Tag Archives: Peter Englund

The route to permanent secretary

Meeting Sara Danuis’s predecessor Peter Englund didn’t make me feel we shared a background, especially. Apart from being Swedes. Reading about the current permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy I hoped Sara and I might have had more in common. She’s six years younger, but that’s nothing between peers. At our age, anyway.

And she looks familiar, but her name was completely new to me when she made the Bob Dylan announcement last autumn. Sara lived with her single mother, who wrote books in the bathroom. I lived with my single mother, but she definitely didn’t write books, anywhere. And it seems we had more books at home.

But when I read that Sara’s mother was Anna Wahlgren, the penny dropped. They might have been poor, and she might have written books in bathrooms, but Anna was famous and she and her children featured in countless magazine articles (which I read). Maybe that was where I ‘recognised’ her from.

Sara Danius in Vi Magazine

Her first own book that she bought was Ture Sventon, which wouldn’t have been my choice, but I can see where she’s coming from. Having a secretary who brings you Lent buns on demand is not a bad thing. All year round. Then, like me, Sara read what was available, which in her case was Sven Delblanc. I remember him too, including learning – like Sara – how to say his name. But I didn’t read his [adult] novels.

From there on my inferiority complex grows. While I did grapple with books typical for upper teens to read, I rarely enjoyed them, and I moved on, which in my case seems to have been backwards. Sara read Homer, Balzac, Sartre and Proust. And enjoyed them.

That‘s how you come to be permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy.

How, erm, very Nobel

Bob Dylan eh?

I like it. I mean, I’m not a particular fan of Dylan’s, but I’m not not a fan either. He’s just Dylan.

It’s funny though. Yesterday morning on Facebook people were discussing who it might be, who they wanted it to be, and so on, mentioning names I’d either heard of, or ones I really didn’t know much about. My only comment was that surely the Swedish Academy could only pick someone no one – but them – had ever come across.

Peter Englund

Can’t you just picture it, The Eighteen sitting around pondering who they could possibly find that would enable them to hold their heads up high. And then some bright spark (that could be absolutely any one of them, obviously) came up with the complete opposite to the ‘never heard of him’ conundrum. ‘Let’s go for Bob Dylan! We just need to think up some clever way of saying why we chose him. But we can do that.’

And Peter Englund – probably – said that even the Bookwitch will know Dylan. Problem solved.

(Yes, I know. Peter is no longer their permanent secretary. But I have a photo of him I can use. And he might ‘know’ me. OK, I have photos of two more members, and I have met one, but not so he would remember.)

It has the surprise factor, and the Swedish Academy never disappoint. They just ‘never disappoint’ in different ways every time.

Bob Dylan… This is Swedish protest at its best. (That rhymed. I’m quite pleased with my phrase. Witty. And rhyme, all at the same time. Yes, I know. That rhymed too, but it was totally unintentional.)

Because, it can’t be because some of those old fogeys want to hang out with Dylan? Or that the King said he wouldn’t mind hanging with Bob?

I wonder what Joan Baez is thinking?

Write to me

Authors’ letters are drying up, it seems. Maybe they were a luxury, anyway, and now it’s all many can do to keep their heads above water, writing things that might pay. On the other hand, there is nothing actively wrong with emails. Paper can burn, while cyberspace could be lost in, well, cyberspace, as it were.

Anything can disappear, but most things can also last surprisingly well.

I read an article in Vi magazine the other week, about the correspondence of authors. One of the people interviewed was Peter Englund, former Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy. He saves every email. Which should mean that mine to him must be there, somewhere. (As is his to me; in my archives, so to speak.)

The article touches on one published volume of letters, which I’ve already blogged about. I did some more research on what they said, and decided that I was possibly slightly misinformed back then. But so were they. I believe the letters were from the author to ChocBiscuit’s father’s first wife’s first husband’s mistress. Rather than the other way round.

Tove Jansson is mentioned by someone who met her, many years ago. She astounded her companion by saying she read every letter, and replied to them as well. This someone wrote to Tove afterwards. He never had a reply.

Oh well.

As I said, I’ve got a small email archive here. If I save emails, it’s either because I might need to remember what someone said. Or because they wrote so well that I like keeping it. I very much doubt that I will publish any books off the back of my collection, however. So please continue writing.

Besides, most of them are signed xxx, and perhaps an initial, if I’m lucky. (And if I may quote briefly from one, ‘holy shit Batman!’ does not necessarily have a lot of literary merit.)

How can they not know about the war?

