Category Archives: Languages

The double possessive

Over breakfast I handed the Resident IT Consultant a post-it note. I’d been reading an obituary in the Guardian, and shuddered at what I saw, and decided at long last to discover if I’ve been wrong all these years (so unlikely), or if I had made it up.

The dead woman had married ‘a friend of her brother’. I need for it to be ‘a friend of her brother’s’ but who am I to say? Fifty years of reasonable fluency proves nothing.

He looked at it, muttered something about dative (I wish he hadn’t!) and then agreed that he would expect the possessive too. But he asked what I’d been taught about dative, and I informed him that the first time I was made aware of it was when learning German where you simply can’t avoid it.

If we do dative in Sweden, I must have imbibed it with the proverbial baby milk. Similarly with English; where I have managed quite nicely to avoid grammar at most times and have no wish to begin now.

But the Resident IT Consultant is a thorough man, and he knew where to look things up (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage), which to my shame I didn’t know, nor that we have a copy (of course we do), or where it would be.

And it seems that this brother of the bride and his friend are an example of the double possessive. Fowler’s appears to believe that ‘my’ version is the better one, although you can obviously say whatever you like in whatever way you prefer. It’s just that I have seen it so much, recently, and it’s getting more and more common. Since the Guardian has a style guide – I think, anyway – one has to assume they have opted for a more single possessive.

Languages evolve. And so they should. It’s just that it grated on the eyes. And I suddenly feared I’d spent fifty years being wrong, because what’s learned early has a tendency to stick. Even when incorrect.



Elizabeth Wein makes me very happy. I love the way I feel when she moves into the between-the-wars period, even when I can’t avoid thinking about what her characters will have to face in just a couple of years’ time (this book is set in 1937). There is something magical about a period when people have all this hope, after that other war.

Stateless is about one person’s wish to promote peace, trying to make it happen when twelve young pilots from as many European countries are brought together in a flying race, where they will travel and talk and hopefully overcome the memories from the Great War. Except there is a fatal incident on the first leg of the race, with just one witness.

The witness is Stella, the British competitor, who already feels she needs to tread carefully, being both the only female pilot, but also the holder of a Nansen passport, meaning she is stateless.

This makes the race dangerous. Who might be next? And who was behind the first incident? The pilots are young and some are hot-headed. Many are scared because of the political situation in the various countries they visit; different for each in each place. Can they make friends, and can they stay alive while trying to find out what’s happening?

Flying is Elizabeth’s strength, and it’s not only this topic that makes her books stand out, but it’s the way the reader learns what the pilot can see – or not see – from the cockpit, because the wings are in the way, or some other thing. You learn how to be less visible if you are being chased by another plane. And you find out – if you didn’t already know – about the political issues of the day; the civil war in Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, the early days of Hitler’s Germany, about being jewish. Immoral music, even.

And the friendships? Enough to make my hair stand on end. Nothing is quite as you’d expect. This Europe of one for all and all for one is exciting. I still haven’t made my mind up as to whether things were more promising then, or now.

At least now you have Stateless to read. Don’t make any other plans until you’re done.

Double bluff?

I’m back! Did you miss me?

We went to Gottenburg, Daughter and I. Not really, as we went the other way once we’d landed at Gottenburg airport. But Gottenburg is what it said on our boarding passes.

Yes, really.

When I noticed, I wondered what had happened. Did someone working for the airline – you know, the 50p airline – just type what they think they hear when people say Gothenburg with a harder th than they should and nothing or no one checked or edited what they’d done?

Or was it a trick? Might we find we couldn’t travel on a boarding pass with the destination misspelled like that? Might we be accused of having written our own ticket, getting it wrong? Or they could have spelled it wrong to prove that it really was right (if you’re with me so far?). Perhaps some kind of double bluff? Why spell it correctly? Do you get the correct spelling only from more expensive airlines?

Though, I’ll have you know that due to personal riches (and also the need to take the luggage we needed to take) we bought the ‘best’ on board.

It worked. We got to Gottenburg and back again.

The airport. The rest of the time we spent east of, rather than west of, Landvetter.

It was nice. I revisited childhood streets. Drove – was driven – past my grandfather’s house. Waved to his gravestone across an expanse of clean snow. Ate more lent buns than I am willing to admit to. Saw what my two former schools look like now. (Different.) Visited the town’s second hand shops and allowed Daughter to buy 19 dinner knives. Or was it 18? Forced my hosts to buy pizza twice. With cola. Met a friend I’d not seen for over forty years. Went to a concert featuring one of Daughter’s favourites, encountering him in the supermarket that afternoon. Hung out with a total of three cats. Checked out the library. Looked at art, walking up all five floors of an old textile factory! My knees, my knees… Missed Prince Daniel ‘looking at fabrics.’

