The Frog dance and being bicultural

Midsummer, more or less the longest day and I am cowering in my flat away from all kinds of celebration. It’s been a good day where I have worked for a few hours, exercised, cooked after a long gap while travelling. But no celebration.

I’ve never liked community celebrations, which threaten my integrity. The Swedes do a peculiar dance at Midsummer, popularly known as the frog dance, where they imitate the movements of a frog, hut apparently a frog that has ears and tails which no self-respecting frog would dream of having. This is accompanied by a special song.

I learn from Wiki that my countrymen have had a hand in this song. The melody is said to originate from the refrain of a military march at the time of the French Revolution Au pas, camarade au pas camarade / au pas, au pas, au pas!” ”In step, comrade” . And the Brits, reactionary brats, changed the words to “Au pas, grenouilles!” (“In step, little frogs”). The English have long called the French frogs but I suspect it is apocryphal, too good to be true. How this is supposed to have reached Sweden is also lost in the mystery of time.

But at least I now have a good reason for not taking part in the dance apart from my personal distaste – I abstain because the dance mocks the French revolution.

Wikipedia has no sources for the information; I have great respect and admiration for Wiki but occasionally it seems like the mythological equivalent of money laundering. Myths are laundered by Wikipedia and emerge whiter than white as honest facts.

There are, of course, other explanations of the Frog Dance, an ancient tribal dance, among others, It would be interesting to read a record of the mentioning of the practice in written sources.

I feel sad when I see Swedes engaging in this dance. You can’t live with a people for almost a half century without developing some feelings of tenderness towards them. And I prefer my “host folk” to be dignified. I don’t like to see them making fools of themselves. They’re not good at it either – the English do it with more panache.

Midsummer is anyway the real Swedish national day, unlike the establishment’s somewhat anaemic official national day.

Living in another country has been a profound and strange experience for me. I don’t identify myself as a Swede although I know a lot about Sweden and what it’s like to be a Swede. And Sweden isn’t a foreign country for me; I have a feeling of homecoming when I cross the Öresund, returning to a place where I know how things work, have had many significant experiences and lived a large portion of my life.

Being a basket case as far as pronunciation is concerned doesn’t help – my otherness is confirmed when I say a single word and the person I am addressing switches to English.

I’m interested in the different ways in which people deal with changing country. Some people seem to manage it without difficulty, keeping the “old country” in affectionate memory, visiting it from time to time, but essentially identifying with their new surroundings.

I’ve never been hostile to Sweden, and have spent much time getting to know the country but the thought of abandoning my old culture has always been alien to me. This is partly an effect of moving from a large to a small culture but also that my settling in Sweden was something that I let happen for family reasons rather than a conscious choice or desire.

My first few years here were too busy to permit existential brooding – I was fascinated by learning about Sweden, its culture, history and language and becoming established in the Swedish labour market. But then I felt England slipping away and I mobilised to protect it. I felt that the change of country was a sharp break in my life and that I had problems obtaining cultural nourishment in the new environment that was “thin” for me.

Over the years, that feeling has subsided. I have put down roots and I know much better how to obtain “cultural nourishment” but it requires effort – one is less spoon fed in small cultures. I’ve greatly enjoyed moving to Uppsala and finding out what I could about Uppsala and Uppland. It feels important for me to delve deeply into things Swedish to avoid becoming accustomed to living superficially in Sweden, shallow integration.

But, of course, England has not stood still either. I’ve travelled backwards and forwards so often that I’ve followed the changes and don’t suffer from the exile’s shock that everything has changed and the old country has disappeared. But I notice in all sorts of ways that I don’t react in the same way as I would have done had I been monocultural.

I’ve also gained a lot by being bicultural – in terms of language (I now know the meaning of a lot of English place names, which I didn’t know before!) but, more seriously, in terms of thinking about life generally. It feels as if I have another storey to my existential building. The ground floor is English but I have built another storey from which I can see the world from another angle.

Living abroad has its pleasures as well as its pains. It’s given me experiences that I wouldn’t want to be without but also a mild feeling of sadness and loss that I attempt to address through various projects related to England to prevent me becoming a “museum English person” who does the same things, goes to the same places and sees the same people when going back.

