Fernando Pessoa: multiplicity in Lisbon

In January we spent a few days in Lisbon. Fabulous place, a million miles from anything even vaguely Nordic. On the lookout for connections, it was no real surprise to discover that global traveller HC Andersen visited in 1866, publishing Et Besøg i Portugal in 1868. Rather more surprising was the link to Denmark’s other 19th century literary titan; like Kierkegaard, poet Fernando Pessoa was a prime exponent of the use of the the heteronym in his writing.

Now feeling like an old friend, prior to our trip to Lisbon I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Portugal’s modernist poet, writer, translator, philosopher – and anointed flâneur. How can that be? A lifelong Anglophile, Pessoa lived in Durban from the age of seven to 17, attending Durban High School, from which he matriculated with a prize in English. His earliest works were written in English, he translated a number of books from Portuguese into English (and vice versa), and in 1925 he even wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in English (Lisbon: what the tourist should see, unpublished until 1992).

The word pessoa means person in Portuguese, deriving from the Latin persona, the mask worn by Roman actors; just one of the small details which make the man so intriguing. An outsider’s outsider, for most of his life Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator while contributing poetry and essays to journals and newspapers. He was interested in theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, corresponding with Aleister Crowley, and helped him to stage a fake suicide in Lisbon in 1930. A keen amateur astrologist, Pessoa made horoscopes of his clients and friends, as well as of his heteronyms and even of literary journals. All this had a strong influence on his writing; he felt “sometimes suddenly being owned by something else”.

In 1915 as part of a group of artists and poets, including close friends José de Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa created the literary magazine Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature and art to Portugal, if in only two issues.

From 1905 to 1920 he lived in 15 different locations in Lisbon, while from 1907 until his death he worked in 21 firms in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in more than one at the same time. Two favourite haunts were A Brasileira, the preferred café of the Orpheu group, and Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio, his ‘office’ during the 1920s and 1930s. Given all that it’s not surprising that there is a full Pessoa audio tour and map experience.

Pessoa created over 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters allowing him to write in different styles. The best known are:

  • Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the ‘master’ of the other heteronyms and even Pessoa himself, a rural, uneducated poet of ideas who wrote in free verse (Complete poems and more | Uncollected poems)
  • Álvaro de Campos (1890- ), a well-travelled naval engineer who returned to Lisbon to stay in the fateful year of 1926; influenced by Futurism (poems inc Lisbon revisited, from visits in 1923 and 1926)
  • Ricardo Reis (1887- ), a doctor who composed Horatian odes; as a Royalist Reis fled to Brazil in 1910
  • Bernardo Soares, bookkeeper and flâneur, a ‘semi-heteronym’ who wrote mainly in prose; pages from his journal were found in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment and published in English in 1991 as The book of disquiet

De Campos and Reis discussed the work of Caeiro in essays and with each other, rejecting the interpretation of their publisher, Pessoa. Pessoa-himself gradually becomes another heteronym, another mask.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist,” wrote Álvaro de Campos, sparing the author the trouble of living a ‘real’ life.

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, paid the ultimate tribute to this dazzling and sustained feat of the imagination in his novel, The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which sees Reis return to Lisbon on hearing of the death of Pessoa.

It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of all this to Portugal’s cultural life, however the man himself is pretty unavoidable in the cityscape and seems to have attained iconic status, in a similar way to James Joyce in Dublin. We made tracks to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house museum-cum-shrine and the city’s premiere literary location, the site of Pessoa’s last home from 1920 until his death.

On the ground floor was an exhibition of some of the numerous representations of Pessoa in art, while the second floor houses a reconstruction of Pessoa’s flat, with memorabilia including his school report in a glass case, his glasses and a rather functional bookcase – if not the trunk/s where he stored his writing. After his death 25,574 items were inventoried.

The museum is also custodian of Pessoa’s personal library of 1200 books (no Kierkegaard).

a Pessoa collage

Top right is a portrait by Almada Negreiros, but the most common image of Pessoa on the street is that seen in the cutout bottom right, taken from a photo of yer man striding (definitely not strolling) through town. A shot of him enjoying a glass of port comes a close second. In a 1931 photo, deep in conversation in the Café Martinho, he looks like a small amiable owl.

There are two Pessoa statues in town. The one in familiar kitschy style outside A Brasileira (not in fact his favourite café), was even in January a prime selfie spot; Pessoa would surely prefer the rather more surrealistic representation round the corner outside the house he was born in.

The 1925 Lisbon guidebook is available in at least three editions (2008 | 2011 | 2015), and I’m pretty sure I spotted a coffee table version in the airport bookshop. There’s even a graphic novel, Another side of Pessoa by João Viegas.

What of his writing? The consensus (Gdn | Geoff Nicholson | Alfred MacAdam) seems to be that The book of disquiet is for sleepless nights, something to dip into at random, something to be reread rather than read…in the same way it feels more in the spirit of the man to take him a poem at a time:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me. Period.

For more poetry see the Poetry Foundation and Poetry International, or one of the many published collections by Richard Zenith (other translators are available).

The trunk and the fable, by Emília Nadal

Sources: Exploring Lisbon with Pessoa | Fernando Pessoa: an Englishly Portuguese, endlessly multiple poet (64 min vid with transcript) | Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the netFernando Pessoa’s disappearing act | Inside ourselves | An interview with Richard ZenithLooking for Mr Person (Parnassus 24(1) 1999; via Questia) | ‘Oh Lisbon, my home!’

More? MultiPessoa | Pessoa’s trunk | Wuthering Expectations

Update: the Lisbon edition of Vide Verden, a Danish cultural travel book series, has a chapter on Pessoa by Dan Ringgard


#kbhlæser: Copenhagen reads!

Kbh Læser (FB | Twitter: @kbh_laeser#kbhlæser), is an annual literary festival masterminded by Copenhagen Libraries.

Most of my posts seem to be about events these days, and this one is a rewrite of an old messy post on the festival, updated for 2018. When I first started this blog my focus was primarily the formidling angle, ie how events are presented on the web and how they are amplified (think pictorial broadcasting), shared and archived (or not). Of particular note in this regard is the rise of Instagram and the A3 newspaper.

As I started exploring CPH as place this became an additional focus, and now I’m increasingly exercised by how many festivals feel invisibly labelled “Danish only”, aimed at an audience I’m certainly not a member of, and to be making limited to no efforts to appeal to a more diverse, or, dare I say it, intercultural, audience.

For a public library led event, Kbh Læser is disturbingly highbrow – you’d be hard pressed to find many bestsellers here, and if you aren’t au fait with critical theory you may well be more than a tad turned off. Themes tend to the abstract; 2018 has the somewhat opaque catch-all theme of Manifest (Manifesto; think Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto).

Unusually for these days, there is no English version of the website, although the newspaper (64pp; too much already; selected articles in news) has a couple of English features. Elsewhere, the enthusiastic Ark Books (“For the Danes we’d like to provide the world’s literature, and introduce Danish literature to those who can’t read Danish”) offers its Manifesto Month (2017: Growth Month).

With my name on it, if in a four-way clash with the Beast from the East, were Georges Perec & OuLiPo at Storrs Antikvariat (a new secondhand bookshop in NV), Den Røde Sofa med Mette Dalsgaard (literary translator from Russian) and Flanørens Europa with Fabian Saul (as seen at Flâneur in Copenhagen nearly three years ago) and Mette Kit Jensen (in Kunsten.nu on the city), on what a drift through the streets of Europe can teach us about modern identity. (See also Fabian’s piece in the A3 rag entitled Notes for a pamphlet: walking the Assistens Cemetery of Copenhagen: the city as cemetery and Goethe Institute-supported project Traces of Resistance, now in the UK.)

Also with an international flavour we have a Flytningemanifest (and in English), Beirut læser and København læser syrisk litteratur (“Syrian literature as a part of literary Denmark”, hurra). We also have an art writing piece by Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese political cartoonist currently in CPH under the ICORN programme.

More of note:

  • in place related corner, several articles on bookish things in areas of the city: FrederiksbergVesterbro (unpick: “Istedgade…emmer af diversitet og mangfoldighed”) and Østerbro (just Poesiens Hus then), plus profiles of the new Litteraturhuset at Nybrogade 28 (seemingly beset by delay and various teething issues), Arbejdermuseet and KBH Tegner (comics and related)
  • a Litterært Manifest-kort, a map with 12 places; why-oh-why not online, not least when the project has received support from at least three worthy institutions? (this isn’t the first time, either)
  • Læseforeningen guided community reading events in Kulturtårnet, Ørestad Bibliotek and the tower of Vor Frue Kirke
  • Europa.Manifest, the output of visits to CPH central library during the autumn of 2017 by European and Danish philosophers, now available as a book
  • a Mikrofest from 24 small publishers, party and anthology in one (all in all an encouraging amount of wordplay around mani/fest; fest means party på dansk), with an online portal to come later in 2018
  • ENIGMA, the suitable enigmatic newish museum/not for post and telegraphy type things, has MANIFEST NOW, a virtual exhibition and installation at the main library, consisting of cut-ups from 15 manifestos displayed at random and/or put back together
  • and finally, Kbh Læser: the blog

#kbhlæser in previous years:

Event website critique (2015): usual fish in a barrel stuff. With 159 events from 77 organisers, and 58 venues, you need several ways of finding your way around the programme, but as ever there was no way in via theme or audience. A map/app would have been nice, although there was a list of what’s on at each venue. No search…and while the design is contemporary enough, you are diverted to Copenhagen Libraries’ rather creaky site for full details, where when it’s gone, it’s gone.

In archive terms, there is one page on the festival’s history plus brief summaries of the festivals in 2014 (the body in literature) and 2012 (Copenhagen). 2018 update: now replaced by photo selections on the about page (2015-17 only), although the 2017 programme is still advertised.

Project1917: day by day through the Russian Revolution

Sometimes I think I have a Russian soul. Since the age of eight, when I read EM Almedingen’s Little Katia for the first time, I’ve been drawn to all things Slavic. After picking German over French at the age of 11 I disappointed my mother again by going for Russian at 14, not a common choice in the late 1970s. She partly got her way when I decided to take single honours German at university rather than joint with Russian, or Politics for that matter. Sometimes I still regret it.

