Katherine Gregor

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Katherine Gregor (a.k.a. Scribe Doll) is a literary translator and scribbler who has also been an EFL teacher, theatrical agent, press agent, theatre director, complementary medicine practitioner, and one or two other things. Perhaps that's why the literary characters she relates to most are Arlecchino, Truffaldino, Gianni Schicchi and Scapin, and feels empathy with crows, squirrels and cats. She lives in Norwich, Norfolk.

Sisters*

My sister and I first met nine years ago.  Half-sisters, technically.  Just two of the numerous offspring scattered around Europe by a father who was – it would appear – irresistible to women.

V. and I studied each-other across the table of a bistrot off Regent Street.  She appeared to me a down-to-earth, non-nonsense Lancashire woman who had inherited our father’s aloof expression and tight jaw.  Seven years my senior, she held two degrees, one in Philosophy and one in Psychology, and responded to my spontaneous speak-now-think-later comments with pondered rationale.  She listened to the summary of my bitty life and patchwork career, thus far, with what I took to be a blend of disbelief and disapproval.  I sat there, hoping she would not order dessert.

“Shall we meet again?” she asked.

 *   *   *

V. and I sit in a café in Notting Hill.  She talks about her children, her husband, her job.  A lifestyle light years away from my own.  A background alien to me.  In between forkfuls of fried egg and chips, I tell her about translating, teaching and the latest installment of my personal life.

Afterwards, we stroll down past the charity shops and browse through second-hand books.  I pick one out for her.  A Scandinavian thriller.  I know she will enjoy it because I will not.  I do not bother waxing lyrical about Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel.  We stop at the cinema and pick up a programme but cannot agree on a film.  We have not been able to, these past nine years.

*   *   *

V. is sitting on my bed, leaning back against the headboard.  She is wearing bright-coloured socks.  Odd socks.  I am lying on my side, propped up on my elbow, at the foot of the bed.  The light is fading outside my windows and I have arranged as many candles as I could find around my room.  Perhaps it is their warm glow that makes us speak in soft voices.  We dip pieces of orange in a bowl of melted chocolate and walnuts in the middle of the bed.  I get up to blow on and rekindle the red hot coal disk at the bottom of my small copper cauldron, and the frankincense crystals start sizzling again.  A swirl of smoke rises up and spreads across the air.  We both love the comforting scent of frankincense.  From my portable CD player soar the gentle vocal tones of Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin Desprez and Guillaume Dufay.  We both love Early music.  Harmonies to fit mathematically in the gothic vaults of Mediaeval cathedrals.  V. is an atheist, I am a believer, but the music touches us both deeply in a place were we connect.

We talk of fears.  No one we know understands our fears like V. does mine and I, hers.  No one else has been through what we have gone through in our early childhood, though countries apart, and which has left the same indelible marks in parts of our soul no one can see.  Only she and I fully understand that particular kind of overwhelming longing for happiness, but also the sabotaging urge which springs from doubt.  And we can reveal those wounds only to each-other, because only with each-other do we feel safe to show our vulnerability.  And so, as we do, each holds up a shield to protect her sister from the world.

We talk of plans and achievements candidly, without fear of undermining or envy.  Each one knows the other will bring all the bricks and tools and work she can, to help her sister.

Once we stumbled.  One of us was happy, the other unhappy.  One flying high in the sunlight, the other toiling in the shadows at the foot of a mountain.  And envy slithered into the heart of the latter but she showed great courage.  She went to her sister and revealed her feelings of envy.  The happy sister accepted the revelation like a precious gift.  Together, they went to the river, and washed the envy with the water of understanding and forgiveness, and resumed their journey, holding hands that little bit tighter.

I push the bowl of melted chocolate and the plate of orange pieces closer to V. and tell her of something that occupies much of my heart and mind.  Something which may change my future, only I dare not hope.  I dare not believe.

V. looks at the chocolate but cannot eat anymore.  “I think you should believe in this,” she says.  “I really believe it will work out.”

Then she smiles at me and her eyes twinkle.  They have grey and blue in them.  Mine have brown and yellow.  But we both have the same green flecks.

