea Flower Show, but some very pretty exhibits nonetheless that I couldn’t resist recording on my phone.
Since I arrived at precisely 12 noon, our first thought was to find a place to have lunch and as the sun was shining we decided to go to the Italian restaurant which has a terrace beside the little lake just below what used to be the city wall and is now a tight ring of mediaeval houses perched above a vertiginous bank of gardens.
Our little girl was most appreciative of her pizza with pineapple (half of it went home with her), and eager to explore the surroundings of the lake which is home to many different kinds of water fowl. There is also an impressive fountain in the middle, a small sister to Geneva’s famous jet d’eau.
We stopped briefly for an ice-cream on the way back to the car, and finally took our little one back home. There we received a warm welcome from my eldest granddaughter and her other children, and were fed tea and delicious home baked cake. Consequently, on arrival at my daughter’s home in Frauenfeld, we had to disappoint my son-in-law who was looking forward to eating dinner with us – we just had no room left!
Yesterday morning, my daughter and I took the dog for her usual run in the woodland on the edge of town that’s just down the road from my daughter’s house. This, for my great-grandchildren, is the “enchanted forest”, a wildlife preserve with a small river and canal running through it, where beavers are building dams under the watchful eyes of the herons, ducks and jays, and there is a neat little campfire site with a covered supply of firewood.
A quaint club nearby hut always has some kind of seasonal display outside for the children to admire, and at the moment it has the added attraction that some generous person has slipped a few chocolate Easter eggs into the arrangement.
Home again, and a quick look around the garden where tulips abound as well as other harbingers of spring, and inside the house there is also no lack of greenery – mostly orchids, one of my son-in-law’s passions. $
Home sweet home!
Now getting ready for Easter and the arrival of the rest of the family. Oh yes, there’s another lovely gathering of the clan this weekend, and a chance to catch up with all my descendants. Well worth the journey from Bad Ragaz to Frauenfeld.
Like many others, I read the news (because I can’t bear to watch) about the war raging in Ukraine, and feel helpless, powerless. I grew up in the industrial Midlands of England during WW2, and my lullabies were sirens and bombs exploding. But I never experienced the horror of an armed invasion. How long can we sit back and refrain from action?
These are my translations of two more of Nelly Sachs’ poems that are as topical and relevant today as when she wrote them. The poem about the sunflower, in particular, as a symbol of Ukraine, is chilling in this context.
You lookers-on Who saw murder done before your eyes. Just as you feel someone looking at you from behind, so you feel on your back the gaze of the dead. How many dying eyes will look at you when from the hiding places you pluck a violet? How many hands raised in supplication in the twisted martyred branches of the old oak trees? How much memory grows in the blood of the evening sun? Oh the unsung lullabies in the nocturnes of the turtle dove – many’s the one might have captured a star. But now the old well has to do it for him! You lookers-on who didn’t raise a hand to kill, but who did not shake off the dust from your longing, who stopped stock still at the point where it turns to light.
But the sunflower inflaming the walls raises from the ground those who speak to the soul in the dark
Torches lit for another world with hair growing beyond death –
And outside the song of finches and time strolling in glory vibrant and the flower growing dear to the human heart
evil ripens into the winepress black grapes – of ill repute – already pressed to wine –
I’m no shrinking violet by any means, but nor am I one to blow my own trumpet loudly. I am, before all else, English! From an early age, I was taught not to push myself forward but to “wait to be asked”. So that’s what I do. Sometimes it pays off. A couple of events this last week have served to boost my self-esteem more than usual and I’d like to share these with you while the glow still lasts
As you can see from the headings at the top of this blog, I also run a blog devoted to my English translations of poems by the German Jewish writer Nelly Sachs. My main purpose in posting these is to help make Nelly Sachs’ work known and accessible among English-speaking audiences who would otherwise be unable to appreciate the original German poems.
Several people have asked permission to use this or that poem for specific events and I’m constantly coming across others on the Internet who have reproduced them without my explicit permission in all kinds of contexts. I see that as positive, because my chief aim in publishing them has always been to make the voice of Nelly Sachs heard among English speakers, so provided I’m given credit, I’m OK with that.
