Thursday, 21 October 2010

420 metres of Stockholm

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Stockholm is truly one of Europe’s greatest cities. Its clean air, symbiotic nature with the water and fantastic architecture make it the ideal place to take a stroll, go shopping or take a sightseeing tour on one of the many boats that ply their trade on the waterways that run through the heart of the city. I’ve spent many hours getting lost in the old town, where new discoveries wait around every turn, spent afternoons watching the boats go through the city lock and had some great evenings out in some bars that are at the forefront of design and fashion. There are however just 420 metres that typify this city for me and make me keep coming back time and time again. Take a line from Östermalms Saluhall, walk by Ciao Ciao pizza restaurant and then end up in the Tudor Arms – 420 metres of heaven.
Östermalms Saluhall is an indoor market as it should be. Bustling, clean and with fresh produce to tickle the taste buds and fondle the stomach. From seafood to meat, cheese to vegetables it has it all. It is not just the preserve of the rich (although they do seem to congregate here), but any serious foodie can spend hours in there just walking around and becoming inspired. Tasting, squeezing, sniffing and talking shop with one of the hundreds of stall holders that are only too willing to let you sample their produce. If you are ever at a loss to that eternal question “what are we going to have for dinner tonight?” then simply stroll round the market and let yourself be inspired. One of the things I miss about living in England is that Sweden doesn’t really have local butchers and fishmongers where you can go in and simply ask “what do you recommend today?” but Östermalms Saluhall feels like a tiny slice of provincial England, with its cheery market folk and foodie culture.
190 metres eastwards from Östermalms Saluhall you have one of Sweden’s best and longest established pizza restaurants Ciao Ciao Grande. It looks ball breakingly expensive, with the pristine white table clothes and serving staff looking like they have just come from an Armani fashion shoot, but it isn’t. The food is out of this world, with real world prices. Many a deal, first date, marriage proposal and divorce has taken place at these tables; if you ever want to really impress someone in Stockholm – take them here.
It is only 230 metres to go for the next stop, but in between you have some bizarre shops, galleries and hotels to walk by. You know the kind of shop with windows where there is only one item for sale and you can’t imagine how they afford to pay the rent. It is all very arty-farty, but in some strange way, wherever you come from, you feel at home here.
Now every ex-pat has an over-romantic view of their country of birth, but The Tudor Arms is a British pub as it should be. Open fireplace, old wooden bar, Pete the landlord serving the drinks and brasses on the walls. It is not just a pub it is an employment office, help centre, doctors, pharmacy, meeting place, citizens advice bureau and old folks home rolled in to one. English is the first language spoken and Swedish a very poorly spoken second, the carpets have that hint of stickyness through years of beer spills and the clientele are, shall we say unique. There are builders, comedy drunks, ex-pats, Barbour-wearing alcoholic pensioners, tourists, Swedes that think they are Brits and there is even the slightly oversexed, over flirtatious Swedish blonde – don’t get excited, she’s at least 60. Oliver Reed once said that the reason he drinks was because of the people you can meet in pubs and this statement is typified by The Tudor Arms. After an afternoon in here you start fantasizing about Winston Churchill and thinking of cashing in your pension and heading back over The North Sea back to “blighty”. In The Tudor Arms hours seem to fly away, you become more melancholy and realise the absolute pointlessness of running for that underground train, when there is another one only minutes behind. Mobiles are discouraged, nobody boots up a laptop and a blackberry is something you have in a pie.
So forget about the walking tour that takes hours, visiting the palace or the countless museums. You will get a better taste of Stockholm in these 420 metres than you would during a whole day of sightseeing buses.

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Thursday, 2 September 2010

It is election time here in Sweden. I do love elections, don't you? In fact I'm having one right now.

