What elevates an occasion into a memorable event? Is it the surroundings? Fascinating people? The food served or something that was said? Maybe it’s that single factor, self-effacing in itself, that adds the special ingredient. Whatever it is, it happened for us at the weekend when we joined renowned author Carl Uggla and his wife, equestrienne par excellence Agneta, for dinner.
We were high above upper Fyledalen and the warm, clear weather continued so we were able to sit outside and gaze across the valley and a landscape that was sunny and intrinsically Swedish. The views stretched south across pasture and wheat fields to woodland on the far side and west, to the rising ground and pine forest at Romeleåsen, more than twenty kilometres away.
Of course Carl’s oxbringa med rotmos was delicious – that’s home-made salt beef with mashed swede if you’re an east-end boy like me – but the real joys of the evening for me were the attendant grandchildren, Hannah and Simon. Now I am something of a bore when it comes to children, their behaviour and how they should conduct themselves in order to minimise the impact they have on a world made for adults by adults. In fact, it’s something of an obsession as I become unreasonably irritated by impolite, inarticulate, gadget-addicted youngsters who can’t look you in the eye when they speak and who believe, if they gave it a moment’s thought, that beds are made, food is cooked and cleaning happens by magic. Broad generalisations, I know, but not unrealistic. Meeting these two sparkling, intelligent and well-mannered children was not only a pleasure but it also proved to be the added ingredient that made the evening special for us all.
So, a memorable evening, indeed; excellent food, good Sicilian wine, friends that one would choose to spend one’s time with and a long, bright conversation with youngsters who were, put simply, a pleasure to be with. Why is it such an exception today? And such inquisitive minds – we travelled the world, spoke of places we’d been and chatted late into the night against the backdrop of a light, clear sky punctuated only by a few wispy clouds and a golden crescent moon.
So absorbed were we in good conversation, we didn’t even see it disappear.
It’s not cool these days to express joy in some of the simple things in life; meadows full of wild flowers, the scent of a pine forest on a warm, still day or a bird of prey soaring overhead. Our lives, individually and collectively, are poorer for it and so too, I suspect, is our literature. It seems to me that we are so preoccupied with navel-gazing, so careful to pursue the course that fashionable consumerism sets out for us that a lot of the richness that’s provided for free passes us by.
I like being in southern Sweden a lot but haven’t had time to just sit back and enjoy it at its own pace until this year. This is a place of countryside and a place of nature. Sweden’s a big place with a small population – around nine million over about 174000 square miles and most of them in the three main cities. Compare that to the UK, where just over 61 million are crammed into a seemingly tiny 94500 square miles. What you get here is space. If you get off the beaten track you really are on your own so if nature and all things natural captivate and seduce you, like they do me, then the past few weeks of summer here have been something special. It’s been a time of long cycle rides and walks through the forest; local strawberries, chilled Orvieto in the shade and dinners at Kåseberga on the coast with friends. But, mostly, it’s been a time of wildlife.
We had a long, cold winter – so miserable that I fled to balmier climes after week upon week of deep snow and very, very sub-zero temperatures. But following-on from a cold spring we have been enjoying hot, sunny days with temperatures frequently in the high 20s centigrade and sometimes above 32. The late onset of warmer weather held back spring so this period has been a condensed experience, with a fresh green landscape set against the long days that are the hallmark of midsummer.
The ground falls away beyond the fence at the end of the garden here and drops into Fyledalen, a huge area of mixed woodland, rough grazing and valley slopes. So we’re a real and close part of the nature that surrounds us. As I write this three or four young Long-eared Owls are calling into the night, one of two broods that we have in the village this year. A dog Fox was just barking and there are Hedgehogs on the lawn. It’s truly dark only for about four hours a night so evening and dusk last for several hours. Earlier, as twilight hung on an early migrant Northern Harrier made its way lazily south-west while we watched Hobbies hawking for beetles over the apple trees at the end of the road. Thrush Nightingales were still providing an occasional burst of song and tonight two rivals were competing from opposite ends of a small plantation. Two Woodcock were still ‘roding’ around their territories.
During the day Common Redstarts have been feeding their young in the garden but the two pairs of Pied Flycatchers have moved away from the boxes and only visit now as occasional individuals. Coffee on the deck last week was interrupted by an immature Icterine Warbler in the adjacent hedge and a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in the Oak Tree.
