Category Archives: Languages

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

Goodbye to ‘the village pond’

There is no pond, of course. But as a foreigner I have this mental image of what is at the heart of a British village, and this is pretty much it. Minus the water. And the ducks.

The Grandmother’s flat has been sold, so it’s goodbye to the view from her living room window, which was the reason she bought the flat in the first place. Before she did, I thought she was a little crazy, going from a nice house nearby to this newly built block of flats, ‘insensitively’ slapped down in the local park.

But you change over time, and I came to see exactly why she wanted to live there. From ‘my’ armchair on the right hand side of the window I could stare endlessly at the scene outside. Very green, with many mature trees, and children playing, and football matches being played, and people just generally hanging out in what is now a Green Flag park.

At first there was also a cricket pavilion right outside. A little decrepit perhaps, but adding to the village look charm (and I hasten to add we are in a town, here, and the village is imaginary). The pavilion had to give way to the school built opposite, but you grow used to new things eventually.

When we first arrived in Scotland, we had two glorious spring months being permanently glued to the view of the park outside. It was a time of witnessing how things never change, actually. As the weather got warmer, the people walking past wore spring style clothes, and then more summery ones. Children wore shorts or pretty dresses, and their bikes would accompany them, or balls and other vital outdoors equipment.

I got to recognise the dog walkers by their dogs. I know, I should have watched less and got out more… But somehow it transported me back both to my own childhood, and also to my early visions of this country.

And now we have admired the view of the park from up there for the last time. The turn has come for someone else to while away their time checking out passersby passing by twice, both times in the same direction…

The park

(This photo doesn’t do it justice. And I’m not so sure about the latest addition of those Romans you can see. But that’s life.)

IKEA reading

I mixed up my Reading with my reading last week. I blame Ikea. And their new Reading branch.

The thing is, though, you can read at Ikea. So far I have stopped short at stealing their display books. I have standards, and stealing doesn’t go with my upright (cough) kind of behaviour.

Books used on shelves in the made up rooms at any Ikea store are generally Swedish ones, so of little use to most customers. Especially if those customers like furniture more than reading. But I usually pause to see what they have.

It’s clear that they have got their hands on remaindered books, since there tend to be several of each book, and generally not the most exciting looking ones, either. The selection can be cheap versions of classic books, or books that were so uninspiring that not enough people bought them in the first place.

My snigger instinct awoke on one or two occasions when I encountered books by someone I once ‘knew.’ He was one term behind me at University, and he was destined for great things. Or so he thought. He already had one novel published, and was writing his next one, seeking inspiration from the place we were at. He had connections at a big Swedish publishing firm, but I suspect he didn’t know the word nepotism.

So, one of his novels has brightened the fake Ikea room settings, somewhere in the UK. And later on I discovered he had dabbled in children’s picture books as well.

But as I said, you can’t buy the shop display.

The Royal T

Little-cousin Volvina called in at Bookwitch Towers this week. It was mainly a mistake on her part. Not that she didn’t want to be here, but her reason for travelling went a bit wrong at one stage.

She brought both Double-O and Volvinita as well, not to mention the Queen’s tea towel. The day before they’d done the guided tour on the HMY Britannia, and very satisfied they were too. But they hadn’t had the tea there, and instead bought me a tea towel, under the impression that it’s some grand thing involved in the Royal serving of tea.

HMY Britannia tea towel

When actually it’s what you dry the dishes with. More useful, if you ask me, as I rarely have elegantly served tea around here, with some uniformed chap wearing a tea towel draped over his arm, or whatever you’re supposed to do with it.

So that’s what they learned from me. They’d not been before, but thanks to online maps they could tell I’d changed my garage doors…

The more telltale proof they’d come to the right house was the oystercatcher in the window. And Gunnar Sträng, Sweden’s former (very former) chancellor of the exchequer. He’s also in a window, although not sharing with the oystercatchers.

I offered them refreshments and they were keen to have tea, seeing as they’d missed out on the Royal variety. I wasn’t sure whether they thought I’d surpass the Queen, or if their expectations had been quite low at the Britannia. In the end I didn’t even manage side plates, and we simply peeled the wrappings off the little cakes from Sainsbury’s, eating them as they came.

But that’s all right. They won’t know how low my standards have sunk.

How to be an Alien

I know. I blogged about How to be an Alien before. I love George Mikes, and particularly that book. And I feel that maybe we need more of that kind of thing. (Mine is the 24th impression, from 1978.)

