FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 21: The Cradle of Chinese Communism: “A Glamorous City” (2018)

(Changsha and Shaoshan, Hunan Province)



One of many Chinese cities where the streets are not designed for pedestrians- to walk downtown from the “downtown” Sheraton, there is no actual pavement- you have to walk first into the car park, and then out again through a side entrance. You aren’t expected to walk from A to A, let alone from A to B.

Some intersections have zebra crossings (on which mopeds aim straight at you as soon as you have right of way), others have dingy subways, others bright fashion arcades that appear to be a destination in themselves, still others have over-bridges (often with lifts) which at least help you (and your phone’s GPS) keep your bearings as you traverse.

But there are chaotic side-streets too, that feel much safer, where motor vehicles, bikes, pedestrians and animals share the space as best they can. On one that’s packed with food stalls, I witness complete gridlock at nightfall as cars arriving from opposite directions, and trying to park, create a logjam. Cyclists dismount and carry their bicycles around the obstacles, as pedestrians queue to follow.

Others are on the verge of destruction, the small shops and traditional houses evacuated and boarded up, the street squeezed into a central channel ringed by panels, the empty shops clearly visible beyond. A policeman sits watch on a motorised rickshaw, blue and red lights flashing, with a recorded message repeatedly blaring out.


Changsha1 copy

Then I turn a corner into the future- an entire block has been crushed to rubble, dwarfed by the old buildings either side, themselves only reaching the ankles of the skyscraper banks and hotels beyond. An old lady pushes a cart of rags through the narrow opening between two huge piles of demolition débris: bricks, rubble, carpets, broken kitchen fittings.

A huge park full of people, a Martyrs’ Memorial, a boating lake and fairground rides. Everything is suddenly familiar. Well, there is a 32-metre statue of a young Mao looking down on the town in which he converted to communism, and a dizzying proliferation of extremely upmarket fashion and jewellery shops, but no real culture shock- until I decide to “go for a drink”. At 29 degrees, some people sit in the shade drinking their own warm beer, but there is no real concept of a “bar”. After a long walk past people shopping and eating, I spot a plush red exterior, with the words “Coco Bar” hinting at hedonism beyond.

After repeatedly shoving the door marked “Entrance- Push”, I try pulling the one with no label and am admitted onto a narrow spiral staircase with twirling red ropes. Upstairs a solitary waiter is watching a football match. He offers me a menu of spirits by the full-size bottle- clearly there’s no such thing as a half-hearted drinker. A bottle of whisky alone, and then back down those precarious stairs? Right. Eventually he relents, and after 5 minutes a waitress appears from nowhere with a can of lager and a plate of crisps. She is very welcoming, and starts to pour for me, but just as I try to make small talk (“quiet tonight, isn’t it?”) my warm beer, which she has just agitated in its can, froths up out of the glass and floods the entire counter. She looks on, aghast, paralysed with uncertainty as to what to do next, avoiding eye contact entirely and studying the trickle as it makes its way down from the table edge to the floor. Finally, she mops the counter, and disappears with the half-full can, leaving me with a glass full of foam.

Bullet train to Shaoshan

I always enjoy the privilege of observing without trying to comprehend- it’s such a treat if you make your living in international communication. (A decade ago I was in a car with some visiting delegates, speeding through an African rainforest full of armed guerrillas on election day, when a bystander, spotting the armed escort which preceded us, stood in our path and made frantic gestures. “What does he want?” my companions asked me, nervously. “Is that a threat?” It was my job to be the English “voice” of local politicians, soldiers, citizens and voters. But I specialised in speech in their official national language, not in Bakongo hand gestures. We turned a corner and our smooth Chinese-built road turned, with no warning, into a dirt track. Nothing more sinister than that- we had been driving a little too fast for the bump that awaited us. In retrospect, the gesture had been quite literal and universal. But I had failed in my role as omniscient advisor.)

So on leaving Changsha, I relish the fact nobody is asking me what anything means. As a westerner it is not always easy to travel with an open mind, when you have read phrases like “On one day in 1966, a procession of 120,000 people thronged the village and paid their respects to the Little Red Book” (New York Times, 1982).

Simon Leys, a Belgian Sinologist, saw a personality cult on a huge scale: millions of Red Guards marching the 80km from Changsha to Shaoshan over 4 days in the late 1960s, and then the new railway and huge hotels for “pilgrims” being built. He describes ardent Red Guards and revolutionaries walking even after the advent of the railway (they should “Forge Good Iron Footsoles”, to be prepared for war with a foreign enemy).

Paul Theroux saw abandonment in 1986 (the one train a day, taking 3 hours, “just an old puffer on a forgotten branch line”); a giant, empty, theme park. A souvenir shop waiting for customers.

My trip by taxi to the out-of-town bullet train station takes 3 times longer than the inter-city train journey itself, and costs less than half the espresso I order once I reach the futuristic hub. I go to a typical café called “Coffee o’Clock” that offers fluorescent pink cakes and triangular mayonnaisey sandwiches. After Shanghai’s, the station seems spacious- there are rows of unoccupied benches, and no queues in shops or cafés. “Build it and they will come”, perhaps? I suffer none of my habitual claustrophobia in a Chinese station, until I board the train, which is packed.

From the window, a Maglev train to the airport, field after field of rubble, partially hidden behind barricades covered with pictures of smiling people and the English slogan “A Glamorous City”, a Spaghetti Junction of elevated high speed rail routes, new smooth tunnels, some traditional farm land, and then a huge expanse of churned red earth followed by a completely empty motorway.


