Magic carpet

‘Yours is a glorious country, Honeychurch!’ These words echo in my head every time I cycle to my allotment these days, although slightly adapted to local conditions, that is, the Rijnsburgerweg in Leiden: ‘Yours is glorious weather, Honeychurch!’ They come from A Room with a View; in the film they are spoken by the wonderful Denholm Elliott, playing the equally wonderful Mr Emerson, and he delivers them with a mad flourish of the hand, as if fencing or doffing an ornate hat. They seem very suitable words for current circumstances, the magnolias may have finished flowering but lots of other trees are in bloom and those that don’t flower acquire a little more green, each one a different shade, every day, making me once again grateful that I have an allotment, and am allowed to go to it.

            Working there yesterday I was reminded of Bob Flowerdew (clearly from the same universe as the Honeychurch family), an unforgettable contributor to the BBC programme Gardeners’ World, in its long ago glory days, when I was first interested in gardening. Bob Flowerdew had a long blond plait, a semi-rural (perhaps Essex) accent and a huge organic garden; he was also full of useful organic tips, the most memorable being recycling the beer he drank by peeing on the compost heap. I used to tape these programmes for friends who didn’t have cable television and years afterwards we were still talking about Bob’s unusual habits.

            One piece of advice of his, which I actually followed, was to suppress weeds by spreading a bit of old carpet on the ground. We happened to have some old carpet, a large expanse of it, muddy brown, not very good quality, in our new house, so I took some of it and laid it out beside the greenhouse. This was old and a bit rickety and the old carpet beside it looked indescribably awful, like a rubbish dump with pretensions. But I believed Bob, and left it there, and after a bit the bindweed appeared, just as it did every spring, but now through the carpet, making it look even worse.

            Over the years the carpet disintegrated, as Bob had said it would, and I hadn’t thought of it for ages, not until yesterday while weeding that area. There they were, little tufts of brown nylon mixed in with the weeds and the seedlings to be saved, and there can be few more ridiculous things to bring tears to one’s eyes. I was on my knees, in this glorious weather, looking at ancient bits of carpet, but what I heard was Rudy’s voice saying how utterly – one of his favorite words – hideous it looked. It was as if he was right there beside me, more real than when I deliberately try to summon him up. And he was right, of course, it did look awful. It was ten years ago last Saturday that he died, and there I was, stopped dead in my tracks by what must surely be the strangest remnants of our life together.

Ghostwritten

I thought I was the only person in this country who roams through a lost house in Kew when they cannot sleep, but now I find that another insomniac, living not all that far from me, does it too, and in a house very close to mine. Maarten Asscher describes this in his book Een huis in Engeland; he has a lot more trouble sleeping than I do and he also remembers – or reconstitutes – much more of that house than me, but otherwise so much of what he writes, the names and the places, is so familiar that reading his book I felt as if he had written part of my autobiography.

            It is only the years that I spent in Kew, until the age of ten, that he writes about, but he knows exactly what they were like: in Kew Gardens almost every day, trips to Whipsnade Zoo, Wimbledon on television, taking the Underground into London: oh, the names of the stations: Gunnersbury, Turnham Green, Stamford Brook, Ravenscourt Park! They could not be more suburban but they sound like battlefields; I went through them every day on my way to school in Hammersmith. The difference is that while I was growing up there, Asscher was on holiday, staying for a few weeks every summer with his Dutch grandparents, who had moved to England after the war. He was almost next door to us, they lived at 34 Pensford Avenue, less than twenty minutes’ walk from our house at 4 Pagoda Avenue. Perhaps we saw each other in Kew Gardens, walking round the pagoda and wishing it was open, or waited for the train at Kew Station, which – I was there two years ago – has not changed in the last sixty years. The pagoda, on the other hand, has finally reopened.

