Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

Behind every successful man…

17202303-Martin-Luther-nails-up-his-95-theses-on-the-cathedral-door-the-act-that-started-the-Reformation-Orig-Stock-Photo-illus-Martin-Luther-by-G-FreytagWe’ve all heard of Martin Luther, right? And no, I am not talking about that inspiring leader and awesome demagogue who spoke that immortal line “I have a dream” – I am rather referring to the man for whom he was named, a German priest born in 1483. That Martin Luther was one of the pivotal people in the religious movement that swept through Europe as a firestorm during the 16th century, namely the Reformation. And once the continent emerged from that crucible, the hitherto united Christian faith had divided into two blocks – Catholics and Protestants.

Now Martin Luther and his contemporary religious hotheads did not spring out of nowhere. Religious debate has been around as long as the Church, and through the centuries wise and learned men (and women – one example can be found here) have raised their voices to question various aspects of faith as imposed by the church. Many of these were found guilty of heresy. Many of them died at the stake, such as Jan Hus and George Wishart. Many had even been exhumed and burned after they were dead – like John Wycliffe . And yet, despite the very obvious risk of taking on the mighty Church, people continued to do so.

When Martin Luther was born, all Christian people were effectively Catholics. Martin himself was baptised into the Holy Church, would go on to study law and philosophy, generally frustrated by how much trust people put in reason when addressing the central issue of God and faith. After a near death experience during a thunderstorm (or maybe Martin was just scared of lightning) he promised God he would become a monk if his life was spared, and being a man of his word, the 23-year-old Martin entered the Augustinian order.

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An unhappy monk?

It does not seem to have been a joyous decision, and as to Martin’s father, he was royally pissed off. He’d invested a lot of good money on his son to ensure he’d be a member of the educated commercial class, and instead Martin decided to set off in search of God. Pah! God was all around – why bother looking for him?

Martin would have replied that yes, God might be all around, but the teachings of the Holy Church – and specifically certain practices, such as the sale of indulgences – were leading the believers astray, away from God. Martin’s solution was simple: people needed to read the word of God themselves, and they needed to understand that faith is based on just that: faith. It is about subjecting your will to that of God, of not expecting to be able to understand or explain, but to simply believe. A difficult concept to embrace for crass modern mankind…

For people to read the word of God – the Scriptures – they needed to be translated into the vernacular. Martin did some serious translation of his own, and other likeminded men did the same in other countries, producing a Bible in German, English, French – well, in most European languages. All this translating coincided with the introduction of the printing press in Europe – thank you Gutenberg (related post, see here) – and so the vernacular versions of the Bible were easily made available to common man. Ahem: well, not so easily, as the powers that were did not approve of all this translating and did their best to destroy the translations, causing a trade in contraband Bibles (!).

Martin started his little crusade against the established Church on October 31, 1517, when he banged up his 95 theses on the door to the Wittenberg Cathedral. At the time, his writing had as its purpose to create debate rather than antagonise, but sometimes there’s a fine line between dialogue and provocation, and clearly Martin rubbed a number of people up the wrong way. Seriously, the man was also requesting the church to stop selling indulgences, thereby depriving the coffers of sizeable income!

In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated, and would so remain for the rest of his life. Seeing as he was by then already busy with creating his new, revamped version of the Christian faith, I don’t think he was unduly worried – but at the same time I suspect that a man who had spent so much time within the Catholic Church must have woken up at night and wondered what in God’s name he was doing, taking on this behemoth, this self-proclaimed representative of God on Earth. (Before we go any further, it might be important to point out that I have no intention – or interest – in belittling the Catholic Church, spiritual home to so many millions of people)

Back to Martin and his restless nights – and I am sure they were many, endless hours when the teachings of his youth made him twist in fear as to what he was risking on behalf of his eternal soul… One of the things Martin opposed, was the Holy Church’s insistence that priests be celibate. As per Martin, there is no support for this in the Bible, and it may be worth remembering that until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Catholic priests quite often lived as married men, with no stigma attached. (As an aside, can you imagine the heartbreak when these men were told they had to put aside their wife if they wanted to continue working as priests?)

Now Martin opposed the concept of celibacy in principle. He himself had no intention to marry, seeing as he lived under the constant threat of being apprehended and carried off to martyrdom, not, in Martin’s opinion, something he wanted to subject a wife to having to witness. Plus points to Martin, I believe…Besides, he was far too busy to consider the complication of a wife. Life, however, has a tendency to happen, which is how Martin came to meet Katarina.

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Lukas Cranach – but it looks so modern!

We don’t know all that much about Katarina’s earliest days, but we know that as a child of six or so, she was sent to a nunnery for schooling. Some years later, she was transferred to a Cistercian convent, where she was to remain for most of her youth.

Despite a life behind walls, Katarina and several of her sisters kept well abreast of what was happening in the outside world. When Luther nailed his theses to the door, Katarina was an impressionable eighteen-year-old, and clearly what this man said resonated within. She began to feel trapped. So did a number of her sisters.

In 1523, these ladies managed to get word to Luther. They needed help to escape the convent. At the time, to steal away a nun was a terrible crime – nuns were the brides of Christ and should under no circumstances be taken from their convents, not even when the nuns in question had been forcibly veiled (and yes, that did happen). Martin had very little left to lose: he was already excommunicated, and I think it appealed to his virility to cast himself as the saviour of these poor damsels – err, nuns – in distress. Said and done, Luther devised a plan.

stilleben_mit_hering_und_bartmannskrugOne day, a herring merchant drove his cart into the convent. Herring was a staple of the times, so there was nothing unusual about that. In all the bustle of unloading full barrels, loading empty ones, twelve nuns managed to hide in the cart. In the barrels, one presumes. Off they went, the herring merchant sweating profusely as he drove under the beady eye of the gate keeper, but fortunately his illegal cargo went undiscovered, and some hours later twelve giddy young women were deposited in Wittenberg.

Word went out. The ladies needed husbands, seeing as their families refused to take them back, what with all this escaping their convent being a heinous sin. One by one, the nuns were married off, until at last only one remained: Katarina von Bora herself. Whether this was due to looks or temperament, we do not know. The lady herself is said to have expressed that either she married Luther or she didn’t marry anyone. Well, even men bent on religious revolution can be flattered, right? Besides, Katarina was young and worshiped the ground Martin trod on – she called him Herr Doctor, would always call him Herr Doctor.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tif (1)So in 1525, Martin Luther married Katarina. He was 41, she was 26: a former monk married to a former nun – that must have caused a number of ribald jokes. In actual fact, they were well suited, both of them of religious temperament, both of them intellectually agile and devoted to the cause. Plus, of course, by marrying, Martin was setting a precedent for all future Protestant priests.

The marriage seems to have been very happy, with Katarina assuming responsibility for all worldy tasks so that Martin could concentrate on theology and his teaching. Six children in eight years indicate they enjoyed each other’s company in bed as well, and Martin is known to have turned quite often to Katarina for advice. But it wasn’t an easy life. Katarina struggled to make ends meet, she ran a brewery, raised and sold cattle, ran an hospital, raised their children, ensured meals at set times, supported her husband whenever he needed it – in brief, our Katarina rarely had time for a nice cuppa and a slice of sponge cake. Still, I believe she was as content in him as he was in her, as expressed by him saying, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me, that I would never exchange my poverty with her for all the riches of Croesus.”

In 1546, Luther died. Apart from struggling with her grief, now that her beloved Herr Doctor was dead, Katarina was plunged into economic difficulties without his earnings as a professor. When war broke out she was forced to leave the life she had built up in Wittenberg and flee. With several underage children, she struggled to make ends meet, and was very dependent on the generous support of men such as the Elector of Saxony. She returned to Wittenberg for a while, but an outbreak of plague had her leaving again in a haste. There was a road accident, the cart Katarina was on upended causing her grievous injury. She never recovered, dying some months later, in December of 1552 in Torgau, where she was buried, very far from her beloved husband.

Was Katarina instrumental in Martin’s success as a reformer? No, probably not. But I do believe that Martin on more than one occasion raised his eyes towards the heavens and thanked the good Lord for this excellent helpmeet, this woman who loved him so well. And if he didn’t, well then shame on him!

Being versatile

theversatilebloggerSome days ago, I was more than honoured to discover Helen Hollick, Pirate Admiral extraordinaire, creator of heartthrob pirate Jesamiah Acorne, author of I don’t know how many books spanning everything from King Arthur to King Harold, had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger award. Seeing as Helen is, per definition, versatile, I did a little hopping about with glee. And if you haven’t discovered just how versatile, I recommend you pop over to her blog ASAP (but not yet: you may miss out…)

Now, this blog award comes with certain expectations:

  1. Display the Award Certificate (cut and paste it from my post) – DONE
  2. Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated you – See above & Read on!
  3. Post seven  interesting things about yourself – Phew… caused me some headache, but I think I nailed it.
  4. Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why you’ve nominated them) – Will come later
  5. Inform them of their nomination  (probably via comment on their blog unless you have their email!)  –  Will do!

Maintaining a regular blog is at times somewhat daunting. You see, sometimes, I have no idea what to write about. After all, some things one doesn’t share on cyber space – firstly because no one else necessarily cares, secondly because some things should remain private. I know; such a strange concept, isn’t it, in a day and age where some people seem to present their entire life on social media.

