Street of the Horn

Hot on the heels of my paean to the Stockholm Sluice, here’s something about the Hornsgatan street in Stockholm. Be warned, though: this work has been deemed substandard by the Swedish editor of Vice Magazine.

By Martin Rundkvist, 19 March 2007

Hornsgatan, the Street of the Horn, used to be Stockholm’s Wild West. It starts sedately enough at the 17th century South Town Hall but then ploughs straight through the churchyard of St. Mary, the bones of poets and burghers flying. Gathering speed, it passes Marijuana Square (as St. Mary’s square was known in the 70s) and shoots off west through post-war housing estates toward the Toll Gate of the Horn. It’s straight, it’s noisy and it stinks.

Stockholm’s a pretty clean place in that typical Scandinavian way. No coal furnaces, the cars are largely new, and high wages have scared off most of the heavy industry from the area. So if you want lung cancer and don’t like smoking, there are few places to go. Hornsgatan is actually your best bet, offering what may be the worst air in all of Sweden. That’s where you will find appreciable amounts of car exhaust and airborne particles torn from the surface of the street. Early spring is the funkiest period, when sand strewn over the icy asphalt during the winter is everywhere, and drivers haven’t had time yet to switch from winter tyres studded with steel.

Take a deep breath. Hold it. Feel the silicate and methylbenzene mist settle in your chest. Yeah, it’s a city all right.

Talking to the locals, I find that pretty much everyone knows about the bad air, but nobody worries about it. Sam the Friendly Ethiopian Barista shrugs and says, “The air may be bad by Swedish standards, but hey, I grew up in Addis Ababa and Los Angeles, so I’ve seen much worse”. Regular customer Vickan agrees, she was a city girl herself and now she’s raising two children at Hornsgatan. Sam’s espresso place is way out west, and most of the neighbouring establishments seem to cater to old folks. There’s the health food store advertising herbal menopause remedies, a fishing-gear place, dry cleaners, realtors, non-hip hairdressers and dusty clothing boutiques, and to make your septuagenarian shopping experience complete, an undertakers’. But a change is coming on. The espresso bar opened a year ago, and young people are moving in to replace tenants who breathed the air of Hornsgatan for too long and made the final trip to the undertakers. But the barista doesn’t want to see his street too commercialised. That way Starbucks lies.

To many, Hornsgatan is synonymous with the Hump’s art galleries. Before the traffic channel was blasted through St. Mary’s churchyard, the street crested a small hill outside the churchyard wall. The Hump is still there, but instead of the wall, there’s a balustrade and a 25-foot drop. On the untouched side of the Hump, the galleries. Artist friends tell me that displaying your work on the Hump is a career choice amounting to an admission of scaled-down pretentions. The Hump galleries sell paintings and prints affordably to middle-class suburbanites. Once you’ve taken that path, you can never hope to make your bread by selling three insanely expensive pieces a year to collectors in Manhattan.

Gangly serious Sara is in high school, and she doesn’t care either about the bad air. No wonder: she’s busy smoking a cigarette when I talk to her. Hornsgatan’s tentative drift toward hip has registered here too: she tells me it’s the place to go for cool second-hand sunglasses. Sara would love to live in the area. She and her friends hang out on summer evenings on the Skinnarviken cliffs where the view is to die for. And after the high-schoolers go home, the little death is sought and found in this, one of the city’s traditional gay cruising areas.

Incongruously, I find a huge bicycle store on the most polluted street in the city. The windows are full of indoor bikes. I wonder what the net effect on your health will be if you lug an indoor bike up to your apartment on Hornsgatan and pedal it evening after evening with a window ajar to let in the exhaust fumes. I’d prefer to buy a bike that will actually take me out of the city.

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Professor Steve Steve Studies Norwegian Archaeology

I spent most of the past week with Professor Steve Steve at the Internationales Sachsensymposion in Trondheim, Norway. We had two and a half days of paper sessions and one day’s bus excursion in the vicinity, all pertaining to post-Roman archaeology.


Here the professor is studying a Roman/Migration Period large-scale iron production site at Heglesvollen, a shieling in the mountains east of Trondheim. He’s in animated conversation with two of his admirers, Oslo PhD students Ingunn Røstad and Gry Wiker.


Here’s a piece of production slag that the professor found eroding out of the hillside at Heglesvollen.

Norway’s patron saint, St Olaf, died on the battlefield at Stiklestad in AD 1030. Having been killed by troops commanded by pagan leaders that the christian pretender Olaf Haraldsson was trying to beat into political submission, there was a tenuous case for seeing him as a martyr. Sure enough, someone swore that Olaf’s blood had cured his blindness, and the old Viking became canonised in record time. His cult became exceptionally popular e.g. in Sweden, and he is recognisable in church art from the instrument of martyrdom he carries: a battle axe. Look for him on the right-hand side of the nave’s front wall next time you visit a Medieval Swedish church.

