I was never all that keen on the goat. Every year, my mother would carry it down from the loft, with the box of straw stars and paper folded hearts. The stars were bad enough. They didn’t shine, or twinkle, or catch the light. They were dull. They were beige. They were made of straw. The hearts weren’t shiny either. They were red and white, like the little Santas made out of wisps of wool, Santas my mother said were called ‘tomten’. All of this, and white lights. Nobody else we knew had white lights. They had tinsel and baubles and glittery fairies and coloured lights. And they sure as hell didn’t have a goat.
The goat, which my mother put under the Christmas tree, was made of straw and red ribbon. It matched the spike she would stick in the Christmas ham. She would spend hours simmering the ham with spices and cloves and then coat it in honey and breadcrumbs. Once she’d laid out the table, with the spiced red cabbage, and the hard-boiled eggs, and the mustard in the long metal tube like toothpaste, she would walk in carrying the ham, as if it was a baby she was going to put in a manger.
I never really understood why the ham was pierced with that straw spike, which had a red ribbon tied in a bow. I thought it made it look as if it was dressed for a children’s party. I wasn’t very keen on the red cabbage, or the potato dish called Jansson’s Temptation, which had anchovies in it and didn’t seem like much of a temptation to me. And as for the pickled herring my mother brought back in jars from Sweden, and opened on Christmas Eve as if they were frankincense or myrrh… I would feel a sour taste in my mouth as I watched her scoop out the flashes of silver, lay them on rye bread and sigh with pleasure as she took a bite. I didn’t even like fish fingers.
On Christmas Day, we had English Christmas, with church and carols and turkey and mince pies and presents and Christmas pud and the Queen. On Christmas Eve, my mother would light the candles. My mother was always lighting candles. She would put the Swedish Christmas songs on the record player in the corner. She would make the coffee. She would bring out the pepperkakor, the ginger biscuits that left a tingle on your tongue. You were meant to place one in the palm of your hand, press it hard and if it broke into three pieces, you got a wish.
I can’t remember how old I was when I realised that my friends did not eat pickled herring on Christmas Eve, or try hard to break ginger biscuits into three pieces. I’m not sure when I realised that we were the only people with white lights on our Christmas tree and straw stars instead of shiny baubles. I can’t remember what year it was we bullied my mother into getting coloured lights for the tree. One year, we even had tinsel. I was so proud of that tinsel.
But I always, always loved the candles and I always loved the cakes. I loved the Lucia crown you had to wear, with a white nightie, for Sankta Lucia. It was on 13 December, twelve days before Christmas and five days after my birthday. It was, my mother explained, a festival of light. The eldest daughter of the house, she said, was meant to wake the family up in a long white dress and a crown of candles. She had to sing the Lucia song and carry the tray with the coffee and saffron buns. The eldest daughter in our house was Caroline, but she didn’t want to do it, so I was the one who wore the Lucia crown Auntie Lisbeth sent over in a cardboard box. It didn’t have real candles, like the ones my mother had when she was a girl, but the candles looked quite real and when you twisted each little circle of plastic a glass flame flickered into life.
Once, when the lake at Wisley froze over, my mother found some old skates in the loft. I put them on and slithered a few yards before I fell. My mother put them on after me and soon she was whizzing around like an Olympic champion. I had never seen her skate. I had never seen her ski. We never went to Sweden in the winter. My mother told us about the snow that arrived in November and melted in April, and how you knew that spring was coming because the birds would start to sing again.
We went to Sweden in the summer, and looked forward to it all year. I would often feel sick in the car to Tilbury, wedged between Caroline and Tom and packets of cornflakes and tins of baked beans. On the ferry, we would gaze at blonde families piling their plates with meatballs or salmon as we ate the cheese rolls my mother had packed.
The journey took two days and I would feel seasick for most of it, but the sickness would pass when my father called us on deck to catch first sight of land. He would ask for silence as he steered the car, on the wrong side of the road, through the outskirts of Gothenburg, but soon we were away from the roundabouts and junctions and on the road at the edge of green fields that stretched down to the sea.
We counted out the landmarks: the bridge with the curving steel sides that made us yell out ‘Sidney bridge!’, the café where we stopped for coffee and vetebröd, the plaited spiced bread my mother loved, but my father said was too dry. When my father turned left into the forest, we knew we were nearly there. We’d pass the sign with the antlers that meant you had to look out for elks, the house with the gables where my mother sent us to buy the sour yoghurt she called filmjölk and then the golden wheatfields next to the dirt track that led up to the little red cottage, surrounded by silver birches and pines.
