FIVE: SWEDEN AND BEYOND

Previous chapter: FOUR: LSE

 

Where to begin? With a detailed account of the Stockholm Traffic Survey or of a crazy trip to the Arctic Circle – or a disastrous music performance before the Swedish royal family? Or perhaps, The Saddest Millionaire I Ever Met & his lovely Swedish Doll?  The Traffic Survey is probably the least interesting, but I’ll give it a brief mention later on.

First, teeth. Within a fortnight of reaching the beautiful city of Stockholm, with all the excitement that promised, I awoke one day with tooth ache. The dentist tut-tutted and announced that a huge amount of work was needed – including eight root fillings – and, as it would cost several thousand Swedish kronor, I had better return  to England and have it done free under the National Health Service. But this was out of the question: I had to get on with my studies. ‘Well’, he said, ‘there is one way out. Sign up at Tandläkarehögskolan (the Dental High School) and have the students practice on you.’ As I quailed at the prospect, he went on, ‘They won’t be beginners, but finalists, working under close supervision. They’re slow, but they’ll do an excellent job and use the best materials.’ Then began weeks of visits, injections, drilling, filling, rinsing, spitting into bowls…as studious trainees tackled each crumbling molar. For me, I noted in my diary, it was at times both ‘Hell and Heaven’, because the student who dealt with me most often, a fair haired Scandinavian beauty with a lovely figure, would inject, drill and probe away (Aaagh!) – but often with my head softly cushioned in her bosom (Ahhhh!). It was not until the following spring that I walked out of the Dental High School for the very last time, after 34 visits.

Before that, however, came my first autumn in Sweden, marked by three noteworthy events: buying a sailing boat, Claire, being arrested by the Swedish Police and singing to the King and Queen.

Sailing in a Sieve tells the story of Claire, but the roots of that adventure lie in my failing to live on the Thames during those years at the LSE. Now, in Stockholm, a city with the Baltic Sea to the east and a large lake to the west, my dream would become possible. I would buy a boat, then sail it through the Baltic to Denmark and over the North Sea back to England. In October, after some searching, I bought an eighteen-foot leaky gaff-rigged sloop for 500 kronor (a mere £38) from a man who was clearly glad to see the back of it. A Canadian friend, Henry, and I spent many days over the next eight months repairing and equipping this ancient vessel – but more of that later.

Mid-December: After ten weeks studying Swedish grammar, which I found enjoyable and not too difficult (much harder is to get Swedes to converse with you in their beautiful mother tongue), Henry and I decided to hitch-hike to Kiruna in the far north to see the world-famous iron ore mines. For this trip, he challenged me – why, I now forget – to wear my cricket trousers. I accepted his challenge and upped it by declaring I would also do the whole thing in my bedroom slippers. This was not mere bravado: I quietly counted on the extreme cold, well above the Arctic Circle, guaranteeing dry snow, so my felt slippers over thick woolly socks would be warmer than Henry’s leather shoes.

Well wrapped up and waving a big card (“KIRUNA or BUST”), we were soon picked up by drivers and sped up the east coast of Sweden, hour after hour through endless dark forests and snowy wastes. We slept two nights in barns and one, for the ultimate in luxury, in the boiler room of a town apartment block, and reached Kiruna in four days. Actually, there was very little day, for in mid-December each day consisted of twenty-two hours of darkness, with the sun balanced on the horizon for a couple of hours around noon. The town centre of Kiruna was brightly lit, but apart from visiting its church, with its Art Nouveau altar and a painting depicting the Garden of Eden (with lush pastures and deciduous trees – much like Hampshire), we pressed on down a snowy road towards the mines. Confronted by a manned gate and boundary fence, we bypassed both by heading cross-country into the gloom.  A while later, in an isolated clearing, we stumbled on a cluster of low wooden huts, black and tent-like, sunk in the snow. We levered open the door to one, and slept there. When we awoke we noticed that the huts were marked SPRÄNGSTOFF (Dynamite). Plunging on through the snow, my slippers performing admirably, we reached the mine entrance and, with no one about, we borrowed overalls and hard hats and headed inwards. Striding along, I vigorously “explained” and pointed things out to Henry, hoping to appear convincingly official. This ruse lasted little more than a minute before a couple of tall Swedes demanded to know who we were. (Were the slippers my Achilles heel?) Soon the police arrived to question us and rang the Graduate School in Stockholm to check that Henry Scott and Glyn Roberts were indeed students. With that assurance, the tense atmosphere lightened and a cheery reporter from the Kiruna weekly paper turned up, wanting an interview. He went on to offer us his flat for a couple of days, an offer we jumped at as we badly needed hot baths and proper sleep before heading south again.

