St Tibb’s Day

Percy was the first cat of my acquaintance in my Sussex coast infancy, an elderly black-and-white gent. He departed for Cathalla early on in my life, to be briefly replaced by another moggie, who rapidly deserted us for a neighbour (moggie by the way is a familiar form of Margaret, which somehow became a word for cat). Then there was another black-and-white Percy, who was with us until I left home, sharing the hearth rug semi-amicably with a cocker spaniel called Simon.

There were no cats at university but I did share a flat in London with a friend’s Kobe (the name by which Stalin was known among his friends…I am unsure of why the cat was called so).

And then in Lund in 1973, we had a cat. I was rather doubtful about taking it for a walk in the City Park without a lead. In fact, it followed us and it went much better than I expected until it caught sight of a tree that had to be climbed. So there we were with a cat frozen with terror some good way up, visions of having to call the fire brigade and how big a hole that would make in our then meagre income. Luckily, a man came along, considerably braver than this vertigo-ridden clerk, and clambered up and retrieved it. The cat was around until it discovered sex whereupon it disappeared, hopefully to a friendly neighbour and not some worse fate (we were too slow to emasculate it…this verb making an odd couple with the adjective effeminate, which works in the opposite way – making more and not less feminine).

Later there were two cats that I remember very well, Rasmus and Sam. Rasmus we had for many years until he became ill, which is not a good memory. I can’t quite remember how Sam came into the family. He was elegant and grey and we had to find him a new home rather quickly as we had at least one very allergic child.

After this, there were only borrowed or temporary cats. My sharpest memory is of a friend’s expensive golden-haired pedigree cat, impracticably refined to the point where he (or she perhaps) allowed hisher self to be used as a stepping stone when the cohabiting pet rabbit wanted to get from the floor to the bed. When I went to feed this cat, I had my friend’s flat key in my hand. In the lift, there was a crack between the edge of the lift floor and the lift shaft and lo and behold, in the twinkling of an eye, the keys dropped down the crack into the lift shaft. My friend was going to be away for some time and the scenario of her coming home to a flat where I’d been poking cat food through the letter box for two weeks was not altogether pleasant. I went home and fetched a wire coat hanger, which I unbent so that it was a long piece of metal with a hook on the end. Then back to the lift shaft, regretting that I hadn’t also brought a torch with me and not believing that this would be successful. I lay down on the hall floor, knowing that the lift couldn’t start moving as long as I kept the door open but still fearful. Then I started poking around in the dark shaft with my coat hanger. And miraculously after a couple of attempts, I managed to hook the keys. I don’t know what kind of bonus system is appropriate for a guardian angel, but I thought mine performed excellently that day.

After all these experiences, I was shielded from further cats by having allergic children. I’ve never had a pet since then, rather suffering from cat fatigue (in fact more generally furry animal fatigue after four children and at least a thousand zoo visits). I don’t suffer from loneliness either so haven’t felt a need for a pet.  I’ve made do with Tibbs, an imaginary cat, who is something of a family joke.

And this morning, while reading a chapter of my bedtime and wake-up book on old customs in England, I find that there is a St Tibb’s Day. Unlike other saints days, it’s not a fixed nor even variably recurrent day. It’s an imaginary day so that, if you say, for example, that you will pay someone on St Tibb’s Day, it means that they will never get their money. How it got the name St Tibb’s Day I’m not sure (I must check this in the big Oxford dictionary). From the net, I find, however, that it does have a fixed day in Cornwall on 23 December. There it was apparently not done to drink alcohol during advent, only at Christmas. To avoid prolonging the agony of abstinence, 23 December was declared to be a special day, St Tibb’s Day and alcohol was permitted from this day. Popular etymology has St Tibb’s Day related to tipsy. I have to find out more about this although I shall resist it trying to jostle for top place on my list of mysteries of the world to penetrate.

A few preliminary thoughts about the City of London

According to Philip Augur’s “The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism”; the 1987 Big Bang in the City of London, is estimated to have created 750 millionaires after the senior partners of the old jobbing and broking firms sold out to banks and other larger firms.

