“gh” not as in ugh

Amused at the relationship between sound and spelling in Irish of “leobhar” (book), I realise that this is a chauvinist reaction. We can hardly hold our heads high with  “night”, “blight, “tight”, tough” etc. And even stranger I’ve never really thought about the weirdness of “gh” until now but accepted it as just inherently quirkily English. The other day I got hold of David Crystal’s “The Singular Story of English Spelling” (2013). who has much of interest to say.

He argues that the arrival of the Normans (and Norman French scribes) after 1066 is at the root of this particular “problem”. These scribes had to deal with the Germanic origins and sound systems of Anglo-Saxon/Early English, a number of letters in the alphabet unfamiliar to the French (thorn, eth, ash and wynn) and which the Norman scribes preferred to dispose of and the Anglo-Saxon tendency to use the same letter for different sounds, which as a rule doesn’t seem to have appealed to the scribes.

Looking at my Concise Anglo-Saxon dictionary (J.R. Clark Hall (1894), I find “niht” (night), “siht” (sight), miht (might), riht (right) and more in the same vein. The Anglo-Saxons used the letter “h” for two sounds, partly the “h” we are familiar with at the beginning of words in, for example “ham” (village) and “hand” (hand) but also for what linguists refer to as the voiceless velar fricative, “x” in phonetic script. This is the sound we hear when the Scots pronounce “loch”, which came down through German and was used by the Anglo-Saxons. According to Crystal, the Norman scribes had problems in finding a letter to represent this unfamiliar sound but seemed reluctant to continue the Anglo-Saxon dual use of h. At this time, much was decentralised and there were many variants, weird and wonderful ephemerals but some long-lasting); the “gh” spelling dominated in the long run.

According to Crystal, we shouldn’t complain about this but be thankful that the “gh” spelling didn’t spread even more so that we are at least spared dogs giving vent to their feelings with “bowgh wawgh”.

Some support is provided for Crystal’s ideas in Mossé’s Handbook of Middle English (1952) where night is given as “nyght, nyɜt, nyht”, all the variants plus the letter yogh, ɜ, which was used in ME (which did not either find favour with the majority of the Norman clerks). More information about the dating of different usages would be interesting.

If you want a language that’s easy to spell, the trick is to choose invaders whose language has a similar sound system. The solutions arrived at by our Norman visitors are still with us today, frozen fast by Caxton and the rise of the printed word where “nite” is only allowed to prowl around in the bush of slang.

None of this seems much help in explaining the sound system of Irish. I think that this has to be a “fun project” included in my plan for 2022 (together with mastering the phonetic alphabet). The only trouble with my annual plans is that they are distressingly green (a very high proportion of my annual aims get recycled year after year…..). But at least I fail to meet my targets with a dash of panache and it keeps me out of bingo halls and such like dissolute haunts.

Starry eyes and starry ploughs; my precious said Gollum and our precious union said May.

Instructed to colour the area of the British Commonwealth red on a stencil map of the world, the Young Neo-Elizabethan in training hesitated when it came to Burma and Ireland. If I remember rightly southern Ireland had a cautious red line around it in the atlas. There was something odd here but the young patriot mastered his doubts and sealed the fate of millions with a few brisk red crayon marks. Not, however, without a feeling that all was not quite right. Had the young neo-Elizabethan not also been a high-performance autist in the making, he would have probably asked his teacher. I doubt whether he would have got a coherent answer.

Only recently have I realised the slowness of the divorce after the dramatic days of 1916, the war against Britain and the civil war in Ireland. The treaty between the UK and Ireland conferred not full independence but dominion status and many trappings of entanglement remained – the oath of loyalty was not removed until early 1933, legislation still had to be approved by the British monarch until the constitutional changes of the 1930s when Ireland set up the office of President. There was a Governor-General until 1936 when Ireland abolished the office, although it had been marginalised and weakened in the preceding years (finally disappearing at the time of the abdication of the last monarch of Ireland, Edward VIII, a fittingly bathetic ending). Ireland was a member of the Commonwealth (in name at least) until 1949 when the republic was recognised by all parties (by then presumably the young Neo-Elizabethan’s atlas had left the press).

