New found bravery and the calm before the storm

Back in my flat enjoying the endorphins after walking 13,000 + steps.

I was up before dawn today to get into Stockholm before the world was on its way to work. My usual routine for pandemonia travel, an early bus and then first class on the regular train. There’s more people on the buses now – still only a few wearing masks.

I earn my steps by walking from Stockholm Central Station a couple of kilometres to Sophiahemmet where I have to leave blood samples for my coming health check. It’s pleasurable walking through Stockholm, partly because it’s warmer there than in Uppsala but also because it’s Stockholm. I miss living in Stockholm even though I have become unexpectedly fond of Uppsala. I first came to Stockholm 49 years ago; it feels like one of my home cities, a part of Sweden that has become part of me, one of the few places in Sweden where I could live. It’s full of memories as I make way across the city. Sveavägen where my elder daughter’s nursery/pre-school was located. It must have been Sweden’s most central nursery. We lived in Rinkeby and I had shared custody of her, an affectionate but bohemian parent. We often breakfasted at a café just opposite her nursery after our 20 minute journey on the metro. And Kungsgatan which was the major shopping street when I first came to Stockholm. I remember how it felt northern and exotic but now my eye accustomed to things Nordic can no longer see that (and perhaps Sweden has become less different). And then Stureplan once with its odd little “folkhemsk” shopping centre where I used to go to Kursverksamheten’s office in connection with my English language teaching. Now gentrified and becoming more so. Hedengren’s, the city’s best bookshop is still soldiering on, but it hardly feels like it belongs there any more (and nor do I among all the expensive shops in Biblioteksgatan and Stureplan).

But soon we’re passing Humlegården and the Royal Library, a breath of air for the mind and body after the not so discreet charmlessness of the bourgeoisie in the heart of mammon. And I think of all the projects I have pursued in the library over the years and the wonderfully studious atmosphere that pervades the place. And, friendly souvenir of London, one of Stockholm’s few, perhaps the only, plane tree in the city just outside the library, an exhaust-fume tolerant tree that can be found all over London. At the end of Stureplan, we come to Stadion, the sports stadium built in 1912 in connection with the Stockholm Olympics in the national romantic style. It’s something of an architectural icon but I’ve never liked it but found it grim, my distaste perhaps heightened by its use (I have had an abiding distaste/disinterest in sport from my teens onwards, which complicates conversations with taxi drivers, who tend to proffer conversational gambits in the style of “it didn’t go so well for them yesterday, did it” to which I can only offer a confused murmur in reply not having the faintest idea of who or what the them is).

One bonus of being the keeper of an aging body is that I have become blasé about having blood samples taken. The knowledge of a coming sample used to darken my spirits and while intellectually I knew that not all the blood would leak out leaving me like a squashed orange on the care facility floor, I had my emotional doubts, the staff asking me whether I would like to rest for a while when looking at my stiff upper lip, which probably reminded them of rigor mortis. This time it went well too and I shall continue my new found bravery by removing the sticking plaster in a few hours, confident that I will not gush to perdition.

There’s a complication on the way back as there had been an accident on the line. The paucity of details makes me suspect a suicide. My train leaves an hour and a half late but I’m so tired after my early start that I’m at best semi-conscious and my book remains unread.

Just now it’s the calm before the storm as I have an interim report to be translated arriving in two days’ time. But in the meantime, I continue my life of luxury doing a chapter of Bengali every day (about an hour a day), preparing Jean Giono’s Manosque-des-Plateaux for my next reading session with my younger daughter and looking at Raphaele Orth’s Albert Vigoleis Thelen – Eine interkulturelle Biographie. Giono has been compared with Thomas Hardy but I think the comparison is superficial. They are both very much regional writers, Thomas Hardy for the west of England (Wessex) and Giono for the area of Provence around Manosque, his home town. But Giono is much more modernist and “internal” than Hardy, at least to judge from what I have read to date. Giono liked Hardy and I would like to know more about that. It’s interesting to see what countries make of other countries’ literature. The French like some British authors and vice versa while others are neglected or even unknown. There are, of course, commercial aspects involved but it’s not just a matter of what the publishers have picked up. I’ve never seen a book on this topic but I’d like to read one.

This keys in with my German reading. I’m pleased to find that I can make my way much more easily through this little book about Thelen than I could with his magnum opus. It seems to be an academic essay, perhaps at pre-doctoral level that I’ve picked up as a print-on-demand publication. It’s not uninteresting but her focus on the intercultural aspects of Thelen doesn’t immediately appeal to me (he was German in origin, married to a Swiss and lived in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands for a number of years). I am also reading volume 2 of a three-volume work on American politics, focusing on the labour movement.