For English speaking Russophiles the BBC’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution included inter alia a lively dramatised version of John Reed’s 10 Days!, Ten artists who shook the world and the topical Emigranti. And a daily vodka toast is still being raised here to Project1917 (FB), a Russian initiative from Yandex Publishing with English updates from Pushkin House, broadcasting daily since February and due to close on 18 January 2018, 100 years after the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly.

on this day (28 December)

Project1917 is based on first hand accounts from a host of ‘heroes‘ drawn from all walks of life, spread throughout Russia and beyond. Employing every #some trope going (FB style friends lists, ‘is attending’life events), the volume of voices has built into a nuanced portrait of how normality subtly changed by the day.

John Reed is predictably present, while Rosa Luxemburg was in prison for the duration. Lenin gets down to library business pretty quickly (13 Dec):

13 December: Lenin lays down the tasks of the public library

Artists, musicians and writers are well represented, both through their works and commenting on events: 
Yevgeny Zamyatin quote

Anna Akhmatova quote

Some humour is also found in events:

humourous quote

What quickly emerges is how the events of November were just the beginning; no one knew how things would pan out, or the consequences for the course of WW1, in what feels like a forgotten story among a sea of poppies. The now Soviet Russia and the Central Powers, led by the German Empire, signed an armistice on 15 December, kicking off negotiations for what became the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918.

armistice quote

Meanwhile it’s Christmas at the British embassy:

embassy quote

and new republics are formed in the chaos, some of which will survive to celebrate their own centenary:

republics quote

More Project1917 features to explore: live reporting during the October Revolution | network map of crowned heads | data for posts about Danish connections to 1917, coming soon.

Thomas Mann quote


CPH 850: city identity at Golden Days

Latest, Feb 2018: CPH has got itself a Light Festival; the website is entirely in Danglish, which led to some comments on FB; with 40 installations it feels a tad OTT, and Politiken’s review agrees, suggesting that they turn it down a bit, what with one of CPH’s qualities being its dimness, a component of hygge…Byvandring.nu offer some pics with refreshingly downbeat commentary…meanwhile Edinburgh Lumen has gone for “three unique installations…transform St Andrew Square, Assembly Rooms Lane and The Mound Precinct into zen-like portals of tranquility”…

This year’s Golden Days festival (case), running from 2-17 September, took the 850th anniversary of Copenhagen’s notional founding by Bishop Absalon as its theme:

Byer skabes af mennesker, og ingen by har værdi uden sine borgere: Vi er alle skabere af byen. Det er kernebudskabet, når Golden Days Festivalen i 2017 fejrer 850-året for grundlæggelsen af København.

[Cities are created by people, and a city without its people has no worth. We all create the city. This is the message at the heart of Golden Days 2017, celebrating the 850th anniversary of the founding of Copenhagen.]

This truism demonstrates that it may be about CPH but really it’s all about Us. What is it with Danes and place? Or perhaps, what is it with Brits and place? Anyway, Copenhagen’s place-myth, the one everyone grew up with, dates back to Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish Geoffrey of Monmouth, who related how King Valdemar handed a small island over to his foster brother Absalon, Bishop of Roskilde. In 1167 Absalon built a castle on the island, today known as Slotsholmen in the heart of modern Copenhagen.

Archaeological finds date CPH as rather older than this, as pointed out by various sections of the press, but they’re sticking with it, needs must, playing with the myth med glimt i øjet and a fake news style eventFup og fusk! But in a country where supermarkets regularly celebrate spurious birthdays, it’s not really important.

Moving on, early publicity portrayed a fiendishly complicated festival, with 10 people to bear witness to the development of CPH’s cultural heritage around whom the whole shebang would revolve in a set of 10 spor (tracks, trails), with events, guided walks, maps, using “modern network theory” to reveal how the 10 individuals were connected with their contemporaries and with each other. Gosh.

The site design did seem to have had a bit of shine-up, greeting you with shots of the 10 and clips of Copenhagen, plus a blocky menu on the right. Events were keyworded with an appropriate individual, somewhat arbitrarily at times, and you could also browse by location (of the venue), category and day. On the added value content side there were short ‘essays’ and maps with spots for each of the 10, also to be found in this year’s free magazine.

Festival director Svante Lindeburg’s explanation of the curational strategy described a metro diagram, enabling you to see, for example, which of the 10 had connections to the Royal Theatre. This sounded fantastic, but in practice was let down by poor execution and a limited dataset.

Below I have overlaid the maps for near contemporaries Carl Jacobsen and Herman Bang, showing disappointingly no connections:

map overlaying spots for two of the 10

For starters, I’m peeved that the map can only be opened via the site, despite being made in Google Maps. I’d like to fiddle with it! Next, what are the connecting lines about – join the dots? Third, it’s not possible to browse by place. The squares/nodes merely present the text from each individual’s map.

Here’s what you get at the Royal Theatre if you overlay all ten maps and zoom in – there’s not a lot of network theory here:

the unnamed Royal Theatre appears on four maps

Who is Copenhagen?

