I am home in Sweden for a short autumn visit. It’s dull and damp and I am busy, but here are a couple of photos of bird houses and play houses that I took on Sunday in Hisingspark.
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.
The 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.
William 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.
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.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.
It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.
Where we are mentally is an open question.
We flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.
Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.
Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.
Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg. Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone. “Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.
I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.
A woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.
And back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?
She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.
Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.
That’s a long way, she says.
Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.
I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.
It’s a great city, he says. You should go.
I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.
That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.
Trädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.
But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)
And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.
Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.
Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
On the Swedish west coast near Göteborg, looking west from Björlanda Store Udd. Despite promises last week, there’s no proper blog entry this Wednesday either. “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.”
This “article” was “written” for the #Blogg52 challenge.
This “article” was “written” for the #Blogg52 challenge. Back to real posting next week… perhaps!