Category: Thoughts

“I’m actually enjoying the mess, thanks for asking, it means I don’t have to worry about tidying”.

This is my stock answer when people ask me about the house. But I’m lying. The plaster on the walls is cracked and splotchy, every surface is covered in a fine dust, most of our belongings are stacked in randomly packed cardboard boxes behind the IKEA sofa which is missing its cover and has a fine collection of random stains. The kitchen is held together with tape. The bathtub is still full of random bits of wallpaper.

The biggest untruth is the word “enjoy”. A better description of my state of mind, underneath the sort of chirpy and cavalier “isn’t this an exciting adventure” type of attitude I tend to adopt in these situations, would be stressed, jaw-clenching, shoulder-aching, forehead-scrunching, stressed. Because this is the week when it all starts to happen.

Somehow I had managed to ignore it. The notes in my calendar saying “boiler fitter” and “kitchen arrives” were always going to happen at some point in the future. Well that future arrived sooner than expected. And the British prime minister has decided to call a new general election at the same time. So in between kitchen furniture getting stuck in our narrow Victorian hallway and men climbing up on the roof to drop down a flue for the wood-burning stove and the kitchen having to be emptied out and more things packed into more boxes (where are we going to store them!?) I’m keeping one eye on the UK political press on Twitter where there is also chaos and confusion. And it dawns on me that there won’t be any hot water for a while. And no hob, oven or washing machine. Where are we going to eat? How is it already the middle of April?

Perhaps I should just have titled this post first world problems. Perhaps I should try to figure out why everything always seems to happen at once in my life. Perhaps the answer is that underneath the stress there are bits I enjoy. These are the sort of days when there isn’t time to think too much and just about the right amount of time to act, it’s a kind of tunnel effect, a sharpened focus, or perhaps I’ve just had too much coffee and should have a little lie down. In a couple of weeks I can start worrying about tidying again. Now that’s something to complain about.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

Everyday life The house Thoughts

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

Everyday life London Thoughts Travel

At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.

We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.

I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.

Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.

What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.

Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.

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The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.

His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.

Everyday life Reading Thoughts

After a week the bed bugs came back. They were a surprise left-over from the previous occupants of the house. The mysterious rash that could have been a bite, the inky spots on the wall in the spare bedroom, the bug we saw scuttling over a pillow on the sofa. None of these things seemed like a problem until a late night Google binge told us they were unmistakeable signs of a bed bug infestation.

It was becoming difficult to sleep. So we decided to rent a steamer and buy bug killing products off Amazon. Gerry tackled the industrial steamer, a blue robot from a seventies science fiction movie. I wore a mask and big gloves and followed him with the bug spray. Then we set off some smoke bombs. A couple of nights passed. No more bites. We thought might have won.

Then they came back and it was time to phone a man with access to more potent poisons and pesticides. The man recommended stripping back the carpets as it was something we’d intended to do anyway. That was last Saturday. A brief conversation over a cup of coffee. “We’ll just take this carpet up”.

The green, sticky mess crumpled in our hands, the rubber fell off the bottom and left mounds of fine sand-coloured dust on the floorboards. We tore up more carpet. More rubber sand. The floor boards were a pale grey underneath. There were gaps and holes, patches and some blackened bits. A mysterious dark shape revealed where a piece of furniture had once stood.

The floorboards clashed horribly with the salmon pink wallpaper. We peeled off a small corner. A big sheet came loose, like a sail catching wind. It felt good. I could almost sense the house shaking off the weight of the years. Another corner, another sheet of wallpaper and then small finicky bits that didn’t seem to want to come off at all.

Gerry used a screwdriver to pry loose one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles. It came off in one go. The next one was a bit more difficult, but he hacked away at it. I kept peeling wallpaper. After a couple of hours the first layer, the one they must have added in the sixties and seventies, was gone.

We found the local dump and drove past HMP Belmarsh, where the UK detained people without charge or trial after 9/11. The road that runs past it is wide and fast. It’s difficult to get a glimpse of the prison. Then there is scrubby industrial wasteland, low warehouses, a large garage full of wrecked cars. This London is a different London.

Back in the house we keep peeling away the layers. We’re now down to the plaster, once painted a dark forest green. The last layer of wallpaper, a yellow geometric pattern with ghostly imprints of large white flowers, is the most difficult to remove. We sponge it down with a mixture of hot water and fabric softener and scrape away at the stubborn bits.

