Seventeen, from Putney, London, U.K. . . .

some surprising extracts from a teenager’s diary by Jessica Campbell
(interviews, photographs and babysitting…)

Lost in Translation: An Interview with Kyril Zinovieff, 99. November 2009

Desperately Seeking Susan: An Interview with Baroness Greenfield September 2009

Arming Inner-City Kids Photographs © Keerthi Suresh July 2009

Babysitting Best June 2009

 

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November 2009
Lost in Translation: An Interview with Kyril Zinovieff, 99.
While studying Anna Karenina last winter I became fascinated by the many different translations of the book. The one that most impressed me was translated by the intriguingly-named Kyril Zinovieff.  By hook and crook I managed to track him down and discovered that he is every bit as exotic as his name suggests.

Kyril Zinovieff was born in September 1910, two months before Leo Tolstoy’s death. While this in itself does not make him a good translator of Tolstoy’s finest work, it does mean that he has a unique ability to understand the cultural context of the book. Like Tolstoy, Zinovieff was born into a noble family; his father was a Marshal of the Nobility, his mother a lady-in-waiting to two Tsarinas, and he was brought up speaking the bourgeois Russian of the nineteenth-century aristocracy – a Russian which became obsolete after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Kyril Zinovieff at 99

 I meet Kyril in a cozy, detached house in West London and am greeted at the door by his friend Jenny Hughes. At ninety-nine Kyril is now completely blind and Jenny- twenty years his junior and the widow of Kyril’s close friend – is his carer and co-translator. With the exception of one compelling black-and-white photograph of a striking woman in a glittering robe the house contains no suggestion of its impressively grand inhabitant; the walls and mantelpiece are covered in portraits of family relations and neither the elegant antiques nor the shelves of books which encase the living room look particularly Russian. As we wait for Kyril to wake from his nap Jenny prepares his daily slice of toast with ‘Gentleman’s Relish’ and explains that the photograph – taken in 1903 – is of Kyril’s mother dressed for what turned out to be the last royal ball at the Winter Palace.

Eventually Kyril emerges at the top of the stairs and Jenny leads him into the living room. His blue eyes are cloudy and he slides shakily into his chair but his face is remarkably unlined and he is focused and articulate as he introduces himself. He asks Jenny to describe the roses I have brought and politely smells the yellow bouquet. He explains that Gentleman’s Relish – the thick, odorous anchovy paste – was a family favourite when the Zinovieffs first arrived in London.

Kyril is a superb story-teller and as we begin chatting details of his remarkable life emerge. Born in Estonia he spent his childhood summers in St. Petersburg where, at the age of six, he watched Rasputin sledge past the family house. After the 1917 Revolution Zinovieff’s family – like many educated Russians at the time- fled into exile. While most moved to Germany or France or followed the exiled peasants into China, the Zinovieffs migrated to England to join an uncle in Chiswick. Pre-revolutionary Russia had permitted a much greater freedom of cross-border movement than was allowed under the closed Bolshevik state; wealthy young men would often spend a year abroad in Europe as a kind of nineteenth-century gap year. Intermarriages between Russians and west-Europeans had become fashionable after the accession of Tsar Nicolas II, who married an Anglo-German princess, and so most of the fleeing families had some knowledge of their new homelands. In the case of the Zinovieffs however, Kyril’s mother was the only family member who spoke English as all ladies-in-waiting had had lessons so they could converse with the Tsarina. Thus when Kyril was thrust into Colet Court boys’ school he was forced to pick up the language through his peers. This turned out to be a more frustrating process than his parents had expected; he recalls an early visit to the school tuck shop when he demanded a ‘chocolate grown-up’, having misheard his friends’ requests for doughnuts.

The Zinovieffs remained in London after the deaths of Lenin and then Stalin and were gradually joined by a small community of aristocratic Russians exiles. Though he mixed with Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson and Alexander Kerensky, who headed Russia between the two revolutions, Kyril eventually married an English woman. During World War Two he changed his name to Fitzlyon (meaning ‘son of lion’- a private tribute to his father, Leo); as he wryly put it, ‘fighting for the British, the name Zinovieff made life too complicated’. After the war he resumed his former name and joined the British Civil Service. He visited Russia for the first time in 1980 as a tourist and since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has gone back almost every year to visit his son who settled permanently in St. Petersburg.