Hitching back proved much harder than going. Drivers ignored our card, “STOCKHOLM or BUST”, and after three days we found ourselves broke and freezing on the edge of a village – still far up north. All we had left to eat were three small potatoes that we planned to cook on a Primus stove. As we were almost out of paraffin, I knocked on a house door and innocently asked the lady if she could give us some hot water, ‘so the potatoes will have time to cook before our paraffin runs out’.   Horrified, she gasped, ‘Is that all you have to eat? Come in, come in!’ and gave us platefuls of good, hot food. I blush to admit that we used our Potato Ploy twice more before reaching Stockholm, using the same three spuds – and with the same gratifying result.

Less successful were my bedroom slippers. Up in the frozen wastes of Lapland they’d served me well, but eighty miles short of Stockholm a thaw set in – and a car dropped us off at night into filthy melting slush. Ten minutes later, my feet aching with cold, we found a barn where I pulled off the sodden slippers and socks and crawled into my sleeping bag. But next morning the temperature had plummeted again; slippers and crumpled socks had frozen solid, and only by melting each sock in turn over a candle could I drag it onto my foot.

After this test of character it was wonderful to enjoy the comforts of the capital, especially as I had an important engagement to look forward to. An American friend at the Graduate School, with contacts within the Royal Palace, had unwisely offered to bring along “An International Christmas Choir” to perform a selection of English carols for the delectation of the Swedish King and Queen. Now, this choir did not actually exist, but our Yankee choirmaster knew that I played the guitar and several of us did indeed roar out songs of an evening in the Student Union building. As the day of our performance was fast approaching, we dug out half a dozen carols and ran a couple of rehearsals. These did not go well: in fact they went badly. But too late, the fateful afternoon was upon us and dressed in our cleaner clothes, necks washed and hair slicked down, a dozen of us trooped into a reception room of the Royal Palace. Two lines of elegant chairs had been set out. Their majesties sat in the front row, other personages on either side and behind.

The opening number, Good King Wenceslas, went quite well: we made up with enthusiasm what we lacked in skill, as they say. For Ding Dong Merrily on High, though, our American choirmaster started us off in a key suitable for a boy soprano, and as we hit the high notes of “Gloria….” things fell apart.  Some voices aimed high and missed by a semitone, others dropped down an octave and then, finding it too low, yodelled up again. Others, treacherously, fell silent, miming their part. This happened six times, twice with each chorus, and the overall effect was excruciating. After a whispered consultation, it was agreed to sing only one verse and chorus of the remaining four carols, with the result that after fifteen minutes our entire programme was exhausted. Some baffled applause followed from the audience as the International Christmas Choir bowed and fled the scene.

1960

In early January 1960, I joined a student tour to Leningrad and Moscow. It was so cheap, presumably subsidised by Intourist and the Soviet Government, that staying in Sweden would have been dearer. The Hermitage Museum had many wonderful paintings, both by Impressionists and by Russian artists. I especially remember some winter scenes with snow and pine trees caught in the light of an unearthly setting sun, but who had painted them I failed to note down. In Moscow, we did all the usual things: Red Square, the jewels of the Kremlin (which make our own Crown jewels look quite modest), the Lenin Mausoleum and Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi, plus a visit to the monastery town of Zagorsk, where ancient women in black shawls shuffled through the church on their knees.

However, it was an old lady on a Moscow bus who really caught my attention as she burst into tears and wailed to those around her. This driver did not issue tickets; you simply dropped your roubles or kopeks through the narrow slot of a transparent honesty box, but – disaster – by mistake, Babooshka had put in a five rouble note. The bus driver ignored her cries and drove on, but other passengers crowded round trying to retrieve the note. Fingers would not pass through the slot, but one man had two pencils which he used as chopsticks. Occasionally he caught the note, the onlookers urged him on, but then the bus would hit a pot hole and he’d lose it. At last, though, YES! He got it between his pencils and very gently eased it out, returning it to its grateful owner, to a cheer from all of us. I found the episode admirable for its kindness and spirit of solidarity.

