What did you do in 1848 poor poet?

August/September are often quiet months for translators; sometimes there’s a little spurt as folk finish off what they didn’t manage to get done before the holidays before everything goes quiet. I’m fully occupied dusting my books, which I should do continuously like the painting of the Firth of Forth bridge (but don’t). And now it’s high time as the air in my home office was not sweet.

The project goes slowly, interrupted by the discovery of buried treasure from yester year, half-remembered or half-forgotten projects. Two cards on a shelf fight for attention, one by Carl Spitzweg /1808-1885), The Poor Poet, showing the bohemian poet lying in bed protected by an umbrella against the leaking roof. The other card is from Dante’s Inferno XV 29 showing Dante looking at the burned features of his “teacher” (source Robert Hollander (Princeton University), 20 August 2001.

“The task is not just to understand the world but to change it” was tattooed on my brain when a callow youth. This I tried for some years until I lost my way, narrowed the struggle to loosening my own chains, became a serial reproducer and latterly also give tender loving care to my cerebral orphanage of unwanted information. But I look at the two cards and think what did I become, what should I have become, what did I turn my back on?

In fact, the comparison limps as the Dante picture is complicated Under my own steam, I had only got as far as recognising Dante.

Robert Hallander is refreshingly undumbdowned. He writes “As Dante’s readers are aware, this verse is usually printed as “chinando la mano alla sua faccia”, a reading that has been, as we shall see, intelligently questioned in the recent past, but which, restored to its suspect glory by Petrocci (1966) has returned to nearly unanimous favor.  The problem is for once, a simple one and can be described as follows: Dante, looking down at the burned features of his “teacher”, Brunetto Latini, either extends his hand toward that face or else lowers his own face in the direction of Brunetto’s, followed by three pages analysing the likelihood of Dante extending his hand or lowering his face and the wording of Dante’s Inferno.

This is heady stuff for a translator and chaser of intellectual rabbits emeritus like me. I realise that it is not enough to have read and poorly understood Proust and Joyce. I have to tackle Dante’s Inferno too!

And, like the poor poet, surrounded by books, with Teach Yourself Bengali, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s (Chatterjee) short stories), the Fair Maid of Perth, a history of Lever Brothers soap emporium and land ownership in Scotland, Dorset churches as well as various weighty works on imperialism, whose nature I am trying to penetrate, and almost 100 pictures of St Jerome I need to work on, I feel the approach of another major project. Like poor King Midas who changed everything he touched to gold, everything I become interested in becomes a potential PhD. Probably not a curse in my case but to do with poorly functioning frontal lobes…

There’s another picture by Spitzweg which I like, called The Bookworm. (Der Bucherwurm).

It’s in the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt in Bavaria. According to Wiki, Georg Schäfer ran an important ball bearing factory and was a Nazi city councillor, as well as having a fine art collection (some of doubtful provenance). But that’s another story and I probably shouldn’t get into it if I’m going to finish dusting my books.

30 beds and travelling light

After being home a week, I no longer lie half awake laboriously reconstructing where I might be. But I still dream obsessively of complicated travel tasks to be completed, getting entry codes or worrying about connections, before becoming fully awake and aware that the route to the fridge and the bathroom is straightforward without risk of being stranded by the wardrobe for hours.

Disaster awareness increases with age and I worry about things that I wouldn’t have given a thought to twenty years ago, at the same time as being intellectually aware that these worries are unrealistic.

Perhaps more remarkable is that there have been relatively few determined assaults on walk-in cupboards as I try, semi-conscious, to bend the uncompromising shape of hanging clothes into a half-remembered bathroom. Remarkable because I have made two major trips overland to the UK this summer, each of them involving staying in fifteen different places. Despite having become seriously elderly, it seems that the old dog can learn new tricks to adjust to nomadic life.

I do, however, have to make some concessions to advancing age. Attempts on a pub staircase in Dorset to disprove Newton while person handling a heavy case probably led to unpleasant results.

I want my everyday life to continue so that travelling, for example, to Scotland is not just socks, a toothbrush and lactose tablets but books on crofting and the land question, Teach Yourself Gaelic, offprints on Gaelic place names, OS maps and guides, and needs arising en route so that I would have purchased Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth had the city’s not-so-fair book merchants made room (saved in this case by a fair friend from Sweden, who sent me a link).

And returning via Cheshire, then the relevant volume of Pevsner’s architecture series is a must as it is for Dorset (and perhaps Somerset too), which also requires more maps and other material about the county, my own notes not least. And then there’s Bengali which I didn’t want to neglect for six weeks (although that was what happened).

The travel necessities of ideal David Kendall are in other words pushing way beyond the recent breathless temperatures in the forties to 50 or even 60 kgs, which, in the absence of a train of bearers or a few of Lord Curzon’s elephants, is a non-starter.

The concept of luggage needs to be reviewed. Transitional objects of marginal use to help the traveller deal with the trauma of the unknown are easy to eliminate. And a reality check can be made on the extent to which ideal David Kendall’s desires can be achieved by actually existing David Kendall. But there is still a stubborn pile of inexpensive objects being transported with effort back and forth between the same or similar places. It seems more logical to let the luggage stay where it is and just transport myself; I have started to address this problem by leaving suitcases of clothes and books, initially at four or five frequent locations, with friends or, in one case, a self-storage facility.

