Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tenacious myths

I was interviewed by the Swedish Radio today. Well, I wasn't really interviewed the way I had expected after the researcher's conversation yesterday when I said what I thought on the matter. Apparently the program leader hadn't listened to her researcher.

The subject was something I have been interviewed about extensively in the past thirty years, in oral and written form, formally and informally, by journalists and undergrad students, and during drinks and table conversations. I say the same thing every time.

The eternal subject is the popularity of Astrid Lindgren's character Karlsson-on-the-roof in Russia.

What I say is that whoever asks is terribly ethnocentric. It is understandable that Swedish people are fascinated that something from their culture is popular abroad, but this Karlsson myth is blown up out of proportion. Yes, he has always been popular. Almost as popular as Alice in Wonderland, Thumbelina, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Little Prince. And dozens of other children's literature characters, homegrown and translated. To say that Karlsson was uniquely popular is to close your eyes on the context. And when people ask why Karlsson and not any other Lindgren character, the simple answer is: because it was available in Russian. Many, many years before Pippi Longstocking.

Another truth is that Karlsson became still more popular after two Russian cartoons were produced, and then two picturebooks based on cartoons. In these, the profound and sad story of the original was boiled down to Tom-and-Jerry-like slapstick. There was nothing left of Astrid Lindgren's text and nothing of Ilon Wikland's original illustrations. So in fact people in Russia don't really know Lindgren's character, but something twice removed. And there has been a lot of merchandise: dolls, candy, towels, mugs. There were funny stories too, some of them quite rude. Journalists interpret these as a sign of exceptional popularity. But stories are told in Russia about almost anything, including popular literary characters. Lots of rude stories about Thumbelina. Lots of rude stories about Pinocchio. Lots of rude stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. Who, by the way, also transformed into a cartoon character – Russian, not Disney – which made him more popular and better known than the original.

And then people say that Karlsson was controversial in Russia – not more controversial than any good children's book is any culture, certainly not more than Karlsson or Pippi were in Sweden. Personally I have always dislikes Karlsson as a character because he is mean, but I still like the books because they say some essential things about being a child. I wonder if the journalist who interviewed me today understands it. The Karlsson books are not about Karlsson, they are about the child who must learn what it means to be a human being. Karlsson is not human (he is in fact an early post-human, with technologically augmented capacities), but the child is. You are not supposed to like Karlsson, you are supposed to hate him. Or make mock of him.

The reason the Karlsson books – not just Karlsson the character - became popular in Russia is that they are great books by a great writer. They joined other great books read by generations of Russian children, which included unacknowledged imitations of Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz and Dr Dolittle. They happened to be translated in Russia at the time there weren't as many great books for children as there are today.

To ask why Karlsson is popular is like asking why Harry Potter is popular. Especially if it comes to a country where very few great children's books are available.

I didn't have a chance to say all this to the journalist today. She had her own opinion and wasn't listening. So the Karlsson myth will now be perpetuated through yet another medial channel.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


While all Sweden is one big hangover after the excessive drinking on Midsummer Eve yesterday (that's if you go after Swedish newspapers and Swedish Facebook friends' updates), Staffan and I have just started, with herring, new potatoes and a schnapps for lunch. We should have invited some friends. It's weird not to celebrate Midsummer with huge crowds.

Many years ago, my great-aunt was visiting us in Sweden around Midsummer, and I took her to the nearest celebration site to give her a sense of a genuine Swedish Midsummer. We brought picnic and sat in a hge ring with dozens of other families, watching the maypole being raised, the fiddlers play, the professional and amateur dancers dance, everybody sing. But my aunt was most impressed by a middle-aged man next to us. He was on his own. He had a low folding table with a nice table-cloth, a real plate, knife and fork, and a little glass. He had his picnic and his bottle. He poured himself a drink, chased it with herring and potatoes. He had no one to share the feast with, but he didn't want to be left behind.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012


Homerton has a twin college at the Other Place. Their Principal is an honorary fellow at Homerton, and the other way round. They have a guest room that we can use, and we are trying to arrange one for them. Thy have visited us. Yesterday we were invited to visit them.

