Peirene Stevns Translation Prize

Congratulations to Peirene Press and Martha Stevns for launching a new prize for fiction in translation. The prize is open to unpublished translators, and the winner will receive £3500 and a writer’s retreat in the Pyrenees. The focus of the first year’s prize will be the novel Neve, Cane, Piede by Claudio Morandini, already a bestseller in Italy but not yet translated into English. The winning translation will be publication in full by Peirene. The judges for the first year’s prize are the novelist Amanda Craig, the editor and translator Gesche Ipsen, and Peirene’s founder and publisher Meike Ziervogel.

Translation has never been more important: today’s climate of nationalism and closing borders makes it vital that we see beyond our parochial concerns, learn how people live elsewhere, and perceive the world through the lens of other cultures. It is also wonderful that the prize will enable a new generation of translators to continue the work of the late and sadly missed Anthea Bell in making the rich literatures of other countries accessible to Anglophone readers.

The winner will be announced on the 1st of March, and the residency will take place between the 18th May and the 20th July 2019.


Bridge Over Troubled Water


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I was delighted last week to receive a copy of A Country to Call Home, an anthology of specially commissioned short stories, poems and flash fiction responding to the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers. Edited, like its predecessor A Country of Refuge, by Lucy Popescu, it is published by the crowd-funding pioneers Unbound.

The brilliant array of contributors includes Hassan Abdulrazzak, David Almond, Moniza Alvi, Simon Armitage, Adam Barnard, Tracy Brabin, Tony Bradman, Sita Brahmachari, Eoin Colfer, Brian Conaghan, Kit De Waal, Fiona Dunbar, Miriam Halahmy, Peter Kalu, Judith Kerr, Patrice Lawrence, Anna Perera, Christine Pullein-Thompson, Bali Rai, Sue Reid, S.F. Said, Jon Walter and Michael Morpurgo. The former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell has provided haunting illustrations for every piece, while the beautiful painting that forms the cover is by Haymanot Tesfa.

There are stories of home and of homesickness; about people trafficking and life in the refugee camps; about persecution and imprisonment; about prejudice, indifference and official inhumanity; and about the fortitude needed to survive these experiences.

Written for Alan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish boy whose body, washed up on the shore of Turkey, momentarily aroused the conscience of many in the UK, Kit de Waal’s ‘Did You See Me?’ imagines the dreams, aspirations and day-to-day reality that preceded a life lost at sea. Simon Armitage’s darkly poetic reworking of the passage in Virgil’s Aeneid on the crossing of the Styx evokes the grim sea journeys undertaken by many refugees, while Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Locked Up’ chillingly depicts the gratuitous brutality of the UK’s immigration officers.

Difference can be the source of richness: something to be celebrated, not feared

Brian Conaghan’s poem ‘Just Another Someone’, with its parallel voices juxtaposing the experiences of refugees from Nazi Germany with those of today’s asylum seekers, reminds us that exile is not a new phenomenon. The comparison is reinforced by Popescu’s interview with Judith Kerr, the celebrated author of the Mog stories and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, who came to this country as a child in the 1930s. Kerr’s recollection that ‘people were so kind to us during the war’ chimes with my own father’s experience, and makes one wonder what has happened to this country in the intervening decades.

Aimed at both children and adult readers, this courageous book counters the negative stereotypes propagated by some politicians and sections of the press to demonise the most vulnerable people on the planet, which is why I am proud to have supported it. Instead, it challenges us to look, to see, and to recognise our common humanity.

In his contribution to the anthology, S.F. Said, author of the best-selling children’s novel Varjak Paw, recalls his delight as a child reading Watership Down to discover that the mythical rabbit hero El-ahrairah had an Arabic name with which he could identify.

‘Children’s books can be bridges connecting people,’ he reflects, ‘showing them that however different someone else might be, the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us. And that difference can be the source of richness: something to be celebrated, not feared.’

A Country to Call Home: An Anthology on the Experiences of Young Refugees and Asylum Seekers is published by Unbound, price £9.99

When skylarks sang in Sydenham


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Recently, a charming little book I bought online arrived in the post. Illustrated with delightful engravings, W. Aldridge’s A Gossip on the Wild Birds of Norwood and Crystal Palace District (1885) was a collection of articles that had originally appeared in the Norwood Review. Inside the front cover is the bookplate of Camberwell Public Libraries Reference Section, and the title page bears the inscription ‘With Author’s Compts’. No doubt what are left of our public libraries have little use for such Victorian curios, but I was glad to repatriate the book to its south London birthplace.

A little research unearthed the facts that Aldridge was a cabinet-maker and upholsterer with premises on Westow Street, and keen amateur ornithologist; he judged the stuffed bird category at the Crystal Palace Bird Show in 1887. His book reveals this Norwood tradesman to have been a keen pipe-smoker, angler, painter and amateur taxidermist, well travelled – he had visited Paris, Holland, Switzerland, Norway and Prussia – well read, and a believer in a benign Creator; he quotes approvingly Izaak Walton’s remark on birdsong:

‘Lord, what psalmody hast Thou provided for Thy saints in heaven when Thou affordest bad men such music on earth?’

In all, he listed 51 species of birds, which he considered ‘a very respectable quantity for a suburb of London within a few miles of St. Paul’s’. The only raptors he reported were the ‘much persecuted’ kestrels, occasionally sighted hovering on the air currents between Westow Street and Beulah Spa, and on South Norwood Hill. One evening, smoking his pipe in a friend’s garden on Belvedere Road, he saw a barn owl glide silently over the ground.