Occasionally I feel the need to apologise, quietly, for my fondness for war novels. It doesn’t always feel right. It’s like crime novels. It ought to be wrong to enjoy something that’s based on someone dying. In war lots of people not only die, but millions more are miserable. How can you enjoy that?

But you need some sort of conflict in a story, and what can be better than war? You don’t even need to blame an individual. We know who or what caused the war, and then the characters can get on with what they have to do.

I’m on this topic again, after the shock of hearing Peter Englund talking about the background to his WWI book; that his history students at Uppsala didn’t know that the war had happened. I felt a bit like, if they didn’t learn about it during history lessons, then surely they must have come across war fiction at some point?

But apparently not.

So I shouldn’t feel bad about war novels. They not only entertain, but can potentially give history lessons where history lessons are needed. In actual fact, I feel I learn more about many school subjects by reading fiction, rather than school books, or listening to teachers droning on and on.

Linda Newbery is someone who has written many WWI novels, and I might not still remember all the fictional details (I am a terrible forgetter), but they still provide me with a good feel for the war as such. The same goes for Theresa Breslin and Marcus Sedgwick. In fact, when my forgetfulness works full time, I find some of the plots blend into one, and that is pehaps because they are all pretty true, and they all share the same basic settings.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Leaving fiction behind, there is the marvellous Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. That, too, is similar to the novels mentioned above. Presumably because it is about the same period and similar activities.

There is Michael Morpurgo’s tale about the football match played at Christmas between the British and the Germans (based on something real?). I have come across it many times, and would guess many children or former children also have.

I wonder if there is a difference between neutral Sweden and countries which took part in the war? (This in turn makes me think of Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts, featuring the destiny of all the Indians who fought in Europe in the Great War.) Now that no one has a living great grandfather who fought in WWI, it must still be well known. Newspapers write about it often. I imagine families still talk about those who died. And for that matter, those who came back.

Recently I had cause to look at the family tree again (British side), and was reminded of the Resident IT Consultant’s great uncles. He had many of them, but two he never met, because they died within days of each other in July 1916. I keep thinking of how their mother must have felt.

Was there a World War I?

I know. It’s hard to even imagine asking that question. You might not know a lot about any particular period in history, but you sort of feel (well, I do) that everybody knows it happened. And if you are a student of History at a reputable university like Uppsala, it seems a very unlikely question to ask.

But it’s one Peter Englund had to answer as a History lecturer, and it’s what made him write The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a look at WWI from the points of view of twenty randomly chosen people.

I have not read it, but I understand it’s a rather special book. Hardly surprising when the author is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Partly because of this, I persuaded myself to attend his event in Charlotte Square on Sunday, and partly because the English translation was done by Peter Graves, who has become a bit of a household name in the Bookwitch family.

Peter Englund

Peter didn’t disappoint. What he had to say was interesting, and he said it in excellent English. Not surprising for an academic, but still much appreciated.

The book is an experiment in historical writing, and an experiment which seems to have worked well. Peter was looking for multiplicity, wanting to get in as much of the war as he could. He had a matrix which he filled as he went along. He didn’t look to see what X did on a certain day; but who could fill the hole for that particular date.

The people chosen didn’t know what was going to happen, because they lived the war. You lived in a bubble of ignorance. From his own experience in the military Peter knows how easy it is to forget why there is a war. Momentum keeps it going. He found that the daily observations of the women were generally more interesting and more detailed than those of the men.

The book turned out better than Peter had expected. Which is nice.

Rain and fizz

Steve Cole

Were you scared? Could you work out that Spiderman was really – only – Steve Cole? See, nothing to worry about.

Steve Cole

Steve came out of his lunchtime event fizzing. So did his Pepsi. All over the signing table. Hence the ‘handy-with-a-cloth’ Spiderman you can see here.

Steve Cole

Most unusual sight. Make the most of it.

We’d heard about the suit. Seeing it was almost better than the anticipation. Didn’t see much of the squirrels, though. Those that weren’t appropriated by the audience had already been stashed into a bag. (And they looked like teddies!)

Let’s see how long we can spin out our last weekend in Charlotte Square. There will be more detailed reporting on events, but the general goings-on come first.

We began by getting the first train out of Stirling, in order to go to Michael Grant’s morning event. It was worth it. Once you’re actually out of bed and dressed and all that, it’s not too bad.

Michael Grant

He had a very long signing queue, but after more than an hour we were permitted to drag Michael behind the tent to the dustbin area for a private photocall.