By 2000, the historic merchant banks, later (would be) investment banks, were very largely no longer UK owned. Those that hadn’t collapsed had been taken over by US investment banks, and a few by European banks, Dresdner Bank, Deutsche Bank, French and Swiss banks.

The Times (Jan 19, 2000, quoted by Augur) tells us reassuringly “The demise of the UK investment banks is  a natural part of the process of international specialization that results from globalisation”´. Augur calls into question this process and the phenomenon referred to as Wimbledonisation. In other words, the financial activities of the City of London take place in the UK, are staffed by many Brits but the controlling boards of directors are elsewhere in continental Europe and the US.

This perhaps goes some way towards providing an explanation for my feelings of puzzlement about the lacklustre response to Brexit on the part of City of London. Surely, it was against the interests of important sections of the UK finance sector who greatly benefited from the UK’s role as intermediary between the US (and the rest of the world) and the EC?

Roch Dunin-Wasowicz (What explains the City of London’s ineffectiveness at shaping the Brexit regulations) finds a partial explanation in the lack of professional lobbying in the UK compared with the US, influence having been traditionally exercised by cosy meetings between representatives of the Bank of England, the Treasury and city banking institutions. The Big Bang radically changed this picture, traditional relationships (and some institutions) were broken up, products became more complicated and  influence more difficult to focus and exert.

The focus on the effects of the Big Bang seems key to me for understanding where and what the City is now.  It opened up the Stock Exchange to outside and foreign organisations. The US investment banks welcomed the new opportunities and moved in on a large scale. But having gained this position, would they be so bothered if the City of London’s position post-Brexit declined in favour of Wall St?

Traditionally, US financial organisations  were attracted to the City of London by its light touch regulation, often self-regulation compared with the tougher regulatory environment in the US . I’m not sure how important that still is but the question of regulation seems important for understanding opposition from sections of the UK finance sector to the EU’s drive to harmonise its financial markets, so that the rules applicable in London might be closer to those of Paris or Zurich or other European financial centres (and  the City would then perhaps lose in international attractiveness for those in search of light-touch regulation).

I’m curious about what we mean when use the term UK finance capital given the weight of foreign ownership of financial institutions in the City of London. Lazily I’ve thought that the smart money in the UK is no longer being invested in large-scale manufacturing industry which is now very often foreign owned but is invested in the finance sector. But where does this leave us when major institutions in many of the City’s sectors of activity are foreign-owned? Does UK finance capital boil down to wealthy individuals with holdings in hedge funds?

This leads on to the relationship of government to the finance sector in the UK.

I used to think that there was far more effort devoted to the interests of the finance sector than to manufacturing capital. To me the post-war history of the government’s relationship to industry seems hard to comprehend, weakly focused, even chaotic, leading up to the final slaughter during the Thatcher period with the company names familiar when I was young now long gone.

However, the more I read about the development of the relationship between the finance sector and the UK government the more it seems to me to resemble what happened to UK manufacturing. The then Conservative government’s focus on the Big Bang seems narrow – a dogmatic belief in the power of the market to enhance efficiency with the government only setting the external framework but not interfering closely  in the process. And they were right in their way, the most efficient survived and the weakest went to the wall. Did it matter that the weakest just happened to be UK-owned financial institutions?

Augur criticises the government for not preparing the institutions better for the Big Bang, for not introducing outside ownership more gradually. The way it was set up, it would inexorably eventually lead to the demise of the UK owned institutions.

As someone who lives at some considerable distance from the levers of power and the accompanying perks and privileges, it wouldn’t bother me too much if the leading banks in the city were US rather than UK owned but one might think that the above behaviour was rather odd for a UK government purportedly working on behalf of UK interests. It’s more like what happened in manufacturing industry than it might appear at first sight.