However, to not be personal – at some level – is no longer an option. The challenge is to balance the personal touch with the subject matter. Sounds easy, is hard…

Anyway, today I thought I’d share with you some recent reflections I made while having my legs waxed. Thing is about waxing, it sort of keeps you very awake, and there I was, lying on my tummy while my favourite skin therapist was doing her thing, when I suddenly asked her, “Who do you think I’m doing this for?” Ouch! She yanked off a patch of wax before responding.
“Doing what?”
“Waxing my legs.”
Her hands came to a halt. Moments later, she was crouched beside me, dark eyes burning into mine. “I sincerely hope you’re doing it for you!”
I mulled this over for a while. “Men don’t wax all that much.”
“That’s because men are supposed to be hairy,” she said. Well, I have a little surprise for you all: most women are relatively hairy as well by nature, but apparently we’re not supposed to be? Yasmine laughed.
“Come off it; women have been depilating for thousands of years.”
“Yeah, by now one would have hoped Mother Nature had caught on,” I muttered. Any further thoughts were interrupted while I gritted my teeth when she attacked my thighs.
“So who do you do this for?” she asked once she was done.
“To placate thousands of years of tradition.” I ran a hand down my smooth legs and smiled at the sensation. “No,” I added, “I’m doing this for me.” And I do. Very few people get close enough to my bare legs to have much of a vested interest in whether they are waxed or not – a state of affairs I am very happy to maintain. In actual fact, only one person other than me ever runs his hands up my legs, and he’s also the man who will kiss my brow and tell me he loves me just as I am. Actually, most men I know seem to love their wives just as they are. The wives, however, rarely love themselves as they are: either they’re too fat, or too hairy, or too pale, or too grey, or too…Ergo, the waxing – to make us feel better. Ergo, the multi-billion beauty industry, which further underlines our insecurities – but offers hope of overcoming them.

Us women have a great capacity for wallowing in our physical shortcomings. Men seem to take them in their stride. I wonder why – do mothers raise boys with more unconditional love than girls? Or is it female peer pressure – the same pressure that makes us feel like awful mothers when we’ve bought the birthday cake instead of baking it – that has us constantly assessing our physical exterior? Sometimes, it seems to me us modern women are elegantly trapped between the preconceived notions of what a woman should be, as expressed by our mothers, and the time constraints of our day to day. It is sort of difficult to juggle full time jobs, kids, the practicalities of life, and still find time to ensure the negligee sits just so over a svelte and buffed body as we welcome hubby home with a dry martini. (I wish! – or rather he wishes…)

I guess the only comfort in all this, is that we’re following an age-old tradition. Since woman first caught sight of her reflection in a still pool of water, she has expended considerable energy on improving what she sees, whether it be with coal round her eyes and carmine on her lips, or sophisticated laser treatment. Interestingly enough, very few of us expect our men to expend the same energy on their exterior. Why? Because we love them just as they are!

Tulips IMG_0055Right; after this little meandering excursion into the why’s of waxing, here come seven interesting things about me:

1. I dream in Latin – which is weird, as I don’t know Latin.

2. I have a thing about drawing “nekkid ladies” while stuck in boring meetings.

3. I call my husband Heathcliff

4. I only drink coffee when I’m pregnant – which means I won’t be drinking any more coffee in my life.

5. I have a thing about whisky and lug home bottles every time I’m overseas – but I have never tasted a drop. I just like the smell and the colour…

6. My home is full of red stuff: red lamp, red chair, red computer, red vases, red Nespresso, red toaster, red blender, red teapot. I do believe red is my favourite colour ;)

7. I skinny dip whenever I get the chance.

And now on to my nominees:

  • Flashlight Commentary . Erin Davies excellent review blog. I know Erin lives a busy life, with small children and a full time job, and still she posts excellent reviews at such a rate I think she inhales the books.
  • The Seventeenth Century Lady. What ms Zuvich doesn’t know about William & Mary is probably not worth knwing. Same goes for that flamboyant man, the Duke of Monmouth. For some odd reason, she has a crush on Prince Rupert, which is sort of sad, seeing as the dude in question has been dead for well over 300 years.
  • Barbara Gaskell Denvil – because this lady writes blogs almost as beautiful as the prose in her books. And as to her books – wow!
  • Kim Zollman Rendfeld – her blog is an informative venture into early medieval European history
  • Always Wanted to be a Reiter – Jacqui Reiter’s impressively erudite blog about John, Earl of Chatham and older brother of William Pitt. Besides, who can resist that blog name, huh?
  • Layered Pages – Ms Stephanie is beyond doubt one of the more generous bloggers around, always offering to host and promote others. Her author interviews are great!
  • Judith Arnopp – a blog dedicated to history, need I say more??? Ms Arnopp is not only an excellent novelist, but she also writes insightful posts that shed new light (at least to me) on the intricacies of Tudor life
  • Before the Second Sleep – the name itself makes me smile. Ms Zlitni may not post often, but when she does, her poetic language leaves me wanting more. Much more.
  • The Freelance History Writer – Susan Abernathy maintains an impressive blog – and she is a generous lady who gladly shares her knowledge with those in need.
  • A day in the life of patootie Lori Crane is an excellent writer, and a truly versatile lady, what with her combo singer/writer routine.

Right; after all this writing, I shall now drag myself off for a nice cuppa. I have no idea why writing makes me so thirsty, but there you are, yet another odd little fact about me – I drink tea by the gallon while typing :)

 

 

When the creative juices flow

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Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real world or in between the pages of my novels. Except, of course, that Alex Graham is of the firm opinion she exists well outside my writing. (She does. She swishes around in my head more or less all the time) Matthew Graham merely smiles. He knows this particular lady (me) has a crush the size of an elephant on him, and ergo, where I go, he goes. But I don’t tell Alex that. She isn’t good at sharing…

All of the above probably has the more pragmatic among my readers rocking back in their chairs. What, she admits to having conversations with her characters? Huh. I would argue all writers do. We need that spark of life from our characters to properly flesh them out, develop them into tangible beings. Things do, however, become problematic when they start expressing opinions about everything in my life – but I’m not going there. At least not today.

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..and he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter…

So, where was I? Oh, yes: a writer writes to please himself. A painter, I presume, paints to please himself/herself. Nah-nah-nah, some of you say, reminding me that many are the artists and writers who have sold their talent for commercial rewards. Even that star among artists, Michelangelo, painted and sculptured on commission. Yes, he did. But somehow I don’t get the impression Michelangelo did much compromising on quality – or on being true to his ideals. I truly believe he was proud of his work – you see, it pleased him. (And in his case, if it lived up to his own exacting standards, he assumed the rest, maybe with the exception of Raphael, would like it as well, but then Michelangelo never liked Raphael – professional jealousy, one presumes)

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Pleased w his pic – but is it the truth?

I realise that Michelangelo is not perhaps the best example to bring forth. The man was a genius, his talent so bright no one in their right mind would attempt to interfere with his creative process. Many, many more artists (and writers) are far from geniuses, and somewhere along the line the artist who wants to eat may have to compromise. The portrait painter in the 17th century who survived from commission to commission was not about to risk his future by depicting Mr X (a rather ugly man) as he was. After all, Mr X had requested a portrait of himself because at some level Mr X was convinced he would look good hanging on a wall for all eternity. So the artist had to do some magic – a tradition that has survived most hale and hearty all the way to us, when Photoshop allows must of us to look great, even if we don’t.

I guess it all comes down to how dependent you are on your creative efforts to feed yourself. If yes, of course the artist must compromise to keep his children in food – but I suspect many such artists have felt physical pain at doing so. I am fortunate in that I don’t need to write to feed my kids. (And three of them no longer live at home) I write, as I remind myself, to please myself. Except I don’t. Not only. If I only did it for myself, why go through all the angst of publishing? No, it is time to come clean and admit I write to please myself AND my potential readers. Many, many readers, preferably.

My father was an accomplished amateur painter. He would stand for hours before his easel and consider just what shade of green he wanted for that specific leaf. Or he would hum happily to himself as he created a new collage. For him, painting was about escaping. Every Sunday, he would allow himself some hours in which he lost himself in his creative efforts, no longer the efficient business man, no longer the man who put the bacon on the table, but simply Ingvar, a man who once dreamed of becoming an artist but who got caught in the hamster wheel of life. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe he was unhappy with his choices – he loved his work – but sometimes the dream reared its rosy little head inside of him.

My writing started out as something similar. Hours in which I escaped into a world where I called the shots. This was before Alex and Matthew  grew into such formidable presences as they are today. Before Adam de Guirande popped up in my head, with his slow smile. Before that endearing Hannah Carolina and her sticky fingers, and definitely before Jason and Helle, torn apart by fate. These days, I have resigned myself to not calling the shots. I’m some sort of glorified secretary at times, fingers going numb in my effort to keep up with all the whispered suggestions from my characters, all the images that flash through my head. BUT. My writing is still an exquisite pleasure, moments in which I no longer think about the more mundane aspects of life, concentrated as I am on creating.

20150223_093655My father once expressed that his painting helped him develop professionally. Seeing as he was the CEO of a company, it is sort of difficult to see how his painting could impact his work life – or at least that was what I thought, until now, close to forty years later, when my writing most definitely has a positive influence on my daily work. You see, since I started investing serious time in my writing, my creative processes have improved. I trust my instincts more, and as to thinking out of the box – well, if you write about time travellers and reincarnated souls and more or less develop friendly relationship with real people who died seven centuries ago, thinking out of the box very much becomes the norm.