An even quieter station. No sign of the Great Helmsman, just an advert for the railway and for Spanish wine. I take pictures of them, thinking they are incongruous- and then realise they are both a deep red.

There is a huge map outside the station, labelling various scenic attractions and administrative offices. These include, with no special prominence, Mao’s Former Residence, Memorial Hall and Ancestral Temple, together with statues of his 6 “relatives as martyrs”, and the fabulously-named Exhibition Hall of the History of the Shaoshan Branch of the Communist Party of China. There is also, of course, the Mao family restaurant. (If you have a few yuan in your pocket, you will never go hungry on a Chinese day trip). I notice he is systematically referred to by the name Mao Zhe Dong, never (former) Chairman, nor any other epithet. It’s almost as though that pre-pinyin fellow we used to call Mao Tse Tung was a different being.

I see a couple of people milling around, but no identifiable group has arrived on my train. A couple of minibuses wait at stands, but there is a decent footpath too, and my phone’s GPS says it’s 8km, so I set off on foot. If my 1960s predecessors could march for 4 days from Changsha, surely I can manage a couple of hours across country?

I start on what is called a “road under construction”, in reality two completed carriageways devoid of traffic, a lovely wide footpath stretching to the horizon, and another carriageway-sized belt of red earth with lorries plying to and fro with materials.

For an hour I walk along this quiet valley, bullet trains passing me at 300kph on a viaduct, the occasional motorbike and lorry, and one car inexplicably parked in the middle of nowhere with its driver sprawled across two seats, smoking and listening to music.

Then the footpath abruptly ends, and there are piles of red earth to navigate before I meet a narrower, old-fashioned road. I round the corner and there is some sort of commotion. Three young women are flagging down a car and running after it. One runs in front of it, forcing it to stop, and a lively conversation ensues. The other two run back to their previous position and try to stop the next cars arriving. I have the awful thought that there must have been an accident, and remember the story of the 3-year-old killed by a hit & run driver in a rural village, lack of insurance meaning it was too expensive to stop. My imagination and lack of Chinese lead me to hearing all sorts of legal terminology in their harangues: “You are liable for the hospital bill! For the funeral expenses!” or, to the second vehicle: “You were a witness and are legally obliged to stop!”

But, when the cars drive on, the trio seem to show a good-humoured resignation. The next driver doesn’t even slow down, sounding his horn continuously, jaw set in grim determination, forcing them to leap out of his way. I walk very close to the car-botherers, and am completely ignored.

After a dozen family restaurants, I see my first sign of the Great Leader- photographs of him in his prime, and as a strapping youth, fill the foyer. I take this as a good omen and take a seat. With many smiles I am sent on my way- they’re closed.

There is an inflatable rubber dragon, a banging drum, a procession observed by no-one but me, and some fireworks. My incomprehension of my surroundings is matched only by everyone else’s bafflement at my own antics. I do what I always do after walking for a few miles on a hot day- find a table to sit, and write, and have a cold drink. I sweat, which attracts attention to me as a foreigner. I write, but in a horizontal sprawl rather than neat ideograms, and I use the wrong hand to do it. Above all, I insist on my drink being from the fridge, and fail to immediately order lunch, despite it being 11:20am. All this causes not only comment, but the need to call various family members to come and politely witness the spectacle.

I buy a Mao t-shirt in a deserted souvenir shop, and spend another pleasant hour walking along the access road, which is being prettified (there are huge holes at regular intervals, ready for trees to be transplanted into them), and has numerous signs with slogans (though not quite the “sayings of Mao every 250m” of 50 years ago). I checked the forecast, and thought suncream unnecessary, but am aware I am now turning red (“The sun rises in Shaoshan”).


At the entrance to the village is a checkpoint and a traffic jam. A bucolic footpath surrounded by ponds diverges from the main road, so on an impulse, I take it. (I also have an irrational fear of being asked questions at the checkpoint). Despite my layer of sweat, sore feet, and sore shoulder from my bag strap, I am happy when I get completely lost. The literal now matches the figurative, and I can add Mother Nature to my observations.

A few passers-by, in lampshade hats, shout “Taxi” or “Food” at me (or just “Hello”, or long streams of Chinese I do not catch), but otherwise, it’s just me, the rolling hills, huge ponds, a few loose chickens, a neat concrete slab of road, a smart new town hall and an ancient schoolyard. A man with a scythe stops hacking at a cabbage patch to stare at me in silence until I am out of sight.

Eventually, I manage to retrace my footsteps and a boyish policeman waves me through with a smile. I fancy I learn to recognise this smile over the next few hours. It is an appreciation of my presence, tinged with national pride. It says “Why would a foreign friend be interested in our communist history? What a sweet man to come all the way here, on his own, abandoning his natural habitat of skyscraper banks and hotels for a day to come to a simple village! What a mark of respect!”

The sign at the Former Residence gives me the potted history:

Born 1893, left to study 1910, returned 1921 “to teach his family the spirit of selfless devotion to others and to the people of China in a bid to turn them on to the path of revolution”
1925: “Established Shaoshan Special Branch of the CPC in the attic of his former home”
1927: “Inspected the peasant movement in Hunan and held meetings”

“After the founding of the People’s Republic”: “the people’s government rebuilt the Former Residence and opened it to the public. Some furniture and agricultural machinery are originals kept by local people, some are replicas.”

