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‘Even though you can survive here without Swedish, it’s respectful to make an effort’

British-born David Ashby came to Sweden in 2002. Moving from Brighton to Gothenburg to be with his now-wife, the English teacher-turned-author tells The Local that the past 16 years have been a voyage of cultural discovery.

'Even though you can survive here without Swedish, it's respectful to make an effort'
Brit David Ashby has found creative inspiration in his adopted Sweden. Photo: Mathias Sautermeister

This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.

“I met my wife, Elvira, at a salsa class in my hometown on the south coast of England,” he tells The Local. “She's Swedish and was in the UK for just four months, so when she moved back to Sweden we travelled back-and-forth to see each other for a while, until I decided to move. I bought a one-way ticket on the ferry, turning up in Gothenburg without a job or a plan.”

Happily, the TEFL-trained Brit was soon put in touch with another ex-Brighton resident, who offered him a role as a Corporate English teacher. “That was the start of things for me here in Sweden and I soon set up my own company, offering my services as an English proofreader and translator.”

Now based in Stockholm with his wife and children, Ashby has discovered first-hand that certain behaviour in Sweden can attract strange looks.

“I'm a talker. When I'm at a bus stop, or in a queue, I'll start a conversation. In the UK that's fine, but not so much in Sweden. People think I'm a bit odd. When we used to live in a flat I would see people hesitate about entering the lift if they saw me in it, as they were terrified I was going to start talking to them. Some of them even pretended they had forgotten something and turned round to go back to their flat rather than get into a lift with me!”

As a teacher he has seen this reticence reflected in the classroom. “I once had an introductory class with one student who came from the very north of Sweden. They're quite reserved up there, and during the whole lesson he hardly said anything. After that one class he never came back. Obviously the shock of having to speak in English was too much for him!”

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Ashby expresses the importance of making an effort to learn Swedish: “Even though you can survive here without Swedish – I have friends here who do that – it's respectful to make an effort. And it's useful, especially with children, to be able to blend in, to assimilate.”

Picking up the language, however, has not been an easy process for the English teacher. “My pronunciation is awful. I can't pronounce where I live! It makes ordering taxis difficult. My wife gets annoyed with me – she says I completely ignore the three extra vowels in Swedish (å, ä, ö). In fairness, they're hard for a Brit to say.”

As well as pronunciation, the “lack of a please and thank you culture” in Sweden has been difficult to accept. “Even though I know in my mind that it's not rudeness when someone pushes past without apologizing, it can get to me, coming from an ultra-polite society like the UK.”

“Equally, there are things that are considered rude here that aren't at home. The importance of timekeeping is one; in England time is a bit of a flexible thing. You say 'on the hour', you meet at quarter past. Not so, here: if you agree a time, you meet at that time. Arriving late is considered disrespectful. It's reset my clock and changed my perception of time.”

While the children's author describes Sweden in the summer as “a paradise”, the winters have proved more trying. “The darkness and the cold can be difficult. When I came to Sweden I couldn't understand all the Swedes standing in patches of sunlight, looking up, as if communing with a higher entity. Now I get it. My wife has a light box to combat any winter gloom. I just grit my teeth and cope with it.”

Winters aside, Sweden has seeped under Ashby's skin and into his work. He's just written his debut book, which is heavily influenced by Swedish myth culture. “The book is called 'Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins'. Although it's set in Sussex (in the UK) there is a big Swedish influence. I first dreamed up the idea walking through the woods in Stockholm, the characters have names like Bengt, Nils, and Anna, and the evil character is inspired by the old Nordic legends of Mara, who brings nightmares. It's a British/Swedish fusion.”


Stockholm's woods proved the inspiration behind Ashby's debut book. Photo: Oskars Sylwan

“We've always been a family of storytellers; my wife Elvira has written and had published successful books for both children and adults. It was when my wife was publishing her books that I got in the mood to start writing properly. As I'd been reading the children a lot of bedtime stories, it felt natural to write for them.”

“One day, we were walking back home from Skärholmen in Stockholm through the woods, when we saw something glinting in the sun on the ground. We went over to see what it was – and it was a stone that looked like a tiny little book. I said, 'Imagine if it was a little book, and a goblin had dropped it.' As we continued walking home I made up a story about a goblin who had dropped his book, and his dog whose shadow we could see, but not the dog itself.  When we got home, Elvira said 'You should write that story down, and finish it'.”

“I did, and then submitted the book to the editor behind the Harry Potter series. The editor liked the story, wanted to publish it – and the rest is history. It comes out from Pushkin Children's in February 2019.”