I was approached a few weeks ago by Elly Sullivan, an American student, who requested permission to read aloud one of my translations at a Holocaust Memorial Event taking place at her college in Maryland, followed by an invitation to participate via Zoom in a virtual conference on literary translation that was being hosted by her college on Saturday, 9 April. This intrigued me, so I accepted.
After the initial contact with Elly, I knew that here was someone sensitive, sensible and reliable that I could trust and work with. We devised a format for the presentation based on an interview with me about these poems, the poet Nelly Sachs and all the whys and wherefores of my labour of love as represented by the blog. Because of the time difference between Maryland and Switzerland, we were allotted a slot in the morning immediately after the introduction to the conference, which was convenient for me as it was 4 pm here, a time when my brain is usually firing on all four cylinders.
On the Saturday morning a week before the conference Elly and I took our presentation through a trial run with her erudite poetry group who very kindly gave us their feedback. This was encouraging and constructive, enabling us to make some adjustments and decide which poems to include in Elly’s PowerPoint presentation, to be discussed in the interview.
Then just a few days later I found a request on my Nelly Sachs blog for permission to use my translation “Chorus of the Consolers” in a talk being given in another conference on the Literature of Trauma at the university of Marburg, Germany – this conference had already started and was being streamed live! They were very relieved to have my consent, as the talk was in English and it had only occurred to them at the last moment that they didn’t have an English version of the poem (a crucial part of the talk), so I was also invited to watch and listen to that informative and interesting speech.
Thanks are due to Covid for the rise of Zoom in these last two years, which makes connecting with people so much easier. From my couch here in Switzerland I am able to join others all over the world, so simply and comfortably.
To my relief and delight, back in Maryland yesterday the live-streamed Confluence interview / presentation entitled “Antidote and Access: Literary Translation in the Blogosphere” went smoothly, and feedback on the live chat was very encouraging, full of praise, encouragement and superlatives that made my head grow several sizes too big for my bonnet. This interview was also recorded, so will be available at some point on the website of Montgomery College if any of my readers and followers are interested. (I’ll add the link when it’s all set up.) I hope Elly gets the A+ she deserves for all her work.
You may be asking: What’s all that about “Antidote and Access”? For decades before I retired I was earning my bread and butter – and sometimes a good dollop of jam – from technical and commercial translations, so the creative process of translating poetry really was an antidote at that time to the materialistic prose of the business world. And as for access, the Internet and blogosphere has the edge over a printed book by making blog content available and accessible free of charge to anyone capable of googling; my Nelly Sachs blog has received getting on for 121,000 hits – not bad for a poet whom only the elite few have even heard of. There’s also the extra bonus for me, that I can revise my English versions and add to my selection at any time with no difficulty.
Still, could this lead to publication in book form? That, I must admit, would be gratifying and fun: I started my labour of love almost 30 years ago and though the work has been intermittent with long gaps – sometimes years – between poems, I don’t see an end to it! Nelly Sachs wrote several hundred poems, so there’s a long way to go yet. My currently inflated ego thinks it would be nice to see them in print. Who knows? I must confess to feeling like something of an impostor, and am still waiting to be asked. But – remember Grandma Moses! She was actually even younger than me when she was discovered.
