Lost in translation



My learner, Jovi, a Filipino, arrived back from his driving test scuffing the kerb, then managed to pull up so far from the pavement that a drawbridge would have been useful. I waited, watching through the windscreen as Jovi sat impassively while the examiner reeled off his faults and told him he had failed.

“Ah cooodn’t ooonderstand a werd ‘e sed!” said the examiner in his Yorkshire accent as he eased himself out of the car. “Wors ‘e frum?”
“The Philippines.” I informed him.
” Bloooody ‘ell!” He rolled his eyes.
I opened the car door and sat in the passenger seat recently warmed by the examiner. “Well Jovi what went wrong?” I asked.
“I no oonerstan’ wot he say me!”
“But you understand me, Jovi?”
“You talk different, I oonerstan’ you!”
I resisted the urge to head butt the dashboard. I might have activated the passenger airbag.

Over the last five years as a Driving Instructor I have taught people from all over the globe. Many have an excellent command of English but most have, to varying degrees, a very loose grasp. Having never learned a foreign language, I admire these migrants who sometimes can speak two or three tongues, besides their own. Apart from struggling to master English, they have to contend, as Jovi did, with the various regional accents; he was accustomed to my mild Scottish lilt, not the examiner’s flat Yorkshire vowels.
All this brought to mind an experience of language and accent difficulties I experienced during my time in Spain. For a while, I worked with a Spanish builder called Jaime or, as he was known in the British community, Jimmy; his main line of work, villa renovation and swimming pool installation. He introduced me to his unsuspecting clients as his Architecto. In Spain, like the far edge of the Wild West, you could claim to be anything or anybody, so Jimmy simply elevated me from Interior Designer to Architect. I didn’t disabuse any of his clients of this minor deception. Popular and colourful in equal measures, Jimmy, as a result of living for many years in the UK, spoke faultless English. His son, Giuseppe, however, not having the advantage of having lived in Britain, had a just passable grasp of English. Physically, Jimmy was Rizzo the Rat and Giuseppe, Fozzie Bear. Genetically, there was no trace of Jimmy in Giuseppe. His mother, reputed to be Italian must have been some Mamma.

We had a loose arrangement, very loose. I produced the designs and drawings that helped sell the ideas to Jimmy’s, mainly British Expat, clientele; Jimmy and Giuseppe carried out the building work so that the villa loosely resembled my artistic impressions.

Usually, Jimmy was there with me at the sales pitch, but on this particular occasion Giuseppe attended the meeting to discuss a pub refurbishment. Without Jimmy by my side I I was a bit concerned about the communication issue. We arrived outside of the premises, a retail shop unit. In Spain, it was quite common for shop units to be used as bars or restaurants. As we approached we noticed two men loitering in the doorway dressed in Newcastle United shirts, their exposed, sun burned arms, displayed a vivid array of tattoos. For a brief moment I considered asking them to move on, then, following the self preservation rule: never tell football supporters to ‘move on”, or anything else for that matter I decided to say nothing. This decision proved to be a good one. The Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley tribute act introduced themselves. They were were the clients.

Keys were produced and we stepped through the unlocked doors into the gloomy shop interior the battleground of a fight between the smell of stale lager and the aroma from the toilets. A battle that the lavatories were winning hands down. The shop had already had been converted into a bar, one that had gone bust, another victim of the lapping waves of the looming financial crash. The project was to alter what was already there.

Giuseppe stood with his note book at the ready, pencil poised.

“Wid leek t’ booar to be coot back t’ aboot ‘eer, leek, man.” Said Alan Shearer pointing to where the bar was to be ‘coot’ back to.

“Coot back aboot foor fit, leek.” Added Beardsley, his striking partner providing the measurement.

Fozzie Bear looked sideways at me confused, his eyebrows more tightly knitted than an Arran Jumper. “¿Que?”

Realising that the Newcastle accent had totally thrown Giuseppe, I quickly stepped in to translate.

“They would like the bar to be cut back by 120 centimetres, to about here,” I said, unravelling the sentences. “Like.”

“¿Comprende?” I asked.

