Getting Bees

Pardon the pun, but the English language makes it hard to talk about these apoidean insects without falling into word play (to bee or not…).

When it comes to bees, I have my own character arch. I grew up fearing them even though I didn’t see them often in my Chicago childhood. Some of this fear, like many fears, overlapped with hatred and ignorance. My mother was an insect hater, shooing away flies and ants, crushing the odd centipede and spider who dared to crawl around our apartment. My grandmother, who also raised me, was once stung by a bee in the supermarket, giving her a rounded bump on her otherwise flat bum. She was sure it was a bee. Reflecting  back, I’m not so sure. Bee stings on humans are in fact rare. Sure, beekeepers wear jumpsuits and netted hats, but they are after all trespassing and disrupting the bees’ homes.

If a bee were responsible for the bump on Grandma’s bum, it was because the old woman was asking for it. During summer months, she would wear white trousers and tops that were either all white, or white with some yellow print. She certainly dressed the part to attract pollinators. I suspect too that the allegedly aggressive bee sensed that Grandma lived on a diet of chocolate bars, coffee cake and Danish pastry, washed down many evenings with a vodka martini. The sweetness must have oozed from her skin.

Believing much of what I was told as a child, bees were to be feared and not swatted at as you would invariably miss, and the bee would come back around and sting you. You could end up in hospital! While there are people who have allergies to bee stings, they can be treated at home – but this rational couldn’t be accepted when I was growing up or even into early adulthood, where I would step nervously away from any bee I encountered.

I overcame my fear of bees in a single afternoon some dozen years after my grandmother’s purported incident. I was back in Edinburgh and took a day trip to the west coast of Scotland with my former landlady Erica, one of my surrogate mothers. We were in the gardens of some stately home having a picnic when a small bee came drifting over our food. Just when I was about to give Erica a warning, she noticed it and smiled, while luring the creature closer to her with a strawberry and directing it to a patch of heather. She made some comment about how ‘marvellous’ the creatures were.

In the time between my picnic with Erica and the bee and the present day, like any self-respecting environmental activist, I have learned about the value of bees. I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, even if not completely accurate, it makes the point: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ In the popular press, I have also encountered some myths about bees. Not to detract from the dangers of pesticides and pollution, but the leading destroyers of bees are not manmade chemicals, but other insects, such as hornets and mites.

This brings me to one of the best books I’ve read recently, The Ardent Swarm, a novel by Tunisian writer Yamen Manai. A beekeeper in a village in Iraq loses thousands of his bees to an invasion of hornets. This is against the backdrop of Isis-like ‘holy men’ descending upon the village bringing gifts to influence the villagers to vote for them and join their militant cause.  The allegorical link between the destruction of the beehives and the lives of the villagers becomes apparent with the discovery that the hornets came over from East Asia in packages brought to the village by the ‘holy men.’

I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of books, fiction and non-fiction, about bees. This appears to be a topic full of aficionados and maybe even fetishists. While I do adore these creatures and worry about their survival, I don’t think I belong to either category. Having said that, I’ve recently purchased a Save the Bee packet from Friends of the Earth to do my bit. If Erica were around, I know she’d be proud of me.

(Whew, got through that without any more puns.)

Swastikas – the idiot’s tag

A childish chalk scribble of a swastika on a path behind Ely Cathedral has stirred up my emotions at a few levels.

First of all, I detest seeing graffiti in the town of Ely. It makes the place, population 20,000, seem too urban in a gang-ridden way. Ely is not that. But it does have bored youth hanging around convenience stores and school playgrounds late at night. The spate of graffiti in Ely started before the pandemic and is not limited to swastikas. In fact, most of the graffiti has been the tag ‘Ray’ spray-painted in large bubbly letters, often pink, sometimes blue. (Gender identity issues?) Using #findray on social media, residents have assumed that this is the work of a teenage boy. Police have been searching for him for two years now, visiting schools with photos of the tag. The parish and district councils are also on the trail of this elusive vandal, bent on defiling our beautiful town. Parochial annoyance, I know, and I have sucked into it.

Secondly, swastikas offend people. On some walls and fences spray-painted swastikas have been found in close proximity to ‘Ray.’ The District Council clean-up crew removed the swastikas – on the basis of their power to offend – and left Ray’s other self-absorbed scrawls behind for property owners to contend with. For most adults these are symbols of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but I do wonder if that’s what Ray had in mind. Ely is not known for its Jewish population, and in the ward where Ray operates, Jewish people make up 0.2% of the residents.