It may seem crazy to travel for two and a half hours just to have dinner. It was crazy, but it was nice. Fifteen of us crammed in a minibus. We were told to be at Porter's Lodge at four sharp, and being an obedient little girl, I was, and got terribly anxious when nobody else was these, and no minibus either. Then people started coming, but still no minibus. Somebody ran to the college, somebody tried to make some phone calls. Eventually, twenty past four, the minibus arrived, by which time the traffic out of Cambridge was quite heavy. But there we were, in our Sunday best, stuck on motorway after motorway – there is no reasonable route from This Place to the Other Place. In another situation I would perhaps suggest singing, and we did have some music people on board. But I wasn't sure whether the Cambridge code of behaviour allowed singing on bus trips. Right outside the Other Place, someone got sick. It wasn't me. I strongly empathised.

We were warmly welcomed, got a quick tour of the college (fantastic Pre-Raphaelite chapel!), drinks in the garden, a formal, but friendly dinner. I had to explain first during the drinks and then at dinner to the person on my right, on my left and across the table what I did for a living, with all the usual set of incredulous questions. Between main and pudding, all hosts moved three seats clockwise, and I had to explain to the person across the table and on my right what I did for a living. But the person on my left was writing a critical biography of R L Stevenson, so I had someone to talk to who understood.

Today a colleague said: “It was a nice trip yesterday, wasn't it? I only went out of duty, but I truly enjoyed it”. 

Harris Manchester College, the Other Place

Friday, 15 June 2012

Makeover, Grand Finale

Read part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this story. 

If you have followed my sartorial confessions, you are dying to know how my Grand Shopping Day went. It started yesterday when I met Jane at Morag's to make plans. I had taken pictures of my existing wardrobe, which was painful because going through them I saw only too well how I was stuck in the safe black-trousers-neutral-three-size-too-big-top business. Amazingly – or probably not at all – Jane picked up the only pic in which I like myself, which is my dark green evening gown. Everything else she rightfully dismissed, but in a very pedagogical way, like I would do with a student essay, asking: “Now tell me, what's wrong with this?” or “What are you trying to do with this outfit?” And I had to admit, over and over again, that I was trying to hide myself. Which I thought I had stopped doing after Julia pointed it out for me, some years ago.

I went home and went to bed, deciding never to get up again.

However, the fatal hour inevitably arrived, and ten minutes to ten this morning I was sitting outside East shop on Sidney street, with my phone on (so unlike me) hoping against hope that Jane would call to cancel the whole thing. At the same time I was full of joyful anticipation and sort of curious about what she may have in mind. In fact, East is my favourite shop, so I was glad she had chosen it as the first port of call.

And we both saw a scarf. We had discussed scarves and agreed that they make a lot of difference, but my usual safe strategy would be to get a scarf that would go with everything. Not a daring scarf. Not a dazzling scarf.

Side comment: I'd like to know, honestly, how many women, young and mature, recognise my feelings. This is so private and so sensitive that we perhaps discuss this with our closest friend and not even then going to the core of it. I know that for many women shopping is second nature. But I am sure I am not the only one for whom it is a torture.

Back to the plot. Do you remember the wonderful old movie Ninochka, when she has returned to Russia and is telling her friend that in Paris she had a hat that she would be ashamed to wear in Moscow. The friend: “As beautiful as that!” This scarf was so beautiful I would be ashamed to wear it a year ago, but you see, I won't now! I will wear it, and another one, proudly, and I'll spend hours in front of the mirror training to tie them in the most elaborate way. But of course scarves were just the beginning. Skirts, trousers, jackets, blouses, tops, dresses – in colour combinations I would never dare to put together myself. The only rules: no black, no off-white. “Shame, said Eeyore, my favourite colour”.

As I was trying on a dress, one of the shop assistants who had been watching us closely said: “There is a customer over there who saw you in this dress and thought it was so pretty she's going to try it”. Remember this, said Jane. Remember that a total stranger thought you were pretty.

