Why the long face, Sweden?

16 Jun

Unbelievable. We’re in Sweden, it’s the night of the Sweden vs England game and come kick-off Jo still has her head under the duvet recording links! I did the chivalrous thing, of course, and went into town to bag us a seat. This was a little more difficult than you’d imagine. My first choice venue – an outdoor big screen where I knew there’d be lots of atmosphere – was operating a one-out, one-in policy by the time I got there, and while there are lots of Irish bars in Stockholm, the whole point was to see the game with some Swedes.

Roy’s Corner at the Malmö Stadium

Our previous football outing here was a more organised affair. We had seats in the press area to watch Malmö FF (5 times league champions under our very own Roy Hodgson, hence Roy’s corner in the pic) which meant no queuing, tea, coffee and a rather pretty cupcake with the team emblem!  Strange though it may sound, we were in fact working – shadowing Jiloan Hamad, Malmö midfielder (in Zlatan’s old position) and captain of Sweden’s U21 team.

Jiloan was lined up to show us around the mean streets of Malmö for an audio slideshow like the ones we did in Zambia. He performed admirably on the pitch that day –  assisting in two of the three goals that saw off arch-rivals Helsinborg; and was eloquent and patient while making the slideshow.

One of the places on the itinerary was Rosengård – where Zlatan grew up. We arrived early so Jo could record an interview with a women’s group (Zaina, in the slideshow wearing a scarf in Swedish colours, is a member) and I went for a wander. All was as expected – high rises and hurrying residents – until I spotted a horse. Yes, a horse. Not just any horse, but the one used for collecting the rubbish on the estate.

Twice a week Dobbin is hitched to a special trailer and taken to collect the bins. No noise, no emissions (other than ones that can be cleared up with a shovel) and considerable delight for the kids who live in the big blocks all around.

Horse and rubbish cart

Horse-drawn rubbish collections are a regular sight in Rosengård

Its handlers told me its not the only horsepower scheme in Malmö. There’s another rubbish operation and a big lawn-mowing scheme – which is how it all started. “It’s much better than coming here with a machine,” said one of the dustmen. “People are interested in the horse, and they interact with us.” They also operate a horse-drawn litter patrol in conjunction with local schools.

So that is why the slideshow includes a picture of a man, by an ‘orse, with a glint in his eye.

As for the football, I eventually found a screen – and a seat – at the surprisingly swish Bistrot Boheme. Jo arrived just as Sweden went 2-1 ahead (cue delirium from the Sverige fans) and then I had to sit on my hands as Walcott and Wellbeck turned woe into a win. Jo felt sorry for Sweden. I didn’t.

I have a hunch that down in Malmö, they won’t be that surprised by the result. And let’s hope Roy’s boys do better against Ukraine than Jiloan’s U21 side – they were beaten 6-0 in Kiev a couple of weeks ago.

The Saga of Saab

7 Jun

I’m not usually one for for ‘inspired by the news’ blog posts, which explains my silence on Eurovision victory (although I watched to the bitter end, and thought the Hump was short-changed), the Assange appeal defeat and Sweden’s National Day.

But today’s rumour about the sale of Saab gives me an excuse to publish some photos I took at the Saab Museum in Trollhättan last week. We stopped there for a couple of days so Jo could interview the Mayor, a former employee of the car firm, as part of a report on the topsy-turvy fortunes of Sweden’s automotive industry. And so I could drool over my #2 favourite car design (#1 is the Citroen DS).

The Saab prototype at the museum in Trollhättan

For me, cars are all about the curves. I like a well-rounded rear, generously contoured panels and plenty of chrome. And I’m a soft touch for a bit of backstory. (Petrolheads, skip this bit: you’ve heard it a hundred times.) Like Vespas, Saab sprung from the aviation industry, though they built aeroplanes rather than helicopters. Taking inspiration from the cross-section of a wing, the Saab designers came up with the iconic aerodynamic shape most clearly visible in the first prototype, which has pride of place in the museum, and a number plate to match: ‘URSAAB’.

By the time the car was ready for production in the 50s some of that sleekness had been lost – there’s a touch of the horseshoe crab about the early models, and one is even nicknamed ‘Toad’ – but none of its character. Not being much of a car nerd, I can’t comment on the engine, but apparently they were reliable and innovative. Jo’s dad had one with a special freewheel setting – presumably to let you conserve petrol going downhill – which sounds pretty cool.

