Fifty years with Berlin

Had the scrambled egg at my Copenhagen hotel been just a bit runnier, I would have agreed with the  Booking.com reviewer’s “awesome” . It was all in all a pleasant surprise after an increasingly Dickensian walk through the tatty surroundings of the station.

I appreciated the breakfast as I was too tired last night to go out and eat after tussling with the most difficult part of my journey from Berlin to Uppsala, the underdimensioned Danish railcars from Hamburg to Fredericia, where every vestibule brought associations with the Grapes of Wrath with its uncomfortable heaps of humanity and piles of possessions.

My head is still full of images and memories of Berlin. I realised the other day that it’s 50 years since I first visited the city, arriving somewhere along Ku’damm between Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis church, bleary eyed after hitchhiking all night from the Ruhr, part of the journey made as helmetless pillion passenger on a fast motorcycle (this must have been before I reached Helmstedt). Once in Berlin, I went to Bernauerstrasse in Wedding early in the day to look over the wall and wonder at the strangeness of it all.

I spent the night at a commune in West Berlin although I don’t remember how I made the contact. I remember lying on the floor in my sleeping bag, half awake when the police banged on the door in the middle of the night purportedly in search of some mislaid teen. And rattling away on the S-bahn the following day somewhere around Westkreuz  in eager discussion with one of the commune dwellers.

I don’t remember where I slept after that but the next day I went to GDR Berlin, walking in some ordinary residential district close to the centre.

There have been many more trips since then. I often made a detour when I travelled overland from the UK to Sweden, to visit Berlin. I was fascinated by being able to move from one social system to another by a short journey on the S-bahn from Zoo bahnhof to Friedrichstrasse. I was depressed by the heritage of Stalinism which eventually crushed the hopes for a new Germany but relieved by the virtual absence of advertising, the feeling of natural adequacy when objects were products for use and not for profit, the serious bookshops full of classics (I had no problems with shortage of things I wanted to buy, only a shortage of GDR marks).

And fascinated by the quirks arising from making borders between municipal districts into a national frontier. I walked long distances along the border, inspected it more closely from the West as visual access from the east was often shielded. And visited semi-exclaves like Steinstücken where you could wave at people in the East who waved back, as you looked down on the border which was in a ditch at one point. However, I never travelled with the farmer whose tractor was apparently accompanied by the border police to some isolated field in the GDR that belonged to west Berlin. Or with allotment owners whose plots were in the east and who had to ring on a bell on a gate in the wall to be let through, safe in the knowledge that their cucumbers were protected from filchers by umpteen divisions of the Soviet army.

And amusing episodes such as standing on Friedrichstrasse after leaving the border facility when a border guard came running towards me at full speed. Even though I take the little songs about stone faced border guards with a lorryload rather than a pinch of salt, it was still unnerving. The border guard came to a halt before me and handed over various papers and whatever else it was that I had forgotten on his shelf when searching unsystematically for my passport. And then left me with a shy smile.

And another time when a car stalled and wouldn’t start in a street with administrative buildings but few people in central Berlin. And I helped the driver push start his vehicle. I liked the idea of me getting the machinery of the GDR into motion – it’s not often that I feel like Hercules so I have to savour and preserve these moments well.

Later there were more trips to Berlin when I was pretending to do a PhD and even more when one of my children lived there and now again to see friends.

I enjoy the freedom to visit Berlin’s surroundings (just recently to Greifswald) and the city still interests and attracts me but I am nostalgic for what has been lost as well as gained. I felt closer to the old working class Germany in the GDR, the Germany before the horrors of the 1930s and the Nazis and before the American veneer. I was also fascinated by the glimpses of a life that could be organised differently from our western dance around the golden calf or rather timeless dance around the black hole of capital, glimpses of an everyday life without the profit motive that could be seen despite all the distortions of Stalinism.

It’s increasingly hard to see the physical differences between the former West Germany and the GDR. The tone felt different in smaller, less affluent towns like Wolgast on the Baltic but the shops in Greifswald and even more in Potsdam are as plush as those in the old West. An architect could see the still abundant prefabricated buildings, the “plattenbau”, but the tell-tale semi-ruined buildings where ownership is disputed are becoming fewer and fewer in number. And now you have to be in your thirties to have any memory of life in the GDR.

