This and that

Sunday, 22 November

I’ve regarded Anthony Trollope as a lightweight Victorian author, the favourite literary tipple of various establishment figures of dubious repute. But I’m about to start the fourth of his six-volume Barchester chronicles and have changed my mind about him. He is a perceptive observer of social relationships, especially the aristocracy with its belief in breeding and blood and their attitudes to the nouveau riche, regarded as not quite gentlefolk but whose competence and money make an impression.

His focus, as might be expected from his background, is sharpest on the lower echelons of the landowning class, the nouveau riche and the rising professionals, stigmatised by their need to earn a living. Dukes appear in his prose but are not centre stage nor  is there much focus on the “common folk”. They flit in and out, carrying things for their employers, at times serving much the same function in the narrative as Shakespeare’s comic relief scenes. It would be interesting to note systematically how these characters are handled and compare it say with Thomas Hardy’s treatment of the “lower orders” and perhaps other Victorian authors. The word “trope” is clamouring for my attention here but I haven’t integrated it in my active vocabulary yet.

I have Richard Mullen’s biography of Trollope on my bookshelf, picked up I believe in some charity bookshop and inscribed to Mama on her 86th birthday.  It would be great if incoming books were accompanied by a provenance, to tell us about their history, the hands through which they have passed and the effect that they have had. It would be fun to concentrate the books with suspected interesting histories on one shelf of my library!

My reading of Trollope has resonated with me as I’ve recently read Philip Augar’s The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism. He describes the effects of the Big Bang on the City of London and how the traditional British merchant banks have disappeared, either taken over by US or European institutions and no longer identifiable as corporate entities, or collapsed like Barings. The opening of the City of London to foreign competition and changing the rules so that brokers could also become principals and not just agents, meant that size became much more important. The US banks with their deep resources of capital made their presence felt, outcompeting the British institutions in their ability to bear losses and risk and pay inflated salaries to attract the best folk. But Augur also points to the effect of social/class relationships in the UK as the title of his book “The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism” might indicate. The Big Bang opened up the City of London so that it was no longer the preserve of the public school educated upper middle classes. He refers to the far superior training and work ethic of the incoming American institutions.

The brokers and jobbers of  the pre-Big Bang City of London worked as agents for the principals who owned the assets. While well funded for their then purpose, they did not have control of such deep pools of capital as their US competitors. And as they were not owners,  they were not either so well schooled in the assessment of risk, especially not with regard to sometimes complicated new risk management products. The big commercial banks, NatWest and Barclays etc. could have gone some way towards filling that gap. There was potential for at least one or a few UK-owned investment banks. Some big European banks managed that – including the Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank and Swiss UBS. They became established and could compete despite coming from outside without initial access to traditional knowledge and networks. The British-owned banks didn´t. Most of them scaled down their involvement with various degrees of burnt fingers.

Augur points to the importance of cultural factors in the inability of traditional City institutions to make an alliance with the commercial banks; the reluctance of the commercial banks to interfere with the independence of the brokers and jobbers they had recruited, tending to shy away when confronted by the confident upper middle class/public school ethos of the broking firms they had taken over, a confidence that was often misplaced as these broking firms had fatal gaps in their competence.

The firms owned by commercial banks which had taken over broking and jobbing firms and their staff are described as uneasy places, the different components from different traditions quite simply did not get on and it played a role in their demise.

I had this in mind when reading Trollope; the long-term effect of there not being a clear bourgeois revolution in Britain as there had been in France after 1789. How the landowning aristocracy endured, unwillingly obliged to open its ranks to those distinguished by achievement and money rather than blood and breeding. But none the less still having a huge effect on the cultural values and competence of the UK establishment, which continues to this day, the aristocracy as the Achilles heel of the British bourgeoisie, its negative effects masked for long by the power of the British Empire but much less so now.

Back from these sublime heights to me, I have been pleased that I could read two of the three Trollope novels on my Kindle. I find it works very well for reading novels, which is useful as beds are poorly designed as far as having a good surface to make notes and storage of works of reference (I’m working on this problem…..).

There were some new words in Trollope.  The usual collection of words for horse-drawn conveyances. I have got as far as knowing that a barouche is a considerably larger and heavier construction than a fly. And legal words relating to land ownership; I now know that “jointure” is (was perhaps?) an estate settled on a wife for the period that she survives a husband. But my favourite new word, which I regrettably failed to note the source of, is “sesquipedalian”.  This is a word with a pedigree originating from the Latin “sesquipedalis” meaning a foot and a half, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

It now means polysyllabic, long (characterised by long words), long-winded  For me, it was love at first sight, almost as much a coup de foudre as serendipitous and I eager await the first opportunity to use it (not altogether easy in these conditions of isolation as muttering “this is a bit sesquipedalian” when talking to oneself feels a bit cumbersome).

I am making a catalogue for my library, putting it in better order and weeding out duplicates for sending to my country house or to another good home. Shelf marks would be a step too far but when I’ve finished my catalogue, I shall number my shelves and perhaps attempt to master how to make a database so that I can see immediately from any location what I have here on particular topics.

I’d like to go through the collections of Carolina Rediviva and the other libraries in Uppsala to make a note of what they have on some specific subjects dear to my heart but that’s a later project (hopefully).

I am keeping my head well down until covid’s second wave has abated, avoiding contact with other people as much as I can. The other day, shunning the bus, I walked into the city to take my influenza jab. I’ve instructed Santa to use my company box address and not my home address for any parcels, as the company post office is a peaceful place compared with the seething mass of humanity clustered around the post office counter at my local shop. I keep thinking of the mediaeval knight in Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, playing chess with the grim reaper……

And I’m preparing for Christmas at a record early date so that a motorbike from Amazon has already driven up the track to my relatives’ house in India long before Advent.

I’m looking forward to the New Year, to closing accounts on 2020, which has been a difficult hand to play. I always enjoy the feeling of being at the beginning of something rather than the end and my spirits rise after the festive season. But if Covid abates in the New Year as we all hope, the usual pleasure of the approaching spring will probably feel overpowering. I would like to be in Dorset then to travel through the round hills west of Dorchester, seeing the ancient landscape open up around me as I travel west on the A35. Then perhaps to walk up to the top of Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the South Coast and sit there early in the morning to feel that life has returned (not on a Sunday as the buses don’t run then….).

Screwing things up

It took me a few years to realise that I could change the spacing of my bookshelf. But once I learnt to do it, nothing could stop me; not even a shelf fastened with different and hard-to-remove screws.  A few days later, there was an ominous rumble and three shelves with my India collection collapsed, spilling books all over the floor and taking half the German section with them.

A younger lateral thinking David Kendall might have thought about why the shelf screws were different, version 75 does not have that functionality…

Rather a pity as I’d spent some time arranging my books after dusting and cataloguing. All my favourite books on Bengal were in easy reach, books about Ramahun Roy, Vidyasagar and the Bengali renaissance, my collection of Tagore and Vivekananda, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novels, and my History of Bengali literature from 1911 together with Hobson Jobson. And the grim books were tucked away on a lower shelf beneath my sight line. Those that I thought it necessary to read but don’t want to focus on every day – on the unthinkingly racist British colonial communities in the nineteenth century, the horrors of Delhi after the insurrection, the massacres in Amritsar and after partition, and the Bengali famine. But now all was in a jumble and I felt like a Berlin trummerfrau in 1945 as I picked my way through the rubble (a very well fed trummerfrau admittedly).

I was rather proud of myself for not spending half the night trying unsuccessfully to put things to rights. I retreated to bed and read Trollope for a couple of hours after clearing up the worst chaos. And in the morning, I thought about why it had collapsed, which was unusual for an olympic level dyspractic like me. I replaced the screws I’d carelessly removed, thought about the distribution of weight and how to counteract the weakness of the structure which was less taut after being dismantled a couple of times when moving and exactly how far the support screws should be screwed into the side panel. And much to my relief managed to reconstruct the shelves and get them to stay put, glad not to have try to get hold of a carpenter in these infectious times and receive a four digit repair bill.

The arrangement of the books is admittedly not as satisfactory as it was; For technical reasons (concentrating the weight in the middle and not at the ends of the shelves), Vivekananda has to share a shelf with books about British Empire, which is not ideal. I have put William Darymple between them, which is the best I can do for the time being. I’ll improve this (slowly and gingerly) but the trauma of the collapse has to fade first…..

Plodding on

Tuesday, 10 November

At the third attempt, I managed to download a version of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, the second novel in the six-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire. This was labelled as the classic text, the first two downloads being badly mangled rewrites. I’ve always been rather sniffy about Trollope, put off by him being a favourite of various establishment figures. But I didn’t dislike The Warden, the first volume of the Chronicles. It was very much a Victorian novel with values that I don’t share but not unpleasant. As part of my efforts to defend and develop my Englishness despite being an ex-pat, I read English authors that I’ve passed by on my wandering through life from English literature A level student to Swenglish pensioner. Hence Trollope.

