Category: Family

In Sweden remembering ANZAC

Date: 25 April 2014 05:47
Location: Örebro, Sweden
Weather: -2° Mostly Sunny

The sun is just creeping over the horizon here in the far north; another glorious Spring day of blue skies and birdsong breaks forth. In Turkey, barely four hours away by plane, its an hour later, 6.45 am, and the sun has already risen there too. I think of the thousands of my countrymen (and women) who are gathered at Gallipoli this morning for the dawn service, commemorating the men who fought and died there in 1915 during the ill-fated ANZAC campaign. The 25th April is indelibly etched into my consciousness, as it is for all Australians, as a day to remember those young men who sailed off to a distant war, a war which was so vitally important to that whole generation of Australians though it feels odd to us in our day, a war which dragged the world from idealism and naivety into the modern age, a war that ended so many young lives full of promise, and changed others forever.

I just read a blog by an Australian family history enthusiast (cassmob). It is entitled entitled “Two brothers go to war”  and tells the story of Les and Fred Fisher (sons of Martin Fischer), who were cousins of my great grandfather, Charles Holdorf (son of Caroline Fischer), who also served with the Australian Army in the Great War. Living, as I do now, closer to Germany than Australia, I have found myself wondering lately about other, at present unknown, relatives who were likely serving in the same war but on the other side, since the Holdorfs and the Fishers came from German stock, immigrants to Australia in the 1850s.

1915 seems a long time in the past, and the blood soaked beaches of Gallipoli seem a long way away from our peaceful home in Scandinavia. The Spring this year is beautiful. Yesterday when I woke I walked into our sun drenched dining room for breakfast and thought to myself, days like this make me glad to be alive.




Winter has been slow in coming this year. After a “green Christmas” and a New Year marked by darkness and rain, but not especially cold, the mercury has finally started to dip below freezing. Stacking wood is an artform in Sweden, not one that we have perfected, but today we moved the two cubic metres (that Maria’s brother delivered to us yesterday) into its place. Ready now for whatever the rest of the winter may throw at us. If the snow keeps up who knows, we may even get som skiing in…

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Middle Sweden

winter fields

Its been a slow start to the winter, the initial cold snap was replaced by the usual rainy darkness of November, the time when Swedes withdraw to their living rooms and watch TV. Its been hard to think of Christmas, life’s too busy, its dark and wet outside and there is this pre-occupation with escape, to anywhere where its warm and sunny… I dream of Provence last summer. We even sat and watched My Father’s Glory (La Gloire de mon père) last weekend, but that didn’t exactly help, even if it brought back happy memories. Of course we dream of Australia too, the beaches and the sunshine, despite the news of bush fires and shark attacks that have hit the Swedish headlines the last few weeks.

Yesterday a storm blew in and now our world is covered with snow, though the forecast is for warmer weather next week, so I suppose it will change to slush. But today is white and calm, the storm has passed, the sky is blue, and the skeletal black of the trees outside my window have lost their harshness and just add to the beauty. I’ll drive Sam to off to innebandy (floor ball) in a few minutes, for a game. Maria’s at work at the hospital, Hanna and Isak are still lying in bed.

Saturday morning, two weeks before Christmas, in middle (lagom) Sweden.

A walk in the country

The big oak tree
The big oak tree

The days draw in. I wake in darkness; clear days are frosty now. Jackets, gloves and hats. Nights are long. Winter knocks at the door.

But autumn is beautiful this year. Lack of rain brings stronger, wilder, colors; the trees are vivid and bright. A sunny afternoon, a walk in the country with Suzie and Tim. Across the wide field over a fence and we enter a dell of beeches and elms, an occasional fir, some silent ancient oaks, spreading black branches laden with leaves of orange-red. We see the mark of beavers, tall trees gnawed around their base. A dark stream gurgles quietly toward Svartån – the big river – which meanders away to the distant city – unseen and unheard, for the moment forgotten. Upstream from where we stand is Hidinge village, a scatter of houses in a leafy forest, clustered around its fabled church whose silvery spire rises from the trees, visible for miles.

