At the moment, Helimission is revising the website and the book order feature isn’t working. However, I am reliably informed that you can order any of the books by sending an e-mail to https://www.helimission.org/en/contact-us/and it will be dealt with. Helimission apologise for this inconvenience, due to circumstances beyond their control, and hope that it won’t deter you from ordering books by Ernie and Hedi Tanner.
A couple of months ago, I was privileged to enjoy a ride among the snowy Alps in one of Helimission’s helicopters – I wrote about it here. https://catterel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/into-the-blue-yonder/
Helimission is a remarkable, probably unique, charitable foundation based here in Eastern Switzerland that, for over 50 years, has been using helicopters to transport humanitarian aid, medical staff and missionaries across terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible. Mostly jungle. I have been translating for them for a number of years as my contribution to their admirable work. Here’s a link to their web page https://www.helimission.org/en/the-foundation/
Yesterday in my letterbox I found a book by the founder of Helimission, the irrepressible nonagenarian Ernie Tanner, entitled “Where Angels fear to fly”. On opening it, I realised to my delight that this was my translation – under a new title – of “Dem Tod entronnen – immer wieder”, the English version in print at last. (ISBN 978-3-9525111-4-5)
This is an unputdownable account of some of Ernie’s many brushes with death, told in his inimitable style, and I had a great deal of enjoyment translating it. In fact, translating books like this doesn’t actually feel like work: the stories flow from one death-defying event to the next like a raging torrent, interspersed with moments of humour and sometimes sadness.
Throughout Ernie’s narration is the awareness of just how hard his guardian angels must have been working to meet the challenges he constantly confronted them with, and his inextinguishable faith in the grace and protection of God.
From the minute he set off on his very first flight, with the minimum of required flying hours, very basic instruction and less experience, Ernie humbly admits that he was flying on a wing and a prayer. This first flight took him from his village in eastern Switzerland over mountains, sea, jungle and desert, all the way across France and Spain, over the Strait of Gibraltar and down through Africa to Yaoundé in Cameroon.
Chapter after chapter, like a cat with nine lives, Ernie recounts his hazardous adventures: emergency landings in fog, in the desert, in sandstorms, at gunpoint, on the edge of a precipice, and on the terrace of a hotel. And all without accident! Ernie was no daredevil: he lost good pilots and friends in helicopter crashes and he knew that Death was always beside him when he was flying. But his mission and his trust in God gave him the courage and wisdom he needed to bring physical and spiritual help to the poorest, most desperate people of Africa.
“Where Angels fear to fly” is the follow-up to a book written by Ernie’s wife, Hedi Tanner, entitled “More than an Adventure” (“Mehr als ein Abenteuer”) and will be followed by autobiographies of both Ernie and Hedi, which are in the process of preparation for printing.
It’s a page-turner, easy to read, and well worth your time. I highly recommend reading this in conjunction with “More than an Adventure” (ISBN 978-1599190075) and – when they finally come out – the absorbing autobiographies of Ernie and Hedi Tanner.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this two-part interview from 2009.
My translation of a poem by Philippe Jaccottet that perfectly describes a sight I am blessed to be able to enjoy here in the Swiss Alps on a regular basis at this time of year:
In the slowly brightening air
Lingers this gleaming tear
Or flickering lanterned flame
While from the mountains’ sleep
Arises a golden haze
In the balance of the dawn
Between the promised blaze
And this lost pearl
Lune à l’aube d’été
Dans l’air de plus en plus clair
scintille encore cette larme
ou faible flamme dans du verre
quand du sommeil des montagnes
monte une vapeur dorée
Demeure ainsi suspendue
sur la balance de l’aube
entre la braise promise
et cette perle perdue
Pots from the Past
Housework finished, I was about to sit down with a well-deserved cup of tea when the doorbell rang. NO! I thought, I am NOT answering. But I couldn’t resist peeking, and saw there were two women standing on the doorstep. Jehovah’s Witnesses, no doubt. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Only they didn’t. The bell rang again, more insistently. I put down my cup and opened the door.