(* Once again, with warm thanks to Orna Raz and her piece He Ain't Heavy... He's My Brother)

 Scribe Doll

This piece was originally published on Wordpress on 24 November 2013

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Thank you dear katia, would love to hear more about the two sisters.
Saturday, 16 August 2014 20:20
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for reading and commenting, dear Orna.
Sunday, 17 August 2014 09:39
Ken Hartke
Very nice. Sisters from different families without common experiences or memories...now friends, too. I wonder how you came to mee... Read More
Saturday, 16 August 2014 20:53
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Doctors – the New Priests?*

First, there were the priests.  Now, there are the doctors.  Has anyone else noticed the similarities between those two?

Along with lawyers, they have always formed the most loathed and derided professional triumvirate in literature and the theatre.  Anton Chekhov, himself a physician, said, "Doctors are the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you too."

Anyone who has spent any time in Italy will have come across the numerous witticisms about the Church and its ministers. Boccaccio portrays clerics as lecherous, wealth-chasing gluttons.  In Assisi, gift shops are littered with ceramic figurines of pot-bellied Franciscans and Dominicans downing tankards of beer or stuffing their faces with food.  In Rome, locals will let you in on the fact that the Vatican car number plate S.C.V. (Stato Città del Vaticano = State City of the Vatican) actually stands for Se Cristo Vedesse! (=  If Christ could only see!)

An ancient Roman proverb warns that "The doctor is to be feared more than the disease."  In the Commedia dell'Arte, the Plague Doctor is a figure of fun.  Molière, a true life hypochondriac and, therefore, experienced patient, observed that "Doctors pour drugs of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, into patients of whom they know nothing."  Napoleon Bonaparte said, "Doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than even we generals."

An obvious practice doctors and priests have shared over the centuries, is using multi-syllabic phrases – often in Latin or Greek – to dumbfound and scare into submission ignorant folk in order to cover up their own ignorance or their sometimes their less than altruistic motives.  Both brandish language as a tool of power.  By using terminology the punters do not understand, they place themselves outside the reach of contradiction, and become inaccessible to a fair fight.  It is impossible to challenge someone who is speaking to you in a foreign tongue.  Prior to the Reformation, when mass was exclusively in Latin, hoards of people said "Amen" to precepts they did not actually understand.  Just as billions of people now swallow tons of tablets without knowing what they are actually made of.  It is what we call an act of faith, "faith" being also something we are supposed to have in our doctors.

Both medicine and the priesthood are professions whose authority has always been feared for the power it possesses over us (the priest, over our souls; the doctor, over our bodies), rather than genuinely respected.  Both demand that their orders ("doctor's orders'", like in the military) be obeyed to the letter, without deviation or questioning, on pain of losing that without which you could not be human – your soul or your body.  How many times have we heard people say, "The doctor says I can't"? Millennia of Greek philosophy, Latin thinkers, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang and Darwin, and we still lack the most essential of freedoms – the freedom of thought.  Instead, we delegate the responsibility for our thinking to others.  "The doctor say I can't" instead of "I can't because it make sense to me that I shouldn't."

Doctors enjoy their authority because we concede it to them so readily.  That is evident by the ruffled and peeved reaction you get from a doctor when you query or contradict him or her.  They are clearly not used to being queried or contradicted, and the shock of it puzzles and disconcerts them.

Both professions have a strict hierarchy.  Wherever they go, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are accompanied by a retinue.  When visiting the hospital wards, the Consultant travels with a court of junior doctors ready to push you back if you attempt to address the Consultant directly.

As children, we were told by vicars, priests and nuns to be as good as the Child Jesus.  The same vicars, priests and nuns told us that Jesus was the Son of God.  I figured that, my father being a man, I lacked that inborn advantage, that head start to be as good as the Child Jesus.  So how could I possibly even try? When I was a child, I asked the school chaplain.  He frowned and said faith was a mystery.

As an adult, I asked several doctors why a part of my body was engaged in sabotage activity.  They frowned and said, "It's difficult to explain."

Pascal was unequivocal: "Ce qui se conçoit bien s'énonce clairement".  In other words, if it is clear in your mind, then you can explain it clearly.

The last thing I wish, is to offend in any way all those who owe their health and even their lives to a doctor.  I respect their choice and their experience.  I, on the other hand, am alive and in relatively good health in spite of a few.

My principal disagreement with the medical profession is on a matter of focus.  Ashley Montagu phrases it perfectly: "The doctor has been taught to be interested not in health but in disease.  What the public are taught is that health is the cure for disease."

