That was the week that was

It took me the best part of two days to get my booster jab after my willing arm was rejected a couple of times on various pretexts, leaving me wondering whether the Anti-Vax movement had infiltrated the stabbers. But at last the deed was done – my life’s most enjoyable vaccination as I felt the needle penetrate. I resisted the temptation to leap up and high five the vaccinator.

I had a few hours before any reaction set in and made my usual pre-Christmas trip to the English Shop in Stockholm’s Old Town. As I feared there were no mince pies nor even jars of mincemeat, just a sign at the till asking customers to please not make remarks about Brexit. It has the makings of a wonderful headline “Fulminating frustrated mince pie customers induce Brexit fatigue” The shop had frozen New Zealand vegan kebab but somehow it’s not the same. I bought a Christmas pudding which must have been heavy enough to force its way through the blockade. I used to buy jars of marmite which I usually threw away unopened when they became unfit for consumption but have managed to give up this particular heritage hugging.

I’m writing this at a horribly early hour trying to overcome a sleep rhythm where I don’t fall asleep until the wee hours and am then dead to the world until mid-morning, This is irritating as the early morning hours are often my most productive period of the day. And I lose these but am instead awake during a low period from midnight to three when I don’t get much done.

At least, I’m making good progress in the night with Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s “The Island of Second Sight”, first published in German in 1953 but not translated into English before 2010, despite Thomas Mann’s praise of it being one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.

I have it in German and English and started to read the language versions in parallel. The translation seems good apart from some localisations that grate such as references to German or Swiss sixth-formers. But it went too slowly so after trudging through 70 pages, I have raced ahead with the English version and will take a few passages of the German to study in depth afterwards. I thought I’d read it before and even remember singing the praises of the novel when chatting to a Germanist at a translators’ conference. But the further I get into the novel the less I recognise and I think I must just have nibbled at the opposite ends of the book; this without even having read my copy of Pierre Bayard’s “Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?” (How do you talk about novels you haven’t read).’’

As I age, I notice that I have greater difficulty distinguishing between when I have done something or only thought about doing it. The other day after being concerned about the non-response of an English friend, I receive a letter from him expressing mild concern that he hadn’t heard from me for a long time. Further investigation into the attribution of Alzheimer is probably not the way to go but I have now created a log where I register my letters. I will try and avoid going overboard and not giving every letter a unique registration number searchable on a database.

I am now accelerating to leave Sweden in a few days time, determined to avoid a panic 12 hours before departure when I do everything that I could have done days earlier. The danger signs are already at hand and, after a long fallow period, I have some translation work to do. It’s empowering to feel that I can influence the business cycle by trying to leave Sweden, that any move in that direction can change the deepest recession into a raging bull market for my translations. But at least it’s easier now at the tail end of my career as a translator when I’m no longer empire building but can say no to work without qualms.

I keep up my daily routine of studying Bengali and reading the Financial Times and the Guardian. I was amused to read about Johnson’s dire performance at the CBI with his flippant references to Peppa Pig. And also by  ´the comment of  Lord Karan Bilimoria, President of the CBI (and also the founder of Cobra beer), “to have a Labour leader standing on a CBI platform championing the role and success of business shows just how far the party has come”. “Quite” one might say although perhaps not agreeing where the Labour Party was originally. Starmer  is trying to emulate Blair in winning over parts of the business community; he may well have some success with manufacturing interests as the Conservative Party becomes less capable of integrating the interests of different sections of capitalism, Johnson’s “Bugger business” not being altogether a random comment.

But if the Labour Party moves in that direction, the crumbling of the red wall will continue and its mass base will fragment and I fear in the absence of an alternative that represents their interests, sections of the working class will move to the right not just to the Conservative Party who are ill equipped to keep this support in the long run but further right as has happened to some extent in our shambolic Sweden, where the Swedish Democrats gladly fill the political vacuum and pose as the new working class party.

And now for my plan for the day. I just need to check the rich associations provided by Thelen or perhaps his translator and find out what pandect, parthenogenesis, zwieback, apothegm and tellurian mean. It can’t take more than a couple of minutes,,,,I promise,,,,,,

“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.