W W Thomas Jr – His Name Set in Stone

W W Thomas Jr is the only name that looks remotely English (Welsh in fact), carved in stone in S A Hedlund’s Guest Book, but he turns out to be American and with a story to tell

About 10 minutes walk from my home in Gothenburg, near the entrance to a park, is a rock-face – a smooth granite cliff – inscribed with dozens of names. This is SA Hedlund’s Guest Book.

SA Hedlund Guest Book - Fredrika Bremer et alThe first time I was taken to see it, soon after I first visited Sweden, I recognised exactly two of the names: the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. My (Swedish) guide was perplexed. What about Fredrika Bremer? The feminist Fredrika Bremer? No? Well, you must at least know Viktor Rydberg. He wrote “Tomten“!

I shook my head sadly. I did not know Viktor Rydberg. I had never heard of “Tomten”.

My companion was aghast at my ignorance. Clearly my claims to be a university educated student of history and literature were seriously in doubt.

And how is it, she asked, that the only two names you do recognise are Norwegian?

I’m very sorry, I said.

Not wanting to be found completely unworthy I scanned the rock desperately for names I might recognise. They all seemed to be Scandinavian. Or German. Except… Who was W W Thomas Jr? I asked

I don’t know, she said, offhandedly. Some Englishman.

But he wasn’t.

Viktor Rydberg and W W Thomas JrWilliam Widgery Thomas Jr was an American. He was born in the city of Portland in the State of Maine in 1839. He first visited Sweden in 1863 when he was appointed as the first American-born Consul in Gothenburg. Not bad for a 23-year-old. This started a life-long love affair with Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular.

In many ways, Thomas was probably typical of his age and class. His appointment (as the American Civil War dragged on) was probably in gratitude for his family’s support of the anti-slavery movement and the campaign to elect President Lincoln. Officially he was to be the contact man for American citizens visiting Gothenburg. In fact his job was also to counter Confederate propaganda and recruit immigrants to the USA – especially trained soldiers for the Union army.

Although opposed to slavery and so – you’d think – committed to the equality of all mankind, Thomas had very decided views on what was the Right Stuff for an American citizen. His fellow consuls in Britain were recruiting many Irish. Thomas disapproved. The Irish he thought “fickle, merry, light-hearted” and infected by Catholicism; Scandinavians were far superior, especially the “honest, pious, plodding Swedes.”

His period as Consul came to an end in 1865, but in 1870 he helped Swedish immigrants found the settlement of New Sweden in northern Maine. He married a Swedish woman (Dagmar Törnebladh, and after her death, he married her younger sister), and held the position of US Ambassador to the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway on three separate occasions. And he translated both Viktor Rydberg and Fredrika Bremer into English.

SA Hedlund home foundations and Hällskriftsgatans pre-school To judge by his memoirs, Sweden and the Swedes (Från slott till koja in Swedish), published in 1892, he really enjoyed Swedish wildlife. He certainly tried to kill as much of it as possible. Roughly half the book’s 700+ pages – by my count – is taken up with descriptions of hunting or fishing expeditions.

William Widgery Thomas (Jr) became my goal. I went out of my way to track him down. Thirty years on, I might not know much more about Viktor Rydberg or Fredrika Bremer. Or about some of the other 60-odd luminaries whose names are carved in the stone Guest Book. But I know a lot about W W Thomas Jr. I even know that the Guest Book originally missed the “Jr”.

In the first chapter of his magnum opus, Thomas describes coming to Sweden to take up his post as Ambassador in, I guess, 1889. He arrives in Gothenburg, crosses the river and rides out to the estate of his old friend, the editor and publisher Sven Adolf Hedlund. Hedlund, the legendary editor-in-chief of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning – the Gothenburg Trade and Shipping Newspaper – had caused the rocks by the drive up to his summer residence to be carved with the names of all the illustrious people who had been his house guests over 32 years.

Thomas is delighted to see that his own name is carved in a place of honour, just above Viktor Rydberg (though in smaller letters). He comments, however, that the name is missing its “Jr”. Without it, he points out, Hedlund has actually honoured Thomas’s father. In the book he reports Hedlund saying he was trying to save money; that every letter costs one Swedish kronor to have cut. Still, Thomas’s published complaint seems to have had the desired effect. Hedlund found the cash and the carved letters now identify W W Thomas Jr and no one else.

SA Hedlund guest book from a distance

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Terrorism – a proper response

Every so often someone asks me how I feel about terrorism. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened again yesterday.