What of the 10 themselves? Perhaps refreshingly, no Kierkegaard and no Hans Christian Andersen. Less happily we have Women: 2, and Immigrants: 0. That’s just lazy. It’s a shame no one was galvanised enough to come up with an alternative 10, although DR has offered up a five women of the 19th century without trying too hard.

the CPH 850 10: pick a person for events and an essay

The first woman of our 10 is hostess Kamma Rahbek (1775-1829), included largely as a peg for hanging salons on. A meta-salon at KU Bibliotek presented the 19th century salon as gammeldags networking and the equivalent of today’s bookshop readings, with åndrig samtale og et let traktement. Of several contemporary wannabees a Tove Ditvelsen salon at was held at Gentofte Hovedbibliotek; Danish sweetheart Tove lived in Gentofte from 1945-50 and would have been 100 this year, so there was cake…with her writing on growing up in Vesterbro before WW2 Tove might have been a better choice as the second woman of our 10, rather than folkelig inter-war entertainer Liva Weel. Sorry Liva.

A couple of events gave a nod to gender or explored the distaff side of the city – a literary evening in the form of Gin&Gender #9 and a walk from KulturenNu taking in the three statues of named women in the city (for the record: Caroline Amalie, queen consort to Christian VIII, in Kongens Have, women’s education advocate Natalie Zahle in Ørstedsparken and scientist Inge Lehmann, a newcomer on Vor Frue Plads).

A sole event was spotted on newcomers to the city, an Historisk morgen hosted by the National Museum in the Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilisation Center, looking at the effect of immigration (from Russian Jews, Swedish maids and Turkish guestworkers) on Nørrebro as place and its redevelopment as a diverse area in a multicultural society.

It would have nice to have made a passing attempt at presenting a rather more diverse selection of people to represent 850 years of the city’s history. Coupled with a lack of English or any other language other than the dansk throughout, there’s a clear message of who the festival is viewed as being for, and a clear picture of the city’s people-myth. Even going forward.

Where is Copenhagen?

Now then, when you say Copenhagen where (and what) exactly do you mean? The CPH urban area has a population of nearly 1.3 million and is made up of 18 councils, including Copenhagen itself on 606K. While not quite as extreme as Manchester (541K) and its urban area (over 2.5 million), you don’t have to travel far out of the city centre to hit another kommune, a fact that probably doesn’t feature on many mental maps of the city.

As in previous years a number of events were held to the administrative north (specifically in Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Lyngby-Taarbæk and Rudersdal), dressed up as Flugten fra København (the flight from Copenhagen) and limiting the relationship of city and suburb across place and time to a clutch of royal hunting lodges (C4), salon venues (KR) and post-WW2 housing developments (EW). Just don’t call it Copenhagen.

The Frederiksberg-shaped hole in the middle of the city, created in 1901 when CPH swallowed up Valby, Vigerslev and Brønshøj, was neatly filled by an exploration of the kommune‘s continued independence via walks on its eastern and western borders, noticeboards at strategic points and a podcast series. The difference does go beyond street furniture and parking regulations – it’s Danish scale in action.

Other than that CPH 850 meant the city centre and the inner parts of the ‘bros; few events extended further than your average city-breaker, ignoring the city’s own outer areas never mind its post-war suburbs and sprawlYet as cultural historian Ann-Sofie Gremaud of the Denmark and the new North Atlantic project pointed out, Copenhagen exists in many other places, in music, literature and film, and not least in all the people who have lived there or had a direct connection to its growth. Some of this Copenhagen was celebrated in an event at Nordatlantens Brygge, while KulturenNu led a walk on the city and Dansk Vestindien, now the American Virgin Islands, sold to the USA 100 years ago.

Some CPH 850 takeaways

  • Zoom København – the book version, by the prolific Martin Zerlang (who also did a turn retelling the whole tale in 85 minutes); update, Dec: library copy inspected and lugged back after an unopened month or so, ticking all the usual boxes in terms of materiality and style, feeling more like a coffee table item than something corresponding to 21st century reading habits…there’s a post to be written here; the worthy output of a lifetime’s research, but FWIS a disappointingly conventional chronological presentation, dropping the 10 people and the angle of how they might be connected – maybe they should have taken a leaf out of Niall Ferguson’s latest?
  • Københavnerkanon – they love the canonic in Denmark, and CPH is no exception; a panel came up with a top 20 based on 300-odd Facebook and Instagram submissions, subjected to a vote and whittled down to a top 10 revealed on 2 September
  • Copenhagen on film – series of films and talks marking the publication of a mursten entitled Filmens København (Gyldendal; Politiken)
  • Copenhagen in literature:
    • 10 forfattere. 1o perioder. 10 oplaesninger. – 10 authors gave readings from their own back catalogue and from one of the 10 historical periods
    • Litterær københavnercabaret (FB) – readings and songs in Literaturhaus
    • a literary drunks’ map of CPH (FB), one of three maps on offer _in_ CPH libraries (and which typically haven’t seen the digital light of day)

Any walks of interest? In Brønshøj, Oline Brønd, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Evald who has led more than 180 guided walks in CPH, traced the suburb’s identity from Absalon’s Brønshøj Kirke, founded in the 1180s, via the first school in the area, now Kulturhuset Pilegården, to Ib Lunding’s iconic 1928 water tower, soon to be converted into a venue for cultural events.

