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.

Lost and Found

I own two books that used to belong to R’s first wife. The first is Wagner Nights by Ernest Newman: ‘The quintessence of a great Wagnerian’s reading, listening and love’ – The Listener‘. I found it at the secondhand book market on the Spui in Amsterdam, opened it and saw the dedication to her on the title page; I remember looking around, as if to tell someone about this coincidence, or possibly for advice about what to do. I have always mentally translated the author’s name back into German, but recently looked him up and found that Ernest Newman was born William Roberts and adopted his pen name to show he would be ‘a new man in earnest’. The book looked unread at the time, and still does today.

      The second book is a copy of Hello I Love You! A Collection of Voices Orchestrated by Jeanne Pasle-Green and Jim Haynes (1975). It too has a dedication to a former spouse, as well as some water damage and it is a poor substitute for my own copy of this book, which was sold to me on the 38 bus in Paris, between the Val de Grâce and Les Ecoles stops on boulevard St Michel, by Jim Haynes himself. Haynes was a figure from the 60s Underground in London, co-founder of Suck magazine and a persuasive salesman, as this is not a long journey. The book was privately published, and at the back it says that if you sent in a self-addressed envelope and international postal coupons, you would receive in return a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There follows a slightly plaintive appeal to booksellers to stock it.

      I was on my way home from work when he talked me into buying the book, an important part of the sexual revolution, which contains frank interviews with people about their sexual experiences, among them Germaine Greer, Gershon Legman, Xaviera Hollander, Adrian Mitchell and my own favourite, Jefferson Clitlick. I wonder if he is still using this name, all these years after the sexual revolution: according to the book he had ‘changed his name to Jefferson Fuck in 1971, but after a long fight with the U.S. mail, voting ballots, and banks, decided to give up. “It was inaccurate anyway, I was more into oral sex.” Therefore the former Jefferson Poland has now filed an affidavit to change his name to Jefferson Clitlick.’

      But whatever happened to my own copy? It was signed by Jim himself, it had my name in it, and I would much rather have it than this battered one that belonged to a former wife.

Hardback exchange

My brother and I used to give each other hardback books as birthday and Christmas presents, books that we would otherwise not buy for ourselves, at least not until they were out in paperback. At first, long ago, we chose the other’s present ourselves, wrapped it and sent it, but after a time we began to ring each other up and ask what was wanted, then have it sent by Amazon. This because it turned out, without either of us ever actually saying so, that we didn’t read those books we had so carefully chosen for each other; some of them indeed still sit reproachfully on my shelves (I think in particular of an illustrated book on the history of the railways which I have still not read and cannot bring myself to dispose of).

     The only problem with having books sent by Amazon was that we did not see what we were giving; the whole procedure had become symbolic, an exchange of invisible goods. On the other hand it was always nice to get the phone call asking what I would like to have, thinking about it and ringing back with my order. It is very satisfying to get a new hardback, to own the new Ali Smith or Rachel Cusk long before everyone else. I can see them on my shelves, the Christmas and birthday books, they stick out above the ramshackle collection of paperbacks surrounding them.

   The last time I rang my brother on his birthday, 5 August, having three weeks earlier ordered the book about artists in Montparnasse that he wanted, he told me his doctor had said that he did not have long to live. We knew he was ill, but this information was terrifyingly precise.

     A few weeks later, not sounding very different, he rang to ask me what I wanted for my birthday and had it sent. And ten days after he rang me on the day of my birthday he contracted an infection and died, very suddenly, sparing himself months of nursing care and complications. When I went to his house after his death I saw the last book I sent him, lying on a pile with other presents. I don’t suppose he had managed to read it, but I left it there. I hadn’t seen it before, only he and Amazon had handled it, but I thought that it looked interesting. Our tastes in books were different but this hardback exchange we had was perfect. Still, I haven’t started on the last book he sent me, even though I chose it myself.


When our dog Jumble died my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell my father when he came home from work, and got me to do it instead. I waited for him and caught him on his way to the back door. My father guessed what it was before I told him, and reared away from me, shying like a horse, and went for a walk alone in the garden.

      Jumble was a poodle, black and pure bred, not a jumble at all; he was named after the dog in Richmal Crompton’s William books. His blackness made him difficult to photograph so I have to make do with what I remember of him, that he was always around, like William’s dog: out in the garden with us, going for walks with my parents, once, terrifyingly, chasing sheep near my grandparents’ house in Ireland. I still have the special poodle scissors that my mother used to trim him; once she brought him to be clipped professionally and got him back as a different dog, completely out of character, with bare feet, a fluffy topknot and a pompom on his tail.

      A few years ago my brother, who did not usually go in for spontaneous presents, gave me a notepad with a drawing of a black poodle called Charlie on the cover. This Charlie looks very like Jumble, although a little too supplicating, not a likely chaser of sheep. It was years since I had thought of Jumble and I was moved by the present; when he gave it to me my brother turned half away, like my father, as if embarassed.

      The poodle scissors, the notebook and the William books are still there, but I don’t know of anyone else who would remember Jumble. We had cats too, of course, many cats: Phoebe was the first (I had been reading Catcher in the Rye), and Brown the last, also the best. He too, being very dark brown, was difficult to photograph, but he made up for it by being the most affectionate of all cats, the one who wanted you to carry him around all day, the one who, when you bent down, immediately came running. I still sometimes see him out of the corner of my eye; it happened again two days ago, when he appeared briefly in the courtyard, but when I looked again he had turned back into a flowerpot. Maybe one day, many years from now, someone will give me a notepad with a drawing of Brown on it.

      Today, 25 January, is the first anniversary of his death.


My brother often spoke of the habit the women in our family had of making bonfires of letters and other valuable papers. My mother did it, and her mother too, but the worst offenders were on the other side of the family, an aunt and my other grandmother. There was real venom in his voice as he said the word ‘bonfire’, and one saw witches, their faces lit by the flames, cackling as they threw the precious material into the fire: letters, diaries, wills, all gone for ever. The only documents that I myself know to have been destroyed in this way are the letters one of my grandmothers received from the gardening writer E.A. Bowles, but my brother said darkly that there were many more.

     He is dead now and I shall never hear him say that word with that intonation again, although he continues to do it in my head. In the instructions he left after his death he asked for letters in his bedroom be destroyed unread. Another bonfire, I thought when I heard this, and wondered why he had not done it himself; we would never have known about them. But we obeyed, we did not read them, looked briefly at the photographs, which were all of old girlfriends, then destroyed them.

     Now I am destroying some of my own papers, diaries from 1969 to 1973, four large hard-backed notebooks which contain the most embarassing stuff ever to be consigned to paper. One would hope that old diaries would contain some message from the past, at the very least a description of the person one used to be. My diaries did this all right, but it was not a person I was happy to meet again; all she did was wail about one unrequited love after another. It was the idea that someone might open one, about to destroy it, and start reading, that decided me.

    Scraps of diary pages, torn but not yet burned, are on my desk now, and I see phrases like ‘his ex-girlfriend’, ‘Oh bliss’, ‘classic bad moods’, ‘he’s been hurt’ and ‘I was so happy’. Perhaps I should piece them together again to read the whole story. The most striking thing is how powerful my emotions were, how they boiled up and filled so many handwritten pages. My brother could sound vehement about bonfires and people who annoyed him, but he hardly ever talked about his girlfriends, and never about his feelings. But he did leave those letters for others to find, and burn for him.

Mixed feelings

“The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life (…) until a future moment, when we shall again breathe our native air; but by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality. Thus, between the two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones. It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes, or never.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (1860). Hawthorne spent several years as American Consul in Liverpool; he seems to have complained a lot about the weather. They are words that I think of often, sometimes agreeing with them, sometimes not. But the little space between the two countries allows for more than he thinks: there is plenty of room for discontent but just as much for its opposite. Room, in fact, for mixed feelings.