After this, the Irish question rather disappeared from the Neo-Elizabethan’s agenda to be replaced by railway engines until they in turn were displaced by the stirrings of desire. We probably shouldn’t call him a Neo-Elizabethan any more as by this time (the early 60s), he had developed critical thoughts about the picture of Liz Windsor on the school canteen wall, when he had time over from other important pursuits such as surreptitiously spooning jelly and custard into the blazer pocket of a fellow diner.

Fast forward to 1967 and the former Neo-Elizabethan has become a student radical after a brief interlude of weekly sherry with the Vice-Chancellor. He goes to Ireland for the first time starting in Larne in the north and going round the whole of the island via Derry down past Sligo and Limerick to Cork and Dublin. He doesn’t know much about Ireland then so the sharp response of a republican to his careless remarks about the similarities of Ireland and England left an enduring impression.

He’s not untypical for an English youth as providing an understanding of the state of Ireland was not  high on the agenda of those entrusted to form minds then.

He pops up again in August 1969 when, equipped with piles of a radical newspaper and an umbrella, he has an exciting, if somewhat hazardous, few days in the Bogside until the British army intervenes and temporarily defuses the stand-off between the nationalist catholic population and the protestant police, held at bay by a substantial collection of petrol bombs on top of one of the tall residential buildings.

As the 75+ year old guardian of the memories of this young man, I would prefer not to delve too deeply into all of his activities but concentrate on the state of his brain. He became aware of how little he knew about Ireland, particularly northern Ireland, the discrimination in housing, education, employment, the gerrymandering to ensure protestant majorities, its political situation seeming to him more like a protestant version of Franco’s Spain than the rest of the UK. And how, after the Irish question, a upas tree with three poisonous branches in Gladstone’s unforgettable words, had been so prominent in nineteenth and early twentieth century British political life, the great silence descended in mainland UK, and the English, including the Labour Party, averted their eyes from what was going on and abandoned the northern nationalists/catholics to their fate.

Our student radical had his romantic side and he was moved by Ireland’s landscape and culture, the exoticness and otherness of the Irish language, the struggle for freedom. At that time, he hadn’t read Yeats but was still swept along by the underlying feelings of Irish nationalism, respectful of the need of the Irish to conduct their own struggle but not realising that that respect need not exclude sharp independent analysis of the social forces at work in Ireland.

He grew up, matured at snail speed and reproduced a number of times. During the odd interval in the struggle for existence, he found out more about his mother’s joking references to the family’s Irish ancestry. His great grandfather was a McKeown and for a brief giddy moment he was at one with the romance of Ireland. All rapidly crumbled when further research revealed that the McKeowns came from Ballymena in the protestant heartlands of Antrim north of Belfast and belonged to the more austere reaches of the protestant faith. After a brief love affair, the vision was crowded out by dour men with orange sashes and bowler hats.

As a curiosity, I can mention that the local doctor in the small town south of Stockholm where I lived far too long was from Ballymena. I was at his surgery with my elder son once who, on removal of his nappy, did what boy children often do in that situation. The doctor, slow on the uptake, failed to take avoiding action but then, to the puzzlement of the nurse in attendance, uttered the following golden words “What are the folks back home going to say when I tell them that an Englishman pissed on me”. There is perhaps a small glimmer of hope for Ballymena, although, of course, he was an exile.

Now back in Ireland, an older and sporadically wiser man, my appetite for things Irish has reawakened, helped by the literacy of the land, where there are real bookshops and not just purveyors of candy floss. There I found “Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution” (subtitle “Anois ar theacht an tSamraidh”) by Robbie McVeigh and Bill Rolston. Among much else of interest, I’m fascinated by the descriptions of the various political parties and social groups. Here, for example, a quote from Unionist MP Captain Charles Craig in the House of Commons in 1920 “When we set ourselves to safeguard Ulster and to prevent Home Rule from being imposed upon us, the best way to carry that pledge into effect was to save as much of Ulster as we knew that we could hold. To try to hold more than we could hold would seem an act of gross folly on our part”.

