Rudolf Nilsen’s Arbeidsløs Jul / Jobless Christmas

Over the past while, I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Rudolf Nilsen (1901-1929) considered by many to be Norway’s greatest working-class poet.

Nilsen died in 1929, at the age of 28, not from a life of excess but from illness. He died in Paris from tuberculosis but was buried in Oslo. His grave can be found in the north of the city, in Nordre Gravlund. He is remembered today through a statue erected in his memory and the naming of a square as Rudolf Nilsens plass in the area where he used to live. His was a peripatetic existence, and although most associated in people’s minds with the Vålerenga district of Oslo, his family moved around a lot within the city. Born in Orknøygata, he later lived in several places within his first year, and later at Lakkegata 58 where his parents were divorced. He is most associated with Heimdalsgate 26, the place which formed the basis for one of his most well-known poems: “Nr. 13”.

Although he was working-class, in his short life he mainly made his living as a journalist, chiefly for Norges Kommunistblad, a Communist Party daily. Nilsen was a committed communist. Although he was initially a member of Norway’s Labour Party, when a split came in the party in the 1920s, he sided with the communists and joined the newly formed Norges Kommunistiske Partiet. He was also jailed briefly for his involvement in smuggling Soviet literature into the West and attempting to spread it with a friend, Kyrre Grep.

His first collection På stengrunn was published in 1925, by Andelsforlaget, followed rapidly the following year by På Gjensyn in 1926. A third collection, Hverdag, was in the beginning stages when Nilsen, in the company of friends, went travelling through Spain and France. On the trip he contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly after in Paris in 1929. He was cremated, and his ashes returned to the city he loved, where they were buried.

As I’ve been reading his work, I’ve started some tentative translations, so here’s one called “Arbeidsløs Jul” or “Jobless Christmas” as I’ve titled it. It’s from his first collection På Stengrunn.

Abreidsløs can also be unemployed but usually the term Arbeidsledig is used nowadays, implying a momentary gap between jobs rather than the more permanent sense of being long-term unemployed that Arbeidsløs can signal. My translation follows the poem in the original below.

Arbeidsløs Jul

Vi som er dømt til livet
i gråbeingårdenes by
feirer i dag en solfest
for ham, som er født på ny.

Vi har fått tyve kroner
å feire hans komme med!
For dem har vi kjøpt en julegran
og en hel sekk ved.

For dem har vi kjøpt en bayer
og et stykke hestekjøtt.
Det siste skal minne om stallen
hvor frelseren blev født.

De fattiges herre og mester!
Det var ikke godt for ham.
Han hengtes til slutt på korset
midt mellom synd og skam.

Godt det er bare en skrøne
at Kristus er kommet påny.
Så blir det en fattig mindre
å nagle på kors i vår by.

Vi i de mørke gater
feirer i dag en fest.
Til jul får vi tyve kroner,
til påske: Korsfest! Korsfest!

 

Jobless Christmas

Us doomed to life

in the bone-grey city

celebrate a feast today

for him, born anew.

 

We’ve got twenty quid

to celebrate his coming!

We’ve bought a tree

And a full sack with it.

 

We’ve bought a beer

and a piece of horse meat.

This last to remember the manger,

Where our saviour was born.

 

Our poor lord and master!

It did him no good.

He hanged on the cross

between sin and shame.

 

It’s just as well it’s a lie

that Christ is come again.

One less poor bugger

to crucify.

 

We in the dark streets

celebrate a feast day today.

For Christmas we get twenty quid,

for Easter: Crosses! Crosses!

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Wretched Strangers: Available to Pre-Order Now!

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union. I remember the day of the vote and the morning after when the shock result came through. I was living in Prague but was preparing to move home for the summer before moving once more to Norway. It was this very freedom of movement which a thin majority of the British people voted against, although most treated the vote to leave to the EU as a referendum not on membership of the EU and it’s institutions but rather as a referendum on immigration.

In the two years since then, Brexit and how it will function – what it means for those EU and EEA citizens living in the UK is still unclear. Likewise, the reality of sharing a border with Ireland – almost never discussed during the run up to the vote – now looms large in shaping what kind of Brexit can take effect. One of the few things that was clear in the immediate aftermath of Brexit was that many in Britain saw the vote as a chance to exercise openly a more aggressive and violent attitude towards immigrants and people of colour in the UK.

Wretched Strangers, a new book of poetry edited by JT Welsch and Agi Lehoczky, is a response to that, two years after Brexit. I am very proud to be one among many of the contributors to the book, which is available to pre-order now for just £12. ALL proceeds from the book go towards charities that help promote the rights of refugees. If you believe in a better world than the one Brexit signifies, read this book!

Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.