He also reported rooks and jackdaws in the taller trees from Dulwich to Beulah Spa; green woodpecker in Sydenham Hill Wood; nightingales nesting in Sydenham Woods and at Elmer’s End; cuckoos, goldfinch and bullfinch in Grange Wood; redwing and fieldfare in winter between Central Hill and Beulah Spa; and skylarks in the open fields that still existed on either side of Wells Road between Sydenham Hill and Sydenham town.

‘The oldest inhabitant,’ he reported, recalled that thirty years previously there was ‘a small Heronry in the old Norwood woods’, the nests ‘as large as bushes, at the tops of trees’.

By August 1887, when Aldridge wrote to the London Standard to report the rare sight of a cormorant perched on the steeple of the Wesleyan chapel at Upper Norwood, his tally of birds had increased to 56 – though sadly I can find no record of the four intervening species.

Aldridge took a melancholy view of the future of bird life in the area. ‘In a few (very few) years,’ he wrote, ‘when, by the increase of population, Norwood will be a part of London, undivided by fields and hedges, most of the birds will have retired beyond our district, and be as extinct in Norwood as the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus – nay, more so, for these monsters, or, rather, their restored figures may still remain in the [Crystal] Palace grounds…’

He was perhaps too pessimistic, underestimating the capacity of many species to adapt to urban conditions. While it is true that nightingales and skylarks have long since disappeared from the suburbs of southeast London, the swifts and swallows, thrushes, finches and tits have held out, while other species, absent in his day, have reappeared. In addition to kestrels, buzzards, sparrowhawks and hobbies patrol the skies over Sydenham Hill Wood; magpies, made scarce in Victorian times by persecution from gamekeepers, staged a recovery in the 1970s and are now ubiquitous; the green woodpecker has been joined by the great and – more rarely – lesser spotted varieties; and goldcrest and firecrest, absent from his list, are now frequent winter visitors.

A lost hero of the Authors’ Club


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Entering Watersones’ Gower Street branch in central London the other day, I came face to face with a shelving bay full of old green Penguin crime novels. In the centre, at eye level, I was intrigued and delighted to find a battered copy of Stanley Casson’s Murder by Burial. Casson was a member of the Authors’ Club, and this 1938 murder mystery was a one-off jeu d’esprit by a distinguished archaeologist and authority on Ancient Greek sculpture, of whom I became aware while researching the Club’s history.

During the First World War, Casson fought with the East Lancashire Regiment in Flanders, where he was wounded in 1915. He then served on the General Staff in Salonika, and was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Greek Order of the Saviour. After the war, he became Assistant Director of the British School at Athens, and in 1920 took up a Fellowship at New College, Oxford. On his arrival in the quadrangle, the Warden, William Archibald Spooner (who contributed an -ism to the language), invited him to lunch ‘to welcome Stanley Casson, our new archaeology Fellow’. ‘But Mr Warden,’ he said, ‘I am Stanley Casson.’ ‘Never mind,’ Spooner replied. ‘Come all the same.’

Casson’s tastes were eclectic. His many publications ranged from The Technique Of Early Greek Sculpture (1933) through ‘Byzantium and Anglo-Saxon Sculpture’ to Some Modern Sculptors, a 1929 survey of the art from Rodin to Epstein – whom he, unlike some of his Authors’ Club colleagues, admired. One of his students at Oxford was Max Mallowan, the archaeologist who went on to marry Agatha Christie.

When war was declared in 1939, Casson joined the Intelligence Corps with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and became an instructor at the Intelligence Training Centre in Matlock, Derbyshire. Among his pupils there was a young second lieutenant who shared his passion for Hellenic culture, and with whom he always conversed in Greek. His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor. Casson was setting up a military mission to his beloved Greece, to which he recruited Fermor, who would subsequently capture the commander of the German forces on Crete, General Heinrich Kreipe. In 1942, Casson published Greece Against the Axis, his eye-witness account of the Italian and German invasions of that country in 1940–41.

In February 1944 Casson, along with Graham Greene, was invited to join the Authors’ Club’s executive committee. Before the next meeting, however, the club was shocked to learn that he had been killed in a plane crash off the coast of Cornwall while flying to Cairo on active service. The committee commissioned his wife to compile a memorial bibliography of his works, and once the war was over, on 29 November 1945, held a reception with the Anglo-Hellenic League at the Dorchester, at which tributes were paid to his life and work, and a collection was raised to fund a library of English books in Greece.

C.J. Schüler’s Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London, 1891–2016, is published by the Authors’ Club, rrp. £19.99


A Winter’s Tale


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Ian Bostridge: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber) 

I have only recently caught up with Ian Bostridge’s penetrating, erudite and wide-ranging exploration of Schubert’s greatest song cycle, Winterreise, though it was published in 2015. I once had the privilege of hearing Bostridge perform the ‘Ur-Winterreise’ – the 12 songs Schubert set first before he discovered the rest of the poet Wilhelm Müller’s cycle and expanded his work – in the atmospheric setting of Wilton’s Music Hall in Limehouse.

Composed in 1827 during the last full year of Schubert’s brief life, Winterreise is considered the pinnacle of the Lieder repertoire. The almost unremitting bleakness of this 24-song cycle, in which a rejected lover stumbles through ‘the blinding, blank, hallucinogenic whiteness’ of a frozen landscape, has been no obstacle to its enduring popularity.

‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’

For many listeners, the cycle is a tale of lost love, or an expression of existential alienation in a hostile world. Müller’s poems offer no clue as to the background or occupation of the anonymous protagonist, but it is clear that his position is an insecure, marginal one. The very first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, begins with the lines, ‘Fremd bin ich eingezogen/ Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus’ (I arrived a stranger/ As a stranger I leave). Bostridge plausibly suggests that he may have been an itinerant tutor, who, like Saint-Preux in Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloïse, has fallen in love with a pupil of higher social rank; the second song, ‘Die Wetterfahne’, refers to her as a ‘rich bride’.

The wanderer’s exclusion from society is most explicit in the 17th song, ‘Im Dorfe’ (‘In the Village’), in which he imagines the villagers smugly snoring in their warm beds, dreaming of material gain, while their dogs rattle their chains and bark at the intruder. Appropriately, the song features prominently in Michael Haneke’s 2001 film of Elfriede Jelinek’s chilling novel The Piano Teacher.

In this light, Schubert’s wanderer can be seen as the ancestor of the outcasts of literary modernism such as Camus’ L’Étranger and Wilson’s The Outsider. I had not known, before reading this book, that Samuel Beckett was a great admirer of Winterreise, though given the mordant humour of Müller’s poems and Schubert’s settings, it comes as no great surprise. As Nell remarks in Endgame, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’

A winter of discontent

To this personal and social alienation, Bostridge adds a political dimension, locating the cycle amid the clampdown that followed the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, in which demands for democratic reform were ruthlessly put down in both Austria and the fragmented German states – a repression satirised by Heinrich Heine in his 1844 poem Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (Germany: A Winter’s Tale).

Müller’s political sympathies are well attested. In a prefatory letter to the second volume of his travelogue Rom, Römer und Römerinnen, he lamented ‘the great Lent of the European world’, in which ‘he who cannot act… can only mourn.’ Similarly, his wanderer, ‘so wild and daring’ in battle and storm, feels his weariness and pain when, in the 10th song, ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’), he lies down in a charcoal burner’s hut.

Speculating why Müller chose a charcoal burner’s hut (as opposed to, say, a shepherd’s), Bostridge embarks on an invigorating discussion of this ancient industry, a topic that particularly drew my interest as I had come across it recently while researching my film on the Great North Wood that formerly covered much of South London. The trade, which once provided much of Europe with fuel, had always been a marginal, disreputable one, conducted at a distance from human habitation because of the smoke and soot it generated; with the Industrial Revolution, the ready availability of coal had also made it an obsolescent one.

Graph showing changes in fuel use in England, 1561–1859

Changes in fuel use in England, 1561–1859, from Ian Bostridge, ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey’

Bostridge finds a further political resonance in the reference. Müller was an admirer of the Italian revolutionary society that his hero Byron had joined, the Carbonari – whose name means ‘The Charcoal Burners’. The Carbonari had been the driving force in a series of uprisings in 1820–21, and among their objectives was the overthrow of Austrian rule in Italy. For a German poet and an Austrian composer, this was incendiary stuff.

To what extent did Schubert identify with Müller’s radicalism? In 1820, he was present when the police detained his friend Johann Senn for seditious activities; Senn was imprisoned for 14 months while Schubert, accused of using ‘insulting and opprobrious language’ to the arresting officers, spent a night in the cells, from which he emerged with a black eye. And when he first encountered the Winterreise poems, it was in the radical journal Urania, which had been banned by the Viennese censors. For both poet and composer, then, the cycle may have been a lament for the political winter that had engulfed Europe.

The undiscovered country

When Müller decided to expand his cycle from 12 to 24 poems, he interspersed the new verses in between the old. Schubert left the 12 songs he had already composed in their original order, altering the key of the last, ‘Einsamkeit’ (‘Loneliness’), to avoid a sense of closure at what now became the mid-point of the journey, and setting the new ones in the order they appeared. The result – whether by accident or design – places the most extreme states of mind towards the end of the cycle, intensifying the feeling that the wanderer is moving ever further from everyday life – and even from sanity.

The 20th song, ‘Der Wegweiser’ (‘The Signpost’), resumes the steady walking pace of ‘Gute Nacht’ and ‘Einsamkeit’: Was vermeid’ ich denn die Wege,/ Wo die ander’n Wand’rer geh’n?’ (‘Why do I shun the paths/ Where the other travellers go?’). Like many others, I imagine, I have often asked myself this question in the course of both my literal travels and my journey through life. Such is the resonance of Winterreise almost two centuries after its composition.

The last lines of the song, repeated in a whisper over a relentless, tolling G and followed by a cadence of sombre finality, are: ‘Eine Straße muß ich gehen,/ Die noch keiner ging zurück’ (‘I must take a road,/ From which no one returns’). Given that Müller was steeped in English literature and had translated Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, it is not far-fetched to suppose that he intended to echo Hamlet’s ‘undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns’.

From here on, there is no going back: the wanderer is irretrievably lost, and the songs become increasingly hallucinatory. In the hymn-like ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (‘The Inn’), he mistakes a lonely graveyard for an inn where he might find shelter – but the rooms are all taken, and he must trudge onwards. In a fiery burst of ‘Mut’ (‘Courage’), the singer declares, ‘If there’s no God on Earth/ We must be gods ourselves!’ anticipating, as Bostridge notes, Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, almost word for word, by half a century.

A parhelion, or sundogs, over Fargo, North Dakota

A parhelion, or sundogs, over Fargo, North Dakota

This hysterical bravado collapses into the numb resignation of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (‘The False Suns’). Against hushed, awestruck chords, the wanderer observes three suns in the winter sky – an optical illusion caused by sunlight refracted through ice crystals, and known as a parhelion. Oddly, Bostridge’s absorbing discussion of the phenomenon – and its appearance in literature – makes no mention the ‘three glorious suns, each a perfect sun’ that appear before the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3.

