You have to crawl before you can fly

What can I say about IDLES? At the most fundamental, of course, they’re just a band like many others. To me, personally, they produce the music that’s kept me going through the coronapocalypse. I’ve started carrying them in my pocket when I go into a supermarket, ready to block out the inevitable hideous muzak (why is it so loud and so screechy?) . And any time I feel like humanity is a lost cause, I just have to go into the AF Gang group on Facebook to see people supporting each other as they talk about the toughest of subjects and feelings. Above all, I see a band that’s developing, thinking, both about their own personal situation and the wider state of the world. And I like that. We need more thinkers, desperately.

What I didn’t like, on first listen, was IDLES’ latest album, Crawler. It was announced out of the blue six weeks ago with a single, Beachland Ballroom, that was also – to me – not at all typical of IDLES. It sounds like something Amy Winehouse might have sung. And I absolutely hated Amy Winehouse’s music. But it took about 30 seconds to realise how not all soul songs are equal. How the very fact that Joe Talbot is an unlikely soul singer, and Bowen, Lee, Dev and Jon are an unlikely soul band, makes it work. And that break… breaks me. Every time. I began – like many other fans – finding myself singing the words “Damage. Damage. Damage” to myself everywhere I went.

So I was looking forward to the album. Then two weeks ago another single, Car Crash, was released. And this one gave me such a visceral reaction that I only listened to it once. Partly that’s because of the video, which consists of clips of car crashes from old films, and is frankly unwatchable if you happen to have a severe headache, which I had, and which continued to haunt me for the next ten days. But it seemed aggressive yet without the grace-in-violence combination I’ve come to expect from IDLES.

By now I was getting worried. I’ve never before been aware of the arrival of an album to this extent. I’ve never been this invested in a band, this eager yet terrified for the new release.

So when the album dropped, I waited a whole ten hours before listening to it (and not just because I was asleep for eight of those hours). And, as I’ve already said, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t see IDLES in there. It felt like another band. A band I didn’t know. I couldn’t see myself watching this live, I couldn’t imagine listening to it over and over.

And yet, even then, there were things I liked. Really liked. MTT 420 RR, a spooky, pulsing number with Joe’s voice drawling over it, feels like it’s pulling you into an alternate universe. The rousing lyrics of Crawl. The fantastically eerie Progress, with a complex, rambling bass and apparently random electronic chimes wandering across the soundstage. The brief, John Peel-esque shoutiness of Wizz. The triumphant, dumbfounded, beautiful conclusion of The End.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I did like it after all?

Crawling to Crawler

I listened to it again, while laying carpet. And on the second time around, it all suddenly fell into place. The reason why it felt like another band is because it is another band. This isn’t just IDLES shouting about the injustice of it all, or being the self-conscious caricature of themselves we saw in Ultra Mono. (Although we still get that version of them in tracks like The New Sensation, probably my least favourite song, largely because I just don’t believe Rishi Sunak’s inhumanity deserves a whole 4 minutes of anyone’s time.)

No, here, in Crawler, the theme of the album in some way replicates the journey of the band, not just Joe’s personal journey – being at the bottom, being ashamed of it and wanting to do more, and finally realising that they’ve come out of it, and that the terrible journey to redemption was, in fact, also beautiful.

I still don’t like all of it, but I don’t have to. Neither does anyone else. If there’s any band working today that means a million different things to different people, where a group of fans will all have different favourites on different days of the week, and depending whether they’ve just seen a snowflake fall or a Rottweiler or a headline about immigrants, or a daisy, it’s IDLES. To have injected warmth and magic into so many mundane references for so many ordinary people is admirable in itself.

But this, Crawler, this album that sounds like it’s another band – this is IDLES in full, majestic flight. The butterfly from the chrysalis, the flower from the seed. This is a band that’s gone through the searching to find itself, the re-inventions it needed to get where it needed to be. From here, they can do anything, go anywhere. Because they know who they are – and they know they deserve this now. It’s brave, it’s complex, it’s got layers of meaning and reference, both musical and spiritual. It’s just wonderful.

And it occurred to me in the middle of the night, with such clarity that the thought woke me up:

That moment at Glastonbury where Joe starts crying on stage, at the end of Danny Nedelko, when he realises how far they’ve come, and what a beautiful, powerful thing they’ve achieved?

That’s the moment Crawler was conceived.

A year in whatnow?

Back in the days when I used to meet new people – or indeed people of any kind other than supermarket checkout operators – once we’d gone beyond the initial phase of the conversation they’d often ask me why I live in Sweden. For some reason, the other end of my peripatetic existence, in rural France, never seems to attract so much comment!

What’s perhaps more peculiar is that I don’t actually have a simple answer. I mean, now I can say that I’m happy with the Swedes’ approach to the pandemic, and shortly before that I could, and frequently did, bang on and on about how grateful I am to have been plucked from the slobbering jaws of Brexit by Migrationsverket.

But it’s hard to say exactly what it is about Sweden that makes it feel like home. The people tend to be a bit stand-offish, the grey bit of winter goes on far too long even in the far south, the food is execrable, they’re more than a touch racist and their habit of mixing light – and even heavy – industry with residential and historical construction has resulted in some horrifying juxtapositions (my ‘favourite’ example of this is the probably 11th century castle in the pretty Baltic Sea town of Åhus. Google “Åhus castle” then use StreetView on the red marker for the full effect – it really is worth those few minutes’ effort).