George Mikes, How to be an Alien

Except, perhaps it’s now an unsafe topic of conversation? As George points out, ‘Do not forget that it is much easier to write in English than to speak English, because you can write without a foreign accent.’ Yes. My smallish vocabulary can always be blamed on my choice of writing style; pretend I prefer plain and simple. You can’t hear me.

How times have changed. George reported being told by a very kind lady ‘you really speak a most excellent accent without the slightest English.’ Don’t we all? Now though, I wonder what any kind lady is likely to say under similar circumstances.

Where are you a foreigner? Those of us who are here, would generally like to believe that in our own countries we wouldn’t be, and that this misfortune would befall the British instead, but according to George Mikes this is not so. Or more correctly, was not so, but I’m guessing many British people are not foreign even when they go and live in Spain. George was upset when he was informed that his much ‘loved and respected’ mother was a foreigner, back in her own Hungary.

I used to believe I knew and understood everything in How to be an Alien. England was charming and amusing, and you could smile fondly over her, as you would a toddler.

When I first read the book, I had never heard of Princes Square and Leinster Square in London. The whole idea seemed preposterous. Then one day I discovered I was staying in a hotel in one of them. Or was it both?

These days I tell people I live at no. 4 and that it’s the house between nos. 3 and 5. This needs to be pointed out or casual visitors may end up on the other side of the road.

Anyway, I used to reckon all I needed to do was learn how things are done here and I’d be fine. Now I find that I am taken aback by how normal things are in – to me – hitherto unknown countries on the continent, and how much I have changed over the years.

But I do feel queueing is a fair way of doing things. And I’d like to hope that the humour in George’s book will be appreciated by most people.

Let’s go home, shall we?

Where is home? For any of us?

Now that so many people have lost all inhibitions on what to say to perfect strangers, suggesting they go back where they came from, the answer isn’t all that simple, even if we wanted to, or could return. We’d need to break up families, of course, since out of a family of four, say, we don’t all necessarily come from the same ‘wrong’ place.

That would be cruel, but say that we accepted this? Many people have lots of little bits of origin inside them. Do we split into atoms, to send the bits home? My former, slightly Irish, but otherwise very English, neighbour did one of those tests to see where his roots came from, and found he was partly Sami.

Son’s theory is that people have always said these things, as often as they’ve been saying them during the last ten days. The difference is that now it’s being reported. He could be right.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the four female poets who were touring the country. This was before the you-know-what. In Saturday’s Guardian, Jackie Kay and Imtiaz Dharker wrote about the change since then. It’s interesting that it was the two darker skinned poets who shared their thoughts, although presumably Carol Ann Duffy is also noticing the change.

We have relatives [similar age to Offspring] with an Indian background, and here I must admit to some shortsighted thinking on my part. All I see are young and pretty girls; girls I know to be both intelligent and successful at what they do, as well as being lovely people. Middle class and with thoroughly proper English accents, acquired from attending above average posh schools. But they too are being abused when they go out. Always have been, apparently. And I was so naïve that I had no idea this was happening.

I can’t say I’m ashamed of my country, because this isn’t my country. But I would be if it was. And it’s only since the reports that a Swedish mother and her young child were told to go home, after being overheard speaking Swedish to each other, that I’ve begun to wonder if I need to curtail my public chats in foreign languages as well.

The Resident IT Consultant worries about the NHS, and whether the time will come when they won’t treat me. I went to see a doctor at the hospital yesterday, and was determined to stay under the radar. It took him two minutes to ask where my accent was from…

Oh, Freedom!

This feels timely. In Oh, Freedom we get black American history courtesy of Italian author Francesco D’Adamo, translated into English by Siân Williams. It might feel like the long way round, but that’s rather like the walk to freedom the slaves in the book experience. Sometimes to get there means going an extra long way.

It’s a short novel set in 1850, about ten-year-old Tommy and his family, who through a stranger find out about the Underground Railroad, which is the name for an organised way of walking to freedom in Canada.

Francesco D'Adamo, Oh Freedom

Peg Leg Joe shows them the way, and also how to avoid getting caught by their owner’s foreman. This is fascinating reading, and I’m especially pleased to read about all the – mostly – anonymous help the fleeing slaves receive en route. Complete strangers leave food and clothes for them, help them find the way if necessary, and at some point share their home with them.

We need more of this kind of thing. We need it more than ever. The friendship towards people you don’t know and who are a little bit different from you. The books about this kind of behaviour. All of it.

(By sheer coincidence, there was an event with Francesco in London yesterday. We need more events, too.)