Friday, January 28, 2011

Episode 7 - Love and Marriage

Titaua Brander
(The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection)
Despite their 24-year age difference, the marriage between John Brander and Titaua Salmon was remarkably successful. Brander adored Titaua who grew into a strong, equal partner for him in his life and endeavors. She bore him nine children. The first was born when Titaua was only 15, and she was the mother of four by the time she turned 20. During the decade between 1856 and 1866, Titaua and her mother, Ariitaimai, were often pregnant at the same time, and the children of the two marriages grew up together. As a result, the younger Salmon children saw Titaua more as an aunt or second mother than an older sister.
From the time of her marriage, Titaua played an important role in the social hierarchy of Tahiti not only as the wife of the island’s biggest trader but also in her own right. From 1857 she was paramount chief (or Marama) of the whole island of Moorea. Although this was largely a ceremonial title – like that of a peer of the realm in Great Britain – it gave Titaua with a status that stemmed from her Polynesian genealogy and heritage and not from her marriage. 
As befitted a wealthy man of business, John Brander owned several houses throughout Tahiti, buildings more grandiose than the usual bamboo or wood edifice with a roof thatched with pandanus leaves. The Red House on the quay in Papeete – built of red bricks imported from England - was lavishly furnished with marquetry card tables, mirrored armoires, red velvet and black silk upholstery, and ornate chandeliers. A small boat lined with red velvet cushions was kept at the quay opposite the Red House to take Titaua and her sisters and daughters out to pay calls on visiting war ships. The house on the Brander coconut plantation on the rugged north-east coast at Mahina was even grander. Known by the Tahitians as The House of the Columns, it was built of cement brick topped by red roof tiles, surrounded by wide verandas on both levels. It was beautifully decorated with ornamental tiles from Chile and boasted the grandest bathroom in the South Pacific. A century later in 1962, Marlon Brando lived in the house while filming Mutiny on the Bounty on Mahina’s black-sand beach.
In 1865, John and Titaua Brander set off on the long journey to Europe, taking with them their two oldest daughters and two of Titaua’s brothers to be educated in Britain. They were away for a year, leaving behind their four little boys - aged between 5 and 1 – in the care of their grandparents, Alexander and Ariitaimai. The group sailed first to Valparaiso in Chile and then up to Panama where they crossed the isthmus by the Panama Canal Railway (long before the actual canal was built) and then took a steamship across the Atlantic. The entire journey took over three months. On arriving in Britain, they stayed at first with Titaua’s grandfather, John Salmon, who had retired to Hastings on the south coast of England and become a rabbi. Then the couple traveled up to Elgin to visit his half-sister Lady Mary Dunbar and her family. No doubt John Brander – the illegitimate son – relished returning to his home town not only as a rich and successful businessman but with a Princess for a wife.   
Meanwhile back in Tahiti, Alexander Salmon was in sole charge of the House of Brander while the couple was in Europe. He wrote detailed letters to his son-in-law reporting on the progress of the House’s trading schooners across the Pacific and the prices that it commanded for its commodities. His letters also included affectionate messages to his absent daughter and news of her sons. “Master Norman has started to wear shoes. He is so proud of them that it’s extremely difficult to take them off him at bedtime. He keeps coming to our room every night to ask me to help him to dance.”
The letters show Alexander Salmon in the prime of his life, at the height of his powers and prosperity and happy in the midst of his children and grandchildren. But health in 19th-century Tahiti was a precarious business, and disaster could fall swiftly and unexpectedly. In August 1866, only six months after the Branders had returned from Europe, Alexander Salmon was felled by a virulent attack of dysentery. Ariitaimai and Queen Pomare sat on either side of his sick bed holding his hands as he passed away. He was only 46 years old. Ariitaimai, dazed with grief, was pregnant with their ninth child.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Episode 6 - Here comes the cavalry

