Friday, 23 January 2009

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared (A book review)

Books about Sweden, in English, aren’t that common and one’s written by English writers are rarer still. There is the odd English translation of a Swedish history book, and plenty of books about Vikings, but I’ve seen very few books about contemporary Swedish politics and society, or much in the way of travel narratives. Until now the most extensive written material I’ve come across from an outsider were the two chapters on Sweden in Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. So when I heard about Andrew Brown’s Fishing in Utopia, a book written by an English journalist who used to live in Sweden, I was pretty quick to get a copy.

Part travelogue and part personal memoir, Fishing in Utopia is Brown’s attempt to document the changes Sweden has gone over in the past 30 years and to find out what happened to their famed welfare state, while simultaneously indulging in his love of fishing.
Like most expats Brown was lured to Sweden by a spouse. In the late 1970s they married, had a child, and moved into one of the miljonprogrammet suburbs outside of Gothenburg. His first job was working as a labourer in a factory making wooden pallets for Volvo. His only escape from the drudgery of manual labour and lifeless concrete satellite towns was his passion for fishing and writing. Brown later moved back to England but work and his son kept dragging him back to Sweden regularly, and in 2006 he returned to drive the length of the country from Skåne to Norrland.

As Andrew Brown makes quite clear Sweden in the 1970s was a different place from the Sweden of today. With the welfare state in its prime it was a safer and more egalitarian place. Poverty and crime were practically nonexistent and even the Prime Minister lived an ordinary life equivalent of a schoolteacher. But it was also more oppressive and insular with a mood of voluntary conformism making life stifling and restrictive. Brown tells of having to travel 10 miles on a bus to the nearest Systembolaget, and then having to smuggle the empty wine bottle out so as to hide it from the neighbours. Life was completely ruled and regulated by the state and the union movement. Everything was done collectively, for the collective whole, with little room for individuality. “It was the life of a battery salmon: packed into a crowd in the middle of a boundless stretch of water by a cage of netting that you could not see at all. It appeared to be part of the sea.”

By 2006 Brown returns to find a far more open and cosmopolitan society, with trendy bars and gourmet cafes. The country has since been opened up to migrants with one in nine being of non-Swedish heritage. “It is one of the marks of modern Sweden that you cannot fine anywhere so remote that it does not have a Kurdish family running a pizza restaurant.” But in the same space of time many of the shipyards and factories that kept so many Swedes employed have been shut down. The welfare state has been significantly dismantled, state industries have been privatised, and both crime and unemployment have risen rapidly.

The central thesis of Brown’s book seems to be to answer the question of what happened. What are the underlying courses for these changes? Unfortunately Brown doesn’t seem to offer any concrete answers; quite possibly because there aren’t any. It seems Sweden has been opened up and exposed to the outside world, allowing new luxuries and experiences but also exposing them to new perils outside of their control. But is it a case of Sweden reaching out and willingly abandoning their third-way quasi socialism, or have the forces of globalisation invaded and dragged Sweden out of its safe insular naivety? Is the welfare state dead, killed off by an over-feed, under-worked generation with no appreciation of their ancestor’s poverty and hardship? Was the welfare state a concept that could only have worked in Scandinavia in that particular time frame? Or will history show that the past 15 years were just a minor blip in the creation of the most equal and prosperous society on earth? All big questions.

Personally I enjoyed Fishing in Utopia because Andrew Brown’s personal experiences are so recognisable. Anyone who read my earlier blog entries on my time working as a labourer on construction sites will instantly see parallels with Brown’s experiences at the timber factory: The initial exhaustion of manual work, slowly learning enough Swedish to listen in on conversations, lazy and apathetic work colleagues who think manual work is beneath them. We’ve both used the crime novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to educate ourselves on Sweden.

I also share his simultaneous derision and admiration for Swedish society. Like most other expats (including myself) Brown initially derides Sweden’s rigidness and conformity but on returning to Thatcher’s Britain, with an ethos of no-such-thing-as-society, Brown starts to appreciate what Sweden offered. “I had mocked Sweden for failing to live up to its own ideals, but I had always supposed these were ideals that everyone shared. I had not considered the possibility that some people could want a less equal society.” I couldn’t agree more and despite all its faults and odd novelties, there is still a lot to admire Sweden for.

My only real criticism would be Brown’s sections on fishing and fishing equipment that I found so dull and tedious I ended up skimming pages just to get through it. This is because I have no interest in fishing but admittedly anyone with any vague understanding of why sitting by a lake for hours on end with a long piece of string dangling in the water might be entertaining, may think quite differently.

Brown doesn’t glorify Sweden like so many left-wing progressives: It has its faults and it’s far from utopia. Nor does he demonstrate the outright disdain and ridicule common amongst frustrated expats and right-wing conservatives. Instead he offers a very honest, personal, grounded analysis built upon his own personal experiences. He provides a clear picture of what life was like in Sweden in those early days, and despite the changes the country subsequently goes through, it is a narrative that most expats can still relate to today. Even if he can’t stop talking about a handmade fishing reel he once owned, it was still a great pleasure to read an account from someone who, thirty years ago, conducted a similar journey to my own.

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, by Andrew Brown, Granta, London, 2008.


Daniel said...

Hey Nic! Nice to see your blog! I just stumbled onto it and haven't had the chance to read it all, but I'm in a similar boat as you having moved here with my Swedish girlfriend whom I met in the US. Anyway, I hope your Swedish has improved slightly. I've only been here since August of 08 so min svenska är inte jätte bra just nu. One thing I would highly suggest is for you to speak as much as you can with your gf as shes a native swedish speaker. It will seem tedious at first but you start to get used to it and then it feels more and more normal. Another, is I tend to learn a lot of words from watching American TV with the swedish subtitles. You just have to pay attention. Men jag hoppas allt är bra i Göteborg och vi hors sen! I'll favorite this page and comment again soon. If you can see my email from this post feel free to email me as well.

Ben Kendall said...

Hey Nic, nice blog mate. There is a new English news service for Gothenburg - Göteborg Daily.

Thought you might be interested.

Elisabeth Jackson said...

Sounds intersting Nic - I will try and get hold of it. I will also skip the fishing bits.

Anonymous said...

Sounds really interesting that book! I read it received an important prize in Britain these days. I see I am the second visitor from the Dominican Republic. Well, I am a Swedish viking in the Caribbean Sea.