Free Poetry: Irish Anthology

A new free anthology of Irish poetry, edited by Ellen Dillon is now available to read / download / print out from Martin Corless-Smith’s FREE POETRY website. The poets included are Ellen Dillon, Sheila Mannix, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Sarah Hayden, Kit Fryatt, Trevor Joyce, David Lloyd, myself, Cal Doyle, Karl Parkinson, Fergal Gaynor, Aodan MacArdle, Geoffrey Squires & Christodolous Makris.

As such it represents a broad conception of what ordinarily would constitute “Irish” poetry & puts in one place a host of exciting new and established voices from Irish poetry, broadly conceived. Follow the link:

FREE POETRY: IRISH ANTHOLOGY

 

October Evening on Karl Johan

After a long summer hiatus from me, I’m back with a translation of Nordahl Grieg’s Oktoberaften på Karl Johan. The poem comes from his 1925 collection Stene i Strømmen (Stones in the Stream).

October Evening on Karl Johan

From the Norwegian of Nordahl Grieg

 

Dizzy my red heart, as down I come

from Slottsparken’s rain grey mist into

the street fantasy.

Dazzling arc lights a hundred white moons

stiff in flight in the space here

above Karl Johan.

 

Rain sinks streetward

the shine back of the lights

tram lamps stripe wet trees.

Dazzling the letters over the darkness

spelling F R E I A

tigers fanning out in the autumn evening.

 

Phosphorescence dark & sizzling

the fire of youth crawls along the cold coast

of buildings —

The air charged with mockery, light without cease.

 

O,

here our street,

the pining dodging night,

where swirling heart, & fire light burns,

where nerves get played to death, singing violins

pain & it’s own cheering because of

our continuation.

 

 

Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

Decies no.72 Launch

decies

Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, DeciesI spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:

I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.

The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.

Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.

As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.

The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.

But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.

So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.

Any flat surface will do

Any flat surface will do, but not every table is a desk.

A week or so ago, on the train into Oslo, I read Michael Smith’s Maldon & Other Poems. I reread his translation of the “Lament for Art O’Leary” from the eighteenth century. My favourite passage in his working comes early, in (ii) of Dark Eileen’s opening. It runs:

I had no regrets:

you brightened a parlour for me,

painted rooms for me

reddened an oven for me,

shaped loaves for me,

there was roast on the spit for me,

beef you felled for me;

I slept on duck-down

until the middle of day

or later if it pleased me.

This stanza has an unusual, almost Anglo-Saxon quality to it. In fact, I wonder if this is one of those sections that, as Smith admits in his preface to his version, came from the working of Trevor Joyce first of all. It feels Joycean. When I moved to Oslo I brought a handful of books that I hoped would reflect and would help in the achievement of what I wanted moving here to mean. Of the poetry I brought there is Smith’s Maldon, Trevor’s Selected, the Christopher Ricks edited Oxford Book of English Verse, and Eliot’s Wasteland. Any flat surface will do, but it needs to have room for the books of others. Other people’s books offer me a crutch when writing myself. The current crutches are Smith and Joyce.

The thing I think I love most about the passage in “Lament for Art O’Leary” is that many of the things Dark Eileen chooses to remember her dead lover by are in some senses the domestic jobs of feeding someone that we – erroneously – associate with the role of the woman in the home. It shows that, whoever is doing it, cooking for someone is an expression of love for them.

There is warmth – the cosy bed of duck-down, the warmth of the reddened oven, the fire over which the spit was roasted. Heart and hearth. Again we come back to the centrality of the kitchen – of food and feeding (any food any feeding, feeding, drink or clothing?) as an expression of love. Wining and dining, not just our guests or thanes, but those we make a space for in our lives – the people with whom we eat, giving them a place at our table, physical and metaphorical. The people for whom we cook and keep warm, who we nourish and who nourish us – physically and emotionally – in turn.

I have always loved the action of the kitchen. In my experiences, it is the centre of every house. It is the central point always. I loved the small tight kitchen of Carrigeen Park, my Granddad’s house, with its big old range.The kitchen table always seemed to be where the action happened in houses when I was growing up. Our family has gone through a lot of kitchen tables over the years.

I have always enjoyed the idea of a table full of scratches and dents, discolouration and stains. A palimpsest of the meals and conversations, the growing up, moving out and moving on of the house. A table in a kitchen free of blemishes was a table without a story to tell. A table should be able tell their own stories. Of their encounters with their users. At the table is where we tell stories.  We spin them out like sailor’s yarns. Serials that will never be collected into novels. The place at which we sit and eat, sit and talk; people, politics, joke and laugh, celebrate, commiserate.  Any flat surface will do, but not all can be a desk for writing, or a table for a kitchen.