Giuseppe, back in the loop, started to scribble furiously. “¡Vale! Claro.”

Shearer and Beardsley exchanged looks, obviously wondering why on earth I was repeating, in English, everything they had just said, in what they believed was English.

And so the meeting progressed. I was Igor Korchilov translating for Gorbachev.
Eventually the meeting ended and the Torrevieja battalion of the Toon Army wandered off in search of a bar that was still actually trading. As we watched them disappear round a corner Giuseppe turned to me, a puzzled look on his face.

“Sandy, mi amigo. What do you English say, you have kept that under your hat!”

“What do you mean?”

“I no idea you speak Swedish!”

Jay Spotter



Ahead of me, Poppy, enthusiastically rummaging through the long grass and heather flushed out a pair of Jays. The birds rose, with a glint of blue plumage, into the gentle breeze and flew into the Spring sky jolting a memory. A long forgotten childhood memory, of my school friend Rob. Rob the Jay Spotter.

A reluctant schoolboy in the early 1960s, the only subject I really enjoyed was art. I had a natural gift, I was not brilliant at art, but I had a gift none the less. Whereas, a gift for mathematics, science and languages was notably absent. The head of the art department, on the cusp of retirement, was Tubby Russell, and the only other art teacher I remember was Baxter Cooper. The other, Fanny Black, was, perhaps fortunately, before my time.

Tubby was an excellent watercolour painter and some of his works were displayed in frames on the art classroom wall. If we were doing life drawing he would stand at my shoulder and with a slightly lecherous tone in his voice he would described the form of the female breast lying beneath the folds of the model’s blouse. The model, a schoolgirl borrowed from another class, would squirm with unease, her cheeks glowing, as her intimate hidden charms were discussed. But Mr Cooper was the teacher we spent most of the time with.

Coop, as we called him behind his back, was my favourite teacher. I doubt it would have troubled him if he knew his nickname. Coop was popular and the name was spoken with affection and respect. I can see him now, sitting at his desk, drawing an ink illustration of a hawk or kestrel, for the Scottish Field, magazine, occasionally looking up, his eyes, above a shaggy beard, swivelling to check that we were hard at work too.

One morning he brought an injured owl into the class. He had found it by the side of the road. Like any good teacher, Coop abandoned his lesson plan and used the opportunity to discuss the life of owls, pointing out the struggling bird’s features; the claws, beak and eyes. We were encouraged to hold the bird to feel the texture of the feathers. Coop was, you see, an enthusiastic ornithologist. Driven by this enthusiasm he started an after school club. My friend Rob and I were two of the first members of the Lasswade High School Ornithology Club.

The ornithology club met weekly and we learned about British birds, their habits and their habitats. In addition to these meetings Coop would organise weekend field trips to sunlit nature reserves on the edge of the Firth of Forth, and to dark woods and frosty fields around Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, bird spotting and counting the numbers of the various species. These Saturday bird watching field trips were an excellent excuse to avoid the weekend horrors of the rugby field and the psychotic PE teacher. My dad, keen to fuel to my new enthusiasm, took me to a secondhand shop in a back street of Edinburgh to buy me a pair of binoculars. We stood at the counter discussing the various magnifications and went out into the street to try them out. Armed with my second hand binoculars I would watch lapwings, kestrels, buzzards and the fine pair of tits belonging to the girl across the road, who would, at 9.30 every Sunday morning, with a theatrical flourish, open her curtains and provocatively dress in front of her bedroom window. Her house was some distance away and my newly acquired binoculars brought everything into sharper focus than the naked eye.

During the school holidays Coop would arrange trips to the Highlands where we would stay in Youth Hostels at Kingussie and Blair Atholl. I remember experiencing a slight apprehension; I still occasionally wet the bed, and had fairly blood curdling nightmares. Nightmares that I would share with everybody within earshot. Once, on a family jaunt with my father and brother in a Youth Hostel I had woken everyone in the building. The hostel manager, thinking a vile murder was being committed on his watch had fallen down the stairs in his panic. The next morning he had waved us goodbye with his left hand, his right resting in a sling. He was pleased to see us go.