It takes time, the peeling and scraping, but in those moments there is nothing else than the wallpaper. Thoughts of work and worries and the political situation slip away. I can feel the room sighing with relief, the walls can breathe again. The bugs have stayed away for a week. We will keep peeling.

Everyday life The house Thoughts

“Why are you here?”

The man was carrying our belongings into our new house. I had told him I was Finnish. It was a quick and direct question, a sharp icy gust blowing in with the old sideboard and the boxes full of books. He seemed surprised that I had chosen to live in the UK.

He was in his late twenties and from Bulgaria. The older man the company he worked for had teamed him up with for the day was also Bulgarian. Neither of them wanted to stay in the UK. The older man told me his brother was working in Germany. That’s where he was going. “Very money”, he said. “Very money”. The younger man had been in the UK for about a year and was also thinking about leaving. The traffic in London was awful, the money wasn’t great, the city was expensive. Life could be better somewhere else.

So. Why am I here? I was trying to explain it to myself as I unwrapped mugs and placed them in cupboards, uncrumpled tea towels and opened kitchen drawers for the first time. I’m here because I like the UK. I’m here because there is something about London that pulls me back every time I leave. But these are intangibles. They didn’t work as answers to that simple, direct question. “Why are you here?”

I’m here because of work. I’m here because I’m married to a Brit. Those reasons seem too practical, too mundane. The underlying truth is that I’m here because where else would I be. This is my home. This is where I became an adult. This is where my life is. That’s why this whole brexit thing is so exhausting sometimes, because when I woke up on the 23d of June I was no longer equal to most of the other people who call this island their home.

The prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after brexit. Those who have experienced her punitive policies when she was the home secretary know that there will be no warm, sympathetic or humane treatment of EU-immigrants, there will only be the cold logic of bureaucracy. There will be a box, you will need to fit it, otherwise you’re out.

During May’s time as home secretary the income threshold for people from countries outside the EU who wanted to stay in the UK was raised. Those who want to apply for permanent residency in the UK now have to prove they earn over £35 000 a year. If you’re a freelancer, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a cleaner, a teacher or an artist that will be difficult.

If you’re married to a Brit, the policy means your British partner has to earn over £18 600 a year in order for you to stay in the country. For each child you have your partner needs to earn a couple of thousand pounds more. Over 15 000 children have been separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of the rules. Even the right wing paper the Telegraph is critical of this policy. It’s created what they call “Skype families”.

Many EU friends of mine in the UK have applied for this same permanent residency during the last six months. They have had to prove that they’ve lived in the UK for five years, they’ve had to hand over bank statements and bills to the state and they’ve had to account for each and every time they have travelled out of the country during the last five years. In the new year I’m planning to do this too. Because this is my home. But simply saying that isn’t enough anymore. Now I have to prove it.

Image by Eduard Militaru.

Britishness Everyday life Thoughts

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.

Everyday life London Thoughts

I have started a new non-fiction project. I want to write about migration and about belonging and excluding and I also want to directly and indirectly write about brexit. The topic of migration is a bit of a prism and many other subjects have been highlighted by the research I’ve done so far. I’m writing down lists of what to explore further – history, archeology, ethics, nationalism, propaganda, economics.

I’ve maybe done about ten percent of all the reading I need to do and I spend most of my spare time in the British Library. I’m not sure what shape the project will take on as it matures. I’m not even sure if there is a publisher out there who will be interested in the project, but I am enjoying the research and am happy to spend my spare time reading about these topics for my own pleasure.

But there is one question that gnaws away at me. The books I’ve been enjoying the most lately have all been personal essays about difficult subjects. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which describes her journey from alcohol-fuelled parties in London to bird watching on Orkney, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, essay and nature writing. The book has had a lot of positive publicity here in the UK and it is climbing the charts, perhaps showing there is an appetite for the personal in non-fiction.

I have also devoured essayist Olivia Laing’s impressive first two books, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring. Laing has done a lot of research and reading and she reasons intelligently about the subjects she explores. What brings it all together is her persona. These books have filled me with joy because they are intelligent, erudite and human. I feel like I’m learning something new and at the same time acquainting myself with the personality and psyche of another.

So the question is, how much of myself should I allow into the writing? How personal should the tone be? The author needs to be honest with his or her audience. It makes sense to bring that side into a piece when tackling sensitive issues like migration. Potential readers need to know where I stand, they need to know what personal bias I might bring to the project. US journalist and writer Joan Didion always put herself in her writing. Some of the harshest criticism aimed her way argued “the subject is always herself”. But Didion believed (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the only true starting point was the personal, because all we have is our own subjective perspective.

