Journey to Sweden

Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 9 April 1938

Sweden first became an idyll for the progressive left during the 1930s. It became famous for its Middle Way, a compromise between the political extremes of communism and fascism, and attracted many visitors keen to experience this. But Raymond Postgate, socialist, gourmet and founder of The Good Food Guide, was dismayed to discover that the social democratic state frowned on consumption of alcohol and put up all kinds of barriers to would-be drinkers.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Just recently I had to go to Sweden for the purpose of solemn sociological investigation. I have duly turned in my report, but I think I have left out of it what is most important in the daily life of the unintellectual Swede (of which there are a few), and that is – the Art of Getting a Drink in Sweden.

This art is one studied very ardently by the natives and visiting foreigners, as ardently as it was studied in New York ten years ago, and for the same reason. The game is played in a milder and more civilised manner than it was under prohibition, and the rules do allow the drinker to win some times, but it is essentially the same game.

The prizes are no better than they were in New York in the Dry age. The white, or pale yellow, liquid that Swedes drink before meals, and at most other times, is called snaps and takes the place of whisky or gin. I suspect it is made of wood pulp, it tastes as if artificial silk stockings had been soaked in it, and though there are various names on the bottles it is all made by one State-controlled corporation. The only way to make it tolerable is to chase it immediately by a beer. But here the Government catches you out. You cannot get beer at all in Sweden. Class II beer, which they will sell you without shame, is actually what Americans called near-beer,

Wine you can in theory buy, but you don’t. It is just as foolish as asking for wine in an American saloon or an English pub. You’ll get something, all right.

Now, for the rules of getting one of these drinks, such as they are. Firstly, for foreigners.

The game is rather like Snakes and Ladders. You think you are near home and you are suddenly sent right back to base. There are short cuts, but you are not likely to find them. Some highly experienced people have taken their passports to the Central Spirit Bureau and got a sort of temporary ticket, but that is neither usual nor easy. The ordinary man has to obey the rule that he cannot have a drink without eating a meal, and a Swedish meal at that. Then he may have a thimbleful of snaps; if he wants more, he must have a half thimbleful, and then no more. If he waits till three o’clock he can have another. After six o’clock, he can have another still.

But the effective method is to know a man, preferably a hotel porter or a similar official. That brings you at once within the second class, that of Natives Seeking a Drink.

A native may lawfully buy a drink, to drink himself or offer a friend (there are no saloons or pubs in Sweden, only restaurants) only if he has a drink book. A drink book is a book which entitles him to buy the amount of drink named on it in the time mentioned. Never does the amount exceed four litres a month.

The vay of getting a drink book is this: you apply and answer a number of questions, as to your citizenship, status, if married, if a parent, and so on, ending up with the amount of drink you want. The official then questions you, particularly asking why you want to be allowed to drink. If the answers are satisfactory, he allots you so much drink.

At certain intervals, the drink book has to be renewed. If you have misbehaved—as, for example, if you have not paid your rates—it is taken away from you. I forgot to ask if you are also made to stand in the corner.

Herr Gösta Klemming, of the Telegraph Company, and a business man with the kindest heart that I have ever found in a business man, explained to me that herein lay the virtues of the system, and the reason why (it was hoped) it would shortly be imitated by all other countries. “It enables a continuous control to be kept upon the most suspicious classes in the community—those who desire to drink,” he said.

Not all drinking, you may imagine, is done according to drink book rules. Newspapermen, of course, have the matter most efficiently and easily organised. Special allowances are made by officialdom for birthdays, celebrations, and entertainments. At regular intervals, therefore, entertainments are entered up by the newspaper and the drink collected. “‘We just have a foreign delegation to entertain once a month,” explained the city editor of one daily to me. “It always consists of between 17 and 23 persons. Everything is quite simple.” Other persons know a hotel porter or a head waiter. The drink sold in any hotel has to correspond to the meals served. But there are a good number of teetotalers who don’t take a drink at all. You understand. Even more people have abstentious friends whom they persuade to take out a drink book and let them drink on it.

But the friendless, the unhappy man who is just a man who wants a drink? He pitches down to low levels which even New Yorkers have forgotten. The shops at Vaxholm were full of non-alcoholic liqueurs into which you were to pour raw alcohol, presumably home made. “BENEDICTREUSE. Monk-type Liqueur. Alcohol-free,” was a label which promised the worst.

But the saddest of all signs in the shop windows was a series of flat cakes, wrapped in cellophane, and surrounded by test tubes, corks, and jars. The cakes were labelled Chateau Larose, andd so on. “Make twenty litres of gorgeous claret from rhubarb,” said the notices. You took so much sugar and so much rhubarb—or so much apple, pumpkin, mangold wurzel, or pear (or you could even use grapes, though it was not recommended)—added to it some water, this cake and made powders. Twenty litres of the loveliest Bordeaux would result. A different cake and different powders would give Liebfraumilch. Bottles were provided, and even the labels. I copied one out; it was in English, more or less:

Angus Georg Wilson

Finest Portwine

Vintage 1848


This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot