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British journalist fishes for the real Sweden

British author Andrew Brown talks to James Savage about living in Sweden in the seventies, fishing, and how immigration has changed the country.

British journalist fishes for the real Sweden
Author photo: Caroline Brown

Sweden – the most successful society the world has ever seen. That was the startling view of one columnist on British paper the Guardian, impressed by Sweden’s high taxes, wealth redistribution and public services. Indeed, for many social democrats, this corner of Europe is as close to utopia as it is possible to come.

But as with all the other stereotypes – the blondes, the sexual permissiveness, the manic depression, the boozing and the darkness – the idea of Swedish perfection has often been due to people projecting their own agendas onto a country about which they know relatively little.

English journalist Andrew Brown is an exception. He lived in western Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, and makes frequent trips back. His book, Fishing in Utopia, gives a more personal and nuanced account of the Swedish model, and this spring it won him the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing.

Brown came to Sweden with his girlfriend in the late 1970s at the age of 22 – a love refugee, in the current vernacular. He settled first in Nödinge, a suburb of Gothenburg before moving to the rural town of Lilla Edet. Here he started a lifelong love-hate relationship with Sweden and its unique brand of social democracy.

When Brown moved to Sweden, he found the Swedish model at its zenith. Unions were strong and Olof Palme dominated the political scene. In one wonderful passage, Brown describes how Palme devoted his career in Swedish politics to ensuring that no Swede would ever need to experience the American combination of material poverty and boundless optimism.

“He succeeded so completely that when he died, he left a country where no one was poor and no one had room for optimism.”

Brown elegantly describes the perplexing, frustrating, enchanting and illuminating aspects of moving to Sweden, touching on his work in a timber yard, his marriage, his son and above all his love of fishing.

“I spent years not writing it because I wanted to get away from policy and make it more about people,” he says.

Sweden’s brand of politics and the deep social patterns that underpin it permeate even the most domestic chapters. Brown weaves together his experiences in the seventies and eighties with an account of a trip round modern Sweden. He reflects on how the country has changed due to globalisation, immigration and the slow wearing down of the Swedish model.

Brown’s first few months in Sweden were tough, not least because of his initial difficulties mastering the language.

“I was in hell, apart from Anita [his wife]. I wasn’t among people who spoke English. It drove me mad trying to work out the difference between ‘hans’ and ‘sin’ [Swedish for his and his/its].”

“Lots of my memories are of extreme loneliness. Fishing was a way to deal with that as well as to meet friends later.”

But loneliness, as he points out in the book, is at the heart of the Swedish experience.

“The idea of relating to strangers for pleasure did not figure largely,” he recalls in the book. It was not deliberate unfriendliness, but a society where people just didn’t know how to talk to each other.

Many aspects of the Sweden Brown describes remain recognisable today. Socialism, republicanism and tee-totalism were the foundations of society, and reminders of them were everywhere.

Like many foreigners today he was perplexed by the Systembolaget state alcohol monopoly, which in those days displayed graphic depictions of how alcohol could wreck your body.

The pervasive power of Arbetarrörelsen, the labour movement, was much in evidence in the 1970s. You could run your entire life through the labour movement: in addition to being governed by Social Democrats and being a member of an affiliated union, you could bank at the Coop bank, shop at Konsum and live in a flat owned by the workers’ movement.

While elements of this system remain in place, Brown insists that the Sweden of today is greatly changed:

“You don’t really hear words like nykterhet or solidaritet” today, he says, referring to the Swedish words for temperance and solidarity.

“The Swedish model had right-wing components,” like deference and authoritarianism he argues. This, he thinks, is something that many international fans of the Swedish model fail to recognise.

“You had internally-imposed conformity. It was quite easy for the Social Democrats to tweak the definition of what was acceptable.” There was no real acceptance of pluralism, he says. There was only one socially acceptable view on matters such as women’s rights and immigration.

Brown admits to mixed feelings about Swedish conformity: “When you’re inside it you hate it – it’s oppressive, but when you move away you see the virtues of it. I’ve given up trying to decide whether it’s good.”

Brown’s descriptions show how little – and how much – Sweden has changed in the past few decades.

Returning to Sweden in 2007, Brown found one thing had transformed Sweden more than anything else: immigration. Indeed, the numbers involved are astonishing – Sweden received 96,000 people in 2006 and 99,485 in 2007, the highest numbers since records began in the 19th century.

“I know it’s changed Sweden. In some ways it has made Sweden worse – more dangerous, more criminal. But it has also made it broad-minded and more interesting, and the food’s better.”