Sixty years ago Kyril and his then-wife were commissioned to translate Anna Karenina. They had just finished the first draft when their commissioning agent lost interest and abandoned the project. In 2001 the manuscript was discovered in an archive by One World Classics publishers. They approached Kyril asking to publish it and he agreed on the condition that he be allowed to amend the text. By this point he was partially blind, his wife – and co-translator – had been dead for three years and Jenny did not speak Russian. Undeterred, they set about reworking the manuscript. Jenny, a former journalist, learnt to pronounce the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet and phonetically read out the whole of Tolstoy’s nine-hundred page epic – without understanding a word. Kyril would translate as she spoke, and together they would come up with a fitting English equivalent.

Kyril had previously translated several other works including Nijinsky’s diaries and Chekhov’s short stories, yet he maintains that Tolstoy is the hardest Russian writer to translate. He explains that the educated Russian of the time was so infused with Gallicisms that Anna Karenina can best be understood as a virtual translation from the French; for example all conversations were originally written in French before being translated into Russian. Tolstoy himself was fascinated with words; he studied oriental languages at university, read Hebrew, Danish, Swedish, Latin and ancient Greek and was fluent in English, French and German which is why Anna Karenina is littered with passages of the latter three. After the revolution, the use of foreign words was condemned as bourgeois so the language was quickly purged of much of its diversity, often leaving modern translators baffled by Tolstoy’s extraordinarily rich text.

It is not just the vocabulary that was lost after the revolution; old phrases and expressions were largely abandoned so today’s Russian is substantially different from that of Tolstoy’s. Kyril gives one particularly poignant example of the misunderstandings that often occur in modern translations; in the preface to the second edition of War and Peace Tolstoy responded to the criticism that he wrote only for the upper-classes, explaining, ‘It is what I am – it is all I know. What have I got in common with the man who, while he eats his dinner, allows his soul to speak to God?’ This response is praised by modern critics who interpret the comment as meaning the Russian peasants were particularly close to God. In fact, Kyril explains, ‘speaking to God’ while eating was a pre-1917 expression for belching: Tolstoy was denigrating – rather than extolling – the peasants.

A similar misunderstanding often surrounds the epigraph of Anna Karenina. This was taken from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which, in the English of the St James’ Bible states that God declared, ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay’. However the Slavonic version, used by Tolstoy, reads, ‘It is for Me to retaliate and I will inflict the punishment’. As Kyril explains, the stress should be on pronouns, Me and  I – not on Vengeance. In other words, Tolstoy meant that the behaviour of the characters in Anna Karenina should be judged by God alone, not by the reader; thus Tolstoy was asking his audience to sympathize with, rather than condemn, his heroine.

The pages of Anna Karenina are littered with cultural details from the pre-Revolutionary period which have also confused contemporary translators. Many, for example, have baulked at the image of the elegant Russian women wearing ‘dog fur’; most translate this as sheepskin –  unlikely given the Russian climate – or as the more familiar mink, while others stick to the literal translation, despite its absurdity. However Kyril, familiar with the late nineteenth-century fashions, identified the dog in question as the white arctic fox- at the time the most expensive of all furs. As he explains, Tolstoy chose the word ‘dog’ to indicate his distaste for the garment.

My afternoon was filled with similar fascinating revelations.  As my third cup of tea grew cold and Jenny started preparing their evening meal I began to wrap up my thoughts. Meeting Kyril in the flesh explained why his translation was so appealing; his passion for the period and his love of the novel are infectious. His sensitive and incisive interpretation of Anna Karenina brings Tolstoy’s characters alive for a modern English audience. His profound understanding of the language allows us to recover what is so often unwittingly lost in translation.

Photograph: Kyril Zinovieff at 99 © Jessica Campbell 2009

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September 2009

Desperately Seeking Susan: An Interview with Baroness Greenfield

(This interview was conducted before the news broke in January 2010 that the neuro-scientist had been dismissed from her job as director of the Royal Institution because of the RI’s cost-cutting measures.  The Baroness  has threatened to take legal action on the grounds of sexual discrimination against her. – Ed.)

Baroness Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield agrees to meet me at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street. It’s a formidable location surrounded by Gucci, Sotheby’s, Porsche Design- even the road-side flower stall is Stella McCartney. The R.I. itself is equally forbidding with an impeccably elegant Georgian facade, yet inside it is surprisingly relaxed- much like Susan Greenfield herself. Her P.A leads me up several flights of stairs to a busy office and while waiting I overhear snippets of a hectic schedule: an upcoming ‘Woman of the Year’ lecture, a meeting with an eminent scientist and a minor crisis at her Oxford lab. A woman pops in to ask if Greenfield will have a free moment at 4.45; her P.A. shrugs: ‘I highly doubt it.’ Another asks if Greenfield will have time to read her emails today. ‘Not a chance.’

