Archive for the ‘Travel notes’ Category

Night train tips

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Swedish Railways runs some lovely sleepers which are, I think, the best way to get up to the north; and when you factor in the cost of a hotel room, they are also as cheap as flying and spending the night. What I learned this trip is that it is more comfortable, as well as cheaper, to take an entire three-bed second class carriage to yourself than to book a single-berth first class carriage. This is because the first-class carriage squeezes in the world’s smallest shower and loo; both are too small, especially the shower, and this means that everything else in the compartment is also too small. Not worth the extra money. In second class, you have to walk down the corridor for these amenities, but the carriage is much more spacious, and the tracks up north, unlike the ones to Östersund the last time I took that train, are really quiet and conducive to deep sleep.

One nice touch: as we were pulling out of Luleå I realised that I had left my English mobile charging in the ticket hall and the conductor stopped the whole train so I could run back and get it. Compare this to the archetypal Stockholm experience of running onto the tube platform to see the driver shutting the doors just as you arrive at them, and then watching your gesticulations curiously before turning to face ahead again and pulling out of the station.

Dead elk and minicabs

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I spent last week rushing around Sweden, mostly to places I had lived in or visited before, as part of a Radio Four Crossing Continents programme which will go out in early September. The rest of the series is full of dramatic politics, but you won’t find those in Sweden at the best of times, and certainly not in late July when the entire country has more or less shut down. So we have elk carcasses, fiddle music, and sociologists explaining the term of art that is Fucking Åmål Syndrome.

Perhaps the most important discovery is that two weeks dead adolescent elk, with a stomach cavity that looks like a heaving risotto of maggots, actually smells worse than the air freshener in a Saffron Walden minicab. Further research is needed to establish whether I would rather share the taxi with an elk that has only been dead for a week.

Granny on a mobile

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I found through the extremely eccentric google news alerts a lovely clip of a wolf in western Finland, where is was discovered by a couple of schoolboys out for a walk. Being modern Finns, they did not pull out their rifles but their mobile phone and filmed it slouching briskly down the forest track. Being Finns, of course the film is silent.

The report is undated, but judging by the comments the incident took place in the middle of March this year. Hence the snow.

And, thank you Ollie. The hangover has abated. I am just feeling rather overworked.

Random resumption

Friday, February 6th, 2009

I know I have written nothing here for the last month. I don’t think that’s good. It started off as a consequence of Guardian blogging, where I felt that I had to turn everything that occurred to me into a daily Guardian blog; then there was a lot of other work in the last fortnight, when I have been making a radio programme and writing a longish magazine story, both on science subjects. But I need something light-hearted and longer than twitter to write silly notes in.

So here are some, mainly Scandinavian, observations, for the last week:

  • The suburbs of Gothenburg, where I used to live, have a horrible problem with the drug known in England as “GBH” and there as “gobbe”. Six people have died of overdoses in the last year; the ambulances won’t go out without police help because the overdosers go from coma to extreme violence without warning; a 14-year-old girl was gang-raped on the drug in Nödinge, where I used to live. No one was convicted because she couldn’t remember what exactly had happened. (from a copy of DN, read on the plane to Copenhagen)

  • The metro in Copenhagen is absolute bliss. Clean, quick, quiet and you can sit at the front and watch the brown concrete dragon intestine writhe slowly as you rush through it. Then, when it emerges, the rain obscures everything, since there are no winsdscreen wipers, and suddenly it is borne in on you what being driverless actually means.

  • The FT is full of thoughtful pieces suggesting that we are turning into an emerging market crisis: except of course that the UK is not so much emerging as disappearing

  • The only redeeming or even remotely human things in Heathrow terminal 3 are the Chez Gerard in the furthest corner from the entrance and the Borders where the assistant knew who Paul Auster’s wife was, when asked by another customer. Everything else is broken, smelly, or both.

  • London City airport would be a very nice place if planes actually took off and landed there but if it has been snowing they don’t.

  • My column in the Guardian about why public libraries should subscribe to jstor, pubmed, and so on, drew a number of really thoughtful letters, one of which says that UCL is being charged £6m a year for its electronic journal subscriptions.

  • Can it really be true that Richard Dawkins charges £4,000 a pop to talk to schools? I was told this with absolute confidence by an Oxford academic who, admittedly, dislikes him.

  • The first hardback printing of Fishing in Utopia is entirely sold out.

Improbable statistics

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

According to Spiegel, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 wild boars living in and around Berlin today; according to the Guardian, the Independent currently sells, at full price, 131,566 copies. That’s before they put the price up 25% to £1.00. The remaining 100,000 on its circulation figures are heavily discounted; I don’t know what happens to bulk prices when the cover price goes up.

Spiegel suggests that forty licensed hunters could bring the boar plague under control and stop them rootling up graveyards and running through gardens. There is a rather wonderful video (start about two thirds of the way through) of swine being hunted through a parking lot on the Spiegel site. I wonder if the Independent’s story will have the same ending.