You can tell it is election time here in Sweden, not just because of the thousands of cheesy election posters that are springing up, but the nightly news is now dominated by the prospective parties promising perk after perk to the electorate. I swear I went to bed last week with the promise of a free electric car by one party, only to make up in the morning with it being trumped by a new Volvo and by dinner time it was a Ferrari. Surely, if all these new policies of tax reduction and better care for one group or another were possible, they would have implemented them already?
The main problem is that there is nothing to differentiate the parties. Coming from a land where one party is clearly left or right, Sweden is a muddled political jungle where no one is the alpha male (although I do have my suspicions about Maud Olofsson). To help point the hapless voter in the right direction, many of the newspapers and television internet sites have questionnaires that you can complete to give you an answer on what party you support. Is it just me or does this not smack of communist politics, where personal choice is taken out of the equation and big brother tells you where to put your valued cross? Whatever next? Before you know it the government won’t trust their citizens to buy alcohol in a responsible matter from supermarkets – oh bugger they don’t.
Having taken three of these questionnaires and been given three different answers, you are forced (joy of joys) to look at the personalities or lack of, the leaders of the parties. No Swedish hack dare put their head in the sniper’s firing line to do this, but the bar room / over the fence gossip mongers are certainly having a field day. We have Fredders Reinfeldt who has a head shaped like a Peter Nicholas and has never travelled further north in Sweden than Arlanda airport, Moaner Sahlin who has a huge turkey throat, Moad Olofsson who is more like my mother than I care to think about and the green party who by now are so drunk on the prospect of power they have overdosed on herbal tea and lost all sense of reality.
Secretly 99% of Swedes can’t stand our current PM Reinfeldt, not because he is not doing a good job, it is because of his finance minister, Anders Borg. If you are unfamiliar with Swedish life or have a pre-conceived view of an accountant in a suit, I beg you to sit down before you read the next sentence. (Deep breath) Readers, The Finance Minister of The Kingdom of Sweden has a greasy pony tail and an earring. I don’t want anyone who looks like this managing my adopted homeland’s coffers, what do the other countries finance ministers think of this rocker? You can only imagine the sniggers over lunch at the summits when the German and the Brits get together.
There is only really one alterative and that is Moaner’s reds. Unlike any other slippery politician, Moaner tells it like it is – vote for me and you will be poor. They will slap half a Kroner on petrol, take away tax relief for home improvement services and generally make everyone salute the flag at mid-day every Monday morning. Come on and play the game gobble-gobble neck, give me a reason to vote for you! The greens have some good ideas but only if your house is next to a bus stop or train station and that you are not the type of person that shuttles children to football matches or forgets to buy milk during the weekly shop. The other parties have so little support (under 10%) that you feel like a vote for them would be like a drop of Aquavit in The Baltic.
There is one person I and millions of my fellow Swede’s would vote for, but unfortuneatly he’s not standing. Someone who has done more for Sweden’s reputation abroad, who has already won the hearts and minds of the population and who understands the people. No not Sven-Göran Eriksson, but our current King Karl Gustav. He likes a tipple, is not afraid to be open, to show emotions or to make mistakes. Forget the other nation’s chinless wonders that people have never met, Charlie-boy must have met the population of Sweden several times over – everyone has a “King” story. Even I who lives in the back of beyond have been shopping with him and shared a flight with him. Other people I know have been on the same ski lift, cooked for him or worked for him. Next week I’ll tell you my favourite “King” story. Hasn’t the reds, greens, pinks and blues a lot to learn from someone that is truly blue-blooded?

© William Simons

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The 25th of August – It is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that.