            There is something special about staying with one’s grandparents; we did that too, also in another country, and in a place, the village of Kilcoole in Co Wicklow, that has imprinted itself on my mind in the same way as Kew has on Maarten Asscher. The landscape, the colours, the different – better – taste of the food, the small disagreements between one’s grandparents (his quarrel about English, which his grandmother has a better grip on than her husband; I can hear my grandmother snap at my grandfather, and see my great-aunt, who lived with them, restoring the peace), the gentle routine of a house inhabited by old people, so different from the boring school and homework routine of home.

            There is a secret at the heart of his book, which he does not reveal until the end, and which casts a different light on this paradise. It concerns the war, and his Jewish family; he did not know it himself at the time, children were not told much about what happened in the war. My parents hardly talked about it either, and the only thing I remember my grandfather, who was in the army in France in the First World War, saying about it was when I asked him if he had seen the Angels of Mons: he couldn’t have, he said, they were only seen by those who died. At the time, a child with a very literal mind, I was very impressed by this reasoning.

            As a child, therefore, you do not know the things that the adults know, but I wonder how much that matters. Asscher was certainly better off not knowing the family secret, although perhaps in a way he did know it, or anyway knew there was something. Just after I had finished his book I read something Philippe Sands wrote about grandparents: ‘There is a singular form of communication that exists between grandchild and grandparent, not necessarily in a spoken form. It was finely explored by Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, two Hungarian psychoanalysts who sought to understand how secrets skip a generation and are transmitted from the first to the third generation. “What haunts are not the dead,” they concluded, “but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”‘

            In the meantime, eyes closed, I shall go on entering the front door of 4 Pagoda Avenue, turning left into the hall, and left again into the kitchen. There is Timmy the budgie in his cage; I have brought him some groundsel. We are back from a walk in the Gardens, through the Lion Gate, then turning to the right, the path du côté de chez Oliver, my childhood friend, who lives in Ennerdale Road, his house making a triangle between mine and Maarten Asscher’s. It is almost time for tea.

Ah!

At my last Persian class we finished the story we were reading, it was seventeen pages long and we seemed to have been reading it for ever; I was going to stop with Persian but stayed to see what happened at the end. The title is ‘The Story of the Sigh’ and it comes from Azerbaijan; I don’t know if it was collected from a storyteller or came from a written source, but it is extremely strange, with the most extraordinary events and curiosities, the strangest of which is the Sigh itself, or rather himself, as he appears in person whenever anybody sighs.

            The heroine is the youngest daughter of a merchant, she has no name and no physical characteristics, unlike two young men who also feature and are described as being ‘as beautiful as the moon’. The Sigh is not described either – one imagines him as just a breath of air, ah! – but he is authoritative, and fair. He takes the heroine off to a beautiful garden where she meets the first lovely young man; when he reaches up to pick her a flower she sees a feather under his arm and removes it, whereupon he falls down dead. She weeps and reads the Qur’an beside his body, to no avail.

            Later on another beautiful young man is found crucified in a cellar, held captive by his nurse, and is saved by the heroine. His mother tries to offer him to her in marriage but she refuses, using an excuse based on Islamic law about the amount of time one has to wait before remarrying. It is not obvious to the foreign reader that she has been married at all, but being drugged every night by a beautiful man in a beautiful garden is a clue that we missed (when she discovers the tea is drugged she pours it away under the carpet, the classic Persian hiding place).

            At the end of each adventure she sighs, and there comes Sigh again. It is an amazing story, with elements recognisable from Western folk tales and others from a completely different world, but when struggled through over a period of weeks by someone with a very limited grasp of Persian, it acquired an extra layer of mystery, with the moon-faced young men, the feathers, the tea under the carpet and of course Sigh himself. Several times the text says, literally: ‘She gave a sigh. Sigh came.’