And yet… it is home. Partly because that’s where most of my friends are, despite the stand-offishness, and I suppose partly because when Swedes do technology it generally works, unlike the French version. In Sweden you really do feel like you’re in the 21st century. At least, you do in the new bits of the towns. Out in the sticks, not so much.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that I recently re-read a book I edited a few years back which tells the story of two Brits moving to rural Sweden. And it reminded me what it is I enjoy about being in Sweden.

Red Swedish farmhouse in the background, mossy wall with rusted horseshoe in the foreground.
Sweden is a lot scruffier than you’d expect!

A Year in Kronoberg” is, of course, modelled along the same lines as Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence”. Each chapter relates the events of a particular month, from the snows of January to… well, the snows of December. But in between are descriptions of what it’s really like to live in Sweden. Not in the cosmopolitan cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but a small village in the rural south.

How do the Swedes cope with snow? Are they really all blond-haired and blue-eyed and obsessed with fika? Are there moose everywhere, and do they actually get drunk from eating apples? And is it true that you can’t buy alcohol in Sweden? As the seasons change and the two Brits become increasingly Swenglish, we get answers to all of these questions, together with many others.

We meet a variety of the colourful characters who really do seem to be everywhere in rural Sweden, from beautiful Carina who works in the village shop to Olof the plumber and his terrible jokes, encounter huge Vikings and their even more enormous tractors, learn how to pronounce “Växjö”, discover the Swedish obsessions with sheds, ice-cream and hotdogs, and find out why you should never get excited about a Swedish history trail – or go swimming outdoors after mid-August.

In other words, if you want to know the truth about living in Sweden, you should read this charming, light-hearted and humorously informative book.

You can buy it here.

HDIS

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m rather partial to the music (and other audible outputs) of the band 65 Days of Static. Last week during a listening party for one of their albums, a few of us came up with what I thought was a rather creepy prompt for a story. I started it, but it got away from me and went in a direction I hadn’t intended (a bit ironic, given what it’s about). But tonight there’s another listening party, and I was determined to wrangle it back into place.

Here it is.


When the sinkholes first started appearing, I didn’t take much notice. I mean, a remote peninsula somewhere in Russia? I don’t even know exactly where. But anyway, it wasn’t of interest to me. I’ve been to Moscow, of course, but the Russians are tricky blighters. Hard to trade with. The food’s terrible, and if you don’t drink vodka, which I don’t – give me a decent gin any day over that paint stripper – well, there’s not much point being there at all. You can do all the useful stuff online. You hardly need to subject yourself to actually being there.

Right yeah, so I just didn’t pay that much attention, you know? The sinkholes were thousands of kilometres from anything. If a few reindeer herders fell in them, so what? And actually, even when they began moving west and getting more… what’s that phrase they keep using? Coordinated? Organised? it didn’t really register. I was in the middle of a big deal with a very sensitive client in Saudi Arabia, if you know what I mean. I simply didn’t have the time to keep track of what was happening in Siberia, for God’s sake.

Sinkhole in Siberia

I know all of it now, of course. I’ve had plenty of time to check back on how it started. How the sinkholes were random to begin with. They’d been appearing for years. Maybe something to do with global warming, that was the theory. But something happened. Or… no, I can’t think about that, it’s too utterly ridiculous. And they seemed to start moving deliberately westwards. Yekaterinburg. Other places. I remember that one name because I once dated a woman called Katerina.

Anyway, it wasn’t until that news report came out that the whole thing really got through – you know the one, the Moscow one. You’ve seen it a hundred times. We’ve all seen it a hundred times. You can probably reel off the commentary just like I can. That Russian scientist – a woman, and not half bad if you’re into that whole Slavic vibe – sitting in a TV studio and just flatly saying it outright.

“No one knows what is happening. There is a lot of danger out there. Thousands of refugees are fleeing before the sinkholes. The city and its infrastructure are descending into the Earth. Nobody knows why. Buildings just started sinking and we can’t do anything about it.”

But even then it didn’t seem all that serious. I mean, Moscow? It’s a long way from London. Ask Napoleon. Ask Hitler. And even what that woman said, and others. It was too ludicrous. Like a 90s low budget horror movie. You know, you expected there to be monsters. “A smooth black shape is emerging from the ground…” and, I don’t know, huge tentacles or something.

All the same, I realised I was starting to mentally cross that area of the globe off, as if there was a famine going on. Not the kind of place you want to visit.

And then… Well, again, you’ve seen those graphics. Plotting the path of the sinkholes. Random at first, scattered all over the middle of nowhere, then about two months ago they began to make patterns. Pairings. They started to look like… No point being coy. You already know it anyway. They started looking like footprints. Like giant fucking footprints. Like the footsteps of a huge fucking invisible giant.

So. Mass panic, mass hysteria, mass evacuation… mass everything, pretty much, but no answers. None that made sense. Thousands of theories, billions of gigawatt hours of electricity going into trying to come up with something. There was an invisible giant striding across the surface of the planet, starting out somewhere in the back end of Nowheregrad, and nobody had the faintest fucking clue why, or how, or whether we’d all just died and this was some particularly bizarre form of hell.

