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. Stockholm’s 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 crow’s 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 Stockholm’s 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 Sweden’s 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 hideaway.
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 has sunk.
In the tea party of Europe the Swedes arrived late, didn’t 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 that’s 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 lackluster 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 King’s 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 Springsteen’s ’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 Stockholm’s waters. He won’t sink, his craft is safely built. He won’t go far.
© Nathan Handy 2001