Tuesday, 29 March 2011

From a former jury member

This afternoon I watched the announcement of this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner on my computer. I am not supposed to reveal how the jury works - it's just as top secret as the Nobel Prize - but I can share the excitement of the moment when a year of hard work focuses on one sentence: "The winner of this year's award is..." And the people in the room, and people out there watching and listening, either say, disappointed: "Who's that?" or yell ecstatically: "YES!". I yelled "YES!" in the empty house today, because  Shaun Tan was my favourite.

I am a bit sad about not being part of the jury any more, but it wouldn't have worked when we moved to Cambridge, and at that point I also felt that six years was enough. It was a lot more work than we all realised when we were asked to be on the jury ten years ago. It was however so gratifying that it was worth all the trouble. Reading books from all over the world, books I would probably not have read otherwise. Meeting regularly to talk about books. Meeting to ARGUE about books. We child lit people are normally very kind and well-behaved, but in a jury you have to be able to argue, even quarrel, to come up with a good winner. The statutes of the award specify "literature of highest literary quality in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren". What is highest quality? What does "in the spirit" mean? And how often do we have the privilege of talking to colleagues on these matters?

So back to that moment, after all the reading and discussing and arguments, when the jury has made a decision, we call the winner, perhaps waking them up at dawn or catching them at the last moment before they go out to walk the dog; the voice in the loudspeaker as the Chair of the jury says: "You are the winner", and hearing sometimes: "Is it a joke?" or "I didn't know I was nominated" or "Now I can repair the roof". And then the lunch just before the announcement, the press outside, the tension. Then - interviews, champagne and the long coach ride back to Stockholm, listening to news and comments. And looking forward to the award ceremony.

I hope the jury are still having fun.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Memoirs of a teacher trainee

While we are talking teacher education, I can share my experience of getting one in Russia in the early '70s, which was just as inefficient as elsewhere, but in its own way. I never intended to be a teacher, but my degree was in English as a Foreign Language, because it was the closest I could get to what I really wanted to do, which was learning a foreign language on an advanced level. We did Old English, and Phonetics, and US Government. But because it was formally a teaching degree, we had five years of Foundation Subjects, except Sociology, which at that time in Russia was regarded as a capitalist pseudo-science.

Practice-based education was not the buzz, since in five years we only went to schools once, for three weeks. I would have liked to go to my old school where I knew the teachers, but it was not among the partnership schools. I was supposed to teach 9-year-olds who were in their second year of learning English. The first week was observation, and then we were thrown into the river and expected to float or drown. Nobody even asked to have a look at our lesson plans. The ordinary teacher was young, so she had gone through it herself recently and was very empathic. She advised me not to ask any questions from two pupils who were weak, because it would make a bad impression on the inspector. I explained that if I ignored two pupils, the inspector would draw points from my score. One morning, when I entered the classroom there was a very clumsy poem written on the blackboard. "It is Lenin's birthday", she reminded me. "Have you prepared anything to commenmorate Lenin's birthday?" I hadn't, so her silly poem saved me, and the inspector noted it in her report.

We were also supposed to participate in one extra-curricular activity, and luckily my pupils were to join the Pioneers, the mandatory scout-like children's organisation. I went with them to the Lenin Museum where the ceremony was held. It added well to my score. In class that day, we trained pronunciation: Pie-oh-neer.

On the Friday of my last week, a little girl, one of two weak pupils I wasn't supposed to address, said: "See you on Monday". "No", I said, "sorry, but you won't". "Why?" she wondered. A boy whispered behind my back: "Her practice is over, you dimwit".