Suddenly it was half past eleven, and I felt I could kill for a cup of coffee. Half past eleven is an hour past my coffee time, that's how busy I had been. And we hadn't even been on the top floor!

After coffee we combed the top floor, and I was tempted to get another full outfit, trousers, jacket, top and scarf, in a different colour scheme (and I think I'll go back and get it next week). Meanwhile, we also got a pair of shoes and a handbag. Wow, I had never in my life owned a pair of blue shoes. Isn't it about time I had a pair of blue shoes to go with my blue skirt?

It was by then an hour past my lunchtime, and I asked Jane where she would like to go for lunch. She said: “Surprise me”, and I suggested, unimaginatively, Jamie's. She said she had been to Jamie's and didn't like it. We went to Carluccio, but they had a huge queue, so we ended up at Jamie's anyway, and Jane had to admit that it was an excellent choice. So I have made a little contribution too to the enlightenment of humankind.

The rest felt a bit of an anticlimax as we wandered all over the city centre, me carrying two huge shopping bags, popping into shop after shop, until I realised that Jane wasn't just browsing. She was consistently searching for something she had made up her mind I must have, and it was a pink jacket. Not in my worst nightmare can I imagine myself wearing a pink jacket or a pink anything, but when we finally found The Pink Jacket I was devastated that they didn't have it in my size. What would my old self do? Either buy the wrong size or cry invisible tears. But my new self! My new self went home and ordered the right size on the web.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

My smart friend

When I bought my first mobile phone, many years ago in the Stone Age, I told the very young assistant in the store that I wanted a senile mobile. He was at a loss and called an older colleague who knew exactly what I meant: basic, big keys and one button for everything. It served me well, especially since I never had it switched on unless I was expecting a call or needed to make a call myself. For these two tasks it was perfect. If absolutely unavoidable, I could text.

Some time ago when I was in the middle of something and for some reason had the phone on, I asked a student to answer it. She didn't know how. She had never seen such an antedeluvian artifact.

Since a month ago, I am the happy owner of a smartphone. We aren't quite good friends yet - it hasn't even told me its name. I got it for my birthday, but didn't dare to open the box before Julia and Pontus came to visit a week later. Pontus did all the initial magic tricks, downloaded this and that, and suddenly I could read my email and Facebook on the tiny screen. Some days later I learned how to zoom. I learned how to scroll and swipe. Yesterday I learned how to switch windows. All on my own!

I had resisted a smartphone because I couldn't see what I needed it for. The old phone was just fine to make phone calls. But I do admit now that my new friend can do a lot of nice things. Maps and star charts was what I had fallen for. I am still not going to have it switched on. But it proved very useful when I travelled. Normally I would bring a laptop. This time I thought I would only need to check my email, and that's just what a smartphone was for. I even considered leaving my Kindle behind and read on the phone, but didn't want to take the risk. After all, the phone and Kindle together are smaller than the laptop. Since it's an old laptop they can apparently do ten times as much. Possibly, thousand times as much.

Since I had plenty of time at airports, on trains and in my hotel room, I played like a child with my toy. I checked my email and read my Facebook. I set the Clock for London and Stockholm. I downloaded a ringtone app and set one ringtone for the phone and another for the alarm. I fed my appointments into Calendar (it is, amazingly, synchronised with my computer. New horizons!). I took pictures and shared them on Facebook. I checked my email and read my Facebook. I found an Italian restraurant near my hotel where I went for dinner. I set Weather for Cambridge and found train timetables. I fed my imminent tasks into Tasks. The phone reminded me the next day that I had a Task. I checked my email and read my Facebook. I tried to read an ebook, just to confirm that Kindle was better, but in emergency I would cope. I read a newspaper. I checked my email... I believe each operation takes me ten times as long as an expert user, but I am learning.

Now I am back home, the phone is switched off, and I don't know when and why I would need it again. But we are getting to know each other. I may even use it to make calls.

