Casting around in “Fishing In Utopia”

Note: If this were a review, it could have been much shorter and just said: “Buy this book. It’s lovely, sharp and beguiling”. I wanted to write something which drew on the experiences Andrew Brown and I shared, not least but not only at the Independent in the late 1980s. I also wanted to touch on the whole business of memoir- and nature-writing.

Fishing In Utopia: Sweden and the future that disappeared
by Andrew Brown
Published by Granta

I devoured Andrew Brown’s new book in very few sittings. It is, for starters, beautifully written. Saying so will set some readers’ teeth on edge so it is important to say that this book achieves exactly the loveliness it seeks, and it is the reverse of orotund. It is as spare as a thriller. I remember Brown as an admirer of J D MacDonald and his Travis McGee novels, and he cites more crime writers than any others in this book. Only obliquely do we find out that he’s literary: he notes a friend who collects fishing reels the way Brown collects poetry. Brown was always intent on learning that one must “reduce all that you want to say to the little you have to say”, which is a little like the Wittgensteinian injunction to remain silent on a vast tempting arena of nonsense. Brown is something like a modern Carlyle: he is trying to reach beyond ordinary and especially sectarian religion and put his finger on other places where you might find the pulse of god or something like god. (It may be, suggests, in the seasons of a fish.) But there is no Coleridgean huffing and puffing. 

Brown is interested in exploring “the man I became in the woods” (p 76). But he is as interested in his passage from English hippy to Swedish worker, and the development of a writer who “in the busy banging solitude of the factory” taught himself to write English even as he increasingly thought in Swedish. (p48.)

Andrew Brown’s literary style reflects his mission. His themes  – Scandinavian wilderness and society, and Brown’s own interrupted gloominess – require that we see a generality of dark green and grey with the occasional dazzle of lapping water, a fish’s scales, or Brown’s sudden flights of ecstasy. I expect lots of writers have had the same problem. The thrillers of John Sandford, for instance, find a laconic way of taking you to the muted but brutal tones of Minnesota. But the obvious comparison is with Scandinavian and Russian painting, especially in the late 19th Century: grass, sedge, moss, forest and rock and sky and water deliver from apparent monotony a symphony whose beauty depends on fine calibration. One tunes the eye down. Loving such scenes makes one feel that other people, loving the Mediterranean of Matisse or Duffy say, are stuck with a vulgar lack of refinement.

And anyway, people living in muted scenes do adore the vivid. There is a party scene at the end of Fishing which is as blissfully Scandinavian as it is rare in these pages. It is like the P S Krøyer painting, Hip, hip, hurrah, in its happiness (though more rustic than the painting’s scene).

More often, Brown needs to summon bleakness and claustrophobia and he does it without self-indulgence. He doesn’t prevail on our good nature or guilt to keep us ploughing on. He commands our attention because almost every page of this saga is exhilarating. Another advantage is that the style isn’t elegiac. This isn’t an “identity, memory and loss” exploration: it isn’t a post modern essay in cultural studies. 

Andrew Brown has written several other books, and most recently they have been about scientific adventures and won or been short-listed for prestigious prizes. I found those hard to read, but not this one. Fishing, will stand, I am pretty sure, as a leader in the literary memoir class. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t grow to be compared with Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son or Quiller “Q” Couch’s Memories and Opinions. It is very good as nature writing, and will readily stand comparison with work by Richard Mabey (another really good writer I knew well once). It is very good as an account of a young man’s adventures in journalism, up there with Kevin Myers’ Watching The Door. I hope it doesn’t get lumped in with “Misery Memoirs” as though it was an account of the grudges which explain a suffering person. It is what I think is quite rare now: an account, though tangentially, of something like a spiritual journey. There’s some Thomas Merton in there. Like the American Cistercian who found Bob Dylan, Brown believes in solitude but probably couldn’t take too much of it. There’s quite a dash of Chris MacCandless, though that failed lone wanderer may also have been pursuing self-destruction and in any case left Jon Krakouer to write beautifully about him. This is not, however, the story of a man who wants to be alone in utter wildness. He is never very far from farmers or, at worse, miners. Mercifully, he is not a Hugh Brody, writing exquisitely and enviously about “first nations”. His is not a Ray Mears survivalism. A comparison with the ethic of a Doug Peacock or an Ed Abbey is closer, but even their sense that the wilderness heals and redeems is more dissident and misanthropic than Brown’s.