Eventually Greenfield herself appears and shows me into her study; she is brisk but friendly. The eldest child of an electrician and a dancer, neuroscience was not an obvious career-path. At eleven she won a scholarship to Godolphin and Latymer, a prominent London girls school, where she focused on Classics before studying Philosophy and Psychology at St Hilda’s – the last Oxford college exclusively for women. How did this all-female education affect her career? She explains that it was liberating. ‘There were no constraints. I wasn’t stereotyped in any way. The only disadvantage I can think of is that in ballroom-dancing lessons I always had to lead.’ She pauses. ‘Perhaps that’s a metaphor for my life.’

Greenfield certainly is a leader in the male-dominated world of science. The first female director of the Royal Institution, she has also run her own Oxford lab for over ten years – the grandly-named ‘Institute for the Future of the Mind’. In 2000 she was made a CBE for her contribution to the public understanding of science and in 2001 she became a life-peer.

I wonder if there is such a thing as a ‘female’ approach to science. ‘This is the same as any other profession,’ she replies. ‘The women are generally more consensual, not as focused on status and ego, but also far less confident. Men tend to be more driven.’ It’s the old hunter-gatherer scenario: ‘Men go directly for the prey but when the answer isn’t obvious they sometimes struggle.’ And is there a difference between the male and female brain? Greenfield smiles wryly. I suspect she has been asked this many times. ‘Yes and no. It’s a question of averages. . . You wouldn’t notice a difference looking at one of each but if you studied a hundred brains you’d find that, on the whole, women have a larger corpus callosum.’ Faced with my blank expression she elaborates. ‘They have a larger series of fibres connecting the left and right sides of the brain. That’s why women multi-task so well. But men have a hunting brain; they focus on one thing at a time . . . and they have better spatial awareness.’

Several minutes into the interview her P.A enters to announce that the Daily Mail is on the phone; this is clearly an important call. Greenfield graciously offers me a few more minutes so I cut to the chase.  In her latest book, I.D.: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century Greenfield contends that excessive screen-watching is changing the development of the brain. We are losing our ability to think abstractly. ‘It’s everywhere in our society,’ she explains, ‘. . . in the support for creationism, in increasing fundamentalism and in the growing popularity of computer games. We are all becoming much too literal.’

Greenfield also connects the emergence of computer games with the rise in ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – as attention spans gets progressively shorter. ‘We are also losing our ability to empathise. It’s not like reading a book . . .  In a computer game you don’t actually care about rescuing the princess; you just do it to complete the level.’

So could the screen culture also be responsible for the rise in violent crime amongst children? She thinks it quite probable. ‘Sitting in front of a screen does not teach you how to interact with others. When you spend your life playing computer games you begin to forget that real actions have consequences. In a computer game you can shoot someone dead then restart the game and bring them back to life. Players lose the ability to separate their cyber world from reality; they forget that when you shoot someone in real life, they die.’

As the interview draws to a close, I broach the subject of Greenfield’s dress. The press has such an obsession with her appearance that a short skirt or unusual necklace is invariably mentioned before her professional accomplishments. While mildly insulting, this fixation has certainly helped establish Greenfield’s reputation as Britain’s sexiest scientist. ‘It can be rather irritating,’ she admits. ‘Most of all it saddens me to see that the public image of science is so narrow. Everyone is surprised to see a scientist who isn’t a white, middle-aged man.’

In an effort to challenge this stereotype, Greenfield organised a series of lectures by women scientists for school-children. To her dismay one girl commented, ‘If that’s what scientists look like, count me out.’ While making science appealing to girls is certainly important, Greenfield points out that it is not always easy. ‘If I only invited scientists who looked like Madonna it would be a rather short series of lectures.’