In Stockholm before the trip, someone had advised me, ‘Take along a few pairs of jeans; it doesn’t matter how old or torn; the Russians are desperate for Western clothes and will pay good money for them. You’ll be able to dine out on it. Of course, it’s illegal, but you’ll be OK. Just sell ‘em down a back street.’ It seemed a good idea, so I obtained three pairs and now found myself on a Moscow street wanting to sell them. But to whom? Policemen were easy to spot, but what if those men leaning against the wall there were plain clothes cops? Would I go to jail? And why was I doing this anyway? What a crazy idea! I didn’t even need the money. I was about to return to the hotel when a man came up asking, ‘Psst – You have things to sell, yes? You come with me!’ Already nervous, I was now shaking as he led me to an alley and examined my parcel. Would he arrest me, or bang me on the head? But, no. He suddenly pressed a wad of notes into my hand and strolled off. I pocketed his money without even examining it, still weak at the knees, but now rather jubilant at my bravado. Later, though, I felt rather ashamed by the deal and the extra roubles made little difference to my finances one way or the other.

Back in Stockholm, though, I met a fellow student a few years older than I, whose personal finances were extraordinary. A few years earlier as a geology student in Canada, he had spent his summer vacation out in the wilds with survival rations, tent and a Geiger counter. One day, as he crossed the open tundra – if that’s what they have in northern Canada – his Geiger counter went off the scale: high and widespread radioactivity! He rushed back to civilization, staked his claim and won the rights to the area – then sold them to a nuclear energy company for half of one percent of their profits.

He became a millionaire several times over, but he was not a happy man. He rented an apartment on fashionable Strandvägen, from which he could look down onto his stunning sixty-foot sailing boat moored in the harbour, right across the road. He had a girlfriend, cool, tall and delicious, who would sit there, but never say anything, as pretty and as interesting as a plastic doll. He, too, had little conversation. He was distant and grew easily bored. He found Swedish difficult and to our shame, we more fluent students rather shunned him. While we were happy to eat sausage and mashed potato at some street café, he would dine in a restaurant and rejoin us after his meal. Once, he invited us to his apartment. It was, of course, huge, modern and immaculate, with very stylish furniture and a grand piano. We ate smorgasbord sandwiches and chatted, but it never became lively in the way it did at the Students Union, perhaps because we clearly inhabited different planets. Nobody joked; nobody laughed. His girlfriend hovered languidly by the window, looking out at the frozen harbour, then examining her fingernails. Some weeks into the spring term, he dropped out of the language course and we never saw him again. He was, I think, the richest and the saddest man I ever met.

Unlike our Canadian, I found the Swedish language both enjoyable and fairly easy, as I did the studies in sociology. My main weakness lay in statistics, and I needed to pass exams in statistics both at Bachelor’s and at Master’s level. Luckily, at the lower level we had a brilliant and funny lecturer, Olle Vejde, who made the subject entertaining and, to me, almost comprehensible. And it was at these classes that I first met a tall, bespectacled student with a smiling face and a delightful personality, who was to become a friend for life – Göran Dahlgren.

But, first, statistics. As mentioned, to gain a Master’s degree I needed at least a pass at that level, but the University did not run a Master’s course in statistical methods. Instead, I had to join the seminar at Doctorate level, and so began a weekly nightmare. Tuesday mornings, nine sharp, found me in the sociology library, books spread out, trying to make sense of, say, Bivariate Correlation & Regression. I stared at the jumble of algebraic symbols and tedious text until noon when I escaped for food, fresh air and a walk. An hour later, eight of us would meet up in a seminar room with a super-intelligent tutor, and the seminar began. They tried to help me, certainly. They would start off in English, explaining the material so slowly, so that even I could understand. But after half an hour, my glazed expression showed that I had completely lost the plot. The tutor would say, in Swedish now, ‘Now, there are of course exceptions to this. For example, Finkelstein’s probability equation of consequent parallels is particularly fascinating….’ – and the eight of them would be off, arguing away, laughing, chaffing, excited by the endless possibilities of the new world that is Statistics. I would sit there for the next three hours (with a 30 minute coffee break), looking helplessly from one bright face to another or burying my own in a book. When they left, I sat in the library till eight, hoping to tease some sense from my hand-written notes. And if you think I exaggerate, please see my diary for eight weeks in February and March 1960 – months which also included many visits to the Dental High School.