Fountainebleau, France.

This reminds me of an incident that happened in Fountainebleau, France a few months ago. A cemetery was peppered with swastika graffiti, headstones desecrated with bright spray-painted signs. Problem – this was a Catholic cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was up the road. Either these vandals had a faulty GPS or they didn’t understand the meaning of the swastika since the 1920’s (it had been used before then by various groups in history, such as being the symbol for Surya the Hindu son god). I suspect that Ray and his French counterparts were cut from the same idiot’s cloth, possessing a miniscule amount of knowledge, enough to know that swastikas offend and little else.

Finally (for now), upon seeing the chalky swastika on the Ely path, the other emotion that came to the fore was strangely one of nostalgia. Stay with me. When I was around five years old I found some broken plasterboard in the alley behind our apartment. Any city child will tell you that a shard of plasterboard makes for a great piece of chalk. At this age, I probably had limited writing abilities coupled with a limited vocabulary. I guess I had the wherewithal to understand the importance of context and copied the words that I had seen in other public spaces – ‘screw,’ ‘fuck’ and ‘hell’ – on to the pavements of Ashland Avenue, Chicago. I don’t know how she found out, but she did, and my mother sent me outside with a bucket and scrub brush to remove my first ever attempts at graffiti. If only Ray was answerable to my mother.

The Stories We Tell: Some Thoughts on Narratives

Loads can and has been said about narratives, with books and academic journals devoted exclusively to the topic. I’ve been thinking about the utilitarian side of narratives. In Gaia Vince’s Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time, the power of stories is seen as the creator of languages and communities. This is familiar territory in anthropology and linguistics (I’m thinking Labov (1969), Prince (1988), Hardy (2005) and the writings of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas). What I found more illuminating was this anecdote:

“In a 1944 study in the United States, 34 college students were shown a short animation in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary at the side. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was ‘worried’, the ‘little triangle’ was an ‘innocent young thing’, the big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’. Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.”

Vince explains this as the brain devising narratives with actors and story patterns where none exist in order to make sense of things. I do wonder to what extent this is cognitive and innate or behavioural and learned given that so much of our learning in early childhood involves anthropomorphizing animals and objects.

On the flipside of this, researchers across a range of disciplines have used storytelling to encourage subjects to talk about their experiences. One of my former students researched the attitudes of Saudi women in higher education by asking them to fill in a narrative for which my student researcher provided the frame. This proved far more fruitful than interviews, where these women gave brief answers and appeared reluctant to speak about their workplace and culture.

Arguably, some of the appeal of Twitter (excluding the years when it was hijacked by a US president) and other social media is the way that they provide a stage for people to tell the stories of their lives. Sociolinguist Ruth Page covers this in her book Stories in Social Media: Identity and Interaction. Having studied these online communications as a linguist myself, I find interesting the use of common knowledge and public discourse in these often highly elliptical narratives, especially those limited by the number of characters allowed. That is, what isn’t said is as important as what is. Since understanding and communicating with stories appears to be human, perhaps too is the need use ellipsis, creating gaps in stories that we know our audience can fill.

Given the ubiquity and usefulness of storytelling, it’s a shame the word ‘narrative’ has recently taken on a negative connotation as an arm of propaganda. This politician or that group creating its own narratives which the media – mainstream and social – start to follow and build upon. Do I need to give examples? Nope, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.

His Octopus Teacher

Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, did everything a documentary should do. Beautifully filmed, it followed a clear narrative and gave a generalist audience scientific information mixed alongside a real-life character arch. How could anyone object to such a film? Pippa Bailey in The New Statesman does just that.

She starts by mocking Foster’s friendship with the octopus: ‘“I remember that day when it all started…” Foster intones, as though it’s the start of a romcom; the music swells when she reaches for his hand.’ Bailey fails to point out that he never gave the octopus a name and throughout the film elucidates the biology and behaviour of the octopus in ways that obviously distinguish it from human. Example: he informs us that most of the octopus’s cognition is in their arms.

Bailey goes on the attack of Foster’s approach to his subject: ‘Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about.’