The doctor's focus is hardly ever on the building, but on the destroying.  Disinfecting.  Cutting out.  Removing.  Taking out.  Killing.  Not Healing, Building up, Creating, Empowering.  Doctors tell us that we live in a dangerous world where mutant viruses and hostile bacteria are lurking behind every corner, ready to attack us.  They tell us a that the organs in our body are time bombs ready to blow up any minute.  Be afraid.  be very afraid.

Another proverb, this time from China: "The superior doctor prevents sickness; the mediocre doctor attends to impending sickness: the inferior doctor treats actual sickness."  It reminds me of a joke on a ceramic plate I once saw in Rome.  "When you're ill, go to the doctor and pay him.  The man needs to make a living.  Then go to the pharmacist and buy medicines.  The man needs to make a living.  Go back home and throw everything away.  You need to stay alive."

Some early Protestants denied the existence of Free Will.  Everything was predestined by the Grace of God.  The evils of the world were caused by the Devil.  Doctors have done away with past superstitions, and opened our eyes to the existence of the D.N.A.  So, instead of being preordained, our lives are now genetically predetermined.  The Devil has been usurped by the Genes.  It's not my fault.  It's my genes.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it exquisitely on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day.  I only wish I could quote him verbatim.  When God told off Adam for eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, he delegated his guilt.  "It's my wife's fault.  She gave me the apple."

Eve promptly passed the buck.  "It's the serpent's fault.  He gave me the apple."

God glared at the serpent.  The poor animal glanced around in vain.  There was no one around for him to blame.

Scribe Doll

*This piece was originally published on Wordpress on 24 April 2011

I am sad to report that, encounters with the medical profession (for myself, as well as friends and family) since then have done little to change my opinion.

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The British Obsession With Accent*

In a café, after a West End matinée.  My friend has just introduced me to an acquaintance of hers, then left us alone to go and order tea.  “So what did you think of the show?” he asks.

I reply, “Well, I enjoyed the number with –”

“Where are you from?”

I am interrupted mid-sentence.  I say nothing, and glare.

“Where are you from?” Almost an order.

“It’s a long story,” I say, coldly.

You would think he would take the hint and back off.

“What do you do?” His tone becomes insistent, almost frantic.  Like a man lost at sea, desperate to clutch at something, or he will drown.

I can see he will not even pretend to be interested in what I have to say about the show.  “I’m a translator,” I say.

A glimmer of hope flashes across his face.  “Which languages?”

I sigh with as loud a pectoral rasp as I can produce.  “Italian, French and Russian – into English.”

His face relaxes.   His index finger taps on a list in the air.  “Ah, so you’re... (sotto voce) Italian... French... Russian.”

Thanks be!  He is now safely clinging to a bouy.  Because here, until you are able to pigeon-hole someone, you are drifting in dangerous waters.

Like so many others, this man has made the easy assumption that, just because I speak these languages, then I must automatically come from those countries.  Actually, by blood, I am not Italian, French or Russian.  But I did not want to play on the man’s vulnerability, and confuse him further.  What I wanted to tell him, was that I am mostly English, with an authentic English temper spiked with inborn sarcasm and – since I was not brought up in England and trained to keep it in check – if provoked, it flies out, unrestrained, in its purest, most unadulterated, caustic form.  The kind that would make John Donne, Sir Francis Bacon and many characters played by Maggie Smith cheer.

However, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing.  You do not engage with someone who cannot keep up with you...

We know from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that, in England, what places you, gives you your social position, and puts you into the correct trial dock, is your accent.  Even now, your accent is what influences people’s behaviour towards you.  Is it regional? Is it cut glass? Or – worst of all – is it slightly foreign?

It seems the British are incapable of having a conversation until they have placed your accent.  Until they can do so, panic – or disapproval – reigns supreme.  It is as though what you are saying cannot be heard or mentally processed until the exact origin of the speaker is determined.  As though they cannot decide whether to believe you or not until they know where you come from.  You can parry as much as you like; they will not stop until they have gained access to your very D.N.A...

Many years ago, I was at a luncheon in a Cambridge College.  I was having a seemingly anodyne conversation with one of the Fellows about the acoustics in an opera house.  I remarked that the sound naturally rose, so the best way to judge a singer’s voice, was to sit in the gods.

“Do you have scientific proof for that?” asked the Fellow.