Unfortunately the company began to head downhill itself when GM bought in (this according to one of the museum’s guest curators, and editor of a magazine for Saab enthusiasts) and began hiding nasties under the bonnet. It was ditched by the Americans in 2010, who sold it to Dutch outfit Spyker. Unfortunately this drove Saab the rest of the way under, and the receivers moved in last year. Only a last-minute intervention by the municipality and a rich benefactor saved the museum from destruction by auction.

Since then there have been plenty of negotiations, often in Chinese, but no offers substantial enough to see the factory gates unchained. That may explain why I found Trollhättan so forlorn, why I had the whole museum to myself. The centre of the city – a discordant symphony of concrete and theme bars – needed plenty of bustle to have any chance at redemption, and there was precious little. People must have been in hibernation, conserving energy until they heard about the company’s future.

The original propeller logo on the racing edition Sonnett 94

With the news that investors from the east are stumping up a decent sum for Saab, let’s hope that’s about to change. There’s a little poetry in the mix too – Trollhättan was a fishing-and-forest backwater until some bright spark recognised the potential for hydro-electric power in its steep set of waterfalls.  The turbines in the impressive brick hall below the museum set the town on its industrial trajectory, and now it’s electricity which may get the town running again:  Saab’s buyers are the National Electric Vehicle [Sweden] consortium, looking to make inroads into China’s burgeoning car market with hybrid technology.

Drifting into multiculturalism (part 1)

25 May

‘You’ve just missed him,’ one of the teenagers told us as she emerged from the driftwood staircase into the forest. ‘Yeah, he was down here about half an hour ago,’ added her friend excitedly, ‘with these two big guys dressed in black. A load of people turned up in a speedboat and sort of stared at him. It was really scary. Then they waved and sped off.’

They didn’t have to say who they were referring to. Lars Vilks. Sweden’s Salman Rushdie, and sculptor of this gnarly corridor down to the sea. An artist people come to wave at, or to kill.

It seems he’d been patching up one of the towers he’s been constructing over the last twenty years or so, much to the fury of the local council who say he has no right to build in a nature reserve. Angry planners aren’t the reason Vilks can’t move without police bodyguards, though. He has a roundabout dog to blame for that.

But long before roundabout dogs became fashionable in Sweden, this coastal towerblock was Vilks’ most controversial artwork. To get to Nimis, as it’s called, you have to find your way through gorgeous woodland, looking for occasional yellow N’s on the upright birches and prickly firs. There are no proper signposts, since it’s not meant to be there. The council ordered it demolished, so Vilks declared the land an independent micro-nation. Landonia has its own flag – green with a hint of a Nordic cross in certain lights – and its own anthems. Vilks is the Secretary of State, and it has ‘citizens’ all over the world. It has a Gaudiesque sandcastle at one end of the beach, and lopsided castles reached by walkways which suddenly lurch to one side for intransigent rocks or insistent branches. Tons of driftwood roughly nailed into a striking counterpoint to their living neighbours. And a bureaucratic provocation that earned Vilks a reputation as a troublemaker.

The driftwood equivalent of Angkor Wat

Then, back in Sweden proper, people started creating dogs and sticking them in the middle of roundabouts. Vilks sketched a dog’s body and put the Prophet Mohammed’s head on it. This was two years after Danish cartoonists had shown how very sensitive such subject matter could be. Before long, al Qaeda in Iraq had put a price on his head. ‘At that point, I didn’t know how it worked,’ Vilks told me later. ‘I thought people were going to come running down the street to get me.’ These days he’s used to the threats, and keeps mementos of the attacks on him. The scorched curtain rail in his kitchen recalls the arson attack on his home. The egg in his fridge, with a bearded man inked on it, was the one that didn’t break during an assault in a lecture theatre.

It was quite a surprise to be sitting in his living room, a few days after scrambling through Nimis. I’d wanted to find out how it was living under 24-hour guard, and whether he regretted his rondellhund drawing. But I rather doubted I would be able to find him. After all, he’s surely a man who doesn’t want to be found. We started off in the town nearest the sculpture, picked a hotel and asked the receptionist if she knew where he lived. A brief hesitation, then she drew me a map. ‘His house is along this road somewhere,’ she said. ‘You’ll know which one because there’s a caravan in the back yard where the police live.’

