Sunday, January 14, 2007

Travels in Bofors Country

June 2005

I’M sure guns are the last thing on most people’s minds when they drive into Karlskoga. This tiny town, three hours west of Stockholm, is big on serene lakes, wild strawberries, moose-infested woods, friendly people and on the south side, a quiet and inscrutable community working hard to judge how best a gun may destroy a tank 60 km away.

Bang in the middle of the E18 highway connecting Stockholm and Oslo to the West, Karlskoga, which gets its name from King Karl IX and means ‘Karl’s forest’, is painfully small and, by most accounts, quite typically Swedish.

Run fast enough and you could cross city limits, but it’s also where Alfred Nobel—his lungs filled with fluid and his brain with blueprints for detonators—decided that dynamite was to be the commercial jackpot of 19th century Europe.

It made him impossibly rich, but it also instilled in him a fear of being buried alive, so he came crawling back from France to Karlskoga towards the end of his century to buy out Bofors (yes, the one we all know so well).

It was also here, dying and lonely, that Nobel scripted a will that left 33 million kroners to a trust fund that would disburse five Nobel prizes, an act that compelled a bitter and unsuccessful court battle in Karlskoga by anguished relatives. His house in Björkborns Herrgård still has a copy of the will and Nobel’s original library; the caretakers will dish up his favourite dinner if you’re willing to wait.

Apart from the rather alarming scattering of well-hidden gun graveyards— which the Swedes have charmingly converted into museums—Karlskoga’s Lake Möckeln, which runs like a thread all along its short span, is really a canal which, in the words of one affable Swede, ‘‘could reach you all the way to New York if you were patient’’. That’s through the North Sea, if you’re still wondering.

The contrast of astonishing scenery and artillery workshop can be most jarring, but it’s an irony the Swedes have learnt not just to live with, but revel in. Everything about this country is aesthetic—even where they make their guns, they’re trying to tell you. But why in the middle of this breathtakingly beautiful town do people have to make guns?

Then you remember—Sweden was never part of NATO, nor was it part of the Warsaw Pact. I mean, how much of a security doctrine can you possibly have if your highest national security concerns emanate from lower Latvia?

But sitting in Sweden, it’s not hard to imagine the political establishment telling the rest of Europe to shove off and find its own peace. Sweden continues to be, impressively but strangely enough, one of the world’s largest producers of artillery weapons, some of which helped India recover the Kargil heights.

Karlskoga is close to that other great Swedish metropolis, Gothenburg, off which Sweden gets most of its staple—herring. But the town bears no signs of its rather jarring and deep industrial history—it was, at one time, one of Sweden’s largest producers of iron. However, the large complement of smelters that once roared through the day from the late 16th century until Nobel’s own time have all been dismantled. The only remnants are signboards to old iron factories that are now, happily enough, forested land.

That’s another beautiful thing about Sweden. When a building comes down and the town decides they don’t need it, back comes a clump of trees to cover up the concrete mess. But it’s remarkable when you think that this little hamlet pumped out a large part of Sweden’s surprisingly large iron requirement at the time, to build ships and weapons.

It was the economic crisis of the 19th century that eliminated whole industries, leaving behind a handful of crippled but active firms, including Bofors, which reinvented itself.

Bestowed with town status only in 1940, Karlskoga is possibly one of the best places in the country for Swedish food. The word smorgasbord (translated as ‘bread and butter table’) is the general term for a sort of Swedish buffet that includes at least six types of bread, either meatballs or ham, herring of course, caviar, green salad, more herring, sausages, boiled vegetables and just a little more herring.

It’s one of those things you’d probably like to try out, since a ‘decided’ course can be rather, shall we say, surprising. Main courses in this beautiful country include such items as reindeer and hare, so it’s a good idea to be sure. I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest.

Like the rest of Sweden, the town has a perilously ageing population, therefore the Swedish government is sitting on a veritable pension time bomb, if more people are not encouraged to populate the current generations. Old timers sigh that the younger crop now leave the country or stay and waste their lives being ‘American’.

In Karlskoga’s cheerful town square, the crop of students I saw over three days were the same bunch—they wore Iron Maiden T-shirts, metal chains, top hats, nose rings, and made the evil hip hop sign, which may seriously offend Bruce Dickinson if he ever decided to visit.

When the day is out, if you listen hard enough, on a cold windless night in Karlskoga, you can hear the distant boom of guns being test-fired in a forest 10 miles to the west, deep in the middle of a forest, by arms manufacturers and the Swedish Army. The sound waves are not quite loud enough, though, to create ripples on Lake Möckeln.

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