But, I sense that the field trips were happy times. I can recall Coop coming out of a forest of Douglas Firs holding an Adder by the tail, waving it about to our, and the adder’s, alarm. On another occasion we gathered round Coop on a hillside as he poked his forefinger into a pile of deer dung to predict, by the warmth of the shit, how far ahead the herd we were following was. Predictably, we were disgusted.

One night during a trip Coop caught Rob, in the hostel dormitory, reading, or in reality staring mesmerised a copy of Titbits, a magazine, that as the name suggests, contained pictures of lascivious bare chested women. Snatching the magazine from Rob’s grasp he had berated him. “You infantile minded, boy. You will go blind!” Said Coop trying to sound annoyed.

The next day Rob redeemed himself by spotting a Jay as it flew across a path we were tramping along. Coop was impressed that Rob had not only spotted the bird, but actually knew the species. Like an Apache Chief naming a brave, he immediately honoured Rob with the name ‘Jay Spotter’, the Titbits incident forgiven.

Coop’s sense of pleasure at Rob’s twitching skills was soon to plummet, like a Sparrow Hawk descending on a hapless rodent. A few days later, on the same trip, after a break to scoff our sandwiches we were walking down a rough track that ran along the bottom of a small glen. After a while, Rob and I striding along, had pulled away from the straggling group. We were chatting away, probably about the charms of my neighbour’s daughter or something along these lines, when suddenly with a screeching sound and a thudding sound like a carpet being rhythmically beaten, a Golden Eagle rose from the heather covered hillside. It was barely twenty feet from us. If a double decker bus had launched itself into the air, we would have been no less astonished. It was an awesome sight.

Coop, leading the main body of the party round a bend, two hundred yards behind us, just had time to see the Golden Eagle disappear into the distance languidly flapping its enormous wings. We waited excitedly for everyone to catch us up. But of course Coop didn’t share our excitement. We had, by walking so far ahead, spooked a magnificent and rare bird, denying everyone else the experience of a lifetime.

“You, you….you.. fu..complete idiots!” He spluttered trying to desperately to keep a professional grip on his temper and his language.

The model Christian


From the cafe area in baker’s shop customers could look out across the village green. On the far side, the church steeple, like a sharp pencil, poked through the undulating foliage of the trees that edged the grave yard.

Gillian Smithers, sat in the cafe, was admiring this view, contemplating her good fortune to live in such a locale, when she spotted Jennifer Carson striding across the newly cut grass.

“It’s that girl Carson,” she said in a voice embroidered with disapproval.

“Where?” Said her companion, turning in her seat.

“Coming this way.” She said, placing her cup on the saucer with an angry clatter..

The baker look across the glass fronted counter at this apparent vandalism of his crockery, then at Jenny as the jangling door bell serenaded her arrival.

“Hello Miriam, Mrs Smithers, isn’t it a lovely day! Summer sun and the smell of freshly baked bread!”

“A wonderful combination indeed.” Said Miriam smiling.

Gillian, feigning scrutiny of the menu, merely nodded her head. Then, when she felt Jenny was out of earshot, leaned sharply forward, as though she was going to bite into into one of the pastel coloured confections on the top tier of the cake stand.

“I wouldn’t be so friendly Miriam. We really don’t want her sort in the village.” Said Gillian in a whisper that verged on a hiss.

“Why on earth not?” Asked Miriam, although she knew why.

“She’s moved in with the daughter of Gerrard the postman.”

“Yes, I know,” said Miriam reasonably, “they’re married, and she’s expecting a baby in July.”

During the pregnant pause that followed this revelation they heard Jenny complete her purchase.
“Ruth and I will be at the refugee fund meeting tomorrow night, I’ll see you there, Miriam.”
Said Jenny as she passed their silent table on her way out.

“Really, what is the World coming to.” Said Gillian as the door closed. “married indeed! And a baby too!”

Gillian Smithers considered herself a model Christian and had a very firm concept of heaven and hell. As proof of her pious credentials she had a fine framed print of a painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, hung on the wall in her hallway, like a diploma conferred by a professional body. On a visit to Gillian’s home Miriam had seen the print and, not wishing to fall out with her host, had, at the time, expressed sophistical admiration of the grotesque picture.