John Brander - a drawing from a lost photograph 
Alexander Salmon returned to Tahiti discouraged and disheartened, but his fortunes were about to change as a result of a personal and business association with another British trader with an entrepreneurial spirit equal to his own.
John Brander was the illegitimate son of a landowner in Morayshire, Scotland. The laird of Pitgaveny recognized the boy as his son and paid for him to be educated. As a young man, John saved his older half-brother from drowning, and the brother gave him £400 in gratitude. Ambitious and eager to escape the stigma of his birth, John Brander used this money to sail to Tahiti where he founded the House of Brander, which soon became the biggest and most successful trading house in the South Pacific.
Brander had a finger in every commercial pie in Tahiti – on the island itself he grew coconuts, coffee, cotton, and oranges and ran a sugar refinery. In the Tuamotus (an archipelago of 76 coral atolls, most uninhabited, scattered across the eastern Pacific Ocean), he ran a pearl fishery business, and he raised sheep on Easter Island. With his large fleet of schooners, he dominated inter-island trade within the Society Islands (now French Polynesia) and exported oranges, mother of pearl, and copra as far afield as Sydney, Valparaiso, and San Francisco.
In Papeete, he maintained vast warehouses on the wharf and held the lease on the wharf itself and charged other commercial vessels to load and unload there. His business was based in his chandler’s shop on the quay where he sold a vast array of goods and extended credit in the form of both money and merchandise. A visitor from Scotland wrote in a letter home, “the owner of a South Sea store... has not only to provide for the island population, but must be ready to supply any ships that happen to come into harbor with whatever they require. Fresh meats and preserved meats, New Zealand beef, Australian mutton, condensed milk and tinned butter, Californian ‘canned’ vegetables and fruits, candles and lamps, oils of various kinds, firearms and gunpowder, hair-oil and brushes, wines and spirits, letter-paper and ledgers, books and framed pictures, cutlery of all sorts – from a penknife to a cutlass, or from a hairpin to a harpoon – wine-glasses and tumblers, necklaces and brooches, crockery and physic; these, and a thousand other items, are all on hand and appear at a moment’s notice.”
Within the small community of Papeete, Salmon and Brander recognized each other as kindred spirits. They had in common not only their humble origins but also their energy, drive, and enterprising spirit. The Salmon-Brander business partnership soon came to dominate trade not only on Tahiti itself but throughout the entire South Pacific.
In 1856, the two men cemented their alliance when 38-year-old Brander married Alexander's oldest daughter Titaua, who was only 14 years old. Although this age gap may seem extraordinary by modern Western standards, it was not unusual for Tahitian girls to be married in their early teens during this era and often to much older men. Even in Britain, the age of consent for girls was only 13, and Parliament did not raise it (to 16) until 1885. Queen Pomare had wanted Titaua to marry one of her own sons, but Alexander Salmon refused as the Pomare boys were well-known for excessive drinking and other riotous behavior.
John Brander and Titaua Salmon were married on Valentine’s Day in the British Consul’s office by the minister of the Protestant church of Tahiti. Their marriage certificate looks as British as if they had been married in a plain Scottish kirk rather than in the Consul’s pandanus-roofed house with a clear blue Pacific lagoon just beyond the door.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Episode 5 - Je ne regrette rien

