Category Archives: Languages

Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

Nicola Sturgeon at StayInScotland

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

All the Dear Little Animals

How could I not love Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals? To begin with, anything illustrated by Eva Eriksson is automatically extremely loveable. And the story of three children who hunt out dead animals so they can bury them is also rather sweet, don’t you think?

Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson, All the Dear Little Animals

It starts with a bumblebee, which died of natural causes, and its death causes the poetic narrator and his friend Esther to arrange a funeral for it. Our narrator is good at coming up with poems for the ceremony.

And then Esther’s little brother Puttie discovers what they are up to, and he cries. He cries so well that he becomes their official crier. Puttie – unlike his older sister – finds death rather upsetting. He can see that when he dies, their parents will be very distraught.

Esther, on the other hand, avoids telling him that the most likely scenario might be the other way round. This, presumably, is for the adult who reads with their young child to decide to discuss. Mortality, and how it makes you feel.

Once they have hunted out a good many corpses, dug graves, read poems and cried, they are satisfied.

Tomorrow they will do something else.

(Translated by Julia Marshall, this is not a new book. Not even in translation. I would have liked the original title to be mentioned, so I didn’t have to Google it; Alla döda små djur.)

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Thought I’d treat you to another of my – our – Christmas present books. Rather than offer any kind of review, which would be fairly hard to do, I will show you some of my photos of it! The title is a bit of a mouthful, but I gather academics, even scientists, like that sort of thing. It’s called Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

As you will have worked out, this is Daughter’s thesis, and it was generous of her to let us have a copy. I believe they cost a fortune.

Dr Giles has her foreword in no less than three languages, which is one more than they demanded. (Apologies for any mistakes in the third one; I don’t really speak ‘science’ in any language. And the visible mistake is all my fault…)

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Because astrophysics is such a male subject, she worked hard to put women scientists in there, from Dr Nirupama Raghavan who is the Resident IT Consultant’s cousins wife’s cousin’s mother-in-law (!), and who was Director of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, to Dr Jessie Christiansen, an almost peer from CalTech.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar ActivityG_2100

I like heavenly bodies to be eccentric; it sounds fun. And in the index I discovered that Daughter’s surname puts her right after some G Galilei chap.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet - Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Also, the book is purple!

The seventh chair

I read the article several times.

Before that I had had a telephone conversation with Son, about various things. One of the ‘things’ was Åsa Wikforss. It was a professional sort of mention. Minutes later I sat down to eat supper in the company of the December issue of Vi magazine, of which page 30 was already lying open.

It turned out to be a long interview article with Åsa Wikforss. Coincidence? Serendipity, more like. She was photographed on top of a stepladder, wearing a shiny – but nice – copper coloured dress and a scarf billowing in the studio’s wind.

So I ate, and I read about Åsa. I liked everything I read. In fact, I felt a bit like her. No, not that exactly. More that we seemed to have a lot in common, in that comfortable way you sometimes discover when you talk to people. I wish I could. Talk to her, I mean.

The reason I probably won’t be able to, and the reason we are not the same, is that today she will be sworn in as a new member of the Swedish Academy. Yes, that slightly tarnished but formerly great institution. Chair number seven, I believe. The one that belonged to Sara Danius, whom I also felt strangely close to.

Åsa sounds very sensible. Intelligent. She doesn’t hail from a privileged background, so as far as I’m concerned she is the real deal. By privileged I mean money or family ties. Otherwise she was really quite privileged, having sensible – working class – parents, growing up in a concrete suburb of Gothenburg. Possibly studying at the Literature department at the same time as me. Possibly not. Then the obvious stuff; Oxford, international romance, New York, back to Sweden to be Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, and now the Swedish Academy.

It’s a long article, and the author, Stina Jofs, regrets not having had room for all the information she’d collected. So there’s no point in me going on and on here.

But she’s been where I’ve been, even if she did it in New York and I was in Stockport. It’s almost the same.

I read the article again. Told Son about it, and he wants me to save it for when he gets here. Fine. I will. But I might want to read it again.

Here’s hoping Åsa’s first day with her Swedish Academy colleagues goes well, and that soon she and her rookie peers will sort them out good and proper.

Åsa Wikforss, photographed by Thron Ullberg for Vi

That’s Noble, that is

‘Who on Earth is the Princess Sofia?’ I asked myself a week or two ago. Odd, as the Resident IT Consultant and I, prompted by a viewing of The Crown, had just a day or two earlier discussed how big the Swedish royal family is. And by that we meant how many of them actively go out cutting ribbons and the like. I guessed an answer, but exile doesn’t help with names of new royals.

I follow Kungahuset on Facebook – yes, really – so should be better at names. Anyway, I read that Prinsessan Sofia had opened a primary school. Or was it a secondary school? It was one she has attended as a child, now rebuilt or enlarged or improved. She’s the ‘ordinary’ girl who married Prins Carl Philip, son of the King. A few days later I learned it was her 35th birthday.

And then, after a few mutterings from Daughter on Tuesday night, I cyber stalked a bit more and discovered Sofia was the one who was escorted into the Nobel dinner that evening by none other than Didier Queloz, who you all know shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. Hence the mutterings all the way from Berlin.

Prins Carl Philip med Esther Duflo, Nobelpristagare i ekonomi, Prinsessan Madeleine med William G. Kaelin Jr, Nobelpristagare i fysiologi eller medicin och Prinsessan Sofia med Didier Queloz, Nobelpristagare i fysik. Foto: Pelle T Nilsson/SPA

His former PhD supervisor Michel Mayor was also in Stockholm, at the same dinner, since they shared the prize. He, in turn, got to share Crown Princess Victoria at dinner with the third, but first, Nobel laureate in physics, James Peebles.

Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz are Daughter’s former colleagues from Geneva, and they have – more or less – done research on the same kind of thing. The other two have a head start on her, so we’ll have to wait.

But what I really wanted to know was whether my Cousin GP was there, pouring the wine.

Letters from Tove

I’d like to think that even people who don’t know anything about Tove Jansson would enjoy reading her letters. As the publicist for the English translation of Letters from Tove said, one can enjoy dipping in, reading a bit here and a bit there. You sort of eavesdrop on Tove’s life, which looks to have been both long and full of events.

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove

The translation by Sarah Death is so spot on, that if I didn’t know whose letters I was reading, I could easily believe they were from a young, arty English girl. At least, were it not for the people Tove writes about, and the recipients of the letters.

For the most part I don’t know who they are. Some are obvious, others might be names I vaguely have heard of, being Swedish. But many correspondents are just that, someone Tove knew and exchanged letters with. The Resident IT Consultant felt he didn’t know enough, but I suspect that’s because he believed that a Swedish speaker would automatically know all about Tove’s people.

Well, we don’t, and the book is more exciting for it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone Tove’s age would have spent time in prewar Paris, mixing with other arty people. But somehow I’d not thought about this. And I know the grass is often greener, but I am always struck by how interesting life in the past seems.

And then there is the more normal life at home, which is surprisingly normal, even for non-arty me, so much younger than Tove. It’s as if there is something timeless and Nordic about certain aspects of how we live.

I think this will be interesting to read, whether or not you are a Moomin fan. And perfect to keep near you for dipping into. There are many years of numerous and long letters to discover.

(Starting today as Book of the week on BBC Radio 4.)

Adventing on

As I was egging Daughter on to tackle her double Advent task of reading two books every day, instead of merely opening chocolatey windows, it dawned on me that I wanted to do that too.

I gave her Cornelia Funke’s Hinter verzauberten Fenstern for her birthday, with the notion that it’d give a her some starter German reading practice, which she might succumb to because it’s the run-up to Christmas, and she likes that. Besides, there’s already the Jostein Gaarder she tends to read every year. At least when I/we/she haven’t lost the book… We now own several copies of The Christmas Mystery.

But what I really had a yearning for was neither of these two excellent Advent books. It was Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice. I looked at the book I was reading. Then I got out the Pilcher, and it wasn’t long before I was lost in the sad beginnings of Winter Solstice.

What remains to be discovered is whether I will be able to slow down. Once the introductions have been made, you can read this novel more or less ‘in time’ with your own December. But not if you want to do it in one sitting. Well, maybe two, considering it’s nearly 700 pages.

I’ll let you know. (But I already feel better for having rebelled, and for being back in Rosamunde’s wintry Scotland.)