Mysteries of the Dragon Gate

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Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.

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Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.

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In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

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Warning: Parental Language

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As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

Scrubbing the Likes

Do you delete your old social media posts?

These things were meant to be ephemeral, right? Blips of consciousness that would be gone in an instant.

But the value of Facebook, Twitter et al – their market value – is of course based on retaining all that instantaneous, inconsequential information. Accreting an ever more detailed data picture of you: your life, loves, needs and desires. Your political leanings

Which is why FB and Twitter make it ball-achingly hard to delete those old posts. The “post” button is large and easily accessible, the delete option hidden in sub-menus and shrouded in a mass of confirmation pop-ups.

And deleted posts have a habit of lingering, depending on how you search for them. My Twitter profile currently shows two pages of tweets, but the counter tells me I still have 1,200 of the bastards, lingering out there like the half-baked nonsense that they were. Are.

My old posts are embarrassing, mildly, but offensive to me alone. They ARE inconsequential. But I still believe that if they’re ephemeral, they should eventually disappear, like a fart in a gentle breeze. Deleting them though, takes ten times as long as making them in the first place.

It feels vaguely psychotic, going through and unliking friends’ updates, deleting tags on old party pictures. It’s obsessive, a collosal waste of time, and feels like the world’s most passive aggressive gesture – if, of course, your friends were even to notice. I *hope* none of my connections regularly audits the likes on old posts to see who has retracted their previous tiny endorsements and affirmations.

And it’s one thing to delete a like of a funny status update. Birthday wishes, well, will they really be missed? Congratulations on a birth, that’s a little harder. And messages of support after bereavement? That one I have trouble with.

The fast track of course is to delete your account. But while I’m happy to delete an entire blog (and they do all get deleted, sooner or later), abandoning an FB or Twitter account would mean losing all those connections – connections which would be a huge pain to remake when setting up a new account.

I don’t know what the answer is here. Am trying to wean myself off that g–d– Like button. (Woo.) Otherwise I’m stuck in a timesuck loop of manually deleting old posts, which I hate, but not quite as much as leaving all that data up there for FB in particular to monetise.

Seriously, can’t we just start paying for this shit? $0.99c a month? Hell, I’d pay the full dollar if it came with a bulk delete button.

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…

Serenity When? Serenity Now?

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I started writing this post ten days before the US election. The premise was that it’s massively unproductive to worry about things we have no control over: football results, Brexit, that US election I mentioned.

… worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due…

– Ian Fleming, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

The aim was to quit the “read the entire internet” impulse that fretting encourages. Stop skim reading every article. Stop following inflammatory tweets back to the shithive of alt-right white supremacist scumbaggery they dribbled out of.

Reading every viewpoint and counter-viewpoint on a subject doesn’t leave you better prepared to absorb the consequences of an outcome you don’t have any control over. That view/counterview thing? Horribly overdone. Depressing to see news outlets follow up with the counter-opinions, because often it seems so forced. (“OK, who wants to write an opinion piece saying Bowie was shit? Come on, someone has to write this thing…”)

In praise of disengagement? Sort of. This is tacking pretty close to the serenity prayer.

Anyways, history overtook my sluggish blogging (that’s how fast I blog, at a sub-historical pace), and the US somehow elected a candidate who makes more false statements than true ones. As I lazily pondered how Facebook and Twitter had played a disastrous role in the dissemination of bullshit during Brexit and the US election, the media duly decided to get riled about fake news.

What of serene disengagement in 2016, then? Disengagement from the internet, I hasten to add, not from “real life”. The last thing we need now is disengagement from reality. Ever think: if we’d all stayed off Twitter and Facebook in 2016, and instead had talked to our less politically-aligned relatives, we might not be now suffering the spittle-flecked, oddly angry, victory shitposting of the Brexiteers and Trumpkopfs? Even without social media we would still have been appalled by the atrocities in Syria, still mourned Bowie and Prince.

I stand by the point that over-reading is unproductive. It’s a one-way street, a dead-end download that will likely go unanalysed and unsynthesised, which will never be shared except in an angry diatribe to a colleague with better things to do.

This isn’t a solution for the awfulnesses we’ve subjected ourselves this year. It’s a modest contribution to your own mental health not to pore over things, obsessively, until you lose your grip on what they actually mean. Don’t read the comments. Don’t feed the trolls. Twitter sparingly. Facebook for event invites and birthdays only.