It’s important not to exaggerate, not to make personal idiosyncrasy into general rules. Feelings of not belonging can be changed by intervening in society so that having another national culture need not be particularly dramatic. Hobby hermits like me whose life consists of much solitary reading are disadvantaged in this respect.

And I can get tired of existential brooding although I can’t stop myself doing it.

Being able to visit other countries is important for me too (Germany, France, Denmark or Ireland (or other countries I know well).  I relish getting away from the dialogue of exile, to be somewhere else than the country I once came from or the country where I now live. Then I can simply be European and forget about Brexit and the Frog Dance.

Having the time of my life with Abdulrazak Gurnah

It’s breakfast time, 06.00 Kendall Variable Time (KVT), 01.00 Central European Standard Time. It’s difficult to live in a time zone that has no fixed relationship with any other time zone, and whose units vary in length according to the mood of its sole inhabitant.   But not being a man to let myself be bossed around by the harebrained notions of a bunch of dead people, 06.00 takes precedence and I find time to write.

I am not only temporally but spatially dislocated as I have just returned from a 13-bed trip, still thinking about the whereabouts of and preparations for my next move and where the bathroom is as I stumble up the hill to consciousness, not wanting to disturb the sleep of the absent.

I need to get back to CEST, KVT is weakly structured and small tasks easily grow to dinosaur proportions. And when I think about the day’s achievements, buying a bus ticket to Perth, recycling hearing aid batteries, filing documents for my UK storage unit, and translating a two-page divorce decree, my achievements fail to impress. But I usually flounder for a while after travelling.

I allow myself a more structured flounder and start to work through the accumulated pile of London Review and TLS. There’s a full-page ad in the LRB for Harper’s magazine. Harper’s magazine I’ve heard of but know nothing about and have never read. My cherished prejudices tell me that it’s probably not for me, full of material about fashion and difficult choices between expensive consumer items that I’ve no wish or ability to own. This is confirmed by my first google to an article about investment. But then my eye catches a long and serious piece about the Nobel prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. Making a note that my cherished prejudices probably need tweaking, I read it through. To my shame, I have not followed the 2021 Nobel literature prize award and know nothing about Gurnah.

My lifestyle where I have no TV and do not subscribe to a daily paper needs attention to prevent the world drifting away and getting up to all sorts of things beyond my ken. I have a tortured attitude to subscribing to a daily paper. It costs quite a bit and is often unsatisfactory with a lot of ads and lifestyle and sports content that lacks interest for me. And the paper copy has to be disposed of. And I know that if I have an e-subscription that I will skim it carelessly and not get my money’s worth. This is irrational but David Kendall is like this; I have to work with him and know from long experience that trying to buck the foible doesn’t work.

Gurnah seems one of the Nobel Committee’s better choices and his writings on the travails of the former Asian community in East Africa and more generally on exile interest me. I shall make a list of his work, which is presumably readily available now that the surge to the shelves after the announcement has abated. The review in Harper’s was by Nadifa Mohamed, a British writer whose family came from Somalia, whom I have also never heard of but would like to know more about.

In her review “When the Monsoon Winds Turned. The lost worlds of Abdulrazak Gurnah”, she refers to the fate of the last Sultan of Zanzibar, exiled to Southsea on England’s South Coast. I’m not clear from a cursory reading of her review which of Gurnah’s works she is referring to or whether this is background information but I shall return to this. It reminds me of Napoleon III in exile in Chislehurst in Kent, although he at least received a secret visit from Queen Victoria. I somehow doubt that E. Windsor popped down to Pompey to hob nob with the deposed Sultan in his Southsea semi.

Portsmouth and Southsea is almost home ground for me after my first twelve years in nearby West Sussex. Although I mostly think of Portsmouth as a naval base with its flat, vacant 1950s architecture after the awful pasting the city received in WW2, I’ve never related to Southsea as a seaside resort. I must add it to my exploration of the area after visiting Selsey this trip. I want to look at another small island nearby Thorney and the maritime environments of Bosham and Chichester harbour. It’s strange I don’t know these as they were in cycling distance of my old Sussex home but it’s taken me a long time to learn to appreciate quality rather than quantity when travelling and to learn that less is sometimes more when I peddled to distant locations.