“If hadn't moved to Sweden and seen my very talented and productive Swedish wife start to make a career as an author, I wouldn't have started writing 'Gribblebob' so I have my new country to thank for that.”

You can follow David Ashby on Twitter here. His debut book, 'Gribblebob's Book of Unpleasant Goblins', will be on shelf in February 2019 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

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SWEDISH HISTORY

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s ‘Little London’?

With ties to Britain dating back more than 200 years, the city of Gothenburg has long been known as Sweden’s Little London.

Why is Gothenburg known as Sweden’s 'Little London'?

Grey skies, rainy days, a wide-mouthed river, and a love for English pubs. At first glance, it’s no wonder that Gothenburg has long held the nickname of Sweden’s own “Little London”, or Lilla London

But what are the origins of this British title?

“The nickname ‘Little London’ was first used in a newspaper in 1766,” explains Håkan Strömberg, educational officer at the Museum of Gothenburg.

“The Brits were the largest immigration group during the 1700s and early 1800s, mainly because Sweden was a country close by, it was economically underdeveloped compared to England and Scotland and had a lot of raw materials. To put it simply, could make some money here.”

The city’s reputation as a British enclave dates back to the 1700s when trade brought many foreign influences to the Västra Götaland region.

As merchants and shipbuilders like Charles Chapman, David Carnegie, and James Dickson moved to the area, local residents began to notice a growing list of similarities between the Swedish port city and the British capital.

Indeed, even one of Sweden’s most renowned scientists, Carl Von Linné, is said to have commented on the similarities between the two cities when he visited Gothenburg in the 1700s.

 “Being a group of upper-class immigrants, the British merchants made sure they had access to all the good things from their home country. But the feeling of Gothenburg as a Little London was most likely something the Swedish citizens had, rather than the Brits,” adds Strömberg. 

The historical roots that connect the UK and Gothenburg are still evident today, with many spots in the city still alluding to British names, like Chalmers University – founded by the son of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, or Chapmans Torgnamed after a family of sailors and shipbuilders once well-established in the area. 

Catriona Chaplin, a British expat turned Gothenburger, only began to see the similarities and know of the nickname after relocating to the region for work. Growing up in Leicestershire, central England, she’d never heard of London’s Swedish sibling city.

“We came to Gothenburg 17 years ago. We’d never heard about [the nickname] until we moved here, but there is a bar on Avenyn called Lilla London, so that’s when we started to know about it,” she says.

Today, as the membership secretary of the British Club of Gothenburg, she brings a taste of the British Isles to life in Gothenburg.

The Club, which organises social events like concerts, quiz nights, and theatre performances, has a membership base of nearly 200 families. And although less than 0.5 percent of Gothenburg’s population today was born in the UK, the club welcomes members from a range of nationalities.

In fact, the only membership requirement is having some kind of interest in the UK, be it from a cultural standpoint, a past tourist experience, or a love of the language. 

“People come to the British Club just to socialise in their native language. It’s also about the culture, like the banter, the jokes and playing on words,” she says. 

Although the city’s British roots run deep, questions remain about modern-day Gothenburg’s status as “Little London”.

To some, the west-coast maritime hub’s industrial legacy, strong working-class culture, and amiable nature are reminiscent of a different English city. “They ought to call it ‘Little Liverpool’!” says Chaplin, with a smile. 

Lasting Landmarks

Evidence of Gothenburg’s British connections can be found in many of its landmarks, shops, and of course, pubs. Some of the historical hotspots still apparent today include:

Haga – The British ‘hood 

The area of Haga, just outside the old city, was once considered a slum, but changed character thanks to British philanthropist Robert Dickson (1782-1858), who built public baths, a library, and other landmarks with the typical red bricks found in Britain at the time.

St Andrew’s Church 

A key part of the British community is the Anglican church of Saint Andrew’s, also in Haga. Dedicated to the patron saint of Scotland, it was built and to date funded by ‘The British Factory’, a British society founded in the 1700s to help expats in Gothenburg that remains active even today.

The Victorian gothic style of the church is in line with the architectural trend in Britain at the time. 

John Scott – a legend among Gothenburgers

One of Gothenburg’s most well-loved establishments is John Scott’s, a local pub chain named after Pastor John Henry Scott, an Englishman and prominent landowner in 18th century Gothenburg. 

The “English quarter”

The square of buildings delineated by Teatergatan, Storgatan, Kungsportsavenyn and Vasagatan was once known as the city’s English Quarter. The buildings in this neighbourhood are influenced by British design, and the original landowners were in fact English pastor John Henry Scott and his wife, Jacobina.

By Alexander Maxia, Lisa Ostrowski and Sanna Sailer

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