In the first of a three-part series about modern Sweden, I look at what twentieth and twenty-first century writers have to say, and how the reality of life in Sweden compares to the euphoria or opprobrium that it often provokes.
“I always thought Sweden sounded a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland,” George Orwell once wrote to his friend Michael Meyer, a lecturer at the university of Uppsala. “I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up-to-date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.”
“I came prepared to see through the familiar negative clichés about Sweden – and found many of them disconcertingly confirmed,” wrote Susan Sontag in the late 1960s. “To repress anger as extensively as people do here greatly exceeds the demands of justice and rational self-control; I find it little short of pathological.”
One of the great hatchet jobs of modern American letters, Sontag’s 16-page Letter from Sweden, published in the July 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine, spared few sections of Swedish society. Swedes were obsessively obedient of petty rules: “Old ladies glare at you when you cross an empty street against the light”. But when things go wrong “hardly anyone gets fired”: Sontag saw Swedes as so pathologically frightened of conflict that they turn a blind eye to incompetence and failure. Southern European immigrants told Sontag they found Swedes “unbearably cold, stiff and priggish”, and Sontag agreed.
Superficially, Sontag considered Sweden to be much like the US or West Germany – “six-lane highways, suburban shopping centres… refined and partly detoxified by the condition of advanced ‘welfare state enlightenment’”. But on closer examination she found Sweden full of meanness and pedantry. Swedes split restaurant and taxi bills to the last cent, were notoriously shifty about planning social engagements, and – worst of all – continually smoked Sontag’s cigarettes without returning the favour.
Although convinced of their own “moral superiority” – all good things in Sweden reach the rest of the world ten or fifteen years later, Swedes repeatedly told her – Sontag concluded that Swedes were intellectually lazy, talking always of quantities rather than qualities, and emotionally stunted: for most, saying something was “nice” was the height of demonstrativeness. She is told that the only audiences to sit through Mysteries and Other Pieces – an experimental piece by the American Living Theatre, then on a worldwide tour, in which performers meditate silently for the first 20 minutes – without catcalling or walking out were in Sweden. An undergraduate at the University of Uppsala tells Sontag that she can’t stand Wagner, not because of his fascist overtones but because he was “too emotional”. For most Swedes escaping to the forest was preferable to engaging properly with other human beings, said Sontag.
As a feminist writer from New York who had just spent seven months making a film in Stockholm, you might expect Sontag to have admired young Swedes’ fervent opposition to the war in Vietnam. But this struck her as just another pathology: their pre-occupation with Vietnam stemmed from the soporific effects of the Swedish welfare state, the lack of local injustices to get angry about, and underdogs to champion. Far from being a “progressive, rational experiment” Sweden lacked “liberated new energy”; it could not “create a New Man”. “To do that Sweden needs a revolution”: while Sontag conceded that “Sweden isn’t dull” she concluded that “part of me dreads the concept of remaining a Swedish film-maker.” After just seven months, she’d had enough and went home to New York.
Until 40 years ago these were common British and American verdicts on Sweden: bland, pious and full of hidden woes. That’s changed since the 1970s, at least in the UK. First there was Abba. Then a decade later came IKEA, which first arrived in the UK in the late 80s but only really took off in the mid-90s. Then there was Scandinavian noir crime fiction – Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and others – and all their TV and film adaptations. Orwell’s damning verdict on Swedish literature – “Small countries don’t seem to produce interesting writers any longer, though possibly it is merely that one doesn’t hear about them”- no longer applies; nowadays Scandinavia is full of interesting writers famous the world over.
Gradually, slow-burning curiosity about all things Swedish turned into a full-blown love affair. By the noughties British politicians were scrambling to import Swedish fads like Free Schools and Children’s Centres, and British coffee tables began to groan under the weight of books about Scandinavian lifestyle fads like the Danish hygge (cosiness, in effect) and more recently, from Sweden, the Goldilocks notion of lakom (not too much, not too little).
But many present-day British writers have been less than effusive when looking at Sweden close-up. Neither of the two most readable modern English-language surveys – Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown, published in 2008, and Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People (a warts-and-all survey of all four Scandinavian countries, plus Iceland, published in 2014) – are hagiographies.
