The plot thickens

There’s an explanation of Alexander’s exploits in the bathysphere on the Getty Museum’s website in connection with another picture of Alexander’s aquatic derring do in their collection (artist unknown).

.According to their description, Alexander the Great, was a student of Aristotle and wanted to explore underwater. Accompanied by a dog, a cat and a cockerel, he had himself lowered into the water, according to this story which was apparently popular in Germany in mediaeval times. So far so odd but here the plot thickens. Alexander’s mistress is sitting in the boat entrusted with the chain holding the bathysphere. However, she is not alone but holding hands with her new lover who persuades her to elope with him, whereupon she casts the chain into the sea, leaving Alexander to work out his own escape (no info on how A achieves this). I can’t see the animals in my pic but they were part of the story. The social situation seems more complicated in my pic (which is at the Bodleian in Oxford) than in the Getty Museum’s version where there is not just a couple simpering and cooing but a whole gang of people, two of whom are holding the chain.

This seems remarkably naïve of a man who must have had a considerable intellectual capacity, Hardly a fitting end for a warrior. He certainly wouldn’t have been let into Valhalla if he’d arrived with such a lamentable tale (the guards on the gate would have laughed until they choked on their mead).

The name “bathysphere” comes from bathytroctes, a genus of the slickhead fish from the depths of the ocean. On this occasion, Alexander was anything but a slickhead. This may, however, be a fishy story or popular etymology rather than scientific as “bathos” means deep in Ancient Greek, bathysphere and the name of the fish are related therefore but they may well be cousins rather than parent and child. The picture of the fish shaking its head (or fin perhaps) at the dechained Alexander and thinking that this ain’t no slickhead is hard to resist.

Carl Gustaf af Leopold et al

The street names around my flat please me; on my side of the road, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Verner von Heidenstam, Stig Dagerman, Bengt Lidner, Carl Gustaf af Leopold, Frederika Bremer, Lars Värnlund and Elin Wägner are all there. The other side towards Gamla Uppsala is appropriately all Nordic mythology . Baldur, Idun and Mimer have their roads as well as Valhalla and more. Refreshing with resonant road names that stimulate learning rather than the trite banality of berry or sport names. Värnlund was a new discovery for me. I was impressed that a rather conservative city had the breadth of vision to honour Värnlund, not exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. My latest exploration has been Leopold. I knew he wasn’t the monster of the Congo but not much else. Carl Gustaf af Leopold 1756-1829 is perhaps mainly famous as a poet, advocate of French classicism and the Alexandrine at a time when the steamier enthusiasm of Romanticism was waxing in the shape of the journal Phosphorus among others. Not surprisingly, Leopold was involved in various literary feuds, which at some point I’ll try and get my head around but not nowpoint. He was also active as an academy member and in standardising Swedish spelling.

Rather too prone to use his pen to embellish various royals for my taste but an interesting figure none the less.

And he led to me looking up the Alexandrine meter (with a sigh as I can never get poetic meters sorted out despite parroting about iambic pentameters in youthful exams). Googling Alexandrine led me to a pic by Jehan de Grise (1338-1344) of Alexander the Great in a glass diving bell.

Diving bells seem somehow post-industrial revolution or just before, nothing I associate with the fourteenth century. Also curious what Alexander was up to and interesting with de Grise’s choice of topic when art was full of martyred saints rather than the glories of Rome and Greece.

I´ve also learnt the collective word for a group of cats, which is a clowder. Apparently from the early nineteenth century thought to be from the dialect word cludder, which in turn is related to clutter.

And now I know the meaning of the American slang term “cat’s paw” meaning someone you use to do something bad. That feels like a gap in my education where folk might ask me “Didn’t you know that term?”. And, after a fashion I do or at least I’ve seen it before and not bothered to react.