Andrew likes to be at the edge of Sweden’s northern civilisation, where it thins out and is tested, but where there’s likely to be a “Kurdish family running a pizza restaurant”. (p 214).

Brown doesn’t come across as a jolly character and much of the book is an explanation of how Sweden ailed him, though not as much as England did. Quite why he dislikes England and won’t name his old school and drops in some disobliging stuff about his parents, we aren’t told. In real life, Andrew is a very funny man. At least he was for much of the four years (from the paper’s start-up in 1986) we sat across a workstation at the Independent. Its other occupants were Maggie Brown (media editor) and Francis Wheen (diarist). I was the environment correspondent and Brown was the religious affairs correspondent. It’s not quite true, but there’s something in the idea that I was anti-environmentalist and he was anti-clerical. Andrew’s brief stretched to anything quirky and he was acknowledged as a gifted comic writer. Collectively, our corner was known as the Loony Desk and I think it was mostly because Andrew and I laughed and swore a lot. We were certainly unconventional journalists. We were a little out of control and prone to over-excitement. I thought Brown might be a bit depressive, but I don’t recall him ever being so out of sorts that he couldn’t share uproarious bad taste.

Much of what Andrew wrote in the paper in those days passed straight over the heads of many of those who commissioned and edited his work. People used to ask me what on earth he was on about and I would say that it hardly mattered: it was great stuff. The Independent in those days believed in talent and originality and accepted eccentricity in exchange. In Fishing, Andrew says, as I often have, that working at the paper was about as good fun as it was reasonable to hope to be paid for.

I admired Andrew a good deal. I thought he was very clever. What’s more, I thought he was determined that he should apply his intelligence to understanding and explaining religious and philosophical matters however difficult. In Fishing In Utopia he is quite dismissive of run-of-the-mill journalism, and he’s right to be. Most media work is trite and commonplace, its tools crude and its curiosity minimal. It pleases us because it massages our expectations. Brown tells us one of his own mistakes, which happened because he retailed the story of a brave mother standing up against the Swedish social services. It was supposed to be a story about how the caring state becomes Kafka-esque. It was the right-wing equivalent of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Fallacy that the dissident is always right and The Establishment wrong. To be fair to him, the mother – whom Brown comes to see as arrogant and delusional – fooled a judge who fooled him. The lesson is a little like the one Nick Davies talks about in his book on journalism, in which he tells how he was fooled in the Helen Murrell case.

Doubtless the self-taught Brown learned a lot from that episode, and he tells us that he later recanted, also in the pages of the Spectator, proving that there’s a piece in every disaster. Such episodes – as he rightly suggest – matter because they tell us that we should always expect that there’s another side to every story and we can’t expect to be anywhere near the truth until a proposition has survived challenge by the kind of people we loathe.

I didn’t follow Brown’s work at the Independent, at least not closely. I thought he was a bit too interested and even partisan in the queeny politics of the Church of England. Often I couldn’t follow his arguments and thought his prose needed beating up by a good editor. But I was always pretty sure that Andrew, however chewy his writing might be, was always aiming for the true and important.

Brown and I got on and became something like friends. We shared a trajectory though his was more extreme than mine. Fishing shows that Andrew was a drop-out from public school (his grander than the one I left likewise a little early).  Instead of university, he adopted a working class way of life, as I did. But he exiled himself not merely from his class (as I did not really) but also from his country (as I certainly did not). He went with his Swedish girlfriend to be absorbed into her way of life at home; they married and had a child, Andrew’s adored Felix. Fishing is in part an account of an experimental exile. He says: “I had always felt fake as an Englishman, and now in some deep way I was”.

