Category Archives: Languages

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The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Little Criminals and other dark granite

When I first heard about Granite Noir, which is on this weekend (24th to 26th February), I wanted to go. I still want to go, but have come to the conclusion I will not be going to Aberdeen for the crime, however tempting. But there’s no reason why some of you can’t go.

It’s their first year, and it makes me wonder why they didn’t start Granite Noir sooner. The name is so perfect! The programme is good. At first I suspected they might offer just a few events, while they warm up, so to speak. But it’s three days filled with great crime authors and with catchy event titles.

I love the ones for children – thank you for thinking of the children! – Little Criminals. Vivian French and Shoo Rayner will be teaching children how to write, and how to draw baddies.

There are workshops for old people too, and several Nordic Noir sessions, and lots and lots of talks by our favourite Scottish criminals. Pardon, crime writers. And how could anyone resist Poisoned High Tea?

Well, I think it sounds perfect. And I believe warm weather is on the way this week, so Aberdeen will no doubt be sweltering. Maybe. If it is, cool down with Noir at the Bar.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.

Launching books

There are many ways to launch a book. Yesterday I had tea out with Baby Tollarp and his mother. He had one of those lovely little board books handed out by the Scottish government to all new babies in Scotland. BT launched his continuously. Mostly on to the floor. From where his mother picked it up and handed it back and then it was soon on the floor again. He had quite a sneaky look about his lovely young face when he had worked out how this was done. Slip book accidentally on purpose down the side of the highchair. Wait for it to be returned. Repeat.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North

From there I went straight across Edinburgh’s George Square to another baby book launch. The Resident IT Consultant and I had been permitted to attend Son’s book launch. This was not a boardbook. Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North is more of a collection of ex-conference papers, co-edited by five of the Scandinavian Studies department’s doctoral candidates (Ian Giles, Laura Chapot, Chris Cooijmans, Ryan Foster and Barbara Tesio).

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

There was admirably little talk. The department’s Alan Macniven introduced the editors. The editors said a few words, mostly along the lines of ‘let’s open the fizzy bottles.’ And then they did, and some of the corks made gratifyingly noisy journeys towards the ceiling.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

There were cheeses and olives, crisps and sweets. Lots of mingling. Money changed hands whenever someone wanted to buy a copy of the book. This went on for a couple of hours.

Beyond Borealism: New Perspectives on the North - launch

Once the remaining bottles had been hidden under someone’s desk, Son and Dodo walked the wrinklies – as we are now called – towards a rather nice Indian restaurant where we were allowed to buy them a belated birthday dinner. After some quite agreeable dosas they deposited us on the bus back to Waverley, with our bus passes and senior railcards and everything.

Reckless and Swedish

Those Swedes are fortunate. Cornelia Funke has such a good relationship with her Swedish publishers that she wrote a short Reckless story, exclusively for them.

This does mean that most of you won’t be able to read it, but who cares? Strömkarlens fiol, en Stockholmsnovell, is sheer magic, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Set in the Stockholm of Mirrorworld we meet a new city. Old, obviously, but new to me. I think that’s the thing. Stories set in old Sweden usually don’t have this magical feel to them. This was as though Stockholm has grown up, and become a proper fairy setting like many others, all over the world.

Jakob and Fox travel to Sweden to try and retrieve a violin. It’s not just any old violin, but a real Strömkarl violin. A Strömkarl is that man who stands in a river/waterfall, playing and mesmerising those who hear him. And now one such instrument has been stolen, and a young girl’s life depends on it being found.

Short but exciting, with plenty of charm. I could read more of this kind of thing. And nice illustrations by Cornelia.

The English Companion

This ‘Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness’ was put in the get rid-of-pile during our last clear-out of books. The grown-up books.

We decided we’d grown up, and away, from this previously much enjoyed volume by Godfrey Smith. The book is over thirty years old and the information in it pretty out of date. Much of it can presumably be found online if you need to look anything up.