That was the end of my career in Primary Education.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Those who cannot, teach

Recently I re-read Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. I say re-read, because I know I had read it before, and I refer to it in my PhD thesis, but apparently I had read one of those many child-friendly adapted versions because I didn't remember all his caustic remarks about British education system. Or maybe I found it irrelevant then and skipped it, as we often do. I remember I found the book rather boring. This time, I couldn't help laughing. It is such a brilliantly funny book! Here is a sample:

So she made Sir John write to the Times to command the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being to put a tax on long words; —
A light tax on words over three syllables, which are necessary evils, like rats: but, like them, must be kept down judiciously.
A heavy tax on words over four syllables, as heterodoxy, spontaneity, spiritualism, spuriosity, etc.
And on words over five syllables (of which I hope no one will wish to see any examples), a totally prohibitory tax.
And a similar prohibitory tax on words derived from three or more languages at once; words derived from two languages having become so common that there was no more hope of rooting out them than of rooting out peth-winds. (from this site)

My thoughts return to Kingsley after I've listened to the many talks at the two-day symposium at the Faculty, devoted to teacher education. A century and a half later, we seem to be going exactly in the direction Kingsley was so sarcastic about: sending young men and women to schools to learn how to be teachers. Government pupil-teachers was what they were called then. The modern term is practice-based education. The idea is just as absurd to me as it was to Kingsley: instead of providing future teachers with solid academic knowledge, as well as critical minds, you send them straight into the snake pit and hope that somehow they will learn how to deal with it. Assisted by other frustrated men and women who in their turn were sent to schools without proper training.

I am not particularly interested in theoretical aspects of teacher education, but I signed up for this symposium for my professional development: if I happen to be in Education, I can just as well learn what it is all about. I am glad I did, although my newly acquired knowledge makes me sad. I wonder whether the ghost of Charles Kingsley laughs or cries if he by any chance is reading The White Paper.

Diana Wynne Jones in memoriam

My entry in Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, 2000. 

Jones, Diana Wynne (b. 1934), outstanding British writer, author of more than thirty highly original fairy-tale novels, an indisputable innovator of the genre. Even when using typical motifs like struggle between good and evil, journeys into alternative worlds or time shifts, she applies more subtle means, which turns the conventional and well-known into something unexpected. Her novels are intellectually demanding, since they operate with paradoxes, different dimensions and complicated temporal and spatial structures, but this also makes them a stimulating reading. One of her favorite devices is to give the protagonist magical powers, thus breaking the traditional fairy-tale pattern, in which the protagonist is an ordinary person assisted by a magical helper. In several novels, the narrative perspective lies with a witch or wizard. Diana Wynne Jones portrays otherness, including Other Worlds, from the inside, while our own reality becomes, for the protagonist, the other world. This device, known as "estrangement", is extremely unusual in fairy-tale novels for children. Playing with alternative worlds enables Diana Wynne Jones to discuss existential questions such as: what is reality? Is there more than one definite truth? The recurrent idea in her novels is the existence of an infinite number of parallel worlds, which may remind of our own, but are different in essential ways, depending on the development in each particular world. This idea is in accordance with contemporary scientific view of the universe. In Diana Wynne Jones's model of the universe, the difference between worlds implies that in some of them magic is a common trait. In a group of loosely connected novels, Charmed Life (1977), The Magicians of Caprona (1980), Witch Week (1982) and The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988), our own reality is featured in the background as a parallel world, bleak and dull, since it lacks magic. The world of the novels is a combination of medieval and modern, where magic is a natural part of the everyday, and magical power is a talent to be trained and developed in a child, just like a gift for languages or maths
In The Power of Three (1976), the characters are supernatural creatures who work magic by incantations, can see into the future and sense danger. There are other creatures in this world, Giants, who eventually appear to be humans, and their so-called magic, which the protagonist admires, is radio, cars and dish-washers. There is also a more traditional magic object involved in the story, connected with a curse. Thus Diana Wynne Jones always combines elements of heroic fairy tale with irony and humor. The device of making the protagonist alien is especially invigorated in Archer's Goon (1984) where the young boy in the center of the plot appears in the end to be one of the seven evil wizards striving to take power over the world. The story is told from Howard's point of view, and he is facing a hard dilemma: he has been trying to reveal the villain, and finds to his dismay and horror out that he himself is this villain, against his knowledge and will.