Alexander Salmon in his prime
The Salmons paid a high price for their peacemaking efforts. Not only had they lost their son, but they also faced the prospect of financial ruin. Their plantations had been destroyed either in the fighting or by saboteurs angered by the couple’s public support of the Protectorate. Many marriages would have faltered under the blow of losing a child and of their financial troubles, but the Salmons had forged a strong and lasting partnership as they had worked together to end the war.
After a long gap, the couple began adding to their family again in 1848, with a daughter and three sons being born in the following eight years. Meanwhile, in an attempt to restore the family’s fortunes, Alexander devoted himself to farming his wife’s extensive lands. He added coffee plants and orange trees to the family’s coconut groves and raised pigs and cattle using the most modern methods of production. Despite his ingenuity and abilities, it was an uphill struggle to make a profit because the French administration was inefficient and took no interest in promoting the commerce of the island during the 1850s.
Unfortunately, the Salmons’ popularity with the French didn’t last long. Bruat was recalled to France soon after the Queen returned. This was the start a long tradition by the French Foreign Office of changing the man at the top just when he was starting to understand the job and the people and replacing him with someone who had never set foot in Tahiti before. Many of the Governors were threatened by the Salmons – seeing them as a focus for British interests on the island. Ariitaimai’s position as Chief of all the Tevas (after her grandfather’s death in 1854) clearly gave her much influence over the politics of the island. And the French saw Alexander as essentially opportunistic and ambitious and, as such, not entirely to be trusted. He was, after all, a citizen of Great Britain and clearly a man of independent judgment whose allegiance could not be taken for granted. As a result, after Bruat’s departure, there was no sign either of the Legion of Honor or of the financial compensation that he had promised the Salmons for their losses.
After being thwarted in many petty ways by the French authorities over several years, Alexander lost patience. A complex man, Alexander was fiercely loyal to his family and friends and passionate about defending the interests of his adopted country. But he was also quick to feel slighted and long to hold grudges. When it became clear that the compensation that Bruat had promised to the Salmons was never going to be forthcoming, Salmon decided to use whatever means necessary to restore the family’s fortunes and if that meant antagonizing people along the way then so be it. This is how he began to get a reputation for actively working to promote the British interest in Tahiti, but his critics failed to see that Salmon’s priorities lay much close to home - with the proud family and clan into which he had married.
So great was Alexander’s frustration that in 1858 he went all the way to Paris – a round trip taking many months – to present his case to Emperor Napoleon III. When he got no response from anyone in the government, Salmon decided to publish his letter as a pamphlet, which was circulated both in France and in Tahiti. From that time onwards, the French administrators of Tahiti branded Alexander Salmon as a potential subversive in their midst.  
After Paris, Alexander traveled to London where he was reunited with his widowed father, now aged 77, who was still in living above his shop on Piccadilly with three of his daughters. This was the first time Alexander had seen his family since leaving England almost 20 years earlier. What he did not know was that it would also be his last.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Episode 4 - Give peace a chance

Ariitaimai in middle age
For two years following the accident, Ariitaimai withdrew into herself, consumed with grief.  By this time, the French were in control of Tahiti, having expelled Pritchard, the Queen had fled to the island of Raiatea (95 miles away), and 2,000 angry Tahitians were conducting a guerrilla war against the invaders. The Salmons were maintaining an uneasy neutrality. They disapproved of the methods that the French had used to seize the peaceful island, but they saw that Tahiti needed the protection of a Great Power to stabilize the country and control the lawlessness that the whaling trade had brought to the port of Papeete. And it was clear that the British government, despite all attempts to persuade them, was not interested in being that power.
Early one morning in February 1846, Ariitaimai was alone in bed in her house in Papeete when an old woman came to see her in great distress. She said she'd heard a rumor that the French were planning to bombard the rebel camps from the sea, which was likely to result in massive bloodshed. She pleaded with Ariitaimai, “You’re the highest person in this land – it’s up to you to bring peace to Tahiti.”
The old woman’s plea stirred Ariitaimai from the lethargy she had been in since the death of her son. She hurried to see the French Governor, Armand Joseph Bruat. Bruat was a reasonable man who had been put in an impossible position by the actions of his predecessors. He had received orders from the Foreign Office in Paris to reinstate the Queen and to govern Tahiti jointly with her as a “protectorate” rather than a colony of France, but the Queen was refusing to return unless the French withdrew completely. And the rebels were following the lead of their Queen.  
Bruat’s attitude to Ariitaimai throughout the conflict had been ambivalent. Although the natives saw her as being firmly in the French camp, Bruat saw her continued loyalty to the Queen as subversive. In early 1845, Bruat had even considered exiling her to Raiatea because he feared the lovely 25-year-old Princess might be a rival candidate for the throne around whom the natives would rally. Yet now it was for that very reason that he recognized how uniquely useful she might prove to be as a mediator.
By the end of their discussion, Bruat and Ariitaimai had agreed on a plan of action. Ariitaimai would first visit the rebel camp and ask them to call a temporary ceasefire. Then she would go to Raiatea and try to persuade the Queen to come home.
The rebels agreed to a ceasefire with surprising alacrity but then began a year-long struggle to persuade Pomare to return. Together and separately, the Salmons made voyage after voyage between Tahiti and Raiatea (each voyage taking up to 20 hours one way) to transmit messages from one side to the other. Influenced by her relatives, the Queen kept making more conditions, yet, as each was met, she made more. At one point when Pomare was being particularly intransigent, Governor Bruat offered to make Ariitaimai Queen of Tahiti, but she refused, convinced that peace and reconciliation would only be possible in Tahiti if the French showed that they respected Pomare’s right to reign.
As the Queen stayed away, the ceasefire had fallen apart. Finally, after months of bloody fighting and military stalemate, the French defeated the rebels at the Battle of Fautaua in December 1846. A deserter led a handful of French troops in a precipitous climb to a position above the Fauta’ua Fort where the Tahitians thought they were safely entrenched. The French took the Tahitians utterly by surprise, and they had no option but to surrender. Shaken by this defeat of her supporters, the Queen finally allowed Ariitaimai to persuade her to return to her kingdom and accept the French Protectorate in return for the recognition of her rights and authority.  
As the Queen at last set foot on Tahitian soil on February 9th 1847, the French garrisons on shore greeted her with a 21-gun salute, and Governor Bruat held a reception to welcome her home. So grateful was Bruat to Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon for their help in bringing peace back to Tahiti that he told them he would be nominating them for the Legion of Honor, the highest civilian award in France. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Episode 3 - Trouble in Paradise