Journalists, like novelists, some academics, and even poets, are predators, not to say parasites. Half the time they are harvesting their own lives and almost all the time they are scavenging the wider world. They are too busy filling their poacher’s pockets to have the commitment or engagement that nice people have. The better the writer, the more brutal, selfish and exploitative this process often is. There’s no help for it. But I don’t think Andrew Brown went to Sweden like a travel writer might go round the Horn or up the Amazon, or even as an anthropologist might go to Hackney or the BBC. He was a genuine pilgrim or volunteer looking for something or other and it couldn’t be found at home. It happens that, like Andrew, in my twenties I realised that as long as I wasn’t following a profession I might as well earn peanuts doing good, and like him, I went to work for the Cheshire Homes foundation in order to achieve it. We didn’t overlap and left for slightly different reasons, but each lived with and eventually married our first wives whom we met on duty there and who took us worlds away from where we’d started.

He writes that he decided that if he couldn’t do good, he ought at least try to be good. And so he became an amateur intellectual who wielded a nail gun in a small palette factory in southern Sweden and wrote bits and pieces on torn-up nail boxes. These passages are reminiscent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s much harder working days in the Gulag. Bit by bit, he becomes a fisherman and aspires to fly-casting as well as writing.

In one passage Andrew says that he knew that he wanted to be a writer long before he had anything to say about himself or anything else. I know the feeling. He got going at paid scribbling younger than I did. He deployed his knowledge of Sweden, and it wasn’t a bad Other to convey to the pages of The Spectator. He implies – and he’s right – that intellectual journalism doesn’t require talking to anyone, though he seems soon to have got into the habit of travelling and interviewing. I would have given my eye teeth to have been a figure – as Andrew was from the start – at the Spectator. And yet his being a contributor there highlights one of the Brownian mysteries.  In Fishing, Andrew’s descriptions of Swedish conformity and socialism in the 1970s seem at first be those of a Tory, or a right-winger. But this is very deceptive. By the middle of the book, we are aware that Andrew is ambivalent about the nearly-Thatcherite revolution in Sweden. If this had been a more political book, one would have had passages which help one see what his secular creed might be. 

Arthur Ransome, the children’s writer who had been an exile and journalist in revolutionary Russia, was arrested when he returned. Suspected of being a spy and questioned by a reactionary head of the secret service, Ransome was asked what his politics were. According to his biographer, Roland Chambers, he replied: “Fishing”. It was of a piece with other responses which reassured his interrogators. Brown’s fishing matters hugely to him and this book, but doesn’t reveal him to be a simple, predictable fellow. 

At the Independent his public school drawl was the last word in superiority. He seemed at home with the new wave of Tory “young fogies” who were then much talked-about. But he was too louche to really be such a type and I thought I detected a certain edge to Brown’s response to the arrival of Andrew Gimson, then a celebrated and fogey-ish Spectator-ite, when the latter was employed at the Independent as someone whom the “grown-ups” (the editors and executives) seemed to venerate but who had – after a few striking pieces – no obvious purpose. Maybe Andrew’s nose was out of joint.

The point is, I have never known what Andrew’s politics are, and Fishing doesn’t help me. I know that he loathes George W Bush’s adventure in Iraq because he told me that. I am pretty sure he hates racism. I know he came to despise Swedish socialism, rather as a Havel or a Stoppard or Scruton might hate the more obviously oppressive regime in the Czechoslovakia. It is possible that he dislikes the individualistic materialism which he may like most intellectuals believe has infected Western life. I think he loves the USA, but I suspect it is the America of the Grateful Dead which I know he loves and of the “Dead-head” dissidence which I can imagine as comfortable to him.

From scraps of argument, one gets the impression that Andrew Brown believes, as do his friends, that old Sweden at least had values, and that almost everything in society flows from that. He writes: “the Puritanism and melancholy might not be enjoyable, but if pressed we would all have agreed that they were the country’s guarantee of worth”. (p 107.) It feels to me as though he mourns the absence of guarantee but won’t pay for it either.

