Auto Nomad In Sweden

Posted on 22nd September 2015 at 09:10 by SELTA Web Editor

SELTA member and Swedish Book Review editor emerita Sarah Death offers her reflections on something of a lost treasure in the form of Wilson McArthur's 1948 travelogue, Auto Nomad In Sweden.

I gave a copy of my translation of Göran Rosenberg’s memoir of his father, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (Ett kort uppehåll på vägen från Auschwitz, 2012, English trs. 2014) to a local friend whose Swedish pen-friend of many years grew up in Södertälje on the outskirts of Stockholm at much the same time as Rosenberg himself.  The image of a classic Volkswagen Beetle on its front cover caught my friend’s husband’s eye, and he hunted out a faded green, hardback book which he had picked up in a second-hand bookshop, and invited me to borrow it. It was Wilson McArthur’s Auto Nomad in Sweden, published by Cassell in 1948, and it proved to be a fascinating document.

A car is loaded onto a Swedish Lloyd Steamship Company vessel, image taken from

Those were the days when boats for Gothenburg left from Tilbury and cars had to be slung in a harness and winched aboard, conveyed for £6 while a second-class ticket for a passenger cost £11 5s 0d single. The freelance writer from Scotland and his South-African-born wife Joan see their old Volkswagen, the trusty ‘Black Beetle’, installed on the Saga in this fashion. They have also had to follow the regulations of 1947 requiring tourists to obtain visas for Sweden and special visitors’ ration cards, and to make many other formal arrangements in advance - with which the Swedish Institute has been happy to provide help.  Why had they chosen Sweden as a destination? Perhaps because it was a lot easier to travel about there, despite the regulations, than in many war-scarred parts of the continent.

Once on Swedish soil, the pair’s meandering but impressively long journey takes them from Gothenburg via Stockholm and then to all points north to the Arctic Circle, before they work their way back south by another route as the weather turns more autumnal. Being self-employed, the couple have no strict time limit on their wanderings. McArthur comments that they can stay ‘until the cash Mr Dalton allowed us to take was finished’. In other words, they were at the mercy of restrictions on exporting foreign currency imposed by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton.

The roads are often corrugated (the author’s word) and potholed, and it is a miracle that the car’s suspension survives the 4,771-mile journey he subjects it to. But despite the dismal state of the highways, the book and indeed Sweden itself seem suffused with a spirit of immediate postwar optimism, and the author expresses his admiration for many a neat, well-functioning little town, its new housing developments and other expanding industries. They also greatly admire the natural beauty of the country, with mountains, lakes and coastlines as prominently described in the text as towns, churches and castles. Flora and fauna also receive their share of attention.

McArthur and Joan are a doughty pair, who have already made long expeditions through Africa in the same car. He comes across as a slightly old-school, Boy’s-Own narrator and Joan as his plucky, girl-scout sidekick. He likes to do the driving and she largely superintends the domestic side, but they appear to respect each other’s expertise; her movie-camera and map-reading skills are also commented on. Her decision to acquire some Swedish outdoor trousers like her husband’s new pair – his flannel or wool trousers and her stockings having proved totally ineffective against mosquito bites – does make him raise an eyebrow, however.

Information on Ayrshire-born (David) Wilson MacArthur is scant, but one online post by a 21st-century enthusiast reveals him as a prolific travel writer of his time. His commentaries are occasionally a little pompous, with some lapses into national stereotyping, but they also reveal a real curiosity about the people and places he encounters and some thought-provoking analyses of the post-war situation and of relationships between the peoples of the new Europe. At one point in the book McArthur, dismayed by various Swedes’ insistence that the British Empire still oppresses and occupies large parts of the globe, is scathing about the British government’s failure to do a better PR job around Europe for the enlightened model of the Commonwealth.

Thanks to letters of introduction from business contacts, the pair is able – and keen – to visit various factories and industrial sites on their travels. They already have good contacts at Sandviken steelworks with its huge lakeside complex and model accommodation for workers, and are hosted by its management for some days, but they are also given a hospitable welcome at such places as Norrbottens Järnverk, the Cloetta chocolate factory, the Swedish Match Company in Jönköping and the Orrefors glassworks.

Our two ‘nomads’ meet people from many countries at the campsites and hostels – mainly Swedes but also other Scandinavians and a sprinkling from further afield. They encounter very few British tourists, especially in the north. As might be expected, there are even fewer German visitors, but there is still a sour taste left over from Sweden’s ambivalent wartime stance towards Germany. In the northern town of Boden with its large military base, the two are brusquely ordered to leave the local hostel, and indeed the town, by a very anti-British local policeman, to the mortification of the kindly hostel manageress. Other than that, apart from a brief aside on the unhelpful attitude of some Smålanders, McArthur and Joan find nothing but a friendly reception wherever they go. In fact, the arrival of British visitors often causes something of a stir and they are interviewed by the local press in several places.

The practical vandrarhem (youth hostel) features large in its many incarnations, from temporary summer hostels in farms, school classrooms etc, to the more modern, purpose-built ones with hot showers and the smart monogrammed crockery of Sveriges turistförening (STF). The schoolrooms thus pressed into service put me in mind of Kerstin Ekman’s novel The Angel House (Änglahuset, 1979, English trs. 2002) which features a couple’s cycling holiday with accommodation at such summer hostels in the 1930s, with a visit to the Bofors armament factory thrown in for good measure.

McArthur and Joan obediently conform to all the STF regulations, sleeping separately in the men’s and women’s dormitories and always putting their lights out by ten. Negotiations with fellow guests over use of the självhushåll (visitors’ kitchen) are largely cordial, except in Kiruna where a mixed party of four young Danes monopolises the hot-plate for hours to make a vat of porridge. The author relates the episode in comic tone, concluding with ‘then, at long last, one of the girls tipped four heaped tablespoons of cocoa on top and stirred them into the mess, whereupon with the greatest of relish in the world the four proceeded to sup. We went for another walk.’

The intrepid travellers also refuse to let themselves be beaten by the Swedish language, having studied Hugo’s Swedish in Three Months in preparation, and they find that they have to rely on their basic linguistic skills a good deal on their travels, especially in more remote areas. They appear to manage more than adequately and draw plenty of (to them) amusing parallels with Yorkshire English pronunciation.  It is interesting that the Cassell editors were happy to allow quite a lot of Swedish words to remain, often untranslated, in the text.

47 evocative, grainy black and white photos complete the effect of this wonderful period piece. Highly recommended for all curious Swedophiles, if you can just lay your hands on a copy.

Note from SELTA Web Editor: If you'd like to get a feel for what crossing the North Sea by passenger ship was like in the 1940s and 1950s, we highly recommend browsing through this 1951 Swedish Lloyd brochure, from which we have taken some of the above images.