“Really, though, I don’t know whether immigration has been good or bad.” What he does find problematic is that mainstream politicians don’t really know how to talk about the issue.

“There’s a significant undertow and I don’t think the political class knows what to do about that. The other thing is that it’s being talked up by the Eurabia crowd.”

Despite his ambivalence towards immigration, he insists Sweden’s a lot less distinctive than it was, due to internationalisation, even to American television.

“There has been a general coarsening of society and a huge growth of inequality.”

But couldn’t the same be said of everywhere?

“I’m talking specifically about Sweden, partly because it used to be so much more deferential.”

But if Sweden has changed, Brown’s beautiful descriptions of Sweden’s wilderness in his passages about fishing give a sense of constancy.

“It was a way of writing about Sweden that has nothing to do with policy. Go in this way and there’s no socialism, no blondes and no ABBA.”

Quite a thought.

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HISTORY

Eight books that tell hidden stories from Sweden’s history

From a Swedish codebreaker to a colony of conscientious objectors in Sweden, and quite a bit in between, these are not your average history books.

Eight books that tell hidden stories from Sweden's history
Learn about lesser known chapters of Swedish history with these eight fascinating books (in English). Photo: Radu Marcusu/Unsplash

Beyond lengthy tomes about great leaders, epic battles, eras and epochs, and so forth, there are countless excellent and unexpected non-fiction books that offer insight into Swedish history. Here are eight books that have either been written in or translated into English that even the most history-shy reader could enjoy.

1. The world of Cajsa Andersdotter: A close-up view of Sweden in the 18th and 19th century, by Bengt Hällgren, published 2017

Big publishing houses tend to publish “sexy” books that appeal to the masses. This doesn't leave a whole lot of room for books like The World of Cajsa Andersdotter, which details the lives and fates of several generations of a poor Swedish family from 1760 to 1910. Independently published, the book seems to fly under the radar to some extent, but customer reviews are unanimous in praise of Brent Hällgren's research and writing.

While many history books focus on the great and the good, Hällgren's book is a stark reminder of what life was like for the average Swede. In the preface, Hällgren writes that the book “illustrates how poverty, starvation, disease, and helplessness dominated the life of ordinary people”. Naturally, the book is especially popular with individuals seeking to get a better sense of what life was like for their Swedish ancestors.

Welcome to The Local Sweden's Book Club
Stockholm's City Linrary. File photo: Jann Lipka/imagebank.sweden.se

 

2. Culture Unbound: Americanization and Everyday Life in Sweden, by Tom O'Dell, published 1997

While the introduction to Culture Unbound begins with the cliché, “Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world”, the book presents an informed and nuanced evaluation of the reality behind this notion. Despite leaning to the scholarly side, the book is still a readable examination of the perceptions and realities of “Americanization” in Sweden, beginning in the mid-18th century.

Each chapter considers a different theme, including – of course – Sweden's era of mass emigration, during which the country lost 20 percent its population, and how it shaped ideas of both Sweden and United States. Another chapter focuses on how American cars in Sweden “from the Swedish upper classes in the twenties to the working classes in the fifties and sixties” illuminates “the history of class distinctions, aesthetic values, and social contestations in the Swedish context…”.

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3. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman among the Sami, 1907–1908, by Emilie Demant Hatt, published 2013 (originally published in Sami and Danish in 1913)

Traditionally a nomadic people whose livelihood depended on reindeer, the Sami have been living in the Arctic areas of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia for thousands of years. Though they and their unique and important culture are now recognized by governments and ethnologists, this hasn't always been the case. When Danish artist and writer Emilie Demant Hatt wrote about her year living among the Sami in Swedish Lapland in the early 20th century, she articulated the oppression they had long endured.

“From ancient times down to quite recently he's been an object of taxation; no one was his friend, no one advised or helped when he was squeezed”, she writes. “The priests wiped out his old religion in a hard and unsympathetic manner. The authorities pressed him for taxes; the government made laws and regulations that restricted his freedom. The farmers fleeced him and killed him and his reindeer.”

But while grim realities are evident in the book, it is more a celebration of the history and culture of the Sami people, as well as of the beauty of Swedish Lapland, as experienced by the author more than a century ago.

OPINION: 'Why is what happened to the Sami in Sweden not common knowledge?'

4. Codebreakers: Arne Beurling and the Swedish Crypto Program During World War II, by Bengt Beckman, published 2002 (originally published in Swedish in 1996)

Britain's code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, which at its height consisted of around 10,000 personnel, has been the subject of numerous books, films and television series. By comparison, scant attention has been paid to Arne Beurling, a Swedish mathematician who in 1940 deciphered the code of the German Geheimschreiber (G-Schreiber) communications device, by himself and using only pencil and paper, in just two weeks.