Reading this, I couldn’t help but to think about the way people interact with their dogs and cats, treating them very much like human friends. When dogs behave in ways akin to the human for ‘excited to see you’ it’s because we have trained them to behave like that with stimuli of food, petting and playful exercise. As for cats, who display limited understanding of humans, we talk to them as if they care and when it’s bleeding obvious that they don’t care, we praise them for their independence. Furthermore, the therapeutic value of having pets is well documented. According to QI, the act of cuddling a dog can relieve stress for up to six months after the cuddle. Given that Foster points out at the start of the film that he was at a crossroads, unproductive as a film-maker and troubled by this in a way that sounded like a mid-life crisis wrapped in depression, this therapy was needed.

Having said all of this, I do think Bailey makes some cogent points. She notes: ‘There are, to my mind, two extremes in documentaries about animals: those that present the animal kingdom as separate from people, their only human presence David Attenborough’s narration (other presenters are available); and those, such as Tiger King or the masterful Blackfish, that document an overly close relationship between humans and animals: obsessive, intrusive. My Octopus Teacher doesn’t go that far…’ Bailey goes on to say, ‘Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so.’ I agree with that, and Tiger King was at times hard watching for these reasons – profit motive and self-aggrandisement reigned supreme (pun intended). But I don’t think that Foster’s documentary erred in these ways. In the end it was clear that animals have their own, often cruel, life cycles that we humans need to give space for by not continuing to destroy our natural environment.

Bailey’s conclusion: ‘Must we view an octopus as a friend, a saviour, a teacher? Couldn’t we simply settle for not eating them?’

My conclusion: An octopus can be a friend, a saviour, a teacher, or simply something of the natural world to marvel at. But whatever you do, don’t eat them. 

My new nook

To call it an office or writing space or den doesn’t do justice to a space where I meditate, read, daydream, write and connect with the world through my laptop. I’ve also grown weary of the ‘room of her own’ cliché. Simply put, a writer needs a space to create and get on with the job of writing. Over the years, I’ve integrated my writing space with my meditation space, realising that I need mindfulness to think, thinking to write and writing to practice mindfulness.

When we moved house a few months ago we decided to use space in a creative and more utilitarian way. What was referred to as bedroom one, the second largest room next to the dining/living room, became my office. Bedroom three, also referred to by the estate agent as ‘dining room’ as it was connected to the conservatory, became our bedroom. Bedroom three may have been a tight fit for our bed, but since it was a room only used for sleeping and marital recreation, this made sense. I was blessed with the big room looking out over the front garden, our quiet street and in the distance the West Tower of Ely Cathedral. A writer’s dream.

But you can’t dream, or even daydream very well, if you can’t sleep. Our new bedroom may have been at the back of the house, but it was lit up at night by a streetlight from a private carpark. The conservatory glass doors, windows and ceiling made sure of that. On the other side of the equation was my new office, which needed to double as a dressing room with wardrobe and dresser, and it needed to ‘triple’ (new verb) as an exercise room for me with my yoga matt and hand-held weights (David uses the living room). To top it off, this dream office shared a wall with David’s African-themed office, which meant that he could hear me talking to colleagues in Zoom and waffling in French during online sessions of ‘Le Book Club.’ After a couple of months of light sleeping and working around each other, following other renovations that had to come first (functioning kitchen and bathroom), we did the big switch.

In the larger bedroom with the wardrobe, dresser and space for the yoga matt, we are both sleeping more easily, and we no longer need to squeeze around the bed. My new office is smaller than my last office but has the quiet and privacy I need to meditate to think to be mindful. Looking through the conservatory doors and windows into the garden, I’m writing this from my office nook.

Dalton Trumbo wrote in his bathroom.
Patricia Highsmith in her nook.

Biden to the rescue – in a manner of speaking

More progressive and radical than anticipated, Biden’s address to the nation to mark his first 100 days in office last week may have been dull in delivery, but its impact cannot be understated. While political pundits are still sizing up what can actually be achieved from the president’s proposals, I’ve been thinking about what all of this means in more existential terms.

Despite not being legally or constitutionally meaningful, the first 100 days of a US presidency has become a symbolic marker. FDR was the first to attach significance to the 100-day anniversary as he was out to prove his worth for getting America out of the Great Depression. Unlike many of his predecessors, Biden finds himself in a similar position to FDR as the world deals with waves of a pandemic and its economic aftermath, along with the kaleidoscope of damage left in the wake of the Trump years.

Biden’s first 100 days have been busy with government taking a more active role, and due to the pandemic, which has killed over half a million in the US and left one out of five Americans out of a job, people obviously need that. In his address to the nation, he spoke about continuing in this vein, along with green energy and healthcare being controlled and financed to a greater extent by government. Going against the ethos of the past forty years from Republic and Democratic presidents alike, Biden noted that ‘trickle-down economics has never worked.’ He has proposed growing ‘the economy from the bottom up and the middle out’ by reforming corporate tax, which has long favoured the rich, and raising the minimum wage.

Reading the analyses these past few days and now the reports of Biden trying to sell his ideas to Republicans and their supporters, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, Biden is no longer the anyone-but-Trump president. He is starting to become a leader characterised by his own agenda.  With this I’ve already notice the change in public discourse. It’s not likely that Biden will be able to fulfil all of these promises, and there will be compromises and lost battles along the way. But by setting these humanitarian goals in a boring presidential language, Biden is changing what people are talking about and how they are talking about it. Trump promised that a wall would be built between the US and Mexico. That promise was not fulfilled, the wall never built, but for four years people talked about immigration and white supremacy – often aggressively, either following Trump’s rhetoric or vehemently ridiculing and mocking him.

This leads me to the second thought: I’m enjoying for the first time in some years the feeling of hope. I’m not alone in this – only last night I heard socio-political author Michael Lewis answering the question of what he thought of Biden’s presidency so far, and without hesitation he said ‘It gives me hope.’  Hope holds incredible powers. Emily Dickinson once said, ‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’ and like birds, hope can survive the harshest of conditions, navigate through the unknown and inspire us to keep living. As her words are better than mine, I close with the full poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-Emily Dickinson

The US President flanked by two women congressional leaders.

Brexit Stories

When it comes to spy stories, I usually prefer films over novels, and when I occasionally make an exception, I dip into the worlds of John Le Carré. This time not because it was a spy story, but because it was a Brexit story. Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in 2019, capturing that heady time period after the European Referendum of 2016 but before the withdrawal agreement was signed and enacted upon at the end of 2020.

In this spy caper, one of the main British characters declares, ‘It is my considered opinion, that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.’ Familiar? Yes, it sounds as if paraphrased from the actual comments of many remainers, famous and not-so-famous, the banter in local pubs and in the many rallies and marches at the time. 

So, too are these gems from the mouths of British characters in Le Carré’s novel: ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.’ And, ‘I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. Things that were wrong with Europe could be changed from inside Europe.’

One of the Russian-born characters embodies the view from outside the UK when he says, ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?’ ‘Tell me.’ ‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.” 

For me, this spy story was more interesting for its background than for its foreground. It presented a nostalgia of sorts. Not a rose-tinted view of the recent past, which was stressful in its 24/7 argumentative mode while trying to stop the march off the cliff. This nostalgia rests in a time when like-minded people were talking about how this referendum happened and the immediate impact of the results. These were stories told and opinions laid bare that are now well cemented into the past.

What are the stories we are living in now? Some one hundred days ago the transition period ended and Britain officially left the EU. The European Movement has produced a report organised around the personal narratives of ten people whose lives have been affected by Brexit. To no surprise, the mini stories come from a farmer, a small business owner, a fisherman, a professional musician, a teacher, a refugee and an EU citizen trying to gain their ‘settled status’ in the UK, along with a few stories that are less personal, but still poignant – a professor speaking about the recent violence in Northern Ireland and a climate activist and a human rights campaigner both mapping out the current struggles Britain faces going it alone.

I’ve been reading and watching similar stories in the British media, but not as leading stories – these are sometimes stuffed in the middle, reduced to a ‘human interest’ or regional status. Since the beginning of the year – the start of the official Brexit – the pandemic, the riots at the US Capitol, the start of the Biden years and other stories have butted the Brexit fallout from public discourse. This moratorium on Brexit talk has been helped in the UK by politicians of all stripes not willing to enter into this contentious topic again. 

I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for another popular writer of fiction, spy novelist or other, to write the truths of this time. 