St Olaf’s bones were kept in the Cathedral of Trondheim/Nidaros, where they proved a great boon to the town throughout the catholic Middle Ages as they attracted pilgrims from all of northern Europe. But the field at Stiklestad where he bit the grass was celebrated too: a century and a half after Olaf’s demise a church was erected with its altar right on the spot were the lethal axe blow was supposed to have been dealt. In our final picture, Prof. Steve is sitting on that altar and studying the tasteless 1930s murals that cover the walls and ceiling of the chancel.


Prof. Steve tells me he’s planning to join in the blogmeet on Tuesday before moving on to the next conference, where he will no doubt deliver a keynote adress and chair a few sessions while tripping on peyote.

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Vice Magazine and the Stockholm Sluice

My blog has so far landed me one paid writing assignment, and today I got a copy of the mag where it was published. Sort of.

Vice Magazine is a wannabe-controversial fashion mag. Its June issue has a glue-huffing teen boy on the cover and there are web-cam boob pics inside. You get the picture. They commissioned me to write two 700-word pieces on a three-day deadline back in March. The topic was polluted places in Stockholm. I spent about one day’s work on the job and they paid me peanuts after I nagged them. But it was fun to do a bit of real journalism.

Only they threw one of the pieces out. Which is their right. And they edited the other one down from 721 words to 52, inserted erroneous statements and didn’t credit me anywhere in the mag. Which stinks. So I don’t think I’ll be taking on any more work for them.

Anyway, here’s the first piece, about the Stockholm Sluice, my version first and Vice’s afterwards.

By Martin Rundkvist, 19 March 2007

The Stockholm Sluice, Slussen, is a marvel of traffic control. It’s a seven-way crossroads sitting on top of all the area’s main railway lines. Also, as hinted by its name, the thing includes the main sluice shunting boats from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea, a drop of two feet. It’s a triumph of 1930s engineering, the pride of a slide-ruling generation. From a height of about a thousand feet it looks great, like a giant modernist four-leaf clover inhabited by automotive ants. Up close, it’s Stockholm’s grimy stinking armpit.

A nightmarish labyrinth of ancient eroded concrete, rebar peeking out and bleeding rust down walls covered with cracked bathroom tile. Subterranean pigeons roosting desultorily on cement shelves and caking their surroundings with droppings. Glimpses of blue sky far away through a forest of megalithic pillars supporting an impenetrable tarmac ceiling. The vinegar stench of ethanol buses and homeless alcoholics, the roar and rattle of subway trains. Commuters wending their clench-jawed ways through the claustrophobic anthill, eyes agog. Architecture as if sprung directly out of Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.

A few years ago, Slussen’s dilapidation had gone so far that bits were falling off, threatening people, cars and trains. Several metric tonnes of sagging concrete had to be jack-hammered away as a stop-gap measure. Slussen needs to be re-built from the bottom up, but it’s impossible to close the whole thing down: that would cut the city in two. Instead it will have to go through the equivalent of a series of by-pass operations under local anaesthetic.

They say the Devil will teach you to play the blues if you take your guitar to a crossroads at midnight. Spend enough time at Slussen’s crossroads, and the weight of sheer foulness will be enough for you to teach the Devil. But few people do spend a lot of time there. It’s a communications hub, a place to pass on your way from point A to point B, a place to avert your eyes and hum loudly to yourself.

Ever since I was a kid, Slussen has been where Stockholm begins for me. The centre is relative to what periphery you’re on, and I was an Eastern suburban boy, raised on the inner margin of the Stockholm Archipelago. Things located near Slussen are convenient. And they provide a convenient reason to flee the place as fast as I can.

To my amazement, brown-eyed publishing trainee Anna tells me she quite likes Slussen. It’s where she’ll meet her friends for an evening about town, a place of contented expectancy. Being a supporter of indigenous people everywhere, she likes to buy a reindeer pita with lingonberry sauce at the Saami food joint up top. Tourists shouldn’t be disappointed that the vendor doesn’t wear a traditional outfit: he does have a stuffed reindeer around in the summers, and you really can’t argue with ice cream and cloudberry sauce. But Anna concedes that aesthetically speaking, the only way is up for Slussen.

Janne and Eva opened their florist’s here when they were in their twenties. Three decades in one spot has allowed them to observe the successive structural breakdown. The steel girders supporting the elevator to S:t Catherine’s parish beside their shop don’t move with the surrounding material, and so a slight incline has formed over the years where the old traffic carousel seems to cling to the elevator like a skirt.