Time for a post-Covid plan

I am reading, working and making some progress but it all feels rather “staccato” just now, difficult to get up to “cruising speed” and feel confident of where I am going.

Most satisfying just now is Norstedt’s Sveriges Historia 600-1350 (Swedish History). Some time long ago in the dawn of my Swedish pre-history, I read through a multi-volume of Swedish history. I’ve felt for some time that it was time to repeat this exercise now that I both know Swedish and Sweden much better. The first volume has been very satisfactory as it takes up and evaluates the sources of, for example, the myths around Gamla Uppsala, which I’ve wondered about. And critically analyses the use made of the thin sources to construct a desired history of Sweden based on doubtful assumptions.

I am struggling with Bengali. I have made progress with the alphabet although the joined consonants, the conjuncts, are a sting in the tail which is going to take time to master. I am impatient to get on to the section of the book which is more focused on conversation so that I can string together some of the Bengali words I’ve become familiar with.

And, as a minor project, I am making good progress with the German cult novel Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s Die Insel des zweiten Gesichts. My German is not good enough to read such a complicated novel but I have it in English too “The Island of Second Sight”. If I read a couple of pages in English and then read the German, it works well for me, although I realise that I need to go through the section a third time to make a note of some of the new words. The translation seems good but at times rather free in a way that I don’t always grasp the justification for.

Being in the UK for six weeks has helped me to adjust to a freer existence now that I am fully vaccinated. I am still being careful but now use public transport more and not just very early in the morning. It does feel rather hard to go back to using the commuter (pendel) trains to get to Stockholm after months of luxuriating alone in first class on the regional trains. As I suspected travelling first class rapidly felt like the minimum acceptable standard but I’d better wean myself off this.

Hopefully the small signs of returning normality do mean that we are in the end game of the pandemic although it’s hard to be sure.

 I was pleased to see that Uppsala’s best second hand bookshop “Röda Rummet” has opened for visitors again. I couldn’t resist buying a small pamphlet from 1920 published in German in “Kleine Bibliothek der Russischen Korrespondenz, “Drei Kundgebungen aus dem Jahre 1918” by N. Lenin, including among other things a letter to the US workers and an open letter to Woodrow Wilson. It fascinated me as it was published so early after the Russian Revolution. It uses, for example “N. Lenin”, which was the abbreviated first name that Lenin used when using his “false name”´(this was before he became so well-known that Lenin by itself was enough to identify him). It seems rather odd that the Russian revolutionaries should have used such names not just within the party but when wanting to be clandestine in the wider society as one would think that names like “Stalin” (man of steel), “Molotov” (hammer) and Lenin (leonine???) would attract unwanted attention. Trotsky’s adoption of an ordinary Russian surname seems safer.

At the end of the pamphlet, it advertises other works in the series by Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky, later purged and killed by the stalinists, among others whose fate I am unaware of.

What made the pamphlet even more interesting was that it had been owned and was signed by Signe Sillén, the wife of Hugo Sillén, leader of the pro-Comintern fraction who expelled Karl Kilbom in 1929 (who formed a new party, later called the Socialist Party, and eventually moved back to social democracy). According to some sources, there were serious doubts in the party about Sillén’s capacity as a leading cadre but he couldn’t be dislodged as Stalin favoured him, suspecting that Kilbom would make common cause with Bukharin (the two fractions in the CP had been named after Sillén and Kilbom although Sillén was not actually in a leading position in the party at the time). The pamphlet has probably emerged now as the Silléns had a daughter who lived to a ripe old age (90 something) and died not so many years ago. She had presumably inherited some of the Silléns’ library, which was then sold or donated to Röda Rummet.

I haven’t made notes on words that have come my way with one exception. I became curious about the etymology of the word “hectoring”  which is defined as talking in a bullying way, a hector being a braggart or a bully. The explanation I have seen is that it originates from the name of a youth gang in  late seventeenth century England, who presumably adopted their name (Hectors) from the ancient Greek warrior and went around bullying people and getting Hector a bad name. There seem to be quite a few similar such groups through history both earlier and later. There ware also the Mohocks in the seventeenth century who attacked and mutilated men and sexually assaulted women and the Damned Crew. These groups apparently attracted some young men who were of aristocratic origin. They make “Hooray Henrys” seem benign.