That is the complete timeline, without omissions.


Former Residence of Mao Zhe Dong

In 1982, room 18 of the house (the last room, covering the entire post-1949 period), was indefinitely closed, according to the New York Times, for a “rethink”. By the time Paul Theroux visited in 1986, it had reopened, and “the years 1949-76 are presented with lightning speed.”

A huge memorial square, named after the “comrade” and dedicated to “public education”, was created in 1993 and enlarged in 2008.

The infrastructure seems slightly larger than the needs on this random off-season Monday- most of the shuttle buses whooshing past me are completely empty, the queue for security checks to enter the house itself is only a few minutes long, and the public areas are not claustrophobic, one just has to watch out not to bump into oblivious selfie-takers, or to stand too close to a smoker. But it is far from abandoned- an occasional full bus arrives, and there are school groups, young adults in uniforms of all colours, couples of all ages who stop and gape at me, and numerous guided groups led by sharp-elbowed youngsters in microphone-headsets.

In the station waiting room the only shops sell themed souvenirs, mainly teas. I have an hour to inspect them all thoroughly, and am frequently asked to pose for pictures with visitors, and with the shopkeepers themselves. The only restaurant is a franchise with a big yellow M on a huge red background- and, yes, it serves burgers to the people.

As my sleek bullet train slides away towards Shanghai, a well-dressed teenager enters my compartment. I end my journey feeling as out of place as ever: an exhausted walker next to an immaculate millennial in designer clothes and jewellery. But the slogan on her hoodie is in my mother tongue: it reads “Working Class Hero.”


FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 20: The King of Portugal’s Coconuts

“The King was happy with his coconuts

Thought they would last for many moons

But when he went away, the Queen had a field day

And turned them into macaroons!”

The King of Portugal’s Coconuts, calypso, © no-one else to blame for this lyric, 1998

Bread hangs on door handles. A dirt track leads to an outdoor home, with a too-small tarpaulin. Very short people with moustaches go about their business, or stand stock still, in smart shirts at 7am, looking askance at me. I feel lonely. Ten railway employees stand around, as a woman carrying a bread basket on her head boards the local train. I feel fragile on disembarking from the Madrid-Lisbon night train in the small station of Abrantes, so close to dawn. I head for the town centre, with only cats and birds for company. A café owner smirks at the way I order a coffee, and all his questions seem to get half-swallowed in his moustache before reaching my ears. It’s going to be my job to understand this language soon.

Somehow time passes and the temperature rises, and before I know it, I’m in love.

“Even when she was laughing, she seemed sad. I knew the Portuguese language would be my next love” …

It’s hard to define my Portuguese experience. It messes with my insides. It makes me somehow respectful of mild manners, and quiet and subtle reasoning- an easily overlooked surprise if you are tuned to the higher frequencies of repetitive bonhomie of the Mediterranean. I learn to appreciate rueful smiles. If the food isn’t faintly imbued with wistfulness, it’s not worth having. I feel brutalised by my deep but brash love affair with Spain.

I am also newly single, and wondering what to do with my life. My latest Edinburgh show is interesting the media, and I jet back to London a few times for meetings at the BBC and Channel 4. But the fact I have accepted this period of all-expenses-paid “study leave” has entrenched my long-term commitment to being a full-time European civil servant- the return on their investment will be that in a few months’ time, an interpreter with 3 languages will have become an interpreter with 4- on the same staff pay scale.

Late at night I prowl the streets of Lisbon’s bairro alto, with its cybercafés where it takes 1 hour for your Hotmail inbox to load, so that you have to pay twice if you want to reply to anyone. Toothless crones on street corners screech “Fados? Fados?”-  apparently an alternative to the heroin also widely on offer, only enhancing the connection between essential Portuguese-ness, and a deep, mind-altering, lie-down-for-a-day, hit.

And one gets all this feeling without having to go for the full-strength repressed Nordic noir. Wine flows, olives are delicious, portions of everything are even huger than in the neighbouring shout-land. Meals start at an earlier hour, but are just as complex, leisurely and seductive as anywhere in the Mediterranean.

I start to despise the tone-deaf Northern European I used to be- one who was immediately seduced by Spain’s bright colours, and their tapas of simple, strong flavours. Now I have coriander in everything, salt cod permeates its surroundings as it bakes, and clams plump up as they simmer in garlic and wine. English tourists baffle the locals by trying to speak Spanish to them. Spanish tourists do exactly the same, gesticulating and shouting, emboldened and lordly, over-ordering and marvelling at the value, so unlike their tongue-tied, self-conscious, and price-conscious selves in Paris or London. Bring Me More Prawns, Boy.

Some Brits might have difficulty remembering that Portugal is that “bit of Spain that isn’t actually Spain”- but Modern Britain has only Portugal to thank for Nando’s. History is near the surface, or in the case of piri-piri sauce, smothered all over it.

Within living memory, Portugal had a nationalist dictator. Salazar claimed that 500 years ago, his ancestors had defended “Christian civilisation against Islam”. You might be forgiven, in modern Portugal, for reflecting thankfully that they clearly left the job unfinished. Early 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa wrote of Portugal’s “great Arab tradition – of tolerance and free civilisation… We are the keepers of the Arab spirit in Europe… Let us revenge the defeat inflicted by those from the North to our Arab ancestors. Let us redeem the crime we committed when we expelled from the peninsula the Arabs that civilised it.”

