In the 1970s, ANDREW BROWN moved to Sweden. The following decade, his marriage fell apart. Then, twenty years later, he returned to Sweden to rediscover the country he loved…
In the 1970s and 80s, there were two socialist options: Scandinavia or the Soviet Union. Sweden is now a capitalist power. The Soviet Union collapsed. But, back then, writer Andrew Brown says there were similarities. “People thought Sweden was just like East Germany,” he tells me over Zoom. “It had no advertising. It was the year 2000 when I noticed Systembolaget, the state alcohol monopoly, was actually trying to make you buy their stock. In the 70s, there were diagrams with arrows pointing to various parts of your anatomy, telling you not to buy drink. Now it’s almost the other way around.” When Brown lived in Sweden, nobody spoke English. Commercial television and economic expansion changed that, while membership of the European Union replaced much of its traditional identity.
The son of British diplomats (who served in Stockholm), Brown moved to Sweden with his wife Anita, living in various dead-end towns and finding solace through pike fishing. He says he has no desire to live in Sweden again, but still feels nostalgic for the way of life. “I speak Swedish when I get the chance. I wouldn’t say I think in Swedish any longer, and I’m told I no longer speak Swedish in my sleep. But I read Swedish newspapers and listen to Swedish radio. It’s very tranquil sometimes to listen to some local Swedish radio station, where nothing at all matters to you, but you hear local people are conscientious.”
Bringing up a child exposed Brown to the hybrid ‘Swedish model’, where, for example, you pay for doctor’s appointments but get free emergency care. “In theory,” he explains “everyone had state childcare. In practice, however, the whole system relied on private day care. That taught me about the written and unwritten rules of society. A huge number of foreign journalists come to Sweden to write about the written rules, and the government is happy to play along with it. But it doesn’t reflect reality.”
Brown’s marriage collapsed at the end of the 1980s and he returned home to the UK, where he also divorced. “When they marry,” Brown says, “Swedes feel they make a contract – almost a commercial agreement – with each other. With the state, however, they have a covenant from birth.” In Fishing in Utopia, Brown both retraces his former life in Sweden, and traces his return. He finds a changed nation, but one that’s no less conservative.
ANDREW BROWN is a British journalist and the author of Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Dissapeared, available to buy now.
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