Miriam looked across the table at Gillian and thought that perhaps she would cool this particular friendship, and simply said “But Gillian, didn’t Jesus tell us to love one another?”


Our writing group had to write a piece around the idea of “the elephant in the room”. A situation which inhibits conversation. The story involves the interaction between two people, each with their own interpretation of a religion, faced with a challenging situation. 


Imagine that










The flight from Earth had gone smoothly and the landing module left the mothership which continued on its orbit around the Moon. As the module descended, the mothership commander watched it slowly diminishing in size to become a minuscule speck before disappearing. As the landing module approached the surface, the pilot searched calmly for a place clear of rocks to set the craft down. This was the moment when the success of the mission depended solely on the skill of the pilot. The retro rockets fired and the craft, in a cloud of moon dust, settled gently onto the alien landscape. With the engine switched off silence enveloped the craft, and the moon dust fell back through the weightless atmosphere to the ground. The relieved co-pilot grinned through the Perspex of his helmet and gave the pilot a grateful ‘thumbs up’.

As the pilot jumped off the last step of the ladder onto the grey rock strewn ground she spoke Armstrong’s historical words, paraphrased for the occasion and time, “That’s one small step for a human, one giant step for humankind”. Then slowly turning in her cumbersome space suit she faced the welcoming committee, dressed in their more modern comfortable suits.

“Welcome to Lunar City,” said a disembodied voice in her helmet, ” congratulations on the safe completion of this mission commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first moon flight. My Great-grandfather Neil Armstrong would have been proud of you!”

Behind the group of space suits Stellar Watson could see a crowd of cheering people sat on terraced seating in the city viewing dome, the sun reflecting dazzlingly off the curved structure.

“Sadly,” Kim Armstrong continued, ” Bill Gates, who funded this project, died at the Extended Life Clinic in Geneva, without witnessing this moment, the successful completion of the mission.”

Before making her speech Stellar waited for her co-pilot Buzz Aldrin IV to descend the steps and bounce gently towards her and come to rest alongside.

“Thank you for your generous welcome.” Said Stellar. “Many following our flight here, in this painstakingly restored Saturn rocket, capsule and landing module, will not full appreciate the risks involved in the historic mission undertaken by Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in 1969. Had we encountered any difficulties we could have aborted our mission and been rescued by any one of the passing freighters or cruise star ships. For those intrepid explorers, any malfunction, well, for them there was no way back. No rescue. So, let us applaud those heroic adventurers!”

The audience in the dome again cheered.

“It should also be remembered that the technology used was very basic.” Continued Stellar, when the applause subsided. “It was said in the 21st century the computers used in the mission were less powerful than an instrument called a cell phone. Now, in this, the 22nd century, we would describe the computers used as less powerful, well actually, far less powerful than an Apple ICD, the Imbedded Communication Device, which you are all more familiar with,”

Back on Earth Buzz Aldrin V, in the family Life Pod, located near Houston, sat in the living area watching the landing on the Samsung Hologram imager.

“Wow, imagine that!” He said on his ICD to his friend in Australia, but who was virtually sat next to him.

Where the ground lies still


Inside the
thin carapace
of our heads
In our mind’s
dark landscape
Tectonic plates
Our thoughts
Our dreams
Shift and move
the bones
of our souls
cold mountains
Of angst
Of pain
fault lines full with
the sediment
Of regret
Of sorrow

Is heaven
a place where
the ground
lies still
Where forever
we will
walk in peace

The boy and the hare


Picture by Mark Heald
Picture by Mark Heald

Sam met up with Rob at the farm where his school friend lived. From there they walked across the frost glazed fields to the woods to meet the gamekeeper, who was organising the shoot. They had been employed as beaters. Rob was ambivalent to the wildlife slaughter; living on a farm had hardened him to the realities of the food chain. When Rob looked at a pig he saw cuts of meat, whereas Sam saw a fellow living being.