Portugal was neutral in the Second World War, and managed to keep Britain as its “oldest ally”. Portugal, like Britain, has of course committed more recent crimes too, of ethnic cleansing and slavery, especially in its African colonies. But the pseudo-fascist régime of Marcelo Caetano, Salazar’s successor, fell in the 1974 Carnation Revolution, and it is a different, often progressive, country now. It has decriminalised all drugs (including “Fados”) and recently offered to take more than 6 times its quota of Syrian refugees.

I study at the University of Évora, established in 1559, but closed completely from 1779 to 1973 when the Jesuits were out of favour. It is an enthusiastic symbol of the new democratic country, in the heart of a wine and cork producing region with high illiteracy amongst the older generations. Contrasts are everywhere, but optimism is in the air. I make friends of all ages, chat, and slowly feel readier to be the English voice of a Portuguese minister of agriculture. Facial hair permitting.

I have some humbling mishaps anyway, and frequently turn back to Pessoa.

“Não sou nada.

Nunca serei nada.

Não posso querer ser nada.

À parte isso, tenho em mim todos os sonhos do mundo.”

(“I’m nothing,
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.”)

Fernando Pessoafado-street-art

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 19: The sometimes painful magic

19. The sometimes painful magic

By 1997, I had performed several comedy shows, mainly performance poetry, using different voices, and in recent years including a musical double-act with Jeremy Limb (known as “Bax” since he was the grandson of musician Arnold Bax). Our friends seemed to generally enjoy our whimsicality, but with the exception of a few showcase events and radio appearances, it wasn’t exactly the big time.

That year in Brussels I read a LRB review of a biography of recently deceased satirist Peter Cook, by comedy producer Harry Thompson. I quickly bought the book, which was a sympathetic portrait of a Cambridge linguist who had looked destined to become a diplomat, tracing the way he used language (and his rather dissolute rise to status of comedy legend), as well as the ups and downs of his relationship in a double-act with Oxford pianist (and later Hollywood superstar) Dudley Moore.

Cook was moving in and out of different modes of speech, absorbing the little surprises of sometimes wilful misunderstandings and self-deceptions. He was a kind of playful diplomat alienated from his own language.

In 1957, aged 19, he went to the Porcupine Club in Berlin during his year abroad: “The show was terribly bad…. the humour was very juvenile, and I thought ‘Why isn’t there the equivalent of this in London?” He saw Ionesco in Paris.

As a young man he listened. A school butler would nasally intone “There’s plenty more where that came from, if you get my meaning” as he served up another helping of potatoes, or lean in conspiratorially to say: “You know that stone which is lying just outside the left-hand side of the gravel driveway as you go out? I sold that yesterday, because I thought I saw it move.”

In student digs, his landlady’s reaction to the state of his room the morning after a party was “Oh, Mr. Cook- if I’d known you’d got friends, I’d never have had you.”

Then came the mixed blessing of early achievement, being commissioned to write an entire West End show for Kenneth Williams while still an undergrad. He somehow evoked the world-weariness of the disappearing music-hall artiste: “They had no amplification in them days… And do you know, when they sang, the people in the back row couldn’t hear a word. That was part of their attraction- the element of mystery.”

Jonathan Miller recalls his first sighting of Cook in a student revue. Dressed in tweed beyond his years, like the self-important prematurely middle-aged future politicians who were their fellow students, there was a rustle of newspaper and a face appeared: “Hello, hello. I see the Titanic’s sunk again.”

Within a few years, PM Harold Wilson and President Kennedy were coming to see him impersonate them. “We shall receive four minutes’ warning of any impending nuclear attack. Some people have said “Oh my goodness me- four minutes? That is not a very long time!” Well, I would remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes.”

Dudley Moore was more than a straight man, he was an earnest, often enthusiastic man, with perfect pitch for comedy too. He could genuinely act and sing, which was also a nice counterpoint to Cook. In their best-known sketch, Moore plays a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan. His enthusiasm is infectious, we empathise with both men in this impossible situation, as Cook builds slowly to a playful punchline that flatters the audience’s intelligence and ability to listen: “Your right leg, I like. I like your right leg. A lovely leg for the role. That’s what I said when I saw you come in: I said ‘A lovely leg for the role’. I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you.”

Part of their journey was sad, though. Parallels emerged between their onstage and offstage relationship. Cook had private problems and became a very heavy drinker on tour. By 1978, prime-time interviewer Michael Parkinson was trying to dissect their sometimes painful magic:

Cook: There are storms, there are tantrums.

Moore: It’s like a marriage.

Parkinson: How is it like a marriage?

Cook: We’re getting divorced.

By the 1990s, Cook seemed directionless, and yet, still clearly brilliant. After his death in 1995 there was some moralistic media commentary about him being a lazy drunk, who failed to fulfil his potential, as if he owed society something more. The biography did a neat job of celebrating him for who he had been, rather than comparing him to Moore with his Hollywood successes. Here is a last word from Cook for today, improvising on the radio with Chris Morris: “I feel nothing but pride. That’s all I do feel. An empty pride… a hopeless vanity… a dreadful arrogance… a stupefyingly futile conceit… but at least it’s something to hang on to.”