Left Gottenburg after a burger (two actually; one each) at Max. Where they have a striking wall of ‘books.’

Wild Song

This long awaited sequel to Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk, has her characters leave the Philippines and travel to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. They are a few years older, but still the same young people they were. Luki is still as feisty and independent minded, and she certainly does not want to be married off, even to her best friend Samkad.

Now that the Americans have penetrated deeper into the Philippines, they come up with more ideas of what they might do to the natives, who have a perfectly good system of their own that they live by. But the thing here is that Truman Hunt, the US doctor, manages to persuade these young people to voluntarily leave their country and come with him to the Fair, where he intends to ‘exhibit’ these human beings, alongside people from other parts of the world. Whereas they believe they are going to meet the President, because he wants to see them, especially.

The cynical and knowing reader understands that all will not be well. What I liked was that Luki, despite being ‘innocent’, is also capable of working out that things are not what they were led to believe. She is strong, and she stands by what she believes in.

In a way you can’t blame the visitors to the Fair for their beliefs about these savages who eat dogs. They have been told lies, because why else would they come and gawk at other human beings like this? And there are always people hoping to take advantage of others. But there are also some very strong characters who stand up for what is right, for others who need their help.

This story feels particularly right today, when so many people think they are better than others, often because of their skin colour or their perceived lack of sophistication.

Wild Song shows there can still be hope. And in the midst of what is done to these Filipino visitors, I loved the humour of Luki’s reaction when she discovers Samkad boarding the ship in Manila. She’s no ordinary teenager.

Or maybe she is.

Archipelago blues

‘I like his bookshelves’ said Daughter about Arne Dahl, as she saw him in his writing ‘cupboard’ online. ‘They are quite black’ she added. And I suppose that fits in with Nordic Noir. His books are better for being a bit black.

We watched Arne’s interview with Dr Noir, aka Jacky Collins, who fan-girled to a hitherto never seen extent. She almost bounced off the ceiling, were such a thing possible for someone seated on a chair in front of her computer. Never mind; I like an interviewer who really, really likes her ‘victim’.

So it was unfortunate that Barnet Libraries who hosted this Teams chat managed to silence Arne. Not forever, and not in that way, but we all agonised a bit while someone found his voice again.

It’s a rather Swedish voice. And he admitted to having had that typical Swedish childhood, with summers spent in the Stockholm archipelago, where I understand he’s not averse to killing people now. It is darker in winter.

We now also know where to hunt Arne down, as he was forced to tell us about his favourite café. It’s Vurma. Except, maybe he led us astray by making this up? There was also something important about Andalucía, but by that point I’d lost the plot.

Jacky very generously mentioned Arne’s [latest] translator, our in-house favourite, who was also listening in. Arne did a sort of ‘nice to see you, Ian’ wave. In as much as you can wave, or clap, on Teams.

There were questions from the worldwide audience, with a prize for the best one. They were all good. I was going to say except for the last one, because you can’t expect an author to know where one can find his books in the original, in another country. Arne assumed anywhere. Because you would, wouldn’t you? But thanks to Ian and Jacky it was made clear that due to Brexit you just can’t. And that is so wrong, and perhaps it was time to make that point publicly.

It was good to have ‘gone out’ for an evening, and I do like authorial cupboards.

And don’t you just love the ‘bullet’ holes in the wall?

Or the noir-ness of the competitor’s room?

(Both borrowed off Twitter.)

Shelving it

Bookcases have been coming and going at Bookwitch Towers. This last week has seen several carryings in and out, both here and at Daughter’s new abode. (Well, one can’t always get the right configuration on a first try, can one?)

Until now I have stashed Son’s books – by which I mean those he has translated – on the low shelf behind my armchair. But the books have sort of outgrown that space. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe I washed the shelf and it shrunk?

So we were discussing what to do, and it seems that the Resident IT Consultant’s Scottish collection will be going upstairs, just like one of the new-to-us bookcases. And then we will display the Nordic Noirs in a more prime position than behind me.

That was when the postman called today. He huffed and puffed a bit, but not too much because he’s a very nice postman.

He was delivering two copies of a children’s Space encyclopaedia on which Daughter has been the specialist consultant. (See, we don’t have just the one consultant any longer!) And because there were two copies, it seems that us old people get to hold on to one. It needs a shelf to live on.

The book is Children’s First Space Encyclopedia by Claudia Martin. It’s the kind of book I’d have liked as a child, and which I might have got for Offspring at the right age too. It features the unnamed Goldilocks and dwarfs and giants, as well as a really large telescope. It is not the consultant’s first, nor her last, but at least she’s not going at the same speed as her brother.

I wonder how long there will be space – hah – for both space and murder on this new prime shelf? Not long I suspect.

The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.


There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

The Cs have it

We felt safe with the idea of Canada. We went to see the Canadian branch of the family, because we were so ‘close’, being on the right side of the Atlantic.

Cousin C and her husband ‘No. 27’ picked us up and drove for a very long time so we could see where they live (along with Cousin E; more of whom later). Who’d have thought Toronto was so large and so full of traffic? When Son first went, he made it sound like it was like driving through Småland…

Anyway, it was lovely to see their small town and their house and the rather gorgeous and exotic looking birds they have in their garden. We also drove through C-town which boasts at least one Swede. I know, because this woman once phoned Son to let him know her organisation was going to give him money. (Which is always nice.) She said she lived in a small Canadian town he wouldn’t have heard of. ‘I know C-town’ he said, ‘my cousin runs the quilting shop there, and I’ve visited.’ Small world.

And then our second visit to C’s home was curtailed by Covid. For health reasons, the cousins required us to test. The second test was only negative for me, so some bed rest followed while we checked out the country’s Covid rules. But the view over Lake Ontario was nice. Just wish Tim Hortons hadn’t ‘forgotten’ the cream cheese.

We came to Canada not only to visit the cousins, but for Daughter to see a former colleague of hers. Meeting up ‘for a cup of tea’ is much more work with an ocean in between.

Languages can be difficult, especially for non-French speakers like your Bookwitch. Montréal is a lot more French than I had imagined. Our Uber driver listed his languages as French, Spanish and Creole. He apologised profusely for not speaking better English.

But he drove us to the airport, where I was tickled to find the cannabis disposal bin.

Beignets and bagels

Breakfast was late. That was the first breakfast, which due to jet lag was supposed to feed me round about two in the afternoon, but because of [their] lateness was almost three. Or nine, over there. Apart from our empty tummies, the wait was pleasant enough, in the early morning sunshine on the terrace next to the San Antonio Riverwalk. I ordered a churro waffle with cream and strawberries. Start as I didn’t mean to go on, kind of thing. Very American.

It was downhill all the way from there on. The waiter at the next hotel assured me that three pancakes would be enough. One and a half and I was ready to burst. (In my defense, I had imagined much smaller pancakes.) Via blueberry muffins I arrived at bagels with cream cheese, to bagels with cream cheese where the cream cheese got forgotten. (Both times. Thank you Tim Hortons.) Finally there was the hotel receptionist who assured ‘madam’ that the breakfast was there. In fact, she could see it. (The wonders of CCTV…) They placed breakfast baskets outside the rooms. And clearly Bookwitch madam was stupid beyond belief in not finding hers, despite me saying this was my third morning and I’d managed just fine the first two. In the end her ‘did you say room 205?’ made me realise she had been seeing the wrong breakfast. The one outside room 206…)

As well as pancakes New Orleans offered beignets. They are little deep fried things with two kilos of icing sugar on top, and come with their own sweeper-upper of the surplus sugar.

Boats played their part, from the Día de los Muertos floats in San Antonio, the old style Mississippi steamer, the ferries on New York’s East River, smaller boats in the marina on Lake Ontario to something larger on the St Lawrence. I like water fronts.

There being a wedding involved, we mustn’t forget the baraat, where the groom was danced towards his bride, assisted by his family. I’d read up on this, and was a little disappointed there was no horse. But dancing is fine too.

SELTA at 40

Well, me. And a few other people, at least one of whom I know.

Personally I like my ambassadors to be present when I visit, but then they probably quite like me to be there when invited too. In the end neither the ambassador nor I made it, so I suppose we’re even. (I had a cough.)

The event was to celebrate the 40th birthday of SELTA, which took place in the ambassador’s home. You want a bit of bling on occasion. The embassy’s Kulturråd hosted the party, and the chair of SELTA was there, saying a few things. I have every faith in them, and I’m sure a great time was had by all.

Not only was it a birthday, but ‘chair Ian Giles announced the news that SELTA has been awarded Svenska Akademiens pris för introduktion av svensk kultur utomlands (the Swedish Academy’s Prize for the Introduction of Swedish Culture Abroad). This is an annual prize, established in 1992, for efforts to disseminate and promote Swedish culture outside of Sweden). The prize is worth SEK 160,000 (£12,600).’

So that was quite a nice birthday present.