“I’m a Pentecostal,” I announced. That usually gets rid of them. These two looked baffled, however.
“I’m born again,” I continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses rarely argue with charismatics, I’ve discovered. But these two didn’t react.
“That’s nice,” said the taller of the two, a middle-aged lady with a pleasant smile. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, but I really couldn’t pass by without stopping to see if anyone’s in. You see, this used to be our house … when I was a little girl. I have so many memories …”
I felt myself blushing.
“Oh dear,” I said. “I thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sorry. Please come in, I’ve just made some tea.”
I opened the door wide and they both stepped inside. Now I could see that they were very clearly mother and daughter, the middle-aged lady a younger version of the elderly lady beside her.
“My name’s Margaret Anderson. We moved away from the area a long time ago, but I just happened to be visiting old friends and couldn’t help coming by to see if the old place has changed much.”
I ushered them into the living room, glad I had finished my cleaning. They looked around with interest and I invited them to sit down on the sofa while I added two more mugs of tea.
“You’ve made it very cosy,” said Margaret. Her mother nodded and smiled. “It’s quite different in some ways, but I see you have kept some of the original features.”
“I like the old fireplace,” I told her, “Though of course it’s no longer in use.”
“Ah yes, we had central heating installed,” replied Margaret, “And wall-to-wall carpeting.”
I looked down at the thinning carpet, and explained that we were about to replace it, a DIY job scheduled for the coming week
“There used to be oak parquet underneath,” Margaret said. “You might find it’s still there, quite fashionable again nowadays.”
Since I had made the beds, vacuumed and dusted everywhere, I offered to show them upstairs. They rose eagerly, and followed me, Margaret explaining animatedly how it had been in her youth and who had slept where.
“What do you use the loft for now?” she asked suddenly.
I looked blank.
“The loft? Nothing – it’s just roof space,” I said.
Margaret looked surprised.
“We had it made into a den for my brother. He used to spend hours up there!”
I looked up at the narrow trapdoor in the ceiling.
“How did he get in?”
“There was a telescopic ladder fixed onto the trapdoor. It drops down when you open the trap.” She looked around. “We had a long pole with a hook on the end to open it with, but I don’t see that anywhere.”
I was startled. We had lived in this house for five years and nobody had ever thought of opening that little trapdoor or exploring the roof space.
As we returned downstairs, Margaret told me a little more about her family. The house had been built in the nineteen-thirties for her grandparents, and her mother had been born there. Her grandfather had been killed in World War II, and her grandmother had brought up her only child alone. When this daughter – Margaret’s mother – married, she and her husband had moved in with the old lady, and Margaret had also been born there.
“It was always a very happy house,” she told me, and again her mother nodded and smiled. “We were sorry to leave, but you know how these things are. I never knew my grandfather, of course, but he worked for The Ruskin Pottery, works manager or something. He bought this house, brand new, with the money he got when it closed down and when I was small, I remember my grandmother still had quite a few pieces of Ruskin pottery. No idea what happened to them – they’d be worth a bit nowadays.”
I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but politely didn’t let on. I noticed that the old lady was staring very hard at the corner of the room in the alcove next to the fireplace, but she didn’t say anything. I followed her eyes, but could see nothing unusual there. She noticed, blinked and smiled, then looked away.
After they left, I sat for a moment musing about my visitors. It must be strange coming back to your childhood home after so many years, I thought, and seeing how so many things had changed.
Why had nobody told us about the loft?
I was curious. I took a chair from my bedroom and placed it below the trapdoor. The catch was difficult to budge as someone had painted over it, but eventually I managed to open it and pushed the little door upwards. A cloud of dust enveloped my head, but I reached up into the opening all the same. Yes, there was a telescopic ladder attached to the back of the door, fastened with a leather strap. I released it, letting the ladder down and bringing more dust down with it but I was too intrigued by my discovery to bother about that. I climbed up the ladder and through the hole.