This sort of untidiness troubles me. If he didn’t like the Sweden he first went to, shouldn’t he be kinder about the newer Sweden his generation (not Brown himself of course) created and his son’s generation are rubbing along with? But this is silly of me. In the first place, the Swedes might be making as big a mistake with their current version of Swedishness as they did with the old one. Why should life be an improvement? It is me – and certainly not necessarily Brown – who is lumbered with the view that Thatcherism and all the rest are a natural and on the whole desirable unfolding of modernity.

In the second place, this is a memoir not an Anatomy of Sweden, or a treatise on The Condition of Sweden. All the same, there are passages where he seems interested in disinterested analysis. For instance, at one point he suggests that the biggest shock to Swedes is their realisation that they are not all that superior to the rest of the world. There is one passage – and I am pretty sure it is incoherent – where he philosophises on a similar theme. I suppose these aren’t bad parts of the book, but they are its weakest.

More to the point, Brown hasn’t really set himself up as a political, historical, anthropological, sociological – or any sort of logical – commentator. He doesn’t have to be consistent, or thorough, or reasonable. He doesn’t have to be comprehensive, either about himself or Sweden. This is the joy of memoir-writing and memoir reading.

A memoir has to be about a person and his or her time and place. But it can be about a fragment of the writer and their relations with fragments of the wider world. Fishing is about how Brown the exile writer responded to Sweden as he and it changed, the latter rather more obviously than the former. This is a book about a sensibility and Sweden and fishing are the prisms through which Brown is refracted for us.

I think we see a man who has demons he can’t or won’t name. He is determined that there is a way for him to live and it involves writing well, providing for his family and escaping to the peopled primordial at least sometimes. Now he doesn’t live in Sweden, he accesses its wildernesses by traversing territory which is littered with messages and memories. He visits old haunts and friends and charts their changes. A synthesis evolves out of these journeys. It amounts to this. Sweden’s wilderness – its northerness – spawned a society which had values. These were good and bad, but they were an anchor as well as a cage. Now what? Sweden has embarked on Western normality. Brown remains interested and concerned, not least because one of his children remains Swedish. But he seems much more relaxed. He has been a narodnik and a drop out. He has a fastidious, hippy dislike of vulgarity and consumerism. But whatever else, the north will remain pretty ghastly (as most of us might think) and wonderful (as Brown and some others find it).

I am fairly sure Brown is giving us an account of a man more at ease with himself, even if he’s still cross and hungry. We see it in his fishing. We realise, as the pages fly by, that Brown is keen on sex but not on dancing. We absorb an impression that the rhythms, motions, and exertions of casting a fly, of endless practice, take this man to a good place. This is a riff he comes back to. It is done in a sly and enigmatic way but I allowed myself to think that Andrew found greater satisfaction and ease in casting a fly and everything else as time went by.    

He began by relishing the escape offered by small trips and the gradual accumulation of equipment and the acquisition of skill in making and casting flies. As a poor man, he rather liked the sheer nutritional value of his hunting. As he became better established as a Swedish working man he began to diverge from the norm of the Swedish fishermen he had gradually come to enjoy socialising with. He was embarrassed by vast pointless catches. As he gets better equipment he notices that what really matters is that he gets better at fishing irrespective of his gear, or even his proficiency. “….[N]ow that I care less, I fish better”. (p260)  In one crucial passage towards the end, he says that he says: “I found myself reluctant to kill anything I would not eat, or to catch what I knew I would not kill”. (p258) This is the evolution of many civilised hunters and it litters accounts of sportsmen in colonial Africa as much as shooters in England. It is also, as it were, “Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing”, but it is rescued from cliché by being free of much emphasis or explanation. 

I allow myself to think that Andrew Brown’s story in Fishing In Utopia is a progression by an upset, incoherent exile into something like a composed, expressive tourist. Andrew Brown wouldn’t allow himself – and probably doesn’t feel – anything quite so neat or sentimental. Still, there is something like a narrative arc here and it contributes to one’s racing through the book.  I refuse to discount that Andrew Brown has had an epiphany.

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Publication date

01 January 2010


Mind & body; On books