PREVIOUS CHAPTER: TWELVE (2) ATLANTIC
Not long after Björn was born, we felt it was only fair to take him to his proud grandparents in Manchester and I also felt my job prospects would be greater back in Britain. We had hardly arrived, though, when I was asked to take part in a “Non-violent Alternatives-to-military-conflict” conference in Kungälv, only a few miles from Gothenburg. At this conference I met Professor Adam Roberts (who became professor of International Relations at Oxford University) whose paper described the many actions that civilians could take to sabotage and undermine an oppressive foreign invader without using violence. Many years later he became a personal friend of our own Adam Roberts and Anne his wife.
I also learned that the Sociological Institute at Gothenburg University was recruiting lecturers in sociology for a huge new intake of students and that Edmund Dahlström, Professor at the Institute, was married to Rita Liljeström – whom Sigyn and I had met and liked in Addis Ababa when she evaluated the work of the Swedish Peace Corps. One afternoon I slipped away from the conference and met Rita in Gothenburg. She encouraged me to apply for a lectureship.
A month or so later, a disappointed Ruth and Bob Roberts and “Nan” (Albert’s wife) waved us off as we headed back to Sweden. After my eleven years abroad, they had so much hoped that I would finally settle in England – so they could be close to their new (great) grandchild. Otherwise, this was perhaps the most harmonious period of my parents’ lives. They were happy together, living in a large house on Prestwich Park Road South and both doing jobs they loved – teaching. Together, they taught an evening class in English (literacy and literature) for overseas students and new immigrants from the West Indies. Also, Bob taught several days a week at the notorious Strangeways Prison in Manchester where a surprisingly high proportion of the prisoners were illiterate. To the prison officers’ bemusement, he soon had the students writing poems and even passing external examinations, as described in his book, Imprisoned Tongues (Manchester University Press, 1968).
1969: Nan, Glyn, Sigyn, Ruth, Björn and Bob outside Northwood
On starting this work (employed, he always emphasised, by the Manchester Education Department and NOT by the Prison Service) he was firmly advised not to reveal personal details to the prisoners, and never his home address. Of course, he promptly forgot – and a couple of lads soon asked if a committee of the North Manchester Wrestling Club might use a room at our house for its occasional meetings. Since other associations (literary, or Esperanto) also used our home from time to time, Bob saw no reason to refuse. A mix-up with calendar dates one evening brought several lady members of a Northern writers’ club together with an equal number of huge wrestlers, sitting around our drawing room, all nibbling biscuits and balancing cups of tea.
Back once more in Gothenburg, Sigyn and I urgently needed a house of our own. Unlike England, where buying a house can take months – involving solicitors, surveyors, estate agents, building societies, exchanges of contracts and completion date – in Sweden, we saw an advertisement for a little house (basically a summer cottage by a lake, that had been insulated for living in all year round), agreed the price with the owner, got a loan from a bank, paid up – and moved in. All in a week.
No 5, Älgstigen, at Öjersjö, near Partille had cellars for the boiler room, laundry room and a little study. Above was a floor with kitchen, living room, bedroom and a small hall. Rather nasty concrete steps led down, front and rear, into a large garden. In the garden stood a yellow-painted wooden chalet that could be used for guests or as a play room, and a little gate from the garden led onto a path down through a birch wood a hundred metres to Kåsjön, one of the cleanest and prettiest lakes in western Sweden. We had electricity, water from our own well and an outside toilet.
Sigyn when we had just moved in
The day after we moved in, western Sweden was hit by a fully-fledged hurricane, with trees uprooted by the tens of thousands, waves crashing on Kåsjön, the air full of salt from the North Sea though we were ten miles inland. We ventured out into the road, Sigyn blown sideways as I took her photo, and met neighbours for the first time. The dramatic event made everyone chatty and open and helped us get off to a good start in terms of making friends.
Hurricane on Kåsjön
We bought simple furniture, cutlery and crockery, much of it second hand, and Sigyn made curtains and other soft furnishings such as cushions.
Björn, of course, still had his unique cradle, which had to stand in the hall. Of course Björn had also to be shown to his Swedish grandparents and this meant a visit to the family home at Bidarhem, in the woods near Lake Vāttern.
l-r: Dagny holding Daniel, Sigyn, Karl Erik holding Björn (holding teddy) and Glyn
One day, fairly early on, we were to have three guests to tea and Sigyn said she needed some further items to make a good spread. I agreed to buy them that morning, as I was going in to Gothenburg. I took thirty Swedish crowns from our savings and headed into town. On my way, though, I looked in at a second-hand shop and spotted a lovely old wind-up clock, “Viking” by make, with a gentle tick and as the wizened shop-keeper pointed out, ‘a very sonorous chime’. It seemed perfect for our living room and at 30 crowns, I felt sure Sigyn would be delighted.