Paul Theroux at 80

Time has folded up on me again with Paul Theroux celebrating his 80th birthday last weekend – surely, he can’t possibly be 80. The writer marked the occasion with an engaging essay in The New Yorker reflecting on his professional life, drawing on the personal and adding in a few points of literary criticism.  (Facing Ka‘ena Point: On Turning Eighty | The New Yorker). Theroux has long been a writer I can relate to as if we came from the same place and time – which his birthday and this current essay remind me we haven’t. Theroux grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in the 40s and 50s, a far cry from Chicago in the 60s and 70s. I probably share more experiences with Theroux’s sons, the documentary filmmakers Louis and Marcel in both life’s timelines and being more British than American.

We also couldn’t be more different when it comes to how we work as writers. In this New Yorker essay, he notes: ‘My method has not changed: still the first draft in longhand, to slow me down and make me concentrate, and then I copy it by hand, and finally I type it.’ Being a keyboard and screen aficionado, I can’t read this without feel bewildered and anxious.

I confess, I’ve only read one of Paul Theroux’s novels, The Mosquito Coast, and a few of his short stories. My secret friendship with Theroux comes from reading his essays about his travels and his family, revealing how he has developed psychologically over the years. In Granta 48, he wrote wryly about his time in Malawi working for the Peace Corps and living in a leper colony. I read it in the early 90s and still remember details from it today. Although my experiences as a traveller and someone who has lived in different countries isn’t as dramatic as that, thankfully, there is camaraderie in being the outsider, bringing humour to the most stressful of situations and reinventing yourself along the way.

Years later, Theroux again writing in Granta described large families: ‘The words “big family” have the same ring for me as “savage tribe”, and I now know that every big family is savage in its own way.’ This rings true with my own experience, and I still have a few scars. We both are one of seven children, Theroux in the middle and I the runt of the litter. In the current New Yorker piece, looking over his 80 years, he brings this up again, but from a different angle. Theroux and I escaped our large families by leaving home early, fending for ourselves, ‘living by my [or our] wits.’ I know exactly what he means when he writes about moving far away from family and saying, ‘I didn’t know the word “individuation,” the process of separation by which one gains a sense of self.’ If my life had a title or heading (I still don’t know what it would be), the sub-header would include this idea of individuation.

Many happy returns, PT, from another PT. 

Reflections on translation

1 – Among my favourite mistranslations are Welsh signs that have been translated by English-speaking officials in their efforts to retain bilingualism in Wales. One sign written as Rhybudd: Gweithwyr yn ffrwydro, which in Welsh means ‘Warning: Blasting in progress’ was translated as ‘Warning: Workers are exploding.’

2 – Recently, there was quite an uproar over whether a white translator should be allowed to translate the work of a black writer. Dutch writer and winner of the International Book Prize Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was tasked with translating Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem into Dutch. The most vociferous attacks came from activist-journalist Janice Deul, who said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that a white person had been chosen for the job. If sharing an identity grouping is necessary between writer and translator, Deul missed out the fact that Rijneveld was born female and identifies as non-binary, making ‘them’ even less qualified. In this way of thinking, Rijneveld should have gained some points for being a poet and in their 20s, like Gorman. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the publisher to cave in at the thought of a boycott and lost book sales to pull Rijneveld from the assignment and issue an apology for the poor choice of translator. I share in the sentiments of Gorman’s Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who described Deul’s victory as a ‘catastrophic…victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom.’ 

3 – Apparently, historians had deliberately mistranslated – or perhaps creatively translated – love letters sent by Frederic Chopin to his many men ‘friends’ in order to make the composer appear straight. According to one German source (er, which has been translated into English), many of the translations from were fraught with consistent ‘errors,’ such as male pronouns in Polish being translated as female in the target language.

4 – In Nice, there’s a restaurant with a bilingual menu that lists the French salade aux avocats in English as salad with lawyers. Bon appétit.

5 – Language documentation involves the preservation of dying languages, mostly indigenous languages that have lost out to conquests and the globalisation of the world’s leading lingua francas, such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was pleased to read about a linguist who has been translating newspapers dating back to the 1890s from Hamaii, the dying native language of Hawaii, into English. Even though the original project was about documenting the language and the culture of the pre-American Hawaiians, a by-product has been the discovery of a treasure trove of meteorological and geographical information. Climatologists are now using these digitalised translations to help predict earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other potential disasters.

6 – George Steiner once said, ‘Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.’