Bax and I decided to write and perform our own tribute to the duo. The Brussels authorities agreed to give me unpaid leave, though one bureaucrat protested in writing that “Entre Parsifal et l’interprète, il faut choisir”. With this auspicious Wagnerian backdrop, the Pleasance Theatre didn’t hesitate a second or even ask to see any previews before giving us the slot we requested: “In Edinburgh in August you have the greatest concentration of Peter Cook fans in any one place in the world.” It was starting to get scary. The biographer replied to our queries and warned us that Cook’s widow was “notoriously litigious”. She would probably not let us use any of the original material.

So we wrote totally new sketches to tell the story as we saw it, referencing their work, their personal lives and above all, their relationship. The sometimes painful magic. The previous year our Edinburgh act had been described as “A comedy duo who go on stage seconds after one of them has told the other he is sleeping with his wife” so we had some of our own chemistry to play around with.

We didn’t have a director or proper lighting, I didn’t have contact lenses so couldn’t even see the front row, and I couldn’t make my moustaches stick on for the different roles. The show was so early in the Fringe day that hardly anybody under 40 ever got up in time to see it- but it sold out for the entire run, got 4 and 5 star reviews in the national press, and was runner-up for a prestigious TV channel’s comedy writing award. The chairman of the panel, Humphrey Barclay, who saw the show twice, had made TV programmes with Cook. The Independent said it “sounded like material rescued from the archives”.

A lot of influential people were keen to hear about our next project. I was still a European civil servant, committed to at least 2 more years full time in Brussels.

3 days after the end of the show’s run, I was arriving in rural Portugal for 3 months’ study leave. Bax came for a holiday, and we drank wine in the sun, wondering what to do next.wisty

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 18: Our human colleagues

18. Our human colleagues

While I feel a growing political and social gap between my London existence and Brussels, the geographical distance appears to have shortened considerably: my arrival has coincided with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. I take it hundreds of times during my 6 years living there. Flights are still favoured by regular Euro-commuters for the first few years. The old-fashioned route is still possible, too, with boat trains and ferry to Ostende, including a night crossing, which I resort to once when I miss the last Eurostar due to floods in England.

But rushing back from a translation exam at London’s Institute of Linguists, a few days after moving to Brussels, there is a new option on that November Sunday that had not existed the previous week. The 10:10 from Waterloo trundles through Vauxhall, just like my childhood train to Datchet, where the platform is dangerously packed with photographers. Then it rises up to swoop over Stewarts Lane yard, giving views of the Orient Express carriages, and round on a totally new connection to… Brixton. We trundle past the pubs my contemporaries hang out in. The same friends I started out with at university, are now, I imagine, having fry-ups in one of these trendy South London cafés, while I am carried out to my uncomprehended sprout exile.

The trains have a special shoe to pick up the current from the third rail, on this system peculiar to southern England. President Mitterrand comments that, due to lack of British investment, there is time to enjoy the scenery of Kent. Prime Minister John Major responds that northern France is flat and boring, and best passed through at 300kph.

As we leave Ashford, I have a strange, slightly exhilarating feeling- instead of slowing down to stop at a harbour station, we accelerate into a tunnel. Because it’s the first week of service, they bring all passengers champagne.

Being an interpreter of course means immediately losing oneself in the role of another, like an actor (at least for the duration of the assignment). We don’t have half an hour of darkness and champagne between our English and French territories of the mind- at least, not on a good day.

But there is a paradox: just as an actor accesses real feelings in order to be convincing in a role, so interpreters use aspects of their own personalities to empathise with speakers, and emulate them in another tongue. We need to “disappear” only in the sense that our own opinions are irrelevant- as speakers we must not become robotic. The greatest compliment we can be paid though, is for a meeting participant to stop noticing our presence, and quote someone else without feeling the need to add “According to what I heard in the translation”.

The balancing-act is the same as in my training. The example I am given by senior interpreters with my languages is the Spanish colleague who turns cricketing images from a Brit into bull-fighting images in Spanish. It’s an inspired technique which works smoothly, and vastly assists communication. “Sticky wickets” don’t really translate, but someone who has a profound understanding of English, and a superb command of Spanish, can do wonders with them. The only problem is when the enthusiastic Spanish delegate later takes off his headphones, turns on his microphone, and says “Since you’re talking about bulls…” and goes off into a whole new range of imagery. The corresponding interpreter from Spanish into English does, luckily, manage to take this particular bull by the horns, but ends up being bowled at least one googly.

It’s not only my London friends who don’t understand what I’m doing. I am surrounded by the uncomprehending. If you need an interpreter, you know a professional can provide you with the service you need- but if you knew exactly what that service was, you wouldn’t need them in the first place. This leads to a polarisation in the perception of our role: we are either talking-machines to be “installed” at some point between the sound system and the flower-arranging (many’s the time I’ve heard meeting organisers say things like “Right, we’ve hired the simultaneous interpreting equipment. Now we just need some voices to come out of it.”) or we are magicians, mystical Babel fishes speaking dozens of languages at once.

We are normally seated in raised, sound-proofed, glass-fronted booths, which of course doesn’t help with mutual understanding. But just occasionally we have to sit, and work, in the midst of our “customers”, for instance off the beaten track. Portable equipment has not yet been developed, so in the late 90s I find myself frequently sitting at a dinner table in imposing surroundings, armed only with a notebook and pen, and dreading the sound of a spoon tapping against a wine glass (usually just before coffee) which signals the onset of hostilities.