In Fishing in Utopia Brown, a public school dropout, recounts an unhappy marriage to a Swedish nurse he met while working at a Welsh care home in the late 70s. A few years later Brown finds himself stuck in a dead-end factory job near Gothenberg, making pallets for Volvo car parts. It takes him several weeks to discover he’s been accidentally eating other people’s sandwiches during lunchbreaks: his Swedish co-workers were too shy to chide him. He takes solace in Hemingwayesque fishing trips on Swedish lakes, and knows these trips could really have taken place anywhere (though the midges are worse in Sweden, Brown complains).
While Brown’s local small-town library smells of plastic and modernity, “social democrat Sweden seems to have come at the expense of all sorts of human kindnesses. Everything old and ramshackle had been remade in concrete as the country grew richer. It was all more practical, more sensible and more hygienic, but at the same time dreadfully dispiriting”. Brown and his expat friends had a grudging respect for Sweden – “The puritanism and melancholy might not be enjoyable, but if pressed we could all have agreed that they were the country’s guarantee of worth” – but has no desire to live there now.
Although he’s married to a Dane, Michael Booth has a love-hate relationship with Denmark (I’d love to know how his book went down with the in-laws). For Booth hygge “can seem like self-administered social gagging” and is only a few steps from xenophobia and racism (a big problem in Denmark with the rise of its far-right People’s Party); he quotes approvingly Richard Jenkins’ judgement that hygge is “normative to the point of coercive”. Booth’s a bit more positive about Sweden – he says he saw more interracial harmony at a summer festival on the streets of Malmö than in any other Scandinavian city. Overall he sees Sweden as the ur-Scandinavian nation, both a geographical and cultural pivot, and a ‘sun’ which irritates and influences its neighbours in equal measure. But describing Sweden as the country that other Scandinavians love to hate is hardly high praise.
Over the last eleven months I’ve been spending a lot of time in Sweden myself. My partner’s been teaching in Hässleholm, a railway town 80 km north-east of Malmö, and living in a rented house just north of Kristianstad, a fascinating town built for the Danish king Christian IV in the early 1600s and liberated by the Swedes in 1658 (Kristian is a Swedish translation of the Danish Christian). This is a good place to judge both Sweden and Denmark: 350 years on from its liberation the town still carries the name of its Danish founder, and the city’s arms still carry the legend C4 in tribute to the Danish monarch who founded it.
Do the criticisms levelled by Booth, Brown and Sontag still hold true? Brown laments that the Swedish principle of jantelagan (solidarity) is ebbing away. But he seems to suffer from a form of Stockholm syndrome: too much time spent fishing in Swedish forests meant that he can no longer see the wood for the trees. Brown makes much of the rise in violent crime in recent decades, but fails to mention it is still lower than almost all other European countries.
Kong Christian’s – the closest thing to a British pub in Kristianstad – has gone cashless after a recent robbery. But by any objective criteria crime here is very low: we know no-one who’s ever been burgled or mugged, and many people leave their car doors unlocked when parking in town. And cash here was already an endangered species, for purely technological reasons: it’s not unusual to see “we no longer take cash” signs in restaurants and cafes and many young people rarely carry it. Even a coffee stall operating from the back of a motorbike in the main park in Malmö accepted my credit card without any hassle or surprise. As in the 1960s, Sweden still tends to be about five years ahead of Britain technologically, and lovers of the British penny should note that Sweden has recently all-but abolished the öre, its sub-unit of currency: there are now no coins smaller than 1 krona (equivalent to about 9p in sterling). A few months ago Skånetrafiken, the excellent local public transport network, stopped printing railway timetables: everyone is happy to use phone apps instead.
Swedish bureaucracy can tie itself in knots. Brits have to show a passport to pick up parcels from the post office – no other form of ID is permitted – and I was severely ticked off for having a passport in the name of Alexander Grant, having ordered a book on Amazon in the name of Alex Grant: pointing out that my first name has been contracted in almost every European language, including Swedish, for hundreds of years cut little ice. A friend who had sent her passport off for a new travel visa found herself unable to retrieve it from a post office, whose staff insisted that she had to show them her passport before they hand over the package containing her passport: in the end she was forced to grant a friend power of attorney to get it back.
But maybe officiousness is a price worth paying (the Swedish Post Office has been liberalised anyway, merging with its Danish counterpart in 2009 to form Post Nord, 60% of which is owned by the Swedish government and the other 40% by the Danes). Despite some retrenchment since the 1990s Swedish public services remain first-class, and there’s much less inequality here than in Britain: private schools and hospitals are almost unheard of. Thanks to public subsidies our daughter Alice, aged 12, has had one-to one music tuition and ensemble practice for a fraction of the cost in Britain, and childcare for younger children costs a tenth of what Londoners have to pay.
The truism “private wealth, private squalor” is often inverted here. Public sector buildings are often neater, more modern and better-designed than commercial ones. While some Swedish shopping centres look like they’re in a dingy 1970s timewarp, Sweden’s libraries, museums and arts centres often have cafes and restaurants that look like something from an interiors magazine. Going back home next week to Northamptonshire, whose county council has just gone effectively bankrupt, may be a rude awakening for Alice.
You soon realise that a lot of things you’d pay for in Britain are free, or heavily subsidised here: Sweden’s Landmateriet (the equivalent of the UK’s Ordnance Survey) sells expensive maps (£15 for a small sheet), but there is little need to buy them as municipalities dispense equally good maps, particularly of the National Parks and areas of natural beauty, for nothing. Trains crossing the Øresund dispense free tourism maps with Copenhagen on one side, Malmö on the other. The allemansrätt (‘everyman’s right’) means you don’t have to check for rights of way anyhow: there is a right to roam anywhere apart from cultivated fields and private gardens. Cycle paths are almost as good as in the Netherlands; outside railway stations you even find municipal bicycle pumps.
The physical presence of the public sector is so much bigger than in Britain. Kristianstad’s radhus (town hall) takes up a whole city block, a modern glass box behind retained historic facades, resembling a hedge fund HQ more than a municipal building. Then there’s the Kulturhuset a few blocks away, and another huge civic office building a few blocks further out. And another cultural centre for adults and younger people, near a spanking new Wetlands museum, Naturum. And opposite the Radhus on the main square there’s a museum, currently being renovated and extended with a new tourist information centre about to open in one wing. Around the corner, the local tax and pension office occupies part of a plush warehouse conversion alongside private businesses (Swedish towns mix uses well – in one of many custard-yellow former barracks building in Kristianstad, a Red Cross charity shop on the ground floor coexists happily with the local KPMG office upstairs).
Hässleholm – a smaller town of 20,000 people 30km away from Kristianstad – has an equally impressive Kulturhuset, a brand new building with a huge Bibliotek that looks more like a university library than a small-town one. Swedish municipalities are generally small – considerably smaller than British district councils – and used to be even smaller (several rounds of local government reorganisation between the 50s and 70s reduced the number of communes from 2,500 to 280). There’s still little sign of the centralisation that austerity has forced on so many small English towns: everywhere larger than a village has its own Bibliotek, elementary school and health centre. Kristianstad has had a daily paper – Kristianstadsbladet – since the 1850s; it still has as many pages as the London Evening Standard, which covers a city a hundred times bigger, and astonishingly has several offices around Kristianstad and its satellite towns. Sweden’s main national dailies – the conservative Svenska Dagbladet and the more liberal Aftonbladet and Dagens Nyheter – still have millions of loyal subscribers: although Sweden is a very wired place, the print media seem refreshingly healthy by British standards.
Public transport is cheap, reliable, and properly integrated. A screen in every train says what bus services are about to depart from the station you’re arriving at, and buses do the same in reverse. Yet though it’s very easy to cross the Øresund – the narrow channel between Malmö and Copenhagen – by train, on the bridge/tunnel that opened in the 1990s, you’ll need to show your passport on the way back (as in so many other places in Europe nowadays, Schengen is effectively dead). A toll for crossing the Øresund by boat was apparently introduced back in the fifteenth century by Erik of Pomerania. By car, not much has changed since: unless you register in advance it costs a whopping £50 for a one-way crossing that only takes 20 minutes. The Øresund is narrower than the straits of Dover but just as wide culturally: Sontag noted in 1969 that when Swedes say “Europe” they mean “everything but Sweden”, much as the British used to refer to the “continent”.
In part two I will look at Swedish weather, Calvinism… and alcohol
All photographs by Alex Grant