As well as the selection of tours from Kulturen.nu two rather unexpected delights looked at the city through a different lens: KLOAK, a sewer tour led by former Golden Days director Ulla Tofte, and a nine stop Science walk from Videnskabernes Selskab.

Overall though CPH 850 felt both of and for the creative class, offering an inward-looking, exclusive and rather one dimensional view of cultural heritage and identity, similar to that currently presented by DR’s Historien om Danmark. While I realise Golden Days is heavily dependent on sponsorship and the involvement of local cultural actors, it would be nice to see the festival taking more risks in terms of events and venues, and a more inclusive look at its potential audience – and perhaps presenting a more complex picture of Copenhagen reflecting all its people in the process.


Vestegnens Kulturuge 2017: digital art, mindfulness and poetry

Vestegnens Kulturuge (FB; programmeprevious years) is usually almost exclusively family oriented, but this year it turned up some ‘high’ culture in the shape of a subset of events around 1980s poet Michael Strunge amidst the broader theme of PÅ ELEKTRISK GRUND (sic; FB).

Sadly though much of the week was a wash-out, grey and chilly with prolonged rain and some slushy hail to finish. Two events were cancelled: Mosensdag in Vallensbæk, due to the bog/marsh, which acts as a flood basin leading water away from nearby houses, being completely under water, and Copenhagen Art Run in Ishøj Strandpark, deemed unsafe due to the conditions.

Where last year there were giants, this year there was Tryllebundet (Spellbound), six exhibits in containers showing the latest in digital art, coordinated by Vallensbæk’s DIAS Kunsthal. As well as the works themselves DIAS put together a number of accompanying activities and a Google Map of the area’s public art – now that is handy!

Forstadsmuseet had a Hvidovre-based game (with notebook and pencil; update: got my hands on this analogue artefact, developed in conjunction with Play Agency – looks very impressive), plus re-runs of some of its walks, while Rødovre opened up its bunker, a kommunale kommandocentral under Arne Jacobsen’s library, who knew, as part of its Cold War project.

Each of the six kommuner had its special day, largely unrelated to the overall theme, made up of events organised by local foreninger with the communal culture centre as venue. Hvidovre, perhaps making up for the lack of a shiny culture centre while we wait for the new bymidte, mounted two special days, pushing the boat out on the second Saturday of the ‘week’ in Hvidovre C with a range of events including a 12 hour mindfulness themed soveconcert (Sleep Concert), from GoSlow and sound artist Karsten Pflum. Gosh.

The previous Saturday was centred around Hvidovre town hall at the opposite end of the kommune. This included readings in Risbjerggård from personal fave Søren Ulrik Thomsen, a contemporary of Michael Strunge, and Caspar Eric, very much inspired by him.

Other Strunge related events included several riffs on the title of his 1984 collection Væbnet med vinger:

Michael Strunge (1958-86) was born in a clinic in Rødovre (venue of Denmark’s first punk gig by Sods in 1977) and grew up in Hvidovre, specifically in Berners Vænge, on the modernist Bredalsparken estate. He went to Sønderkærskolen (reminiscences) before attending Vestre Borgerdyd Gymnasium on Sjælør Boulevard in Valby.

Between 1978 and 1985 he published 11 collections of poetry, most of it written in a flat he shared with his girlfriend in Hvidovre. He died in 1986 at the age of 27, like his heroes Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, jumping out of a window at Webersgade 17 in Østerbro (plaque), and is buried in Assistens Kirkegård.

A figurehead for his generation and usually dubbed a ‘punk’ poet, but we’re not really talking John Cooper Clarke here:

Søren Ulrik Thomsen was born in Kalundborg and spent most of his childhood in Stevns, but at the reading admitted to living on Arnold Nielsens Boulevard from the age of 2-6, in one of the red and white blocks at the Hvidovrevej end. He knew Strunge well, although was careful to stress that they were very different in personality.

Fondly known as Hvidovre’s tourist bureau, SUT cited the “rigtig smukt forstadsbyggeri” Berners Vænge in Politiken’s Riv byen ned series. A poem in his latest collection has the title I Hvidovre, på novemberdage (translation by Susanna Nied, p19), while a recent essay includes the indispensable quote:

og jeg ser for mig, Hvidovre for fyrre år siden, som med små selvbyggerhuse og lys og luft mellem boligblokkene vel både historisk og geografisk var “den første forstad”, med alt, hvad det indbefattede af søde drømme om en lille sort folkevogn og et tv-apparat og i det hele taget et bedre liv end det, der levedes f.eks. på Vesterbro, som Hvidovre må være udflytning af

[and I see before me the Hvidovre of forty years ago, which with its small self-built houses and open spaces between the tower blocks was probably the first suburb, both historically and geographically, with all that entails: sweet dreams of a little black Beetle and a television and all in all a better life than that lived for example in Vesterbro, which Hvidovre may be a relocation of]

Perhaps the suburbs still have an authenticity of time and place, less found in today’s Happy CPH. In København con amore (2006), the product of trips to the outer reaches of CPH with photographer Jokum Rohde, SUT presents photos of two very local spots, Hvidovrevejens Partyslagter at Hvidovrevej 277 (now Pangs Smørrebrød), while Lis’s Kaffebar at 340 C is now occupied by Hot & Cool and French Chicken. Things are changing, even in Hvidovre.

