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.

Marika Stiernstedt

I first learnt about Marika Stiernstedt (1875-1954) through her Uppsala novel “Slätten” (Elise). But there is much more to her than this comparatively minor novel in her oeuvre. I was intrigued by her life, the daughter of a lieutenant-general and a Polish countess, close to Branting, the first social-democrat prime minister of Sweden, who wrote early on about the Armenian massacres and became an anti-fascist and reputedly a communist (I don’t know whether that took any organisational form apart from her books). I’d also like to know more about her thoughts on Ellen Key (whom I know far too little about). According to https://nordicwomensliterature,net “Her main theme continues to be the erotic emancipation of the modern woman as a contrast to male double moral standards”. The same article describes her as “a leading name among twentieth century women writers of novels of disillusion”. This is perhaps an accepted term but it doesn’t seem to me to fully capture her spirit, it’s too passive and negative, while she continued to struggle to chisel out a life that was compatible with her feelings, regardless of convention; that as an initial reaction as I haven’t read enough by her. The same article does state “What good is freedom to the new woman if the new man turns out to be a cross between a hypocritical patriarch and a helpless child despite assurances of an egalitarian companiate marriage” (à propos Stiernstedt’s book on her second marriage “Kring ett äktenskap (1953); About a marriage, which I also want to read).

I’ve ordered a number of her novels on Bokbörsen. They are all old (I must check whether and how often her works have been reprinted and if they have been translated).

I was happy when I unwrapped one package and saw the finely bound copy of “Spegling i en skärva” (1936) It became more complicated when I saw that the book had a library stamp from Brunnsviks Bokstuga. I found an article in Dagens Arbete, the industrial workers trade union’s journal (February 2020) describing how LO, the central trade union organisation had closed its course facility at Brunnsvik seven years earlier and how “the unique collection of books in the library was thrown (slung) into containers”, elsewhere how the books were put “insensitively into containers”. It sounded as if the books were roughly chucked into containers and in immediate danger of being pulped along with piles of ads on cheap cheese from the local co-op. My initial reaction was to feel that I had to contact the librarian to restore the book to the library. However, further reading indicates that the containers were donated to the local municipality (Ludvika) and the library has now been resurrected (this doesn’t soften any criticism of LO for not looking after its cultural capital but possibly indicates an overenthusiastic use of the purple pen when writing the article).

There is, however, still the issue of how the book came to be on sale on the secondhand book site Bokbörsen. Did the book slip away from the container before the books were restored? Or was there a purge of old books when they restored the library and, if so, why did they purge such a fine (and still very relevant) writer as Marika Stiernstedt. I need to don my trench coat and dark glasses and take my business card (special investigator into crimes against books) to go on a study visit to the library, to compare their catalogues at the time of closure and currently, and to be able to interrogate suspects. For the time being (until and if I’ve established that the new management are fit to be trusted), I will keep the book, aware of parallels with the British Museum’s arguments on the Elgin Marbles.

Apart from Stiernstedtiana, I plucked up my courage to collect a book from the local post office where the sender was stated on the advice as “esc.xml inol,parameterMap.sender”. I suspected that this was spam. the package perhaps containing codes that would transform my computer into a whirling dervish with an invoice for some unreasonable amount rapidly following receipt of collection. I had more or less decided to let the post office send the packet back uncollected.

Fortunately, I caught sight of the very low weight of the packet and realised that this was the cedar wood moth balls that I’d ordered, the weird sender being computer babble from the Post Office in a miserably failed attempt to reproduce the not so uncommon company name.

I’m glad I solved that mystery (although the moths probably have a different attitude to this matter) or it would have taken up mental space pondering about the packet at the post office and I need that space as I struggle to get back into work mode after being in France and with my children over  yuletide.


My project of learning more about Stockholm’s buildings has rather taken a back seat since moving to Uppsala and the pandemic. But my enthusiasm has been whetted by sleeping in a flat directly opposite one of Stockholm’s architectural icons, Industricentralen, which is the first thing I see in the morning.