            While reading it I kept thinking that Sigh reminded me of someone and finally I had it: Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout. This was a children’s television programme in the 1960s, set in a magic garden, with Dougal the dog, Florence, the little girl and Zebedee, a man on a spring: boing! would go the spring, and there would be Zebedee, with his large moustache and magical powers. Legend has it that the BBC got it from French television, with neither sound nor script, and it was Eric Thompson, father of Emma, who made up the story, names and dialogue to match the pictures. Reading the ‘Story of the Sigh’ was something like that; one could work out what the words said but not always what they meant.

            Finally the girl asks Sigh to take her back to the garden, where the beautiful young man is lying; she rubs ointment under his arm, he sneezes and wakes up. The flowers bloom and the birds sing. I’m glad I stayed till the end.

A lone sparrow

Last weekend was the Garden Bird Count: you sit by a window for half an hour and note down all the birds you see in the garden. The Bird Protection Society supplies a list of the most common garden birds, with hints for identifying them. Not having a garden any more I don’t take part in it, but I miss it, it was one of the year’s more peaceful rituals. The first time I did it was in 2010, the last January of Rudy’s life. He lay on the sofa, not well but still able to tease me as I sat there with binoculars and my list. My results were the same as almost everybody else’s; they come out in the paper the next day: great tit, robin, collared dove, blackbird, magpie. It was not exactly Adlestrop: ‘And for that minute a blackbird sang/ Close by, and round him, mistier,/ Farther and farther, all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’

Rudy wasn’t good on birds, he knew blackbirds but called all the others wrens, a most effective tease as one always felt compelled to correct him. But he did, it turned out, know the difference between the wren and the others. Years ago, when we were staying in Brooklyn, we saw a number of sparrows, foraging on the street, and he became very excited: ‘Look, sparrows!’ he cried. The friend we were with, who had been living in America for years and saw them every day, still talks about it. But it is true, I realised, we no longer see those flocks of sparrows in our cities, our streets are too clean, we don’t shake the crumbs from our tablecloths out of the window. But you still see them in America, where they have strange, larger versions of our birds. Only the sparrows are the same, and that is because they were imported from England, the legend goes, by someone who thought America should have all the birds in Shakespeare.

            We had an elegant bird table in the garden, constructed by Rudy; it was modelled on a Greek temple, with columns and a portico. The first year I stared at it through my binoculars there was not a single sparrow, but then I started putting out food all year long and eventually got up to twelve at a time, thereby creating, I hope, havoc in the Bird Count statistics. The sparrows would appear in the garden out of nowhere, like a group of noisy schoolchildren, eat huge quantities of seeds, scattering them in all directions (to be hoovered up by the pigeons later), and vanish again; I never saw them on the street. I thought of them as Rudy’s sparrows, although he never saw them. It is the birds that I miss the most, in the new house without a garden.

            There are Shakespearean sparrows, some of them in America, and biblical ones, but the most moving one of all is the Venerable Bede’s comparison of man’s life with ‘the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting hall where you sit in the winter months… This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.’

The music of what happens

I just caught up with the wonderful documentary Seamus Heaney and the music of what happens on BBC; I missed it when it was first broadcast but saw the repeat, with a man interpreting it in sign language. This was annoying for about half a minute, after that I didn’t notice it any more. Heaney’s wife and children appeared, also his brothers and friends like Michael Longley and Helen Vendler; they all spoke about him and read poems, often poems written for them, sometimes with his own voice taking over half way through. It was beautifully done, very simple, without any of the tricks you see nowadays in documentaries, and extremely moving.

            The title of the programme was a reference to the poem ‘Song’, which we heard read by the poet himself, and by Helen Vendler. ‘The music of what happens’ is what Fionn mac Cumhaill (one of the heroes of my English childhood, known to me then as Finn MacCool) called the most beautiful music of all. ‘There are the mud-flowers of dialect/ And the immortelles of perfect pitch/ And that moment when the bird sings very close/ To the music of what happens.’

