Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Long, long ago in Stockholm there was an ogre called Huskahinni. Huskahinni was a friendly but rather arrogant ogre with one eye in the middle of his forehead. But Huskahinni thought, quite simply, that he was the best ogre in the whole of the land of Norden.
Huskahinni lived in the tower that stretched above the city hall. From his viewpoint, he could look out over the whole city, the waterways and the islands. Every morning, he would lean out of the tower and shout out over the city, 'I am Huskahinni, King of the Mountain!'
Now, at that time, the land of Norden had a real King and he didn't take at all kindly to the ogre's claim. He called his advisors to him and aksed how to stop Huskahinni's jeering from the top of the city hall.
'We could shoot him', said one advisor. The King said no.
'We could send soldiers up and bring him down'. The King said no,no.
'We could burn down the tower', said another. No, said the King, no, no, no.
Finally, a fourth advisor stepped forward. Clearing his throat, he announced that the best way to silence the offensive ogre was to ridicule him into silence. To make fun of him. The King seemed interested in this idea. Yes, the best way to shut someone up is to make them feel silly.
'Quite right,' he said. 'If he claims to be the king, let's make him the king'.
The next day, the King called to him the city's goldsmith. He ordered him to forge three large crowns out of gold.
The weeks went by, the goldsmith forged, the King waited and Huskahinni kept peering out from his tower and claiming he was the king of the mountain.
Finally, the day arrived when the three golden crowns were ready. The King arranged for the goldsmith, and the rest of the townspeople, to meet him by the city hall. When everyone was gathered the King looked up at the enormous tower, and shouted, 'Huskahinni, Huskahinni, who are you?'. The ogre popped his head over the edge of the tower and shouted 'I am the king of the mountain!'. 'Well'. said the King, 'you deserve a crown'. At this moment, the King signalled to his soldiers to catapult one of the crowns up to the top of the tower. Hitting Huskahinni in the head, the ogre yelped and fell backwards. And the townspeople laughed and laughed and laughed.
The next day, the crowd gathered again at the base of the city hall tower. And once again, the King called, 'Huskahinni, Huskahinni, who are you?'. The ogre popped his head over the edge of the tower again and shouted 'I am the king of the mountain!'. 'Well'. said the King, 'then you deserve another crown'. Once again the soldiers catapulted the second of the crowns up to the top of the tower. Hitting Huskahinni in the eye, the ogre screamed in pain and fell backwards. And the townspeople laughed and laughed and laughed.
The third day came and the King shouted for the ogre again.'Huskahinni, Huskahinni, who are you?'. 'I am the king of the mountain!'. 'Well'. said the King, 'a king should have a crown'. And yet again, a golden crown was catapulted one to the top of the tower. Hitting Huskahinni in the neck, the ogre fell backwards, bleeding. And the townspeople laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.
'That should do it,' thought the King, 'that stupid ogre'.
The townspeople danced back to their homes laughing at the hilarious way in which the King had tricked the ogre. High up in the tower, Huskahinni looked down. His head and his eye were hurting and his neck was bleeding. And all alone, at the top of the city hall, he started to cry.
The next day, the townspeople went about their work as usual, laughing at the memory of what had happened to the stupid ogre the days before. Suddenly a little girl pointed to the top of the tower - 'Look!' she shouted. The townspeople looked up and couldn't believe their eyes. High up at the top of the tower, there was a golden pole. And stuck to the top of the pole were the three shiny golden crowns, glistening in the sun for all to see.
Today, Huskahinni is long gone. But his crowns are still there, perched on the top of the city hall.
A reminder to us all that, once up on a time, Huskahinni was king of the mountain.
Monday, 30 January 2012
Long, long ago when Stockholm was a town under development, there lived a little boy called Ossian. And Ossian was a scared little boy.
Ossian's father worked in central Vasastaden as a labourer, helping to build new houses and buildings.
Ossian and his family lived on the rural outpost island of Kungsholmen. Between Vasastaden and the island of Kungsholmen ran a canal, which had been dug out by hand not many years previously. Over the canal stretched a rickety old bridge.