Those creepy round footprint sinkholes, hundreds of metres across, but always two of them, making a series of punctuation marks along a linear path…and getting bigger, the footprints, yeah, but the stride too. Like the giant was growing, sucking up energy from what it destroyed. Exactly like that, apparently. Fuck knows how they were measuring it, I’ve never understood all that science stuff. Ballistics, yeah, but not electromagnetic waves or whatever.

I mean, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You know. You were there. Glued to your screen just like the rest of us. Mentally eating popcorn if you were in Los Angeles or somewhere, a bit worried if you lived in the Middle East, but absolutely fucking terrified if your screen happened to be located in Europe. Maybe trying to go on with your everyday life, but with one eye constantly on that map. Fleeing for your life if you were in Belarus or Poland. And then one day, at least if you lived west of Dresden, you breathed a sigh of relief. Because the footsteps, those huge giant footsteps, those sinkholes that were now several hundred metres deep… they turned around. And headed back the other way, south east, and suddenly everyone in the Middle East was a whole lot less smug and the Bosphorus looked like someone had poured petrol on an ant’s nest. I don’t remember how many people died in Istanbul, but it was a lot.

And, see, the weird thing – well, yeah, I know, that’s a whole load of weird fucking things right there, but the weird thing from my perspective, and it’s me doing the telling… Well. I watched that shift in direction with a bit more self-interest than most of you. Unless you had family in Istanbul, obviously, but anyway. Because I’d been in London, watching the footsteps get closer. Going home every evening and chain smoking on the balcony and trying to ignore the columns of flame and smoke rising up into the sky south of the river. What with the conspiracy theorists and the crystal botherers and the religious nutters there was a lot of unhappy people, all with their own theories about what we needed to do to placate the… whatever it was. The media tried to give it names, but for some reason none of them stuck. Everyone just called it It.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Well. I’d been in London. And then I had to fly to Jerusalem. Even with some fucking invisible thing terrorising Europe, business still had to be done. More so than ever, for some clients. And Israel… well, they like to be prepared. Liked. I had a bit of a soft spot for the Israelis, been there many times and had a lot of fun in between some pretty hefty business meetings. But nobody’s going to be doing that again. Not ever.

I don’t think it would have done them much good, even if we’d had time to deliver what they ordered. The Russians had tried everything short of a thermonuclear device (and if you believe the rumours about what happened in Udmurtia they didn’t stop there either). Didn’t work. The electromagnetism chaps said it just ate the energy, whether kinetic or nuclear or whatever. Just helped it get bigger, stronger. Faster.

What was I saying? Jesus. How long has it been? Well, I got to Israel, did my deal and got out of Jerusalem airport just as it was obliterating Nicosia. Had to call in a lot of favours even to get on a plane, but I did it.

And then… the fucking thing did its business in Israel – really went to town, like it was an angry toddler in a sandpit, stomping all over the place and smashing it all up. It looks like the surface of the Moon now. All just craters. Sinkholes. Footprints.

So I’m back in London, feeling a bit like I’ve had a close call, even though, you know, that’s ridiculous. And I get a call from another client, and he’s in Guernsey for something, I forget what, and he wants me there yesterday. So I nip over to City Airport and as we’re waiting to board the map changes, the map that’s been running constantly on every screen for months now, inset into the top corner. And it’s changed direction again. West again, now. And…I mean… I can’t help it. I start to think “It can’t be. There is no way in a million fucking years that it’s after me. I mean, I know I’m a pretty impressive guy but what the actual fuck?”

But I tell myself not to be ridiculous, and the plane boards and I go to Guernsey, and it turns out he’s not actually there yet, but he’s flying in from Dubai in a day or so, his mother’s sick or something so he’s been delayed. So I check into my normal hotel that evening and sit there, trying to keep my mind off the map by chatting up women in the hotel bar and one of them says “Yes” and before I know it three days have passed and the fucking thing’s in Stuttgart.

And I think “Fuck this”, and I’m just about to get back on a plane and head for… I don’t know, Washington or something, when the client rings and he’s in the UK, but he’s on the Isle of Man. I guess one tax haven’s as good as another. So I’m straight on the next plane, you can fly direct, only when I land at that ridiculously small patch of tarmac they pretend is an airport, I’m not really paying attention because I’m trying to get my phone to connect so I can check the map. And I go arse over tip down the steps.

And I woke up an hour ago, and I’m in a hospital bed, I’ve got both legs in plaster up in those suspension things and I can’t reach to get out because my back’s in a brace, and there’s nobody about. I shouted for a bit, but nobody came. And then the noises from outside, from the corridor and from outside the building… Well, I stopped shouting. I don’t really want anyone to come here and find me, strapped into this fucking bed and only able to move enough to thumb type frantically into my phone.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering, only I need to do something to stop me looking at the map. Because of course they’ve left the telly on.

It wiped out Liverpool about an hour ago.

Discrimination passport, anyone?

First, a bit of background

In April, Emmanuel Macron said that vaccine passports wouldn’t be used to discriminate against people.