            It struck me how political some of the poems are, as if I had never realised that before. ‘The Tollund Man’ for instance, about the body preserved in peat at Aarhus: ‘Some day I will go to Aarhus/ To see his peat-brown head,/ The mild pods of his eye-lids,/ His pointed skin cap.’ We did go to Aarhus, and saw him in the museum there, and the young woman, ‘little adulteress’, who was also found near there. Rudy wrote about her in Opgespoorde wonderen. They were both murdered, it is not known why, but it is obvious, as was shown in the film, that Heaney is referring in these poems to the Troubles in Northern Ireland: ‘Out there in Jutland/ In the old man-killing parishes/ I will feel lost,/ Unhappy and at home.’

            Rereading the poem I remembered that of course I was aware of the reference to Northern Ireland, but had forgotten it, remembered only the description of the body. Pico Iyer describes something similar in Autumn Light: Japan’s Season of Fire and Farewells, when somebody reads an observation about life in Japan to him: ‘a startling perception,’ he thought, ‘the kind I could never have come upon after all my years here.’ It turned out to be something he had written in his own first book on Japan, nearly thirty years before. If the writer can forget what he wrote himself, then a reader may also forget something read. Another poem that I had forgotten was about a cousin of Heaney’s who was shot during the Troubles, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’.

            ‘What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?/ The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling/ Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?/ Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights/ That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down/ Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew.’

            Listening to this I remembered Andrew, who was our next-door neighbour and for many years my brother’s best friend, until he too was killed on a road near the Irish border. He was English, he had no connection with Ireland apart from coming there on holiday with us; unable to decide what to do after finishing school he went into the British army, thinking that after serving for a couple of years he would leave and start his real life. Instead of that he was blown up – ‘a faked road block?’ – and died aged 21, ‘where you weren’t known and far from what you knew.’

            I had not forgotten Andrew, but for a long time I had not thought about how he died, and this poem brought it back to me. My parents planted some trees for him, Andrew’s wood, they called it, in our garden in County Sligo, but that house does not belong to us any more. I have a few photos of him, mostly laughing, which he did a lot. When I do think of him I realise that in some other part of my mind I imagine him still alive in a different world, one in which he did not become a soldier and never went to Northern Ireland.

English years

I have two copies of The English Year, a selection of diary extracts compiled by Geoffrey Grigson: one is a scruffy looking paperback which has suffered some water damage, and the other is a hardback first edition (Oxford University Press, 1967), with dust jacket. The first one is mine and the second one belonged to my brother, who was an antiquarian bookseller and cared more about the state of his books than I do. I am still not sure why, having one of my own, I took his copy when we sorted things out in his house after he died, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon it there.

            The book consists of diary entries organised chronologically throughout the year, allowing one to read the relevant entry every day, which is how I read it. Yesterday, 10 November in 1800, for instance, Dorothy Wordsworth ‘… baked bread. A fine clear frosty morning. We walked after dinner to Rydale village. Jupiter over the hilltops, the only star, like a sun, flashed out at intervals from behind a black cloud.’ On the same day in 1803, Coleridge saw ‘an enormous black cloud exactly in the shape of an egg (…) O for change of weather!’ Part of the fun of reading it like this is trying to guess the authors of the entries from their style, and Coleridge is one of the easiest to recognise, mainly because he is so intense, or perhaps crazed. One of the funniest of his entries was not so intended, on 20 October 1802: ‘My 30th. birthday – a windy showery day…’ to which Grigson has added a footnote: ‘Coleridge’s birthday was really 21 October. For some reason he was always convinced it was a day earlier.’ I read that every year with delight.

            D.H. Lawrence is also instantly recognisable: ‘… the snow looks fiendish in its cold incandescence. I hated it violently.’ (18 April 1918) And writing about a blackbird on 14 May 1915: ‘He seems as if his singing were a sort of talking to himself, or of thinking aloud his strongest thoughts. I wish I was a blackbird, like him. I hate men.’ Katherine Mansfield wrote about the Lawrences in her diary on 27 June 1918: ‘Always, when I see foxgloves, I think of the Lawrences (…) As is their custom, when they love anything, they make a sort of Festa. With foxgloves everywhere.’