The unbearable flatness of the present

What shocked me about Yeovil was that the town had no museum open to the public. The Museum of South Somerset closed about ten years ago and its collections were put into store, available for inspection on request but not to the casual visitor. I could not imagine that this would still be the case ten years later but it is so. It’s depressing that a town of 45,000 people, large by Somerset standards, should have so little interest in its history (that sentence requires unpacking, of course, – who has so little interest, which politicians, which sections of the population and what history?).

With tough government cuts to local government finance, the ruling local politicians clearly did not regard the history of the town as so important as to spare it from the axe. And lean local government, doing what it is bound to do by statute and leaving other responsibilities to the private sector has been the spirit of the age. I’ve not been aware either of popular unrest at the lack of a museum. although I’m sure that I’m not alone in deploring it.

Museums haven’t disappeared altogether – there is a motor museum at Sparkford not far away, a museum on the history of the naval air force at the Yeovilton air base. And various museums of rural life and those attached to country houses such as Montacute. But these are private businesses, perhaps of good quality but giving only a partial, specialised view of the past. However, they seem to thrive and to have captured the public’s interest in the way that the public local museum’s dutiful plod from the artefacts of pre-history through the various local industries does not. The development reminds me of the waning and disappearance of the old department stores and their replacement by small specialized shops.

Even the museums that are open worry about lack of interest in their collections and how to increase footfall (and revenue). It’s not hard to understand the temptation to attract the public by more aggressive marketing and to make the museum into entertainment. But I think this road is full of pitfalls and I don’t like it. The chatty circulars even from the venerable British Library make me cringe. I hope very much that the wonderful Victorian room at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester with Thomas Hardy’s study will survive the makeover. But reading about the tour of Dippy the Dinosaur while the museum was otherwise closed and looking at the bookshop, a shadow of its former self, with a justified selection of Hardy’s novels on display together with  a heap of anywhere items, doesn’t make me feel optimistic. Hopefully, it will be better when the Covid-delayed move back is completed.

Jimmy’s fete and Caentel’s weorp

Yesterday, I went by train on the fine country branch line from Yeovil to Dorchester, across the river valley and then into the limestone hills through Yetminster, where you change for Ryme Intrinseca and through Maiden Newton for Cerne Abbas with its scanty monasterial remains and the chalk giant on the hillside, once visited by women of the tract wanting to improve their fertility (not sure whether the giant worked for men as well but I kissed my then wife while looking at it and have four children in all, one pre-giant and three post-giant so there may be something in it).

Dorchester is the county town and also the cultural centre of the county with its records office and museum which has a good library of Dorset books. I wanted to check what they had on church history, especially on the ambitious programme of rebuilding in the nineteenth century (after eighteen century neglect, the authorities were perhaps eager to promote the church as a means of social control against the background of the French revolution and the expressions of discontent about the suffrage).

I found a few interesting books but there wasn’t as much as I’d hoped. Nineteenth-century church restoration does seem to be something of a gap to be filled by research. Perhaps the diocesan (church) library at Salisbury would offer more.

I have to think, however, about how much time and effort I’m prepared to devote to this subject. My aim is to have a living relationship with Dorset and to be able to understand what I’m looking at/reading about. I like to be able to dip into Dorset from time to time but don’t want the study of Dorset to close over my head so that there is no room for other things that interest me. I now feel that I know enough about Dorset churches to have a framework for further visits and thought but I should probably move on to another topic rather than becoming engrossed in the equivalent of a PhD. Among other things, I’d like to look at the large houses of the county, their architecture, of course, but also their effect on the community around them, on enclosure, agriculture and on landholding over the past couple of hundred years and up to the present.

Again up to a certain level without getting bogged down so I shall probably decide to read about this for a definite period.

After I’d done the serious stuff, I started browsing through the rest of the museum library’s collection. Surprisingly they still have a card index. The Museum obtained a large amount of lottery funds for an extensive rebuilding and extension. Their move back into the building was probably seriously delayed by covid so they had not really settled down in their refurbished quarters. I’m very nervous about the rebuild as I fear that the process of making the museum more “community-friendly” may damage some of the things I loved about the old museum, but that’s a long topic for another blog post.

I found some information about my great great grandfather in an old book of reminiscences about my ancestor’s village Marnhull published by the Women’s Institute in 1940, reproduced below. It’s not the most flattering story but I think that my popping up in St Gregory’s Church in sackcloth and ash to make an official apology on behalf of the latter day Kendall family for their nineteenth-century loose chatter might be overdoing it a bit.

