Taking off

We are preparing to make the big move. There is a goodbye party happening in our garden even as I write this. Good friends and neighbours coming over to say their farewells. We are leaving London after 11 years. I don’t really know where Taiwan is located, and still we are going. I don’t even know why we are going, and still we are going.

Breaking up and starting again is what my life always has been about. I never felt like an immigrant to Britain, only as a temporary visitor. I never belonged here but then again I never belonged anywhere. I was here for a while that’s all — and now I’m leaving. The human condition.

Yet it is very much a case of leaping first and looking later. Strangely I’ve managed to convince my wife and children to follow me. They are easily fooled. Even if our lives in Taiwan turn out to be worse than here, they will be better. Different is always better if you have had enough of the same.� As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “the man who is tired of London should move to Hsinchu, Taiwan.”
July 6th update: we are leaving this evening, got visas from the Taiwanese consulate this morning — this is really scary!

Dylan again

We went down to Bournemouth to the Dylan concert, just me and my wife this time. It’s only six months since we saw him in Scotland, but I’m a fan and I have no choice in the matter. If Dylan is calling, I will come. The concert was great of course, although very similar to the one in Glasgow. Same band, same hats. Highlights included a first-rate version of “Masters of War” and a very good “Cold Irons Bound.”

The first song was clearly about me and my relations to my present employer:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
They hand you a nickle
They hand you a dime,
They ask you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time,
Then they fine you every time you slam the door.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

Afterwards I had the most terrible post-concert blues. I felt like I had missed an opportunity. The weird, cranky, outsider came from far away and into our lives for a short while. He conveyed some kind of message and then he took off again. What did he say? Why didn’t he tell us what we wanted to hear? Wicked messanger indeed! When the circus left town we were forced to stay put.

The only cure for a post-concert blues is to go to another Bob Dylan concert as quickly as possible. Sigh.

Big wood pile

I have a big wood pile in my backyard. Swedes measure their manliness with the help of the size of their wood pile and mine is huge. Usually it’s an enormous collection of firewood that men in the Swedish countryside keep for the winter. A well dried and neatly stacked pile is the best protection against the bitter winter winds. A Swedish man may chew tobacco, he may never change his underwear, he never talks except to curse — but yes, his pile of wood keeps his family warm through the winter.

wood pile

OK. My pile here in London is a bit different. It’s the wood I bought a year ago for my friend across the street, the conceptual artist who is a carpenter in the day-time, who had promised to come over and build us a conservatory. Despite continuously pestering him, he could never be bothered to actually get the job started. Now the pile is a piece of conceptual art. Everyone who sees it thinks ‘Man, that’s a big wood pile! I wonder why they have that big wood pile in their backyard?’ But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a monument to my Swedishness. A small piece of my manliness in the middle of the enormous, emasculating, metropolis.

We used to have PhD students over for dinner right at the beginning of the Michaelmas term. First we served them vodka, then we fed them fermented herring, then we took them into the backyard for the annual axe-throwing competition. In my part of Sweden they make double-sided axes which are great to use for throwing. We had a sawn-off tree stump as a target and gave points for the ones who hit closest to the centre. Of course everyone got too drunk and started falling about. The axe-throwing got, so to speak, out of hand. Once the police flew by in their helicoptre and we waved our axes at them and cursed. ‘This used to be Viking land you know! Before you Normans arrived!’

Sweden v. England

OK, so this is the day when Sweden is playing England. There is no ignoring it. In fact, yesterday I found myself going off to buy a set of gigantic Swedish flags which my daughters today are wearing. And I always hated all that nationalistic nonsense! But somehow it’s different when you live abroad and when you have children. There is surely no better day on which to affirm your Swedish identity.

Sverige supporter

I don’t mind England beating us really, as long as they don’t go on past the quarter finals. The English always thought ball kicking was their invention and they think they wrongfully have been deprived of the World Cup ever since 1966. All this pent-up Saint Georgian frustration that is just waiting to burst forth! No surprise all foreigners here end up supporting even the most unpalatable of the opponents. We know that if the English come anywhere near the final there will be no living with them.

Thankfully the odds are nicely stacked in Sweden’s favour. If Sweden wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach; if England wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach. Come to think of it, perhaps I should get some facepaint out …

Buggered, especially off

Ever since I read the LSE’s official statement in The Guardian regarding my blog, I’ve been intrigued by what they meant by its ‘potentially defamatory’ content. Apparently there is supposed to be something in this blog that defames someone. It was never clear to me what this could have been. I now know. The magical sentence comes from the ‘talking to prospective students‘ entry. It reads:

the only reason they asked me [to give the Open Day speech] is that everyone reasonable already has buggered off on their respective Easter vacations.