The architect, Ragnar Östberg was also responsible for Stockholm’s famous City Hall and the National Maritime Museum, both buildings reflecting Östberg’s resistance to the growing influence of functionalism and modernism in Sweden. Industricentralen with its honest brick and lack of decoration, is a couple of steps in that direction although Ragnar Östberg never fully embraced modernism.

It originally housed a number of industries inspired by German and American models (as was the brick). The industrial appearance is strictly protected although it now contains offices, and is popular for art galleries and architects (one called Aix architects which pleases me).

On the pavement outside the building, there is also a small statue “Arbetaren” (the worker), by Mikael Katz, given as artistic embellishment by the industrialists who developed the property. Mikael Katz was originally Russian and studied to become an architect in Kazan and St Petersburg before the revolution. I would like to find out more about his life from the time of the revolution until 1926 when he came to Sweden (and was here until the 1950s). In later life, he was active at the Art Academy in Sofia in Bulgaria and became Professor there in 1963, according to Wiki. The statue is very much in the spirit of socialist realism and has been copied at a couple of other locations in Sweden. It’s curious to think of the industrialists choosing just this statue as embellishment of their premises (I wouldn’t have been so surprised if it had been used to decorate a building used by the trade unions or social democrats).

26 December

Boxing Day aka St Stephen’s Day or Wren’s Day; St Stephen being the first Christian martyr according to the Act of Apostles stoned to death after being accused of blasphemy. He is also the patron saint of bricklayers and stonemasons (and has stones among his attributes), which I wouldn’t have been too pleased about had I been St Stephen. Wren or Wren’s Day, according to Wiki, comes from an old custom, prevalent in Ireland (Lá an Dreollin) of “hunting” and putting a wren on top of a decorated pole. a custom, also celebrated on the  Isle of Man. According to, “the wren (is) ..considered a harbinger of spring and rebirth”, “a symbol of the arts, because of its association with songwriters, musicians and anyone who writes or crafts written works”. Until now, my associations with wrens have not developed since the demise of the farthing, the quarter penny, in 1956, which depicted the smallest British bird on the smallest denomination coin.

Otherwise I have learnt a number of words and expressions from Donald White’s vigorous translation of Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s The Island of Second Sight. A kitty corner is a mainly American expression for something that is diagonally opposite (for example) seen from a window, prestidigitation is a conjuring trick performed as entertainment. A pandect is the complete body of the laws of a country and parthenogenesis, reproduction from an ovum without fertilisation from the Greek (virgin) and genesis (creation).

I’ve tried to read Thelen’s novel in German and in English, skimming through the English before I tackled the German. It worked reasonably well as a crutch for my inadequate German but was frustratingly slow. So now I’ve let myself get drunk on the novel and am racing ahead with the English. But I will reuse this technique on a book less rich in association and lower on quirkiness.

I have encountered a slew of interesting new words in Per Vikstrand’s doctoral thesis on Gudarnas Platser, Förkristna sakrala namn i Mälarlandskapen (The place of the gods. Pre-Christian sacral place names in central Sweden), I was expecting to have to explore new ground at Carolina Rediviva to find this thesis but a couple of clicks brought me to Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi and a few days later I had this fascinating book in my mailbox. thanks to the more prosaically named distributor Eddys. It won’t answer all my questions about place names in Uppland but undoubtedly fulfils its aim of providing a platform for more systematic discussion (I will nibble at this and admire it from afar, hopefully acquiring a few crumbs of comprehension). From this thesis, I have learnt metathetic (metatetisk in Swedish), interchangeable, communicable, among other meanings, according to,  chtonic,  relating to or inhabiting the underworld. And “noanamn” (noa name), a word that replaces a taboo word, an import from Polynesia. And the figure of speech metonymy, in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely connected with it, synecdoche (part of something to represent the whole), metalepsis (a word or phrase from figurative speech used in a new context), the currently fashionable prefix meta being beyond, more comprehensive, transcending.

All these figures of speech I’ve probably come across before looked up and then forgotten, my adolescent ease of acquisition of metaphor and simile a distant memory.

homonym, each of two or more words having the same pronunciation or spelling but different meanings was more familiar, hovering on the verge of acceptance into my vocabulary (egregious I’m pleased to say has now successfully completed its admission process after a long struggle). But new were hyponym and hypernym, a hyponym being a word or phrase that is more specific than its hypernym, thus “hobble”, “stride”, could be hyponyms and their hypernym walk.