Back at the house, and with half an hour to go before our guests arrived, it turned out that Sigyn was not delighted and we had our first-ever row. ‘Forget your “sonorous chimes”’, she called from the kitchen ‘You just tell me what I’m to put on the table!’ For my part, I tried to explain that a meal is but for the moment, whereas a fine wall clock (here, I sensitively avoided mentioning its sonority) would be a companion for life, for our children and our children’s children. Of course she had a point, and I feel rather guilty to this day, but let it also be noted that forty-four years later, this same clock is ticking away in Adam and Anne’s apartment in New Delhi – its chimes now familiar to young Magnus and Edvard.
In the autumn of 1969, the Sociological Institute in Gothenburg faced a problem: student applications had soared following the revolutionary “awakening” that had swept France and much of Europe the previous year. ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead who was not in the Thirties, Red?’ asked the Forties jingle, and it could well have been asked again of the late Sixties. As a result, on the first day of term, the university had 600 fresh-faced students all wanting to study sociology. Five colleagues and I had to devise a syllabus, prepare lectures and draft internal examinations in the space of just a few weeks. Besides sharing the introductory courses in general sociology, each of us had to prepare two special courses and mine were social psychology (about which I knew nothing) and sociological aspects of Developing Countries. Consequently, I had a heavy work load, about which I will spare you most of the details.
But let us just take one example: social psychology. The course book for first year students was to be The Individual in Society, by Ketch, Crutchfield and Ballarchy, which I personally found quite fascinating. One study discusses “conformity” – where an individual suppresses his own convictions in order to fit in with (what he thinks are) those of his group. This is especially recognisable in real life. Many people are afraid to speak out in a group if they feel that something is wrong, especially if they consider the other group members to be of higher status. Yet if person “A” does speak out, far from remaining in a minority of one, it often happens that several others in the group (who dared not speak up) feel that “A” is right and support him or her. I thought this was a wonderful lesson to teach and to remember. And social psychology offered many other valuable insights of an almost daily usefulness.
I had to prepare a 45 minute lecture from this book and deliver it in Swedish to a hundred students each Tuesday. I prided myself on speaking spontaneously (following a list of headings) rather than reading from a script – six times in the day: at 9.15, 10.15, 11.15, 2.15, 3.15 and 4.15. A smart student would go to the 11.15 lecture, because at 9.15 I would hesitate, seeking the right words, or I could run out of time with points still to make, or I might rush and finish my material with ten minutes still to go. My second effort went noticeably better, and by 11.15 I could achieve a certain eloquence. After lunch, things went into reverse: my fourth lecture dragged, with pauses and sighs – while the fifth and sixth became nightmarish. My Swedish and my confidence both collapsed, simple words deserted me, or I found myself making points with the sick feeling that I had used those very words only seconds earlier. Once all was finished, however grim for the students at least for them it was over, but for me each Tuesday night, the same lecture re-ran itself through my delirious dreams.
Besides lecturing, we needed to devise a test for the students at the end of term. My five colleagues favoured a multiple choice approach, but I found ticking boxes crude and inappropriate for a university level course in sociology. The others stuck to their guns, but I – remembering the matter of “conformity” – continued to argue that we should devise broader questions, each to be answered with a short essay. And it worked! One by one the others came round to my point of view. Together we worked out six wider questions, each designed to probe the students’ understanding of an aspect of sociology.
Only after the exam in mid-December did it dawn on us what a disastrous decision I had provoked. Six hundred students had written six essays each and – since Swedish students have no experience of essay writing – many of the 3,600 offerings were long and incoherent. For the festive Christmas holiday with our wives and little ones, each lecturer carried home a cardboard box with six hundred essays to mark.
I don’t remember much of what happened that summer and autumn. I imagine we enjoyed the long university vacation and took things easy as Sigyn’s second pregnancy developed. We had a small yellow boat called The Egg on Kåsjön and rowed around it, sometimes stopping for a picnic in some little bay that could only be reached by water. Björn would splash around in his nothings, the sun shone and we were happy.
