We are spending two weeks of our summer vacation here in the delightful ancient university town of Lund in southern Gotland, Sweden. With its squares, cobbled streets, army of bicyclists and plethora of book and coffee shops Lund inescapably reminds me of my own Alma Mater, Cambridge. Like Cambridge Lund empties out in the summer as students return home or fill backpacks for exotic travel. Meanwhile the more well heeled professors pack their Volvos and head for their southern European Villas, Trulli and Gites.
As we stroll around the delightful Statsparken listening to the strains of a tango ensemble drifting over from the bandstand my mind, in holiday, ‘powering down’ mode idly rambles around my memory bank searching under the tags of Sweden.
The first outputs, unsurprisingly given my interests, are the names of a series of actors, writers, sports stars and musicians. First out was Ingemar Johansson who was briefly World Heavyweight Boxing champion in 1959/1960. I chuckled as I recalled that his,’ send the opponent to sleep’ right hand was variously christened, ‘Toonder and lightning’, ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and, my favourite, ‘Ingo’s Bingo!’
I’m sure millions of Swedes, listening on the radio to his first fight with reigning champ Floyd Patterson, must have let out a mighty multiple chants of Bingo! as Ingemar decked Floyd seven times in the third round to bring boxing’s premier crown home to Sweden!
Moving onto a somewhat more elevated intellectual plane my memory numbskulls next presented me with a series of powerful images attached to the name of Ingmar Bergman. I remembered that when programming the Sixth Form film club in the early 1970s I had insisted that we show Bergman’s intense masterpiece, ‘The Seventh Seal’ to balance out contemporary cult classics. Bergman was also my go to Auteur to demonstrate to prospective girlfriends that I was a deep thinker!
I was a little chastened to think that the next Swede in my memory download had not been the first – Raoul Wallenberg who was surely one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. Through a combination of bravery and immense resourcefulness he was principally responsible, as Sweden’s special envoy to Nazi occupied Hungary, for providing the means for tens of thousands of Jews to escape their inevitable fate in the Death Camps. His own fate, still in some measure mysterious, was to be captured, imprisoned and executed by the Soviets. His name and the light of his life will live forever.
Of course being a devotee of Scandinavian noir fiction and film I fairly quickly brought to mind Henning Mankell and his moody, brilliant and affecting detective Kurt Wallander. Our family devotion was proved by taking the highly enjoyable, recommended, vintage fire engine borne tour of Ystad the scene of so many of Wallender’s cases.
That said my favourite Swedish detective remains Martin Beck the complex, introspective hero of ten magnificent novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I also affect that when I wear my finest Saville Row overcoat that I cut a figure not dissimilar to that of the actor Mikhail Persbrandt when playing the role of Beck’s maverick sidekick, Gunwald Larsson.
I remain convinced that to be a poet is the highest calling in literature. So I soon thought of one of my own, ‘lifeboat poets’ (see forthcoming series!) Tomas Transtromer. His poetry deals might and main with life in all its human complexity. So he is a nature poet, a religious and mystical poet and a poet of everyday life. This is highly charged poetry creating a force field of words to capture essential truths. It takes a poet to say:
‘Every abstract picture of the world is as impossible
As a blueprint of a storm. Don’t be ashamed because you’re human – be proud!
Inside you vaults beyond vaults open endlessly
You will never be finished, and that’s as it should be.’
Tomas Transtromer died in March this year. Following the earlier death of Seamus Heaney it feels to me as if the tent poles of poetry have been felled.
Turning to the arena of music a plethora of names crowded into my mind each crying out for my attention. Jazz greats like saxophonist Lars Gullin and pianist Bengt Hallberg recorded music fully the equal of their American counterparts in the 1950s and they were the role models for a marvellous Swedish film about the jazz life, ‘Sven Klang’s Combo’.
This is some seriously cool music. I suggest you pour yourself an Akvatit and lean back in your easiest chair with eyes closed and let Lars and Bengt illuminate your spirit with their Northern sounds.
Ann Sofie von Otter is a mezzo soprano with a wide stylistic range stretching as far as a collaborative album with Elvis Costello!
It would be remiss of me not to mention ABBA – surely no one alive in the 1970s hasn’t lustily sang along to, danced along to and said (even if sotto voce) thank you for the music to Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni – Frid. If you’re too hip to appreciate the pop perfection of Abba I have to tell you buddy you’re too hip!
I should add that Agnetha’s 2004 album, ‘My Colouring Book’ filled with beautifully sung, heartfelt covers of 60s classics is a largely overlooked gem of a record you are strongly advised to investigate.
But, the song that kept bobbing to the top of my consciousness was not by a Swedish artist but a song about a Swede – ‘Ingrid Bergman’ a recording of a ‘lost’ Woody Guthrie lyric with added tune by Billy Bragg from the album, ‘Mermaid Avenue’ also featuring Americana kings, Wilco.
I should, in confession, say now that I lied when I said the first Swedish name that occurred to me was Ingemar Johansson. No, in truth one name kept flashing like a lighthouse beam illuminating my mind – Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman.
As her name and a succession of images of Ingrid played in my mind the soundtrack accompaniment was provided by Woody Guthrie’s lovely, sensual love letter to Ingrid touchingly performed here by Billy Bragg. Play it one time Billy!
Under two minutes long but expressing a world of emotion. Sitting in thrall in our cinema seats gazing at the vision of the soft, womanly, beauty of Ingrid Bergman generations of boys and men fell irrecoverably in love. In our dreams we would all have manned the oars willingly and set sail to the island of Stromboli oblivious to the risk of catastrophic volcanic explosion!
Ingrid benefitted from the genius of the great lighting cameramen and cinematographers so that her naturally fresh and intoxicating beauty literally glowed from the screen. However, for me, Ingrid in addition had a rare earthy quality that gave all the characters she played an approachable humanity who could combine moral strength with vulnerability.
I never thought of Ingrid Bergman as a ‘Goddess’ but simply as the loveliest, most heart and soul affecting actress to ever grace the silver screen.
‘If you’ll walk across my camera
I will flash the world your story’
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman. Here’s looking at you kid.
Now the reach of this blog might not encompass the entire world (though over 150 countries so far is a good start) but it does definitely cover Britain and Sweden and I hope this short tribute from a Brit to Sweden and Swedes finds favour in both nations. We will definitely be coming back to Sweden.
Tak sa mycket Sverige. Vi kommer att se dig snart igen.
Note – in case you are wondering where the, ‘I happen to be a Swede myself’ phrase comes from I can tell you it was the typically disorienting reply from Bob Dylan in 1966 to Swedish broadcaster Klas Burling’s simple question, ‘Do You know any Swedes?’