In Howl's Moving Castle (1986) we meet a young girl who is enchanted and turned into an old woman, a common motif, which, however, acquires a different tone since we are given a detailed description of Sophie's rheumatism and age fatigue, which traditional fairy tales usually omit. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters and therefore knows that according to fairy-tale rules she is bound to fail. The story is built upon Sophie's and the reader's anticipation, which naturally is disrupted. The novel is set in the magical land of Ingaria, and the enchanted Sophie lives in a strange moving castle belonging to Howl, a powerful magician. There is a door in the castle opening toward four different dimensions, one of which is our own reality. This is where Howl comes from. In Howl's childhood home in Wales, his nephew is playing a computer game involving a magical castle with four doors (Diana Wynne Jones was among the first to use the image of computers in fairy-tale novels). She is thus interrogating our common notions of here and far away, of time and space. There are all sorts of magic in the novel, both good and evil, and many magical creatures, both traditional and original. Castle in the air (1991), an independent sequel, is more of a magical adventure story, inspired by Arabian Nights, with its vaguely Oriental setting and tokens such as flying carpets and genies in bottles. The young protagonist sets out on a quest after his kidnapped princess and is assisted by several helpers, who all appear to be enchanted humans.

In many of Diana Wynne Jones's novels, we find cosmic dimensions in her portrayal of struggle between good and evil, where humans are merely pawns in the hands of higher powers. This disturbing idea, most explicit in The Homeward Bounders (1981), Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Hexwood (1993), is often counterbalanced by reflections about Earth being the most beautiful place in the universe. In Dogsbody (1975), the protagonist and narrator is the star Sirius who is exiled on Earth in the form of a dog. There is thus a double perspective in the story, both the point of view of a powerful deity and a helpless, speechless animal. The protagonist's dilemma is the usual one in Diana Wynne Jones's books: the magician's loyalty toward ordinary people, the burden and responsibility of unlimited power. To be a magician and use magic is in here novels always a painful and laborious process, which supplies ethical dimensions. There are never any clear-cut boundaries between good and evil, and the readers are encouraged to choose sides together with the characters. The protagonist of The Lives of Christopher Chant has nine lives and loses them one after another during his adventures in alternative worlds. This may remind of a computer games when you are allowed to play again when you "are dead". It is, however, more fruitful to view this motif as a child's training, in his imagination, to live his own life, to discover his identity. Christopher learns eventually that besides their lives people also have a soul, which holds all lives together.

In all Diana Wynne Jones's novels we see unconventional solutions, sharp observations and a deep penetration of human nature. There are never magical adventures for their own sake, and the traditional struggle between good and evil is merely a background for an inner struggle within the character. Among Diana Wynne Jones's strong sides, her portraits of young girls should be mentioned, drawn in a true feminist spirit.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Regarding the 50 best children's books

This is something I wrote five years ago, but which apprently is as relevant now as then. Politicians and educators always want the-best-books-that-all-children-should-read. 

The debate about literary canon has reached Sweden, a couple of years after its neighbour Denmark and twelve years after the notorious volume by Harold Bloom. With my cultural background in a country where everything was regulated by the authorities, I feel ambivalent. Mandatory reading lists of canonical texts we got in school may seem too hard guidance, but it implied that no student left secondary school without having read Eugene Onegin and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Father and Sons and Anne Frank's Diary, War and Peace and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Crime and Punishment and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, and lots of other indispensable books. There was also an unofficial canon within intellectual circles where people read The Master and Margarita, Doctor Zhivago, Cancer Ward and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the latter forbidden by censorship because it depicts the Spanish Civil War which did not feature in the official history.

Notably, there is something lacking in the Swedish canon debate, the awareness of the existing, non-forced canon that most Swedes share: children's literature. Everyone in Sweden has read at least some children's books, may it be Elsa Beskow, Astrid Lindgren or Enid Blyton. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are today canonical works read by young as well as by grownups. I can, with some reservations, imagine never having read Homer, Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, Dickens and, sorry to say, Strindberg, but my life would have been poorer without Winnie-the-Pooh and Pippi Lingstocking. Isn't here a solid ground for a literary canon, if there is to be one?