“Jimmy Kendall, who kept the Crown Inn, was the leading man in running the old Marnhull Club fete and prepared the dinner on Club Day. he was talking to an excise officer outside the Crown Inn, when Harry Cressy passed, driving a [horse-drawn] van with a relative beside him. Jimmy passed a remark to the excise officer, whether the van was licensed to carry women.  The excise officer made enquiries and in due course a summons was issued against  Harry Cressy. This resulted in a local bad feeling against Jimmy Kendall. A short time later an effigy was found hanging from an elm tree in “Bowling Green” (just below the Crown). It remained there a few days, was then taken down, put in a coffin and a procession of “mourners” paraded the village.  When outside the Crown, the coffin was let drop with a bump on the road. There was a “widow” dressed in white in the procession, which proceeded to the field “Wood” (opposite the “Blackmoor Vale”) where the “burial” took place.

This was known as “Jimmy’s Fete” (? fate).

This reminds me of the custom of the Skimmington Ride which Hardy refers to in the Mayor Casterbridge, where villagers stage a noisy mock serenade directed at someone who had outraged what the villagers regard as public decency (perhaps in cases of adultery).

The pub where my great great grandfather, James Kendall, was the publican was portrayed in Tess of the D’Urbervilles as the Pure Drop Inn I believe the date when he (and later his wife) managed the pub more or less coincides with the presumed date of the events in Tess.

I’m very happy about this Dorset connection with Hardy and Marnhull.

I also found out a bit more information about my great grandfather, Christopher Kendall. I knew he was a carpenter but he was apparently, more particularly a wheelwright, like his son Harry Kendall, my grandfather who died in 1895.

It’s amusing when there is a chink in the curtain of forgotten history providing information about long veiled ancestors. I must attend to my archive so that it doesn’t get forgotten again!

There used to be another manor in Marnhull called Kentlesworth, the location of which is unclear. I believe the surname of our family may derive from this name. I found an etymological explanation of the name Kentlesworth. The latter part is from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word “weorp” (the p I suspect is a misunderstood Saxon “th”) meaning farm or enclosure. The Kentle is said to originate from the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon name Caentel, so that it would be “Caentel’s Farm”:If this is correct, the family surname originates far back in history and long before the Conquest from an Anglo-Saxon called Caentel.

There are a number of other place names in West England where Caentel forms part of the name. This is, of course, speculative but it seems not unreasonable.

There is also an important Cornish-Welsh poet with a name resembling Kendall, whom I made efforts to appropriate as an ancestor but as the evidence was non-existent (I couldn’t prove a link between Marnhull and Cornwall), I reluctantly have to regard this as less likely). There are also villages in the area with “Caundle” as part of their name from the River Caundle, which is another possibility but I think that when adopting a surname, it would seem intuitively more reasonable for a person to be named as being of a manor than of a river, though “of Caundle” as one of the villages would be a more convincing candidate.

More evidence could perhaps be obtained if I brushed up my Latin and mediaeval clerk’s latin and consulted the manorial records to see what the history of surnames was like in the area (were there were many “Kendalls” in the Caundles, for instance).

Somerset and Dorset

My journey to West England began with a taxi driver who wasn’t up to speed with the road closures around Waterloo. We orbited round the station for a while before making a successful landing (decently, he reduced the price). Then our train had to make a lengthy detour because of a broken rail at Winchester. We became so late that the next train caught up with us and they turfed me off the train before my final stop so that they could send it back to London. Sensible in normal times but a dubious step during a pandemic. I managed to avoid the crowds and the unmasked but at the expense of sitting close to a family with a young child offering a broad range of turbulence services. Having had four children, I’m tolerant towards them in trains but on this occasion, I hoped fervently at every stop that they would get off but, of course, they accompanied me all the way to the seaside at Weymouth, where I missed the connection to my final stop, Yeovil in Somerset. But these tribulations were only a minor dent in the good mood, almost dreamy euphoria, that I always feel when returning to the area that is home for at least 30 per cent of me.