The six counties they held were Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry (Londonderry to the Protestants), Tyrone and Fermanagh. Three counties of historic Ulster – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal went to the republic, these, according to Craig containing “70,000 unionists and 260,000 Sinn Feiners”. However, this was a brittle solution, held in place by discrimination against and repression of the nationalist population and favouring of the protestant working class as a kind of labour aristocracy, even though threadbare. This solution has now crumbled with the decline of the linen and shipbuilding industry, the diminished ability of the protestant industrialists and landlords to keep the protestant working class in line with favours, perhaps reflected by the decline of the traditionally dominant Ulster Unionist party. But also the demographic development where four of the six Ulster counties now have catholic majorities and the ability of the former protestant elite to control the numbers of catholics by discrimination in education, employment, housing and social benefits has weakened.

It will be interesting to look more closely at the political organisations in Ireland and to study the Irish, including northern Irish economy in greater detail (McVeigh and Rolston don’t have so much to say about, for example, the remaining influence of British capital in Ireland).

I did get myself a republican starry plough flag when I was at Connolly Books in Dublin. It’s not huge and was made in Taiwan but it amuses me to own it. It’s blue with white stars. I’ve always had a soft spot for this flag, I must find out more about its history. The anarchist in me is tempted to substitute it for an EU flag somewhere and see how long it takes for anyone to notice but the respectable 75+ year old citizen will fold it up in his cupboard and take it out for a respectful airing from time to time. You never know, it might come in useful and I have a residual tenderness for the romantic of my youth.

A weekend in Galway

It’s over fifty years ago since I was last in western Ireland and I didn’t make it to Galway then.

My original idea was to visit the nearby Gaeltacht, one of the areas where Irish is still widely spoken. But that has to be on a longer trip allowing scope for reflective meanders in sparsely populated countryside. Galway will suffice for now at the estuary of the swift flowing River Corrib on its short journey from Lough Corrib to Galway Bay. So swift flowing and tumultuous that (from the safety of my third floor hotel room) it looked as if it might breach its banks. But there are no flood warnings and the river channel seems well protected with alternative paths to capture the water masses. So maybe the locals are used to the river’s powerful surge (although I see that there is a central street called Flood St).

It’s supposed to be one of the most Irish cities in Ireland (it would require an essay to explain the meaning of that). It does have a different atmosphere to Dublin. Here, way beyond the pale, the footprint of the conquering English is different. There are no rows of Georgian terraces or evidence of rapid growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century before the famine.

According to architect Roddy Mannion’s “Galway, a sense of place”, rhe Normans built a castle here in the early thirteenth century and they were followed by what Mannion calls the Anglo-Normans, merchant Catholic families speaking first Norman French and then English, trading with the Gaelic speaking areas around the town but also with Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Almost a city state where the grasp of metropolitan England was weak. According to Mannion, this all changed after Cromwell besieged and then occupied the city in 1652, Then the merchant families lost much of their power, including fresh waves of protestant settlers from mainland Britain. These merchant families were referred to as tribes but it is unclear whether this was this their own name or a derogatory name used by Cromwell.

Mannion presents this period as a golden age of Galway although the Irish speaking peasants in nearby villages would I suspect have a few less golden things to say about the “Old English”. Fortunately, Charlie Byrne’s bookshop is open this afternoon so that I can search for a book about the development of the local economy and try and work out how people made money (from other people…). It’s a great bookshop – according to the quote from the New York Times, “one of the City’s most unique experiences” (was the editor asleep when this slipped through?).

After Cromwell, the city doldrummed (to adapt a fine Middle English word) for long periods. While most of the buildings have been modestly replaced, the city centre has kept its winding mediaeval street structure, which was swept away in more economically dynamic seventeenth and eighteenth century towns by the revival of classical architecture.