For me, that cottage will always represent my other country, my mother country, my mother’s country. Technically, Sweden isn’t my mother country, of course. My father was Scottish. He met my mother on a hill in Heidelberg when he was twenty and she was eighteen. They didn’t speak each other’s language and so for the three weeks they were together, they spoke in German. Their love letters are in German. But when my father sent my mother a telegram, it was in English. ‘Will you marry me?’ it said. My mother’s telegram back was one word: ‘Yes.’
They married two and a half years later, in the white church next to the old barn that was once part of my mother’s grandparents’ farm. After a honeymoon in Norway, they moved to a bedsit in Earl’s Court. After that, they had three years in Bangkok, where my father was posted for work, followed by three years in Rome. My sister was born in Bangkok. My brother and I were born in Rome. When I was nine months old, my parents packed everything up and we moved to a house on a brand new estate in Guildford. I’m British. My passport is British. I couldn’t get a Swedish passport, because I’ve never actually lived there. Britain is my real mother country, but Sweden is my mother’s country. Sweden is the country that nurtured my mother and my mother nurtured me.
The cottage, my mother told us, was a ‘sommarstugan’, which means a ‘summer house’. We shared it with Auntie Lisbeth and Uncle Hans and my cousins, Peter, Anna and Carl Johan, and with my mother’s mother, who we called Mormor, which means ‘mother’s mother’. In the early years, it was two rooms, with a galley kitchen and a single cold tap. There was no bathroom, just a hut in the garden with a hole in planks over a bucket. In later years, the store room was carved up to add two tiny rooms with bunks. It was small. It was basic. It was heaven.
On those long summer days, we would cycle down past the wheat fields, and the old mill where we played poo sticks, and up to the church where my parents got married. We would pick blueberries in the forest. We would build camps smelling of moss and pine cones. And when the sun shone we all went down to the beach. After my father had parked the car, we would leave our shoes at the end of the long line of clogs that snaked along the path, next to the bikes that were all left unlocked. We would run up the sand dunes and then race down to the sea.
This was my Sweden, my mother’s country, the country of my golden summers. There was sunshine. There was sand as far as the eye could see. There were waves you could leap in, rocks you could clamber over, lines of blue jellyfish washed up by the sea. There were little bottles of fizzy drinks called läsk, with flavours like blood orange, apple and pear. There were coffee parties with my great aunt Agnes and my great uncle Arthur, who had just one cold tap and an outside toilet, but would lay out a whole table with cakes. There was vetebröd, because there was always vetebröd, and there were pepperkakor, because there were always pepperkakor, but there were also sockerkakor, little fingers flecked with pearls of sugar, and kringlor, the bullet-shaped cakes wrapped in marzipan and rolled in coconut. When you thought you couldn’t eat any more, there was a giant prinsesstarta covered in cream.
For me, Sweden was, and has always been, sunshine, candles and cakes. For me, Sweden was, and has always been, sweetness and light.
When Abba won the Eurovision song contest, we celebrated with R-Whites lemonade. I loved Agnetha’s tight satin trousers. I loved Anni-Frid’s knee-high boots. I loved Bjorn’s cheeky grin and Benny’s platform shoes. I put Abba posters on my bedroom walls. On the boat to Sweden, I watched Abba: The Movie. For Christmas, I even got Abba: the soap. I loved the music. Who doesn’t love the music? But what I really, really liked was the fact that Sweden was at last on the map.
That was also the year Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon for the first time. Now Sweden was really famous! And there were Volvo cars! It took another thirteen years for Ikea to hit the UK. That was in Warrington in 1987. In 1989, when I was doing a course in St Helen’s, in Lancashire, I made a special trip to Warrington, just for the meatballs. I have always loved Ikea meatballs. I felt terrible for Ikea a few years ago when there was that blip. Even lingonberry jam can’t hide the taste of horse. Swedish meatballs are usually made from minced beef and minced pork. I did once add some minced plastic, but that’s because I didn’t realise there was a plastic guard on the blender you were meant to take off.
I have eaten Ikea meatballs for as long as I have eaten solid food. Every summer, it was our treat. We never went to restaurants, but Ikea subsidized their meatballs. You wandered round. You gazed at sofas. If you were a small child, you used them to play hide and seek. If you were a grown up, you dreamed of a life of clean lines. And then you had your meatballs. And then you cleared your tray away. Because this was Sweden! This was the Swedish deal. We will give you beauty and harmony and delicious food and affordable design. And you will clear up afterwards and make things nice for everyone else.
As I ate those meatballs, and the cakes and pastries that were part of any social occasion (and the cakes that weren’t part of any social occasion, because my mother taught me you always had to have a little cake or pastry with your coffee, and I still do) I was only dimly aware of the pact Sweden had with its citizens. I knew that my uncle, who was Vice Chancellor of a Swedish university, lived next door to a lorry driver and they had exactly the same house, and the same garden, and almost exactly the same car. I don’t know what my uncle earned. I don’t imagine it was what the Vice Chancellor of Bath earns. (I wonder, by the way, what Chaucer would have made of her.) I did once hear my aunt muttering about ‘crazy’ levels of tax. My Swedish relatives are not rich. One of my cousins works in business. One runs a think tank. One is a judge. They are comfortable, but you’d be hard pressed to describe any of them as rich. They went to lovely schools and lovely universities. Their children go to lovely schools. They were born in lovely hospitals. My cousin, Anna got generous maternity leave. My cousin, Carl Johan got generous paternity leave. And when they went back to work, they got first class childcare, capped at about £100 a month.
Is it all free? Of course it’s not free. That’s like saying the NHS is free. The NHS costs British taxpayers more than £120 billion a year. Swedish healthcare, and education and childcare and parental leave, is generally better than in Britain and so costs more. Swedes, like Norwegians, like Danes, like Finns, believe there is such a thing as society and that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
When I went to Sweden as a child, I knew almost nothing about politics. I knew my mother hated Margaret Thatcher. I hated her cold eyes and hectoring voice, too. But I didn’t really understand why my mother kept going on about private schools. She kept saying that in Sweden there were no private schools and that Britain would be a much better place if there weren’t any here.
My mother always told us that after her father died, when she was twelve, she and her sister grew up on hand-me-downs and free school lunches. Their mother got up at 4 a.m. to work in a post office to pay the rent on their tiny flat. My mother would do her homework in the attic of their block, sitting in an old pram with a torch. She ended up top of her school and got a scholarship to Sweden’s Cambridge, Lund. When she got her first job, as a teacher, at twenty-one, she was earning more than my father at the Foreign Office. She had grown up in a poor family and done fine. So what exactly was her problem?
I didn’t know anyone who went to a private school. And then, in my last year of primary school, I played in a netball match at a local girls’ school. I was so distracted by what I saw I couldn’t concentrate on the game. The buildings! The grounds! The tea! My school was a squat concrete block on the edge of our estate. There was a playground and a patch of grass.
At university in Durham, I met Sloanes for the first time. For some reason, we called them ‘rahs’. Rahs were shiny and pink. They had perfect skin. They had perfect teeth. At weekends, they all went off to stay in each other’s houses. Rahs were a tribe. They went round in packs. They didn’t seem to speak to anyone who wasn’t like them.
When I started work, first in publishing, then in the arts and later on a national newspaper, I was confused. I knew that only a tiny percentage of the population went to private schools, but that percentage seemed to be an awful lot higher among my colleagues. Most seemed to have a confidence I had never had. Many seemed to have got their jobs through someone they knew. At the Independent, for example, I kept meeting people who had got their jobs through work experience, which someone in their family had arranged. These people quite fancied working on a national newspaper, and did. I was thirty-nine when I got my first job on a national newspaper. I thought those worlds were closed to me. Every job I had ever had, I had got through sending in an application, in response to an ad. My mother had brought me up to believe in meritocracy. But then she also brought me up to believe that a broken biscuit can make a dream come true.
I was quite surprised when Sweden became famous for murder. As far as I could tell, crime rates were pretty low, but suddenly you couldn’t hear the word ‘Sweden’ without the word ‘corpse’. I’ve never read much crime fiction, but on my trips to Guildford to see my mother, she would make the coffee, bring out the pastries and sit me down in front of Wallander, which she always pronounced the Swedish way, as if the W was a V. Soon, I was hooked, too: on Swedish Wallander, and English Wallander, on the wild landscapes of Skåne and on people who lived lovely, civilized, meritocratic lives until the day their husband or wife or girlfriend would be found naked in a cellar, with their throat slashed. Like many Swedes, my mother wasn’t all that keen on Danes, but she lapped up The Killing. She was a bit upset by Saga’s Aspergers in The Bridge. She liked good manners and didn’t like to think a Swede was letting the side down.
