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Four Years as Director of the British Council Stockholm (and Cultural Attaché)
Jim Potts

This article appeared in the 2004:2 issue.

I’ve had somewhat longer in Stockholm to help develop cultural relations between Sweden and the UK than Maria Schottenius had in London, but I seem to have been in almost as great a rush as she was herself (see the account of her experiences in SBR 2004:1).

The situation in the UK is somewhat different from Sweden and may reflect the fact that the British Council has a small and dedicated team of specialist staff who help the Director to build partnerships with Swedish organisations and individuals throughout the country. It’s not only the responsibility of the Director to meet counterparts or to make professional and social contacts. Every member of staff is individually responsible for developing a network of contacts, friends and project-partners in either the Arts, Science, Public Affairs or Education. All of us need, at various times, to travel out of Stockholm, to Gothenburg, Malmö, Lund, Uppsala, Umeå and other towns.

It’s always a pleasure to meet Swedish counterparts, who are always enthusiastic to cooperate, to bring people together in a common cultural or scientific cause, to discuss and develop ideas. They welcome creative brain-storms and have learnt that the Council wants to be actively involved in project development from the inception of a project idea. We are not interested in being seen as a grant-giving body where staff wait passively for applications to arrive by e-mail!

I respect the openness and transparency of Swedish society, but my wife has been able to make even more close Swedish friends, through the patchwork-quilting group The Quilters of Gamla Stan, which she co-founded with a Swedish friend, Marianne Leijonborg, whose husband produced the film, “Evil”, the Swedish film which was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. Thirty quilters are heading for Greece in September.

If Maria Schottenius only had a few years in London, I’ve had nearly 35 years with the British Council to get into practice, and I retire in November this year to concentrate, I hope, on my own literary interests and on revisiting some of the countries where I’ve had the pleasure to serve in the past. I have quite a few projects planned, including the possibility of establishing some literary retreats and creative writing seminars in the beautiful mountain village of Vitsa, in the Zagori region of Epirus, North West Greece, above the Vikos Gorge, where we are restoring and modernising our 300 year old house of stone. It commands the sort of inspiring view that Lord Byron loved .

I joined the British Council in 1969, and apart from two spells in the UK, I’ve served for extended periods in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Australia and Sweden. Sometimes I feel my life has been as nomadic or self-exiled as the Sarakatsani shepherds or Zagori villagers of Epirus. My successor in Stockholm will have to be somewhat nomadic too, as the new Regional Director will be ultimately responsible for thirteen countries in Northern and Central Europe. Stockholm will be the “regional hub”, and my successor will have to travel for a good part of the year, although the Regional Director will be supported by a Country Operations Manager largely responsible for implementing the bilateral programme in Sweden.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, presenting and getting to know many artists, scientists and writers from the UK and from all these diverse and inspiring countries. 2004 marks the seventieth anniversary of the British Council, and when I retire in November I will have been part of the organisation for exactly half its existence.

It amazes me think that it’s thirty years since I first visited Sweden, in 1974, when I was working as a film and television producer/trainer in Ethiopia, my first overseas British Council posting. Before that I had spent a year as a teacher of English in Corfu, where I certainly plan to spend part of my retirement every year.

Our mission in the British Council is and has been to build mutually beneficial relations between people in the UK and about 110 other countries, as varied as Ethiopia and Sweden. We also try to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements. To what extent have we achieved those objectives in Sweden?

This year the UK has the honour of being the “Focus Country” at both the International Science Festival and at the International Book Fair in Gothenburg. The exciting seminar programme and the UK stand are the result of a joint initiative between Bok & Bibliotek Göteborg, the British Council, the Publishers Association, UK Trade and Investment, and we are being supported by many Swedish and UK publishers. We think the seminar programme constitutes one of the biggest overseas UK writer events ever staged.