            Thomas Hardy is unmistakeable too: ‘In spite of myself I cannot help noticing countenances and tempers in objects of scenery, e.g. trees, hills, houses.’ (10 February 1897) Constable sees them differently: ‘The trees and the clouds seem to ask me to try and do something with them.’ (20 January 1834; the book is illustrated with beautiful drawings by Constable.) Ruskin sees everything in astounding detail, Gilbert White is concise (‘Tortoise eats gooseberries,’ 27 July 1780) and on 22 July 1866 William Allingham encounters ‘A huge hornet. T[ennyson] kills it.’

            Another favorite of mine is Richard Hayes, writing on 31 January 1771: ‘So thick a fog, could not see my Obelisk.’ Nathaniel Hawthorne, the only foreigner in the book, lived in Liverpool from 1853-1857 and did not care for English weather: ‘This has been a foggy morning and forenoon, snowing a little now and then, and disagreeably cold … At about twelve there is a faint glow of sunlight…’ (11 December 1855) ‘The chill, rainy English twilight brooding over the lawn.’ (1 September 1854) On 27 February 1857 he remarked, ‘How misty is England! I have spent four years in a gray gloom. And yet it suits me pretty well.’

            After all these years away from England, the England where my brother and I grew up, and despite or perhaps because of the gray and the gloom, I still seem to need to know, even to know it again every year, and again be consoled by it, that on 1 May 1802 Dorothy Wordsworth ‘sowed the scarlet beans about the house (…) It was a clear sky, a heavenly morning. I sowed the flowers, William helped me. We then went and sate in the orchard till dinner time. It was very hot. William wrote The Celandine.’

Burnt rice

Last spring a friend showed me how to make Iranian style rice with potatoes: the potatoes cook in oil at the bottom of the pan and when you turn the whole lot out onto a plate they are crispy and delicious. This is a version of a way of cooking rice called tahdig, where the rice at the bottom of the pan gets brown and crispy, slightly burnt, really. Making the variation with potatoes was quite nerve-racking – how much liquid, how long to leave it, the impossibility of putting it all back in the pan and starting again – but not as daunting as the description given in an article in The Wall Street Journal that my friend sent me. ‘There’s a wow factor,’ people are quoted as saying, and ‘Iranian cooks hone their tahdig skills over a lifetime.’ ‘For Iranian cooking you really need to be focussed, in tune and present’, and ‘It brings all the good memories back – of home, of growing up, of a country that no longer exists as it once did.’

            It hadn’t occurred to me with the potato version, but when I read in the article about dinner guests doing battle for the tahdig I suddenly heard Rudy’s voice saying the word ‘crack’, about the burnt bit at the bottom of the rice pan in Indonesia. Children fought about that too. I looked it up: it is actually spelled kerak, and with it I remembered a number of Indonesian words he used that I never hear any more. All families have their own idiolects, and individuals as well, within families. I had English phrases and sayings, some inherited from my parents, which Rudy didn’t use (except for one, the word ‘bonk’, which my mother said when putting things down; he picked it up and was later startled to hear his first wife using it too), and he had his Indonesian vocabulary.

            The word tampat was one; he used it for a comfortable place to lie, also for the cats, and when he got ill used it for the bedstead (a family word wrongly applied to the Dutch bedstee, actually a box bed) to which he withdrew. Senang was another, meaning feeling well, comfortable. These words may be in use in Dutch, but I have never heard anyone use them in English. Two others, which he did try to make us use, were pisang for banana and manga for mango. He would correct friends, and people on television, when they referred to a mango instead of manga. And as well as all the names for dishes and ingredients that I can make him say in my mind (lemper, djoeroek poeroet, laboe, sayoer lodeh, complete with old colonial spelling) there was also kerak.