But I only have another couple of days in which this serious and not-so-serious dabbling can have pride of place in my use of time. Very soon now my interim report will arrive and my head will be full of leverage, net profit, the equity ratio and all the rest of it….

Place names, Somerset and Dorset

Sitting on the blue linoleum on the attic floor above his parents’ grocery shop, with a pile of small pieces of paper on which he had copied place names from a gazetteer of the UK, the nine or ten-year old David Kendall couldn’t remember why he had started this project or what he intended to do with the result. So he stopped. Then a long period of latency before revived interest. But now my bedtime book is Per Vikstrand’s doctoral thesis “Gudarnas platser. Förkristna sakrala ortnamn i mälarlandskapen” (2001), which I skimmed through before reading it carefully (the author’s English title “The Places of the Gods, Pre-Christian sacral place names in central Sweden “). There are many such names around Uppsala although, of course, it’s not always easy to interpret these coded messages from the long dead when the reference might be to the God Thor or simply to a bloke named Thor, who had a farm on a hill.

It’s good to have access to a cogent description of the research issues, a guiding light when making one’s way through will o’ the wispish popular etymology.

I’ve just become an associate member of the English Place-Name Society, which sounds rather grand but in fact only means that I subscribe to their journal. I stumbled on their website when looking for literature about Somerset place names. Since my exile began in 1973, I have read intensively about Dorset, spurred on by an interest in family history when I traced my ancestors on my father’s side back to the sixteenth century (with only a modicum of skill as they had obligingly decided to remain ag. labbing, carpentering and brewing in the same village century after century). It was no mean addition to my fond feelings for the landscape to find a long line of ancestors on my father’s side and that my great grandfather was the publican of the Crown Inn in Marnhull, the model for Thomas Hardy’s Pure Drop Inn in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I have subsequently learned much more about Dorset than about Somerset, the county where I actually lived a few miles to the north.

Recently, I’ve thought that I wanted to remedy this and to look more intensively at Somerset, to get beyond superficial familiarity, which easily leads to an ossified museum-like relationship when you live far away in a foreign country. While Dorset is marked by the sweep of chalk/limestone hills and dramatic coastline, Somerset is more like a saucer with a prominent rim. The flatlands of the centre, not unattractive with their willows and atmospheric Glastonbury, hard to resist even for those who are allergic to the mystic, are encircled by hills, the Mendips, the Quantocks, the Blackdowns among others. The Mendips I have known since my youth and I had a very enjoyable holiday in the Quantocks a few years ago in the footsteps of Coleridge. The Blackdowns I know far less well despite having spent some time close to them during the last period of my mother’s life when she lived in Chard in the very west of the county. In fact, the Blackdowns were present to the very end of her life and just beyond, as I asked the undertaker not to drive on the noisy heavily trafficked A358 to the crematorium at Taunton but to take the back road, the straight empty road through verdant Neroche Forest (fine Norman name).

On the way back, in the understandable but somewhat weird post-funeral lightness of mood, I relaxed my attention and looked dreamily at the landscape until I noticed that our big black shiny car had come to a halt in a field. It felt like some scene from an Italian film where the driver, less adept at the byways had taken a wrong turn. We succeeded in extricating ourselves without having to get out and push and I succeeded in repressing my inward gales of laughter at the situation and preserving my dignified mien (at least this is my official memory picture…).

I want to read more about the Blackdowns and shall try to spend time there at some point.

Life before 23 January 1958

Switching on my computer monitor, the old man waiting by his horse and cart to cross the railway at Lancing in Sussex is facing me on the unmade-up road. His confident stance makes me think that he owns the cart. The crossing gate is closed and a train is on the line to Brighton. The tank engine is tiny in relation to the carriages, It might be an empty stock working from the nearby carriage works rather than a passenger train. That would make it after 1888 so I’d guess the date of the picture is between 1890 and 1905.

A half century later, in the 1950s, I used this crossing to get to school. Some things are recognisable which have since disappeared, the old signal box and the Victorian station building on the up side, now replaced by a streamlined halt, bleaker but easy to maintain. The buildings on the down side remain intact, pleasingly Victorian. By the crossing a concrete block. still there in the 1950s when I wondered what it was for.

A footbridge has also been built but I only used it in dire moments like when I hurried home crying after I’d tripped and broken my recorder on my way to a school concert. My father, kind man but not musically adept, filed down the broken pieces and fitted them together; my discordant note was soon detected and I was re-equipped with a public spare, which stank of disinfectant. My musical education was short as, while I understood that the conductor had a role to play, I could never interpret what he or she wanted and needed to concentrate on playing my notes as they came, as quickly as I could, without taking breaks to look at the conductor.