My day

Old chairs in a windowYesterday, as I write, three bombs were detonated in Brussels, a city where I live on and off now while Mrs SC is working there for an international organisation. Now it happens, just at present, I am away at home in Gothenburg while my wife is at home away in Brussels. The news of the first bombing – the two bombs at the international airport – came through in a news flash to my phone yesterday morning at 8.51. I know this because I was dictating a diary entry at the time and I mentioned the time when I broke off to check my phone.

The media reports were calling the airport “Zaventem”, which is its proper name, but as everyone in Brussels seems to call it “Brussels’ airport”, my first thought was that Zaventem must be the other Brussels airport, the little one out of town which the budget airlines and charter companies use. This meant I wasn’t too worried for about half an hour.

Then I realised the little airport is Brussels South Charleroi. The media reports were actually about the main international airport. And now I heard about the bomb on the Brussels underground in the rush hour. Things became more urgent.

Mrs SC has an arrangement with her office that lets her come in late on Tuesdays so she (and I when I’m there) can go swimming. When I finally reached her – by text message – she’d just got back from the swimming baths and was getting ready for work. She hadn’t heard about the attacks.

During the day, contact was a bit difficult. Presumably the mobile net was overwhelmed by traffic. However, we managed to exchange texts several times during the day and finally were able to talk in the evening. I spent the day on and off line – sometimes fielding questions from worried friends and family members (especially the more elderly and less e-literate ones), sometimes following the news updates on the social and news media, sometimes doing something practical. I dusted and vacuumed the flat. Then I went shopping. Then I made a batch of pancakes and ate them all. It was only afterwards (when I was feeing a bit sick) that I realised I’d forgotten to use any eggs.

Mrs SC got through on the phone at last around 6.30 in the evening. She told me her story.

Her day

When she left the flat in the morning, she discovered the metro wasn’t working, so she took a local tram towards the city, but that came to a halt just two stops up the line. So then she tried to catch a bus, but that also came to a halt just a few stops along. After a lot of uncertainty, a couple of security personnel turned up and told everyone on the bus and milling around at the bus stop that there was no public transport into or out of Brussels centre. It seems this information was not given over the radio to the bus or tram drivers; they were just told to stop. The security people recommended that the passengers did not go on into town on foot, but return to their homes.

Mrs SC walked a part of the way home, but then went into a cafe for a late breakfast. That was when she learned more about the bombings and finally got through to her (Swedish) boss who had been trying to reach her. He wanted to know about another Swedish colleague who was visiting Brussels, but because my wife wasn’t in the office she couldn’t go to find out what had happened to him.

This was also when she got through to her work (or they reached her) and she discovered her immediate (Brussels) boss was actually close to entering the Maelbeek metro station when the bomb went off there. The boss didn’t realise what had happened – just understood that the station had been closed – and instead walked to work.

By this time the authorities had gone out with a request that everybody stay indoors and off the streets, so Mrs SC decided it was better for her to stay on in the cafe. She was there for at least two hours, following developments on social media and news websites. This was when she was able to post a “safe” notice to Facebook and a photo of the café looking very peaceful, which helped allay fears for some friends I’m sure. After that she decided she would be better off at home, and because there was still no public transport, she walked. The weather, she said, made it a very nice day to be out walking.

When she got home – or on the way – she finally heard officially from her employers that all their members of staff were accounted for and were safe.

Yesterday – among all the other messages – was one: “I expect now you’ll be moving back to Gothenburg as soon as you can.” And another: “How can you live in a dangerous place like that?”

To which the answers are first “No”, and second, “It’s as safe as anywhere else.”

Terrorism – the proper response

Terrorism response - Blossom
I grew up in England during the worst of the Troubles. Between 1973 and 1976 (when I was betwen 14 and 17), the IRA carried out a series of bomb attacks aimed at pretty much the same sort of targets as the current IS terrorists. Railway stations and airports, tourist attractions, crowded shops, theatres and arenas. The media – perhaps repeating the language of the security services – calls these “soft targets”.

The only new element in the current wave of attacks is that they are suicide attacks. Even that’s not exactly new. I realised today, listening to the Belgian public prosecutor’s press conference that the French word for suicide attacker is kamikaze, which takes the concept back a good 70 years.

The objective of attacking “soft targets” and of trying to cause as much destruction and disruption as possible, of course, is to instil terror in the population being targeted. This is what terrorism means. The success of the terrorists depends on the extent that we allow ourselves to be frightened – terrorised – by them.