Portsmouth is otherwise associated with my mother’s older sibling, Aunt Mabel whom (to her delight, I suspect), I later called Aunt Fantasia after a record I found during an uncomfortable night in a sleeping bag in her “drawing room” above their fruit and greengrocery shop. At this time though she was still Aunt Mabs and my abiding memory of an early trip to Portsmouth is a walk around the block to purchase a single small piece of lace (or imitation lace perhaps) that had taken my fancy and was intended as a present for my mother. Adult opinion thought this too scant a present (it was admittedly a minuscule piece of cloth but the retention of this memory indicates that adult opinion failed to convince). I don’t remember what if anything the tiny piece was replaced by (the nine-year-old DK’s attention span was probably not great).

I wouldn’t anyway have brushed shoulders with the deposed Sultan of Zanzibar, who came much later when I was far from Portsmouth and Aunt Mabs and Uncle Charles had joined the ranks of the dear departed.

And it’s now 02.43 CEST and approaching bedtime in KVT. I’m glad to be able to write again after my laptop went on strike in the UK and travelled home separately.

Lyme, Bridport, Dorchester and the Outer Hebrides

The A35 is the major highway in southern Dorset, starting from Honiton in Devon and ending in Southampton in Hampshire. At least partly a highway as it still passes through the centre of numerous villages. Previously, the building of bypasses was a hot political issue with some inhabitants longing for the restoration of peace and quiet in their villages, while the pub and restaurant keepers feared the loss of the passing trade. But I didn’t see much evidence of strife this time.

I’ve travelled the road many times but still have much to learn. Part of it is Roman but the transport route is probably older than that passing through a landscape with many tumuli, barrows and standing stones, including the Broad Stone and the Nine Stones near Winterbourne Abbas from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. When I’m done with Dorset churches (probably rather late in the Anthropocene era..), I shall look at these early remains, but also travel the road with a historian’s eye, a farmer’s eye, a geologist’s eye and whatever other eyes I can think of, observing the field patterns and the lie of the land, paying careful attention to the place names, great and small, not satisfied with just noting that Dorset is a beautiful county but continually struggling against false familiarity.

Every time I come to Dorset, I learn more. This time I found out about Sir George Somers, a seventeenth century privateer (“state-licensed pirate”), the so-called “discoverer” of Bermuda, which used to be called Somers Island. In those early days, there were many links between the West Country and the colonists in Virginia and elsewhere in North America. Like other formerly officially respected figures from that time, accusations of slavery have been raised against Somers (and denied). His statue in Lyme where he was later mayor has been under threat and I believe his statue in Bermuda has been moved to a more discreet location.

His heart and entrails are buried in Bermuda but the rest of him was shipped back to Lyme and ended up in the graveyard of the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum just off the main road to the east. Dorset has many villages with “double-barrelled” names and quite a few with a Latin tag. The genitive Latin plural “Canonicorum” indicates that the tithes of the parish were shared between two sees, Salisbury (Sarum) and Bath and Wells. The Whitchurch might originally have been just the colour of the church but is now associated with the relics of St Candida (Wite), referred to variously as a Saxon saint and as being from Breton. I’ve seen the shrine dated to the thirteenth century, which might support the colour being the original determinant of the name (or that the relics were there before the shrine).

It’s one of the two churches (the other is Westminster Abbey) that has a shrine of this kind, most of them being destroyed during the reformation. Perhaps Dorset was such a backwater that the destroyers of idolatry couldn’t find their way through the lanes.

I didn’t go inside the church this time; I’m not enthusiastic about shrines (not just because I’m not religious but also on aesthetic grounds. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the hopes and agony of believers and sufferers but I find the apertures for messages and pleas to the saint for intercession tawdry and unpleasant.

The churchyard is also famous for grave of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian who was given a fatal jab of ricin at a London bus stop.