‘Die Nebensonnen’ is the cycle’s tragic nadir, in which the singer parts company with all hope as he watches two suns set, and wishes the third would do so too, leaving him in darkness.

The turn of the screw

Then, over a monotonous open-fifth drone on the piano, the wanderer meets the first human being he has directly encountered on his journey, an organ grinder, or Leiermann. The German Leier is cognate with the English word ‘lyre’ – but this is not the elegant instrument of classical antiquity that graced the Biedermeier furniture of the early 19th century, but a clapped-out, tuneless hurdy-gurdy.

A hurdy-gurdy

The instrument, its strings sounded by a wheel operated by a crank handle, was already outmoded by Schubert’s day; like the charcoal burner, the Leiermann is a practitioner of a dying trade.

Who is he? Death? Or is this most impoverished and broken-down of itinerant musicians the wanderer’s alter ego? (Not long after completing Winterreise, Schubert composed his terrifying setting of Heine’s ‘Der Doppelgänger’.) The old man’s fingers are numb with cold, his collection bowl is always empty, and no one listens to his tunes. Dogs snarl at him, as they did at the wanderer in ‘Im Dorfe’, marking him as another outsider. The singer addresses him as ‘Wunderlicher Alter’ – the adjective wunderlich translates as strange, odd, but it can also mean wondrous – and asks him to accompany his songs. (Matthias Loibner, a virtuosic champion of this disparaged and underrated instrument, has done just that to great effect.)

And so ends Schubert’s great song cycle, with this bleak, enigmatic little ditty. Yet despite the desolation that Winterreise evokes, its stark beauty and depth of human feeling makes it one of the most uplifting experiences that any art has to offer – and Ian Bostridge’s absorbing book contributes significantly to our understanding of its many subtle resonances.

What a difference a little word makes


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Time, I think, for a spot of pedantry. There is a usage I keep seeing everywhere that drives me round the bend: ‘Yesterday, artist John Smith announced that his new show…’; ‘American author Truman Capote…’

I suspect the practice of omitting the definite article started with newspaper headlines where, given the font size and column width, every letter counts. Fair enough, but since then it has trickled down the page to infect the body copy, and has even spread, sadly, to otherwise well-written and edited books.

Unlike Russian or, I am informed, Mandarin, the English language requires an article: you have to write ‘John Smith, an artist…’ ‘The American author Truman Capote…’ Artist and author are not titles, as in King George V or Baron Corvo – they are descriptions of a person’s trade.

This is not just a matter of grammatical rules, but of craftmanship: it’s the difference between a well-carpentered joint and one that’s crudely nailed together. Also, it fails the speech test – would you ever say, ‘artist John Smith’ out loud? No, you wouldn’t.
 Worst of all, it’s simply ugly, betraying a tin ear for the language.

When I worked at the Independent, the usage was strictly banned, and the Guardian style guide agrees:

‘Leaving “the” out often reads like official jargon… Do not use constructions such as “prime minister David Cameron said” … If it is thought necessary to explain who someone is, write “Nigel Adkins, the Sheffield United manager, said” or “the Sheffield United manager, Nigel Adkins, said”.’

Capital offences

Then there is the question of when to capitalize the word. When the definite article is part of a title, it is perfectly clear that it should be capitalized and set in italics: The Divine Comedy, The Portrait of a Lady, etc. The titles of newspapers are more problematic. Traditionally, only The Times was afforded a capitalised, italic The, in recognition of its status as the newspaper of record. At the Independent, we made the decision on the basis of whether the article appeared in the paper’s masthead: so, The Guardian, but the Daily Mail. The drawback to this system is that it requires checking – and newspapers do change their mastheads from time to time.

The Guardian itself says: ‘lc for newspapers (the Guardian), magazines (the New Statesman…’

The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Odwe to those of us in the trade) finds an elegant way round this dilemma: ‘Preceding definite article to be roman and lower case exc. in one-word titles (the New York Review of Books, The Economist)’.

So The Times keeps its capital T, but so do The Guardian and The Independent. That seems like a sensible solution, but I’m entirely in agreement with the Guardian style guide when it continues, ‘lc for… pubs (the Coach and Horses), bands (the Black Eyed Peas, the Not Sensibles, the The), nicknames (the Hulk, the Red Baron), and sports grounds (the Oval).’

To write, ‘We went for a pint in The Dog and Duck’ or ‘He used to get off his face listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ is a capital letter too far. It’s naff. It’s as uncool as wearing socks with sandals.

Capitalisation in general seems to be getting out of hand. In the 18th century, capitals were scattered merrily to emphasise any word the writer or printer considered important. The Germans, true to stereotype, systematically capitalise every noun. But in modern English we use capitals very sparingly, for proper names and little else. And for goodness’ sake, don’t use them to big up your job title. The Daily Telegraph’s style book is clear about this: ‘Job descriptions such as managing director, chairman and chief executive all take lower case.’

If ‘prime minister’, ‘foreign secretary’ or ‘chief executive’ sit comfortably in lower case, then a capped-up ‘Assistant Stationery Buyer’ looks comically self-important. When it comes to capital letters, less really is more.

