• 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

  • You live in the right place, right?

    Red double-decker London bus toy with an advert on the side
    No mincing of words

    France has the best wine in the world. Sweden has the best childcare in the world. Britain has the best television in the world. Brazil has the best football in the world. 

    We love to tell ourselves stories. I’ve been living in a new country now for two months, and it makes you realise just how much we’re encouraged to buy-in to the stories of a nation. 

    God’s own country

    All countries like to think they’re best – some more than others, perhaps. I do come from Great Britain, after all. Not just good, but Great. But wherever you are, a lot of effort is expended in making you sure you’re where you should be. 

    ‘British Meat’s got the lot!’

    That’s what it says on the side of a toy bus I’ve had since childhood. Now my son drives it around the carpet. It’s just one tiny, innocuous example of the recurring mantra that you’re in the right place. 

    That’s probably a good thing. The last thing we need is millions more dissatisfied subjects, clammering to cross borders. But for anyone who has placed a foot in another country, this refrain becomes a little exposed. 

    Is it really better here?

    Nationalist blasphemy, of course. Everything and everyone around you encourages you towards contentment with the way things are where you live. 

    Of course Britain has the best political system, the best drivers, the best beer – until, that is, you arrive somewhere where everyone tells you they have the best political system, the best drivers and the best beer. What then?

    A place called Sweden

    As a new arrival, Swedes have been keen to unveil their envied social system to me. They pay a lot of tax. They’re happy to, because they have the best social care in the world. That’s how it is. 

    But scratch a bit and their social care isn’t that different to British social care, yet you pay a lot more for it. But hush, don’t tell the Swedes. They’re content with living in the right place. 

    As for the British, they have the best political system in the world. But hush, don’t… oh. 

    If you want to cross a border, Is It Your Right To Migrate?

  • Think you’ve got a good memory?

    Hourglass with sand running through it on a pebble beach
    (Photo by Aron Visuals)

    Our memory isn’t as good as we like to think it is. I’m not talking about the dementia epidemic. I mean collective memory. Societies are built on the stuff. What we remember makes us who we are.

    But I have a theory. It’s this: our collective memory is only ever 4 generations old. Even the things that appear older are only the products of the last 4 generations – appropriating older stuff for their own ends. 

    Tell me about your great-grandparents

    On a personal family level, this is about when memory peters out. How many of us even know who our ancestors were beyond our great-grandparents, let alone anything else about them?

    It’s nice to think of our own selves as somehow stretching back to George Washington, King Arthur, Aristotle, Suleyman the Magnificent, Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus – or whichever historic figures and movements you identify with. 

    It’s nice to think that our traditions and preoccupations have vast root systems. Our way of seeing the world is time-tested. In reality, our own lives are much more limited. Our sense of the ancient past is informed by the last 4 generations.

    Who do you think you are?

    When Scots wear tartan, they are communing with Sir Walter Scott. When Englishmen sing folk songs, they sing through the prism of collectors like Cecil Sharp. When Swedes revel in whitewashed pine floors with pops of colour they are heirs to Carl Larsson

    You might say, well, it’s easy to unpick popular culture and folk tradition, but not the great foundational movements of the ages – the monotheistic faiths. Yet even there, the Christian or the Muslim from Birmingham to Malmo is channeling the revivals of the past 150 years more than the time of the prophets. 

    Go back more than 4 generations and our nations and people were often living in a way that would surprise us now. We’d find them doing things we don’t see as traditional to our countries and our communities at all. 

    The rule applies around the world. We are prisoners of unreliable memory, and short-term memory at that. 

    Talking of unreliable memories, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be

  • I’m Gay Therefore I Am… Creative

    Open window in an outside wall of a house
    Let’s go outside (Photo by Katerina Pavlyuchkova)

    Face it. Being gay makes you more creative*. The straight world just doesn’t always like to admit it. 

    On BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, an academic said how the family of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca was silent on the subject of his sexuality until well into the 80s, after the fall of the fascist dictatorship. 

    Even then, his Sonnets of Dark Love were still published with a cover depicting a woman’s body – as if encouraging the reader to imagine they were written to a woman. His homosexuality was buried. 

    I am Generation Metrosexual 

    I imitate gay culture. I love the sense of style and beauty that pervades it. I ♥ gay (or bisexual or pansexual or, do we need a label?) artists from George Michael to Oscar Wilde, Christine and the Queens to Robert Byron. 

    It’s what makes those moments of social suppression so strange. Lorca’s family hushing up his sexuality. George Michael being made into a safe mum’s heartthrob for most of his career… 

    We are all indebted to gay cultural icons. But more than that, straight society needs to lighten up. The more rigidly defined by stereotypes it is, the less anyone can express themselves authentically. 

    Does homosexuality make you innately creative? 

    I’m being flippant. But hey, look how the ‘gay minority’ punches above its weight every day across the arts. So if it’s not just that being gay gives you a supercharged creativity gene, then what is it?

    Is it something about being on the social periphery? Being an outsider? Seeing the fluidity beneath the surface more clearly? Seeing a world outside the box? 

    I think that helps. 