Back to Strunge with Vestegnens KulturCast, an enthusiastic effort from Vallensbæk Kultur- og Borgerhus, with two dedicated episodes plus full interviews with Anne Marie Mai and Jørgen Aabenhus. The second episode has readings from Asger Schnack in Taastrup Bibliotek and from school students in the 9th class in Vallensbæk. All well worth a listen.

In 1985 AMM and MS published Mai Strunge, a book of their conversations and letters. She followed this up in 2008 with an anthology, En bog om Michael Strunge, on what would have been his 50th birthday, co-edited with JA. In her interview she stated that MS was an ‘anarkistisk kameleon’, unconstrained by fashions/styles in poetry and uninterested in socially engaged poems with a message.

JA examined MS’s relationship with life in the suburbs, not least as reflected in his 1981 poem COMA, observing people waiting at a bus stop on Hvidovrevej. At that time Hvidovre was very homogeneous, middelmådig and småborgelig, a poster child for the velfærdssamfund – and a prime case for teenage rebellion. There’s a tension here with hygge, of which I’m guessing MS wasn’t a big fan, but as JA pointed out hygge is more likely to be found in the home than at a bus stop.

By way of contrast, when asked a brace of Vestegnen residents named the slower tempo of life, which you notice as soon as you get off said bus, vs too much traffic, too many people and the lack of greenery in the city, as the advantages of living in the suburbs today.

More Strunge? see Litteratursiden, which also has a recent feature on 1980s literature, and biographies by Knud Munck (2oo1) and Peter Rewers (2015). For more SUT, see People vs place in Copenhagen.


Bloom: celebrating the nature of nature

Festival Watch 2017 continues with Bloom (#bloomdk | FB), a new entrant from the Golden Days stable emerging from 2015’s Open Air Academy. It took place over the Kristihimmelfartsdag (Ascension Day) weekend at Søndermarken, one of two almost conjoined parks on the Frederiksberg/Valby border straddling Roskildevej, a stone’s throw from the ‘new’ district of Carlsberg.

Themed around nature and science, the festival positioned itself as a response to the post-factual era. Speakers came from backgrounds including biology and astrophysics, with more than a smattering of sessions slanted towards ‘lifestyle’. But it was all free, benefiting from lots of lovely sponsorship, taking place in the open air on a warm and rain free weekend.

Now then, I was grateful for a copy of the festival booklet from the library to leaf through, as the website was arty rather than usable. (I’m not the only one; comments on #some ranged from “I’m too old for this” to “how smuk“.) The situation was not much improved by offering the programme as a dense 54 page PDF. And despite the number of sessions in English there was no English version – OTOH there was a lot of English appropriation going on, with the now obligatory “talks og walks” and eight(!) stages with English names (I’m appropriating Wanderlust). Plus they went a bit over the top with schematics and classifications, different types of event and something called Bloom Balls. Let’s hope someone had full control of the big spreadsheet.

While the Danes’ relationship with trees is worth unpicking, Søndermarken is known for its sylvan lovelies, and a clutch of Bloom events went beyond saplings in bags. Saturday saw Perspektiv: træer, with four speakers exploring the videnskab (lit: science; here: what we know) behind trees. There were also three tankefrø (lit.: seed thoughts) exploring the cultural history of the oak, the beech and the lime.

Hans Christian Andersen called the oak “det største og ypperste træ i skoven”, a sentiment no doubt echoed by writer Jens Blendstrup, who together with artist Ole Lejbach completed a four year Ege-ekspeditioner (oak odyssey), resulting in an exhibition which toured the country in 2015 and is now available as a book. We also had a cabinetmaker and the founder of OAK – the Nordic Journal (“echoes of the Nordic way of life”) on the oak in Danish design, plus oak hors d’oeuvres from a food artist. Ah well. Here’s a picture of Klopstock’s Oak in Lyngby instead.

Klopstock’s Oak, where every July members of the Danish Klopstock Society meet for a reading

The beech is Denmark’s national tree, even featuring in the national anthem. Amongst Søndermarken’s beeches we find Ewald’s Beech, planted in memory of youthful Golden Age poet Johannes Ewald (1743-81), with a reed-covered parasol acting as shelter for a bench. Here though we had writer and boatbuilder Sigurd Buch Kristensen, a biologist and an architect, who posited the question of whether the Danish chair is an invasiv art. Plus beech snacks. In lime corner we had inter alia Neal Ashley Conrad on Proust and lime blossom tea dipping, and sessions from a landscape architect and an entomologist. You probably had to be there.