Moorea in the distance seen from Tahiti (note the gap in the reef at Papeete)
The Salmons settled into their house in Papeete and Alexander began to take stock of the land owned by his wife in the district of Papara. Their daughter Titaua (Tee-ta-oo-a, meaning “much wanted”) was born in November 1842, followed by a boy, Ernest Tepau-arii-ahura, about a year later. But their quiet domestic life was soon to be shattered by a series of events that would change Tahiti forever.  
The Salmons had married at a turbulent time in Tahitian history. Throughout the 19th century, the islands of the Pacific were pawns in the Great Game between the countries of Europe to colonize as much of the world as possible. In the 1840s, Tahiti was ostensibly independent, but, influenced by her charismatic British consul, George Pritchard, Queen Pomare was passionately pro-British. And as a devout Protestant, she was also very anti-Catholic and had long been in dispute with the French residents, as represented by their own Consul, over both religious and secular matters.    

In November 1843, the dispute came to an explosive head. A hot-headed visiting French Admiral, taking offence at the Queen’s expulsion of two French Catholic priests for proselytizing among the natives, landed troops and seized Tahiti in the name of France. The Queen refused to submit as Pritchard assured her that the government of Britain would come to her aid. But, despite some diplomatic skirmishing between London and Paris, the British had their hands too full with Australia and New Zealand to worry about the fate of such a small island.  
In early 1844, fearing that the French were about to depose her, the Queen and her family took refuge on board a British warship in the Papeete lagoon. In retaliation, the French Admiral had George Pritchard arrested and thrown into an unwholesome leaky stockade where he fell dangerously ill. Greatly alarmed, the Queen sent out messengers across the island to summon the chiefs to an emergency meeting. She couldn’t be there herself because the Admiral had threatened to arrest her the minute she set foot on Tahitian soil. So she begged her sister, Ariitaimai, to attend as her surrogate.
Ariitaimai was visiting the nearby island of Moorea with her baby son when she received the Queen’s message. She prepared to leave immediately, but the west wind, the formidable Toerau rahi, had begun to blow, making it too dangerous to make the crossing to Tahiti. She waited impatiently for several hours, hoping the wind would die down, but the weather became worse and worse. Finally, at 4 o’clock in the morning, she decided she couldn’t delay any longer if she was to keep her promise to the Queen to be at the meeting. Much to the dismay of the crew, she gave the order to depart. The boat with its twelve oarsmen set off into the howling darkness of the storm. As soon as they came out of the shelter of the reef around Moorea, the boat almost capsized, but the captain hung onto the tiller and the boat plunged onwards. For hour after hour, the rowers dragged their oars through the churning sea, fighting against the violent head wind, until very slowly the dark shape of Tahiti began to emerge against the grey dawn sky.

When they approached the opening in the reef at Papeete, they could see huge waves breaking against the wall of coral. The captain proposed that they should head further along the coast to the pass at Taunoa, which was more likely to be navigable, but Ariitaimai told them that would lose too much time. Holding her baby boy in her arms close against her body, she urged the rowers to pull hard and make a run for it. From the calm waters of the lagoon, people on the decks of the naval ships watched in alarm as the boat approached the narrow opening in the reef, the crew fighting to keep her steady. From behind them, a huge rolling wave lifted the boat and carried it straight towards the pass. At that second, the man at the tiller took his hand off it for an instant and a massive wave hit the boat amidships, throwing the passengers into the churning sea and ripping the baby from Ariitaimai’s arms.

