All posts by John Farrow

Shocking Stockholm and beautiful laundrettes


We are all always interested to hear what outsiders have to say about our home town.  So you can understand that I was fascinated to stumble across these impressions of Stockholm on the Quora website.

First and biggest complaint? The impossibility of finding a apartment. Now there’s something to talk about at our next course in Housing English!

But it’s not all bad news. Despite finding the booking system a little strange at first, on leaving Stockholm, the writer felt nostalgic for the communal laundry, the beloved “tvättstuga.” You’d be amazed at how many foreigners who have lived here are overwhelmed by nostalgia when you mention it.



Autumn leaves me lost for words


No it’s not one of the Ghostbusters! It’s a guy clearing our square here in Kärrtorp of autumn leaves.

After having taught English for well over 20 years, you’d think that Gary and I knew most words in the language. Far from it! On average, I’d say we learnt about 10 new words or phrases a week. And when we are doing our courses in Housing English for SABO, it’s probably double that. There are so many legal terms, pieces of equipment and names for household objects that one doesn’t know. The course participants really keep us on our toes.

Back to our chap in the square. It’s very obvious what his inverted vacuum cleaner thingy does, but what on earth do you call it? I asked him but he told me he was Russian and didn’t speak Swedish or English. Fascinating though it might have been to learn the Russian word for his gadget, instead I Tweated the question. I rapidly got an answer from former Impact92 colleague, Anna Whinett now in Wales: a leafblower. That easy!

Leafinator was also suggested but it sounded far too Schwarzeneggeresque to me. I Googled the term and found out that there is a device with that name. It’s used to clear swimming pools. I had a mental image of Arnie jumping around in the water gathering dead leaves.

“Hasta la vista, baby! I’ll be bark!”

Are there no fuddy-duddies in Sweden?

A fuddy duddy is a rather prim, pedantic, stick-in-the-mud, humourless fogey. It’s used very aptly to describe Nigel Farage, the frighteningly successful leader of UKIP,  in this rather entertaining article from The Independent about his sartorial style.

It’s the sort of expression that is very difficult to translate. Maybe there are no fuddy duddies in Sweden? Swedish “slipper heroes” (toffel hjältar) certainly have various qualities in common with them.


You’ll be in hot water if you’re late for the laundry!

Last week Gary and I spent two lively days at SABO (the umbrella organisation for municipal housing companies) leading a course in Housing English. The participants were letting agents and other municipal housing staff from all over Sweden. Two full days training and an evening out speaking English at the Dubliners pub. It’s a very successful model.

We got to talking about how there are some things that, if you live in a certain country, you know instinctively. They are so obvious that they don’t even need to be mentioned. One of the most important of these is: always pay the rent on time. If you don’t landlords will come down on you like a ton of bricks and there can be all kinds of unpleasant consequences.

We asked the group if they had any more pieces of advice for a new arrival in Sweden. Here are some of their suggestions.

Laundry punctuality

Punctuality is important. Always come on time to meetings, doctor’s appointments, and laundry sessions etcAlways take your shoes off when visiting someone’s home.

Don’t jump queues. You will be very unpopular.

Bring a gift for your host when going to a dinner party.

Clean the laundry properly after use and remove fluff from the dryer.

Respect Swedes’ personal space. Don’t stand too close to them.

Don’t forget the law of public access (Allemansrätt). You can pick mushrooms ad berries in the forest and even camp for one night

Cash is no longer king. Most transactions are done by card.

The environment is important. Remember to recycle and to sort your garbage.

Show consideration for your neighbours. Be quiet after 10.00 pm.

Don’t sit next to someone on an empty bus and start a conversation. Swedes will think you are a little strange. Or drunk!

If you have the contract for a flat in one of the big cities, don’t ever give it up!

A very varied and rather useful list!

Accent chameleons and CAT

I’ll never forget the occasion when I met my cousin Andy at Kings Cross Station back in the 80s.  He just come back to London after living for several years in Australia.

His first words were ” G’Day Mate” in a broad Aussie accent.  As the conversation continued,  I was gobsmacked to hear that he sounded just like Crocodile Dundee. .

“Andy, you’re from Clacton, not Alice Springs!”

Since then I’ve experienced this kind of accent chameleonism  many times.  My brother Don lives in New York and he now sounds far more like a Manhattanite than a Pinner boy. Many Swedes from Skåne, Norrland or another part of the country with a strong regional accent water it down when they move to Stockholm. But of course, whenever they go back to their local area, it comes back. I’m sure if I met my colleague Gary Watson home in Burnley, I’d be struggling to understand him.