Likewise, the structure I implement at work (thinking out of the box is all very fine, but in some areas, such as accounting, it is definitely frowned upon) helps me in my writing. I may be wildly creative, have tons of little post-its lying about, but once I sit down to properly write, I adopt a serious approach, staring with a thorough structuring of my research. (Research sounds so dry. In reality, I wallow in lovely, lovely books about people and times I want to know more about. Lucky me!)

At one point in time, I dreamed about being a full-time writer, bring the world to its knees with my sweeping masterpieces. My father, in a surprisingly gentle manner for a man as rational as he was, reminded me that dreams are dreams. With a wry little smile, he told me that some things in life are best kept as precious bubbles, stolen moments in time uniquely our own.
“You’re too conventional to handle the harsh reality of surviving on your art,” he said, “as am I.” Hard words to hear when you’re twenty something – after all, what young person wants to be defined as ‘conventional’?

Many years have passed since then, and these days my father isn’t around. But whenever I sink into the world where my creative juices flow unhindered, I swear I can feel him at my side, a proud gleam in his eyes. And he was right, of course. I’ve never had to compromise to eat, so my writing remains a passion, an urge. It flowers as it pleases me – and my voluble characters – and quite often what pleases me pleases my readers. And if it doesn’t, well then I must remember that I’m mostly doing this for me.
“And for us,” Alex Graham says, sweeping her arm in a gesture to encompass all my characters, presently ranged around tea and scones (I do have a very roomy brain, okay?). Yes, of course for them, for the imagined people who have become my beloved friends and constant companions. “Sheesh,” Alex mutters, using her apron to dab at her eyes, “you really do have a way with words, don’t you?” Duh!

Torn asunder – of Finland and its history

Finland Albert_Edelfelt_-_Kaukola_Ridge_at_Sunset_-_Google_Art_Project

Finland, land of lakes

So I was taking the opportunity of a lull in the meeting to bore my colleagues with yet another historical tidbit. Okay, maybe not bore, as I do try to present my favourite moments in history in an entertaining manner, involving a lot of posturing, multiple voices and general enthusiasm, but in a group of people not all that interested in history this mainly leads to amused smiles rather than a riveted audience. But what can I say? I take it as my personal mission to do some educating…

One of my colleagues is from Finland. Now Finland doesn’t feature much on my historical radar – there is also an element of embarrassment for me as a Swede to delve too deeply into a history that will, per definition, include a series of atrocities perpetrated by the crusading Swedes on the Finnish people. Sweden conquered Finland in the 12th – 13th century, this under the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathen savages who lived in the Finnish forests. (Not so sure they were all that heathen – or savages.)

All this Swedish aggression still rankles in Finnish minds. I recall an incident several years ago when I was working for a Finnish multinational. We were visiting a production facility in a town called Kauttua (land in Turku, get a car, drive two hours straight into the never-ending woods, and there is Kauttua) when one of my Finnish colleagues pointed at the lake spread before us and said, “That’s where we murdered those three bishops. Drowned them. Serve them right, Swedish bastards that they were.” Err… at the time, I was sitting stark naked in a sauna, surrounded by Finnish people gripping bundles of birch twigs (used to whip the dirt off your body while in the sauna). Somewhat intimidating…

Anyway, my present day Finnish colleague suggested I write about Eugen Shauman or Alexandra Gripenberg.
“Ah,” I replied trying to sound as if I knew exactly who he was talking about. To be able to look knowledgeable while clueless is a valuable skill in the world of business, and one I have become quite good at.My colleague was not taken in. He grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling.
“You’ve never heard of them, have you?”
No, I admitted.
“So read up,” he suggested. Which, dear people, I have now done.

Finland’s history is intimately entwined with that of Sweden and Russia. As stated above, Sweden sent off crusaders in the 13th century, but the interaction between the countries stretch back much farther in time. While Sweden wanted to annex Finland as an eastern outpost, the Kingdom of Novgorod was just as keen to expand their territory west, using Finland as a western outpost. Obviously, the poor Finns were caught in between.

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Swedish aggression, 16th century style

Initially, the Swedes were successful. In the name of God, Finland was brought to the Swedish crown and was to remain Swedish for very many centuries. Swedish noblemen were granted Finnish land, Swedish clerics moved to spread the word of God (in Swedish, mainly) to Finland. Obstinate Finns were forcibly relocated elsewhere – like in the wilds of Sweden. The use of Finnish was not encouraged, and overtime, the Finnish society coagulated into an upper class who spoke Swedish and no Finnish, and a lower class who spoke only Finnish and resented their Swedish overlords. Duh…

As an aside, even today, there is a large minority of Finnish people whose mother tongue is Swedish. Some of the best Swedish language literature has been written by Finnish people – and especially the poets combine the lyrical aspects of the Swedish language with the stark and uncompromising character of the Finnish people, resulting in immortal poetry. Neither here nor there, but as I write this, my tongue curls itself round lines like “Röd-Eemeli föddes i torpets bastu:smuts och gråt” (“Red Emil was born in the croft’s sauna; dirt and tears” from Röd Eemeli by Diktonious) or “Du sökte en kvinna och fann en själ – du är besviken” (“You searched for a woman and found a soul – you are disappointed” from Dagen Svalnar by Edith Södergran)

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Tsar Peter, looking to the west

Back to our abbreviated history lesson: as many of you may know, the Swedish empire reached its largest extension in the 17th century and began to crumble rapidly after that. To the east, the Kingdom of Novgorod had been gobbled up by Russia, and this larger, stronger Russia had aspirations – to the west. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, defeated the hitherto so powerful Swedish Army at Poltava (for a related post, go here) and during the first few decades of the 18th century Finland was one massive, bloody battlefield, leaving it split in two (the Russians annexed the south-eastern part) and severely depopulated, seeing as more than half of the population had died due to war and pillage.

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Suffering peasants – look at the little girl!

The 18th century in Finland was pretty bleak. The Russians invaded and plundered, the Swedish/Finnish armies fought back, and the ones who paid the price were the people. Our Finnish friends were not happy. Centuries of oppression coupled with decades of warfare awakened a desire among the Finns to control their own destiny, become independent. Groups of intellectuals began talking about the Finnish identity, the importance of preserving the Finnish language and heritage.

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Among Finnish birches

In 1809, Sweden lost the rest of Finland to Russia, and the country of a thousand lakes and birches became an Imperial fief – a Grand Duchy, no less.  Not, in the opinion of many Finnish people, an entirely bad thing. St Petersburg was a much bigger draw than the provincial backwater of Stockholm, and the Russians allowed the Finns to keep a number of their laws, such as those guaranteeing the peasants remained freeholders rather than serfs as was common in the rest of Russia. Plus Alexander I was quite okay with leaving local legislation in general up to the Finnish parliament. And yet… That desire to become truly independent grew successively stronger.

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Tsar Alexander I

It all started with the language. In the 19th century, groups of Swedish-speaking Finns began to actively promote the Finnish language, this as a means of creating a common bond between them (mostly upper class)  and the Finnish speaking peasantry. At the time, Finnish as a language had no official status. It was Swedish or Russian, full stop. Very quickly, the Fennoman movement (i.e. promoting everything Finnish) took hold. In 1834, the Kalevala was published, a collection of Finnish myths harkening back to a very distant past. In the late 19th century, after insistent lobbying, Finnish was at last granted the status of official language.

That itch for independence was becoming a rash. The Finnish people, now cleverly united behind a common language, (although truth be told very many of the Swedish-speakers would never lower themselves to speak Finnish) began to dream of a free Finland. Dangerous dreams if you’re part of the Russian empire, and those too vocal often ended up imprisoned.

Finland Eugen_schauman

Eugen Schauman

At this point in time, I think I must introduce Eugen Schauman, still today considered one of Finland’s foremost heroes. This was a man destined to live a very short life, ablaze with Finnish patriotism. Yet another of those Swedish-speaking Finns, he took it upon himself to rid Finland of its Russian General-Governor, Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed in 1898. Bobrikov was not a major Finland fan. In fact, he considered Finland to be a borderline enemy state, and all this Fennomanism, all this liberal spouting about Finnish roots and culture, had him seeing red. No, Bobrikov decided, it was about time the rebellious Finns were brought to heel, which is why he urged the Tsar to sign the February Manifesto in 1899.

Finland Nikolai_Bobrikov

Nikolai Bobrikov

Just like that, several of the rights and liberties hitherto enjoyed by the Finnish people became null and void.  The period in time labelled by the Finns as the first “Years of Oppression” had begun. Russian became the official language, Russian was to be taught in schools, Russian laws were to take precedence over Finnish laws, and the Finnish army was to be abolished, all those serving in it to be sucked up into the Imperial Russian Army. Conscripted Finnish men were sent off to distant parts of the Russian empire to serve, so as to knock the Finnishness out of them.

Not, in brief, a good time to be Finnish – or a Fennoman. Half a million Finnish people signed a petition to the Tsar, begging him to revoke the manifesto. The Tsar didn’t even deign to receive the delegation. (This, BTW, is of course the same Tsar who was to die in Yekaterinburg) . And as to Bobrikov, he became the most hated man in Finland. So hated, that several undercover groups planned to murder him. The task to do so, however, went to the young volunteer Eugen Schauman.

Eugen had so far in his life shown little inclination for fast-paced action, no matter that his mother had filled his head with nationalistic dreams of a free Finland. Born in 1875 in Charkov, Ukraine, Schauman belonged to a family with strong military traditions, but as he had impaired hearing the army was not an option. Instead, he was urged to study, and despite his partial deafness managed to graduate (this in a day and age where a lot of the exams were verbal) with good grades. After some years at university, he became a clerk in the Finnish Administration, and spent his free time developing his athletic skills.

