Who was Vera Rich?
Poet, translator, activist, eccentric, Learned Kissagram, or in the words of a senior member of the Moscow Patriarchate “that EVIL woman”?
My Granny called her “the One who Sings”. Vera had taken to calling her at random and singing her translation of the Bahdanovic Romance down the phone at her. She knew my Granda had died and wanted to help. THIS I suggest was Vera.
Venus new-risen above us appearing
Brings with her bright-shining memories of love;
Do you recall when I first met, my dear one,
Venus new-risen above?
From that time forth evermore, skyward gazing
Seeking that planet I’d scan heaven o’er,
Within me a deep silent love for you blazing,
From that time forth, evermore.
But the time of our parting draws near, ever nearer,
Thus does our fate, does our fortune appear.
Deeply, profoundly I love you, my dearest,
But the time of our parting draws near.
In that far country, my love buried deeply,
I shall live drearily, yet, high above
I shall gaze on that planet each night, vigil keeping, In that far country, my love! Gaze upon Venus once more, when far distant One from another, there mingling we’ll pour Our glances, let love flower again for an instant…
Gaze upon Venus once more!
There is a lot of material online about Vera’s achievements as a poet and literary translator, but very little so far that captures what it was like to know her and be her friend. This blog is being written far later than it should have been but at last I have decided to describe impact on my life.
Snapshot from over ten years ago.
Vera had been ill for some time with breast cancer…..What was on my mind at that moment in my roller-coaster friendship with Vera, was not WHO she was, it was rather HOW she was, and then WHERE she was. Was she still alive? Had she survived the operation? If she hadn’t, I was going to have to start putting into place the wishes she had expressed to me regarding what she wanted to happen in such an instance. To summarise:
“If I am still alive but a vegetable, do switch me off before Elspeth and her Pro-lifers get near me. First, you must get a knife, not a fancy one, kitchen canteen will do, and put it in my hand. If not, I will not get to Valhalla”.
“I want to be cremated as I don’t want the fuss. Give half to Ukraine and half to Belarus”.
I did not expect ever to have to put these plans into action. The day I found out she had died in her home with a copy of Under Milk Wood open beside her, my Dad had remarked “How’s Vera? I bet she’ll go on forever”. Sadly this was not to be.
However, though she had survived that operation only to die a year or so later, she was still giving me problems. I tried Barnet General furnishing them with the name Vera Rich, and giving her date of birth. After that produced no results, I tried other hospitals in London. No luck.
No-one had any trace of Vera Rich.
Where was she?
I sat for a while trying to think of a sensible course of action and in the end decided to go for something that should not in any rational universe, work. I randomly called the Belarus Embassy. She had had a chequered history there as did I, but generally, I felt they might have an eye on where Vera was and what she was up to.
“Hello. I know you probably can’t help but I am very worried about the poet/translator Vera Rich who is very ill, is meant to be in hospital and seems to have disappeared.”
“Ah yes, I don’t know personally but I know someone who does”.
At that I was put through to their First Secretary who said not only did he know where she was, he had seen her a couple of days earlier.
She was being looked after by the Belarusian community at the Church in Finchley.
I called, got her on the phone and after hearing about my adventures in tracing her she said:
“I thought you KNEW. My name is NOT Vera, you Bumbaclot, it is FAITH but Slavs don’t have the “th” sound so I translated it into “faith” which of course, is Vera. And besides, you KNOW I don’t like to be found too easily. You never know who might be after me.”
How convenient that she also happened to live in Vera Avenue in Enfield. How very Vera for this to be so.
I was then regaled with tales of how she had fared in hospital. She had had a mastectomy as part of her cancer treatment. She was wearing the wig my mother had given her after her own cancer treatment had come to an end. It was remarked upon that Vera had not looked as well-kempt in years.
I have even managed to find online a photo of her wearing the wig in question.
She had sailed through the op, and while recovering on the ward, had a feeling that she was meant to BE somewhere. That somewhere was Bush House doing a BBC interview. She sneaked out of her hospital bed, put her coat on over her nightie and headed off in a mini-cab. She told the driver to circle Bush House while she did her interview. At this point he was stopped by the police as his behaviour and middle Eastern appearance had alerted people to suspicious goings on near the BBC. She sorted that out, got back in the cab and was driven back. She installed herself back in her hospital bed and I am not sure anyone even noticed.
Her creative input did not end in hospital. Here is one of the poems she wrote at that time:
Accept my gratitude
(Not to send thanks would be most rude!)
For flowers, sweets, get-well cards, cake, fruit,
(My locker-top’s awash with loot!)
But one gift, though most kindly meant,
Rather frustrates your good intent;
Though you were right; if I could choose,
There’s no gift I’d prefer to booze!
But having just lost my left breast
I’m told “Sobriety is best” –
Or rather (not to tell a “story”!)
The Doctor says it’s mandatory!