I have in front of me the book by my Danish colleague Torben Weinreich, Kanon-litteratur i folkeskolen (”Canon literature in elementary school”, 2004), that summarises the Danish canon debate, continues with some theoretical argument and contains lists of mandatory classroom reading before and after 1960. These lists provide food for thought. Except a handful of international classics, such as Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer and The Little Prince, the Danish canon is comprised exclusively of Danish books. Maybe this is right? The whole idea of canon is to preserve the national cultural heritage. Harold Bloom was accused of ethnocentrism in his Western canon, but he constructed it for Western readers. (It is another matter that he was also accused of misogyny).

During a conference at the Swedish Children's Books Institute a year ago it was stated that as far as university courses in children's literature were concerned, there was no canon. If every course on an average has 15-20 books on the syllabus, there is merely a couple, if at all, that appear on all lists. During my years at the US universities, I learned that this is called ”freedom of the classroom” according to which each teacher is free to choose texts for their syllabi. One of my American colleagues only had picturebooks in her overview course which was mandatory for teacher trainees. Another colleague only had multiculutural books in the same course. They practised their freedoms of the classroom, which is a direct impact of earlier canon thinking in North America. Words such as ”canon”, ”classic” and ”masterpiece” are no-no words in American universities.

So how should we argue for a Swedish children's literature canon? It wouldn't work to ask all children's literature experts in Sweden to suggest thirty favourite books and choose common denominators. This has been done repeatedly, with devastating results. If we are to have a canon, we must take several aspects into consideration.

Firstly, what do we want this canon for? Is it important for the cultural identity of Swedish children (that is, all children growing up in Sweden)? Yes, I think so. After a quarter of a century in Sweden, I still have gaps in my Sweden-specific education which make me feel as an outsider in certain situations. No child – and no adult – should feel excluded when somebody else says: ”Uncle Melker, why do you always swim with your clothes on?” For me, it is just as self-evident as recognising a poetry line and preferably being able to continue at least a couple more lines.

Shall we include foreign classics that constitute a common ground, within Scandinavia, within Europe, within the Anglo-American culture that, whether we like it or not, dominates the Swedish children's literature market? Can we exclude Hans Christian Andersen who was decisive for the emergence of children's literature in the Nordic countries? If we include him, which fairy tales shall be included? There is already an unwritten Andersen canon within children's literature, fairy tales chosen for anthologies and published as picturebooks: “Thumbelina”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “The Emperor's New Clothes” (suitable for children?). There is unfortunately a misconception that fairy tales are for small children. Shouldn't high school students read the cruel and dark ”The Shadow”? Maybe if we don't call it a fairy tale, but a short story, like Kafka's ”Metamorphosis”. Further, few Swedes of the younger generation know what “The Little Mermaid” is really about. Likewise, Pinocchio and Peter Pan are two brilliant books totally distorted by disneyfication. Both are about growing up, about the hard work of becoming – or in Peter Pan's case avoiding to become – a mature individual. Are we really happy to let our children enjoy the colourful mass-market products?

Then there is the inevitable question of whether we should have children's canon or adults' canon for children. Shall we let children decide what they want to be included in the canon, inspect library statistics, rely on reader surveys? Children's preferences change quickly. In the '80s, Astrid Lindgren was on top, today it is Harry Potter. Incidentally, shall we include Harry Potter in the canon or it is bad taste, as Roald Dahl used to be?

If we, clever adults, shall put together a canon for our children, what kind of criteria shall we apply? Half Swedish, half foreign? Half multiethnic? Haft by female writers – which is easier than for Harold Bloom, since so many wonderful children's books are written by female writers. However, it may be valuable to dig up 19th-century female writers who are interesting as research objects and make us rethink the history of children's literature – but shall they be included among canonical texts? Wouldn't it be reasonable instead to include a text that can offer readers a more pleasurable experience? Hereby we have reached the decisive question: pleasure or instruction? Pedagogical or literary criteria? Books that preach our adult values (that quickly become obsolete) or books in which the author, as it is often claimed about Astrid Lindgren, takes the child's side? Books for all ages that can also be enjoyed by adults? Books you carry in your mental luggage throughout your life?