    *Disclaimer: Yes, I know. You can be gay and totally uncreative. It’s a hook to make you read. 

    While we’re talking about the power of identity, spare a thought for Being Middle Class Man

  • Why is race so black and white?

    Why is Barack Obama more black than white? The question of race and the ownership of different racial and therefore cultural spaces is a vexed one. As someone most people would look at and identify as ‘white’, I feel the exclusivity of the discourse. 

    The American banjo player and roots singer Rhiannon Giddens – talking about her latest project Songs of our Native Daughters in Songlines magazine – spoke about the slavery of “my ancestors”. She is the daughter of a European American father and an African American mother. 

    I’ve never taken a DIY DNA test

    If I did, I might discover some unforeseen racial mix. We’re all African if you go back far enough. So why the segregation? And why, when that segregation is defined, is the black identity so wide, and the white identity so stunted?

    For a clue, consider what V. S. Naipaul had to say about ex-slavery societies in the Caribbean, such as Martinique, where he travelled before writing his book The Middle Passage in 1961:

    “Pedigrees are so carefully watched that there is no possibility whatsoever of anyone with the least tincture of Negro blood, however unapparent, passing as white.” 

    This fear of miscegenation runs deep in all American ex-slavery societies, as it does elsewhere in the world. Even in black or Indian communities, an instinctive preference for a lighter shade of skin in pervasive. 

    Perhaps this is at the root of the keen divide in US society today, where anyone with any amount of black ancestry therefore becomes designated, and self-identifies, as black?

    Where does this leave me?

    If my DNA showed up traces of African blood, what then? Could I claim the slaves of the Americas as my ancestors? Or am I condemned to forever be the descendant of oppressors? 

    And can I ever claim fraternity with Barack Obama? He is a politician I hugely admire. He stands for what I stand for. He is culturally my brother. Yet by current social mores, he is ‘black’ and I am ‘white’. We are divided. 

    Read this post for more of my musings on V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage

  • Being Middle Class Man

    Young man sitting on a bench with a glass of whisky in front of a Union Jack British flag
    Is male and middle class the ultimate turn-off? (Photo by Gregory Hayes)

    I love Grayson Perry. Who doesn’t? All but the most unsalvageably entrenched blokey blokes must love him for everything he has done to open debate about gender – particularly being a man – and identity. 

    But how much of what Grayson has done – has been able to do – is rooted in his working class identity? Yes, he dresses in women’s clothes. Yes, he questions the most basic assumptions about male culture. But he’s still an honest, straight-talking bloke from solid working roots. 

    The legitimacy this identity engenders often seems to hide in plain sight. It reminds me of the way Billy Bragg – another boy from the ‘wrong’ end of London with the accent to back it up – can deliver English folk music with an authority lacking in even the most hallowed middle class revivalists. 

    Of course, there is some slippage. 

    Some no doubt view both Grayson and Billy as class-suspect. In Grayson’s gender-bending analysis and Billy’s love of olde worlde folk, they could both be seen as working class boys now long since consumed by middle class airs and intellectualism. 

    Pity Middle Class Man

    Everyone hates the middle classes, as the joke goes, even the middle classes themselves. Yes, they are a comfortable place to be born and to live, but they are eternally unloved. Which makes Middle Class Man the hardest to crack. 

    Does Grayson’s accessibility as a working class man make his bold forays into questioning social norms more palatable, under the cover of class legitimacy? Could a middle class version of Grayson Perry have broken down as many barriers as the real Grayson Perry? 

    Would we have bought it? By we, of course, I mean the Great British Public (GBP), that toughest of critics. Never mind the male gaze. The GBP gaze can be withering. 

    Spare a thought for Middle Class Man – fighting to remake himself, despite his eternal lack of credibility, even in the eyes of his peers. Lumbered with maleness and middle classness, he needs all the help he can get!

  • Swedes are Brits with good branding

    Blonde woman with large daisy flowers in her hair standing with back to camera against a flowery bush
    The darling buds of May, June, July… (Photo by Christian Widell)

    The Swedes have branding sown up. It’s like they ingest it from birth. Sweden just rings so true as an idea for the rest of the world. Happy, blonde people living fairly with each other and in harmony with nature – and no matter what the weather, doing everything well. 

    What’s so Swedish about a maypole? 

    Think Sweden. Think fish as a national dish. Think dancing around a pole in Midsummer. Think lagom – not too little, not too much. It all seems so quintessentially Swedish. But hang on…

    A British national fish dish? Fish’n’chips, anyone? Dancing around a pole. That’ll be why we call it a maypole. Brits may not have done it since before the Industrial Revolution, but we still call it a maypole. Lagom – not too little, not too much? Pure Presbyterian self-moderation. 

    Not only that, but listen to a Swedish – or indeed Danish – voiceover on TV, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a very drunk Geordie. We’re practically national siblings. But boy, oh boy, Swedes have sold themselves so much better. 

    Maybe it’s that Industrial Revolution? Maybe it’s the Imperial twitch? Maybe Britain’s problem is that there are just too many strands to pick? A good brand needs focus, a single narrative. Is it Cool Britannia? Is it Brexit Britain? Is it Global Britain? Form an orderly queue…