You do see more Gaelic in evidence on shop signs here although this might partly be to titivate the tourists as well as pride in heritage. According to Roddy Mannion, Irish is almost extinct in the city itself and what remains is “tokenism and gestures such as the requirement to have new English-speaking housing estates and new roads in the city named in Irish only, which occupies the same mindset as compulsory Irish for exams and cupla focail (the short, obligatory and often rudimentary use of Irish on formal occasions) which does little to promote its suspect bilingual status”.

I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the signs in Irish and have even bought a Christmas card in Gaelic with its message “Beannachtai na Nollag O Eirinn” (with an accent or two that I’m too lazy to reproduce). It took me a while to realise that “Noel” was hiding behind the Nollag (Christmas); “beannachtai” has a “benediction” feel to it or rather Blessings so the message is “Christmas Blessings from Ireland” or “Merry Christmas” in English. There is a plentiful supply of Irish language cards with Jesus in the manger or Maria, cards that you couldn’t send in secular Sweden without being suspected of unusual religious fervour (it’s safer there to stick to robins if gnomes are not available).

Not sure whom I will send this card to – maybe I’ll email my intended card recipients and explain that while the standard Christmas card service is free that I do operate a premium Irish language card service for fellow quirkophiles, which can be accessed by buying a raffle ticket…..

The leisure hours of a wordwright

Vaccinated, I decided to risk a visit to a charity shop at Boländerna, on my to visit list for a long time. I fantasise that the quality of donated books in this most academic of cities must be quite something but I was disappointed – I am evidently not the only book black hole here – they don’t easily escape my clutches. I did find a couple of treasures hidden among the froth: Barrons 501 Hebrew verbs and Lost Beauties of the English Language by Charles Mackay.

Realistically it will be a while before I can tackle Hebrew – I need to get to grips with Bengali, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, Welsh and Provencal first so there is a queue  and for health reasons only a limited quantity of languages are allowed to enter my brain at one time (Mephistopheles are you paying attention……?).  But I am not going to feel properly educated until I at least have an idea of how Hebrew works and in the meantime, it’s cheerful to catch a glimpse of my book of Hebrew verbs alongside my Yiddish dictionary (as competitors at least in Israel, they probably regard it as philistine that I’ve bundled them together like this).

I was quite excited about the Charles Mackay book which is a long list of fine archaic words. It’s a strange volume though, obviously a reproduction of a book from long ago but it contained no details of either author or the book’s history apart from the publishers name Bibliophile Books and that Mackay had an LL.D.

My interest quickened when I saw that Amazon knew about the book and wanted 53 US dollars for it, considerably more than the 25 kronor I parted with for my copy. Looking up Charles Mackay on the net revealed his dates as 1814 to 1889 and the original date of publication of my book as 1874. However, his list of works published included his authorship of the three volume Memoirs of Extremely Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds  as well as a number of works on disparate topics.

His collection of archaic words in “Lost Beauties” was fine but the etymological details are often sparse.

I thought he was possibly an intellectual shipwreck (this is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black,,,,). I decided to give him the benefit of doubt and make a list of some of his words that obviously had Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian origins and then check to see whether I could find these words in my big Webster. And lo and behold most of them were there appropriately clad in etymological detail.

I have been fascinated by words of Scandinavian origin which are English dialect words and have perhaps always been local or else dropped out of the national tongue at some point. I have fantasies about trying to make a long list of dialectical equivalents of Swedish words (for example, “garth” in Northern English (gård) and “grice” in Shetland dialect (gris) and see whether I could construct communications understandable on both sides of the North Sea.. I have dictionaries of the Orkney, Shetland and Yorkshire dialects which should be useful for this project but I think it has to wait until I isolate for a year or so in the next pandemic

I now also have Charles Mackay’s assistance in this project. Here are a few examples of my additions (perhaps not so enlightening for those that don’t understand Swedish):

brant (steep)

fleck (spot, Mackay)

mirk (dark)

moldwarp (mole)

neve (fist)

queme, quem (pleasant)

skelly (squinting)

skink (pour out) (waiter, Mackay)

spae-wife (female fortune teller)

speer (follow a track)

sweer (hard, difficult) (Mackay) reluctant (Webster)

swike (deceive, Mackay)

thig (beg)

thigster  (beggar, Mackay)

tholeable (endurable)

thorp (village)

thrall (slave)

toom (emptied)

toten (peep, Mackay)

wad (wager or bet)

wale (choice)

wanhap (mischance)

