Sober thought for New Year

16th January 2004 at 00:00
I can recommend Stockholm to lovers of cityscapes, though not at New Year.

The city is built on a meandering channel that links the Baltic to an inland lake and buildings have sprung up on any available patch of dry land between the waters. The result is a city of unexpected harbours and waterside promenades at almost every turn.

The buildings are solid, respectable examples of Swedish architecture enlivened by ochre and pale yellow shades. At night, which in winter starts at about two in the afternoon, the interplay of city lights, darkness, bitter cold, snow and water make the city an aesthete's dream.

Nothing garish or unrefined is allowed to spoil the picturesque character of the city streets. No flashing Santas sit in illuminated sleighs pulled by reindeer with luminous red noses.

Regulation and order make the streets clean and safe, the transport system unbeatable, the hotels immaculate, the atmosphere refined and elegantIand New Year the most boring experience imaginable.

The night before New Year's Eve I fell into a conversation with a young Swedish couple in a cosy cellar bar somewhere in the city. They spoke perfect English and were delighted to show it off. I asked what he was most proud of in Sweden.

"Well," he said, preparing to launch into the sort of perfectly formed English sentence that makes English linguists contemplate suicide, "as I work in the health service, I would have to choose the fact that Sweden has the lowest rate of liver cirrhosis in Western Europe."

He sipped at his coffee and I took a deep swig of my wine. "Some years ago, the government set itself a target of reducing the rate of liver disease and has met it spectacularly." I didn't need to ask about one of the measures the government had introduced. The wine was costing me pound;6 a glass, something I discovered only on the third gobletful: pound;2 for the wine and pound;4 in tax to the Swedish government.

Other measures are still to be discovered during the long period of enforced inactivity and reflection that is known as the Swedish New Year.

In Sweden, the nights are long and gloomy; so are the Swedes. New Year's Eve appears to be no exception. The bar in our hotel was closed for the whole of the Christmas period. Other bars had achieved closure in a similar fashion.

I couldn't help but wonder why the government had chosen the liver disease target. Did it have a similar one for lung cancer? Were hangnails high on its hit list? Did it give a hoot about piles, given the coincidence of cold weather and hot radiators? Where did it stand on the tricky subject of the male menopause, I wondered? Was this the unacceptable face of the nanny state?

Nothing, however, prepared me for what was to come next. The hotel manager regretted that the bar was closed; it was due to essential maintenance. I pointed out my need for essential maintenance in the form of alcohol on New Year's Eve and he informed me that Sweden had an excellent system of state outlets, where the government could control the price and sale of booze to its grateful citizens. "They are called 'Systembolaget'" he said, "and they will supply you with anything you need at approved state prices."

It turned out that the nearest one was several miles away in the city centre. No problem, that's exactly where we were heading. Then the bombshell. "Unfortunately, you have missed the deadline. The state shops sell only pre-ordered drinks on New Year's Eve and closed an hour ago in any case."

We asked him if the supermarkets were still open. He believed they were, but they were allowed to sell only 'light' beer. 'Light' turned out not to refer to the colour!

There was nothing for it but to hit the city centre bars. There is roughly one bar for every 2000 coffee shops and it was closed. A few hotel bars were open to non-residents, selling plonk at pound;30 a bottle. They were populated by English expatriates with guilty expressions and, presumably, forgiving expense accounts.

The streets were empty. The Swedes, apparently, were enjoying private celebrations at home over coffee and a dish of pickled herrings.

The healthy glow from their livers brightened up the night sky. At midnight I looked out of my hotel window to see in the New Year with the sort of clarity of mind and vision I last achieved on this occasion at the age of five.

The firework display from individual homes across the city was quite good; not too flashy of course out of respect for epilepsy sufferers; the bangs were very well-modulated, to prevent eardrum perforation, I expect. Not a single rocket ascended before midnight; not a single Roman candle was lit after 12.15.

By 12.30, the herrings had been consumed and the town fell silent. There was nothing else for it. I opened the satchel of work I'd brought with me and read the latest Learning and Skills Council circular. Its subject was targets.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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