At least till they remove the “drain”,
I have to keep both gut and brain
Free of all fluids that can cheer!
Yet (Woe is me! Alas! Oh dear!)
So many gifts have come in bottle
To tempt the palate and the throttle
(If you’ll forgive that archaism
For ‘throat’)! If only through the prism
Of vodka, “single malt”, liqueur,
I could perceive the world, my cure
Would, I am sure, progress much faster…
But here the Doctor must be master –
And he proclaims they are taboo!
Well, what he says, I have to do!
But oh, the misery implied!
Consider this, I might have died
Under the knife, so surely he
Could allow one wee dram for me?
No, he will not! And furthermore,
There is no guarantee my store
Of booze will last till I can leave
And take it home! For (please believe!)
All the “kind souls” who visit me
Are so weighed down by sympathy
That (seeing me denied one sip)
THEY all take a substantial “nip”!
And another snapshot:
I had been at her 60th birthday celebration at the Bahdanovic museum in Minsk. It had been an odd visit. I was already very ill without knowing it with PTSD. I had ended up staying with the family of one of the Belarusian diplomats in London. This had not been a good move on my part given that I was expected to be driven around and escorted at all times, and a programme of approved meetings had been arranged to which I was expected to adhere. I don’t think they quite got the British thing of just ambling around people watching and they certainly did not think I would be IDLY ambling. They seemed convinced that I would be ambling with intent.
I did however manage to escape their grip and get to Vera’s “do”. I knew she was well-respected in Belarus for her translations of Belarusian poetry particularly the “three greats” Bahdanovic, Kolas, and Kupala. What I did not expect was the extent to which she was revered. I arrived early at the museum but already several hundred had gathered arms full of flowers. I managed to squeeze in at the back. She was up at the front in one of her “good” frocks – ie it was just about holding together – being serenaded by a young Belarusian “bard” with a guitar. He struck up the opening chord of “Romance”. Vera was off. She sang it in English in her slightly wavery but more or less in tune soprano.
Then absolutely spontaneously, the crowd sang it back to her in Belarusian. It is the ultimate in compliments that they considered her translation into English to be almost, if not entirely, equal to the quality of the original. This is where her genius lay. She was first and foremost a beautiful lyrical poet who had the ability to grasp all the mechanics of the languages in which she worked. Her translations were more than literal interpretations of words, they were poetic works in their own right, retaining not just the meaning of the original, but the feelings, the imagery and the music.
How it began:
How did this whirlwind of creativity and quirkiness end up in my life?
It was not long after the death of my colleagues in Belarus. I was still swept up in the swirling toxicity of the aftermath. I was trapped between the expectations of my employer that I would agree to promulgate a version of the truth that I could not stomach, aka lie, and my loyalties to the Belarusian “side” who were shouldering the blame but who were not to blame. I was trapped fighting daily the growing urge to tell the truth which would grow up with an acid-like intensity in my stomach, grow up my chest and get clogged burning a hole in my throat. To handle this, I was obliterating my feelings with alcohol and other forms of escapism such as disappearing from my office and spending more time than I should at the Embassy of Belarus.
It was the night of the Old New Year Party on 13th January. It proved to be a life-changing event for me in many ways. I met for the first time the stalwarts of the Anglo-Belarusian Society – people like myself who had been entranced in some way by Belarus without being able to understand why. It was the night I danced the polka with the Ambassador who later chased me down the corridor when I tried to leave at a “respectable” hour insisting “real Belarusians stay until the end”.
Earlier he had approached me and said “there is someone you MUST meet”. I remember exactly where I was standing at this point in the corner by the window, my usual position at parties. Suddenly the crowd seemed to party & skipping towards me in black dancing pumps was this sparkly-eyed lady of a certain age in a black flouncy frock. I don’t remember much about what we talked about. I do know I was nearly flattened against the wall by the sheer force of her intellect, her personality, her sense of fun. at somewhere around midnight when the CDs had been brought out and Engelbert Humperdinck was crooning “Please Release me Let me Go”, appropriately as it turned out on numerous levels, that she had an asthma attack and took her leave.
However half an hour later, the door flung open and she pranced back in again having had a “second wind” of some kind in the taxi. She formed part of a hardcore group of survivors of Olympic-standard Belarusian hospitality sitting round a typical Belarusian table solving the worlds’ problems over yet more vodka and pickles until the early hours.
Daily life with Vera:
From then, she adopted me. I became a handbag carrier, the regular sounding board for her new poems and songs, and one of her Manifold Poets. I became the recipient of Vera’s legendary very early morning phone calls. I recall one at around 6 am when she asked:
“Have I GIVEN you my poem about Queen Victoria’s pain relief?” And without waiting to be asked she launched into it. Only Vera could rhyme Lithuania with “pain her”.
Victoria took marijuana
To dull arthritic pain
(So say the medical arcana
Of her imperial reign!)
And when the hair thinned on her pate
(Although this did not pain her)
She drank (to keep her crown on straight)
Birch-wine from Lithuania!