Over thirty British writers will be representing the UK at the Book Fair, over half of them invited jointly by the British Council and the Book Fair. I hope you will agree that it’s a very strong list. Amongst those who have accepted the invitation are: Beryl Bainbridge, Margaret Drabble, Sarah Waters, Michael Holroyd, David Lodge, Iain Sinclair, Jan Morris, Wiliam Owen Roberts, Joanna Trollope, Tony Harrison, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, John Burnside, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Michael Faber, Louise Welsh, Marika Cobbold, Ted Honderich, G P Taylor, Jenny Colgan, David Mitchell, Georgia Byng, Minette Walters, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Glenn Patterson, Adam Thirlwell, Phillip Knightley, Peter Lovesey, Tom Holland, Anthony Horowitz, Lauren Child, Francis Spufford, Paul Binding; and there will also be seminars on topics like Electronic Publishing and Reader Development (Rachel van Riel). Catherine Lockerbie and leading Swedish personalities and literary figures will moderate many seminars. The stand-up comedienne Shazia Mirza will entertain us. The organizers are also arranging seminars on Sherlock Holmes, the Brontë Sisters, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.

Since I arrived in Stockholm at midsummer 2000, we have been involved in British Music, Theatre and Design Seasons, with Scotland in Sweden and major initiatives like Access All Areas and showcases for British Science and Literature. Whether you call these initiatives Cultural Relations, Cultural Diplomacy, Creative Industries or Public Diplomacy initiatives, they have all been developed with enthusiastic Swedish partners on the basis of mutual interest.

We have a small team (only 5 of us) but by building excellent partnerships, projects and good relations with others, both Swedish and British, we have not only achieved the majority of our planned objectives, but also gained more extensive press-coverage and media attention than I would have thought possible. I thank my colleagues at the British Council and at the Embassy for their support and help. Mostly I thank all those committed Swedish professionals who have shared our enthusiasms and objectives.

Like them I believe in ideas like “mutuality”, “creativity” and “diversity”. On the wider European front, we have recently participated in a European Jazz Days Festival, intended to “welcome” the new member states into the European Union. In May 2003 the Greek Embassy and EU Presidency invited me to give a lecture at the Mediterranean Museum to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to George Seferis. I called the lecture “Diplomacy and Poetry, Friendship and War”, and I was fortunate to have Kjell Espmark, the distinguished poet and Academician, Chairman of the Nobel Prize for Literature, providing the readings of the Swedish translations of Seferis’s poems.

I have never been bored in the British Council. There has always been the tremendous stimulus of variety and intellectual curiosity combined with the excitement of travel and of making new discoveries, of meeting new people from all fields of professional life. Sweden has offered me a lot: a less-aggressive Nordic model and perspective on international affairs, a special love for nature and the environment (even in the heart of the city), a renewed respect for a healthy work/life balance, a belated sense of tolerance of the personal number/identity card, an understanding of how a poor agricultural society can transform itself into a prosperous, sophisticated and relatively egalitarian high-tech country in a comparatively short time-span, combined with an ability to preserve areas of natural beauty from overdevelopment. You can see from the anthology Swedish Reflections, which I helped Judith Black to edit, how much Sweden has meant to British people of all centuries, of all ages, even if it reflects some of the less appealing of mutual perceptions and stereotypes.

The Swedes seem to appreciate Britain in return – our sense of humour, our diversity and multiculturalism, our musicians and writers, our films, visual arts, theatrical productions and TV programmes (not to mention football, golf, whisky and beer). They like to visit the UK, to study at our universities and to live and work in exciting cities like London. Readers may wonder what on earth an organisation like the British Council can do to “add value” nowadays to this already positive and thriving relationship. It is hard to dispute what we achieved during and after the Second World War, when English became the second language of preference.