And onomatiscon, a bit like lexicon (dictionary) but where the words are arranged by theme and not alphabetically.

And verroterie (glass jewellery) and cloisonné, ancient technique for decorating metalwork with coloured material,

And just this morning macaronic, a song sung in several languages, for example, Irish and English or Latin and a vernacular language.

All useful to know but I doubt it will make me better at Scrabble.

Post France

After a few moments of confusion when waking up, I’m back in my own flat, cat less but still ready for a burst of crepuscular activity, my head still in Lyon and Aix-en-Provence; Lyon where I left an unwilling friend by the roadside fifty years ago, spurred on by the urge to be alone and burdened by the memory of having acted shabbily and pointlessly, and the cold night I spent alone a few kilometres on the road to Paris beside a sign telling me that I had arrived in Mâcon; Lyon a blur in the night, scattered references from A-level European history about the history of the workers’ movement and gastronomy.

And I have learnt that, while you can’t change the past, you can lighten its burden, alleviate the sting of remorse, by linking it to new memories; to replace the strange onward hasty rush of the tourism of my twenties with more satisfying associations, richer and deeper.

And Lyon is now the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Rhone and Saône, where we walk to the very tip of Presqu’île, metres away from the rushing waters, the patrician dignity of the upmarket area where my relatives live, the old town in an air bnb, topped by its grateful basilica, thanking Maria for saving the city from the invading Prussians (and perhaps also like Sacré Coeur in Paris, a golden thanks and sigh of relief by the not so worthy burgesses celebrating the temporary laying to  rest of the old mole of the revolution after the bloody end of the Paris Commune in 1871).

And the fascinating history of the canuts, the struggles of the silk workers with associations to Saint Simon and utopian socialism, where the working class emerges from the vestiges of mediaeval confusion to act on its own behalf, reminding me of my recent visit to the Cotswolds and the earlier little meisters in Sheffield and making me want to re-read E.P. Thompson’s “The History of the English Working Class”.

A bit disappointed by my pile of largely unread books about the canuts, my staying power when reading French being less than the fluency of my hopeful imagination. But I shall get to grips with them, buoyed up by help to read Jean Giono’s complicated imagery as my TGV made its way through Alsace.

The canut museum is fine, much better than the Gadagne museum of the history of Lyon, which felt savaged by the rush from chronology to trends. I want to understand “thinking about museums” better and shall make myself a reading list for 2022. The old-style museum with its piles of objects, perhaps more focused on the researcher than the casual visitor, clearly had its problems, as did the museum as an instrument of propaganda, celebrating the onward march of a people to the glorious present. But the stripping away of historical context in favour of trends leaves me with a sense of loss, no longer able to let my imagination wander from one ancient object to another, to let the past touch me with its slender fingers but instead having my elbow jostled at every turn by the visibly flashy but poor narration of another’s imagination, which often feels shallow.

And the broader question, can a museum provide a people with history or perspective worthy of its name in our society?

It’s also the festival of light in Lyon where buildings are lit up by appealing stories and patterns of light. I’m apprehensive of the crowds in these plagued times, but we were well guided and it was a good experience.

And then to Aix-en-Provence, a city whose warm stone and eighteenth-century buildings have great appeal. Some museums are new for me – the museum of old Aix, the reopened Granet and the tapestry museum and return visits to Cezanne’s atelier on the northern edge, the few visitors and milder day making up for the shock of winter cold on arrival. And I learn about Mirabeau whose mellifluous name shades a dubious life. We even escape the north on a fine day trip walking along the seafront in Cascais near Marseille, a memory to dream about during the sombre days to come.

