From cold war to cool culture

Jeremy Duns, 36, is a British author. He was born in Manchester, UK, and lived in New Zealand, India, Indonesia and Nigeria before the age of 10. His debut novel, ‘Free Agent’, is a spy yarn set in London and Nigeria at the height of the Biafran war. His second book, ‘Free Country’, was published in the UK in August. Following a spell living and working in Brussels, Duns moved with his wife and two young children to Stockholm in 2004.

Jeremy Duns became interested in the spy novel genre in his twenties when he was living in the Belgian capital and working for The Bulletin, an English-language expatriate magazine.

“I used to visit second-hand bookshops in Brussels and for some reason there were a lot of spy novels on sale. I found I gravitated towards the ones set in the 1960s and 1970s because I was fascinated by the cold war. My idea [for my first novel] was to revisit the genre but to try to do it with a fresh take.”

His choice of location for what became Free Agent was unusual; rather than setting it in central or eastern Europe, he chose west Africa as a backdrop for his story.

“This was partly because when I was researching the cold war I was struck by how far-reaching it had been, and I wanted to explore some slightly lesser-known aspects of it,” he says.

Duns started to look into events in the Congo (a former Belgian colony) at the beginning of the 1960s but switched his research to the 1967-1970 Biafran war in Nigeria.

“I knew of the Biafran war because I’d heard it mentioned a lot when I was growing up, having lived for five years in Nigeria as a child. I read a few books about it and realised that it had been a superpower conflict by proxy. And although I was born after the war and had had a very privileged upbringing in Lagos, I still had some knowledge and memories of the country and I felt that with a lot more research I might be able to get across a feeling for the place,” says Duns.

Duns moved from Brussels to Stockholm six years ago, initially to take up a post at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, a European Union agency. He now writes full time.

Brussels and Stockholm might be similarly sized cities but Duns says that they feel very different in just about every other aspect: “Stockholm is very sedate but there’s a kind of chaos and nervous energy to Brussels, which I sometimes miss.”

Facilities for children in Sweden, the length of maternity and paternity leave (plus the widespread acceptance that parents need to leave the workplace to pick children up from the nursery for the first few years), together with the general ease of travelling with children in the country, are all significant advantages for Duns.

“When we first arrived at the airport in Stockholm we had a baby and a young child with us but the taxi driver said it was no problem, put the pram in his enormous boot and folded out the baby seat and booster seat in the back. That was quite a different attitude to Brussels, where it was very difficult to get around with a pram at all.”

Duns met his wife Johanna in London when she was a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Originally from Finland’s Swedish-speaking Åland islands, she works in Stockholm for a Swedish non-governmental organisation providing development aid in Afghanistan.

Visitors to Brussels often gripe about persistent low cloud and what can seem like a year-round, steady grey drizzle. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, says Duns, the climate “swings between round-the-clock sun and bleak cold. Stockholm seems to have a split personality as a result. You can hardly believe it’s the same place, or the same people, in summer and winter.”

Housing was a much easier prospect for Duns in Brussels, where you can walk around a neighbourhood you like, find a place advertised to rent (marked as such by ubiquitous orange and black signs), make an appointment and take it straight away.

“We did that a few times, in fact,” says Duns. “For a while we lived in a handsome townhouse with art nouveau stained glass detailing on the front door.”

Home for Duns and his family in Stockholm is a three-bedroom apartment in a low block in the suburb of Vällingby, north-west of the city centre, which was initially conceived as a modernist new town in the 1950s.

“In comparison with Brussels, Stockholm has a much more restricted property market. You usually have to get on a waiting list to find a place and if you want to buy you might be on a list for a couple of decades,” says Duns.

The family’s neighbourhood offers a lot of facilities on the doorstep: schools, supermarkets, restaurants, shopping malls and cinemas – plus woods for biking and strolling and clean swimming spots – are all very close by.

Vällingby’s urban and residential design prizes community space and efficiency. More than anything else, though, it is testament to the Swedish principle of lagom, roughly meaning “happy moderation”.

“We live in a small block of flats with others nearby that surround a central courtyard, which has a couple of playgrounds and some green space for the kids to run wild in, as well as a laundry room, bike room, barbecue space, and a little house you can rent for parties,” says Duns.

“We arrived in winter and it all looked a bit grim, but in summer this courtyard changes the entire dynamic of our lives, as the kids can look out of the window and see all their friends playing, and then dash out and join them.”

Moderation is a key to life in Sweden generally. Even the comfortable detached homes in the district of Djursholm, a short distance north of the city centre – an area favoured by wealthy lawyers, bankers and Sweden’s most successful entertainers – are largely free of high fences, respecting in their own way the lagom principle.

To relax, Duns enjoys Swedish music, particularly the singers Daniel Lemma and Stina Nordenstam, and is an avid follower of Melodifestivalen – the Swedish heats for the Eurovision Song Contest.

And Swedish fiction? “I’m probably the last person in Sweden not to have read Stieg Larsson’s novels but they are waiting for me,” says Duns.


Pros

● Stockholm is a beautiful, clean city, with lakes, islands and forest within easy reach – many people say that it’s worth living there just for the summers.

● There is a lively cultural scene, with an excellent selection of fascinating, well-run museums in particular.

● Social rights are very advanced in Sweden, and it’s a tremendously attractive environment in which to bring up children.

Cons

● Winters can be depressing. It starts to get dark before 4pm and it can get numbingly cold.

● It’s an expensive city, from property prices to restaurants and bars, and even public transport.

● Stockholm doesn’t have the mad bohemian spark of some other cities – if you are looking for an edgy urban lifestyle, it may not be for you.

Property values

● SKr1,955,000 (€210,000, $292,000) will buy a one-bedroom apartment with 52sq metres of living space, high ceilings and parquet floors in Södermalm, a lively district just south of the city centre.

● SKr2,295,000 (€250,000) will buy a 115 sq metre townhouse near central Vällingby with three bedrooms, triple glazing and one off-road parking space.

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