One makeshift checkpoint, several secretive phone calls, and two security checks later, we’re in. Through the hall, with the ‘last line of defence’ axe propped against the wall, and Sweden’s most wanted man clears a space for me on the sofa, lifting off a half-finished painting as he does so. A caricature of the Prophet Mohammed stares up at me. So I know the answer to my question about regret. His other responses I’m still reflecting on. More another day.

Bruges for shutterbugs

17 May

‘Just coming,’ I call, again, and I mean it, I’ll come just as soon as I’ve captured the beautiful Battenburg-style configuration of pink and yellow (and purple) panes in this window. But whatever adjustment I make to my shutter speed and f.stop, the picture won’t come out quite right. I know I should just effin stop and catch up with the rest of the group, that’s what I should do. One more try …

Desperately in need of a polariser

It’s a bit like this whenever I go out with a camera: I get sucked in, and unless I get exactly the right light and framing, I’ll fill a card with a single subject. Once I opened a pack of prints with impatient fingers to find I had paid a month’s pocket money for 24 almost identical shots of my aunt’s almost identical sheep.

A guided photo tour sounded like the antidote to my affliction. And where better than in Bruges, home not only of hapless hitmen and coked-up dwarves, but of brightly painted merchants’ houses, ivy-clad crossings over the canals (the city takes its name from the Old Dutch for bridge), grand public buildings and tiny terraces with the characteristic pink-and-yellow …

Which brings me back to Balstraat street, down which Andy McSweeney, the Canadian guide, had led us to get a shot of the spire of the Jerusalem Church, and if we didn’t like that, a Lautrec-style black cat on a sign outside the craft museum. I shot the cat, then my attention strayed to the aforementioned window. Andy had already told me that a polarising filter on the lens is the best way to deal with eradicating reflections in glass, or failing that, a friend holding up their coat to blank out the light. Sadly I had neither, and was so long trying to get my picture that I didn’t notice the owner, a short gent in a pork-pie hat and sports jacket, emerging from his front door. Too late to pretend I hadn’t been poking a lens into his living room.

But instead of huffing and puffing, he waved away my apologies with his fat cigar and  invited me in. I hollered after the others to join me and entered. The gloomy interior revealed itself to be a former almshouse. ‘The baroness and I have just bought it,’ explained my host in accented English. ‘It was owned by three sisters – their names are here, on this beam.’ The history was interesting, but I was keener on taking pictures of the baroness, who was repainting a garden bench in front of the hearth. The light was pure Vermeer, and the magazines she was using to save the tiles were old French society titles with the Queen Mother and Fergie on the covers.

Andy didn’t seem to mind having his itinerary interrupted. As he said in his intro, his aim was to show us places we might not come across by ourselves, and provide tips on technique. His freestyle teaching method was based around a nifty wireless link between his camera and iPad. Click: the shot of a covered gallery at the end of a cobbled street appears on screen. ‘Standard perspective. Pretty boring, isn’t it.’ We all agree. Click: the gallery again, but this time he’s included a portion of the frontage of another building. The extra element creates a natural frame, and some context for the scene. Much more powerful. ‘The important thing is that I moved my feet,’ he explained. ‘If you’re only moving the camera you’re not working hard enough.’ Andy’s approach was a real highlight for me; on other photo courses I’ve attended the pro hasn’t done much live demonstration.

Where are we again?

There was a valuable feedback element too. After a scrimmage to get a good shot of the display in a chocolate shop window, Andy’s advice was to go in really tight: ‘Try homing in on one item. It’ll be more effective than a busy frame.’ He takes a close-up of a bicycle made of candy – a tribute to the city’s favourite form of transport without the cliché factor.

Over the course of the afternoon we received mini-tutorials on snapping statues, street scenes, water, and, of course, windows. But you could easily spend days rather than hours in Bruges. The council has a policy of providing rebates for sympathetic restoration work, so every street offers a profusion of photo opportunities – quirky as well as quaint.