Shall we include relatively new books or is it part of the definition of canon that it should contain old and weathered books? Many of us view Johnny My Friend as the best Swedish Young Adult novel ever written. Sadly, it is not read in schools any more, and university students of children's literature have never heard of it. But is is old enough to be included in the canon? With the Danish criteria, definitely.

Finally: who is this canon for? The eternal definition of a classic is a book that everybody knows of, but nobody has read. It is legitimate to include in reading lists for children's literature students books that perhaps are nor widely read today, but that are necessary in order to understand the development of literature. Yet a literary canon is supposed to address a wider reading audience, average readers who put a book aside if it is not engaging. Should a canon include books that are alive and kicking, that appeal to general public and not to a special social group? And even though it may sound like a self-contradiction, a canon must be flexible. What was a classic yesterday may not be so tomorrow.

Published in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter on August 21, 2006

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Another favourite

There is another mysterious British children's book I loved as a child. It was called, in Russian, The Adventures of Muffin, and was a collection of short stories about anthropomorphic animals. It also had activities, such as join-the-dots, paper figures, find five errors, and a board game called “Carrots” which was a simplified version of Monopoly and which we loved even when we were quite grown up (we didn't know about Monopoly then). The reason it was called “Carrots” was that the eponymous protagonist was a donkey who loved carrots. Or actually, he was a mule. I just realised it recently: all characters' names were alliterations: Muffin the Mule, Sally the Seal, Oswald the Ostrich, Peter the Puppy, Willy the Worm. In the Russian translation the names did not alliterate, but since we didn't know they were supposed to, we didn't care.

Just like The little ruggamuffin, Muffin's Adventures was not mentioned in any British sources, not even in Margery Fisher's Intent Upon Reading, which at that time was the most comprehensive study. I didn't ask anyone in the UK, because it was obviously one of those books that for inexplicable reasons get famous and popular outside their own culture.In Russia, it was known as one of the most popular children's books in England, and its author, Ann Hogarth, as one of the most important English children's writers.

When I was in Edinburgh many years ago and had some spare time, I visited the Museum of Childhood, and there, among other toys, was Muffin the Mule. He was a puppet and came from a television show. The book was obviously a sidekick.

I asked Morag sometime ago whether she was familiar with Muffin, and she immediately started singing the Muffin tune.

There are dozens of Muffin fan pages and YouTube clips.

The true history of a little ruggamuffin

One of my favourite books when I was a child was The little ruggamuffin, by James Greenwood. It wasn't just my favourite, it was everybody's favourite, a classic, mandatory classroom reading, yet still a favourite, as famous as Alice in Wonderland and Robinson Crusoe and mentioned in every Russian source on world children's literature, British children's literature, children's literature, fullstop. When I got prefessionally interested in children's literature and started reading Western sources, I was a bit puzzled that this masterpiece wasn't mentioned anywhere, but there were so many other things to learn that I didn't even think about it. What foreign children's books got translated into Russian was a serendipity; and this one was a very progressive book from the point of view of Soviet ideology, showing the misery of the working classes under capitalism.

When I visited London for the first time, many place names, for instance, Covent Garden, were familiar from The little rugamuffin. I still think of The little rugamuffin these days when I take the Tube and pass Covent Garden.

In my book Children's Literature Comes of Age, I have a chapter on canon and an argument about how books can become more prominent in a foreign culture than in their own. The little rugamuffin was obviously a good example, but I needed at least some information about it. I had asked English and American colleagues, and nobody had heard of this book. I found it eventually in the British National Bibliography for 1866 (this was long before Google). It wasn't even a children's book.

Some time ago I was talking to my childhood friend Alyona about our favourite children's books. The little rugamuffin came up immediately, and I told her that it was in fact a retelling of an obscure penny-dreadful. I also told this story to my research assistant (to whom I happen to be married) who started searching and found several facsimiles. I couldn't resist it: I had to know how much liberty the translator/reteller had taken. This reteller was no other than the Grand Old Man of Soviet children's literature, Kornei Chukovsky.

