Timber strained and wheezed, aching in the fresh salt water. The sea
lulled gently around the expansive girth and a breeze fluttered around
the rigging. Stockholms army of islands undulated into a hazy
distance, and as people turned from the wildflowers of their gardens,
up rose an awesome sight. Impossibly glorious, painted as if by Nature
herself, flashes of colour billowing from every corner and crows
nest. Towering high above the base waters stood saints draped in gold,
enraged lions and clawing two-headed eagles all parading the majesty
of the kingdom.
The timber groaned, rivets shrieked, and the floating fortress keeled.
Desperate men flung things overboard, anything they could grab. Nimble
sailors dragged frantically on ropes and sails, high up in the heavens.
But they were falling from grace. The light wind dragged the Vasa warship
down, its ballast of no consequence, and the glory of King Gustav II
Adolf, the glory of the Swedish Empire, sank without trace in Stockholms
waters. Its maiden voyage lasted fifteen minutes.
That was 1628, and this great warship lay until 1961 when it was dragged
from the mud and restored in all its greatness on Stockholm waterfront.
A bold attempt to stamp Swedens mark on Europe had ended swiftly,
the mighty ship remained in Stockholm. But then, in Sweden, grand gestures
rarely go far and are often short-lived, like the Midsummer riot enacted
before the dominant figure of Winter emerges from his rocky, pine-strewn
I sat and watched a row of Swedes, leaning against a barn wall on blankets,
their noses pushed up towards the midday sun, smiles of contentment
on their faces. The grass grew long and lush around their toes. The
long banquet table lay idle in the sunny meadow, inky schnapps soaking
into the cloth. The singing voices rose as boisterous gaggles marched
to and from the sauna. Midsummer in Sweden, and the energy is irrepressible
as naked men slip like salmon into the bubbling stream. It is an energy
that would effortlessly conquer the world, and around the barns and
outhouses this delirious celebration displays a pride and optimism that
knows no bounds. The water leaps and splutters, the wind tousles flowing
hair and even the wildflowers seem to want to voice their hopes, flinging
their perfume into the air.
It is Midsummer. Long ago a King was having mighty visions of a warship
to silence the world. Nobles built palaces, cathedrals and towns, and
in their optimism made rampaging forays into the lucrative heart of
Prussia and beyond. And today, in a sunny meadow, young faces thrust
to the sun in unison, proclaiming a great future. They see a larger
future, one they want to be part of. The past is swept away and the
talk is of rejoicing and socialising. But how short the memory can be,
how deceptive the sun. Icy claws are appearing, and Winter sends upturned
faces scurrying back to firesides. They have just built the foundations
of their palaces, forged new links to the world beyond, but the ship
In the tea party of Europe the Swedes arrived late, didnt know
anyone, and have always kept half an eye on the door. Social engagements,
with their posturing interaction, do not suit a temperament of solitude.
When you see a Stockholmer recently dropped anchor on a lonely archipelago
island with only a small, snug hut and the calling seagulls, you see
a Swede in his element. But thats solitude of course, you never
will see it. World domination is not a priority when you take a deep
and earnest appreciation of the warmth of an outdoor, log-fuelled bathtub
or the intricacies of the herrings appearance at different islands each
Spring. Whilst the world squabbles the Swedish can seem lacklustre and
vague, without the clashing colours of history happening. But their
heart is not entirely in it, they look with sincere interest at the
myriad cultures that surround them but the urge to participate is fleeting.
They are Swedish, and the quiet culture rolls on. To publicise it might
break its spell, so the tentative Swede engages with his neighbours
cautiously and courteously, but in the end he will find his peace in
the soft islands and the whispering pines.
A good friend of mine, a kindly man, steps from his central Stockholm
office and surveys the mellow sweep of the Old Town and the calm water.
Commuters buzz around him, he leaves the Government buildings and strolls
down past the mansions of Strandvägen. They end abruptly at the
bridge to Djurgården, as if this was as far as the aspiring nobles
got before the snows closed in. He walks on, white hair flapping and
his grey suit unbuttoned, face to the breeze. Soon he is beyond the
houses and out of sight amongst the deep foliage of the Kings
old hunting grounds.
I see him a short while later. He has launched a small one-man canoe
off a little wooden jetty in Djurgården. The jetty sprouts out
of the overgrown trees and bushes at the waters edge and I can just
make out a rim of white painted gable and the beginnings of deep crimson
walls, the only sign of a small dwelling. He strokes smoothly out into
the sparkling blue waters. On his head is a baseball cap and he is wearing
a T-shirt of Bruce Springsteens Born To Run.
He sculls away to what I know is waiting for him. A small cabin, a fishing
rod and a sauna. He glides out through Stockholms waters. He wont
sink, his craft is safely built. He wont go far.
© Nathan Handy 2001