I visited another church closer to Dorchester, Winterbourne Steepleton (often spelt “bourne” in contrast to nearby Winterborne Martin, for reasons lost in the mists of English inconsistency). What little there is of a steeple is of later date so the name probably derives from the steepness of the valley location rather than the architecture (supported by a tendency to write “stupelton” in old documents (stupian being slope in old English). There is still some Saxon work at the church, the most striking being a stone angel from before the conquest. It’s hard to see what the angel is up to – it appears to be flying backwards. I’ve seen the explanation that it represents St Michael, the archangel whose remit included vanquishing evil: perhaps the unusual posture is because St Michael is destroying various pagan leftovers. The dating disturbs me, however, as it took time for Anglo-Saxons to conquer Dorset and they must have been Christian for quite some time by then (and the remaining Celtic population had probably been Christian from the Roman period onwards) so the question arises of what Pagan leftovers?

The history of church dedications is interesting although I haven’t found many works or articles about this topic.

Further along the road from Whitchurch (but before the Winterbourne turning) is the small town of Bridport, once an important centre for the rope industry and with an unbroken tradition of small industry of various kinds from the eighteenth century onwards (and craft activities before that). Like many places with early industrial activity, the non-conformist denominations were important and still have a presence in Bridport with former and extant churches. I didn’t have my Pevsner on architecture with me but still visited the very pleasant garden of the Friends Meeting House, admired a spectacular blue flower, which I think was one of the cranebills and learnt about the shape of Quaker gravestones and avoidance of the martial month names July and August.

The eastward trek along the A35 ended in Dorchester, a town I’m very fond of.

I passed briefly through Poundbury, Prince Charles creation inspired by the principles of New Urbanism.

It was larger than I remembered it from my previous visit but I don’t like it. Even ignoring the royal association, which doesn’t please me, I find the mix of large urban and small residential buildings visually disturbing. I like some of the individual buildings but not the overall impact. I’m unsure whether I’m in a town or a village. The number and type of retail outlets seemed about the same as last time – an estate agents, a bank or two, a shop selling bridal/marriage wear, among others so maybe I was wrong about the negative impact of Poundbury on the traditional town centre (there are a lot of closed shops but perhaps for other reasons than a drain of resources to Poundbury). I don’t either like the feeling of being cut off from the ancient and rather wonderful surrounding landscape.

Poundbury seems like a dormitory suburb, lacking the interactions of an established village or town. And this is perhaps one of the flaws of New Urbanism. You can reproduce traditional architecture but you can’t artificially reproduce the activities (and quirks) of a population. However, as a taxi driver remarked it’s there now. It would be interesting to read what academic articles are available about the development, who lives there and what they feel about it.

Now I have to forget about Dorset for a while as I will soon be leaving for the Outer Hebrides. I’m re-reading James Hunter’s book, “The Making of the Crofting Community” (unfortunately I have the “popular” edition without footnotes and a bibliography but I shall try to track down one of the more comprehensive editions). I want to get to grips with the pronunciation and meaning of Gaelic place names and look at the distribution of Scandinavian names along the coast of the islands (it’s curious to suddenly come across a settlement called “Bostad” (the Swedish/Scandinavian word for home or place to live, although “bo” is related to many similar words in other languages, perhaps even “bauer” in German (a settled rather than nomadic activity) and “bothy” in Scots).

There’s much of interest in the history of the crofting communities and in Hunter’s work (with references for example, to E.P. Thompson’s work on the English working class). Hunter makes a sharp critique of some (revisionist) academic authors wishing to present the actions of the landlords in the highland clearances and forced emigration as being economically necessary and progressive. In fact, economic forces were creating a framework that strongly encouraged the landlords to make brutal choices. Individual landlords may have made efforts to organise the emigration in a more humane way but they were a drop in the bucket and, while perhaps making the passage less hazardous for a few individuals, did not alter the fact that the landlords, both more and less repressive, largely dismantled the highland communities and destroyed their homes.

The passage of the crofting legislation (in the early twentieth century I believe) gave the crofters greater security of tenure but was hardly a “happy ending” (any more than the abolition of serfdom was in nineteenth-century Russia). Most of the problems of crofting remained unsolved (and currently insoluble). The only approach is to analyse the activities of the various participants – the landlord class, the crofters, and the UK government (who were prepared to make some concessions to the crofters at the expense of the local landlords as they had enough on their hands with the situation in Ireland without fighting on a new front against militant crofters trained in the use of firearms in WW1). I shall check and see what’s available – I might be lucky as Uppsala University is the most important centre in Sweden for studying Celtic languages and societies, including Gaelic.