The language and culture of the Faroe Islands

Of interest in W.B. Lockwood’s “The Language and Culture of the Faroes Islands”

– There are a large number of words in Faroese to denote different kinds of waves and currents in the sea

(like the Sami in northern Scandinavia and Finland with their large number of words for snow)

– The orthography of Faroese constructed in the nineteenth century on etymological principles helps those familiar with Old Norse to read Faroese but “is often a nuisance to the Faroese themselves”, making it difficult to teach children to spell properly

– Apples don´t grow in the Faroes and were an exotic fruit until the last century. The potato got to the Faroes first; they took over the Danish word for potato translated literally into English as “earth apple” (jordepli with accents and a letter I can’t reproduce) and then simplified it to “epli”. This made things complicated when apples started to arrive so they are referred to as “surepli” (with accent), sour apples.

– Most Faroese people recognise far more birds than we would. They have no general word for gull but call different birds in the gull family by separate names, thus “gneggjus” for common gull, “rita” for three-toed gull and likka for lesser black-backed gull.

– They mix the words for sun (sol) and moon, Traditionally the moon was thought to exercise a baleful influence and its name became taboo, Thus the sentence “Tarvitrin matti ikki drepast i avtakandi sol” (“The bull had not to be slaughtered in the waning sun”). The sun, of course, doesn’t wane, it’s the moon that does that. However, as mention of the moon is thought to be unlucky, the superstitious replace the word for moon by the word for “sun”, which can be confusing for the uninitiated.

Lockwood also has some interesting information about the persistence of communal customs, how a large amount of essential work such as bird-catching, sheep-tending, fishing, whale and seal-hunting, milking, clearing paths and building houses was done by communal labour. There are still remnants of this, in, for instance, the whale hunt. On some islands, even as late as the last century sheep were owned in common by the whole population and in other places when bird eggs were collected, a portion called a “land part” was distributed freely to the whole population regardless of whether they had participated in collecting the eggs. Deep sea fishing, attracting away the young and vigorous for months at a time in return for individual cash wages has intensified the trend away from communal pursuits.

Source: Saga-Book, 1946-53, Vol 13 (1946-53), pp 249-268 published by Viking Society for Northern Research


My God of sleep, my personal Morpheus,  is on the autism spectrum. He knows what sleep is – he’s seen lots doing it but he doesn’t understand. So up he pops at inappropriate moments – on the bus just before my stop, at friends’ dinner table, but not in bed at 4 am. After a brief struggle to cling on to CET, I surrender to KVT (Kendall Variable Time) and get up.

Stimulated by Messenger, Alexandre Dumas makes his appearance with La Dame aux Camélias.

Only recently familiar, I now know that it was about a lady working as a courtesan, who wore a red camelia when she was menstruating and a white when not. It sounds ingenious and I wonder whether it might solve my problem with restaurant visits at the local pensioners’centre. The food is good and cheap but people might talk to me, when I want to put the world on hold. So perhaps if I wore a red camelia, I could be alone, except that red camelias are a symbol for passion that you give to your beloved. It could be misinterpreted, perhaps if I wrote an explanatory leaflet about myself or maybe it’s just easier to cook in my kitchen’s bookish calm.

From camelias to chameleons, which is (I think) the same in French. Wrestling with whether “Les dames aux chameleons” works in French, planning the day pushes Dumas rather abruptly off stage.

But before I get very far Molly Coddle hoves into view, I know not why but she triggers my etymological alarm response. It means pamper, which is a synonym for coddle. Otherwise, the word is innocent enough with its aura of blankets, hot chocolate and brows caressed by beloveds. But it had a chequered history in its early nineteenth century youth with unpleasant homophobic overtones associating it with effeminate gay men, moll having drifted from a working lady at the other end of the social scale from La Dames aux Camelias to a homophobic term for gay men. Fortunately, the word rapidly lost its youthful louche.

But then began the wild dance of the internet, saviour of the thinking being when the ceiling of the world lowers and starts to crush. A source about the history of moll leads me to Dr Jacob Serenius, who produced a Swedish-English dictionary (among others) in 1762. Born in Färentuna, he was a priest at the Swedish church in London for a number of years and took an active part in eighteenth century intellectual life. I’m not sure I would have approved of his take on religion but interrogation about that can wait.