Last Monday, he announced that as of today, 21 July, anyone in France over the age of 12 would have to present a vaccine passport to enter a cinema, theatre, museum, theme park or cultural centre. You’ll also need one from the start of August to enter a restaurant, sit on a café terrace, get on a train, plane or coach, or go into a shopping centre.

And from the autumn onwards, you’ll have to pay for PCR tests in France unless they’ve been prescribed by a doctor.

Any staff working in a medical or care context, including support staff and volunteers, must be vaccinated by mid-September, or be summarily dismissed.

OK, so what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

Let’s skip over the huge “fuck you” this sends to anyone who hasn’t yet been able to get vaccinated (I won’t qualify for a vaccine passport until mid-August, for instance; a friend who’s chosen to wait for the Moderna vaccine hasn’t been able to get even one jab done yet, and they’ve only been vaccinating young people since 15 June, so only a tiny number of them can possibly have had both jabs by the start of August), the people who are allergic to the vaccines, the people who have health conditions that preclude them from being vaccinated, anyone who doesn’t have ID, or any other reason that’s thus far prevented 50+% of the French population from getting such a pass sanitaire, such as being in the first trimester of a pregnancy.

Let’s ignore the fact that, if you ordered a package before 12 July and it’s being delivered to a pickup point in a café, as they often are in France, tough shit, you can’t collect it.

Let’s even ignore the fact that, as of the autumn, if you’re poor and unvaccinated you won’t be able to afford the entrance fee (PCR test) to get into the shopping centre that potentially contains your nearest supermarket. I guess if you starve that’s OK, because the cause of death won’t be COVID?

No, instead let’s look at the effect of vaccine passports.

As we all know, being vaccinated doesn’t mean you don’t catch the virus, it just means you’re much less likely to end up in hospital. And obviously if you catch the virus, you can still pass it on to someone else. That’s why, even when you’re vaccinated, you still have to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.

Now imagine a French café terrace at the moment.

  • You wear a mask, you’re socially distanced.
  • If you’ve got the virus and you infect someone else with it, it’ll be either someone who’s been vaccinated, or someone who hasn’t.
  • The former will have reduced effects from the virus.

Well that seems clear, but obviously you’re still potentially infecting other people, so presumably the vaccine passport will help with that?

Right. Let’s imagine a French café terrace as of mid-August.

  • You show your passport or PCR test result at the door and you’re allowed in.
  • You wear a mask, you’re socially distanced.
  • If you’ve got the virus and you infect someone else with it, it’ll be either someone who’s been vaccinated, or someone who hasn’t.
  • The former will have reduced effects from the virus.

In other words, the only thing that will change is that you have to show a vaccine passport – which many people are still unable to get, even if they want to – to enter that café space. Needless to say, the restaurateurs who’ll have to check compliance are a tad unhappy.

TousAntiCovid logo, altered to say "Tous Anti Democracie", with the tagline "Avec TousAntiCovid, participez à la lutte contre les personnes différents de nous"

OK, but what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

So why are the French government bringing this in? Well, pretty obviously to force people to get vaccinated, in the short term. Although it’s STILL almost impossible to get a vaccination at the weekend, because, you know, it’s not that serious.

But there’s a broader question – why is anyone instituting such a thing? The EU states that the passports won’t be used to prevent people from travelling within the EU. But presumably at some point, just like France, every individual country will bring in more or less draconian policies to prevent the unvaccinated – or simply those who don’t have a smartphone – from doing things such as exercising their right to freedom of movement.

Because as a measure to prevent spread of the virus, it simply doesn’t make sense. Or at least it doesn’t given how it’s currently being used.

For example, despite the poor nurses and cleaners in old people’s homes being sacked in September if they aren’t vaccinated, the police – who, surely, come into close contact with just as many vulnerable people, not all of whom are guilty – don’t have to be. Nor do prison guards.

And you know how I mentioned above that you have to have a vaccine passport to travel by train? Well obviously if you get on the train in Paris, you’ll have to go through some form of barrier to enter the station, or at least to get on the platform (although you’ll be able to travel on the Paris Metro without a vaccine passport, because… er…). But out here in the sticks? You can get on a local train and not even have your ticket checked, more often than not. And what if you do get on a train heading for Paris without a vaccine passport? You’re travelling from, say, Caen to Paris, but you get on at the small station of Bayeux, the stop before Caen. The guard doesn’t have time to check your ticket, passport or anything else before you arrive at Caen. And the next stop is… Gare d’Austerlitz. When the guard finds that you don’t have your vaccine passport, what are they supposed to do? Stop the train and throw you off into Normandy countryside? Lock you into a separate compartment to prevent you infecting everyone? And what about the people you’ve breathed on before they detected your crime?

So, once again, what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

Well, call me cynical, but I’m thinking along the lines of Sam Grant, Liberty’s Head of Policy and Campaigns, who said in January:


As there is no clear evidence vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, this move feels like an opportunistic detour rather than a serious route out of the pandemic

If you think this is an over-reaction, think back to the security checks at airports. A temporary measure in response to a specific crisis. Solely intended to keep us all…safe.

It’s not over yet…

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t matter what Boris Johnson says. But nor does it matter what President Biden says. It doesn’t even matter what the WHO or the UN or any other authority, however credible or incredible, says.

The pandemic isn’t over.

COVID-19 hasn’t gone.