This is what the LSE regards as ‘potentially defamatory’ and worthy of an investigation by a special committee. Interesting. The key word here is of course ‘buggered off.’ A tricky word to use, especially for us foreigners. According to The Free Dictionary:

bugger off, chiefly British slang, to leave someone alone; to go away; to run away.

Clearly the expression is informal and colloquial but it is not — in contrast to the same verb without the ‘off’ — considered as rude or in itself offensive. Not surprisingly the expression is common on the BBC. Compare for example Hugh Laurie in Blackadder:

Why, only the other day Prime Minister Pitt called me an idle scrounger. It wasn’t until ages later that I thought how clever it could have been to have said, “Oh bugger off, you old fart!”

What the LSE is objecting to is surely not the expression itself but instead the fact that it was used in reference to its staff. The implication is that members of the LSE faculty don’t ‘bugger off’ on vacation. Perhaps instead they ‘depart determinedly to their second homes in France’?

My crime, as always, is a lack of respect. I’m not treating people in authority with the respect they feel they deserve. Respect is a difficult thing to earn and, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t come with a job title. For example: convening a special committee to investigate the meaning of ‘buggered off’ might not be the best way to earn it.

Is this how low the threshold is for free speech at the LSE?

Wikipedia, as always, has an interesting article:

Bugger is an expletive used in vernacular British English, Australian English, New Zealand English and Sri Lankan English. When used in context it still retains its original meaning, implying sodomy. However it is now more generally used to imply dissatisfaction (bugger, I’ve missed the bus [i.e. Shit!, I’ve missed the bus], also cf. Unlucky Alf, a character in The Fast Show, who says ‘bugger’ every time something happens to him) or used to describe someone whose behaviour is in some way displeasing (the bugger has given me the wrong change). The word is also used amongst friends in an affectionate way (you old bugger) and is used as a noun in Welsh English vernacular to imply that one is very fond of something (I’m a bugger for Welsh cakes). It can also imply a negative tendency (He’s a bugger for losing his keys) [i.e He loses his keys often]. A colloquial phrase in the north of England to denote an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) occurrence is “Bugger me, here’s my bus”. The word is generally used in place of a more serious expletive.

The phrase bugger off means to run away; when used as a command it means “go away” [”piss off”] or “leave me alone”, which is generally considered one of the more offensive usage contexts. Bugger all means “Nothing”. The Bugger Factor is another phrase to describe the phenomenon of Sod’s Law or Murphy’s Law.

It is famously alleged that the last words of King George V were “bugger Bognor“, in response to a suggestion that he might recover from his illness and visit Bognor Regis.

As with most other expletives its continued use has reduced its shock value and offensiveness, to the extent the Toyota car company in Australia and New Zealand ran a popular series of advertisements where “Bugger!” was the only spoken word. The term is generally not used in the United States, but it is recognised, although inoffensive there. It is also used in Canada more frequently than in the United States but with less stigma than in other parts of the world.

The word is derived from the French word Boulgre, derived from “Bulgarian” (meaning the Bogomils of Bulgaria), who Catholic propagandists said were practicing ‘buggery‘. Writings by Puritan authors such as Cotton Mather refer to “buggery” when talking about bestiality among their congregations.

In Victorian and Edwardian England, bugger was often used as an identity label; for example, “a bugger”, meaning an active homosexual.

My 15 minutes

I started this blog in January 2006. For the first couple of weeks of its existence it had about 10 visitors per day. Then I began blogging about my employer, the London School of Economics, and about what it’s like to work and study at an elite university. Suddenly interest in the blog erupted. One day, May 4, the blog had over 5000 visitors.

My great fortune was that the blog was banned — first by the convenor of my department and then by the director of the LSE itself. As they both made clear, I was not allowed to speak about the School in an unauthorised manner or ’serious consequences’ would ensue. After some reflection I decided to keep the blog up. It was an easy choice in the end since the statues of the LSE guarantee the right to the freedom of expression. The controversy eventually hit the papers — first the LSE student newspaper, then the Guardian and the Times Higher Education Supplement. Hence all the visitors to the page. See the sidebar for more information.