Let us ignore the examination itself, but when the results appeared on a notice board, I took a deep breath, approached and found the names of my seven co-students, all with excellent marks. A thick line had been drawn under this list, but beneath this was typed: Roberts, Glyn. Pass. Weak. Weak? Who cared – those few words were all I needed!

Down at the Kårhuset (Students’ Union), a group of students would often get together singing well-known Swedish songs by Karl Mikael Bellman, Evert Taube and others, while I played my guitar and introduced more humorous pieces by Tom Lehrer, Paddy Roberts and Burl Ives. I wasn’t especially good – fifteen or twenty chords covered most of the songs I knew, but when I strummed away and sang lustily, quite a crowd would often gather. Only after some months did I discover that several of the onlookers played the guitar far better than I, but were too shy to perform. Such great modesty seemed to be a Swedish characteristic, in its way very worthy: no showing off; don’t go public till you are really competent; this, in marked contrasted to the British attitude of, ‘I’m rubbish, really, but, Blimey – I’ll have a go!’

One of those who I would often meet at Kårhuset was the tall Swedish student from Olle Vejde’s statistics course. Göran was intelligent, good humoured, enthusiastic (very keen on jazz), interesting and generous. You just liked him immediately. He was born and bred on Södermalm, the working class island just south of the city centre, and with his father supported his local Hammarby football club. His father was an editor for Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden’s principal conservative newspaper; he even devised the paper’s crossword puzzle for several years, so Göran enjoyed plenty of intellectual stimulus at home. Nevertheless, the son’s commitment was more to the left in politics – to economic and social justice at home and overseas, particularly in the field of public health. This commitment has remained true of him (and his wonderful wife, Rita) to this day.

My friend showed me the Stockholm he loved: the narrow medieval streets of Gamla Sta’n, the low, red painted wooden barracks and big apartment blocks of working class Söder, little experimental theatres accommodating audiences of perhaps only twenty or thirty, jazz dives, cafés, cinemas (several Ingmar Bergman films, including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, had their first showing during this time), the harbour, the ferries over to Skansen with its zoo, open air museum and fun fair. This was also the time when the Royal Ship the Vasa, that had capsized and sunk in 1628, was found. Well preserved by the mud and cold water, it was raised to the surface in 1961, to general acclaim.

Goran prepares his entrance
Göran prepares to make a grand entrance to his birthday party

 

Göran had a room in the attic of an old building, soon due for demolition, close to the centre of town. (Strangely, twenty-five years later – the building now replaced by Ministry of Health offices – Göran sat at a desk in almost the very same position as his old room.) One evening, he invited friends round to celebrate his birthday. I arrived early with three tins of exotic nibbles: chocolate ants, roasted crickets and quails’ eggs. Göran had dressed elegantly for the occasion, I drew a large birthday poster for his door, and the party went fine with plenty of good food and singing. Only my nibbles remained untouched at the end of the evening.

For the spring festival of Valborgsmässaafton, he took me to Uppsala where University spring balls are held on the night of 30th April. I wore a traditional Swedish student cap, though probably I had no right to do so (this cap was to bring about an amazing meeting in Jerusalem some years later) and we both gained admittance to one of these balls. I don’t know who Göran danced with, but I found partners easily – being English was rather special in those days – and the festivities went on until two in the morning. By this time it was growing light and too late to go to bed, and a little while later we made our way – with hundreds of others, all in our white student caps, to the Gunillaklockan, a bell on a hillside, rung specially to welcome the sun on the first day of May. Here, everybody sang student songs (‘Sjung om studentens lyckliga da’r’) and spring songs (‘Vårvindar friska…’) until we dispersed for breakfast.

CLAIRE

During the long Swedish winter, Claire had been out of the water, snug under a tarpaulin, while Henry and I had spent much time in second-hand shops buying nautical equipment such as charts, compasses and waterproofs. Now, with the spring warmth, we had to scrape and paint her, then get her launched and rigged ready for sailing. This took many, many hours, but it was with great excitement that we watched her lifted back into the water again and stepped aboard. Alas, she still leaked like a sieve, but she seemed sturdy and able to handle the long voyage ahead. We set sail on Saturday 13th June – despite an old sailor’s warning not leave on the 13th (‘There’s only one day worse – Friday, the 13th!’) – and threaded our way through the Stockholm Archipelago of 30,000 islands, big and small.

claire drawing

Claire off Bla Jungfrun – from the Polish edition of Sailing in a Sieve

 

Emerging into the open Baltic Sea we sailed down the east coast, with hundreds more small islands lying between us and the mainland. One of these, the Blue Maiden (Blå Jungfrun) is a strange place indeed. A steep rocky outcrop almost 300 feet high, stands in the channel near the northern tip of Öland. Today, it is a nature reserve and landing is discouraged, but even in 1959 small boats were advised to steer well clear. Seeking shelter from a storm, though, we landed near a beach covered in whitish stones the size and shape of skulls, and stumbled on other oddities, amongst them a vast labyrinth of stones, like the whorls of a giant brain.   We learned later that national folklore tells of the witches and warlocks in Sweden who gather there on the Thursday before Good Friday. Make of that what you will, but we certainly found the island quite eerie.

the labyrinth

The labyrinth

 

After a chilly, windy Midsummer’s Eve on Öland, we sailed to Kalmar and down to the far south-eastern point of Sweden. There, we headed west by the compass towards Denmark. Unfortunately, in bad weather, we had stowed an anchor under the compass, which distorted the reading by 90 degrees, so we had sailed for many hours in the direction of Communist-controlled East Germany before we noticed the error. The next day, with some trepidation, we skirted mile after mile of unknown coast that did not appear on our coastal charts, completely lost.

claire south denmark

Claire near Gedser Cape, S. Denmark

 

After further adventures, including a frantic row with a single oar from Malmö to Copenhagen and a close encounter with the chalk cliffs of Mœn, we emerged from the Kiel Canal into the River Elbe, but our boat then wrecked on an isolated sandbank as we headed for the North Sea. Grabbing a few precious items we piled into our old rubber dinghy and finally made it to a German bathing beach, where a kindly family took us in hand.

Curiously, this shipwreck probably saved our lives. Two days later, a ship carrying timber from Finland offered us free passage to Boston in Lincolnshire, which we gratefully accepted. But the violent south-westerly storm which then arose, forced the modern vessel to struggle across the North Sea at a mere four knots. In our own little boat, we would almost certainly have gone down when we were far out with no hope of rescue. Another escape, this time from a watery end.

After a few weeks back in Prestwich, Manchester, where my mother and father were now happily together again, I returned to Sweden to start the second year of my course. But it was still high summer and very warm; the library was nearly empty of students, flies buzzed at the window panes; so instead of drafting a research questionnaire for the Traffic Survey, I wrote an account of our voyage. Methuen later published this under the title, Sailing in a Sieve and a Warsaw company printed 20,000 copies in Polish, with far better illustrations than those in the English version.

Writing my first book took some time, but by late autumn I finally got down to preparing the Stockholm Traffic Survey. Essentially, I needed to find out why people still came to work in the very heart of Stockholm by car when they could use the city’s cheap, clean, regular, efficient public transport system. To do so, I decided to interview everyone working in two central areas of the city. I couldn’t do this personally, but I planned to give each one a questionnaire, and to maximize the numbers replying, I’d offer prizes through a lottery system. This is where my friend Göran was such a great help. We spent a lot of time together devising the questions, choosing the two areas to be surveyed and getting volunteers to hand out the sheets and collect them again later. For the prizes, we bought hams, chocolates, tickets to shows and – it says in my diary – cigarettes. Really? How times have changed. People responded very well and this produced a wealth of information, which needed analysis and writing up. The findings, I presented to Stockholm City Transport and to the University as part of my M.A. thesis. And what were these findings? I honestly cannot remember.