It turns out that Chukovsky was quite faithful to the original, although he deleted episodes of domestic violence, references to wicked Jews and some other minor details. Since I remember the Russian version more or less by heart, it was easy to trace the changes. However, Chukovsky did amend the ending to suit the ideology. In the original, the protagonist grows up, goes to Australia and makes his fortune there. In the version I know, he becomes a factory worker, which apparently was a huge improvement for a little boy as compared to being a street urchin. Well, at least he wasn't adopted by a rich lady.

Not unexpectedly, I have found the Russian text online, with an excellent preface, explaining all these strange circumstances. Altogether, The little rugamuffin has 38,000 posts in Russian and 140 images (covers and illustrations).

This is a true history.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

In defence of hobbies

I read a comment on my blog recently that stated that I didn't write on anything specific and that my first post this blogger discovered was about baking. I have contemplated this comment ever since. My blog is about changing countries and adapting to a new country and culture. Baking is very much a part of it because in a new country you have to find flour, yeast and other things for baking, and it can be a cultural shock. Yeast works differently depending on how high you are over sea level. And when there are fifty different kinds of flour in the local supermarket, you have some big decisions to make.

It is also a cultural shock that I can spend a whole day on March 19 gardening, getting sunburned and enjoying a glass of wine on the patio in the afternoon. In Sweden, there is right now a snow storm and traffic chaos.

I also feel that it is highly relevant for my professional life to know what I do in my spare time. Reading is not a hobby for me, it's work. Even when I read something not directly work-related. Gardening or miniature-making is my way of counterbalancing my academic work. It has to be something that has no relevance whatsoever to what I do for a living. Most of my thinking, indispensable for my academic work, is done during these unrelated pastimes.

Anyroad: if you are not interested, you don't have to read this.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Conquered teacher

When he was still very young, but already a genius, the most famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin received a portrait from an older poet friend with the inscruption: "To the pupil-conquerer from the conquered teacher". This episode is always quoted in relation to Pushkin, but it is more interesting to contemplate from the teacher's point of view. You must be quite generous to admit that your pupil is more talented and has surpassed you. It is not always easy to be that generous. Mostly we prefer to think that as teachers we will always be cleverer, more knowledgeable, more experienced and thus more deserving of everything that the academic life has to offer: jobs, publications, awards, grants, good reviews and keynote invitations. Yet deep inside we know that there will be a moment when a student catches up and takes over. And we should be proud of it, because this is how scholarship works. Or more broadly, how life works.

This sentimental reflection is inspired by a student winning a major award for her work.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The anxiety of beginning

I have an imminent deadline. I thought the deadline was in December, but I have just discovered that it is June. When I promise to contribute to something far away in the future, I somehow optimistically think that I can be dead by then so I don't have to worry. But there comes a moment when the deadline is approaching, and although it is still a bit away, panic is about to engulf me. I keep telling myself that my students are expected to write a 6,000-word essay in eight weeks, and if they can, why couldn't I, but it just doesn't work. This may be a consolation for the students, if they happen to read this, to know that the panic in front of a blank sheet of paper, or a blank computer screen as may be, is universal. No matter how experienced you are, this blankness, this threshold, this last breath before you plunge into deep waters is an inevitable part of academic writing. If you don't get it, something is wrong.

I have been postponing this task for a long while now. I have of course been thinking about it, and I know exactly how I want to write it, and I know all facts and don't have to do any research. So it's just a matter of sitting down and starting. Prior to my trip last week I kept telling myself that there was no point starting because I would be away and interrupted, and yesterday and the day before yesterday I invented a lot of small things I absolutely had to do before I had my mind clear for the project. Today there are some urgent emails to respond to, and some recommendation letters, and perhaps I should write that review which is not due until April, but it would be good to have it done before I start... And what am I doing right now if not escaping from the blank screen. 

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Hotel ranking

It is not too often I stay at several hotels on the same trip (unless you travel by car, which is another story). Some reflections.

Kokkola Bed & Breakfast, Åbo (meaning of course that I stayed with a friend). Excellent personal service. Airport transfer, as well as transportation to and from events. Shower in the basement – bring dressing gown next time. Elegant breakfast and nice evening meals. Free drinks. Broadband internet. Relaxing atmosphere and stimulating conversations.