Writing about the fictive cathedral city of Barchester, he takes up the mid-nineteenth century religious struggle between the evangelists and the high church Anglicans. This might be useful for my work on Dorset churches as the nineteenth Gothic revival is one of the areas I’ve identified that is less well covered. This conflict should reasonably have played a part in discussions on church refurbishment.

I’m longing to move on from churches to other aspects of Dorset, perhaps the architecture of large country houses, although I’m rather tempted by the geology of the county. But I find it difficult to let churches go until I’ve penetrated the subject sufficiently. My driving interest is not religious but an effort to learn not to switch my mind off when a phenomenon becomes familiar; churches have dense and rich architectural and historical associations and are rewarding to defamilarise.

But as I’m very much a materialist, it can at times feel distinctly overgoded. Looking at my bookshelves today, I felt that I had to expand the secular sphere and moved the religious section to the kitchen (visitors innocently opening a kitchen cupboard door may be puzzled to find texts on Kaballah but I’ll deal with that problem later).

My bookshelf is occupying a lot of my time as I’ve started to make a catalogue of my library to more easily be able to find what I have and avoid buying duplicate copies. But I have to discipline myself to doing a shelf a day and not more. I did three yesterday, my collection of books on London and it took up a substantial chunk of the day. So my do-it-yourself mini biblio-Domesday book has to be reined in.

I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made with Bengali. I can now recognise quite a few letters and am no longer phased about the Bengali habit of moving vowels before the consonant while being pronounced after. But the compound letters still lie ahead so I’m not over the hill yet (not over the mountain, I suspect). But it’s enjoyable to try.

And I’m satisfied with my project to learn more about the City of London where I understand the City’s conduct during the Brexit referendum and its aftermath much better. At least I was satisfied until today when I tackled John Grahl’s article on Dollarizing Europe in a recent New Left Review, which rapidly brought home to me how little I understand about some aspects of finance capitalism.

But I don’t get so downhearted as I once would have done about feeling lost in the mist. I’ve done it so often and eventually found my way out and try to remember that feeling confused means that you’re getting close to your threshold, beyond which lies the possibility of development.

Scatterbrain management

Friday, 6 November

I’m reading or rather dipping into “The English Year. A month-by-month guide to the Nation’s Customs” by Steve Roud as my bedtime “relaxation” book; this in an attempt to structure the end of the day to avoid my sitting in front of my computer dousing myself in insomnia-provoking blue light until I discover to my surprise that it’s 2.30 am, when it was 11.00 pm just half an hour before. Having a clear marker of when to relax works reasonably well for me (scatterbrained people need orderly habits). My bedtime book has also become my early morning book when I read a chapter or two before resuming my Wagnerian struggle with existence.

But then I discover mid-dip that Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday used also to be known in English as Shere Thursday (Skärtorsdag, in Swedish). I find these connections between Swedish and dialect or archaic English delightful. This got me out of bed galloping past the cornflake packet towards my dictionaries. “Maundy” is said to derive from Latin mandatum, command, the command here being the instruction by Jesus to his disciples that they should love their neighbours, tangibly expressed by foot washing (I suspect that any attempt on my part to grab hold of my neighbour’s feet in a burst of bonhomie would not end well but we’ll leave that aside for the time being). Thinking this to be another example of the familiar tussle in English between words of Germanic, French and Scandinavian origin, I expected to find cognates of Maundy in the  Latin-based languages but on cursory inspection this is not the case as they use variants of Holy Thursday and I didn’t find any other examples of the use of Maundy, which perhaps came from Latin. Nor did I find any evidence for variants of “skär” in German although they may well exist; they are common in the Scandinavian languages.

“Skär” is usually given as originating from a word meaning “clean” (perhaps “scour” in English), not only with reference to the cleaning of feet but a general cleaning before Easter, both in the sense of physical cleaning and purification. It’s interesting why the Scandinavian languages use this word. Nowadays, “scour” is associated with the cleaning of objects rather than people, making me wonder whether pre-Christian habits of cleaning holy places before celebrations are lurking in the background (though maybe the word popping up in English negates this unless prevalent in Danish-speaking Eastern England

It’s important to keep careful note of sources when investigating words like this as yesterday’s inspired guess can easily become tomorrow’s dictionary entry (there’s nothing wrong with inspired guesses and they may be the best we can do but they need to be clearly labelled as guesses and not glide by frequent reference into becoming established truths).