The wisdom of Old Mrs Pepperpot

When I finished my keynote talk at a conference this past Monday, the session chair informed the audience that the speaker had a blog and had written a post about giving a keynote talk. I felt a bit akward because the post was in fact about this particular talk. I must be more careful in what I write.

The conference was about Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, or rather about her creator, Alf Prøysen. It is always exciting to go to a conference wholly devoted to a single author, and it so happened that many years ago I was in the same place, Hamar in Norway, at a conference devoted to Tormod Haugen. The author was sitting in the front row. This time Prøysen wasn't sitting in the front row, but if he had been, I think he would be very pleased. His all oeuvre was given detailed attention: children's books, picturebooks, songs, poems, short stories, newspaper columns and even a sculpture of Mrs Pepperpot. I must admit my ignorance: I didn't know much about Prøysen beyond Mrs Pepperpot, and what I had known I had forgotten. At the exhibition in the library I saw a book that I once had translated into Russian (it wasn't printed, but broadcast in a children's radio programme, which Prøysen would have liked). Apparently this book is as indispensible on Christmas Eve in Norway as Donald Duck is in Sweden. I like the idea of a national poet on Christmas Eve better than an international icon. 

At least half of the conference participants were not children's literature people, which is another thing I liked about it. When people outside children's literature for some reason or other have to talk professionally about a children's book or a book about childhood, they look at it with fresh eyes and therefore see things that we child lit experts miss because we think they are too obvious. It has been ages since I read or heard such a brilliant formal poetry analysis. More like this, please!

I have repeatedly reflected on why small nations frequently produce crosswriters. Using a bit far-fetched evolutionary criticism, a small nation cannot afford too much specialisation. For better and for worse. 

I also enjoyed Prøysen museum. I am quite sceptical about writer museums because most of them are terribly boring, showing the writer's manuscripts, his desk, her typewriter, his teapot, her suitcase. Seen one, you've seen them all. This one had taste and tact, and it made me want to know more about Prøysen. It wasn't a cute theme park about Mrs Pepperpot. (Afterwards we were taken to the cottage where he was born, which was like hundreds of other cottages where writers were born, full of authentic artefacts. It wasn't half as interesting). 

My talk, titled "The wisdom of Old Mrs Pepperpot" was about learning from books. But of course we also learn from museums, conferences, pictures, conversations and a bowl of ice cream at a sidewalk cafe in the city of Hamar. 

In an interview for the local newspaper I dared to state that Prøysen has been more influential than Ibsen. Will I ever be admitted to Norway again?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Makeover, part 3

Read the first and second part of this story.

Now comes the difficult bit. I don't think Staffan gave much thought to my wardrobe, but if he thought I looked like a poor relative from the countryside, he never showed it. The presents he brought me were of practical nature: a pretty nightgown, a pair of corduroy trousers that were high fashion then, a soft sweater with Nordic pattern. My workmates, who were initiated in my secret relationship – as a faithful Soviet citizen, you were not supposed to fall in love with foreigners – would ask, with envy in their voices: “What did he bring you this time?” and would get tremendously disappointed. Looking back, I don't think I was disappointed because I wanted books more than clothes, and my friends' expectations made me still more reluctant toward any material tokens of affection. If I wanted anything, I would be too proud to ask.

Packing to move to Sweden, I felt ambivalent, and again, my friends' comments were not helpful. You will buy everything new there, they said. And I gave away clothes, shoes and accessories. On the other hand, I definitely didn't want to come to Sweden as a beggar bride, so I bought some nice new things. For certain reasons I was going on a guest visa, therefore I couldn't ship anything, but travelled with two suitcases and my eight-year-old son.

Staffan wasn't too tactful about my trousseau. He threw away my Czech winter boots which he said stank of rubber; he said nobody in Sweden had fur hats, and in the first place he said my son's clothes were ridiculous, so the first thing I did was get him things just like other kids had. I had been allowed to change a little money which was about enough to equip him and get me a pair of more appropriate winter boots. Don't misunderstand me. I am sure Staffan would have given me as much money as he could afford if I had asked, but I was too proud to ask. Before we met I could support myself and my son, and suddenly I was wholly at someone else's will.

