• Mwah! One kiss or two?

    (Photo by Guido Fuà)

    In England, when I grew up, kissing or not kissing women on the cheek was a class issue. Lots of people think the English don’t do the kiss on the cheek. Not true. The posher you are, the more kissing there is. It’s so French and sophisticated, see? 

    Among my mates, it was simple: no one ever touched the opposite sex, prior to a full snog, let alone kissed them on the cheek. 

    Then I went to university, like a fresh-faced extra in The Line of Beauty

    A good friend took me to the nightspots of Fulham and Chelsea, and I discovered that I was expected to kiss every girl I was introduced to. It was extraordinary. 

    One cheek or two? 

    I made a total hash of it, and did one-and-a-half. 

    This inept action left everyone awkward and unsure of my intentions. Was I using the opportunity to go in for the kill? Or was I so put off by their first cheek that I couldn’t bear to fully kiss the other one?

    This is the part of the blog where I say: Obviously, over time I got it down pat. Nowadays, I’m a natural with the ladies… [Is that coughing I can hear at the back? Hey, come on, pipe down!]

    Intimacy is, as anyone who’s lived a long time will know, fraught with dangers. 

    Alas, such sociable cultural fun might just be one of the casualties of Covid. But a nostalgic part of me hopes this awkward British institution will live on.

    Like this? See what I can do with a cucumber

  • Pardon my Swedish!

    Globe with European countries named in Swedish
    (Photo by Calvin Hanson)

    Whenever I heard my grandmother – who was from the North of England – say something was ‘dear’ (i.e. expensive), I assumed nothing could be more English than this classic colloquial word. 

    Then I was on Blocket – a Swedish eBay – and it had a little indicator on each sale item, telling you if Blocket thought the item’s sale price was expensive (or ‘dyr’ in Swedish). Hang on, I thought… dyr

    So, it turns out the English of the Danelaw regions have never stopped saying ‘dyr’. You can bring in your Latin expens, but when it comes to the price of bread, we’ll keep our own words, thank you very much!

    How come?

    Here’s another English colloquialism. Rather than asking ‘Why is that?’ we often ask ‘How come?’ What could be more English? Well, then I saw this sentence in my last Swedish class: Hur kommer det sig att en boxare inte får lov att tävla med skägg? (How come a boxer is not allowed to compete with a beard?) Hur kommer? How come?

    The more you look, the more you see. ‘Hoppa’ means ‘jump’. ‘Springa’ means ‘run’. ‘Pratar’ means talk, or prattle, as we sometimes say. ‘Barn’ means child, as any Geordie or Scot could tell you. And ‘kvinna’ – which sounds very like ‘queen’ – means ‘woman’. 

    English is a mongrel language

    It may have stalked the globe, but we all know English is a mishmash of Nordic, Germanic and French, with a solid spicing of other lingos from around the world. Living in Sweden, the debt to the Norse tongue is obvious. 

    Loads of Swedish words sound very like English equivalents. Even when it looks strange written down, when spoken the link often becomes clear. 

    When you see ‘Näste station’ on the screen in trains, you can make an educated guess that ‘näste’ must mean ‘next’, but when you hear the conductor pronounce it, it becomes basically the same word. 

    Language is always being made and unmade, as my son showed me with Lost and Found Words

  • Does shandy have an age limit?

    Reading Will Self’s novella on Brexit in The New European last week, I read the following:

    “The prime minister’s holed up in Chequers, on the Chiltern fringe. I used to walk out that way, towards Wendover Hill, with my unpatriotic, but deeply beery father, back in the flannel-and-Gannex sixties, when you knew where you stood: in Britain; and what you stood in: leather. We’d stop at the Sundown Inn, and he’d pour half his pint into my lemonade, then we’d stagger on. I’d have been around 10 years old, but it was an innocent era – and when my mother chided my father for giving me watered-down wine at lunch, he’d say, “The French do it”. As if that settled the matter.”

    In its contents, that paragraph was almost a carbon copy of my own childhood, two decades later in the 1980s. That means whatever kind of puritanical tide has engulfed Britain in the meantime, it hadn’t yet happened in the 80s. They, too, must have been an era of innocence. 

    Has it really become unacceptable to give your child a shandy? Or is it still happening quietly behind closed doors up and down the land? I can’t give a definitive answer. My child is 3 years old, which let’s face it is just too young, so I have no primary research to fall back on. 

    “The French do it”

    This is the telling line. It reminds me of my gap year on an Italian farm where the farmer gave me weak red wine in the morning as a thirst quencher while digging potatoes, but where I never saw anyone actually pissed in my entire trip. 

    The French do do it, but like most southern Europeans, they seem to do it steadily and with sobriety. Given the northern tendency towards oblivion, whenever talk turns to allowing a child to drink, it tends to conjure images of a youngster reeling and barfing on a stupid father’s pack of Stella. 

    More interested in food than drink? Here’s an idea for reinventing how we eat