13. Formal qualifications
Oxford was, overall, an extraordinary, nurturing place. Although I had no idea of it at the time, the tutorial system was also an excellent preparation for being an interpreter, since it involved trying to hold your own with an expert, being picked up on for any slip in intellectual rigour, and in a sense giving supremacy to the spoken word over the written. Not only was it based on a tertulia-style dialogue, but whilst in theory one was “reading out an essay”, in practice many was the time I left gaps (such as the entire conclusion) and improvised on the spot.
I applied to stay, and pursue literary research with Eric Southworth, dedicatee of the Spanish novel, and inspirational lecturer of mine. In the middle of my final year, I was awarded a one-year research scholarship to Spain, on the basis of an exam in which I was in competition with doctoral students.
But despite this good omen, I then narrowly failed to get a First Class degree. I’ve been looking through the dozen or so notes I received, via the Hogwarts-style pigeon post, from my tutors and other dons (including supportive poet David Constantine) with their mixture of surprise, commiseration and solidarity. “I really didn’t see that coming”, was a common thread. The British Academy withdrew its offer of DPhil funding, so whilst I still had a well-funded year in Spain to look forward to, I didn‘t actually have anything to research. Constantine, who was appointed my supervisor, suggested I go back to the Muses of Granada, and so another year passed in La Tertulia, writing, translating and performing. I worked with Antonio Muñoz Molina, best-selling author and neighbour of mine up on the hill, who was still barely published in English. My 15 minutes of fame came when he wrote an article in the national press about how invigorating it was to collaborate with one’s translator (probably a diplomatic way of saying I was impertinent, again).
As my scholarship ran out, and the time came to look for a job, the number one challenge was coordinating phone calls and paperwork to ensure everything was in the right place at the right time. A typical day would involve me queuing at the locutorio to place an international call, hoping Mum would be at home in Datchet, so that I could ask her whether a letter had arrived containing a form that I needed to fill in. For one job in Madrid I was told openly over the phone that they wouldn’t give it to me because I lived in Granada. “But I can move to Madrid tomorrow!” “Yeah, you say that, but you’re just some guy on the phone in Granada. You have to come by and meet us.” The first potential employer who would pay travel expenses for my interview was the European Commission, so I didn’t think twice.
I had already considered a career as a conference interpreter, and visited the most prestigious school in Paris. I had bought the key theoretical and pedagogical works in their bookshop. Whilst there, I enquired about admission criteria and was told “Don’t bother applying, you need at least three foreign languages.” (I only had French and Spanish, since Catalan, of course, didn’t count.) I knew one interpreter in Oxford, who lived in Bill Clinton’s former house, and he had offered succinct advice over dinner: “It’s a world dominated by malevolent, self-important, superficial middle-aged women. I don’t recommend it at all. The only thing that might be of interest is the “stage” (traineeship) in Brussels, for which they directly recruit bright young things from all over Europe- now that could be fun!”
But there was some question over my eligibility there too. They also required three foreign languages, so I unhesitatingly put Italian down on the form, on the basis that I had been speaking it for a year with my first girlfriend, a half-Florentine half-Roman au pair in Oxford who learnt virtually no English thanks to me, but gave me a superb crash course in two difficult dialects, blasphemy, superstition, and the problematic relationship between objective reality and expression that lies at the heart of all communication in the language of Machiavelli.
I was told to phone Brussels to clarify my eligibility. The phone was answered in an unfamiliar Northern European style, not with a repetition of the number, but with the speaker’s name, and a slight hint of enquiry: “Fleming….?”
I pursued my enquiry in French, out of politeness (after all, I was telephoning the country of Hercule Poirot, right?) and felt a complete fool when after a few minutes, my interlocutor, whose French had been impeccable, asked if I spoke English, and we switched to that language, in which Mr. Richard Fleming was clearly a native. He told me he had a son just starting at my Oxford college, was an Oxford man himself, and had just spent an agreeable few months in Granada too. From his demeanour, I naturally assumed he was the proprietor of the ubiquitous language school chain “Academias Fleming”, which claimed to teach English to Granadinos with an urbane, sophisticated touch. Then we got down to business:
“I need to check a few things. You don’t have any formal qualification in Italian, correct?”
(I waited for the next question)
“You say you visit the country frequently?”
(I know that one, I thought.) “Yes”.
“When you are there, do you understand the television news? Can you follow?”
(Trickier, since I had hardly watched any TV news while I was in Florence- it had seemed as sensationalist as the chat shows- but surely there was only one possible right answer, here?) “Yes.”
“That’s fine, we’ll set up the aptitude test. Is your current domicile Granada?”
(Completely floored by that one). “Sorry, can you repeat the question?”
“Are you just visiting Granada, staying with friends, or do you have some kind of rental contract?”
“I have a contract.”
“Please bring a copy. We’ll pay your travel to Brussels.”
I remembered Dad’s story about his first job interview in London, just after the war. This was an exciting development for a Brummie, especially when they offered to pay his train fare. He arrived at the swish hotel, slightly early for his appointment. They took his name and sent him to the reimbursement desk first. He handed over his ticket.
“Thank you, Mr. Perret. Second class return from Birmingham, yes…”
“Very good. Here is your fare. Thank you very much.”
“Er, where do I go now, please?”
“That will be all, thank you. You are free to leave.”
“But I came for the…”
“We are only interested in people who travel first class, Mr. Perret. It’s a different class of person. Goodbye.”
I felt completely out of my depth, and a fraud, making arrangements to visit Brussels. EU interpreter, from a language that I could only speak in the sense that I could swear colourfully in a regional dialect? Why had I embarked on this?
I had been given a different number, a private line, to finalise the arrangements. A familiar, suave voice answered, this time on first-name terms. I heard, with a tone of long-term expat insouciance, the one word: “Dick…?”
I had to hang up and try again.