By my time, a third electric rail had been added to the track, dull grey, sinister and frightening. The line skirted around the school playing ground; I had no problem abiding by the strict instructions not to climb over the fence.

I was not quite so compliant when my mother warned me vaguely about “funny men” (odd). It wasn’t a problem at Liverpool St station in London when a man pressed himself against me as I watched the trains from the taxi access road. Definitely a funny man and I took to my heels as fast as I could run and disappeared on the underground to Euston. But the signalman on Worthing station who offered to show me the signal box seemed reasonable enough and I followed him gladly up to the box, scared stiff of being so close to the electric rail as we walked along the trackside. After half an hour or so, I returned to the station intact and unabused, happily clutching a bundle of paper with all the times of the trains you couldn’t see in the public timetable. And there was another occasion at Shoreham harbour where I was shown around a freight ship by another friendly man which also passed without mishap.

I’ve thought afterwards that these incidents could have ended differently and that my parents’ shy awkward warnings didn’t really serve their purpose (although I’m not sure I improved so much on their act when I became a parent).

I had a lot of freedom to explore as I wished. I was allowed to travel the 60 miles to London by myself at an early age (far earlier than I would let my own children make the journey to nearby Stockholm). I was given strict instructions on my first solo trip to the metropolis not to travel through the centre of London so the easy route by underground from Victoria to Euston via Charing Cross and the Northern Line was closed to me. Surprisingly, in retrospect, I complied with the letter of this instruction but hardly with the spirit as I found a route in my A to Z away from the city to the west on the District Line then via a since closed underground branch in Acton, after which I walked or took a bus to Harlesden and back on the train to Willesden where I wanted to get to.

There was also a road near home which I was instructed not to cycle on as my mother had read of some man-child incident there. This I studiously complied with, cycling instead on the other side of the River Adur past the weird dusty whiteness of the cement plant at Beeding and the Downs villages. I never used the “funny man” road until I was in my sixties and then it all seemed very peaceful.

When thought ripe to share the facts of life, a book that pedagogically started with the habits of rabbits was pressed into my hand. My parents’ new found enthusiasm for rabbits was something of a mystery and I abandoned it after a few pages, soothingly reassuring them that I had read the book from cover to cover and relieving them of the “hot potato” issue. I wasn’t much interested in how we reproduce and only gradually pieced everything together without the help of the rabbits.

The village has changed since I lived there as a child. There were plenty of pre-war cars around then and crowds of railway carriage workers cycled past my parents’ shop twice a day. It was a more proletarian place than nearby Worthing with its focus on the genteel retired or racier Brighton a bit further along the coast. It felt stable and secure and hardly marked by the war. The coastal zone had been a restricted area which you had to get permission to enter. I have memories of my father counting ration coupons in his grocery shop and trips to the Women’s Voluntary Service to collect orange juice in bottles with bright blue caps, and a bedside table made from an old crate and painted a pleasing apple green as well the dukws, amphibious vehicles on the beach. It remains a popular place for ordinary folk but on my infrequent trips there it’s felt edgier, still an area of cheaper housing but a less structured community after the carriage works closed. Now cheap takeaway food places and a tattoo parlour make their presence felt in what was once a staid progression of radio shop, ironmongers, drapers and a grocer’s with the odd name of Calvary Stores.

My parents’ grocery shop was called Station Stores. There was a flat above and behind the shop, poor-quality housing with no bathroom and limited running hot water with an outside toilet at the bottom of the small garden. One room had working gas lighting which we used on ceremonial occasions. I liked living there but it must have been a backbreaking place to bring up a child, especially as my father’s ability to do heavier tasks was limited by his having an artificial leg. Presumably my parents wanted to save money in preparation for my father’s retirement when they intended to buy a house in the West Country and it was too tempting not to use the free accommodation that went with the shop; they could have had a council house of much better standard but were also burdened by feeling too fine for that.

We moved to Somerset on 23 January 1958, soon 64 years ago.

The Island of Second Sight

Dates get rather complicated this time of year as the twelve days between Christmas and the Christian festival of Epiphany are about the same as the difference between the old Julian and the current Gregorian calendar. Accordingly, 6 January has also been referred to as Old Christmas Day; it is still celebrated as such by some religious groups (Anabaptists, including the Amish, according to Wiki).

6 January is a public holiday in Sweden making the Christmas season long; during the bridge days between Christmas and New Year and New Year and Epiphany, retail goes at full blast but it won’t be business as usual for other sectors until the coming Monday, 10 January.