But I’m not saying that as an advocate of continuing mask-wearing and curfews and social distancing and keeping nightclubs and concert venues shut.

I’m saying that, in fact, as someone who thinks that – with some obvious exceptions – none of these restrictions should be in place.

Yes, you read that right. No masks, no curfews, no social distancing, no mandatory closures of any type of venue.

Why not? Have I gone mad? Well, no. Because if you remember, right back at the start of all this, I suggested we needed to take a different approach (interestingly, pretty much the one that my adoptive country of Sweden has taken, with results no worse – and in many cases better – than countries employing much more draconian measures).

I suggested then that a) the coronavirus was here to stay and that therefore b) we needed to just get on and live with it and c) in any case, if we were really interested in staying “safe” (as if such a thing exists), we’d be trying to sort out systemic inequality and, you know, tiny things like the planet literally burning before our eyes.

And that’s what I still believe. That’s what I’ll always believe. I mean could we eradicate the virus? I don’t know. Will we? With so-called developed countries still squabbling about vaccinating third world countries, and in some cases yet more people becoming billionaires at the expense of the poorest, I’d have to doubt that.

I believe that we need to take sensible measures – but things that we ought to have been doing all along in a civilised society. If you feel sick, don’t go to work. If your kid is sick, don’t send them to school. But that requires a vast shift in the entire way our society is structured. If I feel like by going to work I might infect my colleagues or customers, I need to know my employer has my back. I need to know I’m not going to be sacked or starve or lose my home by taking that time off. I need to be able to work from home whenever I choose, and there need to be local shared office spaces I can use if I don’t have space in my actual home. We need to put an end to the consumer culture, and ultimately to capitalism as a system, because it’s counterproductive for the planet and for humanity. It’s killing us in far greater numbers than the coronavirus ever will.

In other words, none of this is about to happen soon. In which case, why are we still pretending that by sticking to a set of rituals which in many cases are no better than superstition, we can keep everyone alive?

Of course the problem with this approach is that, the mass media has gleefully reported the scariest figures regardless of whether they were deaths or cases (hint – if a billion people catch COVID but nobody dies, it’s not that scary). And it’s also hammered the “do this to be safe from the deadly virus” message so much that anyone who believed it is now panicking about suggestions we should not do this. Well! Who’d have thunk irresponsible journalism could backfire?

Personally I’m with Lemmy on the concept of safety (from about 2.10)

I don’t know what’s the matter with everybody. You think you can be safe? You can’t be safe. Because a car might run you down any second. Think of that. Never come out of the house again. I don’t need you on my street, you afraid motherfucker.

Lemmy

Footnote: I wrote this yesterday. Today my Twitter feed is full of people ranting about the relaxation of restrictions in the UK, including this post from the BBC’s health correspondent, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Interestingly they’re using the same annual flu figures that I did in one of my blog posts last year to underline the fact that you’re never safe from this type of disease, you can’t get rid of it, and there’s nothing to be gained but enormous mental health problems from locking down in response to it.

A view that has support from:

  • Prof Robert Dingwall, sociologist at Nottingham Trent University
  • Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia
  • Dr Muge Devik, infectious diseases specialist at the University of St Andrews
  • and even Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose work the initial UK lockdowns were based on

ITI Conference 2021 – a tale of wonder

Like so many other conferences, this year’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting event was held online. Of course Zoom events are difficult in many ways, but this one worked very well for me because, having just undergone the most stressful house move of my life, there’s no way I’d have had the time or energy to travel to an in-person event.

As it was, I’d just finished a rather large project and, although I had other work to deliver, I could fit this in around the conference schedule. So I managed to attend quite a lot of the sessions (though it quickly became apparent how often my working day is interrupted by delivery men either with parcels for signature or lost somewhere in rural France and apparently unable to read their own GPS).

This was my first ITI event since becoming a member several years ago, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But the programme was interesting, and the ticket price seemed very reasonable compared to the cost of attending a physical event. The entire thing took place on a dedicated platform which made navigating between sessions very easy.

Overall, my favourite sessions were the translation slams – I missed the German-English one, thinking that as I didn’t understand German it wouldn’t be relevant, but a comment by a colleague led to me attending the Spanish-English one and finding that indeed there’s a lot to be learned even when you don’t have more than a rudimentary grasp of the source text. For this reason I found it very helpful that Tim Gutteridge, moderator of the Spanish session, used DeepL as an introduction to each new section, though I can understand why Chris Durban had chosen not to do something similar in the French one.

I also got a lot of food for thought from Edward Lamont and Emma Paulay’s session on “Getting Things Done”, which explained the GTD methodology and its benefits. I haven’t yet managed to implement a system that works for me, but I’m spending quite a lot of time thinking about it, even though I realise this probably isn’t the best approach!

Gary King’s “The Freelancer’s Dilemma” was also interesting – if only for the shocked comments in the chat when he suggested that what we all need is to be earning an additional few thousand euros a month by automating more of our business processes and focusing instead on our core skills. I’m by no means a top earning translator, and “a few thousand” more a month seems like a big claim to me too, but judging by some of the reactions in that chat there were a number of attendees who really need to take a serious look at how profitable their business is!

