A swede and dead Swedes

The man stood staring at me.

Wearing an old brown anorak with the hood pulled up, his pallor was paler than that of some corpses I have seen. Curly white hair was visible beneath his hood, his beard had a similar whiteness. Perhaps it created the pallid hue of the man who screwed up his eyes and stared intently.

He took a step closer.

‘It’s no good asking me for money,’ I thought, ‘I have had no cash since before Easter.’

To be honest, he looked more like someone who would tell me that he was an alien, or that he was the king of France, or that he was ten thousand years old.

Standing trying to avoid catching his eye lest it lead to the sort of conversation in which he told me that he had an atomic bomb in a carrier bag, I noticed he was carrying a swede in his right hand.

Well, I would call it a swede. It was such a vegetable that was my first introduction to Hiberno-English. Standing in a canteen, I asked the woman behind the counter for ‘swede’. She had looked at me blankly, when I pointed she said, ‘that’s turnip, why did you call it swede?’

It was not clear why he was carrying a swede. He had no other shopping.

His stare continued.

Then I realised that he was not staring at me. He was trying to read the electronic display above my head that gave bus numbers, destinations and when the next service would leave. Clearly he should have been wearing glasses for he was having to squint to read the information.

I relaxed. There would be no nuclear devices, nor conversations about messages brought by Martians.

The relaxed moment did not last.

A woman standing a few yards away was reading a book with a foreign title. The subtitle was The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. It seemed as meaningful a title as At Swim-Two-Birds by Brian O’Nolan (also known as Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, Brother Barnabas, or George Knowall). Except you knew that O’Nolan was writing satire, mocking affectation, unmasking pretentiousness. It seemed unlikely that Swedish Death Cleaning was particularly humorous.

A Google search produced an explanation of the book:

Döstädning, or the art of death cleaning, is a Swedish phenomenon by which the elderly and their families set their affairs in order. Whether it’s sorting the family heirlooms from the junk, downsizing to a smaller place, or setting up a system to help you stop misplacing your keys, death cleaning gives us the chance to make the later years of our lives as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Whatever your age, Swedish death cleaning can be used to help you de-clutter your life, and take stock of what’s important. Margareta Magnusson has death cleaned for herself and for many others. Radical and joyous, her guide is an invigorating, touching and surprising process that can help you or someone you love immeasurably, and offers the chance to celebrate and reflect on all the tiny joys that make up a long life along the way.

To be honest, I think I would rather be a myopic old man standing at a bus stop with a large root vegetable and living in the present moment.


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Middle class music

Friday on my mind was played on the radio. David Bowie’s 1973 cover of the original 1965 version by Australian band The Easybeats.

Of course, Friday night was a moment to relish if you worked the “five day drag” of the song, and you finished at five o’clock. In 1973, the ideal Friday night did not exist for many working class people because many of them would be working on Saturday morning, (and, of course, with the expansion of the leisure and retail industries, many working people now work the whole weekend).

Only from the retrospective view of someone in his 60s have I come to realise how middle class were the assumptions of music and fashion in the 1970s.

Bowie was a suburban middle class art school student. The make up and the costumes he would don in the 1970s would have been unthinkable in the many council estates of the London of the 1970s.

But Bowie was not the only icon of music and fashion whose songs and dress were safely middle class.

The Hippies of the late-1960s were never going to subvert society. The men were a narcissistic group who claimed to represent a radical critique of society whilst living on family money. To buy an old van and drive around the country without needing to work would never have been an option for someone raised in a council house.

Similarly the punks from a decade later were similarly self-indulgent. Walking up and down Chelsea’s King’s Road with a purple Mohican hair cut and bondage clothes might have stirred the ire of readers of the Daily Mail, but did not threaten anyone.

Swearing and spitting were not radical, they were simply what someone who stood on the terraces of a football ground experienced on a weekly basis. The Sex Pistols were a joke, their anarchy was about their right to do as they wanted, provided someone else was paying for it.

Looking back on the music and fashion trends now, there is a realisation that they were overwhelmingly middle class movements. The Teddy Boys of the 1950s were working class, as would have been some of the Rockers of the mid-1960s.

The one thoroughly working class movement would have been the skinheads of the late-1960s,  but the music they favoured was ska and reggae, so the recorded music legacy that could be identified with them is limited.

Perhaps it is is to be expected, economic power does tend to lead to dominance in other aspects of society, but music trends from the past have been dominated by the middle classes, those who naturally assumed that Saturday morning was a time to lie in bed.

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Rhiannon and Gladys

Rhiannon used to scare me.

Of course, Rhiannon never existed except as a 1970s song. But her name used to evoke a sense that there was a sophisticated and streetwise world out there that was forever beyond the understanding of a hickey kid from a village in the middle of nowhere in Somerset.

I even gave the sense of insecurity a name, it became called Midnight Train to Georgia Syndrome.

The great soul singer, Gladys Knight sang Midnight Train to Georgia in 1973, it made it to No 1 in the US charts. It told of a man who had gone to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune, but his dreams hadn’t come true and he was returning to the rural life of the Deep South from which he had come. The opening lines of the song, which was played by John Creedon on his programme this evening, go like this:

L.A. proved too much for the man
So he’s leavin’ the life he’s come to know
He said he’s goin’ back to find what’s left of his world
The world he left behind not so long ago
He’s leavin’ on that midnight train to Georgia
Said he’s goin’ back to find the simpler place and time.