Sometimes she required more from me than listening to her latest opus. If the call opened with a harassed-sounding Vera demanding “what are you DOING today?” I knew I was in for something unexpected and more than likely bizarre. I ended up pretending to be a journalist writing a review for her of an exhibition about diamonds and heading for Kew to review an exhibition of glass sculptures. I accompanied her on multiple visits to Wetherspoon’s to which she was inexplicably devoted. She knew exactly when the Curry Nights and Pensioner Deals were on in every single branch in Greater London. One was doing a promotion of Ukrainian beer so she got me to ring them to arrange a photo shoot of herself sitting with a few pints. I had to pretend to be her PA. On one occasion, I was summoned to her chaotic house in Enfield. Vera was a hoarder and it was incredibly difficult to get her to part with anything despite many of us trying over the years. I was not given the nature of my mission. It turned out to be cutting down a bush in her garden. I was worried about my clothes but she had a solution. I was presented with a flouncy cocktail dress which had belonged to her mother. I got stuck in with my secateurs dressed as though I was at a 1950s garden party. A Belarusian arrived with an axe. He started on the trees. He made us flower crowns. Vera drank wine and serenaded us throughout and then we finished with a bonfire and an Indian takeaway. Just an average day with Vera.
What she meant to me:
Only now she has gone do I fully realise the importance of Vera’s friendship. Those years were chaotic for me as I descended into the Hell of PTSD and addiction. Vera was one of the few constants. She did not judge. She was just there and accepted me no matter what state I might have been in. A few years after she died, a mutual friend said she had talked to her about me she had said “Alison will get well but it will take a long time. We all just need to be there for her until she does”.
I miss her.
I wish she could see what I have been able to achieve despite illness. She would have loved to have gatecrashed my presentations, and would have I am sure, convinced me to allow her some airtime to entertain with songs about the NHS. I can see her with the NHS Graduate Scheme whirling like a dervish round the ballroom in Leeds where we hold the Welcome Event every year.
She would have critiqued my writing and adopted any of my friends who showed a poetic bent.
She would have had things to say about our plans to publish a book of her translations of Belarusian poetry to coincide with the 10th anniversary of her death.
I feel her presence a lot and it seems at times I get messages from her. Not long after her death, I was browsing in a charity shop in Notting Hill when a bookshelf collapsed above me. I was hit on the head by a book which I picked up. It was Vera’s collection of Belarusian poetry in translation “Like Water Like Fire” .
Some of her ashes are in accordance with her wishes near the grave of Shevchenko in Kaniv, Ukraine. The rest are interred in the wall of the beautiful wooden church in Finchley built for the Belarusian Greek Catholic congregation of which she was a devoted member. The spot is marked by a beautiful carving created in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, in her memory. She is portrayed as a Princess in a tower watching as St George dispatches the dragon. (She was born on St George’s Day). In fact, she would have taken on the dragon herself. She would have assaulted him with the full power of words, her poetry, her songs, her thoughts on all and sundry. Mesmerised, the dragon would have slunk off defeated. She would have loved her place in the wall of the Church in Finchley.
She would have loved that some of her ashes brought her back to Ukraine to rest near the grave of their national poet Taras Shevchenko. This is truly a testament to the deep respect and love for her in Ukraine.
Most of all, however, she would love the affection, and often humorous memories, her friends hold of her in our hearts. There were many obituaries and given how hard it is to sum up Vera, her life and work succinctly, this from Judith Vidal Hall from Index on Censorship is, I think, came closest to capturing her essence.
“But there was courage too; loyalty as well as determination. In many ways she had, more than many, outlived her Cold War era: she spent her youth battling the tyranny of the Soviet system; her maturity was spent caring for the victims of its residual legatees in Belarus. They will miss her, increasingly, for there will not be another like her. I shall miss her very particular brand of extreme eccentricity combined with humour and the touch of genius.”
And this genius in clear in this translation of the moving poem “Testament” by Shevchenko.
When I die, then make my grave
High on an ancient mound,
In my own beloved Ukraine,
In steppeland without bound :
Whence one may see wide-skirted wheatland,
Dnipro’s steep-cliffed shore,
There whence one may hear the blustering
River wildly roar.
Till from Ukraine to the blue sea
It bears in fierce endeavour
The blood of foemen — then I’ll leave
Wheatland and hills forever:
Leave all behind, soar up until
Before the throne of God
I’ll make my prayer.
For till that hour
I shall know naught of God.
Make my grave there — and arise,
Sundering your chains,
Bless your freedom with the blood
Of foemen’s evil veins!
Then in that great family,
A family new and free,
Do not forget, with good intent
Speak quietly of me.
I will not forget, we will not forget, and we will never cease to talk quietly of her (and celebrate as loudly as we can) all that she was and did.
Translations and own poetry
Comprehensive bibliography including articles on Human Rights for various publications.