And suddenly after flipping backwards and forwards, and thinking that I really must try to get hold of more German dialect dictionaries and a Frisian dictionary, I catch sight of my watch and see that it is 11.30 and I am still nightclad when it was 6.30 about half an hour before.

I enjoy these exercises with words and it’s a useful habit for a wordsmith, equivalent to the runner’s physical limbering or practice for pianists. But this is not bringing order to the scatterbrained. So I am going to keep a notebook by my bed to record words that take my fancy,. And have a dedicated hour later in the day when I go through the day’s harvest. Being a great believer in the organisational power of notebooks, I have a whole box of them and, if Covid goes on for a few years, I will probably get round to organising these (or possibly not….).

But I need to avoid morning footling. I should always take a walk at  the beginning of the day when there is light and colour and I can photograph with pleasure. At this time of year, the day becomes more and more northern as it wears on, the low sun casting long shadows and Munchian gloom dampening the joy of exercise. Yesterday, I went back to the old pilgrims’s route and walked in the other direction away from the city towards the burial places, the mounds, of the old Swedish kings. The pilgrims route has its origins in the story of King. later St Erik, beheaded by the Danes in the twelfth century, supposedly near Riddartorget conveniently (suspiciously) close to the “new” cathedral in the modern city. According to the story, his head rolled away and where it stopped, a spring gushed up, where there is now a pump. Erik had been active in hardhanded missions to christianise the Finns, and a cult developed around him. He is referred to as St Erik, although the reference books express doubt as to whether he was canonised (a suspected fake saint in other words). His relics were moved from the old cathedral to the current one in 1273. As part of the mediaeval cult, there was an annual pilgrimage on St Erik’s Day carrying his relics from the “new cathedral” back to Old Uppsala. The pilgrimage has been revived and a pleasant path made. It is now less ghoulish with meditation-friendly resting places with coloured stones and signs about rare beetles. There is doubt in the sources about the location of Erik’s death, which is very early as far as the modern city is concerned. I want to start making proper notes about the history of events, actual, alleged and mythological in the history of Uppsala. It’s great to live in a place with so many rich associations but it does pose challenges for the severely scatterbrained.

This morning there will not be a walk as I’m waiting for someone to install a new cupboard above my fridge. I´m not sure why I need this as the existing cupboard looks adequately cupboard-like but the fridge and freezer have had identity problems, swapping roles, leading inconveniently to brick-like solid milk and soggy meatballs. White goods expertise, after digital fiddling, thought a change of top cupboard would discourage unwelcome cross-functionality and booked a time to come between 07.30 and 12, thus getting me out of bed and banishing all thoughts of Shere Tuesday until I had camouflaged my kitchen to make it look inhabited by an orderly person.

Here we go again

So here we are again. After a few cautious steps towards normality, visiting the library to pick up or leave books, keeping an eye out for empty pharmacies, a few nervous bus journeys at odd times, visiting my tailor to have superfluous collars removed, and even a journey abroad to Gdansk and Berlin and to Marstrand, it’s back to isolation. Back to a default mode asking “Is this contact absolutely necessary?”, the answer almost always being no, keep your head down, wait, postpone.

Hopefully it won’t have to be quite as long as in the spring but I have to reckon on not being able to travel to England or anywhere else during what’s left of 2020.

Fortunately, I have plenty to do and am running through projects which can be advantageously done here. I’ve started to catalogue my library. I’m not going the whole way with shelf marks but taking a section a day to make a digital list of my books that I can access when I’m on the move, both to avoid duplicate purchases and to more easily see the gaps that I want to fill. So far I’m almost through my collection of books on West England (perhaps the best collection going east until you hit California), Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. Slow progress with lengthy breaks to examine half-forgotten treasures. And I have my ongoing projects too – Bengali, the City of London and finance capitalism, Dorset churches, and my 90+ pictures of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, to which I want to add descriptions. It’s all rather luscious and I’d like them to have them on display but finding space for an art exhibition in a 45 square metre flat is going to require some thought.

It would feel good when the pestilence is over to know that I’d used the time usefully and managed to set the agenda for my life and not allowed it to be mangled by Covid.

