Silences and the new Sweden

Amberin, a Turkish journalist, noted how quiet it was as we walked through the centre of Stockholm. We had participated in a seminar organised by ESI at the Swedish foreign ministry on EU-Turkish relations, in anticipation of the Swedish EU presidency starting in a few weeks.  It was early evening and Amberin observed that we could hear our footsteps. This, for anybody coming from Istanbul, seemed an unusual experience to have in the heart of a European capital.  We were only a few steps away from busy Birger Jarlsgatan with its buzzing cafes and bars.   

“Lilla Edet was so quiet a town”.  This is the opening sentence of Andrew Brown’s book “Fishing in Utopia – Sweden and the Future that Disappeared”.  I began to read the book the next day, as always looking for insights into this most fascinating of European democracies.  Brown’s rhapsodic mediation, recommended by a friend, is above all about the author’s life: a book about unfulfilled dreams, silences and fishing.  Its outlook is summed up in Brown’s epiphany, elegant, poignant and honest like the rest of his text, which also starts with his meditation on silence inspired by Sweden’s north:

“Huge silence, solitude, and the smell of trees – the very things that had made Lilla Edet torture me when I first lived there, were now, I understood, necessary elements in my life. … Soon the daughter whom I carried on my shoulders round a lake one perfect sunlit day would be grown up.  Soon after that, in the way of middle-aged journalists, I would be sacked from something for the very last time. I understood my own life suddenly as that of a hooked fish, pulling with all my strength against a painful and bewildering destiny.”


Spring midnight in Sweden

Most of the destiny the author discloses unfolds in Sweden.  Brown moved here in the 1970s for a marriage (which later ended in divorce).  He first lived in Lilla Edet, a town in the South of the country where the creaking of the wheels of Brown’s bike was “always the loudest sound”. He then moved to an estate in Nodinge, a suburb of Goteborg, in 1977:

“the first thing that struck me was the loneliness.  The roads within the estate were all closed to traffic but pedestrians always seemed scarce.  The houses might be wonderfully warm, and the spacious kitchens of even the most basic flats were equipped with fridges, freezers, and separate coolers, which worked like larders, to keep food warmer than in a fridge, but much cooler than in a centrally heated room. But the public places always felt as cold as November … I have never lived in, nor could imagine, a place where people talked less to each other … faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy.” 

Early on in the book Brown reminds readers of the very recent history of poverty in Sweden, describing the life of Anna, Brown’s Swedish mother-in-law: 

“She was born in the middle of the 1930s depression, when very little had changed for poor farmers in centuries. Her parents and all their children lived in one room and a kitchen, on the ground floor of her grandfather’s house. They slept on straw mattresses, which they filled themselves … her mother had given birth to fourteen children in twenty years … “

Anna had left school at thirteen, as so many of her generation in Sweden had done:

“After school, Anna was sent out to a larger farm to work as a milkmaid. All the servants slept in the kitchen there, but when she was fifteen she was sent as a servant girl to a woman named Martha Jacobsson, who gave her a room of her own to sleep in.”

I later read a review which describes Fishing in Utopia as a “lament for a lost Eden“, the supposedly egalitarian, socialist and (comparatively) very rich Sweden of the 1970s, the era of Social Democratic leader Olaf Palme: an Eden later lost to modernizing forces. 

However, this is definitely not the message I took away from the book. It is in the present, not the past, tense that Brown makes Sweden seem most attractive.  It is when Brown writes about what he calls “Stockholm-Sweden” that he becomes most positive: describing a “genuinely sophisticated, cosmopolitan and almost weightless place”.   The Sweden of today that Brown describes is a place undergoing rapid change: open to migration, with more than 400,000 Muslims and Mohammed the most common new name for boys in Malmo. 

The modern Sweden that Brown evokes is a place where popular phone-in-programmes express both “polite and earnest eccentricity” and a sense of what Swedes “mean by democracy: not a voting system, but a recognition of common humanity.”  It is a place where alcohol is much easier to obtain than only a few decades ago, and where the system of state shops which sell it (the Systembolag) are today aimed at “selling not repelling”.  There is crime, and more than there was in the past, but it is still not “Armageddon”, with rates much lower than in England.  If Sweden is no longer “the promised land to which the world was tending in the Sixties” it is still, by almost any indicator, one of the most attractive and open societies in Europe today. 

Skyline of Stockholm

(Amberin also noted with pleasant surprise that when she stepped out of the Opera Cafe restaurant in the centre of Stockholm a Swede came up to her and asked her for directions in Swedish, obviously assuming that she was a local – her parents are from Bangladesh and Turkey.  This would not happen to her in every European country …)  

Neither Browns’ descriptions of Sweden in the 70s nor his observation of the problems which Sweden faces today suggest that the past is better than the present.  At one point Brown notes that  “everything about the old weighty grey concrete Sweden seems to have dissolved into the air”. At the end of the book Brown recalls the past, when he used to spend  “delightful hours lamenting the dreary stolidity of Sweden”, this while dining in a restaurant where potato cakes were “made as if woven out of straw, with sour cream and orange caviar” and where a person he met “had never once heared the word nykterhet, or temperance”.   

Brown underlines that “when foreigners write in praise of Swedish politics, it is from Stockholm that they get their information or their understanding, and this is always influenced by the very great confidence of the ruling class that still run the place.” 

Having met some representatives of this class during this trip – ministers, parliamentarians, businesspeople and civil servants – all explaining the broad consensus in Sweden in favour of a liberal migration policy, European enlargement, and striking the right balance between welfare and individual liberty, I found that this confidence might well be justified. 

But on this more later on this blog.