My Essential Guide to Sweden

In 2020, I was approached by the publishers behind the respected Culture Smart series to see if I would write a book about Swedish culture. I accepted and, finally, it is here! I am proud to join their staff of authors! Available soon to buy on Amazon, or via me. Just pm me if you’d like a copy. Today’s a good day!!!

Do you believe in Swedish sin?

Yesterday, a new book was published by author Rickard Gramfors. The book, entitled ‘Do you believe in Swedish sin?’ looks at Swedish exploitation and cult films. The book includes ‘350 outrageous, sexy, violent, fun movie posters from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Swedish films of all kinds, whacky co-productions, exported Swedish babes, and international films using the words Sweden, Schweden, Svezia, Suède as selling points; if it was “Swedish” – it was sexy!’

I have put my order in.

This international concept of Swedish sin still lingers around today, and influences some foreigners’ perception of Swedish women. Where does it come from?

Maybe unsurprisingly, it originates in the prudish conservative USA. In a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, he claimed that “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. This was a rhetorical way to attack Swedish people and politics at the same time. However, the world quickly forgot the link to welfare policy – but the sin reference remains.

He was basing his opinion on the scandalous Swedish fifties art films like ”One Summer of Happiness” and ”Summer with Monika”, birth-control pills, sexual education publications and condom vending machines. Swedish nudity was prevalent in most of the films throughout the 60’s and 70’s thus cementing the idea of Swedish sin.

In 1971, the Swedish sex education film ‘Language of Love’ was released in London to massive protest. One anti-film sign read ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhoea every year’.

Place on top of these scandalous films, young women who were self-determined, educated, liberated and sexually-active, and the stereotype becomes fixed.

The interesting thing about stereotypes is that they remain for a very long time. This is why the notion still exists today even though Swedish film today is far from exploitative.

Additionally, stereotypes often have little to do with reality. The reality was of course something else in Sweden at that time. The country was not riddled with promiscuous, drunken people. For example, Sweden had the world’s most restrictive alcohol laws and was struggling with the oppressive inheritance of Lutheran thinking.

So, did Swedish ‘sin’ ever actually exist? Or was it a politically motivated attack aimed at undermining social democracy? Or was it just a marketing trick to sell films and magazines?

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Do you believe in Swedish sin?

Yesterday, a new book was published by author Rickard Gramfors. The book, entitled ‘Do you believe in Swedish sin?’ looks at Swedish exploitation and cult films. The book includes ‘350 outrageous, sexy, violent, fun movie posters from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Swedish films of all kinds, whacky co-productions, exported Swedish babes, and international films using the words Sweden, Schweden, Svezia, Suède as selling points; if it was “Swedish” – it was sexy!’

I have put my order in.

This international concept of Swedish sin still lingers around today, and influences some foreigners’ perception of Swedish women. Where does it come from?

Maybe unsurprisingly, it originates in the prudish conservative USA. In a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, he claimed that “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. This was a rhetorical way to attack Swedish people and politics at the same time. However, the world quickly forgot the link to welfare policy – but the sin reference remains.

He was basing his opinion on the scandalous Swedish fifties art films like ”One Summer of Happiness” and ”Summer with Monika”, birth-control pills, sexual education publications and condom vending machines. Swedish nudity was prevalent in most of the films throughout the 60’s and 70’s thus cementing the idea of Swedish sin.

In 1971, the Swedish sex education film ‘Language of Love’ was released in London to massive protest. One anti-film sign read ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhoea every year’.

Place on top of these scandalous films, young women who were self-determined, educated, liberated and sexually-active, and the stereotype becomes fixed.

The interesting thing about stereotypes is that they remain for a very long time. This is why the notion still exists today even though Swedish film today is far from exploitative.

Additionally, stereotypes often have little to do with reality. The reality was of course something else in Sweden at that time. The country was not riddled with promiscuous, drunken people. For example, Sweden had the world’s most restrictive alcohol laws and was struggling with the oppressive inheritance of Lutheran thinking.

So, did Swedish ‘sin’ ever actually exist? Or was it a politically motivated attack aimed at undermining social democracy? Or was it just a marketing trick to sell films and magazines?

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Swedish cartoons – a bear, an elk, a cool dog and a hotdog

Today, May 5th, is International Cartoonists’ Day, designed to celebrate this specific craft and art form. For all of us, cartoons are part of the tapestry of our lives, and it’s hard to imagine a media landscape without them. This isn’t surprising given that the art form as we know it today – in newspaper, magazine and film – goes back around 170 years.

Although hand-drawn stories originated in the Middle Ages, the satirical and humouristic form we know today started in 1843 in the British Punch magazine. The longest-running newspaper cartoon strip is called The Katzenjammer Kids, known as Knoll and Tott in Swedish. This strip has been published in the American Humorist since 1897. The earliest animated cartoon for film is considered to be Fastasmagorie by French cartoonist Émile Cohl, drawn in 1908. It wasn’t until 20 years later that the first Disney film – Steamboat Willy – appeared, featuring the very familiar Mickey Mouse

So what about Sweden? What is Sweden’s history of cartoons? Cartoon strips in Sweden started in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. The oldest cartoon strip that is still being published today is 91:a, which started in 1932. In Sweden, international cartoons have been very popular. Although originating abroad, their names are usually Swedified. For example, Donald Duck is Kalle Anka, Popeye is Karl-Alfred and Fred Basset is Laban. The Finnish cartoon Mumin is also very popular. There are, however, some strips that have been drawn by talented Swedish cartoonists. Here are a few:

1) Bamse. The most successful cartoon from Sweden. Bamse is the world’s strongest bear, who eats honey and is best friends with a rabbit (Lilla Skutt) and a tortoise (Skalman). Drawn by Rune Andreasson, Bamse has his own comic strip, magazine and films. When Swedes give each other a strong hug, they call it a ‘Bamse hug’.