To my astonishment, I realised that there were floorboards there, and dustsheets spread over what appeared to be items of furniture. It was very dark, but as I groped around I discovered a light switch on a wooden beam. Amazingly, when I pressed it, a light went on!
Yes, the dustsheets covered chairs and probably a table. But the most surprising thing was that the wooden floor was covered in miniature railway tracks, and I could see several very dusty boxes piled up to one side with pictures of trains on them. Why had nobody told us about this? Surely the estate agent must have known that they were there?
When my husband came home, I told him about my visitors and my discovery. We hauled the vacuum cleaner plus a mop and several damp rags up into the loft, and removed quite a lot of dust. It was quite a comfortable room that emerged, and I could well imagine that a young boy and his pals might have been very happy playing with their trains, or lounging about reading their comics away from the adults. Yes, there were old comics there and my husband got quite excited as he realised that the comics as well as the trains and the railway track were still in excellent shape and probably quite valuable.
“I suppose this all belongs to Margaret,” I remarked. My husband shook his head.
“We bought the house and contents, so that includes anything that wasn’t removed by previous owners. Anyway, did she leave you a phone number or an address?”
I had to admit that she hadn’t, and I had no way of contacting her at all.
“I think she said they lived abroad,” I said, trying hard to remember details of our conversation. “But they had old friends nearby.”
We decided to deal with the attic room and its contents the following weekend, and in the meantime I tried to find out more about Margaret and her family from neighbours and local shopkeepers. Nobody remembered them. The house had changed hands more than once in the past forty years, and even the estate agent we had purchased it through couldn’t throw any light on its history.
On Saturday morning we climbed the ladder again, and made a more thorough inspection of our magical loft. In addition to the boy’s toys and treasures we also found an old biscuit tin with a string tied around it. Inside was a bundle of letters, still in their original envelopes, with strange-looking stamps.
“Wow,” said Mick, my husband. “Look, that’s King George on the stamps! These are ancient!”
Tentatively, feeling that we were intruding on very private property, we pulled a letter from its envelope.
My darling Marjorie,
We are being sent overseas tomorrow. Please don’t worry about me, I’m fine and I’ll take good care of myself … we’re glad that we’re going to see some action at last. I love you and miss you. Give Baby a big kiss from her daddy … All my love, George xxx
No, I couldn’t read any more; it really was an intrusion into intimacy. The writer must have been Margaret’s grandfather, who had been killed in action in 1940, and Baby – well, that must have been the old lady who had accompanied her the other day.
Mick, however, didn’t share my scruples. “We might find some clues here,” he said, “and be able to contact Margaret after all.”
He took the biscuit tin downstairs and spent the remainder of the morning reading this heart-wrenching correspondence, but found nothing that pointed to a contact with Margaret.
“This is funny,” he called after a while. “Listen to what George says:
‘I hope the pots are all safely stowed away in the hidey-hole and will not be damaged in case of an air raid.’
What do you think he means by that?”
“Oh,” I said, as my conversation with Margaret came back to me, “He was employed at a pottery before the war. Margaret said they had some valuable things but she didn’t know what had happened to them.”
“Well, there aren’t any pots in the loft. What kind of pottery?”
I racked my brain, trying to remember the name of the pottery. Russel? Rankin? Finally it came back to me, and I cried triumphantly: “Ruskin!“
“Never heard of it,” said Mick, reaching for the laptop. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Wikipedia was quite helpful, and we found that the Ruskin Pottery in Smethwick near Birmingham was an art pottery studio producing highly valued ceramics in the Arts and Crafts style, that had closed down in 1935. Certain items could fetch very high prices even today. All the formulae for the very complicated glazes and all documentation relating to the pottery had been deliberately destroyed when the studio closed in order to preserve the unique Ruskin effects.
“The owner didn’t want anybody replicating the glazes,” read Mick. “Bloody incredible! And you say the old man worked there? Did Margaret tell you anything else?”
