Corona Diary, Day 19

Friday, 3 April 2020

My curiosity gets the better of me and I climb to the top of the nearby esker, Tunåsen, that I discovered a few days ago. It’s not that strenuous a climb but it does have a view (most of Uppsala is very flat). There’s a water purification system I don’t stop to understand and a strange signal on a pillar called “miren” or “merestone” in English, imported from the French “mirer” (to reflect or mirror, I believe), which seems to be the equivalent of a trig point for measurements. And also some remnants of second world war dugouts, once covered by gravel now worn away. I don’t investigate the cavern as turning up at the local A&E after a close encounter with some sluggish snake would be a bad idea just now. I will go back to search for sticky catchfly, birdsfoot trefoil, the carline thistle, and the pasque flower (which sounds as if it ought to bloom any moment), which are reputed to flourish on this upland. I make my way home by a circuitous route past Old Uppsala, even more contented with my flat now I know more about the pleasures in easy reach. Back at the flat, I start my planned work on Dorset and structure my haphazard file.

Tomorrow I shall look at my Dorset Pevsner and see what I have left to do as far as Anglo-Saxon and Norman features are concerned. Dorset is not a great county for the older styles but there are bits and pieces here and there. I greatly enjoy looking at buildings with Pevsner, both his acerbic style and his attention to details, which I would miss. His original volumes (now reprinted and revised) were a great contribution to spreading knowledge about British architecture. The thought amuses me of Pevsner, a German refugee academic touring Britain in an old car in the early post-war period visiting villages and houses at a time when many Britons would have been not just anti-Nazi but anti-German. It amazes me that he was able to pursue his project so successfully. I’m struck by how I can walk down a very familiar street, for example the high street at Crouch End in London and have my attention drawn to any number of features that I would otherwise have missed. I’m grateful for the help in overcoming false familiarity, a human trait where we rapidly reduce the level of interest in our surroundings as soon as we have established that they are not a threat. Probably a very important trait for our survival over the ages but not helpful if we want to learn more about what we are seeing or can see. I know from my work as a translator that perception is not simple – we see what we expect to see and you have to pay close attention to what is actually on the page. This switching off of attention affects us in other areas too. I notice it, for example, when I need to give a present to someone who is close but not a member of my immediate family. While they might be familiar from many years of acquaintance, the difficulty of choosing the right present makes me very aware that in fact I hardly know the person at all, I have simply switched off my curiosity as soon as they have become familiar. When looking at architecture (or really looking at most things), you need to focus to see the details, to get beyond a reality that to start with seems everyday and humdrum. To me, it seems as if this is where the surrealists go wrong or at least are incomplete in their attempt to jolt the viewer by showing the incongruous. You don’t really need the incongruous – if you study “everyday appearance” sufficiently closely and have a guide to its associations and meanings, “reality” is often weird enough without needing a fish on the head. I try to apply this in different areas of life, not just looking at buildings; when I read, not passing by a word that I don’t understand or brushing off an association to deal with at some unspecified and quickly forgotten later point. Every strange word or unknown person or concept is a fast track to the edge of what I know with a potential for development.

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