Eugen was a good  shot – he considered it necessary to be able to handle a gun to be able to defend his beloved Finland. He was also somewhat unfortunate in love, and there are those that believe his latest rejection drove him to his final desperate action. Whatever the case, Schauman utilised his position in the Senate to plan his attack. And on the 16th of June 1904, at precisely eleven o’clock (Bobrikov was a punctual man and was arriving for a meeting) Eugen shot Bobrikov three times before turning his gun on himself. Schauman died immediately. Bobrikov lingered on for a further 36 hours.

Despite all this hullabaloo, despite assassinated General-Governors, the Russian Empire did not interfere with the Finnish Parliament. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 (which, among other things, curtailed the Tsar’s powers and strengthened that of the Russian Parliament, the Duma), Finland’s parliament was more or less left to rule Finland as it pleased. But I imagine the Russian elite stood by as an amused spectator as the Finnish people took the drastic step of implementing universal suffrage in the 1906 election. Imagine that – not only were men, no matter their station, given the right to vote, but the misguided Finns were also allowing that weaker sex, the women, a say in how they should be governed.

Finland Alexandra_Gripenberg

Alexandra Gripenberg

And this dear people, brings me to Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg. May I present an avid Fennoman, a well-educated female member of the Swedish-speaking wealthy classes who early on embraced the vision of a free Finland, a country in which men and women had equal rights.(And I must say I have to tip my hat in the direction of my Finnish colleague, who expressed such pride in a woman who fought so hard for the female vote. Gender equality is, clearly, almost a genetic quality in Finland)

Alexandra, born in 1857,  was one of twelve siblings, and when her father died she was not yet a teen. The father’s death reduced the family’s circumstances somewhat, and Alexandra was educated by her older sisters rather than at school. There were no opportunities for a higher level education, in part due to her gender, but also due to the overall cash flow situation. Alexandra, however, was an intelligent young lady, and she compensated for her lack of formal education by reading voraciously.

In 1884 she founded the first women’s right association in Finland, and in 1887 she set off to see the world, travelling through Britain and the US, where to her delight she met not only Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Mark Twain, whom she found deliciously attractive. Most of all, she met women with similar views to her own, and she became an active member of the International Council for Women, travelling extensively while using her pen and wits to promote causes dear to her heart.

Alexandra was not a major fan of the universal suffrage implemented in 1906. She was of the opinion that democracy required the voters to have a certain level of basic education and understanding of the system, and she didn’t believe her countrymen were ready – no matter their gender. Still, she was convinced to stand for election and became one of ten women to take a seat in Parliament, where she mainly focused on women’s right issues, such as banning prostitution.

In her later years, Alexandra became somewhat marginalised within the Finnish women’s right movement, Basically, Alexandra held very conservative views, and vehemently opposed any initiatives that she felt were in contradiction with her Christian values. She was appalled by the young, radical women who claimed the right to choose their sexual partners as they pleased,  she considered it natural that women managed the household – men were not supposed to do such female tasks as laundry. For her, gender equality was about the right to education and the right to work – and she was quite adamant that women were not to receive any preferential treatment whatsoever in the workplace.

In 1911, Alexandra died, six years before that other dream of hers, that of seeing an independent Finland, was realised. Personally, I think she would have been devastated by the events that followed upon independence – seeing your country torn in two tends to have that effect on patriots.

In 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared its independence. This act plunged the country into a brief, but very bitter, civil war, a fight to death between the Reds and the Whites.The Reds wanted to follow in the footsteps of glorious (hmm) Comrade Lenin. The Whites blanched (;)) at the thought of a socialist state.  For close to two years, the country was at war with itself, and in those tumultuous times, one Finnish man stood tall above all others (and he was, actually, very, very tall). This is a man I most definitely had heard of before – namely General Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White troops, later to become Finland’s president and even later to become Marshal of Finland and lead its defences against the Soviet Union in World War II, when the gentleman in question was pushing eighty. But this, dear people, is too extensive a topic to cover here. Mr Mannerheim will simply have to wait.

So ends this initial foray into Finnish history, and what better way to end it than by listening to Monty Python? (Although seriously: mountains in Finland? Ha!)

The flutter that makes us – and breaks us

Love Watts_George_Frederic_Orpheus_And_EurydiceToday’s post is about love. Seems sort of apt, given the date…I have a thing about love – in all its forms and guises. Not that I believe myself to be unique in this; most people I know have a thing about love.

Love hurts, they say. I guess most of us would agree, having at some point or other experienced just how much it can hurt. I guess one of the more painful versions is unrequited love. It becomes a couple of degrees more painful if the object of your heart’s desire is made aware of your feelings. Somehow, loving makes us vulnerable, it strips us down to the bone, and this process is barely bearable if the love is reciprocated. It is utterly unbearable if it isn’t.

Cupid Piero_della_Francesca_-_Cupid_Blindfolded_-_WGA17587Love hurts, love twists our hearts into mashed pulp and we are at times quite convinced we will die from the pain caused by Cupid’s arrows. We rarely do. We lick our wounds, repair our hearts, and out we go into the world, looking for someone else to love. We hum along with songs describing love and pain, we prefer it if there’s a HEA to our romantic movies, our romantic books. Life rarely has HEAs, and we know that – of course we do, we’re not idiots – but we want to be fooled, we need the fairy tale sugar-coating so as to find the courage to try again. And again.

Even worse than unrequited love, is to be betrayed in love. In general, relationships where one of the parties cheat are over long before the cuckolded party realises it – or maybe they have realised it but have chosen not to, playing the ostrich to perfection. For some, betrayal is so inconceivable it never crosses their mind it can happen – until it does. And when it does, it is not only the love bubble that bursts apart, it is the self itself that is torn and shredded. Not only did you love unwisely, but you were fool enough not to see what was happening under your very nose.

Serpents-in-the-Garden_pb-lrgIn Serpents in the Garden, one of my protagonists, Ian Graham, discovers his wife Jenny is sleeping with Patrick, the field hand. Humiliated and hurt, he is also beset by vivid images in which his adulterous wife is laughing at him while enjoying her lover’s caresses.

He sent wood chips flying; he chopped and chopped, venting anger and humiliation on the length of timber at his feet. He choked on his rage, a hard knot working itself up and down his gullet. God, how gullible she must have found him!He drove the axe head into the wood, and worked until his shirt stuck to his back.

It helped to gouge his way through the log. With each stroke, the red anger inside of him receded, the heat that threatened to boil over cooled, until he was left with a controlled, icy rage that lay like a lid across the angry whipping thing in his guts.

Ian and Jenny live in 17th century Maryland. Adultery could potentially lead to death (although it rarely did) and definitely to public humiliation. Not a sufficient deterrent for Jenny – she burns for the other man. Does she still love Ian? Yes, Jenny would have answered – at least initially.

Love Image-François_Pascal_Simon_Gérard_006Falling out of love is a much more gradual process than the tumultuous experience of falling in love. Bit by bit, love is downgraded to affection, to indifference, and where once life without the other was impossible to even consider, one day one wakes and thinks life without the other would be quite okay – quite nice actually.

I don’t think Jenny ever reaches the indifference level. Instead, she is swimming in guilt, further burdened by the heavy-handed morality of the times. As Jenny discovers, the adulterous woman in the 17th century had no rights – especially when it came to her children. So why does Jenny risk everything? Anyone who has been in love knows the answer; she can’t help herself.

Love Cupid_and_Psyche_-_Anthony_Van_Dyck_(1639-40)Wounds to the heart can take a long time to heal, and in Serpents in the Garden several of my characters suffer devastating blows, the kind that bring you to your knees while you promise yourself that never, ever again will you gamble the well-fare of your heart on another human being. Fortunately, the heart is a resilient organ. Despite being badly bruised, at times even broken, it heals. The more daring among us will therefore set our heart at risk over and over again – hoping that one day we’ll find the love of our life. And many of us do. So yes; love hurts. But it also carries us through the darkest of days, it gives us wings to fly with, just when we need it the most. That, I believe, is one of the central messages in all my books: love rules, people. Without it, we would be but husks.

*****************************

BRAGI have just been informed that Serpents in the Garden has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion , the fifth of my books to be so honoured. Need I say I am beyond pleased?

I guess this just reflects the fact that very many of us have a thing about love, right?

And should you want to buy the book, why not pop over to Amazon US? Or Amazon UK?

 

 

It’s a man’s world

…or so, at least, Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar must have reasoned when she decided to leave her feminine self behind and instead become a man. And not any old man, either, no Ulrika Eleonora decided to go all in and become a soldier.

Okay, so none of the above is truly remarkable in this day and age, but rewind the clock (drastically) to the first few decades in the 18th century, and we are looking at a scandal in the making. You see, it was a crime for a woman to don menswear. And as to impersonate a man, well an adequate response would be a shrill “off with her head” – except that this was no make believe world starring a Mad Hatter, a lost girl and a rabbit hole.

Ulrika Eleonora madame-de-pompadour2

What an 18th century noblewoman should look like (Mme Pompadour herself…)

Ulrika Eleonora had an impeccable pedigree: she was of noble birth, her father was an officer, her grandfather had been an officer, her older brothers were officers, and her sisters were nice and ladylike the lot of them. Unfortunately, while Ulrika Eleonora’s father seems to have been a capable officer, he was less than successful when it came to managing his financial situation, and when he died, Ulrika Eleonora and her five sisters found themselves in the unenviable situation of being poor as church mice and dependent on the goodwill of their relations to survive.

