The Death of a Swedish Icon

Lill-Babs-2015

Today, the news of a death reached the Swedish people. The death of an icon. At the age of 80, popular singer Barbro ‘Lill-Babs’ Svensson passed away. Lill-Babs is little known outside of Sweden, but in Sweden she was an icon, a part of the soundtrack of many Swedes’ lives – she was Sweden. To get a grip on her status in the country, think the UK’s Cilla Black, and France’s France Gall – with that combination of untrained vocals and girl next door sex appeal – and you come part of the way.

When I moved to Sweden over 20 years ago, Lill-Babs was possibly one of the first Swedish celebrities that I got to hear of. She was constantly on the tv, on chat shows, in theatres, in concert halls, in the tabloids, in reality programs, in magazine articles and firmly positioned in the national memory. Her modest origins from a small village in rural Sweden contrasted intriguingly with her show-biz lifestyle, her many love affairs and bankruptcies and her glamorous media-trained daughters. She seemed to balance the ability of staying true to your roots with the bravery of a sexually liberated woman surviving decades in a man’s world. In older days, blonde hair, tanned skin, moist lips, bling and leopard print were her signum, along with her distinctive raspy deep voice. She impacted everybody it seems. Even the King of Sweden announced his condolences today saying he will remember her warmth and exuberance.

I had the pleasure of seeing the ‘Lill-Babs Show’ in 2015, when she was 76 years old. She gave annual dinner shows at the Swedish venue called Playa del Sol on Gran Canaria. As I happened to be there on holiday, I went with some friends to watch her perform. I admit I was a little sceptical going in, but I was blown away. There on the stage stood a woman, slightly ravaged by the years, but with a warmth and a humour that is rarely seen. Her energy and professionalism swept us all away and the crowd went wild – well as wild as they could given the average age was about 70. She sang her classics from the previous 6 decades and told cheeky, saucy jokes to the audience. I felt that I wasn’t just seeing a concert but I was having a thoroughly Swedish experience, somehow immersing myself into Swedish popular history and culture. There, on the stage, was not only a singer but a living legend.

April 3, 2018 Lill-Babs died after a short period of illness. She takes with her a piece of Swedish history, an echo of a Sweden long gone. Her legacy is the openness with which she invited the Swedish people into her life – warts and all. I am sure she will not be easily forgotten and that her voice will be echoing loudly through many a Swedish home this evening.

All Saints’ Day – the Swedish way 

Dressing up as witches, vampires and other ghoulish things has become increasing popular in Sweden. However, the traditional way of celebrating this time of year is much more serene and romantic. 

In Sweden, the first Saturday in November is All Saints’ Day – not necessarily November 1st as in most other countries. In 1983, the Sunday after All Saints’ Day was given the official name All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead.

Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light.

It is a beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us. If you happen to be in Stockholm, head for the Forest graveyard (Skogskyrkogården) for a specifically spectacular experience. 

‘Paradise Sweden is just a myth’

winter österlen

I’m fortunate enough to have a country house in the south of Sweden. The rural area, known as Österlen, is as beautiful as it is deserted – long stretches of sandy beaches, rolling open fields, wind-torn buildings and wind-bent trees. Being there has always been a retreat for me, but it hasn’t always only been relaxing.

Nagging away at the back of my mind has been a slight feeling of discomfort, like a distant memory that you just can’t recall. I sometimes feel ill at ease walking out to the barn, in case there’s something lurking in there. Or when I suddenly realise I’m alone on a stretch of beach, just the lapping of the sea to keep me company. Or when I’ve gone for a long walk and find myself surrounded by high fields of corn and approaching a bend in the road. Or when darkness descends. Or the fog rolls in.

This feeling of discomfort I have one man to thank for – author Henning Mankell. This popular Swedish writer, who died yesterday age 67, is responsible for the internationally acclaimed series of books and films about Inspector Wallander. The stories he wrote are full of violence, strangeness and critical social commentary. He set his narratives in the town of Ystad, and the surrounding countryside of Österlen, where I have my holiday home. Quoted as saying ‘ that Sweden is supposed to be a paradise is just a myth’, he populated his stories with rampaging murderers, gangs and psychopaths.

Henning Mankell passed away after some years of fighting cancer. He left a massive legacy of books and storíes behind him and will be remembered as the author whose international success opened the door for other Swedish detective novelists.

And as he rests in peace, he leaves us with the unwelcome insight that peace is in fact just an illusion.

GÖTEBORG 20070922 -  Henning Mankell, regissör, deckar- och barnboksförfattare  Foto Måns Langhjelm / SCANPIX / Kod 9200

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