I had my first substantially luggage-free trip back from the UK this time. It was a dream to be so nimble – when arriving at Strasbourg with no taxi in sight and a queue in the baking sun, it was easy to retreat and find a bus via Google maps. Or being able to weasel my way lightly loaded through a tangle of contorted bodies to grab a seat when the Danes did their usual trick of taking so long to check passports in a stationary train that I missed my connection and lost my seat reservation at Fredericia. Or not travelling home by taxi from the airport.

The “hug-me” moment lasted almost the whole way home when a quick check outside my flat revealed that I was one bag missing, which I’d left at the bus stop in central Uppsala, my imagination’s relaxing moment of arrival in my armchair replaced by a thin-lipped fraught bus ride back to town where my little grey bag with a few treasures and a pile of receipts was waiting patiently for me on the shelter seat.

All beginnings are difficult (and endings can be too if you let your guard down too quickly).

Crofters and the land issue in Scotland (a first attempt to focus an untidy mind)

It’s been great to travel nimbly without heavy luggage but it’s had its negative sides. Not having my laptop with me has been a pain and I won’t lightly repeat this experience; I find it hard to think without my computer.

I’ve tried three times to summarise my thoughts on crofting and more broadly the land issue in the Outer Hebrides and Scotland. I’ve threshed around unsuccessfully to write on my blog using my mobile. I’ve written texts that are now floating around sadly in the cyber void. This is just as well as they were unsatisfactory. I’ve now tried again but instead of statements, I’ve produced a list of areas that I would like to know more about, which can hopefully enable a more systematic and alert re-reading of the material I have access to.


Before 1800 (arbitrary choice of date)

– Decline of clans and transformation of clan leaders into landlords

– Developments in agriculture. Similarities and differences to situation further south

(as regards enclosure of common lands, agricultural modernisation etc. movement of surplus agricultural population to industry/proletarianisation (or lack of this possibility). Accumulation of statistical material.

– Financial situation of landowners

– Demographic developments

– Structure of land ownership, Scottish land law, feudal remnants

– Emigration, nature of emigration prior to main period of clearances in C19. Landowners attitude to emigration (negative in some cases from concern about loss of reserve pool of labour). Who emigrated and under what conditions. Further fate of emigrants. Possible differences in emigration at this time and later on during main Clearance period.

– Class structure of (especially) Highland society. Crofters, cottars, landowners. Relationship to and involvement of landowners in other occupations – kelping, fishing. Who were the Scottish landlords and what other economic interests did they have?

– Removal of crofters from areas wanted for sheep farming and transfer to small shoreside crofts with poor quality common land. Not viable by itself (without secondary occupation).

After 1800

– Extent of clearances in Hebrides and elsewhere in Highlands in period from 1800 to main clearance period in mid nineteenth-century. Forced emigration, brutality. Attitude to Gaelic population. Subsequent fate of emigrants

– Effect of poor law system on landlords’ desire to remove crofters.  

– Changes in agriculture.

 – Scottish equivalent of potato famine and landlords’ activity or more usually non-activity to alleviate starvation. Treatment by different sources and limitations of these sources.

 – Study of literature, both academic and non-academic, romantic and revisionist.

– Development from deference to political resistance.

– Effect of World War 1, Irish situation and Russian Revolution. Information about positions of, for example, Scottish CP on land question.

– Crofting legislation – what it provided and limitations.

Limits to efficacy of state repression and attempt by authorities to resolve problem by concessions to most militant section of crofters in local area (Outer Hebrides).

– Situation after World War One

– Intervention by Lord Leverhulme.

Study of Lever Bros (Unilever) – Port Sunlight and search after sources of palm oil. Activities in Belgian Congo (contact with authorities after problems obtaining labour). Relationship with trade unions. Attitudes to Lord Leverhulme’s activities on the part of the rest of Lever Bros, later Unilever.

Plans for industrialisation and Lord Leverhulme’s negative attitude to crofting.

Splits in crofters’ response – collapse of Leverhulme’s intervention after downturn in fishing industry and his withdrawal.

Ideological considerations – inadequacy of Christian approach of good and evil to analysis of actions and interactions of social classes.

– Political considerations – viability of crofting, attitude to proletarianisation (from left). Confirmation of limitations of “peasantry” (farmers) in leading political changes (too locally based etc.)

– Development of crofting after World War. Did it remain unviable – if not, why not. Could it be viable under conditions of capitalist agriculture?

– Continued development of land situation. Scotland’s highly concentrated land ownership. Nature of traditional aristocratic landowners and other activities.

– Nature of capitalism in Scotland (degree of integration of Scottish pools of capital with UK capitalism).

– Significance of striving towards Scottish independence. Will this lead to less sympathetic treatment of large landowners? Relation of Scottish landowners to other classes in Scotland. The land issue in Scotland today.

Some categories need further editing but it should be sufficient to enable me to read sources critically and make notes that can be shuffled more intelligently as I become more fleet of foot in the area.