While I’m wearing my sub-editor’s (metaphorical) green eye shade, I’m also going to protest against a couple of pretentious buzzwords that seem to be cropping up everywhere: curate and iteration. The word curate belongs to the world of museums and galleries. You can’t curate a book – you edit it. And where on earth has ‘iteration’ come from? I’m seeing it everywhere these days. ‘The latest iteration of Microsoft Word…’ There’s a perfectly good word for this already – version. But that doesn’t sound impressive enough, does it?


Life in Limbo


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Jenny Erpenbeck in conversation with James Runcie at the British Library, Monday 11 September, 2017

The current refugee crisis is without doubt the greatest political and moral challenge to face Europe since the fall of Communism, and nowhere more so than in Germany, with its own troubled history of totalitarian government, division, and mass displacement. It was therefore fascinating to hear one of the country’s finest novelists, gently but adroitly prompted by the writer and broadcaster James Runcie, reflect on the issue at the British Library last week.

I reviewed Jenny Erpenbeck’s first three novels for the Independent and the Financial Times, and was present when she was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her fourth, The End of Days. It has been inspiring to follow her development from the author of a brief, haunting debut novella, The Old Child, which dealt obliquely with the suppressed trauma of East Germany, to one of the most ambitious and accomplished novelists writing in any language today.

I read The Old Child (Die Geschichte vom alten Kind) in the German, and can vouch for the fidelity not only to meaning but to nuance and sonority of her superb translator Susan Bernofsky, who has worked closely with the author on all her books. Erpenbeck’s style is unique: clear and limpid, yet suffused with a sense of the immanence of history shimmering just beneath the surface of people, places, words and things.

Her latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, was inspired by the 2013 sinking of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean and the presence of a camp of refugees from Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Mali in Berlin’s Oranienplatz before the city authorities whisked them out of sight and into hostels.

Born in East Berlin in 1967, Erpenbeck was already 22 when the Wall came down. Her own experience of living in two completely different societies taught her that ‘things change quicker than you ever expect,’ and gave her some insight into the refugees’ alienation. All her books, moreover, have explored the themes of exile, transition, loss, and memory, which are central to the refugee experience.

Erpenbeck wanted to know about the lives they had left behind, ‘the things that were normal before they had to leave. They have to try to forget what they lost, but also memory is all they have. So there is a struggle between forgetting and remembering.’

Refugees, she explained, must cross several different kinds of borders: ‘real borders, the border of language, the border of law, the border of skin colour and all the racism that goes with it, and the border of becoming visible – to be really seen for who they are, what lives they are allowed to live.’

She spent a year talking to them, accompanying them in their daily life, including visits to government offices, lawyers, language classes and so on. Central to their predicament – and to the novel – is Germany and the European Union’s refusal under the ‘first country of entry’ rule to allow them to take paid employment until – and unless – their application for residency is granted. Erpenbeck was interested to know how they spent this enforced idleness. ‘This is the time when they’d start to have a real biography, but they have got stuck,’ she says. They are in limbo – ‘empty time’– while the rest of society are living in normal time.

Employment is also related to the ability to learn a new language. The novel’s title, conjugating the verb ‘to go’ (the satisfyingly alliterative Gehen, ging, gegangen in German) alludes to language learning, which, as Erpenbeck pointed out, is also a question of being involved in the life of a country: ‘If you’re allowed to work it’s easy to learn the language, but if you’re excluded it’s much harder.’ And in the hands of bureaucracy, language becomes a weapon to reinforce that exclusion. ‘They have to learn bureaucracy,’ Erpenbeck says. ‘Language is never a coincidence.’

The novel’s protagonist, Richard, is a professor of classics facing retirement. His occupation allows Erpenbeck to draw on two great classics about transition: Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Many refugees, she pointed out, are arriving from cultures whose history pre-dates that of the ancient Greeks by 2000 years. Richard also has to reinvent himself as retirement robs his life of structure, meaning and social contact; facing this void in his own existence, he feels a connection to the refugees, and discovers a new sense of purpose in helping them.

With the possibility that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – despite infighting and waning support – might win a seat in the Bundestag for the first time in next Sunday’s German election, Erpenbeck’s message, that ‘how you see someone defined as a stranger defines who you are’, seems more urgent than ever.

Since completing the novel, Erpenbeck has spent two years in activism, assisting refugees. ‘Only if they survive Germany now,’ she says, ‘will Hitler truly have lost the war.’

The War on Silence


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During the recent spell of warm weather, I have enjoyed a few pleasant summer evenings contemplating our garden from the patio with a glass of chilled white wine. All too often, however, I have been driven indoors to escape the sound of radios blaring from open windows and balconies. I don’t want to listen to saccharine soft-rock ballads and the vacuous, patronising banter of the presenters under any circumstances, but I particularly don’t understand why people need this aural backdrop when surrounded by birdsong and the sound of the breeze in the trees. These are music enough for me.

I rarely feel any need for background music, or any other aural diversion. When my car radio packed up recently, my initial annoyance was soon replaced by pleasant surprise at the time it gave me to think. Did I really want to listen to a repeat of Moneybox Live anyway? I suppose I’ll get it fixed, but I’m in no hurry. I appreciate that music may enliven repetitive manual tasks, and even improve one’s efficiency in performing them, but when writing or editing, it can only be a distraction from the close attention needed to do the job properly. And the idea that anyone might want background music while reading is utterly incomprehensible to me. Just why?

The problem seems to be not just the scarcity of silence in the modern world, but an active hostility to it. Fearing silence, many people seem to feel a need to surround themselves with an incessant flow of sounds – in restaurants, bars, in their cars, on their phones, in parks and public spaces. For others like me, this constant bombardment by unwanted music is an invasion of our personal space – and it’s getting harder and harder to escape it.