My second year at the Sociological Institute got off to a much easier start than the first, as most of the teaching material was already prepared and, indeed, had been very well rehearsed. Perhaps because of that, something of the challenge and excitement had gone. On the other hand, we received a new generation of students fired up by the Cultural Revolution that had swept Western Europe in 1968 and who were determined to query the status quo, including our own. That they were ready to question the material we taught was good, in theory. However, with ten (let us say) in every hundred students as bright, or brighter, than oneself, it could be disconcerting to have them put probing questions during lectures and seminars. Within a few months they went on to claim that it was unfair and authoritarian that only they should take examinations, lecturers should be examined too, and the situation became quite stressful.
At No 5, Älgstigen, though, peace reigned. Autumn was turning to winter and the woods around had grown sombre. At four o’clock on the 4th November we had our tea in front of the open wood fire (we had central heating, too). Then we played with Björn and listened to his favourite records – Ville Valle och Viktor , Klapp och Klang, Kamomilla Visor and Alice Tégner’s delightful children’s song, especially when sung by children themselves. At six, Sigyn put our son to bed and after supper we began to repaint the kitchen walls with a pale yellow emulsion. We worked late, each of us climbing on and off the kitchen table and reaching far into the corners with our brushes, but still it came as a surprise when Sigyn suddenly announced that her waters had broken and we needed a taxi urgently.
Our taxi came reasonably soon, but once we drove off into the night, into narrow country roads and a swirling snow storm, the trouble started. I was too busy with Sigyn, and she was too concerned with her contractions, for either of us to notice that the taxi driver had turned left on joining the main road, when he should have turned right. We drove on through dark woods – relatively slowly because of the snow – until all three of us began to wonder why the lights of Mölndal town and its large hospital had not appeared. Should we continue and hope they showed up, or should we turn round and risk that Mölndal had indeed been just round the next corner? Contractions were now coming every ten minutes and we were in a state of panic. Sigyn begged us not to debate any longer but make a decision. We turned round, and it’s a good thing that we did, for Daniel was born just an hour after the taxi braked hard at the hospital entrance and we were taken straight up to the labour ward. It was November 5th, 1970 – perhaps a significant date in view of Dan’s later interest in fires and fireworks.
For the first week after getting Daniel home, Eivor looked after Björn to let us get into our stride, and when he returned it was wonderful to have two little brothers at home. But tiring too! Neither of them slept well, so we were often up at night, they went through huge numbers of nappies – we had long since given up laundering cloth diapers, despite all our good intentions – and both needed changing at night (here, I’m proud to record, I did almost as much as did Sigyn, though in the day she did everything, of course). My work at the university became more demanding as we developed new courses, and commuting from home tired me out as I took two buses and four different trams each day. Waiting at tram and bus stops in a Swedish winter can be bitter. Sigyn suggested a balaclava, but I remembered an episode in my second year as a student in Stockholm. Then, too, I stood each morning at a tram stop in the severe cold. Nan (Grandfather Albert Dean’s second wife) had knitted and sent me a grey balaclava helmet, so floppy that the eye hole would collapse over my nose and sag into a sinister narrow slit. Waiting one day, I saw that other passengers in their fur hats were eyeing me, clearly amused. I took a dignified stance and ignored them, until one joker nudged another and said in an unnecessarily loud voice, ‘Det är kallt, men sådär jävla kallt är det väl inte!’ [‘It’s cold, but it’s never that bloody cold!’]. I turned to give him my most disdainful stare, then realised that he would merely see a huge grey sock pivoting towards him, so I slipped to the back of the queue, removed the ghastly head-gear and dropped it into a rubbish bin.
By the spring of 1971 we were agreed that the house was too small for four; also, we needed an indoor W.C. rather than the chemical toilet that involved a trip outdoors. A local architect friend helped me to prepare drawings for a two-room extension and I partitioned the hall to create a cubicle for a special lavatory that would flush with a minimum of water. Then I tested the garden, which consisted mostly of thin soil over massive slabs of glaciated rock, to see if I could find anywhere to sink a large fibreglass tank. The council would pump this out once every three or four months, as our house did not have mains drainage. Amazingly, I found that the one place where the rock dipped away sufficiently deeply to accommodate the tank lay precisely below the window of the W.C. cubicle.