Ariitaimai was a strong swimmer like all Tahitians, and she threw herself into the dark water after her child, pushing herself downwards time after time, searching the dark churning water, her hands outstretched, groping. The waves picked her up and flung her against the brutal jagged wall of coral, lacerating her body. At last on her third dive, her hands closed around the slippery body of her baby and she pushed her way to the surface, thrusting him into the outstretched hands of the people in one of the circling rescue boats. By the time the hands could pull Ariitaimai into the boat after him, she had passed out.

The boat rushed them to a French warship where the ship’s doctor tried for two hours to revive the baby to no avail. When Ariitaimai regained consciousness, her body battered and bleeding, the doctor had to tell her that her son was dead.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Episode 2 - Love on a tropical island

Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti

In the spring of 1841 when Alexander Salmon arrived in the sleepy capital of Papeete (Pap-aye-ay-tay), Tahiti was an independent island kingdom ostensibly ruled by the young Queen Pomare (Pomar-ay) IV and an assembly of clan chiefs. In reality, the government of the island was strongly influenced by the British Protestant missionaries who had converted the population of Tahiti to Christianity in the early 1800s.
With Captain Dunnett’s help, Alexander set himself up as a merchant and trader in Papeete. Many of the small European population treated him with disdain because he was Jewish, but he soon picked up the Tahitian language and found himself a very popular addition to the Queen’s court. Her young women nicknamed him “Mr. Diamond” because he owned nothing of value but a set of diamond shirt studs and a diamond ring, given to him by his mother, which he wore on the little finger of his right hand. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with one of the most exalted of those young women, the Queen’s adopted sister, Princess Ariioehau (Aree-oay-ow).
A contemporary journalist described Alexander as “intelligent, full of delicacy... a good-looking man with an agreeable exterior” but also as a man without fortune or profession. Princess Ariioehau, on the other hand, had the bluest blood of anyone of her generation in the South Pacific, even more than the Queen herself. Ariioehau was the direct descendant of and heir to two of the most ancient and revered clans of Polynesia, the Tevas and the Maramas. Even the upstart Pomares, the royal family chosen arbitrarily by Captain James Cook to rule over Tahiti, recognized Ariioehau as a true aristocrat and had raised her as an adopted sister of the Queen.
There are no photographs of the Princess when she was young. The only ones that exist show her in middle age onwards, a large and formidable matriarch. But accounts written by people who knew her in her youth attest to her great beauty. She was also used to getting her own way. So when she fell in love with the handsome young Englishman, she refused to consider marrying anybody else, even though several other suitors had presented themselves, including the king of a nearby island.
Once her belly began to show that she was expecting Alexander Salmon’s child, her elders bowed to the inevitable. Queen Pomare had not had much of an education but she was a shrewd woman and was passionately loyal - almost to the point of indulgence - to the people whom she loved. Her sister Ariioehau was one of those people. A decade before, the missionaries had persuaded her to ban foreigners from marrying Tahitians, in the vain hope that this would prevent visiting sailors from succumbing to the charms of the local young women (vahines). In May 1842, Queen Pomare decreed the lifting of this ban for three days, just long enough to allow her sister to marry the Englishman she loved.
It was the custom in Tahiti to give a newly married couple a new joint name. In this case, Queen Pomare chose the name Ariitaimai (Aree-ta-ee-ma-ee) meaning “Prince who came from the Sea.” In practice, Alexander Salmon stuck with his British name. Ariioehau mostly referred to herself as Mrs. Salmon but was known to the Tahitians as Ariitaimai for the rest of her life.
Thus, a penniless 21-year-old London Jew and a 20-year-old Polynesian Princess embarked on their life together. Ariitamai was an heiress in her own right, but Queen Pomare gave the couple a desirable piece of land in Papeete near her own modest palace, on which she built them a whitewashed house thatched with pandanus leaves in the Tahitian tradition. It seemed as if Alexander Salmon had found his fortune 10,000 miles from home.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Episode 1 - In the beginning