“Not really,” I replied, “She did say there’s 1930’s oak parquet underneath this carpet. What about taking it up and having a look before we go out and buy new laminate or something?”
Mick agreed. “Can’t hurt,” he said. “It’s a job we’ve got to do anyway. But it’s probably completely ruined, so don’t get your hopes up.”
And so we began the dusty unpleasant job of removing the fitted carpet that had served several previous owners, and yes, there was indeed oak parquet underneath. No, not very beautiful any more, but Mike was jubilant and very optimistic that with a bit of sanding and varnishing he could restore it to its original glory.
As we reached the last corner in the alcove next to the fireplace, Mike paused.
“That’s weird,” he muttered. “See? There’s an area here that looks like a trapdoor.”
I remembered instantly how the old lady had fixed her eyes on this corner while we were talking, and felt a shiver run down my spine. I squatted down beside him and saw very clearly what he meant. “Can you open it?” I asked. Mike poked a screwdriver between two pieces of parquet, and up came a square about three feet on each side from the floor. It was hinged on one side, and was indeed a trapdoor. Underneath was a dark space. We looked at each other.
“Quick, shine a light in here,” said Mike. I shone my phone into the space, and directly below we saw a large box roughly the same size as the trapdoor we had discovered.
“How do we get it out?” I asked. “Has it got handles?”
Mike muttered something under his breath, then put his hand down into the space and felt along the top edge of the box.
“It’s a tea chest,” he said. “My parents used one of these for years to store stuff in. Maybe the lid is loose, and I can get my hand into it.”
The chest was covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt, but after a moment or two, Mike was able to shift the lid slightly aside and reach inside.
“It’s full of something – things wrapped in paper, I’d say. I don’t think we should try to get the whole box out like this. Better to take some of the things out first and see what they are.”
It wasn’t easy but with great care we managed to pull out several oddly shaped parcels wrapped in brown paper. Off came the wrappings, and we were looking at an array of multicoloured vases and bowls.
“This must be the hidey-hole and the pots George wrote about,” I said. “Ruskin pots?”
“Must be. Careful, they are probably a hundred years old or more.”
It took some time, but eventually we had removed all the contents of the tea chest and Mick was able to pull the chest itself out of the space beneath the floor boards. We shone the phone-light once again into the hole, and saw that rough boards had been placed to form a kind of protective little room for the tea chest.
“How long do you think they have been there?” I wondered.
Mick was looking inside the tea chest, making sure we had really removed everything.
“Hey, look! There’s something else here,” he cried, dipping his hand deep into the box and bringing out a rectangular parcel wrapped in oilcloth.
Very cautiously he unwrapped it. Inside the oilcloth was an old-fashioned leather-bound ledger with a name inscribed on the front cover: The Ruskin Pottery. I opened it.
“Did you say that all the documentation and glaze recipes had been destroyed?” I asked.
“That’s what it says in Wikipedia.”
“So what do you think this is?” I pointed at a page headed “High-Fired Flambé Glaze – N° 6”. Beneath the heading was a list of chemicals and quantities, followed by notes in a flowing copperplate handwriting.
“We have to find Margaret,” I said. “She really needs to see all this, even if we are the legal owners. If she hadn’t dropped in the other day …”
To my relief, Mike agreed. We wrapped everything up again very carefully (the brown paper was old, but the tea chest had protected everything from dust and dirt, so it was still all very clean) and placed the precious bowls and pots back in the chest. Then we closed the trapdoor, tidied up the room as well as we could, and called it a day.
The following afternoon, I was very surprised when the doorbell rang and I discovered Margaret Anderson standing on my doorstep again.
“I don’t believe it!” I gasped. “I have been trying to trace you, but nobody remembered any Andersons.”
“No, they wouldn’t!” she laughed. “That’s my married name. I just wanted to come by before I fly home, and thank you for showing me around last week.”