For a young, destitute noblewoman, the only solution was marriage – often to someone “beneath” her. In the early 18th century, the young destitute noblewomen rarely got a say in who they were married to, and Ulrika Eleonora watched one sister after the other end up in unhappy marriages, at the beck and call of their spouses. Not a fate Ulrika Eleonora wanted to share, and besides, time was passing and men weren’t exactly queuing up to marry this young woman who rode and shot better than most men, and who was unfashionably loud and borderline long in the tooth (after all, the lady was going on thirty, almost ancient…)

Ulrika Eleonora svensk soldat

What an 18th century woman should NOT aspire to

We don’t know what incident pushed Ulrika Eleonora to act, but in the spring of 1713, she requested her papers from the local priest (one couldn’t travel without papers confirming your identity), bid her sisters farewell, and set off for Stockholm in search of a better life. Her sisters were mildly scandalised: a young woman travelling alone was not the done thing. Imagine just how shocked they would have been had they known that no sooner had Ulrika Eleonora waved them goodbye, but she took off for a secluded spot where she exchanged skirts and petticoats for men’s breeches, a coat and  sturdy shoes. Ulrika Eleonora was no more: instead, here was young Wilhelm Edstedt – carrying papers identifying him as Miss Stålhammar…

No one asked to see the papers. Wilhelm arrived safe and sound in Stockholm and quickly sank to the bottom of the social pecking order. Miss Stålhammar was a someone – however impoverished. Wilhelm was a nobody, with no contacts, no previous work experience – and the added disadvantage of lacking a male member, which required circumspection. How Wilhelm managed to survive is an open question, but at some point his/her good breeding paid off, and Wilhelm was employed as a footman. Not the future Wilhelm had envisaged, but at least it gave him room and board.

Ulrika Eleonora Regementets_Kalk

How many of these were undercover women?

One employment led to another, and in 1715, Wilhelm was at last able to achieve his dream. He joined an artillery regiment in Kalmar, a small city well to the south of Stockholm. Wilhelm was to serve with his regiment for eleven years, and I wonder just how he/she could keep his/her real identity a secret for so long. After all, soldiers tend to live cheek to jowl, and at some point even Wilhelm would have needed to relieve himself…

Even more reckless was Wilhelm’s decision to marry. In 1715, he met a young maid called Maria Lönman, and whether or not it was true love from Wilhelm’s side, he/she set out to woo Maria. Maybe it started as an attempt to act like a “normal” man, but as the months went by, Wilhelm seems to have developed feelings for Maria. He wrote her letters, he courted her assiduously, and in 1716 Wilhelm proposed, was accepted, and married his Maria.

Umm…Did Maria know she was marrying a man in disguise? According to what she said later, she didn’t. If so, how was Wilhelm planning on addressing the whole issue of taking his new bride to bed? Turns out Maria had been brutally assaulted some years back, so when Wilhelm expressed a certain reluctance vis-a-vis intimacy, she was mostly relieved. And curious, one imagines, so curious that Wilhelm some weeks after the marriage, broke down and told Maria the truth.

His wife heard him out, did some hand-twisting and pondering, and decided the best course of action was to do nothing – she liked her “husband” well enough, and I also suspect she found it more than embarrassing to explain to her relatives that her wedding had been a farce.

For ten years, Wilhelm and Maria lived in apparent harmony. Their pastor was later to say that rarely had he encountered such a devout and virtuous couple, and both Maria and Wilhelm vehemently denied ever having had carnal knowledge of each other. Whether this was true or not, I have no idea –  but it was probably a wise move to deny it.

Ulrika Eleonora 800px-Gustaf_Cederström_-_David_och_GoliathBack in 1713, Ulrika Eleonora had written one of his sisters. Elisabet Katarina,  and told her she was living as Wilhelm Edstedt. There seems to have been no contact between the sisters after that date, but sometime 1725 or so, Wilhelm received a letter. He recognised the handwriting, and in my mind’s eye, I see him turning it over, one part of him wanting to tear it open, the other not sure if he should read it at all. Curiosity won out, and with some trepidation, Wilhelm settled down to read Elisabet’s letter.

Somehow, Elisabet Katarina had found out that Wilhelm had married, and she was beyond livid: how could her irresponsible sister drag an innocent woman into the mess she’d made of her life? What did Ulrika Eleonora think would happen if they were found out? And how could she be so selfish as to condemn Maria to a life of pretense?

The letter was like a festering boil. Wilhelm tossed and turned through the nights, he decided to resign from the army, did some more tossing and turning, and sometime later, Wilhelm came to the conclusion it was time to revert to being Ulrika Eleonora – with the picturesque addition of a wife. Major problem number one…

Major problem number two was that Ulrika Eleonora had – in the eyes of her contemporaries – committed a heinous crime. As per the law, there was only one punishment possible. Death. Not, I suppose, an entirely palatable alternative for ex-Wilhelm, now firmly back in skirts.

Fortunately, Ulrika Eleonora had an aunt. This aunt with the rather impressive name Sofia Drake (eg Sofia Dragon) had a vested interest in keeping the name Stålhammar unsoiled – for the sake of her dead husband and her own children. Reluctantly, she offered to help – not only Ulrika Eleonora, but also Maria, who by all accounts received a much warmer welcome than her erstwhile “husband”. Consensus was that Maria had been sinned against – the sinner being that irresponsible and head-strong Ulrika Eleonora. In fact, Lady Sofia went out of her way to help Maria find a position as a housekeeper, while it seems she had major problems offering her niece anything but a dutiful and decidedly cool welcome.

Ulrika Eleonora Frederick_I_of_Sweden

Fredrik I

Sofia Drake advised Ulrika Eleonora to go to Denmark and write a grovelling letter to the king, Fredrik I, begging forgiveness for the sins she’d committed in “youthful despair”. Hmm. she was pushing thirty at the time of her original transformation into Wilhelm…However, grovelling letters tend to help, and Ulrika Eleonora was invited back to Sweden and allowed to stay with her aunt while waiting for her day in court.

Being of noble birth, Ulrika Eleonora had assumed her case would be fast-tracked to the higher courts, bypassing local magistrates. Not so. Instead, Ulrika Eleonora and Maria were brought before the magistrates in Kalmar. Six days of intrusive question – and at one point Ulrika Eleonora was subjected to a thorough physical examination to ensure she was a woman. The midwives charged with verifying her gender also confirmed she had never given birth. Neither had Maria…

After these initial formalities, the trial focused on Ulrika Eleonora and Maria’s sexlife. At the time, homosexuality was a crime (labelled sodomy, which didn’t quite apply in this case, but even 18th century judges had enough imagination to visualise two women in bed), so maybe it is no wonder that the ladies repeated over and over that yes, they loved each other deeply, but that their feelings were platonic. In fact, neither of them had ever felt any desire to engage in sexual acts. The court was not entirely convinced, but there was nothing to prove, and what witnesses were found generally agreed that Ulrika Eleonora a.kl.a. Wilhelm and Maria had had a loving but virtuous relationship.

The Kalmar magistrates came to the conclusion the two women had committed a crime and should be punished – but they couldn’t find any guidance as to how they should be punished, and so they turned the whole case over to the educated lawmen of Göta Hovrätt – the next judicial level.

The lawmen didn’t take all that long to make up their minds:the crime was punishable by death, as supported by Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
I dare say Ulrika Eleonora swallowed repeatedly. Many, many times.

However, the lawmen in their mercy decided to commute the punishment to 30 days on bread and water, to be followed by public penance at Church before being exiled from the town of Kalmar. Well, compared to being hanged, this seems a walk in the park, but Ulrika Eleonora was not happy. 30 days on only bread and water equaled borderline starvation. Yet another letter was sent off to the king, who decided to allow Ulrika Eleonora full prison rations (woo hoo!) while reducing Maria’s sentence to 8 days – after all, the poor girl had been tricked…

After their respective punishments in 1730, Maria and Ulrika Eleonora parted ways. Maria was to become a much appreciated servant in Lady Sofia’s household, while Ulrika Eleonora was given little choice in her future life – she was hastily passed off to an elderly female relative who lived as a recluse out in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

At the time, Ulrika Eleonora was pushing fifty, with no income, no assets – nothing but the permanent stain of shame that marked her in the eyes of her exasperated family. None of her sisters seem to have offered to take her home – but then, that may have been all those obnoxious husbands who put their feet down. And as to her brothers, imagine the horror with which they learnt that their sister had dragged the family name through the mud – by impersonating a man and becoming a petty officer, no less.

Ulrika Eleonora died three years later. In the intervening period, she had not been allowed to see Maria, and we don’t know if this caused her sorrow. I would assume it did – in hindsight those ten years and more she lived as Wilhelm with Maria at her side must have seemed the happiest in her life. After all, Ulrika Eleonora did inhabit a man’s world – a society in which women were, by law, reduced to being nothing more than their closest male relative’s burden and chattel.

Ulrika Eleonora is not the only woman to dress up as a man and go to war. There are plenty of other examples in Sweden – and in England, Ireland, well, a bit all over. Many of these women were executed – dear old Moses had made it quite, quite clear that cross-dressing was a major no-no. Many more were probably never discovered, and their stories will never be heard, their names by now forgotten – a fate they share with like 99,9% of all those that went before us…

Ode to the bulb – an abbreviated tulip history

When I was a child, tulips were mostly yellow flowers my mother bought around Easter. Sometimes, they were red, and now and then my mother would receive a bouquet of pink tulips with mimosa (good combo, that), but mostly they were yellow.