I hope that major events like the UK Focus and the British Literature Theme at the Gothenburg Book Fair, the Scotland in Sweden programme and many of our other projects have helped to improve relations and modernize Swedish perceptions of the UK, its regions and distinctive cultures, its diversity and devolved administrations, of emerging or up-and-coming artists and researchers, of British IT and digital products, of UK Design and our other creative industries. I also hope that more modest events which have brought people together, including specialist (and often “multilateral” or European) seminars on Stem Cell Research, on Modernizing Government, on Education or Treaty-Making, as well as countless individual visits and exchanges, have led to a mutually-enriching interaction between the two countries which have contributed to knowledge-sharing, better policy-making and to the strengthening of our respective political and civil societies. The research and evaluation studies we have conducted suggest that this has been the case. After 35 years in the job I can bear witness to the fact that this is so.

The editor suggested that I give some thought to the Swedish literary scene. My knowledge is somewhat patchy and inevitably superficial, but what impresses me most is that writers have direct contact with publishing houses and don't seem to rely on literary agents. Swedish publishers and publicists really seem to look after their British authors when they come to Sweden, and the Swedish Institute is very supportive of both UK publishers of Swedish writers and of British translators. Many Swedish university English Departments have hosted British writers-in-residence over the years, in co-operation with the British Council. The cultural sections of the main newspapers have always devoted considerable column inches to international writers, and it sometimes seems that a novelist or poet can attract more media attention than an orchestra or theatre company.

I tend to read the works of Swedish poets rather than works of fiction, and my reading knowledge of Swedish forces me to read most works in English unless I am fortunate enough to find a bilingual edition, which is what I much prefer. Of living poets I have enjoyed a number of poems by Joanna Ekström, Eva Ström, Tomas Tranströmer, Kjell Espmark, Per Wästberg and others like Henry Denander, who writes in English. I especially like the poetry of the late Werner Aspenström. Of prose-writers and their works, apart from Swedish classics like Söderberg’s Dr Glas and Strindberg’s The People of Hemsö, I have found the following of special interest and quite challenging, as a British reader: Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing and Exterminate All the Brutes, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern.

One of my wife’s favourite works of world literature is the “Emigrant” series of novels by Wilhelm Moberg, which she believes should be required reading as a set text in all schools around the world, so that people grow up with greater understanding of the experience of migration. Children need to be aware of the reasons for migration, including religious persecution and economic reasons, and the courage and hardships involved.

My colleagues at the British Council have also been carefully developing a project called “Discovering Diversity”. This is a teacher-based project that it is aimed at helping to teach 13-18 year olds the concepts of tolerance and respect for cultural diversity. The project is a joint initiative of the British Council Sweden, the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO and the Swedish Ministry for Education and Science. We hope it will be adopted by the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network, after further stages of international trials and evaluation. Apart from the Teacher’s Pack, there is a website which in future will host more poems, essays and stories by writers (schoolchildren as well as famous names) which can be downloaded and used (with the help of suggestions and notes for lessons) by classroom teachers wishing to deal with topics such as xenophobia, racism, intolerance, extremism and sectarianism.

Finally I am delighted that some of my own poems were published in Swedish translation (by Ann-Marie Vinde) in the July issue of Lyrikvännen. I see that as a gesture of “mutuality”. If I ever publish a book of my own work, I would wish to have it illustrated with work by artists coming from the great Swedish graphic tradition, by artists who follow the creative examples of a Stig Åsberg or an Axel Fridell.

The British Council has devoted significant attention to the development of literary links between Sweden and the UK, and apart from supporting writers-in-residence at the university English Departments, we have facilitated the appearance of writers at the Gothenburg Book Fair over a period of nearly twenty years, as well as at the International Writer’s Stage at Kulturhuset (four poets took part in “The Great Poetry Exchange”), at the Stockholm Poetry Festival and the Malmö International Poetry Days. Some of you will be aware of our quarterly newsletter, Agenda, which features many of our projects in science, education, the arts and public affairs. Events to look out for in the months before and after the Gothenburg Book Fair include the appearances of the Akram Khan Dance Company and the concert tour of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The fact that about a quarter of all Nobel Prize Winners for Literature wrote in English does not come as a surprise, perhaps. It is gratifying that more and more Swedish literature is being translated into English. I have made a good collection to enjoy in my retirement.

August 2004