St George’s day

23rd April, the feast of St George and England’s national day (since 1415, according to the Telegraph). There wasn’t much fuss about it when I lived in England in the days of yore. It was one of the few occasions when you saw the now widespread English flag, St George’s Cross, on church towers but it didn’t make much of a ripple otherwise in the national consciousness (even less than Sweden’s “artificial respiration” national day, 6 June).

Checking the etymology of the word “feast”, it apparently originates from the Latin “festus” (joyful); in the middle ages, an occasion when at least some of the population got plenty to eat. From this time “feast” has become heavily loaded with gastronomic associations. However, the original meaning is still there in the language (and present in “festivity, “festival”, and “festive occasion). “Feast day” could come in handy for a translator.

Always a friend of alternative dialogues, I shall wear a black armband today to symbolise my solidarity with the dragon, who has had a tough time in the media (superman St George and the rescued passive virginal type being only of interest to the driven hunter of patriarchal structures….).

Blake, Joseph Roth and my last English girlfriend

To my 25-year old eyes, Finchley Road was rather swish. I got to know the area through my last English girlfriend, who worked at the library at the nearby Tavistock Clinic. We used to meet there during what I suspect was neither lunch nor an hour, having no memories of restaurants but only of street scenes, the little short cut through the metal gate going up to the library, which is still there. And of standing close to the entrance to Swiss Cottage tube and of her giving me an inscribed copy of a collection of Blake’s poems, which I still have, its bright red now faded to a pale pink, pricking my conscience at not having read it, although always meaning to. I was grateful but puzzled as to why she gave me this gift although looking at the inscription the other day, the “December 1969” ought to have put me on track. I’m not sure that I like David Kendall version 1969 very much but I’m stuck with him.

Since then, I’ve passed through the area a few times and have memories of going to the cinema with a friend at Swiss Cottage.

But now a stay at an air bnb flat close by has changed all that.  The beginning wasn’t promising. I was dead tired after travelling to Paris the day before from Rouen, an early start in Paris, a flight to Bristol, wandering around Bristol Airport with a heavy case to find the administration block to retrieve my lost coat, and then to the city centre, by train to Paddington and taxi to Finchley Road.

I remember I had a letter to post and needed to get tape, I can’t quite remember why. It was getting close to closing time and the sub-Post Office staff were twitchy as I fumbled with my tape. And to Waitrose for provisions and back down Finchley Road, dragging myself forward in the cold, longing to lay down and sleep.

It seemed scruffier than I remembered it, even allowing for tiredness and winter gloom. I realised when I thought about it that one shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the downfall of England from decrepit high streets but it perhaps tells us more about the concentration of the retail trade, the growing power of the chains, whose idea of a prime retail spot is not on a traffic-choked highway where parking is difficult. And the disappearance of many of the independent retailers leaves the traditional high street a patchwork of small shops, charity shops, estate agents etc. I’m not sure though that my thirst for knowledge extends to spending time hanging around in shopping malls to get a feel of the real England…..

Back in the flat, life felt much more cheerful. It was owned by a university lecturer specialising in Austria-Hungary and Central Europe, with the best collection of books on the Austro-Hungarian empire that I’ve ever seen (and a portrait of the last A-H emperor on the wall). I made the acquaintance of Joseph Roth, whom I’d never heard of before and read the Radetzky March on my return to Sweden. I bought it in German too which I shall try to tackle now I’ve finished the English translation.

The area to the east of the southern end of Finchley Road is pleasant. Once away from the traffic, it’s residential, extending to Primrose Hill in one direction and up to Hampstead in the other.

I didn’t get much time for wandering around this time but am glad to have the Austro-Hungarians and Roth around to keep Blake and my last English girlfriend company.




Think twice, it’s not alright

Sad scenes at the Swedish Academy where an institution of this dignity and value is brought to its knees by accusations of testerone-fuelled impropriety or worse, inter alia. This should, of course, be punished and condemned in the strongest terms if proven (as seems highly probable) but storming out after failing to secure a qualified majority for dismissal of a member seems the wrong reaction to me, unless one thinks that the institution is without value in other respects. Klas Östergren’s “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game” seems out of place in this should-be palace of the guardians of the Swedish language (can’t we let Swedish have a few niches to itself?).
I suppose we should be grateful that none of the other members replied “Don’t think twice, it’s all right”.

Herrick, Terence and Baudelaire (almost)

About to start work on a short piece on what happened to a couple of altar pieces in St Lars church in Linköping, I catch sight of a quote by Robert Herrick on a copy of “Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset”, which is lurking around on my desk waiting for a chance to divert me.

“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt;

Nothing’s so hard but search will find it out”.

I rather like the quote but know nothing about Robert Herrick, who Wikipaedia tells me lived from 1591 to 1674. He is also responsible for

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying,

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying”. A somewhat sombre version of “carpe diem”.

Herrick was inspired by the Roman poet Terence, the quote (from Heauton Timorumenos, iv. 2,8”, The self-tormenter) being: “Ni tam difficilest quin quaerendo investigari possiet” (Nothing is so difficult but that it may be found out by seeking”). Not so sure that this is true but it’s a noble sentiment.

This leads me on to reading about Terence, who I don’t know anything about either, but who seems interesting. I discover that Baudelaire has written a poem with the same title (Self-tormenter). With a supreme effort of will, I avoid being further led astray by Baudelaire.

I have to reach my workplace by crossing a broad river in full spate and almost always fail, being swept away wherever the torrent takes me.

It occurs to me that if I wrote down the diversions of a whole day, I would have more or less produced a variant of the travails of Ishiguro’s character Ryder in “The Unconsoled”……

And now back to St Lars’ altarpieces (after checking the password to my blog..).