I never buy yellow tulips. I go wild and crazy with pink and purple, I buy swelling parrot tulips, I mix red and white and mildly green, but never yellow. Not sure why.

20150127_072459[1]Tulips go through an interesting metamorphosis. When you buy them, the flowerheads are generally closed, and there’s something rather prim about them. Set them in water and leave them indoors for some day, and their hidden sensual nature stands revealed, as petals widen, stems curve, displaying an abandoned opulence. This is the tulip I love, vibrant with colour and somehow rather decadent. It is, I believe, the tulip in this stage that drove the staid Dutchmen wild and crazy in the 17th century, when one single tulip bulb could cost as much as four well-grown oxen or two tons of butter.

Mostly people think of tulips and sort of leapfrog mentally to the Netherlands. Even though the Dutch no longer mortgage their houses, their businesses, their children and wives, to buy rare tulip bulbs, the Dutch retain a love affair with the tulips – and make a mint out of them. These days, tulip cultivation in the Netherlands is not a reckless passion – it is a business.

One could therefore think the tulip saw the light of the day in the Netherlands – together with such other essentials as chocolate sprinkles, Gouda cheese and croquettes – but that is not the case. The wild tulip is a native of the central Asian steppes,  and in its original forms it doesn’t much resemble any of the magnificent varieties we plunk into vases. The wild tulip is a modest little thing, a collection of petals that open widely to the sun and fade in a day or so. It is quite often red, now and then yellow, and once it has flowered, the petals drift off to lie like splotches of colour on the ground for a day or two before floating away.

The Persians developed an early fascination with the tulip – personally I think it had to do with the shape of stem and bud, forceful and upright. Whatever the reason, by the 10th century the Persians were already busy producing cultivated varieties, striving for bigger flowers, more petals, more colours. Man is rarely content with the original design of things…

From Persia, the tulip went on to conquer the Ottoman Empire, and here we have the first indications of a tulip craze,  with the tulip popping up as an integral part of carpet designs, art, embroidery – well, you name it. Not all that difficult to understand, given just how distinctive the tulip is – and how easy to simplify into motifs. But while the Turks adored their tulips, they did not go utterly wild and crazy about them – not to the point of risking bankruptcy to purchase a rare bulb or two.

Tulips SiegeOfViennaByOttomanForces

The Siege of Vienna

In the 16th century the tulip made it to Europe – to Vienna, to be precise. The Viennese were a jaded lot, accustomed to novelties from the east, and the tulip didn’t cause much a stir. Besides, the Viennese had a complex relationship with the Ottoman Empire. Already back in 1529, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had cast a covetous eye in the direction of Vienna, but his attempt to conquer the city failed. Suleiman’s successors kept the dream of Vienna alive, and for the coming century or so, the Ottoman Empire made several attempts at getting their hands on the Hapsburg capital, leading to less than cordial relations. Fortunately – at least for those of us who consider Sacher torte, croissants and Viennese waltz indispensable – the Ottomans never conquered Vienna, with the last attempt made in 1683. (And no, the croissant was NOT invented as a victory symbol over the Ottomans. The Viennese had been eating croissants since the middle ages…)

Anyway; back to our inedible if beautiful flower, the tulip. As an aside, I can inform you that tulips may not be your first choice of food, but there do not seem to be any negative consequences to ingesting the flower – this based on empirical research, as my eldest son once ate his way through every single one of our tulips, leaving a wake of half chewed petals in his wake. In his defense, he was still a toddler.

20150127_072346[1]While the Viennese sort of yawned and looked bored when presented with the tulip, the Dutchmen went totally crazy. Love at first sight, one could say. And love, as we know, can have us all succumb to madness. Now,  what is important to remember when considering the Dutch and tulips, is that in the 17th century, the Netherlands (well, they weren’t the Netherlands at the time, they were a federation of states that went by the name United Provinces) were a burgeoning merchant power. Being innovative – and a tad greedy – the Dutch were quick to develop a number of financial instruments, one of these being the future.

The future is originally an instrument whereby someone buys a future crop from someone else. The Italian bankers had been doing this for some time, with Guido buying Niccolo’s entire wheat harvest at price X long before Niccolo had even planted his fields. Guido hoped that by the time the harvest was ripe and ready, the price for wheat would be X+++. Niccolo just needed the money.

What the Dutch did was create a market place for the futures. Where before, the future was a contract between Guido and Noccolo, now the contract as such could be sold, and unbeknownst to Niccolo, he could suddenly be in the position of having to deliver his entire harvest to Alessandro, with whom he hadn’t spoken for like twenty years, given that Alessandro had stolen his girl. Neither here nor there…

Tulips Semper_Augustus_Tulip_17th_century

Semper Augustus – a most expensive tulip

So: the Dutch had a financial market, they had money and they just needed – craved – something to speculate in. Enter the tulip. Not, at this point in time, a plain yellow tulip. Nope. Not even a red one. Oh no, our Dutch traders were more sophisticated than that – they aspired to uniqueness. Which was why it was the multi-coloured varieties that were the most highly priced.

Now, when people want something, they generally want it now. Problem with the tulip is that it takes a long, long time for a seed to become a bulb – like eight years. Ergo, demand for special tulips more than exceeded supply of these bulbs, and so in 1636 the prices went through the ceiling, even more so when the French started placing large orders for the popular bulbs.  The Dutch tulip traders went about with dollar signs in their eyes (not. The dollar wasn’t around, but you get the picture…). The desperate buyers offered ridiculous amounts of money for one single bulb, and contracts for the bulbs changed hands so rapidly it was difficult to fully track the price development. Everyone wanted in on this floral pyramid game. Everyone…

Tulips Jan_Brueghel_the_Younger,_Satire_on_Tulip_Mania,_c._1640

Brueghel satirising the tulip fever

And then – wham! the bubble burst. Why, one wonders. Because someone started questioning the sanity of exchanging a dozen sheep for one bulb? Because it dawned on people that tulips may be easy on the eye, but don’t contribute to much more of life’s necessities? Whatever the case, one day the buyers at a planned auction just didn’t show. (This happened to coincide with an outbreak of the plague. Maybe this near death experience had people re-assessing the relative worth of tulips.) Those potential buyers were the lucky ones. They pulled out, while all the speculators sitting with minor fortunes in tulip bulb contracts on their hand were to experience just how ephemeral their wealth was. Easy come, easy go, as they say…

Since that rather spectacular tulipdriven financial crisis, this flower has retired to be preciesely that – a flower. The tulip price is not listed on world wide exchanges, people don’t fight over a bulb in the street. Instead, the tulip remains an appreciated indication that spring is on its way, an affordable thing of beauty in our everyday lives.

And as to the tulip’s exciting and colourful history, I don’t think about all this every time I buy tulips. Not quite.

 

 

En garde! Or what happens when you bite off more than you can chew

Fencing,Albanians_of_Montenegro_by_Paja_JovanoviqGive a child a stick and some will crouch down to draw lines in the mud. Others will grip the stick like a sword and attack the closest tree. I fell into the second category, spending many happy hours pretending to be D’Artagnan or Zorro. The few times I could convince my sister to fence against me, I whipped her ass – a consequence of her being three years younger more than anything else – and so I grew up quite convinced that I had a talent for fencing. Well, if we’re going to be quite honest, there were days when I actually believed I could fence – for real.

I grew up. I gave up the dream of becoming a Navy SEAL (impossible for a number of reasons) I gave up the dream of being a medieval knight (even more impossible). I did not give up on the illusion that I could fence, and now and then (when entirely alone) I’d amuse myself by twirling a stick of adequate length before attacking the nearby lilac shrub.

I became an auditor. Not as much of a whiff of fencing around…I became a mother. Suddenly, I had valid reasons to storm around the garden with a stick aloft. There’s definitely something to be said for having kids, people… For Christmas, I sewed them beautiful capes, lined with vibrant colours. I made them masks and suggested they go out and conquer the world – well, the garden, to be more exact.  And they did, their wooden swords whacking at tree trunks and fences – but also at each other. (And let’s not get into the incident with the bow and arrow…)

fencing imagesI changed jobs. I liked my new boss, even if to this day he remains something of an enigma to me. Quiet, thoughtful and apparently quite laid back, at times he could strike with the speed of a cobra, I should have kept that in mind… Anyway, one day I was given the task of organising a team event. I had been gagging for the opportunity, and two hours later, I had booked us a session with Arman from Armenia who was to teach us to… ta-daa… fence. Well, not me, obviously, as I already knew how to fence. I was looking forward to impressing my colleagues with my fantastic abilities. Idiot!

The fencing club was housed in a basement. The room smelled of sweat, sweat and more sweat, with an interesting topnote of mildew. Arman the Armenian was not only an Olympic fencer, he was HUGE. When he took hold of the epeé, it was like seeing Shrek hold a knitting needle. But boy could he move. Soon, we were all dripping with sweat.
“En garde,” he instructed, and we obediently placed one leg before the other, flexed at knee level and extended our sword arm, the other held elegantly – more or less – above our head.
“Advance!” Arman yelled, and we advanced in a strange shuffling manner.
“Lunge,” he commanded, and we lunged.
“Retreat,” he said, and we returned to the En garde stance. My thighs were beginning to heat. My arm felt about to fall off. I suspected Arman of being some sort of sadist. Turns out, I was right, as he kept us at it for like two hours before it was time for individual matches.