I find Greenfield’s work much more interesting than her wardrobe – her high-waisted linen trousers, black bow earrings and impossibly long eyelashes are utterly irrelevant. While most interviewers seem incapable of ignoring Greenfield’s appearance it is her ability to communicate which makes her work so appealing. Unlike many scientists, Greenfield is approachable. She is amusing and articulate, as apt to quote Eliot as Einstein. Her favourite poem is The Hollow Men and when not dissecting rabbit brains she spent her teenage years teaching her baby brother Macbeth soliloquies. Perhaps it is this literary background that enables her to make complex neurological concepts comprehensible to a lay reader – as demonstrated by her six popular books on the brain, the most recent of which was a best-seller.  ‘I know what it’s like to be patronised by scientists who hide behind a load of incomprehensible jargon. I came into the world of science as an outsider but I think I put into practise what most women do so well; I empathise.’

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July 2009

Arming Inner-City Kids : Photographs ©  Keerthi Suresh

Recent government research has shown that Britain’s ‘under-privileged’ children are losing the ability to talk; this group is exposed to a vocabulary of a mere 600 words per hour – as opposed to the 2000 words heard per hour by the average child. But expanding their vocabulary is not enough; children must be taught how to use their words. Last year Debate Mate, an ambitious new charity, was formed with the admirable goal of teaching inner-city school children the subtle art of debating. In April Debate Mate celebrated its first year in operation by inaugurating the annual Richard Koch Debating Competition.

The charity was founded by formidable barrister Margaret McCabe and has been sponsored by, amongst others, entrepreneur Richard Koch, but it is university students who do the teaching and these ‘mentors’ are the crème-de-la crème of the debating world. Among this year’s selection were members of the Oxford, Cambridge and Durham debating unions, a couple of World Universities Debating champions and an England Team captain.  The dedication of these mentors is remarkable; every week they commute from universities around the country to teach their hour-long sessions in inner-city London schools. The mentors have a unique relationship with their pupils; when one debater gleefully recounted to his mentor how he had told an opposing team that their argument was a ‘load of pussy’, she replied with a wry smile, ‘Try and keep it formal; perhaps next time say vagina.’

I was not sure what to expect of the competition, especially after being warned to hold onto my bag, ‘… if you leave it for a second, I guarantee you won’t see it again’. As the hoards of excited young debaters swarmed the London School of Economics’ Old Theatre it became clear that this was a far cry from the traditional debating competition. Instead of the all-white, all-male, privately-educated teams which generally dominate, these contestants came from a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds and the debaters were young – between twelve and fifteen years old. Also, girls outnumbered boys – a true rarity in the debating world. In fact girls ruled the competition, a refreshing change from the norm where articulate female speakers all too often become shrill harridans when faced with the disarming charm and utter confidence of their male opponents. One girl, heckled by a group of sniggering boys, shot them a withering look: ‘Don’t even try that rubbish…’

While the participants followed the traditional debating structure – a minute of ‘brief rebuttal’ followed by three main points and a summary – their approach was unique. In a debate on boxing one speaker moved to the centre of the room to demonstrate a series of punches on an invisible opponent; after a slightly stunned silence she received a burst of applause.

the winner of the ‘best speech’ prize with a mentor (an ex-England captain)

Where the traditional debating mentality is a kind of survival of the fittest – one man’s downfall is another’s triumph – the Debate Mate students, though competitive, were far less aggressive. In fact many showed incredible generosity to their opponents. One speaker lapsed into excruciating silence trying to recall the name of a particular boxer; such moments of paralysis are usually met with glee by the opposition, but on this occasion a boy from the rival team cheerfully offered, ‘Johnny Owen?’ The girl nodded, grinned and continued, ultimately winning the round.

These kids were masters of the putdown, of the undermining question; they could control the argument, and most impressively, they knew how to work the crowd. The prepared motion, ‘This House Would Invade Zimbabwe’ was proposed by a boy who struggled briefly to pronounce the names of the key politicians before blithely adopting ‘Robert’ and ‘Morgan’. He was followed by a girl clearly dressed to impress with knee-high Hello Kitty boots, an orange fringe and a badge proclaiming ‘You Are Dumped’. After slouching up to the speaker’s table she delivered a biting exposition of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic: ‘The money other countries give to help is being spent on cars and flashy suits – not on medicine to treat the disease. Well take a look outside your window Mr. Mugabe because you are killing your people and we are going to stop you.’  Her final line was a speech-writer’s dream: ‘This is a failing state. It is failing its people. And the worst evil in this situation is for good men to watch and do nothing.’