In terms of my own specialisations, I enjoyed Ngaire Blankenberg’s thought-provoking session, “The Cost of Silence”, on her work to help museums reassess their inherent biases. This is an area I’d like to explore more, as I’ve previously had to fire museum clients (notably one major French ethnographic institution) for refusing to alter their patronising and outdated attitudes.

Handwritten notes briefly describing the first two sessions I attended - largely decorative image.
Note taking – and parcel reception duties

Now, I think it’s clear from the sessions I’ve mentioned so far exactly why I don’t tend to go to translation conferences. I’m not claiming to be an exceptional translator, but I know enough about the process and the basics of the business side of it to more than get by. Sessions that are tangentially related to my business are much more interesting to me than translation theory, the future of MT or sessions for people in the early stages of their career. So although I dipped into the sessions about pricing, freelance business and impostor syndrome, I didn’t feel they were particularly giving me things I didn’t already know.

Meanwhile, productivity, profitability and getting inside another translator’s head and understanding the choices they make during the process of actually translating are of much greater interest. As was Colin McKeand’s “Is your online NETworking NOTworking?”, where he emphasised that the important thing isn’t who or what you know but who knows you (as you can see from my notes on this one, I missed the main point of Colin’s presentation due to yet another errant parcel, but fortunately the session recordings were available to watch later!)

And speaking of networking, although my favourite sessions were the translation slams, my favourite thing about the conference as a whole was actually the networking platform, Wonder, where you could choose a group to join based on a set of topics that changed at each break. This worked extremely well and for me was so much less stressful than real-life networking where you’re trying to make sure you’ve got a drink, been to the loo, checked your email and chatted to a few new people in such a way that they remember you, all in the space of 15 or 20 minutes between sessions.

Another hugely enjoyable part of the event was how smoothly it all ran – testament, I’m sure, to an enormous amount of work behind the scenes. Everything felt extremely well organised and professional, the conference team seemed to be cheerful and relaxed and as far as I could see the technology worked without a hitch. And we all know how rare that is.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed ITI’s 2021 conference, and got to the end of the event feeling energised and inspired in a couple of important areas. However, I did also come to a more complete realisation of exactly how tiring I find this kind of thing. Maintaining concentration on unfamiliar subjects and chatting to colleagues – no matter how pleasant, and regardless of being online – are things I find extremely wearing, and having largely been imprisoned in my own house for the last 14 months certainly hasn’t helped.

So despite having gained a lot from the conference, I shan’t be attending next year’s edition in Brighton… Unless it’s run as a joint virtual/physical version, of course – in which case you’ll find me on Wonder!

An unexpected attack of writing

Early this week, a colleague was suddenly unable to attend an online writing workshop she’d booked (with the wonderful Matthew Curlewis of Amsterdam Writers – highly recommended!), so I jumped in and took her place at the last minute.

It took the format of a writing prompt, followed by a set period for writing, then any participant who wanted to could read their piece aloud and we all commented on strong or memorable aspects (no negativity permitted!)

One of the prompts was these images:

This is apparently a kind of tag cloud of Leonardo DaVinci’s words about water.

We were then asked to take these images as our prompt and write for 12 minutes.

If both had been presented as typed documents, I think my output would have been very different. As it is, the manuscript version on the left made me think of old documents, and old documents made me think of libraries, so I read the words on the right with a different mindset. This is what came out:


People always have this image of libraries as quiet places, with librarians pointing crossly to SILENCE signs… But actually they’re pretty noisy on the whole.

We have the babblings and stream-of-consciousness mutterings of the homeless or near to it come in for a warm in the reference library. The gushing of the middle-aged ladies – and some gents too – when we’ve saved the latest Marian Keyes or Jill Mansell. The whispered divisions and equations, resistance and revolutions of students; the undulations, reboundings and reversals of teenage lovers… In other words, we have it all.

But we don’t often hear violent crashing noises followed by breakages, confusion and furious roaring. Then again, it’s rare that we have a fully armoured warhorse, complete with mace-wielding rider, suddenly materialise in Autobiographies R-T.

Even when we are doing a Tolkien display for Year 5 again.

Fortunately, it was Wednesday morning, one of our quietest, and not long after nine o’clock – far too early for most of our patrons to have arrived yet – so the injuries amounted to a copy of the Silmarillion with a hoof print right through it – no loss there – and a severely mangled cardboard Tolstoy.

C’est la guerre…. Or possibly not

I’m in France at the moment, where there’s a curfew that means you can’t leave your home from 6 pm to 6 am. The government is apparently considering expanding upon this by leaving the curfew in place on weekdays but bringing back a complete lockdown at weekends, so you can leave home on Saturday or Sunday only for essential shopping, medical visits or limited exercise. In other words, you can work/go to school, but that’s it.

In view of that, I have… let’s say, certain opinions about France’s vaccination policy. But perhaps I’m just over-reacting. And in any case, there’s absolutely no way I can express how I feel about this without making every sentence extremely sweary and with every other word in italics for roll-eyed, multiple-exclamation-mark levels of emphasis.

So for those of you who don’t already know how France are going about this, here’s a summary.