But really, why let ourselves become frightened?

Yes, of course, in the moment when we are subjected to an attack, we may be frightened. If not immediately, then in the aftermath. It’s a normal human reaction. And someone with direct experience of such an attack may even become permanently traumatised – there’s no shame in that.

But there is shame in letting ourselves be terrorised by these attacks if we haven’t been directly affected. That is cowardice – and, frankly, stupidity.

Rhetoric aside, we are not living in a war zone. We are not in a state of desperation. We have been targeted by a few petty attackers who have let themselves been fooled into giving up their own lives for a worthless cause.

Seventy years ago the people of Europe had every reason to feel traumatised after six years of total war. Today the people of Syria have a reason to feel terror after suffering five years of a brutal civil war. But the wave of Syrian refugees are not fleeing to Europe because conditions in Europe are no better than in Syria. By comparison to Syria, Europe today is an oasis of peace. A few random suicide attacks are not going to change that – unless we let them.

The IRA attacks of my childhood achieved nothing beyond murdering a small number of people and injuring a larger group. Those attacks did not instil terror into the general population then. There is no reason to expect these IS attacks will be any more successful now. And there is no reason to allow them to be any more successful.

So the proper response to terrorism, in my opinion, is not to give in to terror. Be more cautious, perhaps, be more alert if that helps you. Don’t discount risk, but keep a sense of proportion. You can die crossing the road – in fact you are much more likely to die crossing the road than as the victim of a terrorist attack. Are you terrified to cross the road? Of course not. So why give in to terror in the face of the far more remote chance of getting caught up in a bombing?

If you can, react to the terrorists by doing the opposite of what they want. Don’t be frightened, be friendly – more friendly – to your neighbours and to strangers. Don’t hate, be loving – more loving – to your family and friends. Be brave. Hold your head up. You are not a coward. The cowards are the terrorists themselves – and the people they cow.

Street orchestra in Brussels

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Scary Monsters and Museum Night Fever

An evening of scary monsters, strange objects, and a night out at several museums which have stepped “out of their usual context” for the evening

Once a year the Museums of Brussels (24 of them this year) get together on a winter Saturday to hold a party called Museum Night Fever. True, some are more committed than others to the party aspect of the event. Still, even those museums that simply open late without offering anything extra seem to attract crowds of visitors, and the visitors themselves bring the party feeling along with them.

Faience elephant - Brussels City museumThere is a flat rate (€14 a head) to get in, which is a financial saving only if you have the stamina to get around more than two or three museums – and to get around to more than two or three in the evening. But saving money is not really the point of participating in an evening like this; the experience is.

On Saturday, Mrs SC and I started out at the City Museum in Grand-Place. This was interesting especially for its models of the city, and the maps showing how Brussels has grown over the centuries. Particularly interesting, we thought, was the model of the early medieval city (c1200), showing how it looked at the time the first city walls were built. Somebody had a lot of fun building that.

Figures of Burgers - Brussels City museumI don’t know how trustworthy the model is (though, presumably, it’s at least truthful to the knowledge of the early city historians had at the time the model was made). Given that, it was surprising to see how much empty space the city walls enclosed. As my wife observed, it looked a lot like a Swedish ring fort – a fornberg – similar in particular to Eketorp on Öland. From illustrations in books and too many film and TV interpretations of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, I’m used to imagining medieval cities packed to the walls with houses, with narrow twisting streets and roofs climbing above roofs up to the sides of the castle keep. Seeing grazing land and, effectively, market gardens occupying most of the space within the walls of early Brussels was a refreshing challenge to my preconceptions.

Shifty lion - Brussels City museumAs the model is under glass which the museum’s lights glare off, none of my photos turned out to be worth sharing. In fact the only pictures fom the City Museum that came out were of some of the model animals and people on display elsewhere around the museum. A faience elephant, a lion with shifty eyes, two burgers. These were not the scary monsters, though.

After the City Museum, we thought we’d try to visit the Royal Library, a place we have walked passed often, but never yet been inside, but the queue was ridiculous. It was the same story at the Museum of Musical Instruments. So, OK, we’ll take a tram to the Botanical Gardens, we decided. But no tram came. So we walked – through the wild wind’s loud lament and the bitter weather.

That last sentence may be overdoing things, but it was a long walk in a cold wind.