Most people adapt both their accent and the expressions they use so that they blend in and don’t draw attention to themselves.

Many actors, of course, do this for their work.

Hugh Laurie (Dr House) has been so phenomenally successful that most Americans don’t even realise he’s a Brit. They would be astonished to see his wonderful performance as the idiotic Prince George in the magnificent Blackadder.

This week I read an article in the Guardian written by a young American, Maraithe Thomas, working with Brits at the newspaper’s New York office and her struggles with British English.

She makes several interesting observations about the differences between US and GB English. And I also learnt that Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) is the academic term for what Cousin Andy was doing. Fascinating!

Despotism and Gorgonzola

Dalek cheese

An article on North Korea in this morning’s Guardian refers to Kim Jong-un as “an over-weight 31 year-old with a rumoured weakness for cheese”. Rarely has fromage sounded so sinister!

All over the world readers are doubtless now pondering whether there is a perverse connection between cheese and totalitarianism. Did Mussolini have a penchant for pecorino? Was Hitler partial to a large slice of Brie? Did the Ceaucescus gorge on gorgonzola?

More to the point, can one predict extremist political tendencies based on an over-enthusiasm for cheese? Would British politics have been different if we’d known that Oswald Mosley was a compulsive scoffer of mozzarella?

The implications of this theory are enormous.

Suddenly I see the cosy world of Wallace and Gromit in a far more questionable light.

And just think of the consequences if an investigative journalist could find a large lump of Norwegian Gammalost in Nigel Farage’s larder. His political career would be in tatters overnight!

What have you “curated” lately?

Previously,  a curator was a rather dusty, slightly Dickensian chap who took care of the contents of a museum. About as unsexy as you could get.

Then suddenly, a couple of years back, the verb “to curate” entered the language.  Curating overnight became painfully hip.

I first heard it in connection with the magnificent Meltdown festivals at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Creddy individuals like Yoko Ono, John Peel,  Robert Wyatt and Elvis Costello were invited to choose a their own concert programme of different artists and “curate” the event.

Quite an imaginative use of language. Why not?

But since then, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Nowadays people curate everything. Not only  festivals, but also also  websites and even restaurant menus.

What next?  How broad can the usage get?

Curating shopping lists, children’s birthday parties, DJ sets, photo albums?


I would love to write more but I must be off and curate our laundry!

“The trees are in their autumn beauty “

I kept thinking of W B Yeats’s magnificent poem, The wild swans at Cool,  as I wandered through the fallen leaves in our local forest with  little  Zoe, yesterday. The colours were so gob-smackingly wonderful.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

I suddenly had a nightmarish thought: there’s probably a Yeats Theme Park now at Coole Park complete with a Wild Swans rollercoaster!
What a relief! It seems I’m wrong.

Nothing more than a sedate tearoom by the look of things.

Jeff Kinney: an admirably quixotic wimp

What madman opens a small kids bookshop in 2014? Only a wimp would dare!

Every parent knows the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.  Underdog Greg Heffley has become a hit with kids all over the world. Jeff Kinney, the author, was on the Skavlan chat-show  last night.

He commented that there are only three countries he has been to that don’t have a word for wimp and Sweden is one of them.

A very likeable chap. His dream originally was to be an artist but he just didn’t have the skill. Instead he used his drawings to illustrate his books. The rest is history.
He and his wife, Julie, are now going to open a kids’ bookshop and arts centre in Plainville, the small town where they live in Massachusetts. They want kids get a chance to have access books rather than just reading on screens.…
A small gesture and hopelessly quixotic I know. But it was a sunshine story that gave me a big smile.

Good luck to them!

It’s National Poetry Day in the UK today

You doubtless think of Watson and myself as rough, tough, gruff, thick-skinned, hard-nosed men  of action who would rather eat a slice of quiche than read a poem. In reality we are sensitive, gentle, poetic spirits who take solace in sonnets.

So naturally we are going to take the chance to post a few poems today.

You’re beautiful by Simon Armitage on love and the gap between the sexes: Men are from Yorkshire, women are from Lancashire.

Next, John Cooper Clarke’s Beasley Street: a nightmare vision. Written in the grim days of the 80s. Feels just as true today

And finally, in this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.,John Keats’s magnificent Ode to Autumn. Over-anthologised to death, but they can’t stifle  one of the most beautiful poems in the English language.