  1. Vaccinations are currently being given only in hospitals, and (almost) exclusively on weekdays. You can pick out weekends on a graph of French vaccine figures, because they’re horizontal lines.
  2. Pharmacies still aren’t being permitted to give vaccinations.
  3. However, as from 25 February, GPs will be able to give COVID (Astra-Zeneca) vaccinations to some patients. This will work as follows.
  4. The GP can order one bottle of vaccine (ten doses) from their medical supplier.
  5. Patients wanting a vaccination can, in theory, make an appointment with their doctor using the online Doctolib system, if the doctor has an account. In fact, given the few doses available, doctors probably won’t make these appointments accessible online, so they’ll actually just contact the relevant 10 patients directly.
  6. The patient has an initial appointment during which the doctor explains the vaccine and asks the patient whether or not they want it.
    a) It can be administered during this appointment, or
    b) The patient can ask for another appointment at a later date.
  7. The patient gets another appointment four or five weeks later for the second dose of the vaccine, although Astra-Zeneca now say this isn’t the best way to give it.

So. What’s your reaction to this procedure? Am I the only person who wants to run through the French parliament swinging an axe, screaming “If it’s a fucking war, let’s fight it, for fuck’s sake!”?

The only thing about this post that makes me happy is IDLES

What helped me survive 2020

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, but thought I’d better wait until I actually had survived before publishing it. These are the things/people/influences that have helped me get through what’s definitely been the toughest year of my life so far, not necessarily for what I’ve had to go through (as I’ve said before, I’m very lucky to still have an income and so on), but because of what it may mean for the future.

If you’re on this list, I can’t thank you enough. Words are insufficient to express my gratitude, but I’m going to try anyway.

Music

I could pretty much stop there, really. In any year music is incredibly important to me. This year? There have been a few times where I really thought I was going to flip. And I’ve realised exactly what I want to do when (if?) the pandemic ends.

Tweet describing how, if the pandemic ever ends, I'm going to devote my life to live music.
My post-pandemic lifestyle in one Tweet

Sources of music that have been essential:

  • Deezer – my streaming service, which trundles away in the background suggesting new tracks to me and is always there to play a soundtrack to my other activities.
  • A couple of podcast radio programmes that I enjoy cross-pollinating with recommendations that I think the other show’s DJs will enjoy (they usually do).
    • The In Memory of John Peel Show, with Zaph Mann, who’s brought me some belting tracks from his soup caves.
    • UPRadio, normally hosted by the lovely Sir Real and Grindi, but this year largely falling on Sir Real’s shoulders.
  • D.A.V.E. the drummer and his wife Justine and their weekly live techno sessions on Sundays. Silly costumes, rather disturbing visuals (especially if you like badgers) and always worth dancing to.
  • Bandcamp – their Bandcamp Fridays, where they waive their fee so all the money goes directly to the artists, have been hugely popular. Of course I keep missing these particular days, but I’ve bought a lot more music through Bandcamp this year than ever before.
  • About a million recommendations from friends, to the point where I’m starting to panic a bit about ever being able to listen to them all.

Standout bands:

  • 65daysofstatic, because never has their mixture of noise and melody seemed so appropriate – though ironically it was in 2019 that they produced A Year of Wreckage.
65daysofstatic – KMF
  • IDLES. I don’t even know where to start with these guys. They’ve been popping up in my consciousness for about 18 months now, but it wasn’t until about a year back that they really landed in my brain. And now… to paraphrase, “All is IDLES”. Angry, sweet, political, authentic, danceable, meaningful music. And their fans are without a doubt the maddest, most caring, loveliest people on the planet.
IDLES – Model Village. Brexiteers in a nutshell

Games

I didn’t really play any new games in 2020, primarily because

a) I’ve still not finished Witcher 3 (and I doubt I ever will, it’s so gorgeous), and in any case

b) No Man’s Sky is still getting amazing new updates – I even joined in a multiplayer event this year, which was moderately scary but would totally have been worth it if I’d ended up in the same instance as all my NMS mates, one of whom posted such great dialogue from

c) Red Dead Redemption 2 that I bought it, even though a) and b) above keep me more than busy enough during the odd moment I get to play games when I’m not playing

d) 7 Days to Die. I started playing this zombie game with a friend late in 2019 and it terrified me to begin with, but in fact it’s helped me get less scared of the dark in real life, because chased by a ravening horde of zombies/very cross pumas when you’ve lost your only light source and you’re out of ammo makes “Oh, it’s dark and I’ve got to pop out with a torch and fetch something from the car” a piece of cake. There are also a couple of guys (Capp00 and Glock9) doing really fun gameplay videos of the game (this is, I think, the only game where I’m nearly as happy watching someone play as actually playing it).

Translation colleagues

  • The Group Translation Chats video chat group founded by Nikki Graham two years ago now (two years! How is that even possible?) has gone from strength to strength and become more regular during the pandemic. I’ve been so busy recently that I haven’t been able to attend the chats, but it’s still been an invaluable way of keeping in touch with other people and simply feeling like I exist.
  • Some of the same people are also in an accountability group, primarily to help us complete a copywriting course we all bought… ahem…years ago and which we still haven’t finished – or in some cases started, before this!
  • Associations such as the ITI have provided fantastic opportunities for networking and CPD with regular Zoom events.