2) Hälge. A melancholy elk drawn by Lars Mortimer. Hälge is constantly on the run from Hunter Edwin and his dog Blixten, who he manages to outwit season after season.

3) Rocky. Cartoonist Martin Kellerman created this autobiographical character aimed at the adult reader. Rocky is a cool dog, the same age as Kellermann and is also a cartoonist. The character is philosophical, satirical and critical and has even been converted into theatre.

4. Assar. A satirical comic strip that appeared in Swedish newspaper DN, drawn by Ulf Lundqvist. Assar is a talking hot dog who has escaped the hot dog stand and lives in a depressed village populated with small-minded residents. Many of the later stories focused more on these residents than on Assar himself.

All of the examples are successful strips drawn by men. There are several acclaimed female cartoonists in Sweden also. Lena Ackebo and Nina Hemingsson are probably the most well known. Both are satirical cartoonists, with distinctive style. They draw a variety of players, and do not restrict themselves to portraying the antics of one particular named character.

Lena Ackebo cartoon
Nina Hemingsson cartoon

What other Swedish cartoonists deserve a mention? Please let me know below!

Shakespeare in Sweden

Today 23 April is the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The literary giant died this day in 1616, aged 52. Shakespeare was world-famous for his many plays and sonnets – one of his most noted works being based in Denmark. But what about Sweden’s relationship to the Bard of Avon?

The Swedes were initiated into the poetic musings of Shakespeare in 1592, but he didn’t gain popularity until some 150 years later. The first translation into Swedish came in 1813 and was of the macabre Macbeth. Today, Shakespeare is the second-most frequently produced playwright in Sweden. Not surprisingly August Strindberg is in first place. Romeo and Juliet seems to be the most popular play to produce, followed by Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

Three of my most memorable theatre experiences in Sweden were in fact Shakespeare. The first was at Drottningholm Palace Theatre outside of Stockholm. This amazing theatre, built in 1766 is the world’s oldest preserved theatre. Still in its original condition, with its original mechanical stage, it is a wonder to behold. In the lush gardens of the theatre I watched a performance of Macbeth – around Midsummer time. The Scandinavian blue lit background and the (luckily) balmy weather contributed to a magical evening.

The second experience was Richard III, starring the charismatic actor Rikard Wolff. The play was performed at Stockholm’s Stadsteater where we, the audience, sat in a rotating auditorium, like a fairground ride. As the play progressed, we spun around to witness scenes that were gruesome and beautiful in equal measure.

The most memorable, however, was when I was visiting the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lappland. The year I was there, they had built a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre completely in ice, on the edge of the Torneå river. Like the original, it was open to the heavens. There I sat, wrapped in thermal clothes in minus temperatures, on a block of ice covered in reindeer skin, and watched a performance of Hamlet in Sami. As the play progressed, the sky shifted colour and fat flakes of snow fell down onto the proceedings. It was one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. During the interval, we retreated to the ice bar, and drank vodka shots from ice glasses. A few months later and the theatre ceased to exist – it melted back into the river.

What is your most memorable experience of a Shakespeare performance?

Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

Swedish must-reads 10: ‘Doctor Glas’

In ten posts, I am recommending good Swedish reads to enjoy during the dark days and pandemic lock down. This is the tenth, and final, one, and it’s a classic – ‘Doctor Glas’- written in 1905 by Hjalmar Söderberg.

The gripping tale of a young doctor who falls in love with a married woman. The woman is wedded to a sadistic minister and divorce is out of the question. To free the woman he loves, and enact revenge on her husband, Dr Glas is faced with a terrible dilemma. Söderberg is considered an important figure in Swedish literary history, and wrote several novels. Another of his famous works is ‘The Serious Game’.

Swedish must-reads 9: ‘Easy Money’

In ten posts, I am recommending good Swedish reads to enjoy during the dark days and pandemic lock down. This is the ninth one – ‘Easy Money’ – written in 2006 by Jens Lapidus.

This book takes us into the brutal, criminal underworld of Stockholm. A thriller, the story follows the destinies of a group of young men all trying to get filthy rich, but paying a heavy price along the way. Jens Lapidus has written several books on the same theme and several have been made into movies.

Swedish must reads 8: ’The People of Hemsö’

In ten posts, I am recommending great Swedish reads to enjoy during the dark days. This is the eighth one – ‘The People of Hemsö’ – written in 1887 by legendary Swedish author August Strindberg.

Carlsson is on his way to the island of Hemsö in the Stockholm archipelago to work at widow Flod’s farm. With Flod’s husband dead, the farm is falling part. Drama ensues. A classic tale of greed, jealousy, love, lust and lies.

Swedish must reads 7: ’Popular Music from Vittula’

Over 10 posts, I will give you a recommendation of a Swedish book, translated into English, that is well worth a read. The sixth recommendation is ’Popular Music from Vittula’ from 2000, written by Mikael Niemi.

This brilliant book is set in the very north of Sweden during the 60’s and 70’s and is a young boy’s coming of age story. Based on the author’s own childhood, we get to experience a distant time in a remote region of Sweden influenced by communism, alcoholism, machoism, and rock and roll.