Staffan was renting a house cheaply from a very rich friend who right at the time of our arrival had cleared her wardrobes and had a huge pile of clothes on the lounge floor, to be collected by Salvation Army. I salvaged half of the pile and not only wore the clothes myself, but sent some back to Moscow when I could.

My mother-in-law told me many years later that she felt sorry for me then because I had so poor clothes. She was especially referring to my French haute couture sheepskin coat, made of patches of various shades of brown and beige. She thought I was so poor I had to sew my own winter coat from leftover bits.

Then I was pregnant, and the problem was solved for a while as I bought a maternity tunic and wore it with different T-shirts (from the pile). My granny came to stay with us that summer and reported back home that we were very poor and that I only had one dress. The latter was true because I did wear the same maternity tunic all the time. The former was a matter of reference frames. Staffan wasn't a millionaire, as all Russians thought all foreigners were, but he paid two child allowances, and I had no income at all. We rented this huge seventeenth-century mansion, but we had no furniture to fill it with, so it did look a bit miserable. And I thought I had stronger priorities than clothes. But when we went to Moscow first time, after a year and a half, I felt I couldn't wear the same clothes I had when I left, so I got some new outfits. It was early '80s, with pastel colours and soft cotton and linnen. My Moscow friend Alyona told me afterwards that her workmates had asked whether her Swedish friend also walked around in faded pyjama bottoms, like all other foreigners. Which was exactly what I did. I suppose my Moscow friends were shocked at my poor taste, now that I was rich and could buy silks and velvets.

Most clothes I bought in those days came from mail order. Most of my children's clothes I made myself, except for Sergej's. He had enough reasons to be bullied in school. When my parents started visiting us regularly, they would always bring clothes (and other presents) that we didn't want because they looked ridiculous in Sweden. They would bring me a mink hat, and I had to explain about animal rights, because otherwise they would have brought me a mink coat next time. They got this idea that we were in need, and I didn't know how to tell them to stop bringing tablecloths and towels and tea sets and ugly soft toys. Whenever I went to Moscow, my mother would call her seamstress who would make a dress or a jacket for me. A few years later I would take them back to Moscow and give them away. Then I would buy heaps of cheap clothes at sales and bring them to Moscow for friends and cousins. It was all upside down and made no sense at all.

My way of dealing with it was to tell myself and anyone who was listening that we had other priorities. We travelled a lot. This made my Russian friends shut up. Although they still wondered why I couldn't have everything now that I lived abroad, where, as everyone knows, streets are paved with gold.

To be continued.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ten best books in the world

When I said on Facebook yesterday that Dandelion Wine was one of the ten best books in the world, one comment was, not quite unexpectedly, “this is an invitation for you to list the remaining 9”.

I guess what I meant is not so much “the best in the world”, but the most formative for me: books that made a lasting impressions, books that I keep going back to (or not, but still books that made me what I am). All of these I read before I was sixteen. The list has remained unchanged for the past forty-four years. I have read some excellent books since then, but none has changed my life. Perhaps books can only cnange your life when you are young.

I have already explained Dandelion Wine, and the rest I will explain briefly, perhaps to elaborate on later.

Winnie-the-Pooh. The best book in the world. Has something for everyone, explains everything and reveals new dimensions of each re-reading. I can't tell how many times I have read it.

The Little Prince. Also has everything, and while Pooh can be read by a child as a funny book, The little prince is profoundly sad. Not because the little prince dies, but because “the prince tamed the Fox, and now it was time to say goodbye”.

The Master and Margarita. I wish I could explain why this book changed everything for everyone in Russia, young and old, when it was first published. It has so many layers, humorous and sublime, and so much of it has become part of the Russian language. I think this is the only book that we read aloud in my family. And because it was published in two instalments in a literary journal, we had to wait a whole month for the second part. I re-read it at least once a year.