The most important day in the year for the majority of Swedes is the 25th of August. This day sees a mysterious rise in job absences through sickness or holiday, children are suddenly dropped off at school earlier and picked up later. Nobody expects a telephone or email to be answered on this day, if your plumbing starts leaking or your car won’t start; not a sole will do anything about it.
Why? It might be Claudia Schiffer’s, Billy-Ray Cyrus’, Sean Connery’s and Ivan The Terrible’s birthday. It might also be the day that Matthew Webb was the first person to swim the English Channel and that Elton John first performed in The United States; all these things are true of this seemingly inconsequential day in the middle of August. However there is one more mark in the diary that needs to be entered, one more reason not to go to work – and that is that the 25th of August sees the opening day of the small game hunting season in Sweden.
This is the day that thousands of dog lovers, outdoor enthusiasts and hunters have been looking forward to, having sleepless nights over and clearing their schedules for since the first day of March the previous year. This is the day when after a long summer spent on beaches dreaming about this singularly most important day, men and women can finally get out into the forests, lakes and hills of Sweden and start hunting for quarries such as grouse, hares, capercaillie and ducks.
These types of hunting differ from your usual vision of hunting in that they are a sport for the people, for Joe The Plumber (who of course has his phone turned off) and for the thousands of people that love the outdoors, enjoy their friend’s company and take pleasure from seeing their dog do something that they have trained all spring and summer for. My favorite tipple from the bar of hunting, is grouse hunting with pointing dogs – forget your stereotypical vision of some toffs going out, dressed to the nines in tweed. This is a sport where two friends can get some fresh air, talk rubbish to each other and enjoy watching their dogs quarter into the breeze without having to worry about electricity bills and car payments. Who cares if you actually shoot anything? Days spent this way are there to be treasured and enjoyed for what they are.
So happy birthday Claudia, but I’m sorry. If your invitation to your birthday party where naked jelly wrestling is involved and the finest wines know to humanity are available, lands in my post box – I’M BUSY!

© William Simons

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The 5 best action movies of all time

Ask a hundred different movie critics this question and you are going to get a hundred different answers. Before I reveal my hand on the poker table of criticism, let’s just touch on what makes a great action movie. First it has to be memorable, second it has to have real action and not just computer generated blue screen effects and most importantly for me it has to have outstanding acting.
In no particular order we are going to begin with two movies from my youth, both staring the same actor. First of course is the first (or is it third) and oldest Star Wars. Who can forget the ground breaking action scenes with light sabers flashing and that awesome sound being bounced around the cinema? Not only is this a great film in itself but it also set the benchmark for all future sci-fi movies and without this mark we would not have movies like Bladerunner and The Matrix.
Harrisons Ford’s other movie in my list is Indiana Jones. The first scene alone of him grabbing the treasure in the cave and then trying to run from the boulder is worth my vote alone. There are unforgettable fight scenes with the airplane or the truck chase where he goes under the truck – no computers used there!
Thirdly I have picked out a film that has outstanding acting, the coolest lines and one of the best reasons to buy a stereo home cinema outfit ever; namely Heat. The scenes where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meet in the diner and the final scene at the airfield are truly electric and the peak of director Michael Mann’s work.
One movie that is not only a top 5 action movie, but also a reality check is Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg manages to capture a terrific action movie and sum up the horrors of war in one fall swoop. Despite what some Europeans have criticized as American bias, the opening beach scene is not only realistic but a tribute to all military service personnel worldwide.
Finally I have a movie from left field. The Professional (or simple Leon as it was titled in Europe) has some stunning cinematography, amazing action scenes and most of all the coolest lines spoke by any actor. Gary Oldman’s lines of “Billy, bring me everyone”. “What do you mean everyone?” “EVVV REEEEE ONNNEEE!!!!” Still brings a shiver to my spine.
So there it is apologies to Top Gun, The Matrix, Cannonball Run and Gladiator and all the other movies that have not walked the red carpet of recognition, but the thing about action movies that I always say when anybody asks what the best movie is of all time – I haven’t seen it yet, but it would probably be a combination of these five.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Buying a vintage motorcycle helmet

If you own a classic motorcycle it is a must to also own a classic, vintage helmet. Forget Italian designed full-face, anti-fog streamlined affairs; the collar must match the cuffs. Don’t imagine that buying a classic helmet means trawling round e-bay for endless hours and then ending up with something that smells of 70’s brill-cream. Now you can buy a vintage motorcycle helmet that is new, comfortable and above all conforms to all modern safety standards.
If you do go down the pre-owned route, try to get your hands on the helmet before you agree the deal. The main problem with used helmets is that the foam padding inside the helmet deteriorates over time, rendering the protection virtually useless. However the avid motorcycle fan can spend hours finding the right helmet just for them – don’t forget that you have a chance to reflect your personality, your favorite era, movie or film star when you buy a helmet. Why not search for the helmet that your father or grandfather had when you were young? Of course if you go for the open face option, don’t forget the cool shades or aviator style goggles!
With new vintage-style helmets, you have the comfort in knowing that they meet all current safety standards, have not already been involved in a crash and that there hasn’t been a previous owner who has had head lice. The ranges are huge from open face, three quarter to full face helmet. Do you want to look like Evil Knievel, a pilot or astronaut? Most of the helmets are strictly in the “you get what you pay for” class. Expect to pay from around $100 for a basic helmet to up to $1000 for a helmet with all the bells and whistles.
Helmets are tested to set standards both in America and Europe, but even if you buy the best helmet possible; that can’t protect you if you aren’t wearing it. Be safe out on the roads and enjoy your vintage motorcycling and helmet!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Design takes 2

