• Walter Close and the Amalthea

    In a dock close to my home in the Western Harbour of Malmö, Sweden, a tiny, easily missed plaque commemorates a terrorist attack. Despite what you might think, this isn’t a tale of either ethnic minorities or white supremacists.

    On the night of 12 July 1908, a ship was blown up in Malmö harbour. The ship was named the Amalthea and the event became known as the Amalthea Incident. It resulted in two of the last death sentences in Swedish history.

    Socialism in Sweden

    The reason for the attack was that the Amalthea had aboard dockworkers from Hull, in eastern England, who were strikebreakers – men brought in by the dock authorities of Malmö to do the work striking local dockworkers refused to do.

    The antipathy of the locals towards them was so strong that they had to be accommodated aboard ship, not on land. They went to work each day under police escort. In the explosion, one man died and 23 were injured.

    Two of the three terrorists – Anton Nilson and Algot Rosberg – were sentenced to death. The third, Alfred Stern, received a life sentence. The local reaction was further outrage.

    Free the terrorists!

    A petition of 130,000 names called for the young socialists to be released. It’s hard to imagine Swedes supporting the release of terrorists, but this is what occurred just over 100 years ago.

    In October 1917, with the Russian Revolution underway, the Swedish government ordered the release of the terrorists, who went on to become icons of the labour movement in Sweden, Nilson dying in Stockholm in 1989, aged 101.

    A strange sort of victory

    A happy ending… Except, what of that one man who died? He is a forgotten figure in the rather vaguely termed Amalthea Incident? Walter Close was his name. Walter Close from Hull.

    Here was a dockworker from Hull – one of the most deprived cities in England, a man willing to work as a blackleg (or strikebreaker) aboard a ship in a foreign land. Not a rich man, I would imagine.

    And here were angry Swedish dockworkers in one of Sweden’s most deprived working class ports. And the idealistic socialists prepared to take a stand, killing another poor dockworker from Hull for the labour cause.

    Let’s spare a thought for Walter Close, man of Hull.

    Talking of monuments to history, what if statues could speak?

  • Caught with my tech down

    (Photo by Patrick Kool)

    For my friends and I – being English – the most exciting thing about Malmö, Sweden is the kallbadhus – a bathhouse on stilts over the sea where it’s against the law not to be nude.

    The idea that a public space is frequented in the buff – as per regulations – by ordinary Swedes without a ‘by your leave’ is the stuff of English fantasy and scandal. And yet, it’s not the biggest deal about the place. 

    No phone to preserve my modesty

    Having become a regular to the kallbadhus over the past year, I have long since got over the initial transgressive thrill of being nude in public. I’ve quickly become at ease with the murmured chat of portly businessmen on their hour off. 

    What I have come to savour is not so much the nudity (which is nice), but the calm. Aside from nudity, another sauna rule at the kallbadhus is minimal noise. It is a place of quiet reflection. 

    It is also a place of intense heat and moist bodies. It’s not easy to take a locker key in without it burning you, let alone an iPhone. Which is perhaps one reason why no one does. The kallbadhus is not only a clothes-free zone, but a tech-free zone. 

    An island of gazing faces

    This makes the kallbadhus something truly unique in today’s world: a public space in which no technology intrudes. Even my beloved English pub is now a place of smartphones and TVs. But not here. 

    At the kallbadhus, a large group of strangers congregate to sit, side-by-side, in relative silence and stare out of the windows at the rocks, the sea and the sky. There’s nothing else to do. 

    When the event of the last half an hour is the seagull that passed the window, or the oil tanker making its steady progress across the screen of the horizon line, the mind feels something a bit like what childhood was to me – a time before the internet. 

    The kallbadhus is a little accident. An anachronism. It’s not a techlash. I don’t think anyone planned it. But by chance, it is the place where I can go to be in another place, where only your thoughts roam, and boredom lurks quietly. 

    While we’re on the subject of how great saunas are, Being Nude Isn’t Rude

  • What’s your storm name?

    (Photo by Gatis Vilaks)

    Mine’s Storm Caleb. That’s if the rule is Storm followed by the name of your first pet. Otherwise it’s Storm Eileen. That’s if the rule is Storm followed by the name of your maternal grandmother. But enough of this frivolity…

    I live in windy city. Malmö, on the southern tip of Sweden, is so windy it ought to have Chicago’s nickname, but has clearly been windy for so long, no one really bothers to mention it anymore. 

    With Storm Ciara coming through, followed apparently by Storm Dennis this weekend, it’s taking ‘windy’ to the next level. 

    Let’s be Swedish about this

    Obviously, as new Swedish residents, we chose to avoid car-shame and head straight out to buy secondhand bicycles. Let’s take back the planet, one revolution of the pedal at a time!

    We have moved into an apartment on the very westerly tip of a peninsula sticking out into the Oresund Strait, a tip of land that locals pointed out wasn’t there 10 years ago. It’s meant to be sea, and the wind thinks so, too. 

    Time for some turbo

    So of course, we did what every new arrival does in February after their first Swedish winter. We said screw riding into a force 8 gale and bought an electric-powered cargo bike to carry our son to preschool, like any self-respecting Swede. 

    This is – remember – one of the world’s great bike cities. It’s right up there with Copenhagen, only you’ve never heard of it. Cycle highways galore, loads of cute traffic lights for bikes, the works… But in the winter?

    No. In the winter, Swedes lock themselves inside their very well-insulated apartments. That’s unless they go into their underground car park to take their Volvo SUV for a spin. Hey, wait, Volvo SUV? But Greta said…

    So there I was…

    Working my key into the automatic garage door operator after a grueling cargo bike mission across town with my son, only for the door to rise on a pair of Volvo SUV headlamps. I back up the ramp in ungainly fashion. 

    The Volvo purrs up the ramp and two middle-aged Swedes view me from their car seats, expressionless. What are they thinking? Look at that curious man on that contraption! In this weather! Hahahahaha

    I don’t think Swedes name storms. Storm Ciara just belted through, but I think Sweden probably just called it ‘a storm’.

    What else have I learnt about here? Hot Dogs, with added Swedishness

  • If life gives you cucumbers…

    Cucumber in a plastic wrapper
    (Photo by Charles)

    …write a blog about cucumbers.

    Sometimes life descends into pure farce. On a wet January evening in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Malmö. Or anywhere. It goes from the mundane to slapstick silly. 

    So I was in my local supermarket. I had my large-volume backpack on (I cycle my groceries home) and I was standing in front of the organic cucumbers. But why did I feel wetness just above my left hip?

    It was definitely wet

    I was wearing a heavy winter coat. It wasn’t raining outside. I took off the backpack and looked at it. The bottom left corner was dripping wet, as if it had been dunked in a puddle. Strange. I hadn’t put it down once. 

    I opened it. Empty. I’d come shopping. Of course it was empty. It was going to be filled. Perplexed, I put it back on and chose an organic cucumber from among the sad specimens, reflecting on how quickly my wife had eaten the last one. 

    Is that a cucumber in your backpack, or are you just…?

    I walked away into the avocado aisle. Once more, I felt the wetness on my skin. Dammit! What is this? I whipped the backpack off again and glared at it. Why? Where was this water coming from? 

    Then I clicked. The side pocket. The long, thin side pocket. I unzipped it, thrust my hand in, and slowly drew out… what? 

    A long, thin plastic codpiece, containing the remains of an organic cucumber bought at this same supermarket the week before. It was now half liquid, and the top half was a phallus without gusto. 

    I held the dripping member in my hand and stared around the shop wild-eyed.


    I saw the headlines already.

    I scurried to the organic cucumber section and flung it on the pile. Then thought, Noooooo! What am I doing? That’s disgusting. I picked it up again and ran with it dangling in my hand. 

    Finally, God placed a wastepaper bin at the foot of the kumquats. I was saved. I slam-dunked it. I straightened up. I looked hastily around. Act casual: Oh, two paw paws for only 20 kroner. A surprisingly good deal…

    If you enjoyed that, try Talking To A Three-Year-Old

  • I saw a hare… where?

    A hare standing in a grass field
    The photo I didn’t get (Photo by Vincent van Zalinge)

    “Here hare here”

    So says the note found by Uncle Monty on the door of his Cumbrian cottage in the classic 1980s film Withnail & I. But the hare – that larger cousin of the common rabbit that few of us are very sure about – is not something you see here, there or anywhere. 

    Until today. 

    Today I walked within a couple of metres of a real live hare, startled it, and then watched it lollop across the field to the far hedge for a few minutes. I couldn’t believe how big it was. I knew they were bigger than rabbits, but I didn’t know they were that big. 

    Strange thing is, I grew up in rural Herefordshire. I’ve recently spent another few years in a Herefordshire wood, and yet my first sighting of a hare was on a scrubby field next to the fast encroaching urban sprawl of southern Malmö – Sweden’s third largest city. 

    Sweden has wildlife

    I know this. The elk, the bears, the reindeer. This is a country with proper outdoors. By regional standards, it’s populous – but it still has a population the size of London in a country the size of Spain. 

    But Hyllie – a suburb that has sprung up next to The Bridge to Copenhagen – doesn’t scream wildlife hotspot. In mid-November, it looks like some bleak noir version of Dubai. Cranes, bricks, dust, mud, piercing security lights, diggers, noise, tower blocks, etc. 

    My apartment is in the midst of all this. Funny thing is, there are rabbits living in the building site outside my bedroom window. They scurry all over the building sites. And now their larger cousin, the hare, keeping to itself a field or two away. 

    Nature surprises you where you least expect it. 

    Since we’re getting back to nature, Ever Wanted To Be A Bear?

  • Being nude isn’t rude

    Ribersborg kallbadhus in Malmö Sweden
    Swimwear, denied

    I went to the kallbadhus the other day. It’s a Swedish thing. A municipal sauna and sea bathing spot at the end of a jetty. They are dotted along Malmö beachfront. A sign in the saunas advises the visitor that swimwear is not allowed. 

    Sharp intake of breath

    They say nothing helps you see your own culture like going abroad. Removing your clothes in public is just something the English don’t do. I’d never particularly considered this fact until confronted with an alternative. 

    Last summer in Ibiza, I went naked on a beach. At first, I was terrified I would shock or insult someone with my naked manhood. The same sense of contravening a taboo lingered on the air at the kallbadhus. 

    A good Swedish slap

    It’s what made the whole experience – including six invigorating immersions in the Oresund – so pleasurable. The utter, languid, Saturday morning casualness of the whole affair. 

    You leave your shoes at the front door. You leave your clothes and bags on the benches in the locker room (of a municipal changing rooms – what, no theft?!). You take one pocket-sized towel to place your bottom upon in the sauna. 

    You step into the sauna to discover not only men enjoying a moment’s calm sweating, but women, too. The sexes mixing naked – have you ever heard of the like? And doing so with nonchalant indifference. 

    Dinosaurs love underpants

    It’s the name of my son’s favourite book. It’s funny. And so English. With accompanying audiobook read by Rik Mayall. 

    “It all began when cavemen felt embarrassed in the nude, so someone dreamt up underpants to stop them looking rude”

    Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman & Ben Cort

    That’s a line I love, and find difficult to explain to a four-year-old. Is this a caveman trait? If so, why doesn’t it affect the Swedes? 

    It must be the pent up English Christian issue. All that shame and sin. But then, the Swedes do Lutheranism better than anyone. 

    Just where does the naughtiness of nudity come from for the English? Who knows, but it’s been called out for me at the kallbadhus. 

    Up for another dip? Read about The Baltic Cure For Fear

  • Give something away today

    Boy playing with sand and father lying in the background
    Where’s my spade? (Photo by Melvina Mak)

    I went looking for my son’s lost spade today in the sandpits of Malmö. I found it in the same pit where we found his Spiderman cap the other day. Two kids were playing nearby and wondered who this man was stealing their digging toy. 

    In most of the sandpits in Malmö you’ll find buckets and spades. They’re left by people who are generous with their possessions. 

    My son didn’t want to leave his spade

    I don’t blame him. It’s a nice spade. On top of that, his parents are twitchy, nervous London types who wouldn’t leave a chocolate bar unlocked, just in case. What’s a kid meant to do? Learn from the adults, that’s what. 

    But this simple act of anonymous generosity struck me in that moment. As the kids watched me slipping away with my retrieved spade, I suddenly realised how much better I’d feel if I went out, spent £10 and distributed buckets and spades in all the local playgrounds. So much better than scurrying around to keep hold of all my son’s missing toys. 

    My first Swedish lesson

    It might not be very original, but my first lesson from those famously egalitarian Swedes is, unsurprisingly, generosity. Give a bit away and everyone ends up feeling richer. Including you. 

    For something else a kid can teach you, read my blog: Are You A Smartphone Addict?