Category Archives: Languages

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.)

When there was hope

What to blog about today? Yeah, well, that’s a hard one.

In the 1960s I didn’t think about politics. It was beyond my comprehension. In the 1970s I thought about it quite a lot. It was something that seemed to bring about change. The kind of change that was good for most of us.

It seemed as though things would become mostly all right, if only we waited long enough. Not everything could happen overnight. There was political music to listen to. There was political fiction to read.

Below are some of the books I read and enjoyed. I haven’t read them for over forty years, so don’t remember enough to tell you much of the actual plots. The two by Stig Malmberg were set in contemporary Sweden, and featured fairly ordinary Swedish teenagers. One is about doing your national service and how that might be right, or not.

Books by Sven Wernström and Stig Malmberg

The two novels by Sven Wernström are set in Latin America and deal with things like the Cuban revolution as experienced by ordinary teenagers there. It was thrilling to read for someone who grew up on Enid Blyton and then moved on to Agatha Christie, both of whom wrote books about characters unlike myself, during a time period that was already in the past, and which I couldn’t know.

The Retired Children’s Librarian was cautiously liberal, and didn’t really care for Malmberg, but grudgingly admitted there was merit in Wernström’s Latin American stories. I liked them all, and it didn’t matter that she didn’t always approve.

Because there was hope. Did I say? If we waited long enough, life would be fine and fair for everyone. If the ‘wrong’ party won an election, it was just their politics that was wrong. As people they were as normal and decent as the rest of us.

Until this week.

Pc

The King was here last week. Well, not right here visiting us, but in town. He’d been scheduled several months ago, but had to cancel when the Crown Princess gave birth to her second child. The re-scheduled date had to be re-scheduled when Prince Carl Philip became a father, and then luckily there were no more royal births and the King was finally able to come.

I’m only mentioning him here because I was thinking about author and cartoonist Jan Lööf, who has been accused of not being pc enough. There was talk about his publisher changing things in his books to pc them up a bit, or not to re-publish books, and other silly things.

Ville 1

He is 76 and wrote some of his books so long ago that we’d not started worrying about pc-ness, or at least, the boundaries were in a different place. Years ago I blogged about Jan’s cartoon Ville, when the King and Prime Minister Olof Palme featured, and were the heroes of the moment. Palme got angry but the King thought it was fun. Possibly there were aliens in the story, the portrayal of whom might have been un-pc. Or not.

It’s worrying when every so often people have to pause and look at what went before and then judge it by the standards of today. That’s never going to work. If it doesn’t offend the intended readers – in this case children – it’s fine. If it’s so dated in whatever way that the children avoid the books, then that’s all there is to it. No need to make changes; you just move on.

But at least I learned a new word. Pc in Swedish is pk. Obvious, really.

Dear Meg

It’s how they addressed her last night. Dear Meg Rosoff, they said, and then they said lots more nice things. It was time to actually let her receive the Astrid Lindgren award, after a week of hard, but lovely, graft, touring like some kind of rockstar.

Stockholm Concert Hall

As Meg’s sisters pointed out, the city is full of posters of their sister; the one who can write. They came over from America to celebrate this special moment in their family, along with a stepmother (who was truly lovely), as well as ‘Mr Rosoff’ and ‘Miss Rosoff.’ So it’s hardly surprising that the Bookwitch and the Resident IT Consultant had come to cry too. Because cry we all did, with happiness, but tears nevertheless. And I think Meg’s mother is quite correct in telling her friends it’s the Nobel. It very nearly is.

Stockholm Concert Hall

The Stockholm Concert Hall is a grand affair, on a nice scale. We’d got seats next to the Royal Box, and it looked rather like the King was going to film the whole shebang. Or maybe it wasn’t him, but a film crew, behind the red velvet curtain. There were some Excellences present, but I don’t know which ones.

Bo Kaspers Orkester

Malena Ernman

It was a compact one hour event, packed full with speeches and entertainment, with no one lingering or getting boring. Lots of music from Bo Kaspers Orkester and opera singer Malena Ernman giving us You’ll Never Walk Alone. Hamadi Khemiri read from What I Was, and there were presentations of some of Meg’s books.

Meg Rosoff and the ALMA award, with Alice Bah Kuhnke and Katti Hoflin

There were talks from Staffan Forssell from the Swedish Arts Council, the Minister for Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke, ALMA jury chairman Boel Westin, and finally from Meg herself. Meg’s was a good speech, where she managed to fit in her gratitude and a neat comparison between books in Sweden and the British Government’s treatment of the country’s young and the closure of libraries. She received a standing ovation.

Meg Rosoff

Astrid Lindgren was keen on children’s rights, and on them playing and reading. Even daydreaming. So not quite how it’s done at our end.

Compere Katti Hoflin was excellent, and had a nice way with the sheep on stage. You can never go wrong with sheep, I feel. Baah.

Meg Rosoff, Alice Bah Kuhnke and Boel Westin

It was all done extremely well, and we finished off with drinks and top quality nibbles in the Grünewald Hall next door, which is where I eventually found both Meg and her whole family for a chat. And as I squeezed my way through (never was a witch more determined) after checking with the Resident IT Consultant that he knew what I look like, in case we got separated, I ended up speaking to Astrid’s daughter Karin, for the first time in my life. And that was only minutes after I’d admitted to the Resident IT Consultant that I’d never met her…

Meg and family had another grand dinner to go to, while we called in at the nearby 7-Eleven.

And did I mention there were party bags?

Meg Rosoff ALMA party bag