FIRST WORKCAMP (1960)

Eighteen months earlier, back in England and called up to join the Army, I had decided to follow my father’s example and object to doing military service. Unlike him, I didn’t have to face a court hearing right away as the military allowed me two years to complete my studies in Sweden. But anticipating these hearings, I felt that it would be wise to do some voluntary work abroad.

Checking my diary now, I see I considered doing a year’s service in Peru with a Swedish group, or else a stretch in Paris with the radical cleric Abbé Pierre. However, by Easter I had joined the Swedish branch of International Voluntary Service (IAL) – which runs youth work camps in many countries – and I went on a short training course for work camp leaders. I soon agreed to lead a three-week work camp that summer, in Sweden, with participants from several countries.

On this training course, I found the whole concept of volunteer work camps inspirational. To be in a group of ten or twelve young people from different countries, working together on a useful community project, in a spirit of equality – I had not experienced this euphoria since Long Dene School. It had elements of the early years at Weet Ing and aspects of LSE Drama Society at its best. But it had a greater universality, to promote international understanding and peace while working together. It inspired an enthusiasm in me that my parents had for Esperanto. I considered joining the British work camps organisation, International Voluntary Service for Peace (IVSP) once back home, but was shocked to learn that they planned to drop the “for Peace” from their name – because, some said, the public associated “Peace” with Communism. I felt that the Communists should not be handed a monopoly on the word any more than British National Party should lay claim in the minds of the public to the Union flag.

But now my attention turned to the three-week workcamp I was to lead at Bångbro in Kopparbergs County. This was my first-ever camp, apart from the short training course, and I’d written to the participants – in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the Soviet Union – suggesting that we made it a work-study camp, with Africa as the focus for our study sessions. As I was the youngest of all the work campers, I decided to grow a beard to look more mature. (It certainly did something, because a few months later, as I returned to Manchester, small boy on the train exclaimed, ‘Eee, Dad! That man’s got too much ‘air!’)

Bångbro was, and probably still is a tiny community way out in the countryside and our task was to dig trenches for water pipes and to paint doors and fences for a Youth Centre. We got on well together, with rotas for cooking and cleaning, some good discussions about Africa’s varied cultures, its colonial history and the Apartheid system. But one thing worried us: days were passing and the three volunteers from the USSR still hadn’t arrived. The more we gelled as a group, the more we started to wonder about “the Russians”. Were they Communists? Spies, perhaps? Did they use tooth brushes like us? So a definite “them” and “us” feeling had already formed in our team when, one rainy afternoon, three men, older than us and in suits, approached us across a field.

We didn’t get off to a great start as none of the three spoke English, and though their names were on the rotas for washing up and making breakfast, they didn’t take to the idea. Of course communication was a problem, but we felt they were not pulling their weight those first few days. Relations soured to the point that we were no longer meeting each other’s eyes when we passed, and they only talked among themselves. Something needed to be done, but I didn’t know what.

The breakthrough came on the fourth afternoon. In pouring rain, we were all out, spread along the trench, waist-deep, digging and deepening it for a water pipe. The ground was a nasty mixture of slippery clay, stones and the occasional boulder, rounded off smooth by glaciers some twenty thousand years ago. After half an hour’s digging and levering, I had freed such a boulder – perhaps forty centimetres in diameter – so that it now lay in the bottom of the trench, slimy and slippery. I tried to lift it, but found it far too heavy, so turned to my neighbour in the trench, Nikolai, from Leningrad.

Trench

The trench:   Glyn in Swedish student’s cap

 

I pointed to the boulder and he understood that we needed it out of the trench. We both took a grip and tried to lift, but even with two it was hard to get it up more than a few inches before it began to slide out of hands. After several attempts, facing each other, we got it onto our knees – and there we stuck for a while, unsure how to change position and lift it to waist height and so onto the ground alongside. We both realised that this was the most dangerous move: if either let slip, it could drop on a foot and cause real injury. But nor could we wait indefinitely as the weight on our knees grew more painful by the moment. So, simply using eye contact, smiles, nods and grunts, we made the equivalent of ‘One, two, three…‘, strained together, trapping the boulder with our bodies while changing grips and heaved it out of the trench; then stepped forward and gave each other a real handshake! Somehow, this joint effort led to a change in attitude between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and though they never fully savoured doing their household chores, friendly relations developed.

