In summer 2006, Andrew Brown packed his fishing-rods and laptop into his old Saab and set out to drive "as far as I could into Sweden", a country he had known first as a boy, then as a young husband and father, and later as an increasingly distinguished journalist. He entered it via the Öresund bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmö, than which nothing represents more effectively the difference between the Sweden of history and the Sweden of now. The old Sweden – with its long jealously guarded neutrality, its thorough-going prosperity, its uniquely comprehensive welfare system, its belief in its own exceptionalism – stood apart from the continent . It thus seemed only right that you had to cross a strait to get to it, using the Helsingør-Helsingborg ferry. But today Sweden is not only a member of the EU, it is impressively linked by this new construction "to the uncontrolled world outside", as Brown memorably puts it.
Brown begins his marvellously seamless fusion of personal memoir and politico-cultural survey with a heartfelt account of his married life in the 1970s. After being thrown out of a well-known public school, he spent some years adventurously knocking about, then fell in love with a fellow nurse at a Cheshire home in Colwyn Bay. She was Swedish; marriage to her was why he then lived in Sweden.
Both temperament and previous lifestyle made Sweden a difficult society for him to adjust to: the universal acceptance of state-sanctioned values, the Puritanism, the officially organised sobriety so widely broken in guilty private binges, and workmates and relations-by-marriage with backgrounds challengingly unlike his own. His mother-in-law, one of the book's most beautiful portraits, came from Jämtland in the north, from a family which in earlier times would have been classed as "peasantry". The needed antidotes to personal stress and frustration came through Brown's growing passion for fishing the lakes in the forest-land around him – a passion he shares with so many Swedish men – and through a burgeoning confidence in his own ability to write. Perhaps it isn't surprising that the articles he submitted to English publications tended to be critical of Sweden's social-democrat hegemony, and sought to expose flaws or inconsistencies.
Britons have a problem adapting to a society governed by an idea rather than by tradition, and Brown's honesty is nowhere so commendably shown than in his admissions of unfair, or even wrong, past judgements. For Brown's relationship to Sweden developed and altered after the period of actually living there had ended. Brown's marriage foundered, and he returned to England, re-married and became a successful writer. During the Thatcher years he found himself evoking not only Swedish standards but Swedish practice. "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." Exactly!
Therefore, Brown applied himself to studying Sweden again, the more intensely after Olof Palme's murder, which shattered the country's self-confidence. In the 1990s he repeatedly visited a country engaged in an identity struggle: the "Swedish Model" or new-style service economy? The latter won. Yet Brown believes, as I do, that for all the changes there survives a strong, unnameable Swedish quintessence making the country unlike any other. He finds this especially in forays to the wildness of the north.
This is a brilliant book, formidably intelligent in its control of complex material yet shining with humanity, and with the old Swedish belief that we all deserve a just, yet kind society.
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