Have you ever worried a sheep?

On our annual pilgrimage to the Lake District, we stopped at Lancaster. Apart from the uplifting medieval architecture, I was swept by the language of public notices: the bizarre, the quaint and the outright hilarious.

Looking for somewhere to park, we were disheartened to discover that most of parking spaces were reserved for Residents Only. And I must say, the local residents squatted on the wall resolutely, giving us an evil -beady- eye. Pesky lot!

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Going deeper into the old-town centre of Lancaster, I uncovered that another lot of ‘residents’ was having a much better time than they deserved, serving it at Her Majesty’s pleasure in one of Her castles offering no doubt five-star accommodation. Yes, I am talking about the Lancaster Prison. Imagine, putting in your CV where you have spent the last fifteen years! Nothing to be ashamed of, I hear you say?

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I elected not to enter that establishment however and headed for the lush Williamson Park. Alas, a word of warning: the place is rife with all manner of peril and countless dangers. To name one: shallow water! Beware, oh random passer-by and wear your armbands!

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To escape the clear and imminent dangers of Lancaster, we drove all the way to Grasmere in the Lake District – only to find out that the roads there were NOT FOR CARS! And I have the proof:

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So, one has to walk, hike, trundle, trudge, trot and climb – anything but drive a car! But, while you’re on-foot travelling, mind the SPEEDING RED SQUIRELS! They are quite some devils on wheels, and they totally and utterly disregard all the signs telling them to SLOW the hell DOWN! Look out:

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But never you mind the squirrels. Worrying sheep is a criminal offence in the Lakes, and quite rightly so! Sheep are genteel and anxiety-ridden creatures – you would be too if your future as a piece of lamb or, if you were lucky to live longer, as a piece of mutton, was mapped out for you at birth! So do not worry them! Tread carefully and sing lullabies when you pass them by on your hikes. Shhhh…

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But then again, do these faces look worried? Do they? Do they?

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Then again, appearances can be deceiving, I am afraid… Very, very afraid.

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Sharp and swift – the language of the masses

Yesterday’s People’s Vote march in London was brimming with sharp, swift and deadly language of political rallying. It was the language of the masses and for the masses. I was fascinated with the crispness of wit, the depth, the satirical edge, the hilarity.

It takes a master wordsmith to deliver a powerful message in a few words that can be squeezed into the tiny space offered by an old cornflakes cardboard box. I came across many of those homemade, juicy bits yesterday, and I devoured them.

The phrase food for thought could not be more appropriate: it was a feast!

As a writer eternally struggling for that perfect turn of phrase, I received  a free lesson in what it is to be succinct, funny and genuinely passionate all in one.

I managed to smuggle something out in a doggy-bag:

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Recipe for a short story in Russian

I’ve always felt this natural affinity with Russian culture and literature (not the most popular thing to say in the current climate, I admit, but culture has nothing to do with the present regime in Russia; regimes come and go, culture endures despite their efforts to thwart it). Ever since I discovered that Anna Legat, the greatest prima ballerina of all times, happens to be my namesake, I have been having this irrational fantasy that maybe – just maybe – my dad’s ancestors hadn’t arrived from Germany, but from the glitzy St Petersburg, wearing tutus and humming tunes from Swan Lake. And that may explain why I felt so at home with the characters from Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.

There is nothing to rival the breadth and the depth of the Russian soul captured by some of the greatest of Russian writers. You feel swept away and carried into the depths of every story, only to come up for air at the end of it and be instantly pulled in again by the next one.

There are several master strokes to each story one can only hope to emulate.

Firstly, each story has something to say, something to contemplate, something to register at the back of the reader’s mind. It is usually a deep philosophical question which is very cleverly reduced to a small, everyday occurrence that somehow manages to burst out of the straight jacket of triviality. It leaves you deep in thought.

Secondly, the plot yields to the character. People come to life in these stories. They are all sorts of them – such richness of personalities and their quirks and secrets; their delusions and their simple-mindedness, their vulnerabilities and their killer-instincts. It’s all there, throbbing and competing for air. The landscape – the famous Russian landscape – isn’t a setting; it is a character too. It plays its part to perfection.

Thirdly, humour. It is only ever so subtle. It lives in the undertones of the language (excellently captured by Chandler), in situational comedy and in the characters’ minds. It also lives in the shadow of the darkness and fear that are never too far, squatting in that bigger, grander house next door.

Fourthly, the silence and the understatement have their role to play too. The stories don’t quite end. It’s up to the reader to conclude them in her mind. The stories rely on an intelligent reader who can take them further.

Bobok is probably my favourite, but then I am biased towards Dostoyevsky as one of my idols (no, not as the flawed, prejudiced human being he was, but as an amazing writer). It is a story of a little man overhearing the dead in a graveyard. The dialogue brings them all to life! This quote makes you think, The wisest person of all (..) is the one who calls himself a fool at least once a month – an unheard of ability in this day and age. In the olden days a fool understood at least once a year that he was a fool, but nowadays – not a hope!

My First Goose by Babel left me covered with goose-bumps! Try it to learn about the survival of the fittest in Bolshevik Russia – read it.

Whilst Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog made me think that life was too short to waste it, Lermontov’s The Fatalist made me reflect on whether any of it really mattered because as he put it, After all, the worst that can happen to you is death – and death is inescapable.

But then again, just contemplate the afterlife for a minute, as in The Greatcoat by Gogol, and that may put even death in its place. Perhaps revenge lives just that little bit longer than death? And if revenge does, then why not everything else?