Hunting for the dictionary on Libris, I seem to have arrived at a bad time as the website is rushing around in the throes of renewal but things are hushly calm at Carolina Rediviva; I learnt that Serenius is far from unknown in the Swedish lexicographical world with a half recent Gothenburg University PhD.

Returning to Sweden, he became a bishop active in Strängnäs where he died.  There is a picture of him at All Saints (Alla Helgons) church in Nyköping, which I have to visit (after I’ve checked that it´s actually on the wall and not languishing in some ecclesiastical basement together with sentimental nineteenth century alabaster statues of the saviour with his feet chopped off).

With no urgent translation work, it feels like a good day for a library visit to Carolina Rediviva. I have an article about the Faroes that I’ve wanted to read for some time and I’d like to learn about how to access digital articles as so many publications are now only available that way.

But I have an hour of Bengali to fit in, an hour of French, an hour of current affairs, an hour of German, a body longing for a walk and a shingles vaccination, and a flat that needs attention if it is not to scream from every dusty corner that an old man lives here. Lucky that KVT has a flexibility worthy of Harry Potter and doesn’t plod along with the austere inevitability of CET.

It’s now 6.45 CET, more or less the same in KVT with 2 hours and fifteen minutes to get through my Japanese tea ceremony-like shift from night mode to day mode before 09.00. So resisting the temptation to relax on my lotus leaf in my dressing gown and drift around on the Internet ocean, I am going to leap up and put all these pesky items pressing in on me in their place.

Swedish landscape and Albertus Pictus

My six years in a Somerset village (after 12 years in a small coastal settlement in Sussex) laid the basis for my lifelong love of the West Country. I cycled a lot (which would have surprised my physical education teachers frustrated at my apparent physiophobia). Most of my journeys were aimless with no effort to  understand what I was looking at, a blurred fond recollection of wayside ragged robins,  warm sand-coloured buildings in a soft gentle green world. I’ve made up for it since, returning again and again to the area aiming not just to recognise the familiar but to make it unfamiliar by viewing it through historical, geological, architectural filters and more. That at least is my aim although I have dug deeper than intended into the ecclesiastical, developing an eagle eye for vaults and apses but only nibbling at my grand plan.

My move to Sweden a  half century ago disturbed and preserved. Disturbed through distance but preserved through Dorset and Somerset becoming a mirage, a verdant longing in the harsher Scandinavian landscape, where the irritations of everyday life kept their distance. If I moved there, it would probably crumble like an ancient Egyptian artefact exposed to the air.

It’s taken me time to get used to Sweden, its distances, the apparent emptiness, the barren acidity of coniferous forests. But my eye has become accustomed and I’ve learnt to appreciate it, especially since I moved to Uppsala with its dense pattern of Uppland villages. When I cycled a lot before the pandemic, I felt sometimes moved a half century back in time (with the added advantage of having a comfortable cycle rather than drop handlebars which were de rigueur for DK quivering on the edge of  adolescence).

The feeling of emptiness engendered by Sweden’s distance between villages is partly an illusion. The people are there but have been strewn around the landscape after the agricultural reforms of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Scattered strips of land were then combined in the interests of agricultural efficiency (and to favour the larger farmer), the old nucleated villages were broken up and people moved out to where their land was (rather than having a number of farms in the village surrounded by commonly enclosed scattered strips). I would like to know more about the details of that process in Uppland as it seems that more villages have survived here. I wonder about the pattern of land ownership. Feudalism wasn’t highly developed in Sweden but there were aristocratic estates and smaller holdings, which should shed light on the current landscape.

For me, Uppland is more attractive than south of Stockholm, although that may be because the land is more verdant here (Stockholm itself is really some way out in the archipelago).