Thatcher’s politics are not mine but I’ve always thought her overrated by those who praise her (attempting to look at the world through their eyes). They liked her rolling back the post-war nationalisations and reducing the power of the trade unions and cutting back the welfare state but this demolition was achieved at an enormous social expense and cost to the victims without an attempt at a coherent strategy for a capitalist future in the UK. Similarly in the finance sector, individuals became wealthy but there was again no coherent strategy for UK finance capital beyond the narrow belief in the healing power of the market.

I’m only at the beginning of my reading about the City and the UK financial sector; I need to read critiques of Augur’s work and more up-to-date analyses. However, some lines of investigation attract my interest, for instance what does UK finance capital consist of? Does the decline of the power of the UK as a country reflect a reduction in the wealth of the leading layers, a destruction of capital, or has the capital simply moved elsewhere  (and if so where). And the relationship of the finance sector and the UK government. Is the unstable nature of the Conservative Party conjunctural or does it reflect growing difficulty on the part of the establishment to articulate a coherent strategy in a situation where the owners of capital become further and further removed from directly useful economic activity and the daily concerns and needs of the majority of the population.  


Gothenburg’s archipelago is smaller than Stockholm’s where the boat passes the spacious summer homes of the nineteenth century rich on its first hour of travel, still a long way from the scattered islets and sea views of the outer archipelago.

Marstrand offers both. Its official population is about 1,300 (with strong seasonal variations in actual footfall). It’s built on two sides of a narrow waterway separating two islands, linked by a cable ferry. The historic parts of the small town are on the far island, refreshingly free of cars and dominated by its old fortress, Carlsten.

In the nineteenth century, it was a popular spa town with all the accompanying medical and social rigmarole of taking salt water baths and after bath genteel hobnobbing. Apart from some fine houses, I didn’t see many traces of this period but learnt about it from a fine little book written by Ingmar Stenroth called just “Marstrand”. (2015). Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Frederika Bremer and Topelius all wrote about their visits here and Albert Engström, Carl Larsson and Zorn painted. King Oscar II (1872-1907) was fond of the place too, which drew those attracted by closeness to the monarch (Strindberg perhaps in spite of rather than because of).

I didn’t find much about the decline of the spa era but it seems to have passed by the time of the First World War.

It’s been a very fine weekend but the closed museum reminds us that we are out of season and covid’s viral shadow is with us here. However, Carlsten Fort is open for visits. It’s large and stems from the period when Sweden’s breakthrough to the West Coast and conquest of Bohuslän from Denmark-Norway was still tenuous. It was captured a couple of times before the Danes lost hope of restoration. For a substantial portion of its life it was used as an unpleasant prison for long-term hard labouring prisoners. The prison period and the spa period seem to have overlapped and some of the prisoners such as the crossdresser Lasse-Maja acquired star status before being eventually pardoned. Confused pictures in my mind of prisoners equipped with chains and rifle-carrying guards stopping to tell garrulous tales to fine folk on their way to or from a brine bath or massage battering. More reading about Marstrand will hopefully tidy this up…

Further back in the late eighteenth century, Marstrand had free port status (porto franco) for a period of about twenty years (1775-94 ca). Here there was religious freedom in the otherwise strictly Lutheran Sweden and an early synagogue was built. It was also a refuge for criminals, provided apparently that they reported their misdeeds to the free town’s authorities (I’m not sure how this worked alongside the fort but it was presumably not a prison then). The town attracted the economically serious and the less serious and folk whose joie de vivre chafed those struggling under the burden of morality. It was hard to guard the border with “normal” Sweden and the citizens of the free town successfully petitioned to have its special status abolished.

Any description of the town would be incomplete without mentioning the herring, which at intervals throughout history have visited the town in great numbers, bringing wealth in the form of abundant fish food and oil extracted from fish cadaver presumably not at the same time as the worthies were fawning around the monarch.

We walked far around the islands, enjoying the calm comfort of our air bnb and the intense vibration-free quietness where even the motor saws had taken a rest from their otherwise usual assault on the Guinness Book of Records log splitting record.