The Old White Horse Cellars, Piccadilly, by James Pollard

The story of Children of Eden opens a long way from Tahiti – in the London of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. This is where Alexander Salmon was born in November 1819 at 86 Piccadilly in rooms above his father’s fruit shop. It must have been quite a crush because Alexander was the Salmons’ sixth child and he was to be followed by six more. His father John Salmon was descended from a French family whose family banking business had collapsed during the Napoleonic Wars. Alexander’s mother Catherine was the daughter of the well-known Jewish miniaturist painter, Solomon Polack, a friend of William Makepeace Thackeray.
There were around 20,000 Jews in Britain in the early 1800s. They were banned from serving in the military, entering the law or attending universities. Nor could they enter the professions or become a commissioned officer in the Army without taking the Christian oath. So they tended to become either money brokers or merchants of some kind, like John Salmon. Most were not religiously observant, but this was not true of the Salmons. Alexander’s parents were deeply involved in the administration of the Western Synagogue and in the founding and administration of schools for indigent Jewish boys and girls.
In those days, London was still compact and surrounded by fields. Cows grazed in Hyde Park, and milkmaids roamed the streets with their yokes and open cans of milk. On the other hand, industrialization and urban blight caused stifling, sulphurous fogs to blanket the city, and the Thames River was full of toxic sludge from the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and tar-houses on its banks, and cholera frequently ran rampant through the city.
On Piccadilly, some of the grandest houses in London stood cheek by jowl with humble retail establishments like John Salmon’s fruit shop. Young Alexander grew up looking out onto the thoroughfare of Piccadilly, watching the great Duke of Wellington riding by on his way to his mansion, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner. Several times a day, the children rushed to the windows as stage coaches left the Old White Horse Cellars and the Black Bear Inn for the south coast and the West Country, clattering over the cobbles with the coachman blowing his horn.
This was the narrow world in which Alexander Salmon grew up, but his horizons were suddenly broadened in 1838 when his mother’s brother came to stay with the family for a year. This uncle, Joel Samuel Polack, had been an early settler in New Zealand and had come home just long enough to write a book about his adventures. He had established a grocery store in Kororareka in the Bay of Islands and built New Zealand’s first brewery. He was also famous for fighting a duel with a local innkeeper.
His stories of life among the “maoris” in the wild land south of the Equator fired the imaginations of both Alexander and his closest brother Julius William. The boys knew they would have to make their own way in life, and in England, they faced the double disadvantage of being neither gentlemen nor gentiles. Taking inspiration from his uncle’s example, Alexander resolved, that if England did not have enough opportunities for young men like himself, he would find those opportunities elsewhere. He and Julius decided to head for Australia, where another uncle was established as an auctioneer and landowner, to seek their fortunes.
So in 1839, the two young men – aged only 21 and 19 – left 86 Piccadilly and set sail on the first leg of their journey to California. In the days before the existence of the Panama Canal or the Transcontinental Railroad, the journey took as long as seven months. When the brothers arrived in the small Mexican port of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco), they met a young dynamic ship’s captain who was doing a thriving business exporting oranges from Tahiti to the west coast of the American continent. Captain Dunnett’s descriptions of that beautiful island with its steep green mountains and its palm-fringed black sand beaches were enough to persuade Alexander that this was a place he needed to see. While Julius, who had fallen in love with the captain’s sister, decided to stay on in Yerba Buena, Alexander signed on as a seaman on Dunnett’s next voyage to Tahiti.  
The author Herman Melville, then a sailor on a whaling ship in the south Pacific, has left this description the view that greeted Alexander in January 1840 as he first set eyes on the island where he was to spend the rest of his life.
“At early dawn of the following morning, we saw the Peaks of Tahiti. In clear weather they can be seen at the distance of ninety miles ....Seen from the sea, the prospect is magnificent. It is one mass of shaded tints of green, from beach to mountain top; endlessly diversified with valleys, ridges, glens, and cascades. Over the ridges, here and there, the loftier peaks fling their shadows, and far down the valleys. At the head of these, the water-falls flash out into the sunlight as if pouring through vertical bowers of verdure. Such enchantment, too, breathes over the whole, that it seems like a fairy world, all fresh and blooming from the hand of the Creator.”