Lindehøjen, a group of limes on an artificial mound, site of Bloom’s Sound stage

Moving on, the walks n talks included lots of sciency stuff, with ant and bat walks for good measure, and three representatives from Denmark’s slim walking canon. Bakkehuset’s Gertrud With led off with Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), author of the national anthem, who as son of the nearby palace’s steward had Søndermarken as almost his private playground. Famously, following a 16 hour walk with Norwegian philosopher Heinrich Steffens he composed Guldhornerne, a 1200 page epic poem, in one sitting.

Next up, RUC’s Dan Charly Christensen went for a walk with Oehlenschläger’s contemporary, the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted (1777-1851; of inter alia the eponymous park), who held Kantian beliefs about the unity of nature and the relationships between natural phenomena. Even more physics on the final walker’s walk, led by Henrik Bohr, grandson of Nobel prize winning physicist Niels (1885-1962), who lived for 30 years just round the corner in JC Jacobsens æresbolig (now Carlsberg Akademi) and made regular head-clearing walks in the park.

Adam Oehlenschläger, patron saint of Danish walkers, at the top of Valby Bakke

Frederiksberg was part of the same parish as Hvidovre until 1857, while Valby was not handed over to Copenhagen until its 1901 land grab, so it’s interesting to note that garden designer Marcus Friederich Voigt made a trial run for Søndermarken at Holmegården, just north of the 12th century Hvidovre church, in 1794. Clearly a spot of some note, a great-grandmother of Karen Blixen was installed in the manor house by her lover in around 1810, where she gave birth to three children. In 1833 the house was bought by Søren Kierkegaard’s great uncle, who owned it until 1853. (Our local museum notes that records do not show whether Søren visited Holmegården – but he could have done). Sadly, the original manor house burnt down in 1931 and the garden has long since been built over.

Originally designed in the best Baroque style for Frederik IV in 1709, Søndermarken was laid out in triangles around three long avenues in a ‘goose foot’ system. This layout can just about be detected in the surviving path network. FVI’s 1795 redesign incorporated the latest Romantic motifs such as a hermit’s hut, a Doric temple and a Swiss cottage, plus waterfalls and grottoes. Open to the public from 1852, people flocked from the increasingly built-up centre of Copenhagen to admire the view from the top of Valby Bakke, one of Copenhagen’s highest points at 31 metres above sea level, and to enjoy a picnic on the Smørrebrødsplænen lawn.

After falling into decline Søndermarken’s Romantic features were restored in 2012, with the addition of 21st century essentials such as climbing frames and exercise areas, plus a small dogs run free area (unfenced). Today you are more likely to see lycra clad joggers than poets or physicists taking a constitutional. It’s a nice corner of the city, but surely destined to become the playground of escapees from the hyper-dense new area around Carlsberg.

(Talking of playgrounds, the forthcoming CPH Stage has a clutch of performance style walks around the theme of the city as stage. Of passing interest are OmniPresence on surveillance culture, Inge Agnete Tarpgaard’s walking workshop and Cantabile 2’s Hidden Number.)

Søndermarken’s hermit’s hut, occasionally let out for artists’ residences


Rising ground: travel vs place

I have bookshelves groaning with travel literature shelved by place. This includes Philip Marsden‘s The crossing place (1993, Armenia), The Bronski house (1995, Poland; not to be confused with, although sitting next to, Radek Sikorski’s The Polish house) and The spirit wrestlers (1998, Russia). After that things gradually went boat-shaped for Philip, culminating in him buying Ardevora, a farmhouse on the banks of the River Fal. Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (2014; extract) sees him return home to write about Cornwall.

Marsden describes the reasons for this shift from travel to place: “Getting a bit older perhaps, having a young family, being a little less restless. But more than that is the sense that looking deeper into the local is ultimately more revealing than reaching for the exotic”. And it was never just about the travel. “I have written travel books certainly, but have come to each subject fresh – explored it, researched it, teased it out and tried to unravel its attraction. Only then do I assemble the form that it requires to tell.”

But Rising ground is not just about place. It’s also about a journey westwards, tracking earlier ‘topophiles’ of the region such as John Leland, the father of topography, the first to write about people and their relationship with the physical aspects of the landscape, a roving antiquary who suffered a breakdown under the weight of knowledge he had amassed. And John Whitaker, who unlike the ‘crag-happy’ Romantic poets of his era felt that places should be examined to reveal the past, not the picturesque. (It’s quite distressing how many of these early writers of place came to a sorry end. Charles Henderson, who read the landscape like a palimpsest, layered with the text of former lives, died in Rome on his honeymoon at the age of 33, while John Blight, author of A week at the Land’s End, was confined to an asylum for 40 years, dying there in 1911.)

Marsden himself grew up on the edge of the Mendips, where as a child he explored Aveline’s Hole, a 10,000 year old cave cemetery. Revisiting “fuses childhood wonder and adult knowledge, both of which originate in the universal drive to make sense of the world through an understanding of place…a need to belong”.