Cat's Cradle. Explains everything, and ends without hope. We got all our wisdom from it. Like The Master and Margarita, it was cross-generational. It was my father's great favourite. I re-read it just a few months ago, it's still brilliant.

Doctor Zhivago. When I first read it, age fifteen, it was a romantic story, not romantic as in the horrible movie version, but mysteriously and disturbingly erotic. It is also brilliantly crafted, with a chain of incredible serendipities, when a tiny detail in the beginning becomes decisive three hundred pages later; a prefect example of dramatic irony when readers know more than any characters and would so much like to warn them! And of course it is the tragedy of Russian intellectuals destroyed by communism, which I recognised from my family history. When I re-read it later, I saw other things as well, the philosophical layer. But after that, it suddenly became very ideological and intentional. I re-read it every other year, but it does not get better.

Joseph and His Brothers. Breath-taking book. My grandmother used to re-read it every year. I re-read it perhaps every five years, and it gets better every time. I was too young when I first read it, but even then it changed my world.

Eugen Onegin. It's of course the Russian national epic and impossible to translate, even if you are Vladimir Nabokov. I can still recite long bits of it. The status of school classic couldn't kill it for us. When we were young, it was very romantic, but when I started to re-read it about twenty years ago, I saw beyond the plot, and it's ironic and funny. And all about dreams.

Anna Karenina. Another school classic that turned out to be something else. Among other things, it used stream of consciousness long, long before Joyce. Such a rich book. I re-read it every three-four years.

Finally, I cannot omit Scarlet Sails, a book nobody outside Russia will have heard of, but for many generations of Russian girls it ruined our first, and perhaps second and third, relationships because it set up a pattern of perfect love that had very little to do with reality. In Russian, rather than “a prince on a white horse” you say “a prince under red sails”, but it adds up to the same. The only right way to fall in love. I re-read it a couple of years ago, and it is a good story if you don't take it seriously.

Now I have provided you with summer reading.

No strings attached

I am getting a masters degree from Cambridge. 

I don't know why I am doing it, but my general instinct is: if I am entitled to anything, be it a degree or a free drink, I'll take it.

In fact, I don't have a masters degree. I have a diploma from a five-year programme at a Russian university, which I believe corresponds to a Western masters. In Sweden, I did the final term of a bachelor's degree and wrote a thesis, on which basis I was accepted directly into a PhD programme. Masters degree was introduced later.

So I have a PhD, but I am getting a masters. There is a regulation in Cambridge allowing you a generic masters degree after three years of faithful service. Hopefully, I will never have any use of this degree, but who knows? And it'll be fun. I have for some time looked at pictures from my students' graduation ceremonies and stated, with some envy, that I'd never experience anything like that (mind, I graduated twice in Stockholm City Hall, the venue of the Nobel banquet). But now I will.

For the ceremony, I need a gown (master status without strings) and a hood. I have a master gown without strings which I bought for the first Formal Hall in Cambridge, almost four years ago. It was a very good investment, as I have worn it regularly since then. The strings that I had to cut off are in the drawer of my dressing table, in case I ever need them. The hood I will have to hire from Diagon Alley... ahm, from local robemakers.

The dress code specifies what you are allowed to wear, to the smallest detail. For instance: “Stockings or tights should be worn and should be black or nearly black and without a pattern”. Or: “The only jewellery permitted are wedding and engagement rings”. I wonder whether my doctor's ring can pass for an engagement ring. But I'd better take no risks. “Earrings must be small studs only – the dangling type must not be worn.” What about nose studs and rings? Not that I have any. “Neither coloured nail varnish nor heavy make-up should be worn”. How heavy is “heavy”?

The degree will be awarded “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Those who have problems with this can be excused, on special application. I will need to decide by tomorrow.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Dandelion wine

I guess for most people Ray Bradbury is Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 and "a master of science fiction". I love all these and have read them over and over again. But among my ten desert island books, I would choose Dandelion Wine, and I would also claim that it is the best book ever written about childhood. About all the anguish of being a child and first discovering that you are alive and, as a consequence, that you are mortal. Wondering over the strangeness of adult life in which a ninety-five-year-old woman and a forty-year-old man recognise each other from a previous life and hope to meet in the future (no, I don't believe in reincarnation).