Once we got to Le Botanique, though, there was a good pasta meal to be had in the restaurant and we heard the overspill base sounds from a rock concert in the Orangery. It turned out to be a Swedish singer, Seinabo Sey, and when we mixed with the crowds coming out after the concert, they seemed well pleased. (Which made at least 50% of our party quite happy.)

Glowinski at Botanique - The gallery with dinosaurThen we took ourselves into the Museum Night Fever special event – a modern art happening/marathon performance piece by a Brussels-based French artist, Vincent Glowinski whose nom de graffiti is Bonom. He was once seen as Brussels’ answer to England’s Banksy, until the police caught him red handed. Well, aerosols in hand perhaps. (That’s one story – Glowinski himself tells another – see in this interview.) Since when he has been more – but on the evidence of Saturday night not much more – of a conventional artist.

Glowinski at Botanique - Scary monster snake skullIn a gallery of the Botanical Gardens – once designed to hold plants – he had filled the space with scary monsters. A collection of oddities: created skeletons of pre-historic creatures (or creatures inspired by prehistory); ceramic objects of various sorts from shells, coins, tokens and bones to what appeared to be pages from his sketchbooks; larger pieces in plastic resin, silicon, bamboo, nylon, sand, clay.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monster marionetteThe skeletons were animated and he had a bunch of assistants – young art students I guess – who made them dance. The assistants also played single-mindedly with some of the smaller creations, walking them around the free-standing plant-sculptures, flying them around the gallery and “investigating” visitors. There were also a couple or three who had specially shaped mirrors or specially constructed eye-pieces. These people went around persuading visitors to hold the mirrors up to their eyes, distorting their vision, and then led them gently around the gallery to experience an even weirder version of the exhibition.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monsters' shadowsLight in the gallery came from a few spot lamps, so it was very bright in places, very dim and mysterious in others. Not so much in the way of glaring surfaces though, but lots of sharp shadows. Several of my photos came out rather well, I thought. And even those that didn’t come out sharp still give something of the flavour of the exhibition.

Glowinski at Botanique - scary monster larvaIt was still cold and still windy when we said farewell to the scary monsters, and there was rain or even sleet in the air. We had talked of going on to the Cartoon Strip Museum after, but we chickened out. We caught a tram home. On the way, we passed the queue for the Musical Instruments Museum. It looked almost as long as when we saw it earlier. We congratulated one another on not having stood there all night.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

A walk in Molenbeek

A walk – with photos – through Molenbeek, the Brussels district vilified in the international press as a hotbed of jihadist terrorist activity

Greater Brussels is made up of 19 communes. These are local authorities, in effect towns, and are responsible for among other things the parks and the streets, local schools and sports centres. They also co-operate with one another (sometimes) to administer or oversee other services such as water and power supplies and (I think) the collection of rubbish. The communes are fiercely protective of their autonomy (a bit like Britain in the EU now I think about it).

On the Porte de Flandre bridgeOne of these communes, Molenbeek, recently attracted international opprobrium as a nursery of terrorism. Terrorists associated with both the major attacks in Paris last year had family connections in Molenbeek. You can still find articles on-line in the international press with titles like: “Molenbeek: Inside Belgium’s seething city of jihad where ISIS are heroes” (the British Express) or “Molenbeek: A Troubled Neighborhood in a Failing State” (the US National Review).

Graffiti along the Charleroi canal near Porte de FlandreWhen all the world’s press started writing about how terrible and dangerous Molenbeek was (and by extension Brussels), friends and relatives started getting in touch to check that Mrs SC and I were “safe”. It was all a little confusing. While I wouldn’t claim to know Molenbeek, I’ve been there, I’ve shopped there and I’ve walked through parts of it with a camera. It never struck me as exceptional in the context of Brussels, or particularly alarming. We own a standard lamp bought in a furniture store in Molenbeek; we have a favourite art work there we sometimes like to show visitors.

But perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places? Last Saturday 27th February, I joined a party from the Swedish Club for a walking, talking tour of what US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has branded “Europe’s Hellhole”. (Bless!)

Barge on the Charleroi CanalThis photo, taken from the Porte de Flandre bridge, I actually took last February. Our walking tour started on the bridge and the Charleroi Canal, which separates Molenbeek from the Ville de Bruxelles, is a key to the history of the place. On Saturday’s walk I learned that the Charleroi Canal was one of the earliest navigation canals in Europe, though it’s gone through many enlargements and extensions over the years. It now links the port of Antwerp to the north with Walonia and, beyond, with the extensive canal system of France to the south. The canal is the reason Molenbeek developed as an industrial centre in the 19th century.