By 1980 Stevie Nicks had become emblematic of a world that was too much for a teenager who struggled to understand the culture beyond his native West Country.

In a year dropped out of college, a Fleetwood Mac album, which has long since disappeared, was played again and again on an old mono record player left by housemates who had gone to India.

The side on which Rhiannon appeared must have been nearly worn away by the heavy stylus’ repeated circuits of the vinyl.  It wasn’t even the lyrics, the song could have been sung in a foreign language and it would have made no difference, it was the sound of the guitars and Stevie Nicks’ voice that combined to make the song something eerily haunting.

Haunting things are a problem, they defy articulation, they defy definition.  If it was possible to explain why certain things evoked certain thoughts, then they would lose their power.  The opening bars of the song hit the pit of the stomach; in the way that some anthems can make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on end, so some songs seem to have a physical quality about them.

Perhaps an analyst would have suggested some deep unresolved problem, not that one would talk to a doctor about 1970s music, but in the reassuring tones of Gladys Knight, there is an escape from whatever dark shadows there are in the winding corridors of the subconscious.


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Smelly people

A colleague who retired in the 1980s used to comment, “at least there is no poverty now.”

Of course, he was right. There was nothing comparable with the conditions of the 1930s when he had been a young man.

But he knew himself that poverty continued. He would comment that man made fibres had disguised the poor, that the ragged clothes that were once a clear sign of deprivation had been superseded by polyester and crimplene and nylon.

Forty years on from his comments, in times considerably more affluent than the 1980s, there still seems poverty, but it seems poverty of the spirit as much as material poverty.

Catching a bus from the city centre on the evening of a bank holiday Monday, I should have been aware that it would be busy. People would have come into the centre to go shopping, for shopping is our chief leisure activity now.

The lower deck was crowded but the upper deck offered space until the second of the city centre stops was reached. Noisy girls crowded up the stairs and filled up whatever seats remained empty.

The girl who sat beside me took out her phone and plugged its power cable into one of the seat’s USB sockets. She proceeded to watch TikTok videos: inane dances to bursts of forgettable music.

Whatever happened to teenage rebellion? Whatever happened to young people standing against the ‘system’? Whatever happened to the newness and vibrancy and energy that once characterised youth? Social media seem to have sedated any tendency not to conform, any desire to be original or unconventional.

Worse than the noise was the smell.

In 2022, body odour is not a sign of material poverty, it is a sign of a lack of hygiene, a sign that someone has not bothered to wash and has not bothered to use a deoderant.

Someone who has an iPhone to follow her friends’ TikTok videos has no material excuse for not washing. It is a poverty of spirit, an indifference, an apathy.

I remember a colleague who worked in a poor area of Belfast in the 1990s talking about how a cookery course in a community had been an empowering experience for many of the participants, they could cook healthy food and have money to spare.

Thirty years on from such programmes, perhaps even more basic training is now needed. The social, personal and health education courses need to teach personal hygiene – and be blunt in telling learners that everyone will know if they have not listened.


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Ten years ago today

Ten years ago today, I set off at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning to drive the three hundred miles from the Mediterranean village of Collioure to the city of Bordeaux.

Two hours or so later, I pulled into a service station on the autoroute. Fans in yellow and blue spotted my Leinster jersey, ‘Ah, Leinster’, they called, and then shouted, louder, ‘ASM, ASM’.

Reaching the outskirts of Bordeaux by one o’clock, I parked the car near a tram stop and bought a ticket. The carriage was well filled – a sea of yellow. I smiled and they began to sing, ‘Ireland’s Call’.

On reaching the city centre, where a change of trams was required, the number of ASM Clermont Auvergne supporters seemed to have multiplied exponentially. I was pulled into a group in order to be photographed with them.

‘Bonne chance’, they said, each of them offering a handshake.

Walking to the pub where Leinster fans had gathered, it was impossible to get near the doorway, let alone get inside, so I walked to a tram stop to go to the Stade Chaban-Delmas, a piece of Art Deco architecture built in 1930 that became the home of Union Bordeaux Bègles rugby club. With a capacity of 34,000, it was much larger than any of the grounds of clubs in Ireland or Britain.

The size of the crowd making its way to the match meant the tram could go no further than two stops, and I got out to walk.

The Leinster supporters had begun a march to the ground, led by a man with a blue flag and I slipped in among them. The streets were lined with yellow and blue attired ASM supporters applauding the arrival of the opposition support – it was a strange experience.

As we approached the stadium, the lines of Jaunard supporters converged and formed a funnel.  Passing through it meant exchanging handshakes with dozens and dozens of people – it was hard to imagine this happening anywhere else.

The noise generated in the stadium was tremendous, chants and tunes and songs and musicians, a constant barrage of sound.

Leinster were left winners of the match when in the 79th minute the Clermont winger Wesley Fofana knocked the ball forward instead of scoring a try, and then the ASM pack conceded a penalty on the Leinster goal line.

There was a feeling that we had robbed them, and even then they still shook hands with us in the stand, and as we left the ground.

It remains the most memorable sporting occasion I have ever attended.

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