I sneaked a look at my colleagues. The only other female participant was giving me black looks (but she loves me to bits anyway, seeing as nowadays she’s my BFF) Two of the men looked somewhat pale. My boss took off his helmet and wiped his brow. He looked winded. And hot. I felt less winded. I waved my epeé at him. He gave me a blank look. So I tapped him on the arm. Yet another blank look. Clearly, the man had huge holes in his education – had he never watched a classic fencing scene?
“I’m challenging you,” I explained.
My boss’ lips twitched. “You are?”
As an aside, it may be important to point out that I had sort of ruled the session so far – all those years with a stick had paid off.I nodded and tapped him on the arm. “But maybe you’re too scared.” (Us Swedes have a relaxed attitude to our bosses)
“Maybe.” Yet again that twitch to his lips. “Maybe not.” He put his helmet on. “What are the stakes?” he asked. Stakes? I just wanted to beat him, but now that he asked… I cleared my throat:
“If I win, I get a 10% pay hike.”
“And if you don’t?” He waved his epeé back and forth.
“If you win, I get zero pay hike.” I smirked. Not about to happen, what with how winded he seemed.”First to five points win.”
He just nodded.

fencing Saint-George_D'Eon_RobineauI won the first point. I did a little dance. I won the second point. A somewhat more triumphant dance. I won the third point, and I was cheering out loud. He seemed oddly relaxed about the whole thing, but maybe he was simply one of those rare people unburdened by a winning streak. Ha! Double ha… Because this was when my boss began to move, and for all his bulk (he’s a big man) he was horrifically fast, and as agile as a ballet dancer. One point to him. A second point to him. A third point to him after a long bout of back and forth, leaving me gasping for breath while he danced on his toes.

Arman the Armenian was grinning. My colleagues were watching with interest. Future BFF was yelling encouraging remarks. My boss sang out “en garde”, and I sank down, trying to ignore just how much my legs hurt. Here he came, charging like an aggravated rhinoceros – albeit with far more grace.
“Eeehh!” Down I went on my rump, and suddenly he was one point ahead.
“If this had been for real, you’d be dead now,” he said, the point of his epeé hovering over my chest.
“If this had been for real, you’d have been dead before I won three points,” I muttered.
He laughed. “Don’t think so. I let you win.” How humiliating was that?

He won. Duh. The epeé clattered when I threw it to the ground, making Arman scowl at me. My boss was grinning, bright blue eyes twinkling (handsome man, my erstwhile boss).
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said. He strolled off to the changing room. “You owe me your pay increase.” Yet another twitch to his lips. Dratted man!

Despite all this, I remain convinced I do know how to fence. If nothing else, I have the required attitude and energy- or so I believe. That’s probably why I’m going to a fencing workshop in June. But guess what? This time I’m not about to wager. Not as much as a dime.

From sinful princess to pirate – meet Cecilia Vasa

CeciliaSweden(Vasa)

Cecilia

There are princesses and princesses. In a previous post, we have touched upon the frail, ethereal princesses that develop bruises from sleeping on a pea. I’m not so sure there are all that many of those… Neither, I can confidently state, are there all that many princesses like Cecilia, Swedish princess, apple of her father’s eye (well, initially at least) and beyond any doubt one of the first people to sort of link “Swedish” and “Sin”. This was not something her father appreciated. Her father was prickly when it came to matters royal, this as a consequence of not really being royal, no matter that he was king of Sweden. I know; confusing, isn’t it?

Gustav_Vasa_of_Sweden_into_Stockholm_-_color

An anachronistic depiction of a victorious Gustav Vasa entering Stockholm

Let’s take a step back: Cecilia’s proud dad, Gustav Vasa, was king by conquest. Okay, so he was eagerly cheered on by his countrymen, seeing as he reconquered Sweden from the pesky Danes, but if we’re going to be quite correct, Gustav’s royal roots were very shallow – like non-existent. Not that it mattered, seeing as Gustav was a capable king – a tad rapacious, to be sure, happily jumping onto the Protestant bandwagon so as to get his hands on all those tempting church assets, but all in all, a good king.

Gustav had three wives. Cecilia was one of many, many children born to wife number 2 and arrived squalling lustfully (one presumes, given future behaviour) in 1540.  At the time, little girls were expected to be pretty and obedient (something the 16th century has in common with like 99% of all other periods) but Cecilia did not live up to the expectations. Wayward and wild, charming and witty, she was probably one of those kids it is fun to read about, not always so fun to parent, no matter that you love them to bits. Ask Gustav – or his long-suffering wife.

Gustav believed in education – even more so  for his own litter of princes and princesses, if nothing else to reaffirm their lofty status. Erik, his eldest was a true Renaissance man (and eventually went off his rocker, but that had nothing to do with his education). Cecilia was as well-educated as the rest, but someone forgot to sign her up for comportment classes, something which would cause her father substantial grief some years down the line.

To consolidate his position as king, Gustav used his children to establish ties with political allies. Cecilia was just as much a pawn in all this as her other siblings, and in 1558 or so, Gustav Vasa concluded a treaty with Ostfriesland, dependent on the young ruler, Edzard II, wedding one of his daughters. He got the choice of Katarina and Cecilia, and being a wise man chose Katarina, the more sedate of the two. Edzard was accompanied by his brother, John, and after the nuptials in Stockholm, Katarina and her new husband began the long journey to the south, accompanied by Cecilia and John.

Vadstena.slottet

Pic by Alexandru Babus (albabus)

For some days, they stayed at Vadstena Castle, guests of Magnus, yet another of Gustav’s sons (definitely off his rocker. Gustav was somewhat unfortunate in this area). Katarina and her new husband spent most of their time with each other – as expected and encouraged. Unencouraged, Cecilia and John also spent most of their time together, but when it was discovered that a lot of that time was between curfew and dawn, in Cecilia’s bedchamber, mayhem broke out.

One of the guards became suspicious after seeing a man clamber in through Cecilia’s window. It happened one night, it happened two. It happened some more and the guard swallowed nervously and decided it was his duty to inform Cecilia’s oldest brother, Erik (as yet very sane). Erik was all about propriety in his sisters, not so much for himself, and he was quite upset, but decided to act with certain deviousness. He posted a sentry to keep an eye on comings and goings, and once the as yet unidentified male yet again clambered into fair Cecilia’s room, Erik dispatched a group of men to storm through her room where they found the unknown man quite without his hose. Naked from waist down, so to say… Even worse, the man was identified as John of Ostfriesland

Gustav_Vasa (1)

Gustav Vasa, before his daughter gave him grey hair

The scandal exploded like a plugged cannon – skyhigh. A princess, cavorting in bed with a man! Erik made a huge thing of it, locking John up in one of the castle’s towers, holding lengthy interrogations before an interested auditorium. Cecilia and John were dragged back to Stockholm, with the hapless Katarina and Ezard dragged along with them.

Gustav was livid. With his fool of  an eldest son for not handling this with more discretion, with his headstrong daughter for shaming him, with Katarina for not keeping an eye on her wild sister. As to John… well, let’s just say that young man spent a number of uncomfortable months in Stockholm. Most of his rage the king directed at Cecilia, tearing at her hair, shaking her like a terrier shakes a rat. But when he recounted the incident to his third wife (who was probably very happy  she wasn’t Cecilia’s mother) he wept, for himself but also for his daughter, branded a whore before all Europe because of Erik’s clumsy handling of the matter.

Several months later, John was allowed to leave after swearing that Cecilia’s virginity remained intact. Whether it was, is an open question…Interestingly enough, the obvious solution to all this, namely that John be forced to marry Cecilia, was never considered by Gustav. He had no intention of wasting two daughters on a country as insignificant as Ostfriesland.

So there was Cecilia, with a tarnished reputation, an irritated elder brother and a less than warm relationship with her father. Her value on the marital market was severely deflated, and where Cecilia once could have aspired to the male gems of the Northern European principalities, this was no longer the case. After all, not all that many believed in John’s avowals that Cecilia remained pure and untouched.

Eric_XIV_of_Sweden

Erik XIV

Gustav died, Erik became king and promptly imprisoned his half-brother Johan. Cecilia was livid at this treatment of her favourite brother. Erik was just as livid at her temerity in meddling with politics, silly female that she was. Well, that didn’t go down well, even less so when Erik decided to turn a beady eye on his sister’s frivolous behaviour. Rules were put in place and enforced, Cecilia was ever accompanied by a chaperone, and given that all this didn’t markedly curb Cecilia’s high spirits (she somehow managed to arrange nightly parties, one of which was rudely interrupted by Erik) it was obviously time the tarnished princess was married – preferably to someone who could keep her in check. Huh. Good luck with that one…

Her husband was the relatively obscure Catholic margrave Christopher II of Baden-Rodemarck. No question as to who wore the pants in that relationship, but they do seem to have been reasonably happy to begin with – plus they shared a common tendency to overspend severely. Ask the English. The English? Yup. In 1565, Cecilia went to England, arrived in London in September of 1565 and was delivered of her first son some days later. She was there to put Erik forward as a prospective husband for Elizabeth (more about that here), but also to inform herself about privateers. Erik had this idea about diverting into a lucrative sideline of piracy in the Baltic Sea, this to damage Danish and German trade-routes – and line his coffers, one assumes.