The tank – out again
I still had a long job digging a hole large enough for the tank, two metres long by 1.5m in diameter, then lowering the tank itself and covering it with heavy stones to hold it down, before finally shovelling soil on top to create a modest flower bed. Within a few days I had connected all the external pipework and we were just waiting for a plumber to get water to the lavatory cistern when we had a night of heavy rain. Next morning, I walked round the house to find the fibreglass tank floating free, risen like one from the grave, stones and soil shed indifferently on all sides. It suddenly became obvious that heavy stones could never hold down an empty tank of such huge buoyancy in a water-filled hole. So everything had to be disconnected, the tank hauled out, the water and soil slush bucketed away, the tank dropped back and secured by stainless steel wires bolted to the surrounding rock. Tiring work, but I was just grateful that the toilet had not been in regular use for a month before the rains came
One pleasant break from this was celebrating Midsommar, the Swedish midsummer festival, and we were invited to join my old friend Martin Gellerstam (from Israel kibbutz days) and his family in Kungsbacka. We played music and danced round a pole dressed in leaves and flowers singing a song about little frogs. We picked strawberries and enjoyed delicious food, plus little glasses of strong schnapps, and we wandered through the long grass, past fields and flowering bushes down to the sea, the waters crystal clear, but still cold. We have a lovely photo of Sigyn, so young, holding Daniel not yet eight months old in her arms, and he wearing a garland of flowers and a beaming smile. But within minutes of taking that happy photo, I developed an allergic reaction to something, sneezing continuously, my eyes itching so that I wanted to gouge them out – which meant our heading back to Älgstigen rather than passing a long, sunny evening with our kind friends.
Midsommar with the Gellerstam family
Good news from England: Manchester University Press published my father’s book The Classic Slum – reviewed by the Daily Telegraph as “…a superb book…vivid, moving, funny, unsentimental…admirably lucid style. Mr Roberts has written what may well be a classic book.” Praise well deserved, though I might rather have expected such praise from the Gruniad.
Once the summer vacation began, I started on a much bigger work project. With architect’s plans in hand and building permission from the Council, I set about digging the foundations for “the North Wing” – essentially two rooms, one above the other, with a connecting wooden staircase. Here, the rock was shallow and pretty flat, so all I needed to do was put up shuttering for a perfectly level concrete base upon which to build three two-storey walls from light-weight cell blocks. When the truck arrived with its load of ready-mix concrete – which I hoped it would pour directly into the shuttering – we found it could not get through the garden gate. Instead, the driver simply tipped his load outside the gate and drove off. For hours, Sigyn and I barrowed the liquid concrete from the road, down through the garden, round the back of the house and into the shuttering – which, of course, collapsed from time to time, wasting precious minutes. Darkness fell but we barrowed on, fearful that the concrete would harden in a great lump outside the garden gate. We slept well that night.
Björn helps to hoist the sculpture into the stair well
The walls built, I fitted the rafters and purlins and a well-insulated roof, while a professional installed the wooden staircase with its dog-leg bend, a task far too skilled for me. By the time floors, doors and windows had been added, walls emulsioned, carpets & curtains fitted, and boys moved in, summer was nearly over, but I had just time to carve a sculpture of Sigyn and the boys and fix it over the stairs connecting the two floors.
Then it was indeed time for the new University term to start. Once again, the long trail began: into Gothenburg each day, lectures in social psychology, seminars, tests… was this going to be my life for the next thirty years? My heart sank. And then Arthur sent a message from Paris: A UNESCO project in Uganda had been trying to modernise the primary school syllabus for five years, but was short of ideas, flagging generally. It needed an Ideas Man to assess and shake it up. Was I interested?
You bet I was interested, and in mid-September, 1971 I arrived in Uganda ready to begin my field work. This was to focus on a teacher training college at Namutamba, a community near Mityana, a town 45 miles west of Kampala. It was here that several UNESCO field experts had spent years – and hundreds of thousands of dollars – trying to develop primary school materials more relevant to the needs of teachers and school children. A reformed syllabus was definitely needed as the old one had been devised in British colonial times and was badly out of date. But even after all the input by these so-called experts, I found their improved syllabus far, far removed from the needs of ordinary children. The current expert had prepared lists of 525 plants in the area for teachers to learn and teach their school classes. In theory, this might seem useful, but what is the point of ten-year-old children (with a sketchy knowledge of English, let alone Latin) learning pages of material such as: E-Jjuuni, New Cocoyam, Xanthosoma maffa, Xanthosoma saggittifolium: an herbaceous tuberous perennial with large sagittate leaves?
Such academic nonsense seemed to me to be actively damaging, since precious school hours were wasted when the children could have been learning something really useful. And the proof of this came when one looked at examination results. After seven years of study, all children took a crucial examination, where only a Pass “First Grade” counted for anything – and in the district where the project had been running and 28,000 had taken the test, only 4.2% passed First Grade.
I wrote a detailed report of the project for UNESCO, which was never published (though, passing through Paris some months later I saw a copy stamped “For Internal Use Only”), so I used some of it myself as part of a general critique of Aid projects under the title QUESTIONING DEVELOPMENT which in total sold some 40,000 copies in English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese and Esperanto. (It is still available, for example at Amazon, online).