“No.  I’m not a scientist.  Next time you’re at the opera, sit in the gods, and judge for yourself.”

“You weren’t born in this country, were you?”

There it was, slam bang below the belt.  As though the fact I might not have been born in this country suddenly invalidated my opinion about music.

“How is that relevant to the conversation we were just having?” I asked.

“Well, I’m making it relevant because it’s interesting.”

“Well, it’s not interesting for me.”

Eventually, he apologised.

interesting. 

Another thing which puzzles me.  What importance can the place of your birth possibly have, except for governments in deciding whether or not to grant you citizenship? What difference does it make where I was born? The place of birth does not have any bearing on my blood heritage.  If I had been born on a boat in the midst of an ocean, would that make me a fish? Personally, I was born in one country but my parents came from other parts of the world. So which is my country? I am half-English, I love England and feel English – until someone rudely interrupts me mid-sentence to ask where I am from.  There are times when I truly wish some of the British advocacy for political correctness, politeness and inclusiveness would be extended to me.

A few weeks ago, once again, I was bulldozered by a lady in the shop, while I was making an observation about the weather.  She thought herself very perceptive in declaring me French.  I enlightened her by saying that, although I had received a French education, and had lived in France for six years, I was not, in fact, French.  I normally wait what I consider a polite amount of time before I ask strangers where they come from and, even then, I prefer to wait until the conversation touches upon the subject of languages, travel or geography before I enquire.  This time, I made an exception.  “Oh, I’m English!” she retorted with a noticeable expression of outrage.  “It’s an upper-class English accent.  Queen’s English.  Now if you were English, you would know I sound aristocratic.”

She brought back to mind Saint Bonaventure’s quotation, "Exemplum de simia, quae, quando plus ascendit, plus apparent posteriora eius" or Sir Francis Bacon’s translation thereof, “He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars.”

I nearly replied that it was rotten luck her aristocratic family had clearly been too impoverished to purchase her a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners but, as I said, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing...

I find it rather distressing, that given our national pride in subtlety, most people do not seem to take a subtle hint that you are trying to evade the question.  Try and change the subject, and suddenly, they all turn into prosecutors.

Where are you from?

Well, it’s a long story...

Well, I shan’t bore you...

Oh, I don’t really like to talk about it...

For all your attempts gently to elude them, they push ahead.  However, try telling them to “mind their business”, and you are the one perceived as rude.

I have been asked if I am French, Dutch, Irish, German, Swedish, Spanish or Irish.  The most frequent choice, though, is probably South African – even though I have never ever been to South Africa.

A couple of months ago, I was at a drinks do with a friend.  We struck up a conversation with a man.  He happened to be a barrister.  We spoke for several minutes – about the Royal Opera House production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, about the music of Hildegard of Bingen, then about travelling and local customs.  Then he cocked his head and smiled.  “May I assume you’re not from London..?” he said, his tone politely unobtrusive, suggesting his curiosity was prompted by my enjoyable contribution to our earlier conversation, rather than suspicion on his part.

I was happy to tell him my whole story.

And if you really want to hear my accent, listen to this podcast: https://soundcloud.com/writinghabit/owg-radio-05-katherine-gregor

* With thanks to Orna Raz for her brilliant piece "What a Cute Accent, Where Are You From?"

Scribe  Doll

This piece was first published on Wordpress on 20 January 2013

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Recent Comments
Orna Raz
I loved this piece and your conversation about writing:-) Apparently a person's place of birth is of great importance. When my bro... Read More
Saturday, 09 August 2014 16:34
Katherine Gregor
Thank you so much for your kind comments, Orna.
Monday, 11 August 2014 15:28
Nicholas Mackey
Your writing, as always, touches on many compelling aspects of humanity and with your fascinating background I enjoy reading your ... Read More
Sunday, 10 August 2014 11:07
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A Nomad to Guard Someone Else's Land

My Armenian grandmother, Yekaterina Gregorian, passed away in March 2012, at the age of one hundred.  Several years ago, when, blind and almost deaf (but her mind as sharp as a needle), she was moved from my mother’s to a nursing home, I raided her cupboards and drawers, grabbing anything I thought should be kept safe, intending to go through it at a later date.  Although that was, technically, my mother’s job, I was worried that – with all the pressure of her own frequent house moves – she might overlook something.  Or else that she would discard something as merely sentimental and, therefore, not worth holding onto.   I come from a family who has not owned a property since the Soviets confiscated the little my great-grandparents had, nearly a hundred years ago, and who has moved from country to country for now three generations.  We have moved through marriage, political unrest, lack of opportunity, or simply because we heard it said that such-or-such a country was better than the one we were currently in.  I, for one, have moved house forty-four times, so far.  I imagine if you do not have the security of a place to live from where no one can boot you out, there is nothing stopping you from chasing after dreams over mountains and over seas.  After all, if you have no solid roots to anchor you to a piece of soil, then you ride on any alluring gust of wind.