I used to love pubs; these days, I tend to avoid them. Do hospitality and catering colleges teach that speakers should be placed on every wall and in every corner, no more than five feet apart, lest any unfortunate customer miss out on the full volume – or any dissident evade the aural brainwashing and enjoy the now almost mythical ‘quiet pint’? Combined with the vogue for not having any soft furnishings, this causes the sound to ricochet around the bare walls, forcing customers to shout and creating a strenuous, almost aggressive atmosphere more appropriate to a gym than a place of rest and relaxation.


‘All the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been
thrown into the current assault against silence.’

Aldous Huxley, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’

More than 70 years ago, Aldous Huxley noted in The Perennial Philosophy (1946) that ‘all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.’ He understood the connection between this constant barrage of noise and the consumer economy. ‘Spoken or printed, broadcast over the ether or on wood-pulp, all advertising copy has but one purpose – to prevent the will from ever achieving silence… The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving.’

Huxley was writing just over a decade after George Owen Squier established the Muzak corporation (named by analogy with Kodak) in 1934 to deliver piped music to factories to increase workers’ productivity, and subsequently to shops to manipulate consumers’ moods and increase their spending.

In Manifesto for Silence: confronting the politics and culture of noise (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), Stuart Sim argues that ‘Noise is used extensively as a marketing tool (bars, restaurants, public spaces in general, radio, television, film), as a way of stimulating consumption… Such marketing techniques work to homogenise behaviour and restrict individualism; thus to resist them is to make a political statement.’

The problem is compounded by the fact that – like the soma-numbed denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World – we have internalised this consumerist agenda and come to accept it as the norm. We have grown afraid of the silence within ourselves, so that whether at home or on the move, our reflex action is to fill every moment with aural distraction by resorting to the radio, television or Smartphone. Having trained the public to expect constant aural stimulation, commercial interests can now claim that they are merely giving them what they want. Why else pipe music into spaces where we are not expected to linger for more than a few moments, such as hotel lobbies, lifts, corridors, and even lavatories? The assumption would appear to be that just a few seconds’ silence is liable to generate unease.

I’m not a total purist in such matters. There are bars and cafés where well-chosen background music is an agreeable part of the ambience. At least you can choose whether to go into a particular café or not. But canned music has become all but ubiquitous: in banks, shops – including, unbelievably, bookshops –and practically every other public place. In Belgium they even pump it into the streets from little loudspeakers attached to the lampposts. Canned music in hospitals, GPs’ waiting rooms and dentists’ surgeries is particularly invasive, as you have no choice but to be there, and are unlikely to be feeling your best in the first place.

Canned music colours our experience, imposing an irrelevant – and at times jarringly inappropriate – mood. A perky song playing in a café when you’re breaking up with a lover, or in a motorway service station on the way to a funeral, offends by its grotesque inaptitude; a steroid-pumping dancefloor mix is hardly conducive to a reflective cup of coffee in the morning. And where do you go for a quiet drink after a concert or recital when you want to linger in the afterglow of the music you’ve just heard, and not have the experience dissipated immediately by someone else’s choice of aural wallpaper?

Pipedown, the campaign against piped music that numbers Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Alfred Brendel, Lesley Garrett, Philip Pullman, Simon Rattle, Mark Rylance and Prunella Scales among its supporters, points out that many illnesses and disabilities – including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, tinnitus, ME and general hearing difficulties –can be aggravated by exposure to canned music, and that its use therefore contravenes the Disability Act of 1995 and the Equality Act of 2010.


‘I refuse to die to this music.’
André Previn

For me, listening to music – including recorded music – is an active choice. I give it the full and undivided attention I would give a book, a play or a film. I can therefore understand why musicians of all genres dislike canned music, since their training and instincts dispose them to listen rather than to screen it out. ‘I can’t close my ears,’ Daniel Barenboim said in a 2006 Reith lecture in which he mounted a scathing attack on this ‘absolutely offensive’ practice which, he argued, degrades music and encourages people not just to neglect the ear but to repress it. On board an aircraft when it ran into turbulence and the crew piped ‘soothing’ music through the public address system, his fellow conductor André Previn complained, ‘I refuse to die to this music.’ And Alex Kapranos, of the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, in his entertaining gastronomic travelogue Sound Bites, opines that the only appropriate soundtrack to fine dining is the gentle murmur of conversation and the quiet clink of glasses and cutlery.

But nowhere, it seems, is immune. Even in libraries, canned music is recommended because people, we are told, find silence alienating. In October 2008, Andy Burnham, then Culture Secretary (now Mayor of Manchester), remarked that ‘solemn and sombre’ libraries should be ‘a place for families and joy and chatter. The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists but libraries should be social places that offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home.’

What Burnham failed to recognise is that libraries have long been an engine of the social mobility his government claimed to support: one of their principal purposes was to make the pursuit of learning available to children – and there are still many – who could not afford to buy books and whose homes were too crowded and noisy to allow them to study without distraction.

Burnham’s association of silence with the sombre and noise with joy is revealing. In A Book of Silence (2010), the writer Sara Maitland describes her own personal quest for silence, and examines our society’s ambivalence towards it. As she points out: ‘We have reached a point in contemporary Western culture where we believe that too much silence is either “mad” (depressive, escapist, weird) or “bad” (selfish, antisocial)…’

Noise is equated with sociability – but the noise with which we now surround ourselves is not that of human interaction, but of withdrawal: the television that precludes the need for conversation in the home, the canned music that makes it impossible in the pub, the headphones clamped to ears in public places…

Real, intense communication is punctuated by periods of silence and reflection, rather than the constant babble of what anthropologists call phatic communication – small talk to you and me. Of course small talk has real value in making strangers feel at ease with one another, but we only establish proper friendships when we move beyond it. Taken too far, phatic communication becomes nervous chatter, a substitute for communication.