Hotel du Nord, Linköping. Nice little hotel in the centre of the city and close to the railway station. Personal service, lots of attention. A very small room (a misunderstanding). No lift. Good breakfast, horrible coffee. No other meals. Broadband internet.

Elite Stadshotellet, Växjö. Large posh hotel with spacious lobby, huge restaurant and an English-style pub. No individual touch. Good food (both individual and conference dinner). Horrible coffee. Tempting minibar. Complimentary wireless internet that works most of the time. 

Conclusion: Don't ever agree to do several things on the same trip.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Lost in transmediation

I am at a symposium called “Narration as a Transmedial Phenomenon”. It is a luxury kind of academic event: there are only twenty of us, and each person has a 45-minute slot, during which you do a 10-minute presentation followed by a discussion. This is what I call scholarly exchange. We are all from different countries and different disciplines, although most are either word people or image people or both, but there are also some music people. There is not much you can say in ten minutes, so the point is to throw out some ideas for discussion. It immediately becomes clear that we do not understand each other too well. We all speak about narratives, narration, narrators, narrativity, and obviously we all mean different things. We also speak about intermediality, multimediality, transmediality, transmedialisation – and we all mean different things. Some of us think a narrative must have a narrator, some think it's optional. Some claim that orchestral music can not be narrative, other say it can and show it by going outside music itself into context. It transpires that people working on graphic novels have never seen a single piece of scholarship on picturebooks. It is pointless to observe that young adult novels are frequently narrated in present tense, since nobody knows what a young adult novel is.

Some people have their laptops in front of them. Not that I mind, but I see that my neighbour is not just taking notes, but googles, presumably the speaker, or a term, or perhaps a source to back a counter-argument. This makes me nervous. I don't want to be googled in the middle of my presentation.

By the end of the day we still have no agreement on narrativity

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Bus fares and other academic stuff

It is fascinating to learn how to use public transportation when you travel. Oyster card in London is smart, and many places have something similar these days. I had detailed instructions how to get from my hotel to the University, with bus numbers and correct stops ("Don't get off the bus at University, but at the next stop"), as well as how to pay: you cannot pay the driver, but get a ticket from a machine or ticket office. (My thoughts go to the wonderful bus drivers in Cambridge who not only sell you a ticket, but suggest which type of ticket would be best). I asked the hotel manager what the bus fare was, because I had no idea, and he offered me a card, explaining that a previous guest had left it, with some money still on it. I took it to the ticket office to check, and there was indeed enough for a return ride. The University campus in this city is out in the wilderness.

I got off the bus at the right stop and followed the map without getting lost. Had lunch with the two supervisors, examination board and head of department. I am sure it was a very nice lunch, but I didn't enjoy it because it was too rushed, and I had a job to do. The laptop was in a cooperative mood - unlike the day before yesterday in Finland. I told the candidate I didn't bite. He didn't think it was funny. Afterwards, somebody told me that he got terribly nervous halfway through the defence, but I didn't notice. I felt we had a good scholarly discussion. Never mind that there were a hundred people in the audience.

I shared a taxi back to the railway station and returned the bus card to the hotel manager for the next guest. The train journey was uneventful except that at some point the train was five minutes delayed, and I had to change trains with ten minutes margin, but the local train waited. This time I knew the name of my hotel and even had a map. It was pouring rain.

The dinner options were peanuts from the minibar, an English-style pub and a fancy restaurant. I dismissed the first as non-viable. The pub was well hidden in a labyrinth of corridors, and when I eventually found it, it was just as crowded and noisy as you would expect a pub to be, so I opted for the silent restaurant. I had to remind myself that I had done a brilliant job today, and that there was a doctoral banquet going on right now, that I couldn't stay for. I should have written a speech and asked someone to read it. Too bad.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

I can't believe I am doing it again

I am travelling. I have a very complicated itinerary, with three different airlines, three different train companies, and a variety of tasks. I always have adventures when I travel, such as lost luggage or delayed flights, but this trip takes the prize.