With some very few exceptions none of my colleagues was ready to publicly support my right to free speech. Instead the LSE students rallied to my support, signing petitions and writing encouraging emails. Ironically these divergent reactions only proved what I had been saying all along — that its students are LSE’s greatest asset.

This story is now over. The LSE authorities decided not to pursue the issue in the end. Very wise on their part. Yet the conclusion is less than satisfactory: the initial reprimand I was given has not been retracted and I can’t help thinking I’m owed an apology. Still it is of course a victory. The powers-that-be have backed off, I’m still blogging and I intend to go on doing so. Hopefully everyone — including the LSE director — has now understood the importance of some set of rules which governs internet use by students and staff.

The number of visitors to the blog has gone back down — not to 10 a day but to about 100. It’s calmer that way. Much as I like being read, I hate the controversy. In the next couple of months I plan to write a book about blogging and freedom of speech in democratic societies. That’ll be my revenge — a nice academic kind of revenge, with footnotes and all!

But I’m moving on. We’re pulling up our stakes and leaving for Taiwan in a couple of weeks. I’ll come back to London for sure but not to the LSE. Enough is enough. The world is a large place and there is much to see and do.

Football

I hear some kind of big sporting event just got under way. Grown men kicking balls around, that kind of stuff. Everyone seems to be very excited about it for some reason. No, I’m not a football fan, but ok, I do watch the occasional game. How can you not?

Like the medieval carnival, the football World Cup gives us an opportunity to temporarily forget about our regular lives. People drink too much and dress in strange, colourful, clothes; school kids and office slaves get time off to watch the matches. A generally festive mood prevails. We all deserve a break; it’s been a long, cold, spring.

For male academics football provides a great opportunity to feel matey and blokey about themselves; we temporarily abandon our regular pretentiousness and pretend instead to be Wayne Rooney. For a change we know what to talk about with cab drivers and electricians. It’s all very condescending and self-congratulatory.

henke larsson

The big make-believe is of course that the world still is made up of nation-states that fight with each other on an international arena. That there is a world where we dress in national colours, sing national anthems, display our most famous national characteristics — methodical Germans, argumentative Italians, fun-loving Brazilians. The world of the World Cup is the world of the stamp collector, of politics as it used to be before the state was undermined by the forces of globalisation. In the World Cup all battles are just and we all unreservedly support our soldiers.

Apathy

I just realised I’m only one of two people in my department who actually is on strike! There are some other union members but they have chosen not to take part. The convenor of the government department is distributing our exams to other colleagues to mark and they apparently see no problem whatsoever in doing our share. There is a name for people like you!

Come to think of it, I was only one of three government department academics who initially signed on to the petition against the war in Iraq and one of the few who signed on to the recent Living Wage Campaign. Surprising, isn’t it? These are not radical, far-out or marginal causes, and I am by no means an activist or politico. In fact I’m not even proper left-wing, just occasionally morally motivated.

Signing petitions isn’t accomplishing much of course but why are government department academics quicker than others to draw this conclusion? Maybe they feel that holding political opinions is beneath an academic politologist? Maybe they know too much about the issues and can’t make up their minds? Judging by the names on various petitions, there is more staff with political convictions in the departments of economics and accounting. Who would have thought?!

There is a political science theory which says that apathy is good for democracy. Allegedly it is an expression of confidence in the political system. Judging by this theory, my colleagues really have a lot of confidence in the existing order of things.

Our house — rented

We are off to Taiwan next academic year and would like to rent out our house. It’s a lovely, colourful, house, perfect for three people, two couples or six undergraduates (see below). Largish, classic Victorian, terrace. Features include:

  • new kitchen with brand new dish-washer, fridge-freezer — and washing machine and dryer.
  • wooden floors, very Swedified.
  • art deco fireplaces.
  • fairly large garden with plum, apple and fig trees.
  • located off Green Lanes in north London, close to outstanding multicultural shopping — Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Russian — and a large Sainsbury’s.
  • first-rate communications (29, 141 and 341 buses — the latter taking you door-to-door to the LSE); ten minutes to tube (Manor House or Turnpike Lane on the Piccadilly line).
  • great neighbours: one elderly Italian couple and a nice Jamaican lady with her son. Our street is very quiet, especially when we are not around.
  • furnished, but it includes next to none of our own junk. Back yard with big wood pile — possibly to be converted into conservatory.
  • reasonably priced.