I’m not contented with my progress with this project this year but I shall try again in summer 2024 and make plans in the meantime. Among other things, I want to find out more about a mediaeval church painter called Albertus Pictus (c1440-c1507), active in these parts. His wall paintings are most restored from layers of Lutheran whitewash disapproving of the distracting image interfering with inward contemplation.  I have a list of village churches to visit but it requires planning transport and making sure that the churches are or can be opened. I need to get back into better shape to be able to cycle, hopefully time spent this winter on the North German coast where the sun always shines will help.


My missing words were bariatric meaning the treatment of obesity from the Greek

“bar” (to do with weight) “iatr” treatment and “ic” pertaining to.  And a “bench trial”, which is a trial without a jury.

And the etymology of “bevy” which, according to Etymology on line is early 15c, a collective noun of quails and ladies, from Anglo-French bevée, which is of unknown origin. One supposed definition of the word is “a drinking bout,” but this perhaps is a misprint of bever (see beverage). One source on the net suggests that a bevy of ladies refers to a delightful gathering or group comprised of women, typically characterized by their elegance, grace, and beauty. This collective noun phrase connotes an aura of charm and sophistication, emphasizing the enchanting aspect of the female presence within the group”. That all sounds backward and tiresome, the kind of thing you would expect from a gush of conventional thinkers. “Bevy” is not going to be allowed to join my vocabulary unless I have some quail-intensive experiences, which seems unlikely.

Kazi Nazrul Islam and Havelok the Dane

Reading William Darymple’s book on the East India Company makes me aware that I don’t know the difference between a howrah and a palanquin. A palanquin is a covered litter for one passenger consisting of a large box carried on two horizonal poles by four or six bearers, a howdah is a throne-like saddle for an elephant, If discretion, shielding the traveller from the inquisitive eyes of the hoi polloi is the name of the game then a palanquin is the one to go for. If, on the other hand, Curzonian ostentation is what you’re after then it’s a howdah.

The symbol of the strong elephant bearing a load was popular in the late middle ages, I’ve read that it was a symbol for Christ and the redemption but I’m not sure how that hangs together, There’s the Elephant and Castle pub in London, even district now, which Wiki tells us Shakespeare mentions in 12th night but according to London encyclopaedia, this pub was converted from a smithy in the eighteenth century. Perhaps there were lots of elephant and castle pubs or maybe it was the sign for the smithy. There doesn’t seem to be an Indian connection though the motive was popular in heraldry,

My other Indian discovery is the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangla Desh.

 (1899-1976). He wrote a poem called Bidrohi, meaning “the rebel” in Bengali earning him the title of the Bidrohi Kobi (rebel poet), According to Wiki he was an orthodox Sunni muslim but heavily influenced by syncretism and critical of bigotry and the oppression of women. He is celebrated in West Bengal too, at least he has a Kolkata metro station named after him. Not exactly an ideological blood brother to yours truly but it’s an interesting thread to pull to discover more about Bengal East and West.

Another Indian discovery is Powis Castle near Welshpool, home of the Clive family, which apparently has a huge collection of Indian items brought home by Clive. I have too many images from Kolkata  in my mind’s eye for easy enjoyment of  the beauty of India in my home environment. The shanties press in on my attention, another “they are here, because we were there” moment like the precious baubles. I shall probably pop in next time I’m in Welshpool…

Closer to home, I have become interested in Havelok the Dane. I’ve wondered for a long time about the absence of written sources about the period of the Danelaw when half of England (east of Watling St, the Roman road, I think) was ruled by the Danes and even the whole of England had a Danish King Canute for some  years. There’s a great number of place names and words of Scandinavian origin, especially in the dialects and the influence gets stronger the further north you go where the dialects are loaded with words of Scandinavian origin, culminating in Shetland where the dialect is populated by the ghosts of Norn.

But somehow the Scandinavian is scattered, not fully integrated into our story about ourselves, which runs from plucky Alfred burning his cakes, founding the navy and resisting the Danes through William the Conqueror where things get distinctly ambivalent, and finally the resurgence of English with Chaucer and the Tudors, and the well trodden path leading to David Kendall at junior school in the early 1950s struggling with mauvais foi as his red crayon hovered over the outline of the Republic of Ireland and Burma with all the other far flung imperial bits and bobs.  

