Silvia shows Windsors the right way to do it: Swedish queen proves royalty needn't be a pantomime

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The Independent Online
CONTRARY to popular British belief, the Swedish royal family does not ride bicycles very much. The Queen of Sweden does, however, routinely use near-fluent sign language to talk to the deaf. Unlike most members of the British Royal Family, she can also deliver an off-the-cuff speech in any one of six foreign languages. The Queen of England, mixing up the verb endings of connaitre (to know) with the verb conner (to bonk), once introduced Edward Heath with the words: 'Vous connez Monsieur Heath, n'est-ce pas?'

Though you would never know it from looking at her, Queen Silvia turned 50 last week. Because she is a commoner, and German-born, not everybody thought King Carl XVI Gustaf's choice of bride appropriate at the time of their marriage in 1976. That she was the right choice has never been more apparent. Members of government, parliament and the arts world staged a tribute to her at the Royal Opera. This was no stiff royal performance along British lines. One of the actors looked up to the royal box and thanked the king for keeping up the old Viking seafaring tradition by 'bringing back a good- looking woman' from abroad. The entire cast joined in singing Abba's 'Dancing Queen'.

In a staged conversation among Swedish queens over the centuries, Queen Christina (who fled to Rome and the Pope in the 17th century) noted: 'To wake up this sleepy nation, we do need the odd injection.'

Queen Silvia, played by a look-alike opera singer, summed up the qualities needed: 'You speak of beauty, charm and tact. Is this my entire portrait? In that case a queen's work is both easy, and not easy. You talk all the time about being, and not much about doing. To get to know your reality, and turn it into mine. To feel as you do for this country. To dare to cry, and be able to laugh.'

This sums up why the Swedes are grateful to Silvia Sommerlath, a former Olympic hostess, the daughter of a German businessman and a Brazilian mother, who could speak not a word of Swedish when she met the king at Innsbruck in 1973. Not only has she inspired confidence in and brought a smile to the face of the shy and dyslexic king, but to that of the people as well. And this to a people innately averse to elitist institutions.

With the birth in 1977 of Victoria, the eldest of the couple's three children, the male- only succession was abolished to enable her to become Crown Princess. Silvia always has the perfect answer, but not irritatingly so. As a very young journalist I asked her, while the king had a naval education to prepare him for the throne, what would be the equivalent in Victoria's case? 'I can very well imagine a naval education for her too,' she said, 'with other subjects added on.'

She has helped the king live up to his motto as monarch: 'For Sweden with the times'. In his Christmas Day speech last week, speaking of the 'awful and frightening conditions refugees have experienced in their former home countries,' the king declared: 'The Red Cross has said that it is a privilege to live in a country that can welcome these fellow human beings. The queen and I fully concur with that statement.'

While the republican movement gains strength in Britain, in Sweden it is dead and buried. A 32-page supplement published by Svenska Dagbladet on her birthday noted: 'With Silvia, the republic died. You could put it that way. Even if Silvia's arrival was like kicking someone lying down. Or hitting a guy with glasses. The guy with glasses was mostly to be found with the Social Democrats. A few lines in the party manifesto, ever more vague over the years. It has always been there, but nobody has ever done anything to implement it.'

Volva, a sage writing in the Icelandic magazine Vikan, wrote in her New Year predictions that in 1994 Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia will have marital problems after an ex-model publishes a book. It seems unlikely. As my mother snapped at me: 'We don't gossip about them.'

An attempt was made by one of the British tabloids last year to float the rumour of an affair between Silvia and her brother-in-law, Johann Georg von Hohenzollern. The basis for the rumour was apparently that both were of German descent. The newspaper hoped that the Swedish royals were not intending to match the divorce statistics of their British colleagues.

Svenska Dagbladet: 'The British newspapers are not terribly bothered about facts. They are happy to confuse the Swedish queen with Queen Margrethe of Denmark and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It is the latter who has been seen cycling around among her subjects to the astonishment of the British . . . luckily, James Whitaker (of the Daily Mirror) and his colleagues devote few column inches to the Swedish monarchy.'

Mr Whitaker says: 'Queen Silvia is elegant and well-mannered and does her job very well. But she is a bit too boring. That is why we so rarely write about her.'

That may be the British view. But at least, the Swedes note, she knows how to keep a family, and a monarchy, going.

(Photograph omitted)