            Children fought over the kerak, when they were allowed to eat rice, which in Rudy’s case was mostly when eating with the servants. In the Dutch East Indies the Dutch preferred European food, which must have made Indonesian food and its names even more exotic, words spoken by the baboe (nanny), and connected with early childhood in that lost paradise. To me it reminds of the delight of eating the crusty bits from the side of the baking dish, but I can do that any time. This kerak was something from the distant past, something from ‘a country that no longer exists as it once did.’

Transit

I have spent a lot of time at airports this summer, on journeys with hours to spare between flights. Edinburgh was one, and now Dublin. I remember Dublin airport when there was practically only the control tower; this is still standing, a familiar and welcoming shape, almost swallowed up by the new glittering buildings around it. The airport itself is familiar too, from going home, visiting my parents, later going on holiday en famille. But this time I was not racing for the coach into town but waiting for another flight, to the new airport in Donegal, where I would stay with a cousin on the west coast, then go on to the small church in Glenalla, near Lough Swilly, where we would be adding my brother’s ashes to those of my parents in the family grave.

            It is the grave of my grandfather, who was drowned together with two of his sons in 1928; they lived in Dublin but are buried in Donegal, where they died and where the family originally came from. So this was the third time we have made the journey to the little church, which was built by the wife of a 19th century Hart with the royalties from her books. There is a plaque in the church, which I have now read three times, which states that the church was built ‘through her exertions and liberality combined with those of her husband’.

            It is a beautiful place, on a winding country road, and always slightly further to drive than you think. Our two graves (Uncle Henry is there too) are at the top of the graveyard and behind them is a thick hedge with a stream behind; you can’t see it but you can hear it. Only now does it occur to me that this must be the Glenalla River, which runs down to Lough Swilly at a place called Ray, where the bridge is our sign for the turn-off to the church.

            Both my parents died in Ireland, so bringing their ashes to the church was not complicated. They were buried in the grave after an ordinary Sunday service, of which there are one or two every month. We had arranged this for my brother, also for a plaque with his name to be made, and the only other thing to be done was to bring the ashes to Glenalla. I had them, much heavier than I had expected, in my suitcase, and this had arrived safely in Dublin airport and now had to be sent on to Donegal. I hadn’t even considered having my case sent straight through, perhaps it would not even have been possible.

            Arriving in Ireland has its own rituals, one of which is buying a copy of the Irish Times. The very first article I saw that morning was titled ‘Memorial service set to go ahead after missing ashes finally make it home (…) ‘Aer Lingus apologises after urn lost on route from Australia’. It was accompanied by a photo of four glum looking people who had, on arrival in Dublin, ‘made the grim discovery’ that their urn and ashes were lost in transit.

            My brother’s ashes were by this time somewhere in Dublin airport, waiting for the flight to Donegal several hours later; Aer Lingus blamed baggage handlers in Milan for the loss of that other urn but I could easily see their own baggage handlers losing ours. Waiting for my flight I had plenty of time to worry about it, and to read the Irish Times from cover to cover. There was an article, with a colour picture, about the ‘massive numbers’ of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) arriving in Ireland after an ‘epic’ journey from north Africa. Particularly in Donegal, it said, usually only once every ten years but recently more often.

            The ashes got there of course, perfectly all right, and there was no photo in the paper of me looking glum. And wherever we went near my cousin’s house there were painted ladies all around, everywhere you looked, in every hedgerow in Donegal.

Fathers and Sons

The first evening I spent in Shetland we went to the Island of Mousa, where there is a large broch, a 13 metre high tower, two thousand years old, and said to be one of the best preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe. As if that were not impressive enough, thousands of storm petrels have their nests in the cracks between its stones. While one bird of a pair sits on the nest the other one flies off to sea to feed and then, to avoid predators, only returns after dark. You go there in twilight and wait for the birds to come back; if you put your ear to the broch it sounds as if the whole building is alive, it whirrs and cheeps from deep inside the stones, a mysterious sound that someone once described as like ‘a fairy being sick’. I’m not sure about that but it does sound as if magic is involved, and indeed people used to think the building was haunted.