Artists' colony in old brewery on rue du Cheval NoirAlong the Molenbeek side of the canal is an area of once busy industrial buildings. This building on rue du Cheval Noir used to be a brewery. With the collapse of industrialism in Brussels – as in so many places in western Europe – the local authorities have put a deal of effort into “repurposing” the buildings. This one, as you can see, has been extended with a modern construction alongside the original structure to create purpose-built artists studios and music practice rooms.

Our motley group with Tomas G on rue du Cheval NoirOn rue du Cheval Noir, here’s our motley group of Swedish speakers led by Tomas Grönberg, our erudite guide. Note the colourful wall of graffiti behind. There were several examples of graffiti on the walk. I liked them but several of my companions seemed divided over their artistic worth.

In the square behind the breweryHere we are in the square behind the artists’ studios/brewery. The brewery is the old brick building in the far corner. See how the architects have echoed the round windows of the brewery in the architectural features of the newer buildings around the square.

In the square behind the brewery 2The same scene from the opposite side (with the bright sun behind me now). And the roundels in the building on rue des Marinier are mirrored in the round shapes of all the satelite dishes on the balconies of the block of flats on rue Fernand Brunfaut. According to information on the Molenbeek commune website about half the 90,000 residents of Molenbeek are Moslems, and the majority of those come from Morocco. Several of the residents in the block of flats took an interest in our visit, standing on their balconies to look down at us, but it was damn cold in the wind, despite the sun, so no one hung around long.

Indoors at La FonderieIt was so cold that we were rather happy when that our tour broke for a visit to La Founderie – the foundery – a museum dedicated to Molenbeek’s industrial history. The foundery originally produced both practical objects (gas and electric light armatures for example) and art works. They were responsible, we were told, for most of the bronze statues of Belgium’s King Leopold II dotted around the city. (Objects that are – in my opinion – neither artistic nor practical.)

Indoors at La Fonderie 3 - chocolate bean roaster Still indoors, this machine was used to roast cocoa beans, the first stage in the process of extracting cocoa butter for chocolate making. Our guide – we had a special one for the museum – was keen to impress on us how all the industrial processes of the city supported one another, were integrated with one another and ultimately shaped the society that both worked in Molenbeek and bought the goods produced here.

On Molenbeek PlaceBut then it was out into the cold wind again to walk to Place Molenbeek – the Molenbeek market square next to the town hall. This photo was taken just as Tomas G informed us (in Swedish of course) that we were standing in front of one of the shops said to be a hotbed of jihadists. It looked very sleepy, though I did not tempt fate by trying to take a photo.

The minaret of the church of St John the Baptist Molenbeek A little way beyond Place Molenbeek is this remarkable tower. Though it looks like a minaret it is the bell tower of the Parvis Saint-Jean-Batiste – the Parish Church of St John the Baptist. (Officially, this commune is Molenbeek-Saint-Jean). The church was built here in the 1930s, long before the first Moroccans were recruited to work in Belgium in the 1950s. It’s just a happy accident it looks the way it does.

Playing cricket in front of St John the Baptist MolenbeekIn the square in front of the church, a group of young men were enthusaistically playing cricket. Not exactly a sport otherwise associated either with Belgium or the Arab world, I hazard a guess they or their families originated in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

L'Agent 51 - VaartkapoenOur tour of Molenbeek proper came to an end at Place Sainctelette where everyone crowded around trying to get a photo of this bronze. (Nothing to do with Leo II and not produced in the Molenbeek Foundary.) The figure (by the Belgian sculptor Tom Franzen) shows “De Vaartkapoen”. That’s him coming up out of the manhole. Apparently the vaartkapoen are people born in Molenbeek. “De vaart” means “the canal” and “kapoen” means something like “cheeky”. The cheeky young rebel is upsetting authority. The sculpture went up in 1985 and it portrays something that is much older still (the policeman’s uniform is reminiscent of something from the 19th or early 20th centuries). I’m not sure what it has to say about the current culture of Molenbeek, but I suspect if a modern vaartkapoen were to try this on nowadays the terrorist rapid response force would arrive in short order and arrest him. I’m trying to decide how I feel about that.

Graffiti rue Fin
Graffiti rue Fin

My thanks to Tomas Grönberg and the other members of the Brussels Swedish Club for a fine day out.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.