Reversion to the mean

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Austrian politics drift, farcically, to the right. Apparently there is a coalition proposed between the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, as the former neo-Nazis call themselves. This is the outfit that used to be run by Jörg Haider, against whose participation in government the EU announced sanctions; anyway, the party split, and he now has one of his own. The new party prefers to be described as “populist”, and as part of this they have proposed a tax policy which dserves to be more widely known. VAT on foodstuffs is to be halved, with the exception of twelve designated luxuries. Here are the foodstuffs which Austrian Fascists and socialists have united to agree are signs of wicked decadence:

  • Caviare
  • Langoustines
  • Pâté de foie gras
  • Lobster
  • Saffron
  • Truffles
  • Quail’s eggs (but not quails)
  • Snails
  • Oysters
  • Ostrich eggs
  • Crab
  • Prawns

Oh brave new world!

A wonderful tombstone

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

I was emptying my camera card today and came across these two pictures: front and back of a gravestone in Strethall Church (which itself is rather wonderful, dating back to around 900AD). Here is the Major-General’s daughter:

Jane Patience Cameron Adams, MBE

And this is what she put on the back of her tombstone:

And give a stranded jellyfish a push back to the sea

A visit to Ammarnäs

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

The most important thing I saw this trip was a lynx, galloping across the road in front of the car about 40 km from Ammarnäs. The back legs seemed longer than the front ones, which made it look almost ungainly, as well as stocky, but it moved with a wonderful fluidity.

The most important discovery was Air Berlin, which costs about 50% more than Ryanair and is an immeasurable improvement. There is legroom. You can book particular seats. When you reach the seat, it reclines. There is quiet. There are newspapers and magazines in several languages. No one tries to sell you overpriced tat from overloud loudspeakers. Flights leave from the parts of Stansted Airport that are not a fifteen minute walk from the terminal. The airports it serves are close to the cities of the same name. The baggage allowance is much more generous, and less rapaciously enforced. Fishing rods are carried free. The other price is that I had to change planes in Berlin, but I don’t mind. Tegel is a smallish, civilised airport.

On the other hand. Swedish railways, which used to be really quite efficient, were shockingly bad, though cheap and with nice restaurant cars. None of the trains I took were on time; my wife was three hours late coming down from Luleå to Stockholm, and I was nearly an hour late going from Östersund to Göteborg.

And that’s  enough reminiscence.

FT review of Fishing in Utopia

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Another gratifying review, from the Financial Times, where Hugh Carnegy, the executive editor, likes Fishing in Utopia,a lot, though he thinks, god knows why, that I am “a melancholy soul”.

It is the window on Sweden that gives this book its real interest, lifted by the characters Brown encounters, who provide a texture that a more academic approach could not. The picture Brown paints will discomfit those who still point to Sweden as the model for a modern, left-of-centre society. He portrays a more or less dysfunctional, rigidly conformist culture lacking the warmth of social interaction. It is one, tellingly, in which a deep divide always existed between blue and white-collar worlds. He writes of his life as a member of the working class: “It was the life of a battery salmon: packed into a crowd in the middle of a boundless stretch of water by a cage of netting that you could not see at all.”

Returning in this decade, Brown finds a country grappling with the same issues as any other western democracy: economic change, rising crime and immigration. Sweden, now physically linked to the rest of the world by the bridge to Denmark, can no longer preserve its lofty sense of otherness.

But this book is not a right-wing polemic against the “Swedish model”. Brown evinces real respect for a society only recently delivered from rural hardship, whose people collectively determined that social control is the way to achieve social solidarity.

This is an affectionate and insightful portrait, offering a much deeper understanding of the country than the usual, often politically motivated, tendency to stereotype.

quick travel notes

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

I was in Edinburgh on Thursday. When I left my hotel to buy a paper, I found a dozen schoolchildren in the corner shop and the first thing I thought, accustomed as I am to the mores of the Home Counties, where three or more children are automatically regarded as a gang of shoplifters, was that it was extraordinary that they should all be allowed in at once. They were all in uniform, queueing politely for sweets. They said please, excuse me, and thank you. At the back of the shop, among all the normal consumer magazines, were four copies of the New York Review of Books. This really is a foreign country. It’s not, however, an idyll. Bang across from the hotel is a large pawnbroker’s; and I am only staying here because the B&B where I had been booked in decided to shut for the night at about eight pm: it was deserted completely, and the phone number led only to a switched off mobile phone. On the train down, there was a Scots family: father, mother (with a tattoo on her bicep), adult son in kilt, daughter (who weighed eight stone, she told the carriage) and a rather silent woman, presumably son’s girlfriend. The women breakfasted off sandwiches, the men off beer and crisps. They had got through four cans of Stella each by the time the train reached Darlington, which I found impressive, since we had left Edinburgh at 8am.