We walk and talk, camera shutters snapping, trying to catch this beauty, to hold it, to take it with us. We are immersed in the loveliness of autumn, but why try to possess such days, to keep them? We are desperate to keep this moment, this feeling. But we cannot own it, we must let go, if we are to allow the next season to capture us in its wonder, winter, when the earth disappears under a frozen blanket and the pure beauty of the snow settles on our world. The cycle of life, the seasons. Today we rejoice in this moment’s wonder, we live in the now, how foolish to think we can keep this moment of blessing and joy, it must pass and tomorrow there will be other blessings, other joys, and we will praise our Maker once more, for that which we can’t see now, but which we trust will come.

We wander home up the gentle slope of the wide green field, alive with newly sown shooting barley. We marvel at the mighty oak that stands majestic in lonely solitude in the sweep of green, a guardian, a shelter, a refuge. We watch as the sun settles behind the hills, silhouette of forest black on a fiery horizon. Geese flying in formation overhead break the silence with their noisy clamor. The darkness of night descends. So inside for scones and coffee with our friends. A perfect Sunday…

Axel Munthe and his family

DSC_2861I have just finished reading a fascinating biography of Axel Munthe, surely one of Sweden’s most colorful doctors, who died in 1949 at the age of 91. He was born in 1857, and lived through both world wars, as well as a whole number of lesser conflicts. Some years back I wrote a blog about the house he built for his English wife, Hilda Pennington, a house which stands on the shores of Lake Siljan, in Leksand, not far from Orsa in Dalarna from where many of Maria’s forebears come. The blog was largely about one of Axel Munthe’s sons, Malcolm, who was a colorful character in himself, serving in the British Army during WWII, but stationed in Stockholm with the British legation, where he aided and abetted, quite illegally as far as the Swedish Government was concerned, Norwegian resistance fighters in their efforts against the Nazi overlords who had occupied their country.

Within a few years of their marriage Axel and his wife Hilda were estranged from one another, and lived largely separate lives for the remainder of their years (which were many – they married in 1907 and were thus man and wife for some 42 years), though they never divorced. They had regular contact by letter, but Hilda and their two boys lived in London, while Axel spent most of his time on the island of Capri, though he usually returned to Sweden in the summer. Hilda was not keen for the boys to spend any time with their father, and he appears to have done little to oppose her. Hilda also usually spent the summers in Sweden, with her two boys, at the house in Leksand. But when Axel came to visit she often asked him to stay somewhere else. Although when they married she worshiped him, as the years wore on her infatuation changed to a growing dislike.

Two things struck me as I was reading the final chapters of Bengt Jangfeldt’s book the other night. The first was this odd relationship that Axel had with his wife, Hilda. In his will Hilda was not named, “nor did she regard herself as entitled to any marital right to half the property or any part whatsoever of the personal estate. She did not have nor did she wish to have any part in either his life or his death. In fact there were not many who knew that Munthe was married: in the register of deaths and burials the column headed ‘The deceased’s marital status’ contains a question mark.” (p354, Jangfeldt B, Axel Munthe. The Road to San Michele).

The second thing was the comment about Malcolm Munthe, whose book about his part in the Second World War (Sweet is War – for them that know it not) I read with interest a few years ago. Malcolm too was an unusual character, as I mentioned in my previous blog: perhaps not surprising for a son of Axel Munthe. As Bengfeldt’s book mentions, “Malcolm was more like his father than he believed or was willing to acknowledge, and he felt just as much at home in the no man’s land between fact and fiction where Axel preferred to dwell.” (p355)

Fact and fiction – that is apparently the mark of Munthe’s books – though they are based on factual events, much of what he writes is fantasy. Such a writer is not simply a reporter of events, not a journalist, but rather an observer and interpreter of the events that are unfolding around him. Facts are merely the starting point of a good story. Axel Munthe was a doctor and a writer, and I sometimes think of myself in similar terms though neither my medical or my literary achievements have ever amounted to much. I have not read any of Munthe’s books, which were received to huge acclaim when they were published. But I am keen to, not least in order to see how Munthe used the events of his life to weave the tapestry of his stories. I am keen to discover that “no man’s land between fact and fiction” – the place where Munthe went to gain some kind of understanding for the extraordinary life he led.