I fist read Dandelion Wine when was sixteen. It was disturbing - just as disturbing as a book should be. It changed my life. It changed my whole worldview. All right, let me spell it out: it is the single most important book of my life.

I didn't know and didn't care - still don't care - whether it was an autobiography. It is a beautiful piece of literature. I introduced all my friends to the book. It was a touchstone. If they were indifferent, they weren't really my friends.

I cannot imagine how you can remain indifferent to this book.

I was sixteen and was in love with, or thought I was in love with someone who was sixty. Dandelion Wine provided an answer. (This person has been dead for thirty years now. Miss Loomis would have urged me to die young. I am afraid it's too late).

"I dare say death will be a lobster, too, and I can come to terms with it".This makea more sense now than when I was sixteen.

By the way, I didn't know that lime-vanilla ice actually existed (or dandelion wine, for that matter).

I re-read the book recently, and it still goes right into my heart, every bit of it.

The copy in the picture comes from the Los Angeles Book Fair 2000. Staffan had journalist accreditation and therefore received a precious ticket to Bradbury's talk. He gave it to me.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Makeover, part 2

Read the first part of this tale.

When I got married I was determined not to accept any help from my parents, but of course it didn't work. We could pretend as much as we wanted that we were independent, but when it came to clothes I was still totally in my mother's hands. Then I was divorced and got a job. My salary was just enough to buy a pair of winter boots, but then the saying was: “May you only have your salary to live on”. Everybody had extra sources of income. I worked as interpreter, translator, reviewer – anything I could get. A book translation could yield as much as three yearly salaries, which was weird, but then everything was weird back in those days.

The huge problem was that the dress code at my work place said: never wear the same outfit twice. So apart from having to show off brands you also had to keep track of what you were wearing and create variation with mixing and matching. But the real solution was to swap. All friends swapped clothes, that's what friends are for! During the periods when I was on speaking terms with my mother, we would swap clothes all the time, especially for parties. She would also allow me to sell her clothes and shoes after I had worn them, and keep the money to get new clothes. By that time I had my own network on the black market.

I also started travelling abroad to the paradise of Eastern Europe: Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, which in our eyes were rich and plentiful beyond imagination. During these trips, I would save every penny, eating as little and as cheap as I could, to buy clothes – although I did go to museums and theatres and travelled around. And I never brought back clothes to sell, at least not until I had got tired of them. During one trip with my work colleagues we brought vodka and cigarettes and sold to a very suspicious shop on the edge of the shopping area. I am still ashamed of it. This is as low as I have ever fallen.

To be continued.

Saturday, 2 June 2012


In case you missed it, among the remarkable presents I received for my birthday was a personal shopper. When Morag announced it at my reception, my first thought was: “Oh my god, are they saying that I have such a bad taste in clothes that I need assistance?” I hope that they didn't mean it so, but still this unusual present has provided some food for thought.

I have now met my personal shopper, Jane, to talk through our plans, and in a way it was as strong a shock as a session in therapy. She asked me about my colour preferences, and what kind of clothes I have and feel comfortable with, and how many pairs of shoes I have, and whether I wear jewellery, and how long it takes me in the morning to decide what to wear. And I told her that I hated pink and yellow, that since thirty years ago I always wear sensible shoes, that shopping is a nightmare, and that I am highly aware of what I am wearing because I myself always watch what other people are wearing. And that I was open for all ideas and prepared for a total makeover.

Since she is obviously a professional, she seemed to understand everything I was saying. As we parted, agreeing that I would take pictures of myself in different outfits, I couldn't but go on thinking about my complex sartorial attitudes.