Fitness

I find exercise, and particularly walking or cycling outdoors, to be very helpful to my mental health. So when I was in strict lockdown in France and we weren’t allowed more than 1 km from home on our single hour’s daily exercise, I struggled. (Fortunately we don’t have a bakery very nearby, and of course someone has to go and fetch the bread every day, so me and my bike did a lot of bread shopping.)

But even on days when that didn’t happen, I knew I could get a workout so tough that I’d be flooded with feel-good endorphins – yet so much fun that I’d keep coming back over and over again.

Because at the start of the lockdown, my favourite fitness gurus Keris and Matt from Fitter Food began doing live workout sessions. These took place quite early in the morning (fortunately they’re in the UK so I got an extra hour’s sleep!), allowing me to get my workout done even before I was completely awake.

It’s now… I don’t know how many months later, and they’re still doing live workouts almost every day!

A perfect example of how seriously Keris and Matt (don’t) take themselves.

I’ve always loved these guys for their blend of total scientific knowledge, enthusiasm, tough (but always regressable) workouts, disarming honesty and sheer joy in what they do. (They also have a lovely dog.) But in 2020 they’ve surpassed themselves to the extent that there are simply no superlatives that will do them justice. And because you get back what you put in, they’ve ended up with a fantastic community of supportive people too.

If you’ve just gone back into lockdown and you’re feeling unfit (or even if you just need a good helping of joy in your life), they’re currently running a 21 day challenge that I guarantee will help you feel better (it’s got me up three days in a row at 7 am, and we all know how unlikely that is).

Calming – Old things

I took a couple of prompts from the tea sachet this time, and the story fell into place immediately.


There was once a lad called Aidan and he lived at Maughold with his grandmother Margid, for his parents had both died when he was a little boy.

Now Aidan had a good bit of learning at him, for he’d been to school until he was nearly 14 and his granny thought he should be off to Douglas to work in a big shop or an office or something clean where he wouldn’t be out in the cold and rain all the time, but he was having none of it.

“Me da was a fisherman, and his da before him, and ‘tis a good job for a man so that’s what I’ve a mind to do”, he said, standing there before the fire for all the world as though he was indeed a grown man and not still a scrawny boy.

Margid was afeart for him, going out there on the big wide sea, for she was a sensible woman and knew well that a thing’s not to be conquered just for the wanting of it. But he was a stubborn lad, and so she watched him off in the small boat he’d had from his father, and said nothing against it.

And indeed, the lad took to the sea as though born to it – for hadn’t he been? He had a rare talent for finding the best fish, and soon enough he was bringing in enough for them to sell to the best fishmongers in Ramsey and to make a nice bit to put by. Or that’s what Margid wanted to do, but Aidan insisted that she spend some of the money on doing the house out nice as she’d often spoken of while he was growing up.

“’Dade Granny”, he said, “when I came to live with you I remember you’d paint me pictures with your words of what the house would be like when we’d made our fortune – all flowers in vases and a pianer and all them things you used to have when you were a girl.”

And it was true that Margid had married beneath her when she’d wed Cormac the fisherman, her that was a Miss Cannell from one of the big houses up Bowring Road in Ramsey. She’d had to give up a lot when she moved to the little thatched cottage near the shore in Maughold, and she still thought fondly of those fine things.

So she let him buy her new linen for their home, and a smart new tin to keep their stock of tea in, instead of a rough crock pot. And bright new plates to stand on the dresser in place of the old cracked ones. But when he took down the little box she’d decorated so long ago with pokerwork and looked with distaste at the fragments of knotted rope and worn wood and glass inside, she spoke up.

“That I’ll be keeping”, she said. “For I’m thinking I’ll have a use for it yet.”

“What use could there be in a bit of old rubbish like this?” asked Aidan scornfully. But when he saw she was serious he replaced it back on the shelf as careful as if it was the Crown Jewels, for Aidan was that fond of his old granny.

Well, it came about that he learned the use of that old ‘rubbish’ soon enough, for a few days later he was out at sea when a storm came up out of nowhere – a witch-called storm, sure as anything – a storm fit to topple chimneys and rip the thatch right off your house if it wasn’t tied down right. And Aidan trying to get into the beach with his catch but pushed back and towards the rocks every time.

Margid saw him struggling and turned her back and went indoors. And, sure his time had come, he wished he’d done as she suggested and taken a nice easy job in Ramsey or Douglas instead of fighting the sea.

But Margid hadn’t abandoned him – of course she had not. She’d merely gone inside to get her little box. She opened the lid and took the chain of old twine and bits of wood and glass in her hands, and then she stood there on the beach with the sea spray swirling all around her, and she spoke a few words… And suddenly, just there in that bay, in front of the shingle beach, it was if it was a different day. The storm was still all around, and the sky black as night out to sea and all the way up to North Barrule, but right in front of Margid and all the way out to where Aidan was in his boat there was a bright light like the sunniest of summer days, and the water was flat calm. Well, Aidan didn’t need telling what to do. He dug in his oars and rowed as quick as quick into shore and had the boat up on the beach before you could blink.

And then he gave his granny a big hug and they had two good big herring each for their dinner, and plenty of strong tea. And Aidan vowing over and over how he’d never again suggest they get rid of Margid’s old things.

Handwritten version of the story
Once again the protagonist wasn’t named until after I’d finished.