I’ve found it hard to settle down to serious work after the holiday but am now feeling elated about finishing all 816 pages of Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s “The Island of Second Sight”, based on the author’s experiences in Mallorca in the 1930s. I’m glad I persisted and didn’t let myself be overwhelmed. As in previous struggles with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, I asked myself whether I was enjoying myself and what was the point of ploughing through page after page that I didn’t fully understand. A similar feeling of elation afterwards but also an awareness that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the result if I tried to write a few pages on why the book I’d read was a great novel. I could probably spray words around to fool a few readers but not my sternest in-house critic DK.

After a few such experiences, I have concluded that while it’s human to retreat from situations or worlds that we can’t fully make sense of, it’s better for our development to persist, to learn to tolerate uncertainty and contradiction. We can still enjoy baroque music, the paintings of Constable or the Victorian novel but it’s better for our development not to shy away from more complex (often modernist) works.

Thelen’s novel can be read as a picaresque account of life in Mallorca in the 1930s against the darkening background, becoming foreground, of the rise of Nazism and Franco, not exactly fiction and not exactly autobiography but entertaining. But I feel that these amusing experiences are not just haphazard. Thelen often refers to the Portuguese poet and philosopher Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose ideas enthuse Thelen’s own personal philosophy (he went on to translate Pascoaes).

According to, Pascoaes became the chief apostle and theoretician of saudosismo, which was a movement that promulgated saudade as a national, spiritual value that could have reformative value. It means “longing, nostalgia, yearning” for something absent”. Pascoaes was editor of A Aguia, an Oporto-based magazine that became the mouthpiece of the Portuguese renaissance. The national renaissance was supposed to take place by cultivating saudade, considered to be “the defining characteristic of the Portuguese soul”, not a simple return to the past but a return to the original wellsprings of life in order to create a new life.

Thelen’s descriptions of the significance and meaning of small everyday events can be viewed against this background. This strikes a chord with me as I feel a need to dig in my heels, to pay attention, to resist the deadening trivialisation of our emotional and intellectual lives in late capitalist society.

I’m also sympathetic to Thelen’s anti-fascism and irreverent attitude to traditional religion. However, I feel his spirituality leads him in directions that I don’t sympathise with. I wonder about Pascoaes relationship with the Salazar dictatorship. His mysticism and references to the national renaissance feel as if they could serve as cultural support for this kind of authoritarian regime. I wonder how Thelen perceived this man, how did he square this with his scathing attitude to the steamier mumbo jumbo produced in Germany, Italy and Spain at this time.

I haven’t read Pascoaes but I am perhaps unfair to him but I would like to know more about this.

My lack of knowledge of Portuguese culture also made me think of the shallowness of my identity as a European. After 50 years, I have some grasp of Swedish culture and from secondary school onwards, I have retained an interest in French literature and German (with considerable gaps). But the rest, even Spain, is shrouded. But this weak performance is probably more cosmopolitan than most of my original and adopted countryfolk.

The history of publication of Thelen’s book also made me think of the relationship of the publishing industry to the literary canon. Thelen wrote his book in 1953 but it was first published in English in 2010 apparently through the persistence of Isabelle Weiss (after many rejections) who had access to Donald White’s hitherto unpublished translation. Publishers presumably regarded it as too much of a risk, long, hard to translate and difficult to categorise.

I never saw any mention of the book on my two visits to Mallorca (Palma). I was amused then by the attention given to George Sand’s “A Winter in Mallorca” about her stay with Chopin in Valldemossa, despite Sand being very critical of the island and its people; they didn’t do their homework before moving to the island and chose a location that was picturesque but cold and damp, which was not ideal for Chopin’s health. But I saw no mention of Thelen, despite his warm feelings for the island and descriptions of many prominent and interesting personalities from his time there. Robert Graves, who lived in Deja is better treated – his house is at least open to the public and perhaps I Claudius is available at the island’s bookshops, although still swamped by the masochistic focus on George Sand.

Finishing Thelen has already shaken the foundations of my plan for 2022, despite the year only being six days old. I had carefully divided my time into more serious projects like the state of the UK and learning Bengali and eccentric diversions like exploring the life of Jerome, patron saint of translators and Dorset. I envisaged devoting four days a week to serious projects and three to diversions (doffing my hat in recognition of my being a quasi-pensioner), my time neatly parcelled between projects, with some things that I did every day (Bengali) and others in long chunks of time on particular days. And now I am again thinking of whether it mightn’t be better just to alternate books so that after Thelen, I will read something more socially oriented and political.

But I have to postpone thoughts about my plan for a while as my Christmas visiting family have not all departed yet and the soft sector beckons today.