There were other words in Mackay which I liked but where I didn’t see an obvious Scandinavian connection:

noonscape (escape from work at noon)

snool (to dispirit by constant chiding)

spoffle (to make oneself very busy over a matter of little consequence)

tanglesome (quarrelsome)

thoughty (pensive)

ugsome (ugly)


wanhope (the waning and disappearance of hope)

These words I shall give an airing to from time to time and try to rescue them from Wordhalla.

I probably won’t go as far as painting them on the side of commuter trains but I’ll do whatever I can that is compatible with my dignity as a double blipping 70 + silver top.

The City of London. The History by David Kynaston

I’ve just finished David Kynaston’s fluently written “City of London. The History”.  It was an exciting read for me dealing with a period I know well but from the perspective of the City of London, It’s based on broad reading; at times I thought the big picture got buried under individuals and details of events. For natural reasons (the focus on the City); the industrial sector tended to be mentioned en passant. To really understand the history and development of British capitalism, I would need to read a book that integrated the industrial and the financial sectors at a higher level of analysis. But there was still a great deal to think about on the topics that interest me.

One such topic is how the financial sector represented by the Stock Exchange articulated and promoted its interests in relation to the UK state (among other things, how coherent these interests were). The pattern that emerges from Kynaston’s book is that the City of London was more effective/cohesive when dealing with relatively short-term threats such as imposition of taxes considered unfavourable and externally imposed tighter regulation but very much weaker at developing long-term strategy for the City/financial sector as a whole. And while there was widespread support for a strategic goal such as the eventual return to the gold standard some time after the First World War, this was based on incorrect assumptions about the ability of the UK economy to cope and unrealistic hopes about how this would restore the pre-First World War predominance of sterling (and thereby the City). The City did revive spectacularly some time after the Second World War but on a different basis to its previous standing. Important for the revival was the Eurodollar market based, among other things, on avoiding the tighter regulation of Wall St and the desire to keep dollars outside the US. A shaky long-term basis as easing of regulations on Wall St could weaken the City of London’s advantages.

In its internal organisation, the City was conservative until the Big Bang under Margaret Thatcher’s government enabled stockbroking and jobbing to take place in the same organisation and restrictions on the international movement of capital were largely removed. Again, while the Big Bang worked more or less as planned at the level of organisational detail, the UK finance sector did not have a strategic vision of its weaknesses or attempt to assess the realism of possible remedies. US capital moved in in earnest and took over almost all of the old merchant banks that still existed (less, for example, Barings!) with a few owned by major European banks. The small UK firms active on the Stock Exchange were no match for the deep pools of capital available to the US banks and finance companies (Here I’m straying beyond Kynaston’s book but his book did confirm much of the picture I have from other reading)..

Unlike the situation in Germany, the British joint stock (high street) banks have been much less involved in financing industry; they had the size (capital) but not the expertise and their attempt to move into the Stock Market was largely unsuccessful. The City of London still exists but, while a number of former UK owners of merchant banks became very rich and many Brits work there, a substantial proportion of the key decisions are made in board rooms in the US.

Kynaston’s book made me reflect on the history of capitalism in the UK. Even though the landowners were supplanted in the nineteenth century by the rising industrial bourgeoisie, aristocratic values lived on in the pre-Second World War Stock Exchange with its relaxed working hours, club-like atmosphere and substantial restriction to the upper echelons of society with its sense of intrinsic worth unrelated to its actual track record. It worked as long as the Stock Exchange was able to operate in a protected environment but crumbled once those conditions no longer applied.

There was much else of interest – the concealment of statistics prior to 1964 so that the situation of the UK economy was much direr than the incoming Wilson Labour government had been led to believe (and reflections about the lack of realism of the social-democratic project even in its highly diluted form). And not just of interest but also of horror at some of the descriptions of casual and not so casual anti-semitism mixed with aristocratic snobbery that flourished in the Stock Exchange environment.

