About the lilting city

July 21, 2010 in SWEDEN | Comments (3)

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21 July 2010

Pleasure boats now where ancient warships saild

I write about places all round the world so why not this watery city where I live and work. Like all places blessed with water, it is a new and different every day.

Stockholm is built on islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic sea. Most places in Stockholm city are a mere 10 minutes walk from the water, and my place of work is only 500 metres or so from one of the inlets on the long and looping coastline. I eat take-away lunch here, watching boats come in  to Nybroviken to pick up tourists on the quay.

From here they take a hop-on hop-off boat to the medieval old town, the 17th century warship Wasa (built 1628), Gröna Lund amusement park and other must-dos. Or take a boat under the bridges and through the canals. Or head further out in fat, jolly old boats among thousands of islands.

I long to go with them. But I have only lunch hour to drink in the atmosphere.

The succulence of the air is soupy in its lazy wash around us. We who usually quickstep through the cold are washed down into its warmth. Locals sit on the steps with take-away in their office clothes. Two men lie on the pier in their suits (shoes off). Others have got down to bikinis on the pier in front of Hotel Diplomat.

Behind me leaves are an eruption of sap framing my favourite sculpture (John Ericsson, inventor) – the embodiment of all the power and sensuality of the spirit, despite his scientific leanings shown romantically as hammer and chisel.  I float by with my solitude and my camera. Listen to the voices. Most are locals or Swedes from upcountry. But the Italian and Spanish bring the feel of the Med and the spirit of adventure.

We travel to see the world (and ourselves) in new ways. In this warmth and with the sound of foreign voices around me, everything looks new. Feeling free as a bird, I soar with my mind’s eye around things taken for granted. I long to explore and see this city released from the box of straight 3d perceptions.

If there is a fourth dimension, it is the spirit – n’est pas?

Dylan Thomas wrote about his childhood perceptions: “About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…”

With apologies to the beloved Dylan,  I call this series of lunchtime snapshots “About the Lilting City”.

A couple were taken after work when I hopped off (the T-bana) at Gamla Stan – the old town. Some were taken wandering though Kungsträdgården.

This view of the lilting city shows the Seagod and mermaid by Carl Milles, against a backdrop of colourful seafront buildings in the old town. The robust granite figures look out over the quay at Skeppsbron, another spot where boats constantly come and go. “I sang in my chains like the sea…”.

Nearby is a lock (Slussen) through which smaller boat traffic goes between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic. Slussen qualifies as a crime against humanity for blank-faced modern architecture, messy roads and concrete structures like a slap in the face of the graceful old Stockholm. But here I have taken it lightly. Seen  through the tacky  “square” created by Katarina bridge and lift, is the quay along the shore of the island of Södermalm, which takes big passenger boats to Finland and beyond.

Back to the beautiful old and lilting city, and now history creeps into the story. This is “Bågspännaren” against a skyline of medieval rooftops in Gamla Stan  – the sculpture of the archer represents the leader of an uprising in 1434 against Erik III of Sweden. The rebel Engelbrecht Engelbrechtson was murdered shortly afterwards and martyrised. Erik got deposed soon after but made it back into power, only to be deposed a few more times. When finally thrown out for good he moved to Gotland and became a pirate of German ships…

Now we are in Kungsträdgården – the king’s garden – a shadow of its former self, though the kings live on in stone and metal. 

Karl XII – the warrior king 1697 to 1718 (above and below). Kungsträdgården, where he stands in front of the elms once saved from decapitation by treehuggers, is a favourite marching destination for Keep Sweden Swedish and such like.  Racist political groups love him as he did a lot of fighting and did not believe in compromise.  He even conquered his neighbours, Denmark and Norway, but Russia was his most sought-after adversary  – he is pointing at Russia here.  Charles won a big battle against Peter the Great – but lost badly at the Battle of Poltava, marking the decline of the Swedish empire. Was finally shot in Norway through the head. 

The bird is a reminder that “sceptre and crown must tumble down”… Click for a closer view of the bird’s heritage.

The view (below) of a lilting Karl XIII in Kungsträdgården would be incomplete without the lions – now a favourite place for people to sit and children to ride. Our Charles was according to an internet source “decrepit” by the time he was crowned in Sweden in 1809. There was a very nasty regent before him who basically ruined him. Karl was married to a woman with a very fine name: Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp. He had no heirs which brought the current house of Bernadotte into the picture.

Below: The first Bernadotte on the Swedish throne (1818) was French, an advocate’s son who made a successful career in Napoleon’s army and administration. An inspirational Swedish noble decided to invite Bernadotte to be king (off his own bat) (for which he was put in house arrest since parliament favoured a Dane). But his idea turned out to be a winner, and Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was elected by Parliament and adopted by Karl XIII as the future Karl XIV of Sweden for at least one reason. He had been kind to Swedish soldier prisoners in one of his wars. I like stories like that – when good actions bring rewards… 

“Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in their dust…”

Meanwhile on the shoreline of the island of Gamla Stan, life goes on. The weather brings a long row of people to the quayside to enjoy the sun.  The Bernadotte, Charles XIV, can be seen on his high horse in the background as a tiny dot. Boats tie up or head by to the lock ast Slussen. A floating pub is very popular…

Back in time (below): Gustav II Adolf lilts high above the Foreign Office, where he has been in Gustav Adolfs Torg (square) since 1791 – the later additions to the sculpture are cut off in this snapshot. He overlooks the royal palace on Gamla Stan (built between 1698 and 1771) – The current king Carl XVI Gustaf does not actually reside there any longer.


The opera house is also in Gustav Adolfstorg –  and round the corner is THE  place to go, a lot of the time. Cafe Opera.  Way back in the 1990s some London journalists at Cafe Opera told me: forget swinging London – this is it.

Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill starts….

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,


and ends:
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Then James Shirley’s poem

The glories of our blood and state

Are shadows, not substantial things;

There is no armour against Fate;

Death lays his icy hand on kings:

Sceptre and Crown

Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

 With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.


Then boast no more your mighty deeds!

Upon Death’s purple altar now

See where the victor-victim bleeds.

 Your heads must come

 To the cold tomb:

 Only the actions of the just

 Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

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