Among my grandmother’s personal possessions, there was not much.  Certainly nothing of any financial value.  The upside of having nothing, is that there are never any family fights over bequests.  There is nothing to fight over when there is nothing material to inherit.  I know that is where both my grandmother’s and mother’s quasi obsessive thirst for knowledge and education comes from – one that was drilled into me from at early age.  Learn, learn, learn – languages and skills.  You have nothing except what is inside your head.  At any moment, you could lose your home, your spouse, your friends.  But your knowledge is yours.  No change in government or affections can take that away from you.  Gold is too heavy to carry, banknotes lose value, but acquiring a new language is always a good investment – because every new language gives you a new perspective.

When The Red Room posted the theme of finding something in your attic that reveals a fascinating piece of family history, as a blog challenge, I decided the time had come to spill the contents of the plastic envelope containing what I had salvaged from my grandmother’s things, on the kitchen table.  There is a small cloth-bound notebook with recipes  transcribed, out-of-date documents (one with a picture of my grandmother at the age of seventeen), letters her mother sent her from the Soviet Union after my grandmother married an Iranian diplomat and moved to Teheran.  A couple of the letters are cut up, with paragraphs missing beneath jagged edges.  Soviet censorship.  There is also a land deed, dated 1902, complete with the Russian Imperial seal.  Several pages of thick yellowed paper, sewn together with a cotton thread.  I have difficulty deciphering the old legal Russian language but understand it testifies as to the acquisition through inheritance of a plot of land containing a small house and a vegetable garden.  It belongs to a man whose name I do not recognise.  There is also a map, traced in different coloured inks, outlining this plot of land.  Where this land is situated, though, I cannot work out.  The names written in the legal document no longer exist, probably changed by various incoming political regimes.  What is someone else’s land deed doing among such personal family keepsakes? I studied the map, wondering.  Then a word, and image, a recollection at a time, a memory began to take shape.  I remembered odds and ends from something my grandmother used to tell me, long ago.

Your grandfather helped this man.  

He always helped people.

This Russian man fled from the Soviet Union.  They had taken everything from him.

He wanted to go to America.

Your grandfather helped him get the papers.

The man was so grateful to your grandfather.  He left him the land deed – what good would it be to him in America? He gave it to your grandfather for safe-keeping in case, one day, the Soviet Union collapsed, and borders would be opened once again.

My grandfather gave the documents to my grandmother, and told her to keep them safe.  “You never know,” he said, “life can be strange.  Perhaps, someday, our children or grandchildren will meet an American, by chance.   He’ll tell them his father or grandfather once owned a piece of land in Russia.  Our child or grandchild can then give him good news, say he still owns this land, and hand him the deed back.” 

And so it seems I have in my possession that land deed, for a plot which belongs by rights perhaps to an American of Russian descent, somewhere across the Atlantic.  Life is strange.  Nobody in my family has ever owned land in living memory, and here am I, a nomad, yet unwittingly the guardian of someone else’s land.  Life can certainly make you smile.

I will find someone to help me translate the deed, and find out exactly where this land is, and whom it belongs to.  Then I will have all the information I need to be ready and wait.  Wait for a gust of wind to blow me to the rightful owner of this land – or to blow him or her to me.

Scribe Doll

This is a slightly edited version of the article which first appeared on Wordpress in July 2012

 

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
People have such great stories. Too bad sometimes we learn about them too late to ask questions. I have a friend in his 70s, a tru... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 06:30
Katherine Gregor
I think no matter how many questions you ask, there will always be something you forget to enquire about. Or something the other p... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 07:32
Rosy Cole
This is a fantastic story, Katia. Your heritage. There's already a structure and a novel arc to it. Even if you're unable to fit t... Read More
Monday, 04 August 2014 18:06
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