In praise of translators

I have read Madame Bovary, honest gov, I have. Except that it was in French, so I haven’t really read it.

At one time my French was worth a B grade at A’level in the days of yore when hardly anyone  got A grades and results day never made the national news, with pictures of pretty girls jumping for joy. So I was reasonably accomplished and I ploughed my way through Madame B as an extra on the reading list. It took me forever and the feeling was of walking through thick Victorian fog. I got the gist of it but the reality of it? Non. So now I have a £1.00 Collins classic from the co-op (how utopian is that) waiting for me in what looks like a very clear and readable translation. Except it doesn’t tell me who the translator is.

Collins Classics - Madame Bovary

This strikes me as monstrously unfair as it can’t be an easy book to translate.

But maybe that is the way of translators. They are unsung heroes and we should laud them more. I do know that they have a Society and probably an annual dinner and a few awards knocking about but that isn’t quite enough when you consider the time and trouble they save us. How could we have enjoyed the recent Scandi crime boom if it had not been for the ranks of so often un-named translators bringing us our Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson? I have a particular vote of thanks for the wonderful work of Elizabeth Porch who brought the delights of the Moomins to me as a child. And the only reason I have read Proust is because Messrs Scott Moncrieffe and Kilmartin did such a spiffing job of making Proust feel as if it had been written in English in the first place. Then there is Asterix and Tintin, just as funny and fresh in translations. The stuff of miracles, in short. It looks effortless but I am sure it is not.

So if you come across a lonely, humble translator, remember to tell them how wonderful I think they are.


Why you should never throw away receipts.

No, I’m not talking about taking stuff back or “just in case” scenarios connected with everyday life. I’m thinking of future immortality in the historical record. As a novelist and social historian the receipts and printed debris of the past are like magic carpets. And for someone else today’s petrol station receipt or fast food flier will act the same way. Think before you throw it away.

If you do throw it away perhaps consider not throwing it away very well. Don’t carefully recycle it but perhaps sweep it away into a drawer in order to get the surface cleared. Chances are it may get lost under the drawer liner (hopefully made from old newspaper) and only be rediscovered when someone buys your old chest of drawers and clears it out for restoration. They might be amused or even touched by what they found.

We bought a Scotch Chest for £35 in Jedburgh about 20 years ago. A Scotch chest is a particular style of everyday furniture of the 19th century, characterised by the big deep drawer in the centre, used for keeping hats. (I keep A4 files in mine).

Now our chest is very similar to this one and you will note that there is a broad strip above where the drawers start. This turns out to be a long, shallow drawer, not immediately obvious to the eye. Certainly we didn’t realise it was there until we got it home and found it.  In our case it was still full of stuff. There were photographs, a fake pearl necklace, a ration book and postcards. All completely overlooked and forgotten about.The impression they made on us was rather emotional – surely these things would be missed by someone? We asked the shop if they knew where the chest had come from but they had no idea so we could not send them back to the family. So we kept them, most of them still in the drawer where a slick of our own stuff has been added to them for the future to discover.  One day someone will be quite confused.

I was entranced to read a piece about the restoration of an old house where children had apparently pushed all sorts of interesting things through the gaps in the floorboards, playing cards and ribbons and so forth. I was delighted then when  the floorboards came up for renovation in our flat and the electrician found a very old cigarette packet and a copy of a 1888 evangelical tract, addressed to the working man. I can imagine our long vanished workman had having that pressed into his hands by some earnest urban missionary in Victorian Edinburgh, only for him to abandon it under the boards of the house he was working on. It was obviously not worth taking home…

So don’t throw away your receipts. They are the ghosts of the future.

Anyone else found anything accidentally like this? I’d love to know.


The best Edwardian country houses in Scotland

Wondering where to go to get a glimpse – with a distinctive Scots accent – of that seductive Downton Abbey lifestyle?  These houses were not necessarily built in the Edwardian era but they all have glorious interiors characteristic of the period, and, in some cases allow a glimpse of the servant’s quarters.

1. Hill of Tarvit

My favourite: a beautiful eighteenth century house tarted up by Sir Robert Lorimer for the Shairp family. Complete with the original kitchen, butler’s pantry and a fabulous Edwardian bathroom with sanitary fittings by Crapper, no less. The bathroom also features an interesting display of taxidermy frogs above the lavatory which is a quirky note in a house otherwise distinguished by great good taste.

2. Lauriston Castle

This is a sleeping beauty of a house, tucked away in a suburb of Edinburgh. It’s an old Scots Tower house, extended in the nineteenth century and then restored and refurnished by a wealthy Edinburgh couple, the Reids. He had made a fortune from supplying gas fittings to the Pullman Company and railway carpets, no doubt got at a good price, are featured in the house along with their eclectic collections. The Reids were particularly kind to their household staff and it is worth trying to make a visit when the domestic offices are open.

3. Manderston

Manderston is  a bit of TV star, having featured in a living history experiment, The Edwardian Country House.  It owes its present grandeur to former owner, Sir James Millar who was anxious to show he could rival  his aristocratic father-in-law’s house, Kedleston, a Robert Adam masterpiece in Derbyshire.  With a silver-plated staircase and a dedicated ball room, the results were opulent if a trifle on the vulgar side.

4.Hill House

Built for the publisher Blackie and his family, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hill House in Helensburgh represents the other end of the style spectrum. This the country house at its most advanced and artistic. As well as being uber modern it still has its roots in all those old Scottish Tower Houses.

5. Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle is another restoration job – bought by millionaire Andrew Forbes-Leith  in 1889. He had made a fortune in the US in steel and added a tower (as you do) as well as sprucing up the interiors.  The house is a tour-de-force in Scots baronial luxury and a great showcase for Forbes-Leith’s astonishing good collection of paintings.

