Saturday, 24 December 2016

The year of sharp contrasts

At the end of last year, the aftermath of Sanctum – that extraordinary month of performance in Bristol – and the prospect of regular teaching and subbing work for the first half of 2016 prompted a tentatively optimistic view of the year to come. Twelve months later, it seems that even such tentative optimism was slightly naïve. That’s not to say that 2016 has been relentlessly miserable, but the highs and lows have come in rapid succession. Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to remember a year of such sharp contrasts.

There was certainly none sharper than going to bed in Montenegro on Thursday 23 June after the first-night dinner of an academic conference I’d co-organised, feeling confident that, despite the hateful rhetoric and flagrant lies of the Leave campaign, there wouldn’t be a majority vote for Brexit, only to be woken at 6am by a text from my wife which told me all I needed – but didn’t want – to hear. It read simply: ‘I can’t speak.’ My happiness at being back in the Balkans for the first time in two years, at having introduced two friends and colleagues from the UK to the region and at meeting again with good friends in Montenegro dissolved into a feeling somewhere between jet-lag and grief, physical disorientation and emotional shock. Curious aftershocks rippled through the remaining two days I was away: gallows humour; abrupt and unprompted tirades; a conviction that the result had been misreported; a conviction that this couldn’t be the result because all three of us on the trip to Montenegro had voted Remain by post or proxy; a particularly horrible stomach bug which poleaxed me on the final evening. It didn’t ruin the rest of the conference or the day out to the seaside which followed, but it certainly made any feelings of satisfaction or happiness seem compensatory, even escapist.

I didn’t have much opportunity to get used to this new version of ‘home’, where, it seemed, it was now socially acceptable to shout at ‘foreigners’ on the bus or daub racist graffiti on community centres. By the beginning of August, I was back in SE Europe, this time as a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House. This also happened to coincide with the publication of my first book in Bulgaria – Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a collection of poems which I wrote as exercises while I was learning the Bulgarian language. It was a month spent translating poetry and drama, meeting and befriending some of Bulgaria’s finest writers and renewing my acquaintance with one of my favourite cities. It seemed entirely appropriate that the launch of Unknown Translations was hosted by Vasilena, the student who’d asked me three years previously if I’d ever been to Bulgaria and unwittingly set in train the events which led to my publishing a book in Bulgarian, while any semblance of stiff upper lip disappeared when her sister Marina presented me with the original drawing she’d made for the cover. Marina, Vasilena and I had set up the online project Colourful Star in early 2014, but the book launch was the first time that all three of us had been in the same room since we’d originally discussed the project on my first trip to Sofia in 2013. By the end of the month, too, the conversations I was having with my wife on Facebook every night had led to our reaching a decision we’d been considering for some time: we would move to Bulgaria in September 2017.

With this decision made, the idea of returning to Brexit Britain seemed at least bearable because only temporary. Even so it took me even longer to reacclimatize than it did after previous Balkan ventures – and that process was elongated even further by the second blow of 2016’s political double whammy: the election of Trump.

It’s only possible to speculate about what will come of this, but as the year reaches its end, the current triumph of the incompetent, the idiotic and the megalomaniac doesn’t inspire confidence. Perhaps the key hope is that this is the last flailing of the generation whose first step was to bring us Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the whole neo-con shebang and that when all the people who voted for Brexit and Trump discover that they too are going to be locked out of the global elite’s gated community (along with all those they currently choose to despise), perhaps they’ll have a change of heart.

In such circumstances, it seems almost facile to end with anything other than a gloomy outlook, but these are the circumstances too in which all we can really do is find compensation where we can. As Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Thanks to John Fru Jones for the picture from the launch of 'Unknown Translations'

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