I have met Polly Barton three times. Best friend of frequent collaborator Michael Judd/ Belgium Solanas, a film maker and photographer who wrote the infamous peacock piece on here as well as making my Martin video, I first met her at an all night party : Tokyo Witch Garden in Tokyo, where we tried to talk over the heavy metal band that was playing and exchanged mutually intriguing accounts about living here in Japan. An acclaimed Japanese-English translator with an almost fearfully intelligent gaze, she is the kind of person who tells it like it is – but beautifully. At that particular moment, I think she was about to leave Japan, a country she loves and is thoroughly addicted to, but also finds problematic (sound familiar?): sick to the teeth of being ‘othered’. Now (not entirely comfortably, it would seem ) based back in the UK, she has just published her first book, 50 Sounds, to rave reviews, already on its second printing and which also featured in this weekend’s Japan Times. We have just ordered it. I know it will be an intensely interesting read, and I am looking forward to see how our experiences of living here interlock, but also differ.
The second time I met Polly was at a screening of Michael and Polly’s hilariously surrealistic and comedic film ‘Crispy Kiss’ in Osaka, where they were running around giving out film-themed cocktails that were not easy on the stomach; even if the movie itself was very easy on the brain and eye. Later, there was a goodbye party and mass karaoke with people I didn’t know which was daunting for me; I don’t think I saw her again for a couple of years until she was back in Japan, dancing at a club night called Egomaniac where we were all going wild to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill as though part of a religious cult. A very highly skilled, precise but instinctively penetrating writer, I am fascinated by her story of moving to the Sado island, alone, ‘fresh out of Cambridge’; of having an affair with an older married man there; becoming gradually more fluent and inextricable, the similarities of our ‘in-betweenness’, both ‘Japanized British’, the most glaring and important difference being that 50 Sounds is the story of her immersion in the Japanese language itself (I, in great contrast, shamefully, can’t even write my own name in the most simple of syllabaries, katakana) ; and how this experience shaped and changed not only her life but even reorganized her own consciousness.
To enter Japanese is to enter a mindset – perhaps why D and I have resisted – a gendered, hierarchical, highly complex series of social elaborations and written and unwritten rules that makes speaking English feel comparatively like eating a bag of chips. We have never managed it. I am certainly ‘conversant’, enough to oil the hinges, to communicate, but have never properly endeavoured; neverly truly sunk my teeth into it. In truth, I was never especially studious. At school I was academic, but lazy. My record, movie and perfume collections have always been more important. I still accrue vocabulary, at a glacial pace, but essentially gave up long ago. (Not entirely true……I have to speak it every day; we have had language lessons intermittently over the years, but in our hearts knew that it was never really going to happen. I just find it impossible to produce fluently from my lips. It doesn’t emerge. There is no well I can draw from. The language just does not ‘fit’ my brain; it won’t enter). I find it beautiful; it is beautiful: to look at as well, so I can’t deny my deep jealousy of Polly, a brilliant individual, in having not only mastered Japanese, to have gone down the full ‘rabbit hole’ the way she has in entering the psyche and the internal linguistic mechanisms ; how they express themselves at the soul level ; but also to be able to render Japanese literary works in effortlessly lucid prose in English – a true bridge between the two — even if she has been ( fortunately or unfortunately ), irrevocably altered in the process.