History of Sweden for Anglos (1)

I woke up this morning thoroughly depressed, as I have been since I finished my last book, with no other writing on the go, apart from the occasional review and this unread blog; when Kajsa cheered me up with a suggestion. ‘Why don’t you write a history of Sweden for English readers? I could help you.’ – Too old to have babies together, I thought this might do the trick. So I started.

I thought I could use this blog in order to keep my few ‘followers’ apprised of my progress.  (As well as the usual stuff about politics and football.) You might want to comment on it, and correct me. It will only be a preliminary version, of course: I usually write at least three drafts of any of my books; but it will help you, and me, to know where I’m going with this. Here’s the first draft of the Intro. I’ll be submitting it to a publisher soon.


A Short History of Sweden for Anglos

Bernard Porter and Kajsa Ohrlander


All things considered – the climate, the dark winters, the rocky terrain, the small population, the lack of any natural resources apart from iron and timber, the early history of feudal tyranny, savage wars and poverty, the awful food, and, some neoliberals might add, the socialism – Sweden has done pretty well over the past hundred-odd years, both for itself and, I would say, for others. It boasts one of the most productive and prosperous economies on earth, and also probably the most equal society, particularly as regards gender. It is fundamentally democratic in most respects, unlike Britain, and stable. Its people are more law-abiding than most, and this despite its prisons being comfortable, so hardly a deterrent, and largely empty. Swedes are also more moral – as morality should be defined – than more overtly religious peoples. Americans and right-wing Britons can scarcely credit this. They probably think the country is hiding its horrors, to be revealed for what they are only in its ‘Noir’ crime novels. Not so. Its long summer days are something special – fully compensating for the winters. Swedish culture is flourishing, at every ‘level’, but especially cinema, literature and design. Swedes are generous to a fault towards foreign refugees, and friendly to non-oppressed foreign residents, like myself. All this is rather over-egged, of course, and the country is not quite the Utopia I used to imagine it as a young British Labour Party member in the 1960s, when it was Sweden that was our ‘shining city on the hill’; but it comes pretty close. Its people have done much good in the world, especially in spreading internationalism and flat-pack furniture; and its social relations could serve as a model for all us non-Swedes, if only we could get certain prejudices – for example about the ‘State’ – out of our heads. The Utopia might not last much longer. Already the monster of ‘globalisation’ is nibbling away at its edges. Volvo and Saab are in foreign ownership. Schools are being privatized. The National Health system seems to stop at teeth. But at present, Sweden is still a pretty good place to live.

So: how did it get from there – fighting, poverty, tyranny, eating raw herring and the barks of trees – to here? That’s what I have been musing on during the twenty years I’ve lived in Sweden (on and off), and have now decided to write this book about, for Anglophone readers. The idea came from my ‘sambo’ Kajsa – the Swedes have even found a neutral word for couples who aren’t formally married – who is my co-author in effect. She thought it might relieve my post-natal depression, after having delivered what I had thought was my final book. She makes up for my poor (OK: almost non-existent) Swedish, and of course will contribute her lifetime’s inside knowledge and research. She works in the field of Gender Studies, especially as applied to Swedish education, whose early 20th-century history she has written about.fn We share roughly the same political and social views. (She’s a bit more ‘advanced’ than I.) What I bring to the subject is an outsider’s perspective, but one steeped in a very wide-ranging study of history – my main area has been ‘British imperial’, but I’ve touched before on the topic of early British attitudes to Scandinavia – and a certain facile writing style. I also, of course, know, or think I know, what it is about Swedish history that will puzzle, interest and enlighten British and American readers, who are our main intended audience. Any Swede who has stumbled on this book by mistake should put it down now. It’s not for you. – Although, on second thoughts: ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!’ (Robbie Burns. Swedes may need to go to Google Translate.) So they might learn something.

As is the case with most images of foreigners formed abroad, how we British see the Swedes probably says more about us than it does about them. The same, of course, applies the other way around. When I first met Kajsa she seemed to me to see everything English through a Swedish lens, which was sometimes flattering, but usually not. Fortunately I shared her unflattering view of England to some extent, so I could understand where she was coming from, and work from that. (She’s progressing. She has now taken to English Ale.) This book will aim to do something similar, but the other way around. Aware of what the dominant discourses in Britain are about politics, history, family, work, play, sex and a host of other things, I’ll be able to translate; to place Swedish history in a context and a language that Anglo-Americans will understand – both Kajsa and I have lived for some time in the USA, by the way – and will be fair to her mother country and my adopted one.

This is one of the ways this book will be different from other English-language histories or accounts of Sweden. We’re also hoping that it may prove less superficial than are many ‘travel books’ about Sweden; as they have been, in fact, since the travelogue genre began. No modern names, no pack-drill; but I can refer readers here to my own studies of nineteenth century British travel-writers about Scandinavia.fn Swedish stereotypes can be amusing, but they are not always fair. (Just as Swedes themselves are not usually fair-haired, especially these days.) To understand a country it’s not enough merely to have visited it; just as, I would contend, it’s not enough only to have lived there all one’s life. That gives you no perspective. Kajsa’s and my account, we hope, will. She’ll provide the depth, I the context. That’s our intention, at any rate, and our justification for this book.

It will be organized roughly chronologically, beginning in the mists of time, which are particularly misty in the case of Scandinavia. Sweden doesn’t really have any history before the Middle Ages, whereas we in Britain have Stonehenge and the Romans. It will then canter on at quite a pace until it reaches relatively modern times, and concentrate on the last two centuries. These are more important than Sweden’s ‘Game of Thrones’ pre-history (or mythology) for understanding how the country came to be as it is now; which is what Kajsa and I, and I presume our readers, are most interested in. (There is a real ‘Westeros’ in Sweden, by the way. Ryanair fly there.) And both of us are more comfortable, as historians rather than prehistorians, with peoples who have learned to read and write.

END (Apart from Acknowledgments)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to History of Sweden for Anglos (1)

  1. Tony Judge says:

    Sounds interesting Bernard and there will probably appeal widely. There have been quite a few other types of books on Sweden, not all travelogues or hagiographies (the US market no doubt helps) and some quite critical – Kathleen Nott’s ‘A Clean Well Lighted Place’ (1962), David Hughes ‘An icicle in the Sun’ (?) (Hughes was married to Mai Zetterling), and more recently Michaels Booth’s ‘The Almost Perfect People: The Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia (2015). But yours will benefit from Swedish input, and in my experience few people are as self-critical about their past.


  2. R3 says:

    I think it’s time to book our visit! It should be a fantastic read. You need to catch up on Game of Thrones to tie in some wildlings references as well.


  3. Lin says:

    I look forward to this new writing. Please continue! My Londoner son has married a Swedish woman and now I have 2 Swedish grandchildren. All are in Stockholm, where I have been visiting and intend to visit as frequently as possible. I recently did granny-duty as my daughter in law had to travel for work and my son had a heavy deadline. The day care that I delivered the kids to was splendid and reminded me of the council run nursery I was lucky enough to have when my son was a toddler. Thatcher later closed it and the big old house that it was based in, in Camden, London, was sold and became a private school. Heartbreaking. Sweden is a fascinating country that I want to understand better.


    • Thank you! I have two bonusbarnbarn (i.e. Kajsa’s), and five of my own. My children envy the Swedish preschools something rotten. Apart from anything else, they’re having to fork out a fortune for theirs. Keep in touch.


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