William Simons explains that it takes two to tango and what went wrong with his mobile that took photos of the inside of his pocket.

Behind every successful leader there stands a partner with a headache and behind every successful designer there is someone with a huge amount of commercial and common sense – just like Laurel and Hardy, Butch and Sundance; you can’t have one without the other. Let me explain what I mean. Not too long ago I owned a beautifully compact mobile phone, with large buttons matched for my sausage-like fingers and a large screen to see who you are dialing when drunk. No apps to download, no chat functions, email or surf capability. It worked great as a telephone, looked cool and didn’t pretend to be anything else than a phone– in short the perfect mobile for me. The only thing was that this particular make of telephone had left the design studio, by-passed anyone with a brain and gone straight to market. On average it took 40 photographs of my inside pocket a day and there was a little blue flashing light on it to show you that it was turned on, which was so bright in the bedroom at night I had recurring nightmares about being raided by a SWAT team.
On the web there are many examples of this “one person” design. In one camp, sites with so many bells, whistles, flash movies and voiceovers that make you just want to throw your laptop out of the nearest window. Take a look at this firm of Californian architects or this snowboard manufacturer, what are these guys trying to sell, what should I click on? I’m sorry but can someone tell the bespectacled hipster that designed this, that I do not have a decade to explore your over-designed site to find your telephone number! On the other side of the coin, there are sites designed by people like me – with no sense in what looks good or bad, just take me to the point websites. Look at the way America’s favorite supermarket doesn’t mess around. No “hello and welcome”, no flash introduction – just BANG “what are you going to buy today?” One of Europe’s most popular budget airlines is even more like the equivalent of the school bully. Give me you money and get the hell out of Dodge.
We can even take this one person team idea into PR. Just look at the mess BP have got themselves into. Before the now infamous Senate hearing, their CEO Tony Hayward obviously had someone with an undersized micro-dot’s worth of Senate experience advising him. He stuck to that advice rigidly; however the advisor obviously did not have time to get to the part where he told Hayward “if you keep stonewalling them you will look like a twat”. Cue the most newsworthy sound bites just falling into TV’s execs laps.
Design is a partnership, not just of form and function but of form and money – meaning that design briefs should always have dollar bills as their first point. Sure you can dress “money making” up with fancy terms – “we want to drive traffic to our site” = more visitors means more revenue, “we want to reposition ourselves” = a higher class of customers pay more money and “we want to show the uniqueness of our product” = we can charge extra for it if you think it is special. If only the company that had manufactured my mobile could have read this, but then again if all designers read this, we wouldn’t have Italian sports cars, Concorde and other form over function items to be inspired by.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Why blog

The smarty-pant’s answer is why not? The thinking man’s answer is for a number of reasons, but let’s not fool anyone here – it’s mainly for money. Sure, bloggers dress their answer up as trying to drum up traffic, increase awareness of their journalistic credentials or simply to get something off their chest; but at the end of the day it all comes down to money. Today the web has become a free-for-all orgy for any grubby wordsmith who has two cents of an opinion – it is uncensored, unhindered and above all fuelled by the desire to plant commercials in front of the unsuspecting punter’s face. More traffic equals more ads equals more dollars.

Web-savvy companies use blogging as a cheap way to keep in touch with their customers and to therefore strengthen brand loyalty (and therefore make money). You can feel like the chosen one when your favourite clothes shops messages “just you” that they are having a drive on your favorite garment, or that you are the first one in the queue for a newly released product. Blogging has gone from some windbag waffling on about taking their dog for a walk, to major blue-chip companies gaining a cheap and easy foothold in the gorilla marketing stakes.

© William Simons