The welfare state

<strong>Fishing in Utopia</strong>

Andrew Brown

<em>Granta Books, 261pp, £16.99</em>

When Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest, my family toasted their success with R White's lemonade. Now, at long last, we could be proud. Sweden was on the map. In one sense, of course, we knew it was. We went there every summer to stay in a little wooden cottage on the edge of a forest, to swim in the lake my mother used to swim in, and to eat little spicy buns and rich cream cakes with her ancient uncles and aunts. But it was only with Abba, and Björn Borg and, later, Ikea, that we felt that the sunlit place of our holidays - a place, according to my mother, not just of sweetness and light, but of equality and justice - became something other than a secret summer paradise.

And here it all is, in this extraordinary book: the wooden cottages, the forests, the lakes, the cakes, the social justice and the sporadic bursts of national pride. But while I have retained a child's geography of Sweden, and a child's memory of a society in which the homes of vice-chancellors (like my uncle) looked exactly the same as the homes of lorry drivers (like his neighbour), Andrew Brown's exploration of the country starts with a kind of adolescence and progresses into a wistful adulthood.

"Lilla Edet was so quiet a town when I lived there," he tells us in the opening sentence, "that I learned to distinguish the smells of different trees." This, it seems, is going to be another wilderness book: another account, in the revived Romantic tradition, of nature as balm for the fractured modern soul. And fishing, it is clear by the third paragraph (and, of course, from the book title) is going to be central. Prepare for plenty of pike.

Fishing is indeed central, a source of solitude, reflection and near-transcendent calm, and also of sensual pleasure pitched somewhere between yoga, dancing and sex. But this isn't the hobby, adopted with mid-life missionary zeal, of a man escaping the rat race. It is the start of a much more interesting journey - part memoir, part quest, part travelogue - in which fishing is both a vital physical act and a "form of inquiry".

At the beginning of the book, Brown is an exile from his country, background and class. Young, poor and in love with a Swedish girl he met in North Wales, he has fled to rural Sweden to escape the failed expectations of his parents and to start a "wholly new life". His antipathy to the old one, by the way, is no mere question of taste. Surrey, on his annual trips to his parents', gives him psoriasis.

As he describes the details of his new life - icy winter mornings, days labouring in a timber mill, trips to the government-registered off- licence - we get a picture of Sweden, too. This is a country in which teenage magazines offer cheering tales of young single mothers finding love, but where the bottles in the off-licence are placed next to life-sized posters demonstrating the dangers of alcohol, complete with swollen liver and "malfunctioning penis".

If this is utopia, it soon becomes clear, it is not entirely sunlit. This country of dark mornings and dark forests, which freezes for months on end, is a place of impressive egalitarianism, but oppressive conformity, a place, in fact, of "crushing" loneliness because "individuals didn't, in some important sense, exist at all". And as the author falls out of love with his young wife, he starts to fall out of love with his adopted home.

It is, in every sense, a fascinating journey. The young man seeking fulfilment in hard physical work and in the primal pleasures of "killing things" in the wilderness begins to fall in love with words. Whenever a good phrase occurs to him as he builds boxes in the timber mill, he grabs "the thick pencil used for marking wood" and scribbles it on the cardboard.

As the fragments are pieced together and typed up, so is another new life, first as a very occasional freelance journalist and later as a staff writer on the fledgling Independent, in the country he left behind. And when he returns to Sweden, 20 years later, it is to a country in which the welfare state has been largely dismantled, and the blond conformity disrupted by immigration - and racism. It is, however, as he discovers, a country he still loves.

Fishing in Utopia is a wonderful exploration of a social experiment that did not entirely succeed, and did not entirely fail, and of a country that can stifle with its worthiness but still enchant, and of a man who loved and lost and loved again. It is also a book about learning to write clearly and honestly and well. And a beautiful, poetic, wise lesson in how to do it.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games