You don’t stay for 30 years in one place unless you like it. The trick is not to look at Slussen. The florist’s sits on top of the concrete pile with a lovely view over the inlet and the Old Town, a prime location for a business catering to commuters with ten minutes to spare. Janne’s and Eva’s shop has hardly had any burglaries or vandalism in all those years. The insurance policy for the picture windows was far more expensive than replacing them when they broke, which has so far happened only twice. The couple is in two minds regarding the reconstruction of Slussen. On one hand, it clearly has to be done, and the past few year’s piecemeal improvements have been a nuisance. On the other hand, it would mean the shop would have to close for years. Janne is retiring in another decade. “I’d honestly prefer it if they waited me out”, he says.

Remains of piece by Martin Rundkvist, run through the Vice trasher

The Stockholm Sluice is the pride of the 1930s slide-rule generation. It was the first escalator built in Sweden and hasn’t been restored since. From a height of about 1,000 feet it looks great. Up close, it’s a nightmarish labyrinth of ancient eroded concrete, rebar, and bleeding rust.

Update same day: Vice‘s Swedish editor Elin Unnes writes to say that I should count myself lucky that I even got paid as my stuff “didn’t match the job description”. Needless to say, that’s not how I remember things. And I would have found it far more remarkable if I had not been paid.

What actually seems to have happened is that they began the project with a 700-word format and then changed their minds after I’d submitted. Oh well, water under the bridge and a lesson learned.

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Lulubird, Shoot the Doorbell Off My Head


Here are the lyrics to a really great of Montreal song off their heavily beatlesque 2001 album Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies.

By Kevin Barnes

Penelope, shoot the apple off my head
I need to go to the store to get some sleep.
Because I’ve run out of sleep.

The row boat came so David stopped arguing
with a mime and waved his arms like wheat.
But when he tried to speak the Prince of Plum fell through the
roof of his mouth and handed David an envelope

Inside was a letter that read ‘Sir, you were given this
envelope by mistake please disregard it’

Nicolynn, shoot the candle off my head
I need to go to the store to get some beets.
To rub all over my feet.

Andy’s joke reminded Gerard that his
sloth balloon was owned by Turkish moths.
Gerard’s Lebanese boss had sent him out on business
giving his word that he would keep it looked in the safe

But it was all deceit ’cause once he had the sloth balloon
he traded it to the moths for a lithograph of “Lady Lamenting On A Lawn Chair”.

What interested Balabanoba was building complicated French machines
designed to better enjoy the Duchess, and she him.
He helps her in the stirrups then he straps himself in
They spend their days in heights of ecstasy. But wait —
Why then does she look so sad?
Why is her countenance so glum?
Does she tire of mechanical hands
or is she pining for the fair Prince of Plum?

Lulubird shoot the doorbell off my head
I need to go to the store to get some treats.
For Goethe, Becket and Keats.

The characters of the “Gay Parade” formed a boys choir
with Static and the Red King.
But whenever they sing all postal workers
simultaneously whisper to themselves the word “calendar”.

Local Liberals Read Aard

The Liberal Party in my home municipality of Nacka has started a blog and kindly put local bloggers on their blog roll. They’ve tagged Aard “Extreme Archaeologist”. I’m taking that as a compliment — I mean, they aren’t calling me “Archaeological Extremist”.

As mentioned here before, Sweden’s political spectrum is much wider than the US one. The United States’ entire bipartisan system maps onto the conservative half of Sweden’s parliament. We’re currently governed by a conservative coalition, a rare occurrence in Sweden, but polls show that they actually lost the majority support shortly after the election last year.

The Swedish Liberal Party, Folkpartiet, is pretty similar to the US one. This means that they’re way too conservative for my tastes. I’m a liberal, sure, but I’d never vote for the Liberal Party. Maybe in the US, where there’s no realistic alternative.

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Three Good Records

i-4b485ae2aa9c069a62d7e3c089805c94-coral.jpgThe Coral: Roots & Echoes (August 2007)
Power pop and cowboy rock: Lee Hazlewood (R.I.P.) meets Teenage Fanclub. Catchy!

i-b4476b2bf0098131aa98dfe58bce1f0c-ofmontreal.jpgof Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (January 2007)
My generation is releasing divorce records. Kevin Barnes has come a long way into disco zombie territory since his Sgt Pepper phase. Unbelievable vocal harmony over decadent plastic electronica.

i-05b7ea39373a1554ee7f0fbe165edbde-marsvolta.jpgThe Mars Volta: Amputechture (September 2006)
Intricate searing prog rock. These guys are serious, and seriously weird.