Another bonus from this stay in Uganda came from a chat over a bottle of beer, and it was to change my life. One evening, over his drink, the UNESCO expert was complaining that trainee teachers were helping themselves to tools from his precious visual aids display. ‘No sooner do I turn my back, but they pinch a chisel,’ he muttered, ‘Next it’s a saw, then a brace & bit…. And these are demonstration tools – not to be used!’
I visited village craftsmen next morning and saw that their implements were worn out: chisels sharpened down to the last half-inch, hammers misshapen lumps of steel, nails used to drill holes, flat rocks serving as anvils. Yet these artisans – carpenters, motor mechanics, sheet metal workers, tailors – were directly improving life in their villages. They, by the thousands, not the foreign experts, were the real development workers, yet their equipment was badly worn and woefully inadequate. In tools, I began to see an idea that could inspire an organisation, empower working people overseas, avoid traditional Aid traps and raise crucial questions about world poverty. This was the idea behind Tools For Self Reliance, although the organisation took seven more years to germinate. (For the full history of TFSR, which has now – in 2015 – helped to provide something like 4,000,000 hand tools to village communities like those in Uganda, see “Keeping Something Alive”.)
My time in Uganda over, I stopped off in Paris for a good chat with Arthur and also spent a few days in London. Both cities seemed so dynamic, as had my months in Africa, that my heart was low at the prospect of returning to teach yet another cohort of university students in Gothenburg. Of course I wanted to get home to Sigyn, Björn and Dan, and in many ways Sweden was – and is – a wonderful country and I shall always regard it as my second home. But now the thought of work in a predictable, comfortable academic field had become depressing – with so much of the world struggling to eke out a living. Another factor was language. My Swedish was quite good by this time, but it could never be anything but a second language. Yet language, written or spoken, was my main tool and I knew that I depended on English to achieve things in life.
In London, I looked in at Camden Library on Euston Road and flipped through job opportunities in my field. Almost immediately I saw an opening, jointly sponsored by Portsmouth Polytechnic and Hampshire County Council. They needed a Senior Research Officer to head up their new Social Services Research & Intelligence Unit (S.S.R.I.U.). I phoned the Deputy Head of the Social Services Department and within hours we met in the historic naval city. He explained that formal interviews would only be held in the spring of 1972, but he thought it would be well worth my time to apply for the job. Another attraction for coming to Portsmouth, was that my old friend Frank Judd (who challenged me at the 1968 Geneva conference to ‘start an organisation of your own and you too will make compromises’) was now M.P. for Portsmouth South.
Back to Gothenburg. Thrilled at the possibility of leading an interesting, responsible project in England after fifteen years abroad, I rushed up the steps and into our little house at Älgstigen, hugged my wife and two little boys and poured out news of our exciting future. Sigyn burst into tears.
The room was decorated for Christmas, a tree hung with red and silver trinkets, a fire in the grate – and in one corner stood a piano that I’d never seen before: a surprise from Sigyn, bought for my return, which she hoped that we would play to entertain the boys and perhaps inspire them to become musical. She had also arranged for Björn to begin play school and, with the extra time available, she was hoping to find a part-time teaching job to bring in some money and get her out of the house. And the house – all the work we had done on it less than six months ago. And Sweden, her family and the new friends she was just starting to make. For me to come home and announce that we were moving to England – it was just too much. I felt terrible at hurting my lovely wife and tried to comfort her by saying that the Portsmouth job was by no means certain, anything might happen. It was just an idea.
That Christmas and the spring of 1972 were a mixture of good cheer and sadness. It was wonderful to be together again, the boys were a delight and even university work had its interest, but Sigyn knew that something had changed in me. Älgstigen, Gothenburg, Sweden were no longer enough. She knew, and I knew in my heart of hearts, that if I didn’t get the Portsmouth post, I would keep on looking.
In retrospect, I feel very guilty about this period, this decision. Even though we had agreed in principle, years before, that we would circulate, living a time in Africa, a time in Sweden and a time in England, I think that we both knew that this could not continue indefinitely and that any move to England would probably become permanent. I felt (and feel) guilty because I had already stretched Sigyn’s wonderful patience and good nature with the Atlantic crossing, when I swore never to leave her alone again, and yet I then left her to go to Uganda. And – though I wasn’t to know it at the time – I was to do so again during the hectic years of Tools for Self Reliance. These were all wonderful, life-enhancing experiences for me, but made possible only by Sigyn’s love, forbearance, commitment and true self-sacrifice.