It’s hard to avoid so much activity and, if you don’t go looking for it – as we did for young Tawny Owls in the valley a few evenings ago, when we counted 22 – it comes to you; standing quietly in the garden at dusk this week a young Badger shuffled all the way over to me to check if my sneakers were edible. Out in Fyledalen Fallow Deer are calving and Roe Deer are seen with new kids. The Wild Boar start farrowing in May so we’ve already seen the spotted piglets running at the feet of the adult animals. Golden Eagles nest in the valley and, although we see them frequently, we’re always amazed at how easily such a huge bird can remain out of sight. White-tailed Eagles are also breeding on an island in a nearby lake. Common and Honey Buzzards are often in the sky and the Red Kites are ubiquitous. We’ll have hundreds of Cranes overhead when the migration really gets underway but were thrilled to have the first one over the garden this week, circling high in a clear sky and trumpeting loudly.
Add to all this a huge variety of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies [and a few things that bite you] as well as wildflowers in the woodland and valley and it becomes a multifarious experience. As I wrote at the start of this, it’s a joy and a simple pleasure that is easy to overlook in the race to be cool or famous.
A busy life can get in the way of enjoying simple pleasures and, like most people I guess, pursuing a hectic career has tended to take precedent for me. I’m not certain, however, that I ever lost sight of my appreciation of what I wanted to get out of it all as I shouldered my way on and off the 7.34 to Liverpool Street. Life today sometimes seems to have the wrong complexion and clearly puts massive demands on people’s time. It seems to me though that many of the values held as important are both shallow and superficial, measured as they are in degrees of fame or acquisition.
It’s hard to find either the space or the variety in nature in the UK and one almost certainly has to travel to a protected area to find it. Here it’s still abundant and all around us and it’s been a joy to experience.
The Swedish King’s daughter married Daniel Westling in Stockholm yesterday. Daniel’s a pretty normal sort of bloke and has a pretty normal sort of background; you’d describe him as a ‘commoner’ in this context. Crown Princess Victoria’s wedding was an eagerly-awaited occasion after an eight-year courtship that was formalised with the announcement of a wedding in February last year. Sveriges Television [SVT], the Swedish version of the BBC, provided an excellent live webcast so Mission Control was able to indulge herself in the events of the day, which started with interviews of middle-aged ladies on deckchairs in a sunny Nybroplan and finished with a fairytale waltz in the Drottningholm Palace. By that time, yours truly was fairytaled-out and seeking solace in a glass of J&B but I saw enough to have been pretty impressed with both the sensitivity and restraint that had been shown in what might be one of the last big royal weddings we see in the civilised world.
The wedding took place after an opinion poll in April when Swedes were asked if they saw merit in maintaining a constitutional monarchy. Well, the outcome was something of a goalless draw with about half wanting to keep it and half wanting a republic. Around 28% wanted it abolished altogether, which is of increasing significance in the long-term – if they can come up with a palatable alternative. Mind you, knowing Sweden as I do I’d need a clearer definition of what the Swedes perceive as a republic in a country where there is still a statute obliging you to report a neighbour to the authorities if you think he is living beyond his means. At the moment it’s a bit like Communism with Tesco. But the public interest and widespread enthusiasm made it clear that the Royals in Sweden still engender a fair amount of respect and a lot of affection; a reported throng of half-a-million turned up to cheer and wave the blue and yellow flags yesterday.
There was less respect shown by the Sunday Times this morning. Gracious enough to report the event they headlined the front-page picture with a caption describing the groom as a gym coach. This was supercilious and dismissive in the worst of English tradition as the guy has built personal training into a successful business and holds several board positions. King Carl XVI Gustaf, showing a great deal more perception and magnanimity than the sneering ST, made it clear in his wedding speech that his daughters’ happiness – Victoria’s sister is Madeleine – was paramount and that they should remain free to choose their life-partners without being burdened by the shackles of tradition and protocol. After all, look what that did for Prince Charles.
Sweden changed with the Constitution Act 1974 when it reduced the Monarch’s power to ‘rule the country alone’ and provided that ‘All public power in Sweden derives from the People’. The Swedish Republican Association wants rid of the monarchy altogether even though its diminishing power has been further eroded by virtue of having a popular and egalitarian female heir to the throne who is ‘normal’ and now married to a lowly gym coach. She’s much liked and respected for it and, through being less aloof and separate from the proletariat, moves Sweden further away from the governing structure that the Republicans find so distasteful.
As is so often the case, the interesting aspect is that a Princess has demonstrated that she has more vision and perspicacity than the Republicans who want to remove her. As they say on their forum ‘All state functions answers to democratic legislations’[sic], which sounds like good news for Sweden, the state-control of alcohol, maternity leave for men and, er, Tesco.
As for me, they seem a blissfully happy couple; I wish them a long, happy and healthy life with not too much trouble from the comrades.