Kynaston’s book is worthy of a second read, a plod read rather than a Wagnerian gallop. I shall try to take notes, which I’m not good at despite having lurked around books for an awful long time. But I shall struggle – the proverb that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” is ageist (chronochauvinist).

Jerome’s biography and missed opportunities to make heresy work for me

It was a pleasant surprise that Uppsala university library, Carolina Rediviva got hold of “Jerome His Life, Writings and Controversies” by J.N.D. Kelly, London (1975) so quickly so that I could read it while my mind was on the patron saint of translators

I have a much better grasp of Jerome’s life now. The location of his birthplace (Stridon on the border of the then Dalmatia and Pannonia) has not been determined exactly but was then in the Roman sphere of influence in perhaps what is now Bosnia. His education took place in Rome and he was later in Antioch and Constantinople and finally in Bethlehem for many years.

I knew before that he had a reputation for being cantankerous but had a very vague notion of what he was cantankerous about. He certainly grasped the nettle when he undertook to produce a translation of the Old Testament, going back to the Hebrew source to produce a new or at least extensively revised Latin translation, the Vulgate as he thought that there were many problems and distortions with the existing Latin translation from the Greek.

His project met resistance as many wished to defend the long-used traditional text originating from the Septuagint produced by 72 translators who were supposed to have produced identical versions (to the best of my knowledge and belief, this experiment has not been successfully replicated).

This was a very tumultuous period for the Christian church after Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. From having been an oppressed clandestine group with many local variations, it was now able to set up institutions and to define what was regarded as orthodox and what was heretical.

Jerome was deeply involved in this process and many of his writings address different positions in the Christian church. His approach was often vituperative, frenetically ad hominem, even against people whom he had long been friends with such as Rufinus; he made many enemies. He was a very profilic writer and Kelly has great admiration for him but points out that Jerome often made mistakes under pressure of time and that considerable portions of his commentaries were recycled from other thinkers (for example, Origen) without the source being stated.

Christianity strikes me as resting on fragile foundations with the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus creating particular problems, giving rise to endless disputes when trying to produce a coherent and credible narrative.  But the period after Constantine was even stranger with feuds developing on, for example, whether the Devil could be rehabilitated and whether the soul had always existed independently of the body. Not to mention the development of ideas among the Gnostics, who, as I understand it, rejected the material world as being the product not of a creator God but of an inferior demiurge.

I have understood that Jerome was cantankerous but that that did not just concern translation but broader issues of Christianity. It is fascinating that so much of his writing has been preserved so that we can read 1,700 years later about his attitude to translation, literal translation v paraphrase and the additional problems posed by the source text being regarded as revelation (my customers don’t generally go quite this far).

I understand now why Jerome was so popular in the period 1400-1500. He was not only a superb Latin stylist (according to Kelly, my credentials as a judge of Latin style are flaky) but he also had a grasp of the Latin classics, Virgil, Cicero, etc. This struck a chord with renaissance thinkers eager to relate to the classical world but still operating in a Christian environment where the influence of the church was great.

These Renaissance thinkers created their own Jerome myth – the historically incorrect cardinal’s clothing but also the very many paintings of Jerome as a hermit in the desert. In fact, his period of isolation in the Syrian desert was fairly short and truncated by ill health. And later, although he lived in relative poverty in Palestine, he was hardly cut off from the rest of humanity, being accompanied by the wealthy Roman convert Paula and others. The pictures of Jerome in his study are those that most accurately reflect his life, as his works of translation and commentary on the Bible were perhaps the most typical activities of his life (I also much prefer these pictures to the others).

The book was also interesting for the connections between Greek philosophy, Neo-platonism and Christianity. It increases my desire to re-read some basic text about the history of philosophy.