And not the least Provençal, where Librairie Le Blason is still going strong and I buy Nobel prize winner Frédéric Mistral’s long bilingual poem Mirèio/Mireille. I am feeling more and more at home in Provençal, its literature, Daudet, Bosco, Pagnol and Giono, as well as, of course, Mistral, and language. But there is still much to learn about the complicated relationships between Spanish, Catalan, Gascon, Provençal, the ways of classifying French dialects and the intermediary slew between France and Italy in Provence and old Savoy. It ‘s a dabble but a sensuous, satisfying dabble where the physical beauty of much of Provence blends with my own attachment to the West Country, enabling me to think about location and bonds in a broader context and not just as eccentric personal history.

And now back to my Swedish base, buoyed up by being able to make an outline plan for 2022 as my TGV and ICE trains made their way to Frankfurt and Hamburg (luckily completed before time slowed to a crawl in Denmark).

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.

A weekend in Galway

It’s over fifty years ago since I was last in western Ireland and I didn’t make it to Galway then.

My original idea was to visit the nearby Gaeltacht, one of the areas where Irish is still widely spoken. But that has to be on a longer trip allowing scope for reflective meanders in sparsely populated countryside. Galway will suffice for now at the estuary of the swift flowing River Corrib on its short journey from Lough Corrib to Galway Bay. So swift flowing and tumultuous that (from the safety of my third floor hotel room) it looked as if it might breach its banks. But there are no flood warnings and the river channel seems well protected with alternative paths to capture the water masses. So maybe the locals are used to the river’s powerful surge (although I see that there is a central street called Flood St).

It’s supposed to be one of the most Irish cities in Ireland (it would require an essay to explain the meaning of that). It does have a different atmosphere to Dublin. Here, way beyond the pale, the footprint of the conquering English is different. There are no rows of Georgian terraces or evidence of rapid growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century before the famine.

According to architect Roddy Mannion’s “Galway, a sense of place”, rhe Normans built a castle here in the early thirteenth century and they were followed by what Mannion calls the Anglo-Normans, merchant Catholic families speaking first Norman French and then English, trading with the Gaelic speaking areas around the town but also with Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Almost a city state where the grasp of metropolitan England was weak. According to Mannion, this all changed after Cromwell besieged and then occupied the city in 1652, Then the merchant families lost much of their power, including fresh waves of protestant settlers from mainland Britain. These merchant families were referred to as tribes but it is unclear whether this was this their own name or a derogatory name used by Cromwell.

Mannion presents this period as a golden age of Galway although the Irish speaking peasants in nearby villages would I suspect have a few less golden things to say about the “Old English”. Fortunately, Charlie Byrne’s bookshop is open this afternoon so that I can search for a book about the development of the local economy and try and work out how people made money (from other people…). It’s a great bookshop – according to the quote from the New York Times, “one of the City’s most unique experiences” (was the editor asleep when this slipped through?).

After Cromwell, the city doldrummed (to adapt a fine Middle English word) for long periods. While most of the buildings have been modestly replaced, the city centre has kept its winding mediaeval street structure, which was swept away in more economically dynamic seventeenth and eighteenth century towns by the revival of classical architecture.

You do see more Gaelic in evidence on shop signs here although this might partly be to titivate the tourists as well as pride in heritage. According to Roddy Mannion, Irish is almost extinct in the city itself and what remains is “tokenism and gestures such as the requirement to have new English-speaking housing estates and new roads in the city named in Irish only, which occupies the same mindset as compulsory Irish for exams and cupla focail (the short, obligatory and often rudimentary use of Irish on formal occasions) which does little to promote its suspect bilingual status”.

I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the signs in Irish and have even bought a Christmas card in Gaelic with its message “Beannachtai na Nollag O Eirinn” (with an accent or two that I’m too lazy to reproduce). It took me a while to realise that “Noel” was hiding behind the Nollag (Christmas); “beannachtai” has a “benediction” feel to it or rather Blessings so the message is “Christmas Blessings from Ireland” or “Merry Christmas” in English. There is a plentiful supply of Irish language cards with Jesus in the manger or Maria, cards that you couldn’t send in secular Sweden without being suspected of unusual religious fervour (it’s safer there to stick to robins if gnomes are not available).

Not sure whom I will send this card to – maybe I’ll email my intended card recipients and explain that while the standard Christmas card service is free that I do operate a premium Irish language card service for fellow quirkophiles, which can be accessed by buying a raffle ticket…..