‘Silence is the element in which great things
fashion themselves together.’
Thomas Carlyle


Silence is also essential for contemplation, reflection, and creativity. As Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus (1836), ‘Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together.’ During the 1950s, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor found it necessary to retreat to the Benedictine Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle in Normandy to finish a book with which he was struggling. In A Time to Keep Silence (1957), he records how at first, he found the silence of his cell oppressive, and suffered from insomnia, nightmares and daytime drowsiness. Then, as the ‘hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life’ fell away, he experienced a renewed energy for reading, writing, and exploring the surrounding countryside.

Fermor and Maitland’s rigorous, quasi-mystical pursuit of silence, which arose in both writers out of personal crisis, is probably not something that many people will either want or be able to put into practice, but what Maitland calls the ‘bits and pieces of silence woven into the fabric of each day’ are to be cherished, not feared and obliterated.

Our inability to tolerate silence for even a short time is, I believe, a symptom of neurotic anxiety; it is almost as though we are suffering from a mass outbreak of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is not merely our addiction to noise that is at issue here, but a wider craving for constant stimulus. Consumerism has infantilised us, and we can go nowhere without our toys. Travelling on the East Coast Main Line from London to Leeds recently, I was struck as I walked along the train from the quiet coach to the buffet car how almost every passenger was hooked up to some device: laptops, iPads, DVD players, Wiis, each in their electronic cocoon, oblivious to the afternoon sunlight slanting across the fields outside the window.

At what cost? ‘I see patients deafened by inner and outer voices and sounds and just the sheer perennial pollution of irrelevant stimuli,’ writes the philosopher and psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci in Psychology Today. ‘If we lose our inner silence, we lose our very self.’ He suspects that we fear silence because it ‘reminds us of solitude and death’. But, he suggests, ‘how about facing the fear? We might find out that, instead of fearing silence, we enjoy it.’

Silence should be the default position, music a conscious choice, to be enjoyed in all its richness because it is not commonplace; increasingly, background music is the default position, and silence an extreme, eccentric – and usually expensive – choice. I believe we should be looking to build intervals of silence into our everyday lives, and to restore respect for silence in public spaces. Resist the temptation to turn on the radio first thing in the morning, just as you might resist the temptation to light up a breakfast cigarette; hold on to the silence as long as you can. Turn off the TV unless there’s something you really want to watch.

And maybe we should all have at least one ‘unplugged’ day a week. Switch off the iPhone, put the iPad away in a drawer, turn off the radio, and listen to the wind in the chimney, the sound of the rafters settling, the rattle of rain on the window, the foxes barking in the garden, the hoot of a train in the distance… and the silence.

What have we got to be afraid of?

The battle against beige

Lesley Blanch and the 1950s Woman: Waterstones, Gower Street, London, 5 July 2017

How did women who had experienced freedom, adventure and paid employment during the Second World War respond to post-war demands that they ‘settle down’ and devote themselves to the needs of husbands and children? That was the subject of a lively discussion between the writers Elisa Segrave and Georgia de Chamberet at Waterstones’ Bloomsbury branch the other night. As they explored the contrasting experiences of two specific women of that generation, these fascinating individuals were poignantly situated in their historical period.

When Elisa Segrave was caring for her mother, then suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, she came across a cache of wartime diaries that revealed a very different woman from the conventional if distant wife and mother she had known. In The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life (Union Books, 2013), Segrave discovers the woman her mother had once been: Anne Hamilton-Grace was an adventurous girl from a privileged background of finishing school and hunt balls, who had driven a Ford V-8 from Tunbridge Wells to Russia in 1938.

During the war, she worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, before moving to Bomber Command in Grantham, where she assisted the famous Dambusters raid. VE Day found her in Germany, amid the ruins of Hildesheim, where she found ‘not a house left standing’. There were parties, passionate crushes on other women, a romance with an American GI…

Like all the others who worked at Bletchley Park, Anne never breathed a word of her wartime activities and, once the war was over, quietly assumed the role of housewife and mother. Her diaries cease in 1955, when her beloved five-year-old son drowned and she began a long, sad descent into depression and alcoholism.

Georgia de Chamberet’s godmother, Lesley Blanch, was determined not to succumb to domesticity – and she never did. Born in Chiswick in 1904 to artistic but impecunious parents, she seized her opportunity to escape from suburbia when a mysterious Russian, whom Blanch only ever referred to in her published writing as ‘The Traveller’, entered their lives.Only many years later did she reveal that he was in fact the theatre director Theodore Komisarjevsky. He whisked her off to Paris, seducing her on the Train Bleu and introducing her to fellow Russian exiles such as Diaghilev, Rachmaninov and Chaliapin.

It was the beginning of a lifetime’s obsession with travel that would take her to such remote places as the Sahara, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Bukhara and Samarkand during the last age before the mass tourism she would come to deplore had ‘overrun the globe, overwhelming its multifarious flavours and traditions and destroying forever those romantic images, or illusions, of remote lands which we once sought and which could, often, still be found.’