On a personal level, I wish that I had had some of this knowledge when my parents drove me away unwillingly to confirmation classes with the local priest (I realised that I couldn’t incorporate Christianity into my view of life at a relatively early age). What a nuisance I could have made of myself with discussions about the nature of the Trinity, the filioque controversy and all the rest of it. I could have surfed out of confirmation classes on a wave of heresy. Instead, I sat through these sessions in mute resistance and eventually let myself be trundled away to the local church for the bishop to lay his hands upon my head. In response to the bishop’s words that we would remember the day for the rest of our lives, I made great efforts to forget the day, so great that I still remember which month it was.

To do my parents justice, they at least admitted later that they thought it had been a mistake.

Jerome and getting a grasp on the passage of time

It takes me a while to settle down after travelling. And I have been reading four books at the same time which adds to my distraction – Norstedt’s Swedish history 600-1350, David Kynaston’s City of London, David Kitchen’s “The political economy of Germany 1895-1914” and Kelly’s Jerome.

In the last few days, I’ve got a grip on myself and have finished the volume on Swedish history.

I read about Swedish history early on in my stay in Sweden but this was a long time ago now and I want to refresh my knowledge now that my grasp of the Swedish language and other things Swedish is so much better. Reading the first volume of the history series was a very satisfactory experience allowing me to view what I’d learnt about Uppsala, not least the mounds and the stories about St Erik, in a broader context.

My reading plans are always over-ambitious. It feels as if one ought to be able to relax a bit and enjoy life when coming up to 76. And while I do enjoy life, I also live with a nagging feeling of discontent because I don’t always or even often fulfil my plan. I am going to try to use time more efficiently by organising it better – a couple of days a week dedicated to serious projects (those focusing on the state of the world), a couple of days on more escapist pursuits (permissible when one is over 70, a silver bonus…), and a couple of days for commercial activity and household work and other banalities.

Not as a rigid iron law but as a general guide for the direction of travel to make better use of time by concentrating activities.

At the moment, in the run up for Hieronymus day (aka Jerome, the patron saint of translators), I’m spending time sorting my Hieronymus pictures (I have collected about 90 reproductions of art work). I was originally thinking of putting them up in a corner of my flat.  However, as I have pictures of Dorset churches from my Dorset church architecture project, introducing Jerome would give visitors the impression that they were entering the home of a devout Christian, which would sit very uneasily with my self-image. I’m also not at all keen on the numerous pictures of Jerome (Hieronymus) as a penitent or hermit in the desert. I find hermits unappealing and pathological – the self-torture and austere existence. I could live with the pictures of Jerome in his study in his (inaccurate) Cardinal’s kit beavering away with translation but not the pics where he is half-naked or equipped with a grubby off-white cloak with stone at the ready to beat his sinful breast.

And the more you read about a subject the more complicated it gets. I read that Jerome’s library was destroyed by the Goths. If I’ve understood the text correctly that was at Stridon, Jerome’s birthplace (the location is disputed but it was in Italy at the time, on the border of the then Dalmatia, possibly in present-day Bosnia). But Jerome is supposed to have broken with his parents and spent most of his time elsewhere in Antioch, Constantinople and above all Rome. And he is also supposed to have had his library with him in his cave in the Syrian wilderness. Did he move his library around all the time like an early version of David Kendall? Or did he leave his classics behind in Stridon and have the new collection of Christian literature with him. Perhaps further reading will throw more light on this.

He wrote so much that we know quite a lot about him, even his thoughts about the clumsiness of direct translation and the need for paraphrases (complicated when the original text is supposed to be the word of God; my Swedish customers don’t go this far). But the patches that are dark are very dark as we are after all reading about events more about 1,700 years ago.

And as well as reading about him, it’s fascinating to study the development of paintings of him, his traditional attributes and the historical distortions (his supposed status as cardinal and pics of him, hob-nobbing with the Virgin Mary, for example).

Not to mention how the simple statement that he greatly improved the quality of the bible translation by going back to Hebrew rather than translating the OT from Greek becomes complicated when you start to look at what has been accepted as being part of the bible at different times and how he treated these various parts.  

The project easily becomes huge and I want to continue it but I need to set a ceiling on the amount of time I devote to it (as I do for my Dorset church architecture project).

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.