Caught by the River

Fishing in Utopia

16th October 2009

Nick Small’s thoughts on Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown.



Thank you for sending me “Fishing in Utopia”. Sorry it has taken so long to read and digest. When it arrived, I started it at bedtime, and the next morning woke to find that it had been snaffled by my wife. It was a good while before she relinquished it, which is telling in itself. To her, my interest in fishing is just another sign of my unfathomable otherness, which is tolerated at best, more usually derided. What had hooked her was Andrew Brown’s evocation of Sweden.

It’s a Sweden of cow washing, drinking songs, forest trolls, prospecting for gold, the manners of egalitarianism, social cohesion, mosquito slapping contests, of extended family relations, and of the battle to survive in a war with nature, where barefoot summers are short and the long winters harsh. It’s a finely observed paean to Loss, with total contentment and profound melancholy often sharing the same moment. Sweden does that to you. Especially out in the wilderness, where silence, as the author so memorably puts it, is absorbed for so long by the ears, that it also infects the eyes.

“Fishing in Utopia” is Brown’s personal account of Sweden’s struggle with itself. The social democratic utopia of the 1960s, is gradually lost, as the forces of conservatism dismantle the huge state apparatus. As surely as they did in Britain, de-regulation and privatisation ushered forth industrial decline, unemployment and privateering by organised criminal gangs. By the end of the book, mass immigration is added to the mix, leaving a more fractured Sweden struggling to come to terms with its new self. As you put the book down for the last time, you are left with the impression that it’s a Sweden the author has difficulty with too.

The book’s charm comes from Andrew Brown’s relationship with Sweden, and various Swedes, notably his first wife and her family. These entanglements are woven together by the many angling opportunities offered by Sweden’s countless lakes and rivers Whether it’s pulling pike for food, finding comfort in tackle shops, or wading wild grayling rivers solely for the joy of being there, the fishing is always an expression of simple happiness. It’s a bit like a secret love tryst: only whilst fishing can the author get Sweden on her own.

The later passages in the book, about Swedish Lapland, were inevitably the most poignant for me.Myself and my family went there for a wedding in 2002, and after two weeks of losing ourselves in magical wilderness, and my young daughters hauling their first fish from pristine rivers, using rods fashioned from birch twigs, we were smitten to the point of uncontrollable weeping when we had to leave. We now have a lakeside smallholding in that wilderness. I only ever feel truly alive and happy when I’m there.

Andrew Brown clearly feels the same way, and his expression of yearning for the other world that is The North is what resonates most with me. It is as foreign to most of Sweden as it is to anyone else. In Lapland, whilst exploring forest rivers, battling through thick undergrowth and bogs to arrive at a remote tumbling rapid, miles from any other human, personal insignificance becomes everything. Out there, the only baggage you have is your rod and a bit of tackle. Nothing else matters. It’s a loneliness that is at once terrifying and beautiful. It’s hard to describe, but Andrew Brown does such a fine job that my stomach was pitched into gnawing hollowness and yearning. The moment he contemplates leaving Sorsele, where he has become subsumed to the landscape, is described with such terse brilliance that I felt his sorrow in my bones.

Whether the book will have such poignancy for anyone unfamiliar with Sweden is hard to tell. Thanks to my wife, my judgment is that Andrew Brown’s storytelling and picture painting are so deft that even a love of fishing isn’t necessary to enjoy this book.

It definitely helps though.

(‘Fishing in Utopia’ on sale in our shop).