Friday, 8 May 2009

Two Vagabonds in Sweden and Lapland

The authors of this work, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop many years ago, were Jan Gordon and Cora J. Gordon. Their rather quirky travelogue, published in 1926, is illustrated with 5 beautiful colour prints by Jan Gordon: A Lapp of the Lule Älv (frontispiece); Sjöfors Farm (in Hälsingland); Swedish Cottage Painting; In Ångermanland; and Suorva Dam. There are also 18 atmospheric black-and-white line drawings.

The Gordons were certainly not your average British tourists in Scandinavia, bent on seeing every sight recommended in their (in this case, non-existent) guidebook, as emerges from the opening lines:

"There had been almost a conspiracy of assurance that we would find Stockholm clean. It was the culminating Swedish adjective, praise could go no further. Stockholm, cleanest capital of Europe. ... Yet - but ought we not to blush as we make such a confession? - we have no real predisposition towards cleanliness as a travelling necessity. One can find cleanliness in a hospital, or a bathroom. ... So having listened without enthusiasm to the sanitary eulogies of Stockholm, we had even mused idly whether it would be a crime to dodge Stockholm in our itinerary ..."

Before long they are on a steamer bound for the north, where they more or less force themselves on a farming family in a village where a folk music festival is about to take place, with spelmän arriving from all over the countryside. The Gordons are no mean musicians themselves, with their guitar and Spanish lyre, which help them to win acceptance from the local people. As accomplished artists, they are also fascinated by the folk art of northern Sweden which they come across in farmhouses and churches, and throughout the book they are focused far more on the lives of the "ordinary" people than on the predictable tourist traps.

They have clearly done their homework, as Cora or "Jo" as her husband calls her has been diligently studying her copy of "Swedish in Three Months, with Correct Pronunciation". But she falls at the same hurdle that has tripped up many another English-speaking visitor in the past:

"What did you say?" Jo had asked. The porter made the queer sound again. "I know now," said Jo triumphantly. "He's lost his front teeth and he's got a cleft palate and he's trying to say 'Füra', which means four. But he wasn't. He had been saying "Sju", which means seven, and he had been pronouncing it properly. Before j or k or t the s is often modified, becoming thus a disembodied s, a vowel sort of an s, so that the old bone of Alpine contention "ski" is pronounced neither "shee" nor "skee", but a sound more properly like "sfphwee."

The Gordons' spelling is creative, to say the least. There are frequent references to Gösta Berlings Saga, but Selma Lagerlöf's surname appears as Lägerlof, Lägerlöv and Läverlöv. Trelleborg is first Trälleborg, then on its next appearance, Trellebörg. Dalarna is regularly Darlana. But so infectious is the Gordons' enthusiasm for those aspects of the country they find congenial that one is inclined to forgive them their orthographic lapses.

Who were they? The book has no introduction nor (lacking a cover) a biographical blurb. So let us give thanks yet again for the miracle of Google. Godfrey Jervis "Jan" Gordon was born in 1882, the son of a parson, and had made a half-hearted attempt to become a tin-mining engineer in Malaya, where he singularly failed to impress.

"Nor did he endear himself to his employer when he was found sketching the fire that burnt down the mine buildings instead of endeavouring to save them."

His future wife Cora Josephine "Jo" Turner was born in 1879 to a severe, autocratic GP in Derbyshire who was incensed when she refused to become an unpaid maid and skivvy to himself and the children of his second marriage. She was clearly a girl of some spirit, for she eventually persuaded the domestic tyrant to let her study art at the Slade in London. Meanwhile, Jan had used a legacy from a maiden aunt to pay for his studies at Kensington School of Art.

Jan and Jo were to make their separate ways to Montparnasse in Paris where they probably met first circa 1906-7. Their frustrated biographer Kathleen Bryant (author of the Gordons' website) thinks they may have moved in the same circles as Picasso, Modigliani and James Joyce, to mention only three notables, but the diaries that Jan is known to have kept for most of his life have disappeared.

Jan was keen to study the Spanish guitar, so they moved to Spain, which gave them the material for their first two books. Jo was already an accomplished violinist and pianist, and to these two instruments she added the Spanish lyre. For the rest of their lives they would roam the world playing music and painting and writing articles and books about their travels. Towards the end of his life, Jan also worked as art critic for the "Observer".

Sweden was only one port of call for this amazing couple, and they were not Scandinavian specialists particularly, but their fresh and unbiased take on the country - at a time when Swedish rural life and (especially, musical) traditions were not quite dead - is always interesting.

Read more about the Gordons at



Eric Dickens said...

A remarkable couple. Would that those artistically inclined could achieve their brand of freedom.

I remember the Hugo's and other books I borrowed from the library at the age of 16, never having heard Swedish being spoken. Trying to anticipate the sing-song intonation was a challenge.

As for the "sj"-sound, I spent my year abroad in Finland, so avoided both that "khw-" sound and the intonation. Killing two phonemic birds with one stone has left me with a decades-long interest in the Finland-Swedes.

The only Gordons I ever had anything to do with when visiting Scotland were gay. I remember dancing that dance with a crowd of Estonians in some obscure district of Edinburgh. That was also where I had my only taste of haggis. I quite liked it.

David McDuff said...

I remember those Hugo books, too - one of mine had an early-version 45rpm record attached to it, with pronunciation samples. I must have been about 14. :-)

Harry said...

Talking of Gordons, the couple who wrote that book were English, but by coincidence I was reading about a distinguished Scottish Gordon in yesterday's "Scotsman".

In the 17th century, a lot of the Aberdeenshire landed gentry and their tenants were still Roman Catholic, notably the Gordon and Leslie families, and the penal laws against Catholics persuaded a lot of them to seek their fortune overseas.

Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries near Ellon started off as a mercenary with the Polish and Swedish armies before joining the Imperial Russian Army. He was to become a general, and the right-hand-man of Peter the Great.

I've known about Patrick Gordon and others of his ilk for years - since at least the 1970s, the Scottish diaspora in northern Europe has been a subject of academic study here and there have been many books and conferences - but I didn't know that Gordon kept diaries of his eventful life. Since his death in 1699 his diaries have been kept in the state archives in Moscow, and for obvious reasons they have not been accessible to western scholars until fairly recently. There are six volumes, and they are about to be published by a team of academics led by Paul Dukes, emeritus professor of history at Aberdeen University, which is currently hosting a two-day conference devoted to Patrick Gordon. The official launch of the publishing project was on Thursday at the start of the conference.

A couple of years ago my wife and I holidayed in Riga where we saw the statue of Field-Marshal Barclay de Tolly, one of the heroes of the Russian wars against Napoleon, born in Lithuania but descended from another Aberdeenshire family.


gordonfan said...

thanks for the plug Harry, but its KEN not kathleen