My original plan was to stay in Dorchester to use the libraries there and continue with my Dorset church project. But this year, the English, barred from everywhere else except South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and Dubai, are flocking to the traditional seaside resorts and the coastal strip was fully booked. But it’s not bad to be inland, close to where I lived as a teenager in a town full of memories; standing in a telephone kiosk with my mother wondering at the ancientness of the place as she dialled the operator to be connected with an aunt in a village not 10 miles away. That aunt worked from home stitching parts of gloves together for local firms. And sitting on the fine old green Southern National double decker to Martock, seeing another bus to the village of Tintinhull in front of us and associating it with the word tintinabulations, the ringing of bells that I’d picked up somewhere. It was a wonderful place for a boy from the more mainstream, almost suburban Sussex coast. And later, after we’d moved to the west on my father’s retirement, as a teenager in a Yeovil cinema in my pyjama jacket which I’d persuaded myself looked chic, disturbed at my companion’s reasonable reaction that I was wearing a pyjama jacket. I didn’t repeat this sartorial experiment. The past is a strange place – they (and me) do weird stuff there.

Yeovil is also a fine name, “the vil” probably being misunderstood by the Normans as being like “ville” which they would have been familiar with. In fact, it probably comes from a Celtic word meaning a fork in a river. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have taken the word over and “gaffel” today means “fork” in Swedish. It’s interesting that the Anglo-Saxons took over so few Brythonic Celtic words but they did use a lot of Celtic river names and here even a word associated with rivers.

I’ve mostly worked translating a contract since I got here and tomorrow I have a company’s interim report to do. But after that I’m free for the rest of the week. Thoughts about restoring old buildings have been floating through my mind. I must get hold of some material about the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris. It’s interesting because some of the parts destroyed in the fire were not ancient but the nineteenth century work of Viollet-le-Duc (the spire). I wonder how or whether they will replace these, as well as how they will deal with the really ancient wood trusses that were destroyed and played a part in the ease with which the fire spread. They will presumably be replaced by something more modern and safer, but how will they (or have they) put that on top of ancient masonry not built to bear greater loads. There are differences in French approaches and attitudes to restoration/extension of old buildings. According to my prejudices, the French are less sentimental, more prone to making an elegant modern statement attractive by contrast. I shall be interested to see where they have landed and will search for articles when I get back to base in ten days or so.

Hertfordshire safari

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Waking up in a chill English hotel room, it takes me a while to extricate myself from the confused jumble of the Financial Times, hearing aids, spectacles, my Pradaxa necklace and other existential flotsam and jetsam on the bed where I’d thrown myself after an intensive day helping a paralysed friend get a computer to the repair shop.

It was complicated to start with as we didn’t understand which button to press to lower the wheelchair to avoid decapitating my friend on the roof of the not altogether suitable vehicle. But once on our way, weaving across Hertfordshire from Borehamwood to Watford, it was smooth enough, even enjoyable.

The computer repair man was kindness itself, coming out to our vehicle and explaining how all might not be lost on the hard disk despite the computer’s reluctance to start.

I’ve hardly met anyone new for the past year while my friend has met lots of carers but not been out of the care home so we are both diversely dazed. But I’m impressed as well by meeting so many people who probably aren’t paid that much with poor working conditions who could easily respond to the direness of life grimly or bureaucratically but who were instead prepared to help someone who needed a break.

I didn’t like Borehamwood to start with. I found  it run down, suburban, tatty without much architectural or other interest. But it’s growing on me – there are many odd shops, stores selling Romanian, Bulgarian and other East European foods, which I fear may fade away post-Brexit but which are a welcome change from the bland sameness of modern retail. There’s also the Elstree film studios, with hopeful clusters at the side of the approach roads looking for a glimpse of famous figures unknown to me. It all makes for a quirky mix although I wouldn’t want to live here.

And later  today, I’ll travel down to Islington to meet other later friends. London has become a city of shades and memories for me, where old friends have died or moved on in life and not been replaced as I am not involved in any social activity  here. But I enjoy being there and meeting those that remain, although the bad air and general bustle overpower me now.

