Pigeon-holing other countries has a persistent attraction, as a recent series of maps of Europe labelled according to national stereotypes showed, with over half a billion hits.
This has a long history but some countries seem to face a bit of a struggle. In a programme from the 1970’s TV comedy series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, upwardly mobile Bob Ferris(Rodney Bewes) quizzes working-class traditionalist Terry Collier (James Bolam) on his views on foreigners. After running through stock stereotypes on a list of nationalities – 'Russians? Sinister. Spanish? Lazy’ - he is asked, ‘What about the Danes? ‘ There is a pause, then the answer comes ‘Pornographic’.
The English have often seemed to find it hard to get a handle on Scandinavian countries, something parodied by Monty Python in their Finland song: “You're so near to Russia, so far from Japan, quite a long way from Cairo, lots of miles from Vietnam”. Views on Sweden seemed to have sporadically shifted but seem to only focus on one thing at a time. In the 1950’s and early 60’s the association was depression, the existentialist angst of Ingmar Bergman films - playing chess with Death - and endless dark forests and long winters. There was also a mistaken belief that Sweden had a very high suicide rate, a myth that seems to date to the Eisenhower presidency and American alarm at the cradle - -to - grave welfare state and social democracy of Sweden and the effect this must have on its citizens. Later on, the image was of liberalisation of pornography and providing a haven for draft dodgers from the Vietnam war, before its major exports in Abba and the Volvo car shifted public perception again to reliability and efficiency. Now, I suppose, the standard association is with Ikea, its furniture and the side attraction of Swedish cuisine. On Fathers Day one year I was treated to lunch in the Brent Cross Ikea cafe: Swedish meatballs, cranberry sauce and potatoes, a Daim bar and unlimited coffee, all for £1.99. How do they do it?
The same uncertainty has been found in songs. Sweden itself has exported plenty of pop music, notably Abba, of course, but a string of others from the instrumental Spotnicks in the early 1960's through to the Cardigans, Europe, Roxette, Ace of Bass and Peter, Bjorn and John. Songs about Sweden from outside observers, however, have been less common. Australian singer Darren Hanlon took a novel angle with his vocal plea, Operator-Get Me Sweden: “I really must apologise for my compulsive behaviour, one left his heart in San Francisco, mine's in Scandinavia”. Others have tended to generalisations about being worthy but boring. The Stranglers 1978 Sweden began’ Let me tell you about Sweden, only country where the clouds are interesting”. The Divine Comedy’s Sweden saw it as “ Safe and clean and green and modern, Bright and breezy, free and easy”
The song here is The Baltic Sea, from the 2008 album Nothing Personal, It's National Security by Swedish-Scottish indie pop group, The Social Services, originally formed and based in Stockholm. It is in this same genre -‘You’re as cold as the Baltic Sea and you close your doors so readily’ - though with the virtues of the country ,from forests full of blueberries to recycling facilities, recognised. Stereotypes, of course, can contain some truth and the closing chorus of ‘We can be your friends’ does seem to echo the sometimes less than comradely attitudes of Sweden’s Nordic neighbours to their big brother. The Danes and Finns, in particular, seem to have an often acerbic attitude: perhaps that of unruly classmates to the school swot. (‘You know you have been in Denmark too long if you feel comfortable laughing at jokes about Swedes’).
My own main experience of Sweden some years ago was rather coloured by its circumstances: a family holiday, including my 2-year old daughter and mother-in-law, in a Mini. All of the party came down with food poisoning on the 24 hour ferry to Gothenburg - not the fault of the smorgasbord – and on arrival there was a 3 hour drive to Varmland as the symptoms took hold. On the bright side, however, we did get to see the inside of a Swedish country hospital, as well as forests full of blueberries. And, contrary to the song, the staff there all smiled back.
Link to song