They found the other beaters in a clearing huddled together, under a cloud of cold breath and cigarette smoke. Everything, the trees and the fields were white with frost and clouds scudded across the grey sky driven by the chilling wind. The distant Pentland Hills were draped in snow.

“Right, you lot listen tae me. I’m the gamekeeper, Mr McTaggart.”

At the sound of the loud voice the group turned to find a small, wind eroded man with a fierce beard and a large stick in his hand. He had appeared without a sound, not even the crack of a twig.

“Your task lads, is to drive the wildlife from the undergrowth and the gorse towards the gentlemen with the guns. Dinnae, under any circumstances go past the brow of yon hill. Half the bastards are just as likely to shoot one o’ yoos as a fuckin’ bird.”

The beaters shuffled sheeplike, suddenly aware of their mortality.

“Whit you’ve t’ dae is this.” Said the gamekeeper, suddenly swinging his stick and manically thrashing a nearby laurel bush.

“KAH, KAH, KAH!” He shouted at the top his voice. “KAH, KAH, KAH!”

Startled, Sam stepped back onto the foot of the beater behind who pushed him “Watch it pal!”

Each beater was given a stick and told where to stand in the line. Sam found himself at the end next to his friend Rob.

In a cacophony of shouting the line started slowly moving towards the edge of the wood. Startled birds, pheasants and partridges, flapping into the cold air, were driven towards the sharp sound of gunfire that bounced around the trees, occasionally accompanied by the patter of wayward lead shot in the high branches.

Just as the line was about to leave the shelter of the forest Sam saw a brown shape under a small hawthorn bush. Defying the orders of the fearsome gamekeeper he knelt down to have a closer look and saw that it was a hare. A trembling, petrified young hare.

Glad that he had a thick jersey on, Sam gathered up the compliant animal in his coat and stood up. He could see Rob wasn’t far away, lashing at a bush. He whistled and waved him over.

“Shit! McTaggart will beat you to death, Sam.” Said Rob when he saw the hare.

“I can’t leave the hare to be shot, Rob, I’m going to take it home and bring it back later.”said Sam. “Tell McTaggart I’m ill, tell him I was sick or something.”

The next day Sam carried the hare back to the edge of the woods in a cardboard box. He set the box down and tipped the hare out onto the frosty ground. It hesitated, looked round at Sam then loped off into the fields.

“Och, they are fine beasts, are they not?”

Sam’s stomach somersaulted. McTaggart had soundlessly appeared behind him, shotgun in the crook of his elbow.

“I was having wee blether with your father in the pub last night, he told me you’d brought a hare home.” Said the gamekeeper kindly. “Aye, ah dinnae believe in killing for fun either. But, it’s my job to arrange such things for yon rich folk. You want to be a vet your dad said. I’d have liked to been a vet but, well, I had to leave school.”

Years later, the sight of the boy standing in front of him holding his pet rabbit flushed this memory from his mind’s dense undergrowth; the noise of the beaters, the flutter of wings, the gunshots, and the flinty but kind gamekeeper.

“Put her on the table, young man,” Sam said, “and we’ll see what the problem is.”


A creative writing group exercise: interrogating an object or situation. From the picture by Mark Hearld ( the object) we had to form a personal response, consider how to describe it. Did it trigger a memory and could it be the basis for a story?
I saw a pensive hare sitting in a field under a turbulent sky. It flushed out a memory of when, as a schoolboy, I took part in a shoot as a beater. I built my fictional story about the hare around this experience: the cold winter setting, the fluttering wings, the sound of gunshots and the flinty gamekeeper.