As for King Troll, all I can do is trust in the survival instinct of the US people, and have popcorn on hand in case of impeachment. Regarding the disengagement policy, I’m convinced that the most constructive thing people could do is unfollow Trump on Twitter. Can you imagine how much more effectively he could be scrutinised if we weren’t wasting time evaluating his tweets by the normal standards of political/civil discourse, instead of dismissing them out of hand as the deliberate misinformation they are? Imagine how that fragile ego would take a plummeting follower count…

 

PS The one topic I did manage to disengage from in the latter half of the year was football. I’ve avoided the brief, addiction-forming highs of the wins and the days-long toxic fug of defeats. It’s easier, living outside the UK, but I’ve seen a few results by accident, or knee jerk click-impulse. On the whole I honestly feel that if anything it’s helped my mood. (I reserve the right to revise this opinion if Arsenal win the League.)

 

The Surmountable To-Read List

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Nearly all read.

How many books do you have lying around, waiting patiently to be read? Those once-exciting, -intriguing, or at least -mildly interesting titles that for a brief moment in time, convinced you that you had to own (and then read) them.

I like to think I’m reasonably conscientious about clearing my backlog, but over the years there are plenty of books that have fallen through the cracks.

Some of these have been with me for DECADES. The James Joyce bio was picked up second-hand at college, probably 1994/5. DeLillo’s Libra, too, was second-hand, also pre-millenium. Perhaps the new purchases nag to be read that bit louder: “Read me before my edges fade to piss-yellow!”

It’s baffling that some of these have gone unread for so long. The George Saunders collection, for one. I know it’s going to be fantastically entertaining and thought-provoking, and yet it’s sat on the shelf since Christmas. I could play the “busy being primary caregiver to a 1-year old” card, but then it also took me W-A-Y too long to even get my hands on my own copy. By that point I’d already I’d gifted it twice for birthdays.

On the other hand, Will Hutton’s Them and Us is steadily becoming less relevant, and deep in the fug of post-Brexit-clusterfuck malaise, I have a steadily decreasing desire to crack open that one. Still, I can’t admit to myself that I’ll leave it unread… forever.

So can I get through these before I buy more books? The number of hardbacks in the list suggests not. That’s just practicalities. With the one-year old still sleeping in our room, reading lights have to be angled just so not to disturb her oh so precious (to us) sleep.

  • Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  • Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society – Will Hutton
  • All Day Long: a Portrait of Britain at Work – Joanna Biggs
  • Libra – Don DeLillo
  • James Joyce: the Years of Growth 1882-1915 – Peter Costello
  • Beyond Belief – VS Naipaul
  • Moorish Spain – Richard Fletcher
  • For Richer For Poorer -Victoria Coren
  • The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson
  • The Corner – David Simon & Ed Burns
  • On Inequality and On Bullshit – Henry G Frankfurt
  • The Emperor – Ryszard Kapuściński
  • This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein
  • The Grownup – Gillian Flynn
  • Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy and The Living Daylights – Ian Fleming
  • Beowulf – Seamus Heaney
  • The Patrick Melrose Novels – Edward St Aubyn
  • Tenth of December – George Saunders
  • Mr Blue – Edward Bunker
  • Purity – Jonathan Franzen
  • Underground – Haruki Murakami
  • How Should a Person Be – Sheila Heti

*LAST UPDATED 9th December 2016*

Nine Things That I Currently Feel Obliged to Have an Opinion on

Things that I currently feel obliged to have an opinion on, but which I lack adequate background knowledge, including but not limited to:

  • Pokémon Go
  • The Attempted Turkish Coup and President Erdoğan’s Suppression of Alleged Conspirators
  • Melania Trump’s speechwriting team
  • Blockchain
  • The success or otherwise of the Ghostbusters reboot (do have the background knowledge, just haven’t seen it)
  • Draco Malfoy-with-a-keyboard, Milo Yiannopolous
  • The Rio Olympics
  • The Nine-Dash Line
  • Jeremy Corbyn v. not-Jeremy Corbyn

But mainly Pokémon Go. (Am I saying that right? “Poh-kee-mun”?)

NOT INCLUDED: the living nightmare of eternal Brexit.