6. Skibo Castle

Another American fortune, but this time Skibo was built from scratch by Andrew Carnegie.  Skibo. Operating now as a very exculsive country house

hotel, Skibo is probably the closest one can get to experiencing the Edwardian luxury lifestyle. It’s on my to do list.

7. Ardkinglas

This is an entrancing Robert Lorimer house on Loch Fyne. I’ve never been but from the website it looks completely magical. Lorimer is often called the Scot’s Lutyens – and with good reason.

8. Pollock House

Next to the peerless Burrell collection, Pollock House is an eighteenth century mansion house with a fascinating servants basement to explore. You can also have your tea in the magnificent turn of the century kitchen. Sir John Maxwell inherited the house in 1888 and brought it up to scratch, including creating a magnificent billiard room – an essential spot in the Edwardian Country House.

Keywords: billiard rooms, billiards, mansions, National Trust for Scotland, neo-classical, Pollok House, Pollok Park

There are also Highland Cattle in the country park which surrounds Pollock. These are not particularly Edwardian, of course, but count as an added bonus.


Choir Tea Dough Balls

Some time ago I blogged about the virtues of bread making to help in the process of making fiction.  A friend asked for my favourite dough ball recipe today and since I had to type it up for her I thought I would put it up here too  as a companion piece.

I also put it up in a mood of new-born nostalgia as I evolved the recipe from having to provide food for choir teas when my daughter was a chorister. These teas would be at Easter, Advent and just before Christmas when there were long rehearsals and big services. As parents we had to bring in suitable food and serve to a hoard of starving chorister and lay clerks in the rather lugubrious hall attached to the Cathedral. Sometimes there would be extra musicians as well and a huge fear that there wouldn’t be quite enough food to go round, especially if they were brass players, but we always seemed to manage, and a Blitz like spirit generally prevailed in the end.  I started doing these dough balls and found they were incredibly popular with the kids and adults, so am rather proud of them. Whenever I make them now I will be reminded of the joy of emptying the tea urns.

The original recipe comes from “Cook now, eat later” by Mary Berry which I cannot recommend highly enough. In fact all her books are fantastic – she seems to understand actually how real people cook in real kitchens and the recipes are written accordingly. No celebrity chef nonsense there.

500g strong white bread flour plus extra for kneading (1 lb 2oz)

4 tablespoons olive oil

300 ml warm water (½ pint)

3 tsp salt

1 7g sachet fast action dried yeast (Allinsons)


50 g grated cheese (1 oz)

50 g chopped herbs – fresh or frozen (1 oz) eg chives, parsley, coriander.

Mix flour, oil, water, salt and yeast in large bowl. Mix and then knead for about 5 mins. If you have a stand mixer/Kenwood use your dough hook!

Put the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film. Leave it to rise. If you are in a hurry leave it in a warm place with a towel over it, or if less so, a cool corner of the kitchen will give you a slowish rise, and you can deal with it when you are ready. When it has doubled or more, knock it back on a floured surface and give it another good knead.

Now you have a choice – you can either knead in the chopped herbs and cheese into all the mixture or into half of it – or not include them at all. Have included chopped sun dried tomatoes as well and those were equally nice.

Grease a couple of large baking sheets. Grab a small handful of dough and roll it into a small walnut shaped ball and pop it on a greased tray. You will find this makes about 40 little rolls. You can, of course, make them bigger if you wish.

When you have finished shaping the rolls cover the trays again with oiled cling film and leave them again to rise, either slowly in a cool room or for about 30 mins in a nice warm kitchen.

Preheat oven to 200 – 220 C or 400 F/ Gas 6. Bake for about 20 mins – keep an eye on them – it will all depend on your oven. The result should be golden brown and sound hollow on the bottom when you tap them.

Best eaten quite warm with butter, but are also v good served with drinks, with posh olive oil to dip them in. Adored by children of all ages.

They can be cooked ahead, frozen and then thawed and refreshed by about 10 -15 mins in a moderate (180) oven.


Inky Fingers

Any writer in it for the long haul is going face boredom, block and general fatigue. It’s inevitable – and it’s something you have to find ways of dealing with.  The solution is not to abandon the work in progress, however tempting that might be, but to find different ways of approaching the job in hand. Write in a different room, listen to different music, go out and write in a cafe, or write in the park – these are all tried and tested methods of breaking the routine and making the task seem fresh.

One of my favourite techniques has been to abandon my pc in favour of paper and pen. This is always liberating – the physicality of actually sitting and writing is in itself stimulating but I’ve now hit on a wheeze that is even more extreme. Today I have been writing my novel, set in 1840, using a dip pen and ink.

And lots of blotting paper. I never realised how essential blotting paper is when you are writing with ‘live’ ink. I say live because there does seem something extremely dangerous about having a pot of ink sitting open on your desk. At one point the cat came wandering by and I had  to put the lid on and wipe my pen just in case there was a permanent ink/pedigree cat fur interface moment.  Ink, when not confined to little cartridges or sealed in the miracle of technology that is the gel ink pen, is ticklish, tricky stuff. It wants to splat and blot. It wants to get all over your fingers, and sometimes it doesn’t want to write at all. The pen can have the ink on it, but not on the tip of the nib. It plays hard to get. It flirts with you. Sometimes you get flow, and sometimes you don’t.

This ought to be frustrating. After all we live in a “I want this now” culture, which doesn’t do much for patience. But writing like this, dipping your pen, tapping it on the side of the pot then applying pen to paper and seeing if it will deign to make the words for you was in fact incredibly relaxing and stimulating at the same time. I felt very happy as I worked and I wrote some good stuff. What more can you ask for? Oh and inky fingers, the badge of a true artist.

Next up, wax tablet and stylus.