The people of Kungsholmen lived in fear of what was in the murky canal water. It was said that as soon as the canal was built a huge serpent had slipped in from the lake Mälaren. The serpent was as long and as wide as the canal itself and it would eat children trying to cross the bridge.
One dark November day, Ossian's father had gone to work and mistakenly left his napsack containing lunch on the kitchen table. Ossian ran quickly after him through the streets with the food. Eventually he got to the edge of the canal. His father was nowhere in sight. He put a foot on the bridge as if to cross.
'If you walk over the bridge', bellowed a voice, 'I will eat you alive!'
Ossian looked into the canal and saw the giant snake rising up. Terrified, he threw the napsack at the serpent and ran as fast as the wind back through the streets and home.
A few weeks later, his father forgot his napsack again. This time Ossian tiptoed quietly through the streets until he reached the bridge. Fearfully, he slowly placed a timid foot on the first wooden tread.
He took a few extra steps. The serpent reared up infront of him. 'You again! I will eat you if you go any further'
'But I have to give my father his food' stuttered Ossian
'You will be my food' hissed the snake as he opened his mouth wide.
Ossian dropped the bag and sprinted for his life back home.
The weeks went by and Ossian's father didn't forget his bag again. Until one day in January. The snow had come and the trees were laden with heavy frost. Once again, Ossian fearfully waded through the snow to the canal's edge.
He looked into the water. But instead of a serpent, he saw ice. The water was frozen solid. On the surface of the water, he could see the distinct scales of the serpent. A patchwork of frozen scales like a honey comb filled the length and the width of the canal. The serpent was stuck. Confident that the serpent couldn't move, Ossian ran across the bridge to the other side.
Centuries later, there are many of us who cross the canal. What we don't realise is that the Karlberg serpent is still there. Oh, he doesn't eat children anymore but satiates himself on rodents, birdlife, city waste and unfortunate kajakers. But in the winter, just like every year when the canal freezes, he can be seen.
You might think the scaly surface of the water is just ice patched together like a jigsaw puzzle. But no, it is the scaly skin of the Karlberg serpent.
It's been rumoured that where the ice is thin, the occasional ice skater might just disappear, devoured by the hungry snake.
Dare you go ice skating on Karlberg canal this winter?
I remember when I was in the north of Sweden and saw the northern lights. I remember being impressed but thinking they were a little tame. They were nothing like the northern lights display that happened last week as a massive solar storm bombarded the north pole.
Wednesday, 25 January 2012
If you're name's Paul, or Pål, then today you may well be a very happy man. In Sweden, as in many other countries, each day is associated with a name and the person who has that name is celebrated. It's called a Name's Day and today is Paul.
To some Swedes, the Name's Day tradition is irrelevant but to others it's still celebrated with cake and even presents.
What I wondered is where the Name's Day tradition came from. And after some research, I found the answer. It seems like the custom originated with the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendars of saints, where believers, who were named after a particular saint, would celebrate that saint's feast day.
During the 18th century in Sweden, names used by the royal family were introduced to the Swedish list of name days, followed by other common names. Then, in 1901 a comprehensive modernization was made to make the list up to date with the names that were current at the time. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had a monopoly on calender production, strangely. And since the Name's Days were published on calenders, they had a monopoly on them too. However, this monopoly expired in 1972 and various competing Name's Day lists were released into society.
In 1986 a consensus of a new single list with three names on each day was reached, and then reduced to two names on each day. However, people weren't happy. This prompted the Swedish Academy to create the list that is used today.
So, what about us foreigners whose names don't appear on this list? Well, the Centre for Multiculturalism produces their own calender every year with other names on. This is to provide a counter balance to the very Swedish official name list. According to their Multicultural calender, today is Ester's day. Ester is Persian and means star. So, congratulations to Ester. Yesterday was Estelle's day and tomorrow is Evren (Turkish for 'universe').
And my name then? Neil?
Well, Neil doesn't appear on the Swedish list or on the Multicultural list. After further scrutiny, I think I'll have to opt for October 8th. This is when Nils has his day. Neil/Nils, Neil/Nils, Neil/Nils. Yeah, that should work.
That'd be ok wouldn't it?