the runners-up team

The day consisted of one prepared and two unprepared motions where each four-man team had twenty minutes to plan their debate. The speeches were five minutes long and written by kids as young as twelve without the aid of either their mentors or the internet. What they didn’t know they invented – with varying degrees of success, but what they lacked in facts they made up for in enthusiasm. Indeed, enthusiasm is perhaps the most impressive quality about these debaters. While debating has never carried much street cred – in many schools it is tantamount to social suicide – the children at the Koch Competition were proud to be there; the great achievement of Debate Mate is that it manages to make debating cool.

a debater who has just been congratulated by Britain’s Attorney-General, Baroness Scotland, QC

At the end of the day awards were presented to the winning team, the best  overall speaker, the most improved debaters and the funniest speech. There was also a prize for the best female speaker, presented by the Attorney General. As the debaters left the LSE, exhausted but elated, they were serenaded by Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster Stronger; its infamous promise that ‘Work it/ Make it/ Do it/ Makes us/ Harder/ Better/ Faster/ Stronger’ seemed an apt description of the Debate Mate philosophy.

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June 2009

Babysitting Best

I have been recommended to the Taylor family (Mum, Dad, Eliza, 12, Chloe, 9) by Millie – who would have babysat herself were it not for an unavoidable family dinner. On arrival I am greeted at the door of their smart Chiswick house by Mum who cheerfully introduces me to Snowy (the yapping Norfolk terrier) before leading me to the silver-chrome, beautifully stocked fridge (“Help yourself to anything except the petit-filous”).

Mum explains the ground rules: Chloe in bed by 8.15, Eliza by 8.45. No T.V (it’s a school night) and no snacks (except milk). I do a swift calculation and estimate that I can have them both in bed, teeth brushed, but probably with the light on, by nine. I make my way up to the top of the house to find two girls sitting in an unbearably pink room – it must be like sleeping in a Hubba-Bubba chewing gum, but the girls seem perfectly happy and we chat comfortably until Mum comes up to say goodbye. After two swift kisses and a slightly ominous, ‘Behave this time’ she goes off to collect her husband and shoes.

A glint appears in the girls’ eyes: fresh meat. Eliza smiles reassuringly, “We’ll wait ‘till they go then I’ll choose us something to watch”. Unsure of the correct response I say – with a nervous giggle – ‘Not on a school night’. Eliza does not reply but Chloe comes to my rescue, suggesting a board game. I eagerly agree, blissfully unaware that Junior Cluedo is, in fact, a very long game. As they’re about to leave Mum eyes us setting up the board and pointedly whispers, “Remember 8.45 at the latest; Chloe’s got a ballet exam tomorrow”. Then she and Dad leave and my heart slips slightly further towards my stomach.

Forty minutes later – after a minor dispute involving a bitten pencil- the game finally ends and I boldly address the subject of Chloe’s bedtime. Then begins the eternal process of cajoling and compromise; these girls would put stall-owners at the Grand Bazaar to shame. Yes, Chloe can have a snack but No she can’t have dried mango. Yes, she can have a rice-cake but No she can’t have it with cheese. Yes she can take the milk upstairs but No she’s got to eat the snack on a plate. My rules follow no logic; they serve only to remind the girls – or at least reassure myself – of my authority.

Chloe breaks her rice-cake into quarters then into eighths and slowly eats each tiny sliver one by one. But eventually she finishes and reluctantly heads upstairs leaving Eliza and me alone in the kitchen. Without her younger sister Eliza suddenly loses her confidence; her loud chatter grinds to a halt and all my attempts at conversation are blocked by monosyllabic mutters. Just as I am starting to feel desperate (Eliza’s still got twenty minutes before I can even begin to broach the subject of bed and I daren’t suggest another game) I get a flash of inspiration as Millie’s advice comes floating back: “If it gets a bit rough just mention your boyfriend- usually works a treat”. While Eliza strokes the growling dog I tell her that my boyfriend James also owns a Norfolk terrier. Still too innocent to question the probability of a seventeen-year-old boy’s interest in miniature dogs she looks up grinning and we spend the next fifteen minutes happily discussing James’ school, friends, and how we met.

When both girls are in bed I go up as promised to say goodnight. After Chloe’s firm assurance that “All our babysitters do it – including Millie” I am persuaded to sing them a lullaby. When I finish the last line of Rock-A-Bye-Baby both girls are lying silently, eyes shut. As I head triumphantly downstairs I hear snorts of laughter.  I retreat, shame-faced, to the kitchen for a handful of dried mango.

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28 JUNE ’09