Imagine if Britain were known only from its detective stories and spy novels. It would be a country with no suburbs: everyone lived either in gorgeous, if corpse-studded, Cotswold villages, or grimy inner cities to the accompaniment of a propulsive soundtrack of gunshots and screams. The largest arm of government would be the intelligence services and almost everyone alive would be aged between twenty and fifty. The NHS would be the wonder of the world, and would only ever deal with sudden, usually fatal illnesses. A surprising number of doctors might poison their patients, but they would do so with excellent bedside manners. The upper ranks of the police force would be largely staffed with alcoholics.

Sweden projects a similarly unrealistic image to the world, and for very similar reasons. It is a small country with a thriving cultural export industry that sells whatever the outside world will pay for, which is mostly escapism. Economists call this creativity.

I lived there as a child in the late 60s, again as a young man between 1977 and 1985, and have visited regularly since. I even had a friend take me to Ystad, home of the crime writer Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander. But I've never seen Wallander's country.

Sweden has another influential export industry of policy wonks: people who sell the idea that what makes these countries special and delightful are their governments and the laws they pass. This might be called escapism for executives -- it is a fantasy of a country where all the really hard problems melt away under the pressure of decisive rationality and where spreadsheets work like magic to remodel the world into tidy boxes. I've never lived there, either.

When I consider whether I would want to live in Sweden again, a lot would depend on the stage of life I was at, as well as the time of year. Nowhere could be more ghastly than Stockholm in November or February, except for a provincial town at the same time of year. By the same token, nowhere could be more wonderful than Sweden when spring turns to summer -- late April in the far south of the country, and late June in the very high north.

As a small child, or as the parent of one, the winters are bearable, the summers are paradise, and society generally is better arranged to your advantage than almost anywhere else in the world. Paid work and paid parental leave really are equitably split, so far as possible, between men and women. More than that, society as a whole thinks of children as important and valuable and shows this in all kinds of small ways as well as large ones.

But then, perhaps, your children are 12 or 13. That is when you get out and go in search of a country where the schools are better and there are still jobs for young people. Youth unemployment in Sweden is phenomenally high -- about twice the rate in Denmark, for example, and by some estimates running at around 25 per cent. Adolescence is also the age when Swedes start to feel their provincialism as a real burden.

They had better be financially successful in their twenties and thirties, or there is no chance of moving back to a nice part of the cities with an interesting job. If you want to live in the gorgeous parts of Stockholm you need to be very well paid indeed.

Being poor in the cities is much less fun. There are few parts that are actively dangerous, but Sweden has become a very much more violent and ruthless society since the conformist days of the Sixties and Seventies.

Even here the usual rules apply: the main victims of poor criminals are other poor people. When the Malmö paper published an interactive map of all the shootings there last year, it was horrifying that so many people should be shot at all and, on a second look, striking how many were gangsters shot in the course of business disagreements.

Assume you are prosperous and the children have all left home. Then, if you don't need money, you don't want excitement, and you don't need a job, the Swedish countryside is one of the most wonderful places anyone could live. There are wolves in the forests and broadband everywhere. I think I should be happy to end my life in some dull town where the neighbours grow excited about their chances of shooting an elk -- and thrilling myself with crime fiction about the dangerous world outside.

Andrew Brown is author of Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared


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