By all accounts, Cecilia and Elizabeth got on like a house on fire. Initially, that is. Because the longer Cecilia and Christopher stayed in London, the larger their debts grew as Cecilia and Christopher indulged in major consumerism – of everything. At one point, Christopher had to disguise himself to avoid their angry creditors, and in 1566 they attempted to sneak out of England but were stopped at Dover where everything of value was taken from them on behalf of their creditors. (And, as some of you may know, Cecilia left England not only without much in the way of worldly goods, but also a maid short. Little Helena Snakenborg chose to stay behind & would go on to become a marchioness and one of Elizabeth’s most trusted ladies.)

John_III_of_Sweden

Johan III

Years of boredom, penury and constant persecution for being a Protestant in mostly Catholic Baden-Rodemack followed, interspersed with the birth of five more sons. In all that religious turmoil, Cecilia petitioned her brother Johan for permission to return to Sweden (In the intervening years, Johan had wiggled out of captivity, turned the tables on Erik – very much helped by Erik’s irrational behaviour – and was now King of Sweden). She was welcomed home, and as she was given coastal lands plus a number of ships, Cecilia decided to make good on the information she’d gathered in England  about privateers and become a pirate, albeit with a Letter of the Marque issued by Johan. By all accounts, she was good at it, mostly targeting English ships – her little vendetta against that nation of merchants and shop-keepers that had taken everything she had of value in Dover.

In 1575, Cecilia’s husband died, and her son’s relatives refused to recognise her as regent during his minority, among other things because she was a Protestant. They also confiscated her dower lands in Baden-Rodemack. Being of a practical (and somewhat grasping) mind, Cecilia rather hastily converted to Catholicism.

One could have thought this would have led to horrified reactions in Sweden, but at the time the hard lines between Protestants and Catholics had not been drawn up. After all, Johan III had a Catholic queen and a Catholic son and frequently allied himself with Spain when it suited his political interests. Which it did quite often, and so it was that in 1578 he urged his recently converted sister to establish a good relationship with the Spanish legate, Francisco de Eraso.

Johan III had plans. Together with the Spanish, he was to attack Copenhagen, empty it of pesky Danes who were to be forcibly relocated to the New World (!) and replaced by Spanish settlers. Spain would thereby secure control over all major trade routes, Sweden would once and for all be rid of their hereditary enemy, and as icing on the cake, Johan hoped Spain would help him in his ongoing conflicts with Russia. He also suggested Cecilia be given the role of governor in one of Spain’s many territories. Cecilia was put in charge of all the negotiations, resulting in her spending many, many hours with Francisco. (I’m thinking he was one of those men who did hose justice, plus he had soulful dark eyes)

What happened between Cecilia and Eraso is not entirely clear. Was he the love of her life or a mere dalliance? Whatever the case, when Spain kept on procrastinating, Johan became suspicious, and Eraso was thrown in jail, accused of treason. In a desperate move, Cecilia attempted to free him, but instead she was also captured and hauled before her brother the king. Somehow, she talked herself out of things and wisely chose to leave Sweden for her son’s lands in Baden-Rodemack.

Eraso was booted out of Sweden, followed Cecilia to Baden-Rodemack, and moved in with her, which is why Eraso is presumed to be the father of the little girl Cecilia gave birth to in 1579. Major scandal, of course, and Cecilia’s son ordered that the baby be turned over to the nuns. In due course, the baby grew up, took vows and only in 1622 was Cecilia allowed to meet her by now very adult daughter. We don’t know how Ceclia took this enforced separation from her daughter – to be followed by her separation from Eraso, who went on to do other things. One imagines she didn’t like it much, but whether princess or not, in some matters women had no say. At all. Especially if they’d done something as immoral as having a baby out of wedlock…

Cecilia got over things – she was a resilient woman – and was destined to live for very many more years. Years in which she lost her lands, regained them, lost them again, was constantly hounded by creditors, saw her son thrown out of Baden-Rodemack, witnessed the birth of the thirty-year-war, encouraged her sons to fight for the Spanish, begged her brothers to be allowed home to Sweden (denied), saw her grandson reinstated as ruler of Baden-Rodemack, negotiated with popes and ambassadors, By the time she died, at the ripe old age of 87, she had outlived all her sons. Her illegitimate daughter remained a nun, a stranger. And as to Eraso, well, there was no HEA.

Cecilia was buried in Rodemack, far from the land of her birth. Opinionated and determined, this princess most definitely livened up the times she lived in. Somehow, I think her opportunistic father would have approved, even if he probably wished her an easier and happier life. But then, life is as it is, and all we can affect is how we handle whatever curve-balls come our way. Ask Cecilia – she would know.

Snippets for our lazy brains

We live in the age of the immediate turn-around. I’m not entirely sure that is a good thing, but there you are, that’s the way things are. E-mails crave instantaneous replies. To have them jamming up the inbox, hovering like angry gnats in the “unread” category, is, for most of us, somewhat unbearable. So we read, reply, forget and get on with the next e-mail.

When I started working, e-mails weren’t even on the horizon. Ok, I’m not that old, but as a junior accountant in the 1980’s it was still very much paper. And telex. Anyone remembers telex? As the youngest on the team, I was often sent off to the Swedish phone company’s central office to send and collect telexes. Long reams of paper that required translation from a Telex person somewhere. Like an expanded version of the telegram. And let me tell you, it was leading-edge technology back then, in the eighties…

A telex took like 24 hours back and forth. Someone sent it, someone had to collect it, someone had to read it, someone had to consider a concise but informative reply, someone had to trot back to the telex office and send it off to the other end, where someone had to collect it.

24 hours today is like considering paddling across the Atlantic – utterly ridiculous.

A year or so into my work life, and the telex was dead. Gone, buried, laughed at. The new hot thing was the fax, and the first one I ever saw was the size of a freezer. I recall standing beside the receptionist, utterly awestruck by the fact that the drawings presently appearing on the paper before us had been sent from Sydney, Australia less than five minutes ago. Boy, oh boy: the Brave New World was upon us, and soon we would all have our own little home fax so as to be able to scrawl things on paper and fax them across the globe. Well, that never happened, because hot on the heels of the fax came…taa-daa…the e-mail.

Despite faxes and telexes, business in the eighties was still mostly conducted through regular letters. You know, sheets of cream coloured paper beginning “Dear Sirs” and ending “Yours Sincerely” after which would follow a more or less illegible signature. Consider the letter-writing process:
Person A decides to send a letter to person B in which it is suggested their two companies discuss a common venture. Said and done, Person A calls in his secretary (and sadly, at the time Person A would in 99% of the cases be a man while the secretary would be a woman), dictates while she stenographs – a dying art in this day and age – and some hours later Ms Secretary presents Person A with a letter to sign.
The letter is sent off. Two, three, seven days later (depending on where it is going) the letter reaches Person B. Well, Person B’s secretary, if we’re going to be correct, who opens it and places it in Person B’s in-tray. Person B reads it sometime just before lunch.
“Hmm,” says Person B, rather intrigued by the proposal. Person B mulls it over for some days, and then he calls in his secretary. Some hours later, a responding letter is on its way to Person A.

It may be important to point out that Person A won’t have put his entire life on hold while waiting for the response. That would have been stupid. And when the letter finally arrives, close to three weeks after it was sent off, Person A doesn’t necessarily throw himself at it. You see, both Person A and Person B know that time is money, but they also know that using some of that time to THINK before surging ahead generally pays off. Now that may be a novel thought for some of today’s young action-oriented lions…

Even more miraculously, life actually worked back then. I know, quite inconceivable, that there was a life in an age in which the internet was ridiculed as a “fad” (a gaff the then Swedish Minister of Communication will never live down…).

So what’s my point, you may be wondering – unless it is to wax nostalgically about a past in which fountain pens and embossed paper still played a crucial role? Well, dear readers, I don’t miss the paper, or the pen. I’m a major fan of internet, and consider e-mail most efficient. BUT where did the thinking time go? When did we stop reflecting, looking at the bigger picture?

It is my belief that the speed in communications has resulted in knee-jerk decisions – often with a very short time perspective. In the world of business, this is further fuelled by the focus on quarterly results rather than on longevity of vision and strategy, but even in our private spheres, we tend to react rather than reflect. Plus, of course, we’ve all been tarred by the “immediate gratification” brush.

Patience is as virtue we no longer have – or appreciate. We become bored and restless, we want our news served in appropriate bite-size chunks. Yes, we want to be informed – but not too much. In essence, this means we end up knowing WHAT has happened, not WHY. And even worse, many of us don’t care about the why.

We’ve become headliners, and if the headline snags our attention we might read the introductory paragraph. Might. As a consequence, media is pandering to what we want, namely “snippets” of reality. Stories become truncated, and with the exception of a handful of high-brow, intellectual newspapers and magazines, media churns out endless pages with inconsequential information about inconsequential people and events. But hey, how can we protest? This is what we want, right?

Without reflection, we allow “someone else” to tell us what to think. Unless we exercise our brain cells, we abdicate the right to correct and complete information – “someone else” will decide what we need to know, will interpret the facts. From there, the step is very short to manipulation, to repressive government.

As a citizen in a democracy, it is my obligation to keep myself informed. It is my obligation to assess alternatives, to penetrate the important issues and demand answers – before making up my mind. It is, in brief, my responsibility to think. Doesn’t sound too onerous, does it?

Back in the heyday of fountain pens and paper, people did think. They had time to. In our world of info-inundation, we have a frightening tendency to go with the flow and take all at face value because our poor brains just can’t handle the constant bombardment. But as Descartes one said, “Cogito, ergo sum”. Unless we think, we don’t exist. Not really.

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