We worked together, cooked and ate together, discussed African history and its development problems and sang songs from all round the world. We explored the local woods and lakes and made a flat-bottomed boat from some old doors. It leaked terribly, but nobody minded. We also decided to invite the man who had originally started the Swedish work camps organisation, Wolfgang Sonntag, to come and talk to us. (We didn’t know that relations had long been severed between him and the Stockholm office, which was reluctant to give us his address.) Wolfgang had been a German Jewish refugee in the 1940s, escaping to Sweden via Norway, and he turned out to be an inspiring personality. He saw work camps not as a cheap form of holiday, but a huge opportunity for young people to share a democratic way of life and work for a fairer world – not merely talking about equality and solidarity, but putting them into practice.

And now, a word about the Great Snail Race in which my snail, Charlie, not only romped home in first place, but came in third as well!

I am not a betting man, but if I had been and had put money on Charlie, I could have been rich today. Charlie was fast and Charlie kept straight, and that’s what you’re looking for in a pedigree snail. With a course marked out, two metres long, we lined up our snails and waited nervously under starter’s orders. BANG – they were off! Well, Charlie was off, the bit between his teeth, while Gunilla, Lightning and the rest dithered, slightly bewildered. My champion, frankly, was uncatchable, and soon led by five, then ten lengths. A couple of minutes later, as he breasted the tape, two of his competitors were still examining the starting line, a third had retreated into his shell and Bullet had speeded off towards Copenhagen. I scooped up my winner (He was not even short of breath: now that is Class) and carried him back to the starting line. A lesser sport would have protested, but not Charlie. With a toss of his head he set off, going for Gold again. He left Karl standing, passed Swift on the inside, and overtook Ulla. Only Green Gustav remained between him and glory. It was a big ask, of a big hearted snail, and no one could have done more, and he didn’t quite make it. Beaten by a brute with a greenish shell! But Charlie did come in second in the same race, or should that technically be third?

By the end of three weeks, I had found the work camp experience quite life-changing, and several of the team felt the same. At our farewell party, singing songs learned over the previous weeks, the volunteers signed the large map of Africa that we had used for our discussions and gave it to me as a souvenir of our time together.  I have always liked maps – geographers do – but this was extra special.

last night singing

Last night together, singing

 

Back in Stockholm, final exam results revealing very satisfactory marks, I filled a hefty crate with my modest possessions, including a rather beautiful coffee pot with a long, slender spout that my landlady, Mrs Fredholm, had had re-silvered for me. We also packed a large, hermetically sealed jar of köttbullar (meat balls) made to her special recipe. Every Swedish mother has her own particular recipe for köttbullar, and every child believes that his or her mother makes the best köttbullar in the world.

I see from my diary, that I was indignant at having to pay 35 kronor – a tidy sum in those days – for a taxi to take my trunk to the harbour, while it cost only 25 kronor to ship it from Stockholm to Manchester.

I was genuinely sad to leave Stockholm, a beautiful city, and sensed that Göran and I might now go our separate ways. Of course we promised to keep in touch, but life takes over and good intentions often fade….

A few days later, I was heading back to Manchester via Oslo, Bergen and Newcastle – a good route across the North Sea that is now, sadly, discontinued. Once home, I painted the end wall of our house (Northwood, on Prestwich Park South). This took several days and I was constantly up and down a three-tier ladder which, I now realise, I never properly secured. One afternoon, my mother heard from Manchester docks that a trunk had arrived, and would she or Mr Glyn Roberts, arrange to remove it IMMEDIATELY. We wondered about the urgency of this request, but on entering the depot, all became clear. The stench was pretty bad. I started to open the crate, but the clerk said, ‘Not in here you don’t!’, so we dragged it outside, prised off the lid and, with handkerchiefs to our noses, extracted Mrs Fredholm’s Swedish meatballs, festering in the last stage of putrefaction.

NEXT CHAPTER: SIX
CONTENTS: MEMOIR CHAPTERS