June 27 update: Too late! We have now found someone to rent the house. They are very nice and will take great care of it. We hope they’ll be happy here.

front, facing the street:

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front room, downstairs:

This is the room intended as a front room for entertaining guests etc. We use it as a dining room. It’s great for our big family but also great when guests come around. The IKEA table actually seats 10 people.

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Below you can see one of the two art deco fireplaces. They are original, but not original to the house. Diane put this one in one Christmas amidst much mortar dust, banging on walls and swearing.

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bird
big bird

office, downstairs:

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There really is no way to show this room in a good light. It’s completely filled with our Taiwan-bound boxes and with assorted PhD dissertation paraphernalia. On a good day it functions like an office.

the kitchen:

This is the kitchen, containing washing-machine, dryer, dish-washer, fridge-freezer and a cooker. All of the stuff except the dryer is brand-new.

sink
sink

We took out the wall facing the garden and put in a French window. It’s great in the summer when you can open it up. It looks nice in the winter too.

sink

This is the sink and the cooker. We put this in before we knew we were leaving. If we had planned to rent out the house, we would probably have chosen a more conservative theme. Apologies if you are conservative in the sink and cooker department.

sink

hallway, downstairs & upstairs:

We put in the floortiles, inspired by art deco houses we’ve seen. The ground floor has undertile heaters. They are great in the autumn.

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front room, upstairs:

This room is really intended as a master bedroom but we decided to use it as a living room. It makes more sense, it’s the biggest room in the house. We watch TV here and write stuff on the computer. The walls used to be grey but we just repainted it yellow, same colour as down-stairs. Some people claim yellow walls make you fight more, we never noticed that.

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parents’ bedroom, upstairs:

This is the room directly above the office. It’s a small room, but very romantic since we put the uplighters in. They are great when children wake up in the night and need medicine or water etc. This colour purple is very Italian says Diane who claims her Italian grandparents had it in their bedroom.

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back room, upstairs:

We took down the ceiling in this room and put in two skylights. It’s made the room fun and very light. This used to be the childrens’ room and we built a quadruple bunkbed in which we stacked the children in order of age. It was like a gigantic climbing frame. Lot’s of fun, but mainly for fairly small kids. The older ours got, the more private space they needed. The climbing-frame-bed got a bit annoying in the end.

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the garden:

The garden is not enormous but it’s a nice place to sit in the summer. There is a plum, an apple and a fig tree. They are all growing like crazy. The rose bush is enormous too but only flowers for a few days and is pretty boring afterwards.

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our street:

This is what our street looks like from the front-room upstairs. Since they closed off the street to through-traffic it’s been very quiet.

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Green Lanes, Harringay:

This is the famous Green Lanes, Harringay, just 100 meters away from our house. This is the multicultural heart of North London with 24 hour vegetable and baklava shopping:

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Zen and the art of package delivery

We sent 20 boxes with DHL to Sweden as part of the process of dismantling our London home. Nothing expensive, just our old memorabilia — drawings by the kids, letters from family and friends, things we wrote as teenagers, photos of old girlfriends, gifts from people now dead.

DHL managed to deliver 1 box but lost the other 19. Despite repeated phone calls no one can locate their whereabouts. No one knows, no one cares. Everyone is looking at computer screens and no bar codes match. The only thing worse than an incompetent state-run company is an incompetent privately-run company.

Old memorabilia like this has a strange status. I haven’t looked at any of it for years and I probably never will look at it again. Still I lug this stuff around with me wherever I go. Why? Surely it’s a way of providing a paper trail; a means of giving account of one’s life if I one day had to. Going from one country to another for the last 25 years, this pile of junk provides me with a sense of continuity. For better or worse, this stuff is me.

I was in Thailand when the buddha statues of Bamiyan were distroyed by the Taliban. I was very distraught and remember arguing that Unesco should have a rapid action force that could save cultural monuments in danger. Why should only human beings be saved? I used to think I would have given my life for those Buddhas.

The Thais of course were completely unimpressed. ‘It shows the ephemeral quality of all things, including stone statues. That is the teaching of the Buddha.’ OK, I remember thinking, now I know I’m not a Buddhist.

Perhaps DHL is trying to teach us something profound? Maybe this is their way of bringing us closer to enlightenment? It’s a Zen riddle: if those boxes are me and the boxes are lost, then where am I? Perhaps DHL no longer delivers boxes but instead only final release from human suffering?