The first time this happens to me, on a “mission” to a European capital, I sit nervously at the table and greet my neighbours. A Portuguese gentleman rises to his feet, bows slightly, and enquires “Are you civil or criminal?” (I have researched the context of the meeting enough to know that he is asking about my specialisation as a lawyer. Even better was the Medicines Evaluation Agency, divided into veterinary and human medicinal products, where experts at the former, if referring to the latter, would call them “our human colleagues”).

“A little bit of both,” I reply, “I’m the interpreter.” He then ignores me for the rest of the meal. A bulbous-headed private secretary with a twinkle in his eye keeps coming up to me and saying “I hear the minister’s preparing a little bit of poetry for later, ha ha ha”. In the event it is a quotation from surrealist André Breton, given, with no warning, in the original French with a strong Spanish accent. No doubt the excellent red wine has helped us all see the relevance of the moon, the house and the heart to harmonisation of technical provisions, the mythical voyage to Ithaca, and what T. S. Eliot said about the past, the future, and getting lost in a bog. My French colleague has noted down the Breton for me, and I stand up, with an empty champagne glass, to relay all of this in English and call for a second toast. It’s not over- the Italian minister gives a vote of thanks, but not without Penelope unpicking her tapestry and Ithaca looming back into view.

I get real feedback from real people: an enthusiastic British delegate congratulates me on my English. “You don’t sound at all Spanish!” High praise indeed.

An Italian aide takes me to one side.

“What you said in English was very interesting, but it wasn’t quite what he said in Italian.”


“No, no. In fact, what you said in English…. “ (leans in conspiratorially) “…is what he should have said in Italian.”

The Portuguese gentleman seeks me out to say goodnight, and congratulates me on my work. “You are, indeed, both civil and criminal.” It’s all I’ve ever hoped for since.bull

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 17: Barmy Brussels bureaucrats

17. Barmy Brussels bureaucratscrisps

It’s rather bizarre hearing first hand about EU legislation, and then reading the UK media. The institutional structure can be complex, but my compatriots do their best to turn the opaque Brussels-speak into simple, colloquial English. What a great service they are doing to communicate complex matters to the British public.

Here’s an interlude with my top ten EU stories.

10. EU rules require bosses to assess risks to employees working in the sun all day. It’s up to national authorities to decide what measures to take in each industry, like handing out sun cream.

The Sun: “Hands off our barmaids’ boobs- the EU has declared a crackpot war on busty barmaids. Po-faced pen-pushers have deemed it a HEALTH HAZARD for girls to show too much cleavage. And in a daft directive that will have drinkers choking on their pints, Brussels bureaucrats have ordered a cover-up. A spokesperson for CAMRA said: ‘It’s just another blatant example of Europe gone mad.’’

The more serious and well-travelled Telegraph: “Bavarian barmaids are to be forced by an EU directive to cover up. Brewery owners, politicians, and most of the women themselves have condemned the legislation as absurd, claiming the “tan ban”, as it has been nicknamed, will destroy a centuries-old tradition.” They then include an elaborate description of how figure-hugging and revealing the “dirndl” can be.

9. EU national governments and the European Parliament agree amendments to the 1986 legislation, itself based on rules from the Industrial Revolution, protecting workers’ hearing.

The Sunday Times: “An edict from Brussels is to ban bagpipes.

8. Industry representatives have asked the EU to classify fruit and veg by shape as well as size, to assist with planning how many you can fit in a box for transportation.

The Daily Mail: “EC officials are trying to ban curved cucumbers.

The Sun: “Brussels bureaucrats ban bent bananas.

7. In line with EU recommendations, the UK government decides to have one standard design for lollipop-persons’ sticks across the whole of England and Scotland, to ensure sticks are instantly recognisable. This was originally proposed by the UN in 1968 and was implemented in Wales in the previous decade.

The News of the World (and Sun and Metro) go with:

STOP THIS MADNESS! The barmy bureaucrats of Brussels appeared to have gone totally bonkers last night… they banned the sticks used by our lollipop ladies. The Euro meddlers say foreign drivers may not understand the “Stop: Children” sign, suggesting they will simply drive on when a lady stands in front of them.

6. The EU Directive on the Protection of Animals in Transit states that live animals must be carried in conditions appropriate to the species. In the case of shellfish, this means ensuring that they arrive at their destination in good condition and fit to eat.

The Times, Telegraph, Mail, Evening Standard, Sun and Express go with:

Brussels says shellfish must be given rest breaks when on long journeys.

5. Approximately 30 people die each year in the UK as a result of a fall in the workplace. EU laws on “working at height” protect workers by asking national authorities to decide on appropriate safety equipment for each sector.

The Sun: “EU laws set to FORCE trapeze artists and tightrope walkers to wear safety helmets while performing.

4. Sometimes it’s twisted. The boss of the European Investment Fund joked that maybe Waterloo Station should be renamed, to avoid putting off French tourists.

The Sun and The Express quote the response of a Tory politician: “Eurocrats are trying to rewrite history.

3. Sometimes it’s completely invented. The UK, along with the rest of the Commonwealth, started going metric in 1965, 8 years before joining the EU. The European Commission’s only role is to ensure that EU laws democratically recognise pints, miles and ounces, for as long as the UK government wishes the country to use them.

The Sun: “Brussels is on a drive to rob our country of her identity.

Daily Star: “The British pint could be BANNED.

2. Sometimes it’s just a drive to make boring news sound interesting. For instance, geographical data used in EU-wide environmental programmes are to be made more interoperable between member states.

The Sun: “New EU map makes Kent part of France.