There are even two windmills just in case you don’t have time to go into the countryside. Andy ended the tour beneath their sails. ‘This is the big finish,’ he announced. But he wasn’t kidding anyone: Bruges’ backstreets and alleyways are the real stars of this show. Add in his expert guidance, and you’d be hard pressed to come away without some top shots.

Please peruse more Bruges on  Flickr or visit Andy’s site to book a tour.

Royson of the Rovers

9 May

Swedish legend Leif Engqvist stands in front of a photo of him with Roy Hodgson, then manager of Malmö FF. ‘Royson’ won the Allsvenskan title with them 5 times on the trot. So what was he like in the dressing room? Listen here: http://audioboo.fm/boos/792916-leif-engqvist-on-roy-hodgson

First cut

6 May

The British are obsessed with owning their own homes, or so says one of the daily ‘flashcards’ I receive by email to help me learn Swedish. It’s a bit of a generalisation, yes, but one that’s hard to argue against. All the more so because it chimes with many of the other characteristics for which we are known: dogged, wary of outsiders, conservative, territorial. Luckily, these tend to be viewed from abroad as amusing, even estimable traits (I have in mind the stalwart defending his lawn in Asterix in Britain with the immortal line ‘Your empire may be bigger than my garden, but my pilum is harder than your sternum’). Opinions would be very different, I suspect, if Great Britain was not an island.

Obviously it’s early days to start pinning down the Swedish temperament – we only made landfall a week ago – but I hope that in the coming months I’ll have seen enough to produce a few flashcard-length summaries of my own. For now, I can offer some first impressions, and with them the usual disclaimers about assumptions and appearances.

Banishing the winter spirits at the Walpurgis bonfire

The south, which is where we are based for the time being, is wide-skied and gentle: fields, hedgerows, birds aplenty, small settlements, and a coastline that is rugged without great drama. We timed our arrival to coincide with Walpurgis Night, April 30th, named for St Walpurga, a British missionary, but celebrated with the good old pagan rite of building a big bonfire, cooking sausages on it, and (if you’re 14) having a surreptitious can of beer in the bushes nearby. In folklore the purpose of the fire is to drive the winter spirits away, and by Thor, it did the job. The sun has been beating down on Skälderviken – the bay we can see from the window of the friend’s summerhouse we are staying in – and transforming our brisk and chilly dogwalks along the stretch of nearby foreshore into ray-soaked ambles.

We are on the outskirts of Vejbystrand, which has a small harbour, two shops and a single pub, currently shut: people come here for the sea air, not the nightlife. So far we have met one set of neighbours who live on the other coast, in Uppsala, and another who weekends here from Helsinborg. That may answer a question which often springs to mind when I visit smaller places: what do people actually do here? Certainly the question reveals the ignorance and arrogance of someone who’s lived in London for a long time, but I’m still curious. Retirees probably make up a fair proportion of the population – I saw a squadron of mobility scooters setting out along the coast road earlier in the week, and the headline in the local freesheet this week is ‘4 out of 10 councillors are over 65’ –but what do the younger people I saw at the bonfire do?

By contrast, yesterday we were in Malmö, Sweden’s third city, and were struck by the vibrancy of the place. It has boomed in the last 12 years, in large part due to the opening of the 16km-long bridge-cum-tunnel to Denmark. A sizeable number of Danes have relocated to the Swedish side of the strait, where the cost of living is lower, and 10% of Malmö’s population commute across the Oresund every day. The evidence of renewal is there in the spanking new football stadium for Malmö FF, and the packed-out cafes, chi-chi shops and galleries in the city centre. There’s a much-publicised dark side to Malmö too, which we’ll come to in a later post, but we had a trouble-free day trip, and the residents we spoke to ­– former footballers, an artist, a political scientist – were quietly enthusiastic about their home.

That quietness, by the way, is probably the norm. Much has been written about ‘lagom’, the restraint or moderation that governs the way people behave. But I saw an example of it at first hand in a Malmö car park. A young man, who at first glance appeared to be loitering against a signpost, turned out to be handcuffed to it. Stag-do high jinks, then. But he was extremely calm about it, and the perpetrators, standing on the pavement opposite, might have been waiting for a bus – no shouting, no singing, no swigging from bottles. After 10 minutes they unlocked him, and all strolled off together, as civilised as you like.