Saturday, January 8, 2011

In the Name of the Father

If my books ever get into print, I won’t be the first author in my family. I’ll be following in the footsteps of my self-made, complicated, but always interesting father who died three years ago today. He was 80 years old and had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis for three years. The drugs he’d been taking had kept his symptoms largely at bay, but on January 3rd 2008 he took a turn for the worse. By the time it was clear he was dying, it was too late for me to get to Britain to see him one last time. On that last day, he called me to say goodbye though he could hardly draw enough breath to speak.
My father’s book Sunrise Europe was published in the UK in 1986. In it, he argued for the countries of Europe to pool their resources to create a Europe-wide electronics industry that could challenge those of Japan and the US. He made a cogent and well-argued case for what even he knew was a lost cause. (You can read more about his career as an IT pioneer in his obituary in The London Times.)
The most remarkable aspect of the publication of this book was that my father had left school in 1941 aged only 14 with not a qualification to his name. To help support his mother and much younger brother, he became a telephone engineer – shinning up the poles and tinkering with the wires in all kinds of weather. He found he was becoming interested in the principles behind his job, so he enrolled in night school classes. Because his studies were interrupted by his two years of national service in the British Army, he became eligible for the UK equivalent of the GI Bill, which paid for him to go to his local university, the University of Nottingham. (Where he became Captain of the Fencing Team – that’s him in the photo above – was elected a member of the student council, and met my mother.) Within six years, he’d earned a BSc in Electrical Engineering and a PHD in Physics and had been headhunted by Bell Labs in New Jersey, the most prestigious research facility in his field.  
My dad came to love writing. He studied Churchill’s speeches for their rhetorical fluency and thought an elegant sentence used to express a worthwhile idea was an achievement second to none. He was delighted that my own inclinations lay in that direction and was always supportive and enthusiastic about everything I wrote and published.
In that last terrible phone conversation, I told him I’d be dedicating Children of Eden to him and my mother (from whom he had been divorced for 20 years but was still friendly). It’s yet another reason why I feel pressure to get the book written and in print. To quote from Martin Amis’s memoir Experience about the death of his own father: 

“The intercessionary figure is now being effaced, and there is nobody between you and extinction. Death is nearer, reminding you that there is much to be done.  There are children to be raised and books to be written. You have got work to do.” 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Elaborate Calligraphy

Believe me when I say that I’ve always had the greatest respect imaginable for people who speak several languages. I am ashamed to say that I only speak one (other than a bit of schoolgirl French), but I have always tried to make up for this deficiency in quantity with an abundance of quality. In other words, I may only know one language, but, because of that, I have always felt it was important for me to know that language really, really well. 
So it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I earn my living as an editor. Many of my clients speak English only as a second, third, or even fourth language, and their verbal fluency is nothing short of remarkable (I bow down in awe). But because their written English is often heavily inflected with the rhythms and idioms of their own native languages, they hire me to help them to “translate” their documents into English as it is spoken in 21st-century America.
Here are a few examples of the kind of sentences that I encounter on a daily basis. I don’t present these examples to make fun of them at all but simply to illustrate what I do, reconstructing sentences like these in ways that sound more felicitous in American English while – with any luck – not losing anything of the writer’s original meaning. 
“Forest fires affected relative more the poor than the rich since 1995, but not so in 2000.”
Edited version – “Since 1995, forest fires have affected the poor more than the rich, except in 2000.”
“Where charges are required to be paid by persons availing services but certain categories of persons who cannot afford to pay are rendered services free by charge.”
Edited version – “In situations where people are charged for the services they receive, exemptions are granted to certain categories of people who cannot afford to pay these charges.”

“In 1993, one’s income and the probability of her being insured were correlated, but rather weakly.”

Edited version – “In 1993, there was a weak correlation between the level of a person’s income and the likelihood of her being insured.”  

And my all-time favorite which is too charming to tamper with:   
“Besides writing better and incurring into less orthographic mistakes, girls are, in general, more fluent than boys… and their calligraphy is very carefully elaborated.”
In that spirit, I hereby make a heartfelt commitment to my editorial clients of 2011 that I will make every effort to ensure that I make no orthographic mistakes and that my calligraphy is very carefully elaborated. They should expect nothing less of me.