Winter’s last battle


I am winter
bringer of darkness
and death
Like Bonaparte
I have laid waste
to your lands
Chilled you to
your very souls

You, Spring
bringer of light
and life
you thought I had left
Retreated in defeat
from this never ending
battle of the seasons

You, Spring
began to celebrate
Rolled out floral carpets
to colour the land
Began to unfurl leaves
banners to joyfully wave
Birds sang songs
of victory

I, Winter
have returned
To drain your world
of all colour
Smother your lands
with pale snow
and silence the birds
This is my Waterloo

My bonzer mum


When my father died, my mother proved incapable of living on her own, the sorrow, the sudden unexpected loneliness crushing her. Left to her own devices in Roslyn, near Edinburgh, she remorselessly stalked her GP, Dr Pope, phoning him at five in the morning with imagined ailments. Dr Pope, desperately seeking a quiet life, contacted me, pleading that I do something. That something turned out to be moving her to live with us, in Leeds, for almost six years until her death. After a difficult transitional period things settled down and mum slowly conformed to our lifestyle. She learned to enjoy football, surprisingly understanding the offside rule, but confused by action replays: “Och, is that not another goal!”. Her limited range of cuisine expanded from omelettes and dishes gleaned from a bizarre book called ‘100 dishes to make with mince’ to encompass and enjoy Chinese takeaways, Indian curries and Italian pizzas. She took to reading racy novels, red top newspapers and avidly watching Coronation Street. Near the end of this period, and, close to the end of her life, I decided to write her a letter. A Mother’s Day letter.

Like many families my dad did all the interesting things with my older brother and me; took us on camping trips, bought the exciting fireworks and taught us swim and to drive. Our mother, to her two sons, was relatively uninteresting, but in reality she was an essential support system. An unsung hero. Mum fed and clothed us, healed wounds, dried tears and cheered us on enthusiastically at sports days.

My letter was one of belated thanks and a celebration of her life as a mother. I decided to write it on impulse when I was working, as a designer, on an office planning project in London. It was the Saturday before Mothering Sunday.

The letter told of the care she had taken of us as children. The things she made: Davy Crockett hats, my toy dog ‘Smuff’ that she had knitted for me and the fancy dress costumes for Halloween. How she had inspired my lifelong love of books. I wrote of the freedom she allowed my older brother and I, in our childhood and adolescence, to take risks, enjoy ourselves, to have fun. I recalled the summer evening in the garden when I was swatting the midges swirling around our heads; she stopped my killing spree and told me that each midge was a living being, that they didn’t live a long life. Of how she told me that swallows, flying high, were a portent of good weather. I spoke of her enthusiasm for gardening, passed to my brother Willie, inspiring his career in Horticulture and how she stimulated my interest in Art, leading to a career as an interior designer.

I thanked her for her support during the dark times of my late wife, Ann’s, illness and death.
And, I assured her, with honesty, that Val and I and our children, had enjoyed, benefited from, having her live with us despite the initial, sometimes fraught, upheaval to our home.

With the letter finished, I needed to print it. So I wandered down the street, to a shop offering printing, copying and secretarial services.

A young, blond haired girl was about to lock the door.

“G’day.” She replied when I said hello.

Then, in the 1990s, every receptionist and shop worker in London seemed to be an Aussie.

“I see you’re about to close, but could you print this?” I asked hopefully.

She looked at her wristwatch, then back at me.

“No drama, come on in.” She said smiling.

I handed her the floppy disc and she sat behind her desk and slid it into the hard drive.

“I’ll just give it the once over.” She said, as the letter appeared on her monitor.

She seemed to be giving it more than the once over. Irked that this ‘Sheila’ was obviously reading my private letter, I was about to say something, but stopped myself as I realised a tear was meandering slowly down her cheek.

“Strewth! I shouldn’t be reading this, but what a dinkum letter,” she said,, “what a bloody bonzer mum you have!”

“She is,” I agreed, “she’s certainly that. Most mothers are, your’s too I expect.”

“I’ve not been back to my home, in Adelaide, to see my mum, for nearly two years.” She told me, in a sad voice. “I miss her, she’s bonzer too.”

“Send her an email,” I counselled. “I’m sure she’s missing you just as much.”

When I got home I placed my letter in an envelope with a conventional card and left it, with a bouquet of flowers, on her bedside table. Later, that day, Mothers Day, I saw my mother, through her open bedroom door, almost for the first time in my life, quietly crying.

So, whenever I see swallows flying high, specks in the vast blue sky, or when I help a trapped small insect to escape from our home, help it to enjoy the rest of its short life, you walk smiling into my mind. You, my bonzer mum.