Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Words are deceitful and desperately wicked- who can understand them?

An old friend got in touch the other day, after a long silence due to excessive brain usage (intensive Arabic studies). She had seen this blog and commented on the ‘very lyrical language’. That made me smile and grimace at the same time. I do not mean to be lyrical; I’m trying to be exact, truthful, and unmisinterpretable (is that a word? It is now!).

It’s a losing battle of course. As any avid reader knows, good words are gorgeously woven but empty sacks that we fill with our own ingredients. Posh painting by numbers. And as language learners discover, translation is a search for metaphors, not a set of matching equations. As soon as you read these words, they are your words, not mine. They fill up to the brim with your history, your life, your faces and places. Let’s play a game. I’ll tell you about my rather uneventful day, you visualise it, then I’ll describe it in a bit more detail.

Version 1: I went to school. The education department delivered some books. B did the washing today. A friend dropped by for a cup of tea, and brought a little smackerel of something to have with it. It rained and then the sun came out.

(A pause while you visualise- I shall imagine YOU now, making a cup of tea, sitting in front of a good computer in a well-lit room at a comfortable temperature, being bitten by nothing except possibly pets or relatives).

Right then: Version 2.
I went to school. i.e. I trot off to the outside loo (we still haven’t sanded it, so it’s got a natural exfoliation effect) before getting on my bike for school. The ride up the hill takes about 7 minutes. It’s deep, skiddy sand. I once fell off, to the ecstasy of passing students, and it took days for people to stop approaching me delightedly to tell me all about it- a kind of “Where were you when Miss Sarah fell off her bike?” vibe. I arrive without incident, sweating like a cheese sandwich left out in the sun.
The education department delivered some books. At lunchtime, the fourth year boys are sent off on their bicycles to hurtle and skid their way across the valley to the education department building. They wobble and creep their way back with 40lbs of books each, in cardboard boxes, balanced on their crossbars as they negotiate the steeplechase of sandpits, ruts, rocks and rivers that make up the ‘road’ back to school. I have never seen them concentrate that hard for lessons.
B did the washing today. When I got back after a full day’s teaching, B was just completing the week’s wash that he had started before I left. Step 1, haul buckets and carry them a few hundred yards. Step 2, fill laundry bowl with cold water and soap powder. Step 3, leave to soak. Step 4, haul more buckets for first rinse. Step 5, haul more buckets for second rinse. Step 6, start on a second full laundry bowl. Step 7, curse. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5, with copious quantities of step 8. (Step 8, sweat two full bucketloads but reject them as too salty for rinsing with). Step 9- hang out the washing and hang out the flags; it’s over for another week!
A friend dropped by for a cup of tea, and brought a little smackerel of something to have with it. Ashley’s mum, Alison, stops in. She accepts a coffee tea (‘tea’ means hot drink, so you can have tea tea, coffee tea, Nescau tea etc) with milk and three sugars. She is miniature, like a hummingbird, so she probably needs the sugar to survive. She brought a sugar cane her own height for us to chew on- she says “just chop it with a knife” but she means a machete, which they call a cutlass here. Our knives won’t do it.
It rained and then the sun came out. The rainy season arrived with panache two weeks ago. It skulked away two days later, and hasn’t returned. People are beginning to speak of drought. The vegetables are dying, the trees are not fruiting, and the wells are getting low. It is frightening- when the well runs dry, and the coconuts are all drunk, what then? People drink creek water and get sick. We, who would simply leave, dilettante with the fear but carry a little guilt of irresponsibility. The semi-solidarity of the spoilt. So today when it rains during second period, the students get restive. They jump from their seats to look. They fidget and joke. It stops almost immediately, the air is heavy and turgid with moisture, gloom and dishcloth air descend on the staffroom.

The gap between the first and second version is no bigger than the gap between the second and reality here. Photos suffer it too- the rubbish pit not taken, the filthy sullen child who isn’t photographed, the National Geographic glamour filter on Amerindian wrinkles that doesn’t ‘take’ on our own unfit or exhausted populace. Sometimes I think I will give up on writing this and let B’s photos speak for both of us, but eyes and ears both have their suitable moments. So I shall carry on fighting the losing battle, and enjoy the many consolations of defeat!


  1. AnonymousJune 02, 2009

    You must not stop. We love the photos too but words, especially words written by you, are so full of life, the pictures you paint jump into our heads and stay there! And i can hear Daddy in them too!! Naomi xx

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  3. The reason you should not give up is that you would never write version 1

  4. Totally agree... you must continue (and make it into a book one day!) You're right, writing will always be subject to the reader's subjective interpretation, but 'lyrical' is a compliment on your literary style - we know it's not a Disney wonderland - and your way of describing things with the right words kind of fuses the experience in the reader's brain and makes your narrative memorable. Wishing you loads of rain soon! B x

  5. KEEP WRITING!! You need all of it for your book! Naomi is right, at times you can hear daddy in what you write, but the best thing of all is that we can hear you.

  6. I think you have perfected the art of being lyrical and truthful at the same time! I love the way you describe but I also can feel your truthfulness through it (my that sounds ponsey!) Uber smooches!

  7. Write, write and then write some more. Your words are a window on the world the majority of us will never see without them.
    Nicola x