On Monday, I took a plane from Stansted to Finland. Staffan and I had agreed that I would take the train to the airport, but when we came to Cambridge railway station I discovered that I had left my wallet behind. Luckily, Staffan didn't just drop me off, as we usually do, so he drove me home to get the wallet and then drove me to Stansted. We arrived before the train I was supposed to take. As I was digging into my backpack looking for the wallet, I dropped my watch. Luckily, into the bag, so I found it later. But it was a bad start for a trip. Then my good angel Lydia picked me up in Tampere and drove two hours to Åbo, aka Turku. I felt uneasy about it, but then we had two hours of undisturbed chat, catching up. In the evening, there was a litle party at Lydia's.

Yesterday Lydia had planned to take me to an advanced yoga class at seven in the morning, and I had brought my gym outfit, but eventually we decided to skip that. We had a good workshop with three papers circulated in advance, then had lunch, then Lydia took me for a walk, during which I realised how quickly you lose your ability to walk on slippery surfaces. In the evening, I gave a talk for a suprisingly big and alert audience, with some really good questions afterwards. In between I wanted to check my email, but my laptop wouldn't pick up the university internet, and I do not remember my password so I couldn't use another machine. I feel that I have lost control over my travels.

This morning, Lydia continued being an angel and took me to the local airport (a different airline), and I flew to Stockholm, which is always funny because you arrive before you started. As I boarded the airport train, I called Anton, and we met at Stockholms Station for a quick hug and a cup of coffee. Then I realised that I had not printed out the email with the name of the hotel where I was staying. I tried to get online at the station and on the train - for the latter, you apparently have to book it as you book the ticket. So here I was, in Linköping, without a clue about where to go. I looked at the local map and identified three hotels in the vicinity of the station, since I had a vague memory of that email saying that the hotel was 300 meters from the station. I hoped that when I saw the name of the hotel I would recognise it, but I didn't. It's embarrassing to go to a hotel and ask whether I by any chance have a reservation. And if not, could I please use your internet to check my email.

I called Staffan, he switched on my computer, opened my web mail, found the email - and it was one of the three hotels I didn't recognise. Perhaps I have mixed it up with the hotel where I am stying tomorrow. I'll make sure I've checked it before getting on the train.

Five minutes after I installed myself in the room, the phone rang, and I thought it would either be Staffan, to check on me, or my local host, to confirm dinner tonight. But it was the hotel manager. He had by mistake given me a wrong room, a very little room, incompatible with my high status. The guest who was supposed to have this room had already checked into a larger room, the one I was supposed to have. The guy was devastated, although I said I was only staying one night, and a bed and internet connection was all I required. But when he offered me a cup of tea on the house, I didn't say no. It wasn't just a cup of tea, it was a pot of tea, as well as biscuits and chocolate. Why can't hotel managers always make mistakes and compensate them with tea?

To be continued.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Intelligence test

Life is still full of surprises. Last Friday I participated in a team quiz for the first time ever. I am remarkably bad at quizzes. I cherish an illusion that I have a broad general education and a good orientation in contemporary events, except for pop culture. Many a relationship was broken for our kids when we played Trivial Pursuit and the prospective partners felt inadequate. But I cannot think properly under stress. As long as I am not stressed I am quite good. Staffan and I used to watch a highbrow quiz programme in Sweden (one big exception, since we never normally watch TV), and were always proud when we could answer before the competitors on the screen. Much of the charm of it was the brilliant quizmaster, and we stopped watching when he quit.

Anyway, there was a charity quiz last Friday in the Faculty, and Morag invited me to join the team. I warned her that I was worthless, but she didn't mind. I must say it was exceptionally well organised, and there were at least ten or twelve teams, and everybody was very serious about it, and had tremendous fun. At least I think so. I had fun. And I wasn't that useless after all, especially with questions on subjects outside the UK, such is which number the current French Republic has, or why Interstate highways in the US have straight strips every five miles. However, I didn't know that Italy had until a certain year left-hand traffic in the cities and right-hand in the country. I also had to protest when the correct identification of the picture of St Basil's cathedral in Moscow was Kremlin.

Midway through the questions everybody had fish and chips.

And, as a matter of fact, we won.