A lot of male writers write deeply personal pieces, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway spring to mind. Did they have the same criticism levelled at them? Were they sneered at for “always writing about themselves”?

I feel a certain amount of fear about bringing the personal into the project. I fear not being taken seriously. I fear criticism. I fear not being able to pull it off making the issues and the quite heavy and difficult topics I’m researching interesting and relevant. But I should know better. There is not much I can do to control the way any of my writing will be received and perceived. I can have my own private thoughts and hopes for a project or a piece of writing, but when I let it go what it becomes is up to those who read it. The only thing I can hope for is that each project makes me a slightly better and more thoughtful writer and that there will always be a new project waiting when the previous one has flown the nest.

Image by Dmitrij Paskevic.

The book 2 Thoughts

September. A return to routine. Time to re-focus as the year prepares for the curtain to drop. The beat speeds up and the days rattle along. The nights fight back. Nature knows what’s coming, the trees drop their leaves and pulls energy back to the core. Autumnal storms whip away the dead weight of summer. I look at the calendar and realise I have to do the same. Only a few months and so much left to do.

I’m looking at all the plans in front of me, wondering where to find any dead weight. We’re moving to a new house. We’re going up to Scotland to walk the hills. And then there is the new writing project. Slim, trim, cut away to make space for all of those things that matter. But I thrive when the focus narrows, when life switches on tunnel vision and there is only one thing that matters. That’s one of the perks of my job as a journalist. The deadlines allow me to dig deep into one topic, to focus on one task and allow everything else to fade. The deadline of a new year sometimes help me to finish the projects I started on lazy spring days when there was so much time and wholesome summer months to look forward to.

I like to think seasonally. To sow the seeds in the spring, toil, relax and allow things to grow in the summer and harvest in the autumn. It never really works out as perfectly as that, because living is messy. But I enjoy the rhythm underneath it all. I did start the new writing project in the spring. I’ve worked throughout the summer. I will keep working and perhaps there will be something to harvest in about a year.

ps. You might have noticed the new layout. Thought it was time for a change.

Image by Andrew Small.

Everyday life The book 2 Thoughts

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework over the summer. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.

Everyday life London Thoughts

I’m sad and tired. Tired and sad. I’ve been writing about the Jo Cox tragedy for the last two days and the shocking murder of a person who seems to have touched so many lives is eating away at me. Many things have been written over the last few days. There is the personal tragedy, heart-breaking and raw. And then there are the many narratives and political opinions swirling around in the papers and on social media. At the heart of it, at first, there seems to be the random pointless tragedy of life. The bad timing, the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, the referral for treatment that took a bit too long, the person who forgot to look in the wing mirror, the raging mob taking things too far. Another narrative sits there as well, the vulnerable lone wolf, radicalised by fever-pitch hate and intolerance in the echo chambers of the web.

The closer I look the blurrier the picture becomes. There, at the heart of it, is also a darkness, a sinister and frightening current pulling us backward in time, erasing the lessons history should have taught us. What happens when a society fans the flames of xenophobia, fear and hate? The more intense these feelings become the harder they will try to find an outlet. At some point there will be an eruption. This kind of fear-mongering has been going on for a long time in a lot of different places. We might laugh at the demagogues on TV in the US, but the same kind of hateful politics exist a lot closer to home. We see it in all of the movements in Europe who suggest that one set of people are better than another and in groups who believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

This is a beast with many heads. There is not just one kind of hate and intolerance out there, each monster emboldens the one next to it, but the core is the same. Fear. Fear that turns into hate that turns into action.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the type of society we want to build for ourselves? I pose this question to you because in the end the world we live in is created and shared by all of us. We are all a part of it. The person in their bedroom hiding from it is a part of it, as is the politician and the agitator with a million followers on Twitter. What we consume, how we talk about things with our friends, how we choose to or are able to educate ourselves, how we speak up for or mock others, it’s all apart of it.

We have a choice. We can take a step back from passionate, heartfelt conviction and embrace common sense. We can choose to listen to all kinds of opinions and thoughts, to attempt to bring our heads and not just to our hearts into political debates.

In my day job I write about current affairs. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about the way hate and intimidation has started to dominate our political discussions. I don’t see myself as a political animal or a polemicist. But enough is enough. We need to look at each other, to listen to each other, to see a human being and not a label or a stereotype. Then perhaps we can start having some sensible conversations about where we are and where we’re going.

Image by Oscar Keys/Unsplash.

Thoughts