            At about midnight the other birds start to return, fluttering around like bats, then crawling in between the stones. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen: this ancient building on its uninhabited island, where every summer for two thousand years these small birds have nested, and every summer night have returned under cover of darkness to the whispering stones. There are other people there but that doesn’t matter as you can’t see them anyway; you just wait in the dark and watch and listen.

            Going to an exhibition by Bridget Riley in Edinburgh the day after almost being sick on a small boat may have been a mistake; I gazed at her wiggly black and white pictures and felt the pitching and heaving again: nothing fairylike here. One of the attendants said that at the end of the day he felt as if he had been in a roller-coaster. My roller-coaster was a boat trip to see the cliffs on another island, Noss Island off Lerwick. These cliffs are full of seabirds, lined up on tiny ledges with no space between them: gannets and guillemots and kittiwakes, with other birds cruising around in the hope of finding an unattended chick. The captain of the boat put on a latex glove and flung mackerel into the sea, making the gannets dive for it, just like a wildlife documentary on television. The gannets plummeted, birds screeched, the boat rocked and nobody was actually sick; the supply of mackerel was soon exhausted, we were brought back to shore and spent the rest of the day slightly dizzy.

            When a guillemot chick is ready to leave its ledge, as yet unable to fly, it jumps down the cliff to the sea, accompanied by its father. It is then known as a ‘jumpling’. We saw one of these, a tiny bird, sticking as close to its father as if glued to him, heading out to sea, away from predators. We had been told they did this, but actually seeing one was very moving: such a small creature, not even a month old, setting out into the sea, at its father’s side.

Haga Park

We went to Stockholm, some twenty years ago, to see the sites associated with the eighteenth century composer Carl Michael Bellman: the old town, where he lived and caroused, and his grave. It was a Swedish friend, exiled in Leiden, who introduced us to Bellman; she had a record of his songs in English, sung by Martin Best. They were beautiful, but somehow, once we had heard a few Swedish versions, sounded too English. Our friend always became very sentimental when talking about Bellman (neither of us had previously heard of him), and how all Swedes knew his songs, and we could see that behind those Englished versions there lurked the perfect Swedish one.

     The perfect version of one of the most dramatic songs, the one that begins ‘Märk hur var skugga (…) Movitz, mon frère,’ the one that R translated into Dutch and that we played at his funeral, turned out to be by a Dutchman who had emigrated to Sweden, Cornelis Vreeswijk. His other songs were beneath contempt, but this song was the definitive version; there is no need for anyone else to record it ever again.

     All those years ago, on the bus into town from Stockholm airport, R fell into conversation with the man next to him. Seeing a sign to Haga he asked, ‘Is that Haga Park, like the song?’ and hummed the first notes, which at that time we knew only from the Martin Best version. Indeed it was, the very place, and the man was amazed that a foreigner should have heard of Bellman at all, let alone the song about Haga Park. The title in English is ‘O’er the misty park of Haga’ (in Swedish it is ‘Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga’), and it has a very gentle, pastoral sound to it.

     I don’t remember ever hearing it in Swedish, at any rate not in anything approaching a perfect version. But this morning, on Radio 3, I heard it: unannounced, following a dawn chorus of Swedish birds, there it was, sung in a pure sweet soprano, straight from the past, conjuring up the airport bus, that man so surprised, and R, so happy to have recognised the name of the park. He died nine years ago this month; as I listened I burst into tears as suddenly and unexpectedly as the song had started.

It is by Anna Emilsson and Jakob Lindberg, from a record called Återspeglingar – Svenska Sånger; you can hear it on Spotify, but it won’t be the same.