In a couple of days time, I will resurrect another old friend, my west country self, when I travel down to Dorset to round off my Dorset church project. I am going to spend time in the libraries of Dorchester and see what they have to offer on nineteenth century church restorations. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about this – the development of neo-gothic, architectural and aesthetic aspects, the impact, positive and negative on historic buildings, the details of the building process (where did the stone used come from, etc., which builders, architects were involved),the influence on restorations of ideological developments within the believer community (and the social composition of the Anglicans and relationship to non-conformism and the latter’s neo-gothic buildings), the response to the wave of restorations and growing resistance. This would be good to round off my project but this plan is too massive, too much of a time swamp if done well when I want to shift focus to other projects. I think therefore that I will make a preliminary study of how such a study might be written, its components/structure/important issues and what material is available and where but not actually produce it; as much as I can achieve in a week, to be continued in small spurts when I feel I want to think about Dorset but not so much that Dorset closes over my head and gets in the way of other work that is important for me.

The Cotswolds

After months of isolation, I’m staggering after the social contacts of the past few days, although it’s a good feeling so stagger is probably the wrong word. My head is full of stories about new people I’ve met and images of elegant eighteenth century Bath and the Cotswolds.

I’ve been sniffy about the Cotswolds; the limestone hills felt bare and the tourist trail, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold overrated and I was alienated by the lurking presence of royalty in the south and east, with the vast open professional horse country and the threatening presence of the air force bases.

I’ve nibbled at the area many times; to William Morris’s Kelmscott in the east, his beautiful Thames retreat with the story of  Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s opaque relationship with Morris’s wife, which moves me in contradictory ways, admiration for Morris’s ability to rise above conventional Victorian morality and dislike for the idea of women as muses and the narcissism of the creative bemused. And visits to my mother’s house in her brief life at Stonehouse near Stroud, from where I made long meaningless under-researched trips to the Forest of Dean on tortuous nausea-inducing buses.

But now, more systematic and armed with Pevsner, I’ve seen the small intimate, at times almost Italianate ravines, with their mill buildings, weavers and clothiers houses, as reminders of the once intensive economic activity, with associations to the East India Company, an important customer for the village where I stayed, and the mute memory of eighteenth and nineteenth century hardship underlying the creative idyll.

It makes me feel whole, like a real English person when scattered memories from way back are rearranged into a new larger more complex whole.

I want to go back and learn more.

100 years of quarantine

Saturday, 12 June 2021

My eighth day in the UK and frustratingly I am still in quarantine. The testing firm’s interest in my fate seems to have cooled considerably after coffering my sixty pounds. I have still not heard from them although  they did at least provide me with an opportunity yesterday to think about the meaning of life for a peaceful half an hour as I listened to the reassuring English burr on their non-answer facility.

It’s frustrating but I am at least living in a pleasant flat in the grounds of a biggish house, with a substantial garden and  a view across the River Avon and the canal to the edges of Bath. And I have walked through the fine old village of Bathford on my permitted excursions to post my tests and admired the home of the inventor of a bagless vacuum cleaner as well as learning to recognise periwinkles.

I have loads of books to read, Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s Die Insel des zweitens Gesichts in German and English. My German is not good enough to enjoy reading just the German version but it works well for me to read a page in English and then read the same page in German.

I also have Jean Giono’s Le hussard sur le toit , only in French as my French reading ability is better than my German. And Swedish represented by Rudolf Värnlund’s Vandrare till Intet, published by Bokförlaget Röda Rummet in Uppsala.

And on the non-fiction side, I have three volumes of Pevsner, the two volumes for Gloucestershire, one for the Cotswolds and one for flatter parts of the county and the Forest of Dean, and the Dorset volume in case I get down there later. And then there’s my teach yourself Bengali and a tome on the German economy in my Kindle waiting for my attention, as well as a few sheaves of paper copies on political history and a book by David Harvey.

I am equipped to keep ennui at bay for a lifetime of quarantine.

To enhance my feeling of being in the West Country, I started my quarantine reading with Walter Raymond’s “Love and Quiet Life, Somerset Idylls”  (1901 I believe). Walter Raymond can be described as a South Somerset Thomas Hardy although he has not enjoyed the same renown (nor is his authorship up to the standard of Hardy’s). His memory has been kept alive by a few enthusiasts who have reproduced older editions (my copy has fine stamps from a public library in Boston, Mass). Reading Raymond made me think about the Somerset dialect. I learn from Wikipedia’s article on West Country dialects that the Somerset dialect, despite more recently being made the butt of jokes about the back of rural beyond, has fine origins in West Saxon, the variant of old English in which much literature was written, including apparently Beowulf. Fascinating to a language nerd like me are the references back to the Germanic languages so that the dialect’s “I be, thee bist, he/she be, we be, thee ‘rt and they be” are almost closer to Modern Saxon than to Standard English. The dialect’s use of gendered “he” or “she” when referring to inanimate objects also has a Germanic touch (“Put ‘ee over there”) as does the frequent use of the prefix “a” to denote the past participle (“If I’d know’d, I ooden never a-went”). It’s not the same usage as German but I think it has a Germanic feel to it.

