What I should be doing

is investigating a story that Louise sent me about the International Society of Arctic Char fanatics, and their struggles against some horrible development in Scotland. Better yet, I could be fishing for char (röding) because despite living for years in the southern reaches of countries where they are found I have only ever caught one in my whole life, and that was in Lake Bohinj, in Slovenia, where I didn’t know they existed until one grabbed my fly.

Instead, though, the bits of the next two months that aren’t spent doing journalism will be taken up with reading. I am a judge this year for the Bernard Shaw prize for translation out of Swedish to English, and they have just sent me the entries:

12 i Swedish, 12 in English

12 in Swedish, 12 in English

Apologies for grotty cameraphone picture: never mind the quality, marvel at the height.

Posted in Blather, Literature, Sweden, Trouty things | 3 Comments

six months of linux

I’ve been running both the laptop and the desktop on various flavours of Ubuntu for about six months now, which is time enough to get an informed opinion. This wasn’t a deliberate decision. I started with Xubuntu on the laptop, an IBM X40, because I was sick to death of XP’s erratic performance when switching between wireless networks and the a 3G dongle. It would interrupt me every two or three minutes with a demand or suggestion that it switch to one or the other, and in the Guardian’s confused wifi environment this was intolerable. Continue reading

Posted in Blather | 13 Comments

A criminal failure

I picked up in Stockholm the latest Swedish crime sensation, Aldrig Fucka Upp (Aldrig means “Never”; the rest is quite easy for English speakers to work out). The author is a criminal lawyer in Stockholm, Jens Lapidus; it’s set in and around the immigrant criminal underground. It is written. In short sentences: men like them. Fuck. Yeah.


Actually, the language is the most credible part of it. The gangster characters speak a Swedish argot with some turkish or arabic terms, but mostly full of American gangster slang. The word “blatte” (more or less “Nigger”) gets used a lot. Much of this sounds wholly credible to my ears, as does the scene where a woman probation officer is talking to a criminal uninterested in mending his ways.

But the rest is just a mess of stereotypes. The author was recommended me by a very aristocratic Swedish banker who took me to lunch at Brooks’s club to discuss FiU, and who said that it was the only treatment he knew of the immigrant criminal class, though he was thinking of the earlier book Snabba Cash. I still haven’t read that, and nothing in Aldrig Fucka Upp makes me want to: of the three main characters, two are pure recycled cardboard — the Swedish mercenary who has come back from Iraq with PTSD, and the Joseph Wambaugh style cop who is bitter, thuggish, a but crooked, but really hates criminals and will, I can see, team up with the unlikely buddy from the Internal Affairs division. So why should I believe in the blatte gangster?

Obviously, the popularity of these books tells me an immense amount about what Swedes think of their own society and of crime and immigrants. Equally, the fact that no one else has written about the subject (correct me if I’m wrong) is also telling. But I wish I could rely on what was being said, and I can’t.

Posted in Blather, Sweden | 1 Comment

Night train tips

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.

Posted in Sweden, Travel notes | Comments Off on Night train tips

Dead elk and minicabs

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.

Posted in Blather, Sweden, Travel notes | Comments Off on Dead elk and minicabs

Another encounter with a philosopher

I climbed from the bottom of the lecture theatre in the Law building in Cambridge to find at the top of the stairs, Professor Dennett, who engaged my companion in conversation. He was, he said, working on a research project to interview in depth and anonymously six atheist ministers of religion about the difficulties of their lives.The pressure they were under to conceal or distort their opinions was immense. They were so brave …

I broke in at this stage to say that I didn’t think it was particularly brave of them to make their livings denying what they believe to be true.

Oh, he said. But they are so brave to talk to us.

In any case, I tried to get him to write for the Graun about “belief in belief” next week. I imagine I have failed, but will in any case send an email.

Posted in Blather | Tagged | 1 Comment

The second time as farce

I would imagine Jesus was a kind of Jewish reformer. If you were looking for an equivalent to the figure you dimly perceive through the gospels it would probably be a Richard Dawkins.

A C Grayling.

Posted in Blather | 3 Comments

on being told by PZ to fuck off

PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a heartfelt exhortation to both of us to “fuck off” (his emphasis). The cause was a piece I did on the grauniad site about Ruse’s visit to a creation museum in which he experienced, for a moment, “a Kuhnian flash” that it might all be true. Never mind that this was a momentary feeling. It was unmistakable evidence of heresy, or commerce with the devil God which demanded anathematisation and commination, which it duly got.

What follows is a rather long-winded argument that there is no need for me to respond that PZ can go fuck himself. Portions may later appear on the belief site, but at least here I can operate a consistent policy of banning bores and fools so there is some hope of an enjoyable conversation.
Continue reading

Posted in God, USA | 51 Comments

Granny on a mobile

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.

Posted in Sweden, Travel notes | Comments Off on Granny on a mobile

Consolations of a hangover

Well, Fishing in Utopia did win the Orwell prize. This is delicious and wonderful. I knew a couple of the judges liked it. I also knew – or at least strongly suspected – that one didn’t. I knew Tony Judt was also on the list, and thought he was a shoo-in. While faffing about yesterday morning, the FWB said to me, “look at it it this way: either you’re beaten by Tony Judt or you’re beaten with him. Neither of these things are a humiliation.” And she was right, and I felt greatly lightened. I still didn’t think I’d win, though, until about half way through Ferdy Mount’s speech, which was a long and generous appreciation of all the books, and three more that were on the longlist. But it wasn’t in any discernible order: not alphabetical, nor reversed alphabetical. So, I thought, the winner will be the last one he names and with every book from then on a bubble of hope grew inside me until it burst and left me almost speechless when my book came last and I had won.

Afterwards Francis Wheen tried to persuade me that I would have to make another speech at the end of the dinner. He turned out to be the fourth or fifth friend who had won it before me: Neal Ascherson, Tim Garton Ash, Brian Cathcart … the party afterwards is blurring already in my memory.

There were three Nick Cohen jokes in the speeches, but the man himself was not there.

Also the paperback is now out: publication was brought forward to coincide with this. Hurry, and you can have one of the collectors’ edition which has “Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize” on the back. The next run will say “Winner”.

Posted in Blather, Literature, Sweden | Tagged , , | 21 Comments