I’ve discovered the story of Havelok the Dane, which is an old story in several versions, the Middle English being best known. And I realised how important the study of Middle English was to understand how we got from Old English, pretty much a foreign language, to modern English.

I even had several hardly used books on Middle English on my out-of-control bookshelf which is becoming more Narnia-like by the day.

There were also some words. I now know what an epigraph is, a word I recognised but never introduced myself properly to. It’s a written message on a building or a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter intended to express its theme, which I found filled a useful gap and will probably be pressed into service in the not too distant. And a commonplace book, which are notebooks people like me use to jot down bits of knowledge, a repository of thoughts.

And fustian which as I thought was coarse clothing but apparently also means a pompous or pretentious speech, And the etymology of famine which was straightforward from the Latin fames hunger, thus related to “famished”.

I’ve also learnt what ceps are, a type of edible fungi, porcino (little pig) in Italian, steinpilz in German and cepe in French. I haven’t budged an inch from my English prejudices about edible fungi despite my half century in Sweden but I like to know the name of things,

There were some other words too but I have mislaid them. My commonplace books are many and swirl around my flat like an asteroid belt.

Days of yore

Track maintenance but the replacement bus comes, whisking me to Lund unlike my earlier experience in Padborg. A long wait – I couldn’t resist cheapy Snälltåget. But it’s a pleasure to sit quietly in Lund pondering my first year in Sweden. I’ve mostly just flashed through Lund of late. It was a Sunday; I couldn’t go to the cathedral crypt to look at the Danish writing on the tombs. I know no one there now. It’s strangely familiar or familiarly strange. I was in my 20s then, my English life was close at hand. Unlocked doors, tea, toast and marmalade, peaceful courtyards, scuttling across Skåne in orange and yellow diesel cars when I wasn’t madly driving from coast to coast with my Raleigh moped, which no one east of the North Sea knew how to mend. Pretty coloured stamps in my savings book at the post office where you paid your bills and a monthly wage of 1,600 after tax. 25 öre phone calls and rent of 500. And cradle to grave social democracy, the feeling of shame when shopping at ICA and not Domus; though it didn’t really matter as ICA wouldn’t be around much longer.  And all those small Scanian towns with their newspapers.

Kastrup an occasional experience, England far away, not like flipping backward and forth  from Stockholm (London E250) before planes disappeared in the greenery. Clogs and a silly brown fur (ish) hat with ear flaps, promoting my inner image of the hero of Petrograd in 1917 but in fact looking as if my name was Bertil.

And not understanding the language, occasional nowtime flashbacks in Denmark as to how it felt, those first two years when communication was like holding a wine glass with gloves on before I started to massacre Swedish in earnest. At least, I learnt to say Peugeot and Kristianstad like a Skåning to my Stockholmsk mother-in-law’s discomfort.

Back in Uppsala, it’s taken me a while to find my rhythm. I’ve finished Middlemarch, I thought I’d read it but there’s no laborious memory reconstruction, no remembered character trait, no distant resonance. It’s a fine novel. I like books that are great works of literature but integrated with a historical period, in the case of Middlemarch, the great reform bill in 1832 and the class relationships between old and new money. The latter is par for the course for the Victorian novel but George Eliot does it so well.

And I’m getting to grips with my Bengali which I’ve neglected. I’m slowly moving on from the parrot phase.

And started to read William  Darymple’s “The Anarchy” about the East India Company. I didn’t realise  how tenuous the East India Company’s grip  was until quite late in the eighteenth century. Plassey was the turning point but there was later resistance to the English. Darymple describes the horrific process where the East India Company  took advantage of the collapsing Mughal Empire and sucked Bengal dry, taking its wealth to England leaving the Bengalis with famine.  A lot of Clive’s loot ended up at the family’s home Powys Castle, which has a very large collection of Indian artefacts.