1. And sometimes they get it right. The EU member states agree maximum amounts of flavourers and sweeteners in foods.

The Sun went with “EC to ban prawn cocktail crisps”, which was true, because the UK forgot to request an exemption for crisps. But when in London they realised their mistake and requested it, the crisps were promptly “unbanned” again. Those barmy Brussels bureaucrats, eh, letting member states sell crisps with excessive amounts of sugar in! Well, at least you don’t need to worry about any of the ingredients needing rest breaks on long journeys.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS: 16 Helping straighten the bananas

16. Helping straighten the bananas

As the date of our final exam approaches, we are increasingly exposed to “real life” meetings, in what is called the “dummy booth”. Here we are dropped in at the deep end, as if we were already professionals, but do not switch on the microphone. We are listened to by more experienced collegues and given some final tips. A group of us are so alarmed by what “reality” means that we send a delegation to the course director to say that we are more afraid of passing than we are of failing. We think that we could scrape through if we are lucky with the carefully calibrated speeches that fellow interpreters give us in the test, but that it would be utterly irresponsible for the authorities to let us loose on the kind of weird shit real human beings seem to be going on about.

He tells us, diplomatically, that our reaction is a good sign- it is impossible to do a perfect job, and the fact that we realise the scale of the challenge shows that we are better prepared to meet it than those who think the whole thing’s a breeze. This predates Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” by almost a decade, and anyway, he is more of an Oscar Wilde figure. He is basically telling us that we are all lying in the gutter, with the saving grace in our case that we have calculated the exact distance to the stars.

Then the day comes, and I am finished by midday- but they cannot announce the results until 5pm, when all the other candidates have finished. My future boss winks at me though, and tells me to “have a good lunch”. I go for a massive curry, and return to find that I have been assimilated to the status of European civil servant, as a full-time staff interpreter, for at least two years.

Working full-time makes it harder to do my comedy shows, but I am told that there are hardly any meetings in August. My colleagues are vigorously encouraged to take their annual leave then, and I may be able to request some unpaid leave, a mini-sabbatical, to do London previews, and attend the whole Fringe.

I sign the EU equivalent of the Official Secrets Act, so here I’ll just be talking about meetings in the public domain, many of which in recent years have been streamed online.banana

I am a convinced European, starry-eyed and idealistic about the meetings I assist, whether they are of the Commission itself (consulting experts from member states before drafting legislation) or of the Council of Ministers (at which national representatives debate and amend the proposals before they are approved). It not only seems transparent and democratic (the UK is almost always the “awkward squad”, blocking what seem like enlightened and progressive proposals), but fundamentally good news for the people of Europe, whatever your political leanings. If you’d asked me whether my modest Eurocrat’s salary, coming, in a tiny proportion, from the UK taxpayer, was justified, I would have pointed out that at multilingual meetings the UK (and every other member state) could send its best people on agriculture, technology, or whatever it might be, without requiring them to speak foreign languages. If harmonised rules on trade, environmental protection, and so on, were agreed, then that was good news for British consumers (often saving them money, and ensuring they received quality imports), and for British producers (eliminating barriers to exports to Europe). You’re glazing over already, aren’t you? It’s really boring. Suffice it to say major progress was made with completing the single market (a capitalist’s dream, fervently supported by Margaret Thatcher), and with labour rights, equality, and environmental standards (music to the ears of socialists and Greens). But people in Britain appeared not to be hearing about any of these positive developments that were having a direct impact on their lives. UK politicians would take credit for anything positive, and blame “Brussels” for anything negative, and there were no curious journalists to explain the bigger picture.

I was developing a new kind of non-identity. Whenever I went back to the UK, nobody had a clue what my job was, or what I meant with my bizarre foreign-sounding words like “European Commission”. The occasional EU news story in the British press was about as exciting as what you read in the last paragraph (thanks for still being here!)- our beaches will probably be cleaner, but local councils will have to follow a new procedure. Woohoo! Fascinating!

But then came a British journalist who was determined to see the funny side, and post some more entertaining, provocative copy to explain what was happening in those arcane corridors of sprout-land’s power. One of my favourite meetings to work in was the daily press briefing, at which I would occasionally be the English voice of French officials, commissioners, ministers and journalists. I got to know the regulars in this slightly obscure demi-monde, like a maverick, dishevelled Telegraph correspondent who’d been sacked by The Times for inventing a quote. He himself was the son of a Eurocrat, and had been to the Brussels European School. The other Brits all dreamed of being posted to Tokyo or Washington, and were just killing time here, but he seemed to relish the challenge.

He had fun with stories like “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. I had been at most of the press briefings and couldn’t quite see where the stories came from. A French journalist told me he’d challenged him once in the bar, and got the reply Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He was describing what increasingly sounded like a fundamental threat to the British way of life.

Here he is, in his own words to the BBC, a few years later: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power”. Soon he was fuelling conspiracy theories, and when the Commission tried to set the record straight at the daily briefings, the British press would treat their earnest denials with some caution. Surely there was no smoke without fire? And as people began to prefer this wittily sinister version of reality, so the demand for it grew. Other correspondents of the period have testified, on the record, to the fact that news editors were now demanding similar fare. Only 3 types of EU story were permissible: 1. Faceless Brussels bureaucrats are imposing absurd rules 2. Scheming foreigners have ganged up on us 3. The plucky British PM has triumphed against a hostile continent.