I have some pictures of myself as a very young child wearing unbelievably ugly clothes, but it was over fifty years ago and in a country where consumer goods were not the first and not even second priority. But I also have pictures – and memories – of very pretty clothes, which, as I realise now, originated from a skeleton in the family wardrobe and stopped when the skeleton was removed. After that, my mother or the family seamstress made most of my clothes. Some were horrible scratchy knitted things that I hated. But most of them were, looking back, quite nice – only they were different. Nobody I knew had pleated skirts, nobody had winter coats with fur-trimmed hoods, other girls didn't wear trousers. I really admire my mother who managed to get me decent outfits, but she never asked me whether I liked my clothes, and the few times I refused to put something on she called me an ungrateful pig. Mind, my mother was always elegant, at home, at work, at parties and on holidays. I set my standards after her.

When I was fourteen, one of my mother's friends said to her: “Why does your daughter always wear such ugly clothes? She is a young lady, you must get her nice things”. Which resulted in my mother getting me nice things on the black market, which I know was not cheap. She even got me a pair of Levi's which must have cost a fortune. Just to give you an idea: a pair of jeans or a pair of boots cost about an average monthly salary. Don't ask me how people managed. To complement clothes from the black market, we all went on knitting (when we could get hold of wool) and making dresses, blouses, skirts and even trousers (when we could get hold of fabrics). Patterns were valuable and generously shared, as were buttons, hooks, zippers and ribbons.

But there were many things you couldn't make that suddenly became fashionable, like turtle-neck shirts or even T-shirts, net stockings, leather coats and jackets, and of course shoes and boots were always a problem. Everybody knew the black market prices, so wearing certain clothes was a matter of prestige. Tights were tremendously expensive, even when they were occasionally available in shops (I mean, expensive as in a tenth of your salary), therefore trousers came as a blessing: you could always wear tights with ladders under trousers. It took, however, years before trousers were accepted as women's attire. I remember I wore trousers in my second university year and was considered exceptionally brave. I wasn't expelled though, which could easily had happened some years before. 

To anticipate the question where things came from, I hurry to say: I don't know. There was always a friend of a friend of a friend. When there was something on offer you bought it whether you needed it or not, because there would always be someone who wanted it. You didn't think whether the piece fit with what you had. You weren't particular about sizes or colours.

If you think all this makes one's attitudes to clothes somewhat traumatic, you are absolutely right.

To be continued.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Some are more equal

Yesterday I took a compulsory online course on Equality and Diversity. I don't know why I had to take it – apparently as a step in my Professional Development. Frankly, I had felt I was sufficiently Equal and Diverse, but a subjective feeling doesn't get you a course certificate. The intro said it would take an hour, but apparently I am a slow learner, it took me an hour and a half. There was a test afterwards, and I had to score 80% to pass. I did quite well with the exercises, but I always get stressed about any kind of tests, exams and quizzes, so I only got 85. I missed some intricate legal nuances between discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

It was quite interesting and useful, especially learning about all the legal particulars. Not that I expect to be involved in any, but who knows.

Where I grew up, a professor could say to a student: Don't bother to apply for PhD, you are Jewish. Where I grew up, a professor could say to a student: If you want to pass the exam you'll have to sleep with me. Where I grew up, homosexuality was a crime. Where I grew up, women were expected to work and take care of the family. Where I grew up, there were no wheelchairs, and you wouldn't see a disabled person in a public place. Where I grew up, people were discriminated, harassed and victimised by each other and by the authorities. Where I grew up, some people were more equal than other people.

In Sweden, I was a member of equality committee at my work place. I spent hours and hours trying to persuade the other committee members that equality was not only about gender. They thought that I was making too much of being Diverse. I pointed out that there were other Diverse people in the department, staff as well as students. I was useful by being Diverse when diversity was the slogan of the day, but being Diverse didn't make you Equal. In fact, the more Diverse, the less Equal. Perhaps we should all have taken courses in Equality and Diversity. It's easy to be Equal, but very difficult to be Diverse. If you are Equal, you don't think much about those who are Diverse.

Perhaps I should go back and revise until I get it 100% right.