“With the cracking of the German code, Swedish military intelligence suddenly had access to German plans at the highest level of security clearance”, the foreword to Codebreakers explains. “The most stunning pieces of information decoded by Sweden were plans for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union”.

Written by Bengt Beckman, who was also a mathematician and a member of Swedish intelligence, the book is a fascinating look at Beurling, his incredible accomplishment, and the impact it had on the war.

5. War Diaries, 1939–1945, by Astrid Lindgren, published 2016 (originally published in Swedish in 2015)

Today, Astrid Lindgren is the well-known Swedish author of beloved books like the Pippi Longstocking tales. But during the Second World War, she was an unknown writer working as a secretary in Stockholm. In 1939, prompted by the outbreak of the war, she began keeping a diary “charged with sorrow and dread”, according to the Astrid Lindgren Company, “in which she writes about daily life in Stockholm, what's going on in the world and about Sweden's actions”.

By the time the war ended in 1945, she had filled 17 diaries with her thoughts, experiences and related press clippings. After the war, they were tucked away in a wicker laundry basket in her Stockholm apartment, where they went undiscovered until 2013.

Far from mundane, they chronicled her time as a postal censor, a highly secretive job that required her to read military and private mail going in and out of Sweden and redact sensitive or classified information. As her daughter noted in the foreword, however, “the restrictions did not prevent her from copying out, or quoting sections of, the more interesting letters in her diary…”. The diaries also document the origins and evolution of Pippi Longstocking, which would propel her to prominence when the first book was published in 1945.

Join The Local Sweden's Book Club to discuss this book with other readersBook Club: A World Gone Mad – The Wartime Diaries of Astrid Lindgren

6. Courage and Grief: Women and Sweden's Thirty Years' War, by Mary Elizabeth Ailes, published 2018

Between 1618 and 1648, most of the major powers in Europe were engaged in a war that eventually claimed around 20 percent of the European population. Sweden's involvement began in 1630, when King Gustav II Adolf led his army into the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the conflict, “Sweden had emerged as one of the victorious kingdoms”, historian Dr. Mary Elizabeth Ailes explains in Courage and Grief. “This achievement enhanced the kingdom's international status” and “cemented the Swedish kingdom's reputation as one of the era's great military powers.”

But Courage and Grief is not simply another book about this well-documented and analyzed aspect of Swedish history. Rather, it expertly examines an aspect of the history that has been largely ignored: the role of women in the war, and its impact on their lives. It is an important addition to the historical record, not least because, as Ailes notes, “without women's involvement both on the battlefield and on the home front, the Swedish Crown would not have achieved its military success”.

7. Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves, by Matthew Sweet, published 2018

Though it may at first glance seem to have little to do with Swedish history, Operation Chaos tells the surprising history of around 800 American Vietnam War deserters who in the late 1960s found sanctuary in Sweden, “the only non-Communist country in Europe that offered asylum to those who refused to fight”, author Matthew Sweet explains.

Sweet recounts this interesting and at times bizarre aspect of modern Swedish history featuring – among other things – principles marred by paranoia and disillusionment, a controversial political organization that “proved a thorn in the side of the Swedish political establishment”, and a group Sweet describes as “an apocalyptic cult that believed in the satanic nature of the Queen of England, the prime minister of Sweden and the Beatles…”.

8. Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design, by Marge Thorell, published 2018

Long before Ikea, spouses Carl Larsson and Karin Bergöö Larsson literally and figuratively wrote the book that defined modern Swedish interior design. Artist and interior designer Karin was the mastermind behind their beautiful cottage, Lilla Hyttnäs, in Sundborn, Sweden. Carl captured their day-to-day life at Lilla Hyttnäs in a series of stunning watercolor paintings during the late 1800s that formed the basis of his 1899 book Ett Hem (A Home). The book was a bestseller, inspiring Scandinavians, Germans and Americans in particular to imitate the then-radically modern and eclectic Arts and Crafts style reflected in the paintings of the home.

This influence has been long-reaching, as noted in the foreword to Karin Bergöö Larsson and the Emergence of Swedish Design: “Global retail powerhouse Ikea cites Karin Larsson as one of founder Ingvar Kamprad's guiding lights of inspiration, and as the ease of Swedish lifestyle spread globally with the company, so has interest in the origins of the Ikea style”.

Though Karin Bergöö Larsson's legacy has long lived in the shadow of her husband's, author Marge Thorell's book remedies this, and provides insight into a more bohemian and unconventional side of Swedish history than is usually seen.  

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

 

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