Memorable days and fine to think about and keep our spirits up as we trudge on in these pestilent times.

Words of the week, Romani

Recently I’ve encountered “vardo”, a Romani word for a traditional decorated caravan. The word is stated as having been imported from “woerdon” in Ossetian, an East Iranian language.

I’ve been interested in Romani since I discovered how close quite a few of the words for numbers in Bengali are to their equivalents in Romani. Not so much was known about the passage of the Roma from east to west until the nineteenth century when scholars drew attention to the cultural, physical and linguistic affinities between the Roma in the West and groups of the Indian population. Before that, there was an incorrect assumption that they had originated in Egypt (hence “gypsy”).

It is still the case that much of that distant migration is poorly known and the Romani language has not attracted the same attention as Hebrew or Greek, despite its importance in the transmission of language from east to west.

I found a useful article by Dr Harish K. Thakur, associate professor at the Government College Sunni in Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, “Theories of Roma Origins and the Bengal Linkage”, where he sees groups moving (or being moved as slaves) from east to west not just in  a single movement from N.W. India but in movements over a period from various places in northern India, including Bengal.

It would be interesting to look at the origin (etymology) of the large number of words in Romani that were incorporated from many languages as they made their west with long stops on the way to see if these words could be grouped in any way, which would perhaps provide more information about their journey. You’d need to know more about the various dialects and variants of Romany and the structure of the language to do this but it seems a fascinating under-researched area.

And now for something completely different,…I used the word “throes” earlier today, probably the first time for ages that I’ve given that word an airing (or mouthing, perhaps). There is apparently a rare singular word “throe”, meaning pain or pang. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, hoth words have their origins in the Old English “thrawu” which relates to Old High German “drawa” meaning threat. According to the Collins English Dictionary, there is also Old Norse “thrä” meaning “desire”, and “thrauka” meaning endure. The Concise Oxford is less certain and tells us that “in the throes of” is perhaps related to OE “threa”, “thrawu” (defined as calamity), influenced by “throwian” suffer.

The larger “Shorter English Dictionary” tells us also that throes was used by Walter Scott (“The throes of a mortal and painful disorder”) and by C. Sangster (“Tumultuous throes, Of some vast grief”) and J.P. Stern Wright (“Winter’s last throes before spring sets in”).

I’ve also checked “mountebank”, a word I’ve seen before but never bothered to check. It is defined as a person who sells quack medicine in public places or more generally as a quack or charlatan. The origin is given as the Italian word “montambianco”, climber on a bench, which I found rather fine.

And in these pandemonic times, “fomites” and “fomitic” might be useful, being objects or materials likely to carry infection and deriving from Latin “fomentum” poultice or lotion according to the Concise Oxford, although “fomes”, tinder in Latin, is mentioned in Collins.

I’ve just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, which I took to Gdansk and back unread (even more optimistically I took Die Blechtrummel with me). I thought I’d read it years ago but now believe that pre-modern DK probably gave up after a few pages as otherwise I would have remembered some of the more striking episodes, I enjoyed it and was impressed.

I moved on to the late Torgny Lindgren’s Minnen as my next bedtime book. I’ve never read anything by him before and somehow never registered who he was (author and member of the Swedish Academy) during my 47 years in Sweden. So perhaps, thanks to Covid which has created plenty of time for reading, I am filling this lacuna. I’ve also learnt a new Swedish word from him “lägra”, meaning to have illicit sexual intercourse with someone, Esselte’s Swedish dictionary adding coyly in italics as an example of the depth of depravity “klockaren lägrade prästens piga” (the bellringer had sexual intercourse with the priest’s maid”).

And, in my more serious moments, I have continued reading the Economist’s The City, A Guide to London’s Global Financial Centre. I’ve had it for a long time and almost thought it was too old to be of use. But then I realised it contained a great number of interesting statistics, some of which derived from regular measurements, thus providing an interesting well structured basis for comparison if I can find the up-to-date statistic, which might not be too difficult. I’ll save this for another posting.