From The Economist print edition
FISHING, journalism, and the death throes of the Swedish social system are the unpromising ingredients of Andrew Brown’s thought-provoking autobiographical memoir. The story of a young drifter who rebels against a privileged upbringing in Britain and goes away to work in a pallet factory in provincial Sweden in the late 1970s might seem impossibly dull. But Mr Brown’s prose is as clear and bewitching as the lake waters in which he learns to fish. Having immersed himself, and the reader, in the all-encompassing conformism, thrift and diligence of the Sweden of that era, he charts the story of his own rebellion, disenchantment and ultimate reconciliation with a country that in the meantime changes almost beyond all recognition.
Having learnt his trade by jotting down choice phrases on bits of cardboard in the factory, Mr Brown becomes a journalist. Sweden proves surprisingly interesting: Soviet submarines haunt the coast, provoking panicky incomprehension in a public convinced that virtue equals untouchability. A secular priesthood of social workers snatch children from “elitist” parents (though that scandal, he later discovers, turns out to be not what it seems).
Flushed with success, he abandons small-town Sweden (and his first wife and child) for the delights of London. His time as Britain’s best reporter of religion and his early evangelism for the internet are all but omitted; material, perhaps, for another book. Instead the focus is on his regular trips back to Sweden, sometimes as a correspondent, sometimes in search of somewhere sufficiently remote to write books: swapping what he calls the mosquitoes of distraction in city life for the thought-inducing real ones of a Swedish forest in high summer.
Readers who know the Nordic countries will delight in the author’s keen ear and eye for the nuances of language, landscape and social customs. The polite incomprehension prompted by a papal visit to a place with almost no Roman Catholics is particularly well drawn. A Finnish journalist colleague invites Mr Brown to feel her thigh: she is wearing suspenders and a garter belt in what she coyly tells him is a protest against the church’s repressive sexual mores. She follows it up with an invitation to dinner in Helsinki later. In some parts of the world, that would count as quite unusual.
The fish and the weather don’t change (though Mr Brown’s growing prosperity as a journalist means that he can afford better kit). But Sweden does. As the harsh echoes of the impoverished, hierarchical system of the 1930s fade, so too does the moral tone of the society. It is only the memory of poverty that creates the social discipline necessary for prosperity, he suggests; once that is forgotten, the seeds of decay begin to sprout.
Mr Brown is an interesting man; introspective and with perhaps a touch of prissy self-importance. Much the same goes for Sweden; like him, it has become less unusual than it used to be. Once home to a system that seems to modern eyes as distant as communism, it is now a more-or-less normal capitalist country, troubled by the task of integrating the tenth of the population that consists of unhappy and often unseen immigrants. What comes next? Even the sapient Mr Brown does not venture a guess.