I’ve changed my mind about the Swedes. They took in 40,000 Syrian refugees last year: Britain took 24

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants.

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Everyone keeps asking me what I think about Craig Raine’s poem about a young Gatwick border controller’s embonpoint. I reply that if “She is maybe 22,/like a snake in the zoo” is not poetry, I don’t know what is, and then leave the country until it all blows over.

When I get to Gothenburg something seems different. I notice there are a lot more cool vintage American cars on the road than I recall from previous visits. Have I landed in Cuba by mistake? I also start noticing – it’s hard not to, really – groups of young girls wearing very short, floaty white dresses and, honest to God, little yachting caps. They conform far more closely to the Scandinavian template of womanhood than the Latin, so no, I’m probably not in Cuba.

I wonder what Craig Raine would make of them. “They are maybe 16,/like girls in a . . .” But no, I’ve no idea how to finish that line, which is why Raine is a published poet of international reputation and I am not. Anyway, many of these girls are hanging out of the vintage cars and screaming with wild abandon, behaviour guaranteed to lift all but the heaviest hearts and of which I thoroughly approve.

It turns out these young ladies are celebrating the end of their A-levels, or the Swedish equivalent thereof. Also, it is Sweden’s national day the next day, so the whole country apparently has gone a little crazy and decided to let its hair down. I mention this later to an English friend who used to work there.

“It really got on my tits,” he says. “What I wish they’d do is spread it out a bit more, instead of going mental for a week and then reverting to type for the rest of the year.” (“Type” here means “extraordinarily reserved, to the point where they make the English look like Italians, and they’re more likely to levitate than invite you back to theirs for a few after the bars shut”.)

One thing the Swedes definitely do better than we do, and where we ought really to look a bit sheepish, is in the welcome they give to immigrants. Doubtless there are plenty of occasions of xenophobic thuggery but the official line is humanitarian, which isn’t exactly how you’d describe that of, say, the Labour Party – from which, had I been a member, I’d have resigned instantly when I saw its “Controls on immigration” mug. (And a fat lot of good that did, eh?) Anyway, to offer one example: the Swedes took in about 40,000 Syrians alone last year, and to date about three-quarters have become Swedish citizens (many cases pending). Britain, on the other hand, could find room by last June for only 24 of those displaced. In case you think that’s a misprint, I’ll put it another way: that’s enough Syrians to organise a football tournament between them of two teams, with one substitute each.

H—, whom I am visiting, and who has been working on a rather big music project involving refugees, takes me to an asylum-seekers’ residence, a repurposed youth hostel about five miles from the city centre, whose British equivalent would almost certainly have bars on the window and be surrounded by razor wire. And in a room containing, by a strange coincidence, roughly 24 of them, we are treated like royalty, as they give us chocolate cake and sing Kurdish love songs to the accompaniment of the oud, or Arabian lute. We invite a couple of them she’s become friends with back for dinner and get a lot more oud action, although by about midnight, when there’s still light in the sky, H— begins to worry about the neighbours. (But if there’s been a complaint from them since then, she has yet to hear it.) Our guests also insist on bringing food because they don’t wish to impose on us, but I buy the wine, which, as it turns out, is not a negligible expense, because these Syrians can certainly knock it back; but when you consider the journey they’ve had to undertake to get from their ravaged homeland to Sweden, you can appreciate that they feel they’ve earned the odd snifter.

So, while it’s not exactly a sobering experience, it is certainly a thought-provoking one. On the flight back, I get chatting to a friendly, garrulous Swedish woman, off with her third husband and extended family to a holiday in America, and I think: “These people are not knobs. Will wonders never cease?” And then the first thing I see in the copy of this magazine that I buy on landing at Heathrow is a piece by Craig Raine. But I don’t have the money to flee the country again for a while. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao