Did you know Bob Dylan also paints? Even if you did, did you know that he once painted my hometown, Kongsvinger?
The latter is a stretch, but he really is a painter. Last year, my writer’s group, the Burrow, cooperated with Castle Galleries, a UK gallery chain, writing drabbles that were displayed along with artworks in their Cardiff branch. One of the drabbles I wrote corresponded with one of Dylan’s paintings currently displayed in the gallery. It felt like I was doing something rather silly, seeing as Dylan is one of the last century’s great poets, and I did not feel like comparing myself with him, to say the least. However, one of his images reminded me strongly of a place I have very conflicting feelings about.
Kongsvinger is the city I left thinking it was the ugliest place on earth, knowing that every now and then it’s the exact opposite.
It’s more a town than a city, really. We keep calling it city because it got its city status more than 150 years ago. At the time, what determined whether a place was a city or not was whether or not it could be called handelsstad [commercial city]. Kongsvinger had a railway; Kongeveien [the king’s road] – the main road between Oslo and Stockholm – (an important road at a time when the two countries shared a king) went through it; and it had a fortress. It was a potentially important city, with its close proximity to both the capital in Norway, Oslo, and to the Swedish border.
However, progress didn’t go well with Kongsvinger. First of all, the peaceful end of the union with Sweden in 1905 meant that the military capacities of the fortress no longer had any function. There remained military activity at the fortress until around the turn of the millennium, but in reality the fortress lost its importance after 1905. They didn’t even attempt to fend off any Germans from behind the grand old stone walls in 1940.
The railway gradually lost its status too. Once an important stop at the Oslo-Stockholm route, Kongsvinger became another blurry dot at the railway reduction map at the end of the 20th century. The old slogan “There’s always a train” became the parody “There’s never a train”. No one goes to Stockholm by train anymore. Flights are faster and more convenient, and with time, they became cheaper too. Eventually, there were no trains.
Few passes Kongsvinger on their way to Stockholm these days. Those trying to find the old Kongeveien will see that it’s been reduced to a bicycle path, and you can go faster by car via other border passes. Kongsvinger doesn’t benefit much from its proximity to the Swedish border either. Sweden’s price level is cheaper than Norway’s, and thus it draws customers from the border towns. All in all, it can be difficult to find reasons to stop in a town like Kongsvinger.
But then there are certain days. Right now, the yellow lights from the old railway station are reflected into the river, slowly drifting by. The headlights of passing cars light up the strange mix of old wooden buildings and 1960s-disasters, but the darkness disguises the architectural calamities fairly well. The fortress majestically rests on the top of a hill, still looking impressive in the soft light of the city underneath. It may not be much, but at least it’s not all bad. And, after years in Oslo and with temporary stays in other parts of the world, Kongsvinger still is home.
Below is Dylan’s painting, “Train Tracks”, and my accompanying drabble.
It was to be an official stop on the main line to the rest of the world; where you left the train for ten minutes to stretch your legs, have a cigarette, look around.
The last stop before the border, the final chance to turn. But as the world turned, it surpassed this town.
A railway station did not make you the centre of the world, soon it did not even make you a stop on the way to the world.
Not even the train stops these days.