Saturday, 21 January 2012
At 15.00 today, Håkan Juholt resigned.
He was the leader of Sweden's largest and oldest political party - SAP - Swedish Social Democratic Workers' Party, currently in opposition. After a series of scandals, he decided today that it was too much. With his resigning, he has become historic as the Social Democratic party leader that has sat the shortest period. He sat only for 10 months, but in the end his own behaviour, the general public's lack of support and the media's witch hunt became too much for him.
Not only is his resignation historic but also symptomatic of the biggest crisis that the party has ever gone through. The SAP is losing voters faster than the Costa Concordia cruise liner lost its captain. And this reduction in popularity begs a question - is the SAP a party that can understand and represent the needs of modern-day Swedes, or are they stuck in the past? Are they resting on past glories? Are they, in other words, irrelevant?
But first back to origins - how did the SAP party begin? Well, founded in 1889, the party sprang out of the well-organized working class and peasant movements which promoted working class emancipation, temperance, religious observance and modesty. These movements believed in human equality and protested against the unequal spread of wealth and privelege. All of this in a backdrop of a Sweden divided by class and with wide-spread poverty, starvation and disease. These movements were so strong that they successfully penetrated the parliament early on and paved the way for Swedish electoral politics. The Social Democratic Party's position has a theoretical base within Marxistic socialism: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
And their ideology has been very successful in Sweden through the last 125 years. The party has held power of office for a majority of terms after its founding. This means that the ideology and policies of SAP have had strong influence on Swedish politics - even on those of the opposing parties. The current ruling government, the rightwing Moderate party, believe in socialised healthcare, free education for all and supportive benefits for parents, for the unemployed and the sick. Compared to other right-wing parties around the world, the Swedish right-wing appear like humanistic pussy cats.
But what about today then? Has the SAP run its course? Are their core questions relevant for a modern Sweden? Is there no longer inequality to challenge? Is there no social injustice worth fighting against? Is there no class divide between the privileged and the poor?
Of course there is.
Like most developed countries in Europe, Sweden is a very segregated society - segregated by education, money and ethnicity.
It might very well be, however, that the majority of Swedish voters simply don't care about this anymore. Not enough to finance bridging this divide with increased taxes anyway. Very many Swedes have a good standard of living - comfortable. Nice home, good job, foreign holidays twice a year, modern clothes, gym card, summer house, flat screen tv. Sweden today is not that country of 1889 riddled with poverty, starvation and disease.
Whether or not Swedes see the party as irrelevant remains to be seen. First the party must elect a new leader. To succeed, this leader must repair the damage experienced by the party and convince the electorate that the party is modern, forward-thinking and progressive. He or she must convince the people that the social questions they believe in are still important today. The people must be convinced enough to move out of their comfort zones and believe that voting for the SAP can make a difference.
In 2014, during the next general election, we'll see if he or she has succeeded.
Wednesday, 4 January 2012
In Sweden, like in many other countries around the world, the Christmas celebrations are not over yet. This Friday, January 6th 2012, is also a national holiday.
Well, first of all January the 6th commemorates 'Epiphany' - meaning revelation, manifestation. This biblical occasion was when the three Kings visited the baby Jesus and declared him to be the son of God. Most of us know this story, they wandered near and far, following yonder star. And it's not at all surprising that this is celebrated in predominantly religious countries.
But why is it still celebrated in Sweden? It's a classic example of how cultures develop, how our modern-day traditions grow out of something historical. As time goes on, we still maintain the tradition - but we forget the reason why we do it.
I would venture to say that most Swedes don't even know why January 6th is a holiday.
Most Swedes are not religious, and ironically, many don't even like Kings.
For most Swedes, January 6th is just another day off work after all the other Christmas and New Year days off. And instead of bringing gifts, as the three kings did, it's more often about returning unwelcome Christmas gifts or trawling the bargains at the post-Christmas sales.
I question the value of continuing to have 6 January as a national holiday in Sweden. Since very few know the reason, and not many are religious, wouldn't it be better to ditch this holiday and replace it with a day off when we all most need it? Like, in the darkest depths of the year when we're all tried and in need of a break -sometime in November?
Now that would be an epihpany!