All around you missiles Are falling. Churches You once knew won’t Be there any more. The streets you walked Will be changed by Blood and shelling And bombs. It seems The world’s gone mad. As the Earth shakes, Not because of the rage Of the gods, but that One man wants to Win back a lost empire, You will think that Your world is being Shattered for ever. It is. But out of the destruction, Out of all this thunder, Something new will Come. Whatever happens Your land will know The courage of its soul, Its people; and history Will be rewritten not With the force of an autocrat But by the steadfast hope And desire to be true To the beauty of your earth And all you have Suffered. Katya in your Bomb shelter, we’re with you. We’re there in the shadows We’re there in the silence Between the explosions …
Those who destroy your land Destroy themselves. Always remember what Your land fights for, The right to its future, Without any force from Outside. Katya, we are Done with people forcing Us into their own dream. We are done with being Told who we can or can’t Be. A time comes when You stand and say My future’s mine to dream My land is mine to till My life is mine to imagine You will not break my truth You will not distort my Dream. You will not Destroy my future, who Ever you are. You may Pulverise our churches, Our roads, theatres, and our Hospitals, with hundreds Hiding in them, but you’ll Never touch the Fountain of our dreams, Or the deep world From which we will create Every day a radiant Land. From this bomb Shelter we’ll dream anew. Your shelling is our resurrection Your missiles are missives Of our regeneration. All that you ruin Are all those things Which must go so That we will for ever Be free to be what we Truly are. For even If you win, the victory Is ours. For you’ve Tempered our souls And revealed to us our True selves which we Might never have Found without your Wish to crush us.
Katya, in your bomb shelter, it’s A fearful thing When people act From the great emptiness Of a loss of empire. An empire is a vast ego, A gigantic delusion, and It makes people think That they own the Souls of others, that they Control the destiny Of nations, and that they Are somehow the masters Of the Earth. The loss Of such a delusion Can make people insane. Sometimes when a leader Is unhinged by this loss They are prepared To destroy the world so They can return To their lost dream Of vast terrains in which Once they were gods.
It’s not good for humans To entertain the delusion Of being gods. So Katya It is not your fault that Someone wants back What they should not Have taken. It’s not our Fault that we dream Of freedom, that we want To be ourselves, Live our lives, make Our own mistakes, And determine our own Destiny. No one can Rip that away from us. The age of empire is over. The age of freedom is Here. They may dominate Us still with their might and Their nuclear bombs, But they will not Determine who we shall Be, or where our Fire and our dreams Will take us. I am with You there in the bomb shelter. I am a bomb shelter child too. This will end. It will pass. So drink the sweet Waters of the Earth. Sing songs to one Another in this time Of darkness. The Monster’s worst roar Is often just before It falls. There are no real Monsters in life, Just people who’re Deluded, or mad, or Lost in ideas that stray Too far from the Wise road of the human.
Fires are howling In the streets that the Centuries built. There are tenements, Bomb-sliced in half, In which you can See the innards Of apartments. Your roots are entangled With the souls of those Who seek to murder you. I hear that their soldiers Weep as they drop Bombs on their distant relations. See, they’re driving Their knives into their own Hearts. Such a great Civilisation, home to Such madnesses. They learned nothing From Lev Tolstoy, Katya. They learned nothing. Napoleon tried to do The same thing. He Won too. But what A loss that was. They burned their famed City so that what he Won was ashes. He sat there in the throne Of ash, and eternal winter Descended on his head. That was the commencement Of his end. They learned Nothing from War and Peace. Nor from Hitler. A people determined To be free can Not be compelled To be unfree again. Even if you kill them. Do you know why, Katya? Well it’s because We are made of a stuff Not of this Earth And when we find Our truth a new beauty And force is added to The universe.
The missiles are falling. Children perish in bombed Out churches. An evil Is being planted in our Times and the whole World can see it. But missiles create lions From lambs, and bombs Awaken tigers. They Never learn, the deluded ones. They’ll kill hundreds Of thousands, but From those defeats An army of dragons Will be born. They Have changed the world, But not in the way they Thought. Katya, you Who live in the slip Stream of empires, Wake up fast. Grow Deep, strong and brave. Join the greater river Of human destiny. You can’t fight injustice And then be unjust to others. Every day you survive Brings your liberation Closer. Spirits Of the dead will you on.
The church will be rebuilt The streets will be made new There will be festivals in the square. You will taste grapes from Greece, Apples from the Hesperides And sweet oranges from Africa. And one day your laughter Will defeat the vacuum missiles And the bombs will fade Into the depths of your freedom. A soft wind from the Bosphorus Will weave your hair And the sun-kissed snow Will temper the grim memories Of this bomb shelter where you grow.