I’ve been troubled by the approaching winter, concerned that it won’t be easy to cycle if it’s very cold, snowy and icy. Hopefully, the mild weather will continue for a few weeks yet but I’m not counting on that. As an experiment yesterday, I walked from home to the city centre and back, just over nine kilometres according to my i-phone pedometer (whatever it’s called). I crossed the main railway line to the north, following the track bed of a long dismantled industrial branch line until I came to the pilgrim trail from Gamla Uppsala to the “new” cathedral. I haven’t explored this way to the city before but it was all very satisfactory, car-free and crossing fields with just a short urban stretch before I got to Fyrisån and could take the riverside path almost all the way to my post box. Heartening that it was clearly doable. And next time, I shall smear my glasses with soap and wash it off (not too carefully so as to leave a slight film), which, from my early experiments does seem to prevent them steaming up when I’m wearing my mask. A high level of exercise is important for my physical and mental well-being. But it has to be exercise where I can think at the same time. Walking is ideal but things like exercise bikes bore me (I borrowed one for a while but spent most of the time trying to balance my laptop on the handlebar and forgetting to cycle). Not to mention gyms which I am seriously allergic to.

Despite the worsening infection situation in Uppsala, the locals haven’t taken to masks to any great extent. I wear mine everywhere. I get a few odd looks but no rude comments yet (which is rather a pity as I’m looking forward to being able to say “Please tell St Peter, I’ll not be coming for a while yet” and watching the oaf or oafess who is trying to be funny crumble to dust in front of my eyes (not literally…).

I haven’t mentioned T-rump. Like a lot of people, I was hoping he would follow in the steps of T-rex, becoming politically extinct rather than being hit by a meteor. A large number of ordinary Americans are still voting for him, however, and it’s not yet clear how it will end. Not that the Democrats are exactly God’s gift to the poor and dispossessed and there might be some arguments for Trump being able to stay long enough to disabuse those who think he will help them. But the thought of having to read about and see pictures of Trump for another four years is not pleasant.

Enlightening forenoon

I’ve not seen an explanation why “forenoon” has become archaic while “afternoon” is vigorously alive. But undoubtedly “Good morning” trips off the tongue rather more smoothly than “Good forenoon”.

I stumbled across “forenoon” in Steve Roud’s excellent book on “The English Year. The nation’s customs and festivals from May Day to Mischief Night”. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, forenoon is “chiefly archaic except in nautical contexts. The day until noon: morning”. Webster has “the part of the day ending with noon; usually the time between daylight or breakfast and noon”.  Webster has “daybreak” as one of the meanings of “daylight” and that is presumably what he means here. According to the Concise OD, forenoon is North American or nautical and means “the morning”.

And for morning, the Shorter Oxford has “the process or fact of the approach of dawn, the time about sunrise; daybreak. And as a second meaning “the beginning or early part of the day, esp. from sunrise to noon”. According to the Concise OD, the morning is “the period of time between midnight and noon, especially from sunrise to noon”. Webster has “the early hours of the light; the time from rising to noon”.

Not a great deal of difference, both forenoon and morning are used in the longer (daybreak to noon) and the shorter (sunrise to noon) sense.

For me, the order of events is daybreak, the first glimmers of light in the sky. This is the dawn or the beginning of dawn (depending on whether you regard it as a fixed point or a process). Dawn as a process continues through the twilight period until the sun rises.

Checking on the net for definitions of the difference between “forenoon” and “morning” gives both variants, as for which (morning or forenoon) starts at daybreak and which starts at sunrise. I didn’t find anything that felt convincing – it just felt that the set framework, the need to distinguish x from y was triggering an oversimplified distinction.

I did also learn that the word “forenoon” is apparently used by the Amish. The Internet has its uses.

It’s a bit of a muddle but it probably reflects our weaker focus on natural events than in an agricultural society (and we get up later…). Daybreak, dawn, sunrise – it’s all just horribly early, end of debate. A variant on the discussion on the large number of words the Sami have to describe various forms of snow. Language loses its fine distinctions when describing things we’re not that interested in.

None of these dictionary definitions offer an explanation of why morning more or less completely replaced forenoon. The usual etymological explanation of “morning” is that it originates from the Middle English “morwening”, which became “morne” and “morrow” and eventually “morning”.

According to my Anglo-Saxon dictionary “morgen” was used extensively for “morning” (including “morningspell” for news published at morn and “morgentidlic” defined as matitudinal). Morning has in other words been knocking around for a good while and its history didn’t start with Middle English.

 There’s also “forenight” but I’ll leave that for another time…