I remember encountering some of these features when I moved to Somerset from Sussex in 1958, also the ghostly remnants of the second person singular, the use of a “th” sound when addressing another person (It was only later, of course, when I’d lost my linguistic virginity that I integrated these shreds of experience into a broader picture).

I’m now looking forward with some excitement to spending a few days in the Cotswolds, where there is much to see and do but I will write about that in another post.

At the Roman city of Bath

I often feel slightly melancholic when I leave Sweden for England. I’ve never fully understood this feeling but it must have to do with switching cultures, dropping the Swedish for a while and reconnecting the English David Kendall.

Assimilating a new culture as an adult is a complicated process. I’m fascinated by the range of responses from others in this situation from those who more or less switch cultures without angst to those who struggle.  For me it’s been important to develop my Englishness, not to become a historic “hobby” Englishman in suspended animation since 1973. But also to learn how to obtain nutrition from the literary and cultural environment in Sweden. Over time, I’ve found an Anglo-Scandinavian niche, made easier by the historic and linguistic links. It’s been important for me to accept that there is no way back, that the English life that I could have had never was and never will be, that I am irretrievably bicultural (or 1.5 perhaps…), which, in fact, is deeply satisfying in its own way.

This time my melancholic mood has been overlaid by euphoria at the release from the long tunnel of social isolation, that there is a life after covid.

I am now at an Air bnb outside Bath in west England. A visually appealing city with buildings almost consistently of warm oolite limestone, which has been referred to as the most Italian of the English cities. I am just east of the city half way up the slope of a long valley through which the railway, the canal and the River Avon all pass.

Bath was on the outskirts of the area where I lived as a teenager so I have many scattered associations from way back. The fine riverside environment and the harmonious buildings made an impression on me then even though my thoughts were mainly occupied by second-hand Duane Eddy records, and the acquisition of various items of not-so-tasteful clothing as aids for whatever libidinal extravaganzas I had in mind.

I am looking forward to walking along the canal into the city and tidying up my impressions. But first I have to complete my (at least) five day quarantine period. I am dreading the self-tests that I have to do. If anybody can sabotage these and get a string of inconclusive results, then I’m probably that person. I have Olympic level dyspraxia.

I hope they let me out soon anyway as my thin grasp of the circadian rhythm is already in tatters, having taken to my bed exhausted at 7.30 pm and woken up at 1.30 am. And now I am dowsing myself with blue light, which is all wrong but writing calms me down. As soon as I can get to the shop, I shall buy a candle, a nightcap with a tassel and a quill and ink so that I can write at night (and sabotage my eyesight instead of my sleep, at least achieving fair parity of maltreatment of my various organs….).

I say not pshaw or balderdash to claims of capitalist rationality but peacocks!

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Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, we are no longer treated to stories about the planned economy where machines spotted out thousands of right foot shoes in one size as it was easier to fulfil plan targets without resetting machinery. Or lorries driven empty for hundreds of miles to fulfil targets expressed in terms of distance. Some of these stories were probably exaggerated but we were encouraged to laugh at the folly of trying to plan an economy. However, I can report that the economy has not become drab and uninteresting with the demise of the Soviet Union. Capitalism has stepped into the breach. I offer this quote from today’s Financial Times:

“A government white paper published last week painted a picture of a railway system hobbled by the byzantine structures created since privatisation……

The system now has almost 400 full-time staff called “train delay attributers” (sic) whose job it is to argue with each other about assigning blame for a delay… .The most bizarre dispute of recent years involved a debate about who was to blame for a train hitting a peacock. If it was defined as a small bird, then the company driving the train was responsible: if it was categorised as a large bird, then the blame went to the operator of the tracks. The two sides ended up haggling over whether peacocks were bigger than geese. (The answer: a peacock is a “large bird”.)”.

I have a feeling that the jokes about the Soviet economy might have oversimplified things a bit…