Ben Okri is a novelist and poet. He is the author of Every Leaf a Hallelujah and The Famished Road
Voices of Ukraine: writers including Ian McEwan and Karl Ove Knausgaard will read work by Ukrainian authors at a Guardian Live event in London 0n Monday 11 April. The event will also be livestreamed and all profits will be donated to the DEC Ukraine appeal. Book here
I received some additional photos taken by our Helimission host (pilot/instructor) who of course had an unobstructed view of where we were going. So for the sake of completeness, here is our most important mountain in Eastern Switzerland, the majestic Säntis.
“Would you like to have a helicopter ride on Saturday?”
What a question! Of course! Count me in!
And then the practicalities …
The offer comes from a very worthwhile charity foundation called Helimission https://www.helimission.org/en/ with headquarters located in Trogen, a small Alpine village about 75 km from my home. I have been doing translations for Helimission for a number of years, donating my time rather than my money, and they have been promising me a trip in a helicopter as a token of thanks for a very long time. At last the opportunity had arrived! Except that getting to Trogen is by a long and winding road, I don’t have transport, and at the moment I’m staying with my friend in Walenstadt, which is even further away. As the crow flies, of course, it’s much closer – just a few mountains in the way.
“No problem. I’ll come and pick you up about 11 am. Your friend can come too. Let me know where I can land.”
That sounds simple. There’s a large meadow not far away where the paragliders land – no, you have to pay a fee for that. There’s a field across the road from my friend’s house, large enough but on a slight slope and on inspection it proved to be very bumpy and lumpy, so that’s out. My friend knows a man with pastures where his horses graze – but that’s also on a steep slope. Oh dear! We made several phone calls, asked people to call us back, but nothing suitable came up.
Then – miracle! A lady “just happened” to come by on Friday morning who used to work for a company that had small planes and helicopters, and when we asked if she knew a place nearby where a helicopter could land, she instantly said, “Natürlich!” and gave us the phone number of the farmer in charge of a large, very flat meadow just about 500 m down the road. Permission granted, and all we had to hope for now was good weather (it was very dull and damp on Friday). Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and with true Swiss precision we greeted the helicopter at 10.59 at the appointed spot. Our pilot was a young man in training, but of course the co-pilot /instructor has years of experience flying in all kinds of conditions. People strolling near the lake were probably rather surprised to see a helicopter arriving and picking up two elderly grey-haired ladies, but we didn’t notice.
Up and away, over the lake between the steep mountains on either side of the valley, and then a right-hand turn around the sharp ridge of the Churfirsten and over the summits of the snowy slopes reflecting the bright sunshine.
Far below us, the villages and roads, woods and ski slopes. Mountains and alpine pastures that used to be familiar to me from hikes years ago now lay before and below us. Ahead of us the highest mountain in eastern Switzerland, the Säntis, reared its built-up summit with a huge weather station and satellite tower. Then another right turn and a narrow squeeze through two rocky crags that seemed almost to be scraping the sides of the chopper. Our junior pilot was doing very well, the instructor’s calm, gentle voice through the headphones guiding him through the complicated processes.
And then we were back through the chain of the Churfirsten mountains and over the blue lake once more, heading back to our meadow landing spot. Our pilots helped us disembark, and a moment later the helicopter was just a dot in the distance. It was a short but very exhilarating and beautiful experience. Thank you very much, Helimission! That was fun!
I have referred to my old friend Norman Perryman before on this blog. Today, he passed on this link to a video uploaded 6 years ago, but which is so utterly relevant to the present situation in Ukraine that it brought tears to my eyes as I watched and listened to it. I offer this as a prayer for all involved in this terrible conflict. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZwSTBFHB0M
This is a true story, about a young woman who came to our English-speaking church from a home for asylum-seekers in about 2005.One of the older women in our church who had formerly been a missionary nurse in Cameroon took her under her wing, and helped where she could. I have changed the names of those concerned but the events happened as I tell them.
