Boyd Tonkin: A view into the hornets' nest
The week in books
Friday 19 November 2010
In sane moments every reader knows that literary locations only exist within the pages of a book – or on the wide screen of the mind. In fact, the more evocative the setting, the more charismatic the character, the more any physical geography will inevitably disappoint. Yet the vain pursuit persists, and nowhere more doggedly than in those cities where iconic crime writers have put their enduring stamp on mean streets and grey stones. How often have I scoffed at the tourists who point lenses at the humdrum façade of 221 Baker Street, in the vague hope that some Holmesian aura will cling to their holiday snaps? I have even slipped with Ian Rankin into the Oxford Bar on Young Street in Edinburgh and watched bemused as, silently, the barman handed over to him a pile of correspondence addressed to Inspector John Rebus's favourite bolt-hole.
Folly. Delusion. Superstition. So what exactly was I doing last weekend in Stockholm, striding down Horngatan on the trendy island of Södermalm, past the wool shop, the bowling alley, the African craft centre and the Folk Opera, until I came to the agreeable but quite ordinary Mellqvist coffee bar? Because here, of course, is where Lisbeth Salander hangs out in Stieg Larsson's Millennium mysteries.
Did I learn anything new about her, or them? Come on. The same went for the nondescript block on the bustling bar-filled strip of Götgatan. There, just above the local Greenpeace, Larsson's fictional Millennium magazine has its scandal-busting offices. In the Swedish film versions, they used a building at number 11, just a few paces away. That now has a Body Shop next door. Hey, radical! I had to drown the sense of let-down amid the Austin Powers-like décor of the scarlet-and-black bar at Hotel Rival. It's co-owned by Benny Andersson, from ABBA! I know. "Tragic" is hardly the word.
And then... I found out where Larsson's sleuth Mikael Blomqvist supposedly lives, at Bellmansgatan 1. Turn off Hornsgatan opposite the lovely Maria Magdalena church. At first the omens are not promising. You walk past a branch of The Bishop's Arms, the faux-English pub chain than spreads rash-like across the Swedish capital. Then things improve. Now painted a bold, deep red, the turreted apartment block at number 1 stands fortress-like above its hilly cobbled street, rising sharply from the ochre-shaded houses at its feet. Think of a steep corner in old-town Edinburgh or Prague. A mysterious little footbridge, high above the cobbles, gives access to the upper floors.
Stroll along the nearby panoramic path of Monteliusvägen, above the strand of Södermalm, and you soon grasp that this particular building commands one of Stockholm's most extraordinary vistas. Eyrie-like, it peers across the waters of Riddarfjärden over the city hall, the palace, the parliament, the churches and public bodies of the old town, the corporate HQs of the new. For an author – and a series – that casts a righteous, piercing eagle's eye down through the windows of hypocritical institutions to expose all their secrets and their lies, the home of the hero could not occupy a sweeter spot. From the top of Bellmansgatan 1 you might "see" the connections and configurations of a whole society laid out below like a map. It was an inspired choice of fictional address.
For me, however, Södermalm held one more place of pilgrimage – not strictly literary, although the story should have given rise to greater fiction than it has. At Blekingegatan 32, a plaque marks the site of the slum house ("Söder" has only recently gone up in the world) where a street-cleaner's daughter spent her poor and anxious childhood. The family had nothing; the neighbourhood languished; menial jobs slipped through the father's fingers one by one. Yet the girl with no prospects won a job behind the counter at a department store and then, via a chapter of accidents, came to study drama. Her mentor in the theatre gave Miss Gustafsson, a nobody from nowhere in Södermalm, a stage name that might help her on her way. He called her Greta Garbo. Imagine: Garbo with Salander; Garbo as Salander. The electricity could have powered Scandinavia.
44 picks the wrong Armstrong
My heart leapt when I glanced at the list of 13 American pioneers chosen by Barack Obama to laud in his children's picture-book, Of Thee I Sing: a letter to my daughters. I caught the name "Armstrong" – but no, President 44 (right, with his family) singles out not Louis, the divine Satchmo, but Neil, of that small lunar step. The quest for balance means that the music of Black America – one of the richest creative traditions in world history – is represented by Billie Holliday, who (Obama limply writes) "made people feel deeply and add their melodies to the chorus". So Billie's exquisite misery, for diplomatic reasons, trumps Louis's redemptive joy. Is this a giant leap for mankind?
Fast work and brilliant editions
"A princely marriage," Walter Bagehot wrote, "is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such it rivets mankind." Well, it certainly rivets publishers. They have already announced several would-be brilliant editions to mark Will'n'Kate's engagement. Duchess-like, that grand royal biographer Penny Junor will wait until after the nuptials to publish Prince William: The People's Prince with Hodder. Elsewhere, a more plebeian scramble has begun. Mainstream hopes to have an updated edition of Claudia Joseph's Kate Middleton: The Making of a Princess on sale next week. Tales of royal romance will arrive days later from Robin Nunn (for Anova) and Robert Jobson (for John Blake). More will follow soon. Other writers could be forgiven a weary groan. Publishers who routinely tell authors that they have to kick their heels for a year or 18 months between submission of a book and publication date have a habit, on such occasions, of finding it quite possible to rush-release titles in a week or two. Call it noblesse oblige.
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