So I decided I’d blog about it and then bin it. Sorry, probably meant Oxfam it. Not sure. Once we might have known who Godfrey Smith was. I have a feeling we did.

Godfrey Smith, The English Companion

He did [does] have a nice way with words, though, both the selection of which ones to include, and how he explains them. Much of this Englishness I have discovered for myself, in real life. You know, make a child call you mummy, and then wait to see what they do a few years into your relationship. Awkward, is what it is.

Afters versus puddings. Or sweets. He quotes George Mikes a lot, and that is definitely good. The English are interestingly quaint.

There are not very many words or names to look up, which in my opinion is an admirable way to go about things. You can so easily have too much to find out about.

So in a way this re-visit to my past didn’t go as planned; quick look-through followed by bye bye. There are problems if I am to keep the book, however, as it is literally dying in my hands. The spine is collapsing and the pages are fluttering loose, and I suspect that any subsequent reading wouldn’t be much fun.

What to do?

Secrets

Who knew there were so many secrets to be kept in the children’s books world? Well, I knew, but I didn’t realise there were quite so many, nor that so many people share the secrets quite so freely. If you tell me, I will tell no one. Except possibly the Resident IT Consultant, but he is equally discreet. Besides, he won’t know what I told him, nor will he remember it five minutes later. And whom would he tell?

Maureen Lynas blogged about secrets on Slushpile a while back, and call me naïve, but I had no idea quite so many people are in on so many secrets. I trust no one (see above). Besides, apart from one spectacular time when I lost my poker face, I know how to lie so as not to suffer the mishaps Maureen mentions.

But then I began thinking about all the other secrets, like Christmas University Challenge, which is recorded in one fell swoop, well before Christmas. How do the winners avoid walking round with smug faces? How come the audience can keep the secret of which team won? (Judging by who was in the audience, it could be they have only very special people watching, like members of last year’s teams, and this year’s losers and so on.) Based on this I decided not to email Adèle Geras to ask how her team did, in case she would be unable to lie convincingly.

On New Year’s Eve we watched BBC Alba (that’s Gaelic television) celebrate the New Year. After some rude comments [from me] about how the place reminded me of Oldham Town Hall, Daughter and the Resident IT Consultant said it looked like Stirling Castle. A few camera angles later, it turned out to be Stirling Castle. You know, a short walk away from where we were. In a town where they have recently stopped celebrating New Year at the castle. One of the performers was a Daughter favourite, Julie Fowlis, and Daughter would quite have liked to know about this so she could have attended.

Except, we worked out that the audience was small enough, and clearly Gaelic speaking enough, that maybe it was by invitation only. So, as the rest of town celebrated elsewhere, upset that the castle was not for ‘all of us’ it seems others were celebrating and televising from up there. My old favourite Calum Kennedy (was not there because he’s dead) provided a contribution through his daughter Fiona Kennedy. And it was fascinating listening to the almost completely incomprehensible Gaelic, which sounded pretty much like Norwegian with lots of ‘ch’ sounds added to it. Except I didn’t understand a word. I reckon the audience might have been shipped in from Uist.

But it was nice. And ‘secret.’

We’ve also entertained ourselves with a new, used, board game called The London Game. It’s where you have to keep secret which London tube stations you wish to travel to, so that the other players don’t put too many spanners in the tube stations around you. We reckon the Hazard cards could do with being more plentiful, as each hazard comes round a little too frequently; aunts visiting, forced trips to watch a match at the Oval, and some weird kidnaps to Kensal Green.

Today sees the announcement of the 2016 Costa Book Awards. I don’t know the shortlisted children’s books well enough to have any witchy premonitions as to which one will win. But on seeing that one of Daughter’s Christmas presents is on one of the other shortlists, and the giver mentioned its topical-ness, I wonder if he could be in on a secret? I mean, I don’t know. (The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry.)

So, yes. It’s all secret. Unless it isn’t.