My blog has so far landed me one paid writing assignment, and today I got a copy of the mag where it was published. Sort of.
Vice Magazine is a wannabe-controversial fashion mag. Its June issue has a glue-huffing teen boy on the cover and there are web-cam boob pics inside. You get the picture. They commissioned me to write two 700-word pieces on a three-day deadline back in March. The topic was polluted places in Stockholm. I spent about one day’s work on the job and they paid me peanuts after I nagged them. But it was fun to do a bit of real journalism.
Only they threw one of the pieces out. Which is their right. And they edited the other one down from 721 words to 52, inserted erroneous statements and didn’t credit me anywhere in the mag. Which stinks. So I don’t think I’ll be taking on any more work for them.
Anyway, here’s the first piece, about the Stockholm Sluice, my version first and Vice’s afterwards.
By Martin Rundkvist, 19 March 2007
The Stockholm Sluice, Slussen, is a marvel of traffic control. It’s a seven-way crossroads sitting on top of all the area’s main railway lines. Also, as hinted by its name, the thing includes the main sluice shunting boats from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea, a drop of two feet. It’s a triumph of 1930s engineering, the pride of a slide-ruling generation. From a height of about a thousand feet it looks great, like a giant modernist four-leaf clover inhabited by automotive ants. Up close, it’s Stockholm’s grimy stinking armpit.
A nightmarish labyrinth of ancient eroded concrete, rebar peeking out and bleeding rust down walls covered with cracked bathroom tile. Subterranean pigeons roosting desultorily on cement shelves and caking their surroundings with droppings. Glimpses of blue sky far away through a forest of megalithic pillars supporting an impenetrable tarmac ceiling. The vinegar stench of ethanol buses and homeless alcoholics, the roar and rattle of subway trains. Commuters wending their clench-jawed ways through the claustrophobic anthill, eyes agog. Architecture as if sprung directly out of Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.
A few years ago, Slussen’s dilapidation had gone so far that bits were falling off, threatening people, cars and trains. Several metric tonnes of sagging concrete had to be jack-hammered away as a stop-gap measure. Slussen needs to be re-built from the bottom up, but it’s impossible to close the whole thing down: that would cut the city in two. Instead it will have to go through the equivalent of a series of by-pass operations under local anaesthetic.
They say the Devil will teach you to play the blues if you take your guitar to a crossroads at midnight. Spend enough time at Slussen’s crossroads, and the weight of sheer foulness will be enough for you to teach the Devil. But few people do spend a lot of time there. It’s a communications hub, a place to pass on your way from point A to point B, a place to avert your eyes and hum loudly to yourself.
Ever since I was a kid, Slussen has been where Stockholm begins for me. The centre is relative to what periphery you’re on, and I was an Eastern suburban boy, raised on the inner margin of the Stockholm Archipelago. Things located near Slussen are convenient. And they provide a convenient reason to flee the place as fast as I can.
To my amazement, brown-eyed publishing trainee Anna tells me she quite likes Slussen. It’s where she’ll meet her friends for an evening about town, a place of contented expectancy. Being a supporter of indigenous people everywhere, she likes to buy a reindeer pita with lingonberry sauce at the Saami food joint up top. Tourists shouldn’t be disappointed that the vendor doesn’t wear a traditional outfit: he does have a stuffed reindeer around in the summers, and you really can’t argue with ice cream and cloudberry sauce. But Anna concedes that aesthetically speaking, the only way is up for Slussen.
Janne and Eva opened their florist’s here when they were in their twenties. Three decades in one spot has allowed them to observe the successive structural breakdown. The steel girders supporting the elevator to S:t Catherine’s parish beside their shop don’t move with the surrounding material, and so a slight incline has formed over the years where the old traffic carousel seems to cling to the elevator like a skirt.
You don’t stay for 30 years in one place unless you like it. The trick is not to look at Slussen. The florist’s sits on top of the concrete pile with a lovely view over the inlet and the Old Town, a prime location for a business catering to commuters with ten minutes to spare. Janne’s and Eva’s shop has hardly had any burglaries or vandalism in all those years. The insurance policy for the picture windows was far more expensive than replacing them when they broke, which has so far happened only twice. The couple is in two minds regarding the reconstruction of Slussen. On one hand, it clearly has to be done, and the past few year’s piecemeal improvements have been a nuisance. On the other hand, it would mean the shop would have to close for years. Janne is retiring in another decade. “I’d honestly prefer it if they waited me out”, he says.
Remains of piece by Martin Rundkvist, run through the Vice trasher
The Stockholm Sluice is the pride of the 1930s slide-rule generation. It was the first escalator built in Sweden and hasn’t been restored since. From a height of about 1,000 feet it looks great. Up close, it’s a nightmarish labyrinth of ancient eroded concrete, rebar, and bleeding rust.
Update same day: Vice‘s Swedish editor Elin Unnes writes to say that I should count myself lucky that I even got paid as my stuff “didn’t match the job description”. Needless to say, that’s not how I remember things. And I would have found it far more remarkable if I had not been paid.
What actually seems to have happened is that they began the project with a 700-word format and then changed their minds after I’d submitted. Oh well, water under the bridge and a lesson learned.