Towards the end of her long life (she died in 2007, just short of her 103rd birthday), her god-daughter assisted her in writing the autobiographical essays that, along with a selection of her travel writing and an account of her volatile marriage to the French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, form the posthumously-published memoir On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015).

During the 1920s and 30s, after studying at the Slade, Blanch designed stage sets for Komisarjevsky and Marie Rambert, who became a lifelong friend. She also produced artwork for the London Underground. After Komisarjevsky left her for Peggy Ashcroft in 1933, Blanch acquired a set (an apartment) in Albany, where her neighbours included the theatre critic James Agate, Philip Gosse and Dorothy L Sayers, who, she recalled, ‘had an attractive voice and was usually alone, drinking wine’.

Blanch’s theatrical and artistic flair carried over into her next career, as a journalist. A new collection of her profiles, essays and travel articles, Far to Go and Many to Love: People and Places (Quartet), has been edited by De Chamberet, who also provides an absorbing biographical introduction. Illustrated with period photographs and a selection of Blanch’s stage designs and other drawings, the articles range from the 1930s to the 1980s, and include several unpublished manuscripts found among her papers.

Her opening salvo as a journalist appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1935. Entitled ‘Anti-Beige’, it was in effect her manifesto, the declaration of a lifelong war against dullness, convention and timidity that found expression in brightly coloured clothes, Middle Eastern robes, floating scarfs, beads and bangles, long before the hippies made such attire fashionable. But this flamboyant romanticism concealed a determined professionalism, and the article landed her a job on British Vogue, on which she served as features editor from 1937 to 1944, writing articles on women’s war work, often illustrated by her friend, the photographer Lee Miller.

A 1945 article for The Leader introduced the still novel personality of Peter Ustinov to a wider public: ‘When he ambles about the room, I’m reminded of a performing hippo on its hind legs. But as a conversationalist, he’s as mercurial as any Harlequin.’ There are memorable portraits, too, of Billy Wilder –‘The façade is Austrian Baroque, but the structure is, I fancy, Pittsburgh steel’ and Vivien Leigh –‘She tore off her eyelashes – the false ones – and those beneath were almost as long.’

Blanch’s acute observations of places and people can be found in pieces on subjects as diverse as polygamy, souks, picture postcards, the Orient Express, Christmas in Mexico and life in post-war Bulgaria. Her travel pieces are all the more poignant in view of the subsequent fate of many of the places – Kabul, Aleppo, Palmyra – she describes so vividly, and the collection as a whole forms a richly engaging record of a life lived to the full.

Both books provoked fascinating contributions from audience members about their own experience and that of their parents’ generation, and this summer evening in Bloomsbury also engaged with the ideas, issues and choices that face young women as they create, write and engage with life today, and the continued relevance of inspirational women from the past.

The welcome return of the stag beetle

On my evening walk the other night, a ‎stag beetle flew past me at eye level, little more than two feet away, affording me an amazing view of the creature in flight. With its body at a 45-degree angle, its heavy antlers aloft, its wing-cases open and its legs dangling awkwardly beneath its buzzing wings. It looked for all the world like some clockwork flying machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

You most often see stag beetles in flight at dusk, at the close of a warm day in June. It’s a minor miracle they get airborne at all – indeed they often have to launch themselves from trees to take advantage of a supporting breeze. Usually they zigzag about clumsily, like oversized bumblebees, but with enough wind in their sails they can go at a fair clip. Though dwarfed by some tropical species, they are the largest terrestrial insect in Europe, and an impressive sight by any standard.

These fabulous creatures have attracted the attention of writers and artists for hundreds of years. Pliny the Elder noted that the Roman scholar Nigidius named the stag beetle “lucanus” after the Italian region of Lucania, where people used them as amulets (they are a member of the scarab family). The reference forms the basis of their scientific name, Lucanus cervus.

In 1505 Albrecht Dürer painted a powerful and astonishingly accurate watercolour of a stag beetle (left, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), its antlers raised as if for combat. Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Banquo, says that before “The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums/ Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done/ A deed of dreadful note,” and “the beetle wheels his droning flight” through the country churchyard of Gray’s Elegy.

At the risk of anthropomorphism, I find a certain tragic grandeur in the life cycle of the stag beetle. After five years buried in a woodpile in the guise of finger-sized maggots with fierce orange mandibles, they pupate, and then the adults emerge in May or June in all their Baroque splendour. The male flies off in search of a mate, who then lays her eggs. By the onset of autumn – if they haven’t already become a handy, protein-rich snack for magpies or foxes – they die.

Despite their fearsome appearance, stag beetles are strictly vegan; the adults, having accumulated enough fat as larvae to last for the rest of their brief lives, ingest little but sap and the juice of rotting fruit. Quite harmless to humans and animals, they play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead wood to form new soil.

Nationally they are endangered, a victim of our practice of tidying away any pile of rotting wood, the use of grinders to obliterate tree stumps, the destruction of hedgerows, and pesticides. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they seem to fare better in London suburbs than in the countryside, perhaps because of the absence of agricultural chemicals and the number of compost heaps, rotting fences and decaying sheds.

If you live in southern England, this is the perfect time to spot them. In order to understand which habitats are best for the insects and to improve conservation measures, the London Wildlife Trust is calling on Londoners to report any sightings to the Greenspace Stag Beetle Survey.

Stag Beetle Survey:

Outside London, you can report sightings to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species as part of their Great Stag Hunt:

Both groups provide useful information on how to make your garden stag-beetle friendly by creating a log pile in which their larvae can mature.

Click to access 1871_stepping_stones_final_lowres.pdf