When I visited the UK in the late 90s, I gave up on trying to explain what I did for a living. “Yes, yes, I’m helping straighten the bananas, that’s right.” A new agenda had been set by a playful, ever-so-slightly narcissistic journalist, Brussels-educated and son of a Eurocrat, whose name was Boris.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 15: Interpreter-land

15. Interpreter-landcake

I am learning to give an English voice to a speaker of another language in real time. It’s a strange sort of ticklish feeling, a mixture of drawing upon my knowledge and cultural insights, showing off, and making things up. Obviously I know that theoretically I shouldn’t really be doing the latter two things, but somehow I always get better feedback from my trainers when I do, and if I ever try to be totally responsible and disciplined, and stick to what I know, I am told that I am not “convincing”.

The trainers keep a logbook of their feedback on us, and I discover a new trick. More than the quality of the end product we are coming up with, they seem to prioritise our progress. Each step forward gets a tick, and inertia is almost as bad as a step backwards. So, I assume, if I deliberately take a step backwards from time to time, then I can take far more steps forwards than if I just stay where I am. Get more ticks. One day I screw up the conclusion to a speech, and notice that the trainer’s verdict is that I may have a general problem of not maintaining my concentration right through to the end. The next day I deliberately screw up the conclusion and the second trainer endorses the conclusion of the first. On the third day I go back to doing the conclusion normally, and get Brownie points for turning myself around and overcoming my personal challenge.

I notice the presence of real interpreters (people who actually care, who get a sense of satisfaction from this farcical game of Chinese whispers) and real Belgians, and feel inadequate in the company of both. I know I will never be able to do the job properly, nor will I ever feel I belong in this country. Although the capital city itself is mainly French-speaking, and French has yet to be displaced by English as the dominant language of the European Commission, it is not like France at all. On closer examination, it’s not actually the same language, either.

There is a lot of admin to be done, requiring visits to different offices with bizarre opening hours. I am feeling particularly inadequate one morning as I realise that my one and only suit, that I bought for a wedding, is showing signs of wear and tear, and that shirts do not look smart if you take them straight out of the spin-drier and put them on for work. I rush to an office that is open from 10 to 12 on Wednesday mornings, making it at 11:58, sweating, dishevelled, and hopeful. The key official has just left for lunch, but I really need his stamp in order to be registered at the institution. The gatekeeper looks me up and down, and says “Mais… vous ne savez pas repasser, monsieur?” (Belgian French for “Couldn’t you come back later?”). In French French this means “But… are you incapable of ironing?” I assume for several days that my career has been cut short due to my dishevelled appearance and creased shirt.

Because it’s such an unpredictable activity, in which we can easily come a cropper, a camaraderie develops amongst classmates, with a kind of gallows humour. More importantly, it attracts weirdos like me, people who are somehow indeterminate, shape-shifting, slipping in and out of different languages and cultures. You never quite know where you are with them, and after a while, this actually becomes a place in itself: interpreter-land. There is Dimitri from the Greek island of Ikaria, who sits up late watching Alan Partridge with me, constantly quotes his catchphrases just like my Edinburgh comedy friends, but has never visited the UK or any English-speaking country. Jorge from Madrid, with a degree in Arabic, who taught himself Finnish, but whose first love is Esperanto. Andrea who is simultaneously from the backstreets of Rome, and Berkshire.

In many ways, he is the best of both worlds. He loves a full English breakfast, but gently sautées the mushrooms in olive oil with garlic and parsley. He tells me that one Christmas, when his diverse family had convened in Rome, he wanted to make Christmas cake, and set off for suet. Being bilingual, he could explain to the local butcher exactly what he required. The butcher at first assumed he wanted kidneys.

“No, no, you know the hard white fat around the kidneys? I just want that. Not the kidney itself.”

The butcher fetched some kidneys, snipped them with scissors, and gave him a pile of suet for free. “Normally it goes in the bin! Er, if you don’t mind my asking, what do you want it for?”

“To make a cake.”

“A cake!?!”

“Yes, an English cake.”

“Oh, I seeeeeeee.”

Catarina comes from Coimbra, northern Portugal, and her deep eyes are sad. She threatens to return there at any moment. But she has arrived here from Germany, a country she describes as cleaner and vastly superior to Belgium in every respect. She refuses to speak French. I love a challenge, and do my best to cheer her up and get her to enjoy life for a few months. But even when she laughs, she is sad. I already know that my next love will be the Portuguese language.

The people who did this same mixture of crash course, induction into a cult, and public speaking competition a few years ago, and are now teaching on it, are equally fascinating. Hubert, who I’ve never seen without a bow-tie, has just been given a medal for length of service, but minces around the room, doing a bizarre mime, and maintaining “I carry my years like a balloon!” Kunteel, a British Asian public-school rugby-player with a hip-flask of cognac, drolly introduces himself with the words: “I’m not going to try and say anything clever.”

My hero, the one person who makes it all worthwhile, is Christos, who is in charge of the Greek group. Within days of making his acquaintance, I find myself discussing the nature of the cosmos with him in front of a bottle of white wine that magically refills. He is clearly an artist, and imbues in me a Greek respect for tradition and quality, combined with a disrespect for petty conventions and people in authority. He says that if it were up to him, the aptitude tests would not be about language knowledge. “If I find the right mind, that mind will learn a language. That’s the least of our worries. There are too many people around here who have languages, but nothing else. Interpreting is not actually about language at all- it just happens, like most things, to use language.” My teaching is still based on this principle.