If all this murder and mutilation wasn’t exactly a reflection of daily life in Scandinavia, it seemed to suggest that there was a shadow in this paradise, some sense of unease that needed to come out. And there was. There is. When, nine years ago, I was asked to review a book by a former colleague, I realised what it was. The book, by Andrew Brown, was called Fishing in Utopia. Part memoir, part quest, part travelogue, it’s about his time in Sweden as a young man, after falling in love with a Swedish girl. The country he describes – of wooden cottages, forests, lakes, cakes and social justice – is the country I remember from my childhood holidays. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. It’s impressively egalitarian. It’s also a place where people are expected to conform. Twenty years after leaving the country, Brown went back to find the blond conformity disrupted by immigration – and racism. Swedes have a particular way of doing things. They don’t like people to be different. Immigrants are different. Which is probably why the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are on the rise.
For me, Sweden was, and has always been, sunshine, candles and cakes. For me, Sweden was, and has always been, sweetness and light
After murder, came hygge. I had never heard of hygge. It is, my mother explained, a Norwegian word that the Danes seemed to have made their own. Hygge, says Meik Wiking in The Little Book of Hygge, is something you feel, rather than explain. It has, he says, ‘been called everything from “the art of creating intimacy”, “cosiness of the soul” and “the absence of annoyance” to “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things”, “cosy togetherness” and… “cocoa by candlelight”.’
Meik Wiking is Director of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. In his book, he mixes statistics about happiness and wellbeing with gorgeous photos of lamps and candles and woodburning stoves and little anecdotes about what he and his friends do to get the feeling of hygge. They play boardgames, apparently. They cook meals together. They make jam. It sounds sweet. It sounds smug. It sounds like Jeremy Corbyn.
Last year, everyone went mad about hygge. Newspapers and magazines were full of it. Shop windows were full of it. There were at least twenty-five books about it, including Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well, Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness, Hygge: Comfort & Food for the Soul, How to Hygge and What the Hygge, which at least shows that somebody somewhere has the flicker of a sense of humour. For a concept that’s supposed to be about humble pleasures, it seems to have done a very good job at turning cosy feelings into hard cash.
These books have turned Scandinavian culture into a lifestyle product. You too can have a hyggelig time, even if you live in a country that doesn’t care quite so much about equality and doesn’t invest nearly as much in your education, health and social care. Just curl up in your jim jams and gaze at photos on Pinterest of rustic tables and hand-knitted throws. Meik Wiking has a tip for you: braise some pork cheeks in dark beer.
Do you know what? I think I won’t.
Last month, a book came out that isn’t about murder or lifestyle. It’s called The Nordic Theory of Everything, and it’s by Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist now living in the US. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking comparison of the Nordic and American ways of life. In it, Partanen argues that citizens in ‘the land of the free’ have much less freedom than citizens in the so-called Nordic nanny states. She suggests that worries about schools and the cost of healthcare, childbirth and childcare eat away at Americans, so very few have time or mental space for much else. ‘What really motivates Swedes and other Nordic citizens to support their system isn’t altruism,’ she says, ‘but self-interest. Nordic societies provide their citizens with maximum autonomy from old-fashioned traditional ties of dependency, which among other things ends up saving people a lot of money and heartache along with securing personal freedom.’
In all those tables about happiness, health and wellbeing, the Scandinavian countries tend to come out top. This isn’t because they like coffee and cake, though I can’t help feeling these contribute. It’s because they organize their societies in ways that cut anxiety and build self-reliance. In the long term, healthy, happy people need less help from the state. It’s just what you do when you are sensible and kind. Like many Scandinavians. Like my mum.
You can probably imagine what my mother thought of Donald Trump. When she switched on the radio, and the newscaster said he was going to be President of the United States, she thought she had misheard. In the diary she had kept all her life, she used capital letters for the first time. ‘DONALD TRUMP WON!’ she wrote. The next day, she lost her balance and tripped on the last stair. She had to wait hours for the ambulance to come. Two days later, on her birthday, they tried to replace her broken hip.
There were no candles on her birthday. There were no candles on mine. There were no candles for Sankta Lucia. The day after Sankta Lucia, she died.
I don’t know if I will ever again eat ham and red cabbage at Christmas. I’m pretty sure I’ll never eat pickled herring. I think I’ll forget about the goat. I don’t even know what happened to the goat. But I will drink coffee and I will eat cake. I will always, always drink coffee and eat cake. And I’ll light candles. This Christmas, and every Christmas, I will light candles in memory of my mother, and the brave, kind, beautiful country that shaped her brave, kind, beautiful heart.