We hung on for Steve Cole’s signing, having found two well positioned chairs to watch from. I couldn’t help but admire the ‘Cole Mothers’ who were still smiling after over an hour waiting with their children.

Julia Donaldson

Julia Donaldson sat on her chair for a considerable time, and her ‘Gruffalo parents’ were very patient indeed. Her event was on first, and she was still there, signing away, hours later. Julia’s trusty musician entertained the crowds, and the Gruffalo did his bit.

The Gruffalo

A lovely message came via facebook, with the news that Jenny Colgan – who doesn’t know us at all – had managed to find Daughter a ticket for her Doctor Who talk that evening. It made our day.

Steve Cole

We trailed after Steve back to the yurt, where everyone jumped at the chance of seeing him jump. He jumped for a solid ten minutes for Chris Close while director Barley watched, along with Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess and many more, who happened to be passing.

Found Holly Webb in the children’s bookshop after her early morning event. Very long queue.

Holly Webb

Once things quietened down, we sat out in the yurt ‘garden’ again, until I spied Theresa Breslin and Nicola Morgan and we ran over for a signature in Theresa’s new book, Spy For the Queen of Scots. I made the mistake of telling the Guardian’s Michelle Pauli it wouldn’t rain. Hah.

Peter Englund

Back to photocall with Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy. He was bemused to be getting instructions in his own language on how to turn. In typical Swedish fashion he shook my hand. I suspect that is as close as I’ll ever get to a Nobel Prize. Oh, well.

As we ran to get to his event, we spied Philip Ardagh, so stopped to chat briefly. That’s when he decided to lean on me. Someone will have to tell him it’s not good manners. Besides, the cool red shoes of 2011 are no more. He’s back to black brogues.

Mrs, Baby and Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Philip introduced us to Mr and Mrs and Baby Wigtown, which was nice of him. Apparently they have nine star hotels in Wigtown. (Like I believe that!)

Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Then we ran on, and after Peter’s event the heavens opened. It’s a most effective way to make people take cover. If they have a cover to take, that is. We really, really needed to go and eat lunch, seeing as it was coming on for five pm, so covered all our techie stuff in polythene, looked at the one umbrella between us, and panicked. All was not lost. In the entrance we found people covered in some delightful white bin liners with the words The Guardian on the front. We bought an Observer and got ourselves two ‘free’ bin bags to wear, and the afternoon was a little drier. So were we.

On second thoughts, we could have sheltered under Ardagh’s beard. Should have.

Post lunch we returned for Daughter’s eight o’clock Doctor Who talk, which she very much enjoyed. A quick chat with Jenny Colgan over signing, followed by a dash for a train.

We are now officially back at Bookwitch Towers.

At least they tried

The Tomas Tranströmer pocket book. What does that make you think of? I have it on so-so authority from Son that Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy used the word pocket book on Thursday, when talking about Tranströmer and his work.

He meant paperback. At least we think he did.

Pocket book is a linguistic false friend, because it just sounds so English. Whereas it really is Swedish for paperback.

Someone who does know they are paperbacks is my old employer, the bookshop in Halmstad. (I will be discreet, and not identify it further.) They have a good selection of books in English, and I noticed they had rearranged the shop a little, and above the new shelves they had a banner, clearly stating what they contain.

So, they did say English paperbacks. Then, Crimes and Thrillers. And finally, Fictions and Novels.

It doesn’t sound so bad.

The Crimes is obvious. They just don’t know about plural versus not counting, so to speak. I suspect the Fictions stands for novels. Because I’m fairly confident their Novels stands for short stories.

And there we are!

They tried.

So did another Swedish bookshop, many years ago, in another town. The town was overrun by visiting teachers or librarians or whatever, for some conference. The type of people who could be expected to turn up at the town’s bookshop. So the shop put a welcome note in the window. It said ‘Välkommen.’

I was in there when one of the ‘välkommen’ visitors popped in and pulled a member of staff aside and said she was very touched and it was very sweet, but it was wrong. (At this point I began to worry, because I hadn’t caught the wrongness of it, as I sailed through the door.)

It seems she required the note to say ‘Välkomna.’ In the plural. Because the town was full of lots of them.

Her comment was not terribly välkommen, as I recall. It’s like when you bring a gift and the recipient says they don’t want it. (You can always throw it away afterwards. Quietly. When no one is looking.)

What do you think? Would you feel välkomna by the Fictions and Crimes offered?

And anyway, as you enter the shop, you just might only be thinking of yourself. You are welcome. Never mind all the others.