The second chapter introduces Ardevora as character, run-down with malfunctioning pipework: “knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging”. In intervals between house renovations he explores thinking around space and place, starting with Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking (1954):

‘Dwelling’ meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German the word buan – meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ – is linked to the verb ‘to be’. So to be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence…

‘Place’ is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, whereas ‘space’ is an idealised location, abstracted from the real world, a template which can be dropped over any point on the earth’s surface and allow meaningful discourse about it…

Physical surroundings (places) have the capacity to create mythologies around them…[but] every topophile knows that some sites are better than others – not just prettier or more dramatic, but endowed with a certain quality that attracts to it a host of stories and ideas.

All this inspires him to compose a topophile’s history of Cornwall, following the axes of time and place on foot to Land’s End in a chronology spanning the ritual landscape of Neolithic times, the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and on to the 20th century.

In Tintagel he probes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling of the Arthurian legend, with the castle perhaps the product of “suggestive topography” where idea and place became intertwined in stories which “bounce down through the centuries, their edges rounding and their shape altering with the collective spirit of each age”. Geoffrey drew on the tradition of the locus amoenus or delightful place, in medieval polarity with the hostile wilderness, defined as comprising a tree (or several trees), a meadow, a spring or brook, possibly with birdsong. “The most elaborate examples add a breeze”. Often asserting a collective sense of belonging, with a recurring motif of a sense of enclosure or encirclement.

Returning to the Mendips as his parents sell his childhood home he walks to Glastonbury, whose tor was a constant presence in his childhood. The mythic heart of England, the town was a one-stop pilgrimage site reducing the idea of earthly sanctity and of the nation to a single place, until it was sacked under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as universalism took the place of local cultism.

Visiting his parents’ house for the last time he finds only “hollows and imprints” of his family’s presence, “the memories of the place separated from the place itself”. Lying in bed in Ardevora he hears the iron casing of the stove cooling down with a clicking sound, creaking like an old ship, settling down again and getting used to its refit, coming back to life.

The walk westwards is “like walking the plank”. In West Penwith, the “end of the end-end” in Welsh, the ages are rolled into one in a post-modernist bundle. Nearing the coast the land becomes more marginal. Many feel an altered perception as they reach Land’s End: “We began to feel that we could walk like this for ever, never having to turn back but always going on, to see what was round the next headland, and the next”.

In pre-Christian Europe there was a belief that when the sun dropped below the horizon it went on to shine on the realm of the dead. This makes a walk to Land’s End a “rehearsal for the last perilous journey, or perhaps the realm of the future and the time beyond our own death”. Topography gradually seeped into popular consciousness, going beyond the local (what you can see) to the map or plan, an abstracted version of space which creates its own imperatives.

Beyond Land’s End lies Lynonesse, embodying a sense of loss, of that “vanished era when everything was larger and better”, a locus amoenus which goes one step further with the addition of Tennyson’s King Arthur. The mountain that rose from the land was called Camelot, where “save the Isles of Scilly, all is now wild sea”, the site of Arthur’s last day on earth. Mortally wounded, Arthur is carried out to the land’s end, where a barge takes him away into the western ocean.

As for the Isles of Scilly, “like all the best places, [it] draws you into a state of ceaseless questioning…the reduced scale brings questions closer, and adds a heady combination of freedom and isolation”.

To return to the theme of travel vs place, there’s a a sense that all place writing is travel writing, as any book about ‘place’ to a degree moves through the land. And a journey offers a familiar narrative structure, with walking in particular giving “the slow pace with which to be fully attentive, to notice“. Where place writing differs from conventional travel writing is in the deep mapping required to exhaust a place – in a travel book both reader and writer see a place for the first time, as a tabula rasa, and then move on, without building a permanent relationship. Rising ground is about what makes certain places special and about our fundamental response to landscape, whether personal or collective, cultural places which have accrued meaning and stories.

Our reaction to places, to certain landscapes, lies at the heart of both our personal lives and our collective lives, our culture and traditions…It is us who imbue it with spirit and meaning…Something in our make-up drives us to animate the world around us, to fill it with significance.

Globalisation, with the accompanying increased pace of life and communication, is affecting our relationship to place. It is getting more and more difficult to build and maintain connections with a place (aka the local, home) – perhaps one reason for the current boom in place writing, a given genre in English, with its own prize (the Wainwright). How much is this a British thing, built on a melancholic sense of genius loci developed over generations?

Place writing is not much found in Denmark. Having pondered long on why, I wonder if it is partly down to the fact that in a small, homogeneous, essentially inward-looking country there is a lot less moving about, hence less need to find a place or to make it anew in order to belong. This must affect the Danes’ relationship with place – and be indicative of how it can present an issue for the outsider.

The sense of a need to belong to a place is rather less resonant here, with the Danish sense of national identity perhaps taking its ‘place’. There’s also a dominant narrative about people, when I can’t help thinking they protest too much – no one reading about Jack Clemo (who raged against his physical impediments, against nature-lovers and the sentimental, against chapel-goers, and derived a perverse pleasure from devastation) in Rising ground could be in any doubt that place writing is as much about people and their stories as it is about the landscapes and buildings they inhabit.

the walk to Land’s End concluded (Richard Carew, 1602; source)

Sources: The ClearingGranta Books | Guardian | Ramblings | Start the Week. See also my post on Place writing now.