I asked her in and led her into the living room, where she looked taken aback at the uncovered old parquet flooring and the tea chest standing in the corner.
“My goodness, you have been busy,” she said. “This floor brings back memories. My grandmother loved it, and my mother hated it! Polishing, you know? The first thing she did after Granny died was to have wall-to-wall carpet fitted.”
“Did you know about the hidey-hole?” I asked. Margaret looked puzzled.
I pointed to the trapdoor. “Under there.”
“No, Granny had a little table in that corner with a Chinese rug under it. I didn’t know there was a trapdoor there.”
“That’s where we found the tea chest.”
Margaret still looked puzzled. “The tea chest? What’s in it?”
With a smile, I showed her one of the vases we had found in the tea chest. Margaret’s eyes opened wide as she recognised an item from her childhood.
“Granny always had that on the front windowsill,” she whispered. “There were always vases, bowls, dishes – oh, all sorts of things all around the house when I was small, but they all vanished when Granny died. I thought my mother had given them away or sold them … but … are there any more?”
“The tea chest is full,” I told her, “Have a look.”
Margaret couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as she saw the pottery she remembered so well. I explained that I had managed to get into the loft, told her about the things we had found there, and showed her the biscuit tin with her grandfather’s letters.
“Mike read the letters, looking for clues, but we both felt we had no business intruding into their lives,” I explained. “Still, we wondered what he meant when he asked if the pots were safe in the hidey-hole, and when we found the trapdoor and the tea chest, it all made sense. If the house had been hit in an air raid, they would still have been safe there.
Look, Margaret, I know that we bought this house together with all its contents, but we don’t feel it’s right for us to keep these things that nobody knew were there. Obviously, you have to have your grandfather’s letters, but we’ve got to sort out who owns the trains and comics and Ruskin pottery too. They’re probably all very valuable.”
“I have to sit down,” she muttered, flopping heavily onto the sofa. “This is all too much. Yes, the letters – they are important to me. But the pottery – honestly, I don’t know what to say about that. I suppose it’s valuable, and that little vase – well, maybe I could keep that in memory of my grandmother. My brother died last year, so I’m the only one left. Do you want to keep it? Or sell the lot, and share the proceeds? Do I have a claim on it at all? I suppose we’d better consult a lawyer.”
“I think we’d better have a cup of tea first,” I suggested. “Mike will be here soon. Then we can talk about it. There’s also the ledger – I haven’t even mentioned that.”
I explained about the ledger. Everyone believed that Mr Howson Taylor, the owner of the pottery, had destroyed all the glaze recipes, but it seemed that Margaret’s grandfather had rescued at least some of them. This was going to be a sensation in the art world. Margaret looked as if she were about to faint, so instead of a cup of tea I poured us a glass of brandy each.
“It’s funny about the hidey-hole,” I said. “Your mother kept staring at that spot all the time the other day, but she didn’t say anything.”
Margaret gave me a peculiar look.
“When you came last week, with your mother. She must have known about the trapdoor and the pottery in the hidey-hole, but she didn’t say anything.”
Margaret shook her head and took a large swig of her brandy. She grimaced.
“She’s the only one who could have put all that stuff away down there before the carpets were laid, so yes, she would have known about it. I suppose she remembered my grandmother putting the pots there for safety during the War,” she said.
“But – I came here alone last week. My mother died 15 years ago.”
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.
And make myself a toga.
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.
If you want to know more about Alvis cars, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/ieqGgY349RI?list=PL9YdRRejyRzn72ydzc1ZsqUxx6RlkaCix
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.
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!
who didn’t raise a hand to kill,
but who did not shake off the dust from your
who stopped stock still at the point where it turns
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
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.
I wanted to reblog this from Cathy’s blog at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/47217620/posts/3930355091 but had difficulties, so instead I have lifted it wholesale from the Guardian. Thank you to Cathy for leading me to this.
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
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
There are tenements,
Bomb-sliced in half,
In which you can
See the innards
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
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 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
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