Seraphina grew up in a Cameroonian village. She was the daughter of a single mother because the village chief refused to let her mother marry her father who came from a different tribe. This situation put them into the lowest social position in the village. Seraphina’s mother scraped a living by selling homegrown vegetables at the village market. When Seraphina turned 15, the chief wanted to marry her off to another old chief and told her mother to present her for female genital mutilation in preparation for the marriage. Neither Seraphina nor her mother were happy about this, and Seraphina ran away. Her mother was told that she must either bring Seraphina back, or be killed because she had dishonoured the village. Somehow, Seraphina was taken to Switzerland illegally by an African man who promised to save her. Her mother was killed.
In Switzerland, the man who “rescued” Seraphina exploited her by getting her addicted to drugs and prostituting her. He was a homosexual, so not interested in her himself except as a source of income. However, he was quite happy to allow her to keep the child, a little girl, that she had when she was about sixteen or seventeen, as it gave him a certain prestige among Africans to have a child. After a while he died, and Seraphina was able to escape from her captivity and claim asylum together with her daughter.
Then, still addicted to drugs, she was caught dealing them and sent to prison where she underwent withdrawal treatment. Her daughter was taken from her during this time, and fostered by a Swiss family. Although Seraphina is completely drug free now, she contracted HIV during the time of her exploitation and remains HIV-positive.
She had a very hard battle to fight but eventually managed to find a job and her daughter was allowed to live with her again. However, being still on social benefits and having no passport she wasn’t yet eligible for a residence permit although she had been in Switzerland for 12 years.
A few years ago she met a man from Cameroon at a church service in Zurich. His name was Michael, and he had been in Switzerland for about 20 years. He had his own taxi service in Zurich and was well established there. They fell in love and decided to get married, but since Seraphina had no papers she couldn’t get married legally in Switzerland. That didn’t deter them. Michael was there legally and had a valid passport, so he was able to leave the country and visit Cameroon.
He comes from a different part of the country and belongs to a different tribe from Seraphina, so he had to find a way of contacting the right people in Seraphina’s village. She knew that a friend of her mother’s still lived there, but didn’t know the woman’s name. That is a community with no street addresses, but mobile phones were now coming in. Seraphina described the woman to Michael, and explained where she always had her stall in the market (it used to be next to Seraphina’s mother’s stall) so Michael travelled there and searched for the woman.
The first week she wasn’t at her market stall, and he couldn’t stay until the next week, so he gave a note to a boy at the market and asked him to pass it on to the woman when she came to her stall the following week. The message gave Michael’s phone number and asked her to call him. The boy did as he was asked, and the woman phoned Michael, who explained who he was and why he was trying to contact her. She was happy to help, so Michael went back to the village to meet up with her.
Since Michael didn’t speak the local language, the woman was willing to be the go-between for him and the village chief. In that society, Seraphina was still considered as a “subject” of the chief and only he could give permission for her to marry, even though she hadn’t been in the village for 12 years. The woman explained to Michael how to behave and what to say so that he would be accepted by the village.
They agreed on a bride price, which Michael then brought ceremoniously to the village chief: a pig, a goat, a certain amount of oil and rice. Then the village held a wedding celebration for the happy couple in the traditional style, with Michael present in person dressed in the wedding costume of his village and Seraphina on Skype from her home in Switzerland, where she and her daughter put on their traditional tribal robes and joined in the dancing with the villagers. Then Michael returned to Seraphina in Zurich, and they moved in together as a married couple. In December 2017 their baby daughter Michaela was born, by C-section because of Seraphina being HIV positive.
This story has a happy ending. Michael was also able to use his time in Cameroon to apply for papers for Seraphina, and she got a passport at last. Then they could also get married in Switzerland, which allowed Seraphina to get a residence permit, and since Michael also has Swiss citizenship (as does baby Michaela) the whole family has eventually become Swiss.
I'm a retiree in his seventies. That may not be significant to many, since there is a bunch of us Baby Boomers around. However, in the year 2,000, when I received a diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma, I expected to be dead in three to five years.