It’s Grim Up North!

It’s Grim Up North! How a new British publication aims to explode foreign illusions of Nordic ‘utopias’.

Donna M. Roberts


On February 10th, BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week will focus on a new publication by Michael Booth, titled The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle. For those eager to indulge in some British ex-pat Schadenfreude, you can get an idea of the author’s style in his article ‘Dark Lands: the grim truth behind the “Scandinavian miracle”’, (The Guardian, 27.1.14). This isn’t highbrow ethnographic, political, or cultural analysis. Booth’s CV reads like a rather opportunistic food blogger who’s cashed in on a whole range of flaky contemporary whimsy that seems to have funded his globe-trotting musings on food culture. I’m sure his books may even be interesting to read if you’re planning on travelling to, say, Japan or India and, rather than think for yourself or read some decent literature, you are happy to plod through second hand reflections of someone the media has described as ‘like an earthier Bill Bryson’, and ‘one of the sharpest food writers around’.

Apparently, Booth, an Englishman, has lived on and off in Denmark for some years and, perhaps in need of a change from writing food blogs, has turned his wit to compiling a compendium of rather dismal facts, statistics, speculations and local points of view that aim to reveal a ‘grim truth’ about the Nordic and Scandinavian countries.

‘For the past few years,’ Booth reminds us, ‘the world has been in thrall to all things Nordic’. Listing the rest of the world’s fondness for such Nordic idiosyncrasies as violent crime dramas, quirky music, hand-knitted garments, and foraged food, Booth then sets his sights on exposing the real horrors and miseries of Nordic life. He thus addresses his readers: if the Nordic lands are so bloody great, why are you still watching all those ‘a place in the sun’ TV real-estate shows, and why aren’t you all clambering for a little cabin in Umeå? (The answer to that may well have far less to do with fears of breaking the illusion of Nordic utopia and far more to do with the fact that most of his British readership could never learn a foreign language sufficiently well to get any work in another country, and would rather throw themselves off the Oresund bridge than turn to a life of food blogging.)

Enough of this self-deluding vision of Nordic wonder, he insists! ‘Enough with the impractical minimalist interiors. Enough with the envious reports on the abolition of gender-specific pronouns. Enough of the unblinking idolatory of all things knitted, bearded, rye bread-based and licorice-laced.’ Thankfully, Booth’s humour does not shy from a bit of clichéd irony.

Booth’s method is to treat country by country to a pretty shallow mélange of observations aimed to re-address the world’s love affair with the northern lands. This is a curious starting point carried along by an inexplicably mean tone; but then Booth’s is an irrational assault. What Booth seems to miss entirely is that it is the world that has fallen in love with the North, and not the North that has solicited the envy and fascination of the rest of the world! The text reads like a rather pathetic disavowal of an object which once occupied an over-determined place in the heart of a writer who now wants to elicit the envious ill-will of others in exorcising its allure. Astonishingly, the BBC itself is at hand to enable Booth and its listeners to participate together in a national and international expurgation of Nordiclust, perhaps in the vain hope that knocking these countries might make them feel better about the very sorry state of their own.

Let’s take Denmark then. Although recently voted the ‘happiest’ people on the planet, they are second only to Iceland in their consumption of anti-depressants! Although they work fewer hours than anyone in the world, their ‘productivity is worryingly sluggish’. It’s always delightful when writers use statistics with a view to confirming their argument, when in fact they only serve to reduce it to nonsense. Clearly, any correlation between ‘happiness’ statistics and ‘depression’ statistics reveals how difficult it is to find coherence in statistics, and, not least, how simplified notions of mental states do not provide for anywhere like a sufficient picture.

Booth might be able to finely articulate the significance of massaging Wadakin beef, but he shouldn’t bother with attempts at economic insight. Luckily for the Danes, working fewer hours does not necessarily reduce productivity. In fact, according to the same OECD reports that Booth cites elsewhere in his text, the GDP per head of population in Denmark is higher than, for example, the UK, where people work longer hours. However, Booth really sticks it to Denmark, presumably because he’s been living as an immigrant there, citing the country’s shameful carbon footprint, a rubbish TV schedule full of shows about pig farming, how its schools lag behind EVEN the UK, that its trains don’t run on time, and how, disgracefully, it has the highest cancer rate on the planet! Well, there we have it. The Danes: cancer-ridden, work-shy, racist pig farmers.

In turn, the Norwegians are nailed as being elitist, oil mad Scrooges and environmental abusers on a shocking scale, with a growing tendency for right wing bigotry. In 2013, he writes, Norway received a record number of asylum applications (there’s a surprise), ‘a third of the number that less wealthy Sweden admits’. Such moral accountancy, from a foodblogger, strikes one as a bit desperate. Iceland appears simply incomprehensible to Booth. He doesn’t feel that he needs to be as nasty to the Swedes as they can be about themselves. (Which does beg the question: If so many Swedes are that self-conscious, why are they such assholes?)

In Sweden, however, Booth goes to even greater empirical lengths to build a real picture of the national mentality. Åke Daun, Sweden’s ‘most venerable ethnologist’, dishes the deep-down dirt on his compatriots. Daun, in his book, The Swedish Mentality, authoritatively informs us: “Swedes seem not to ‘feel’ as strongly as certain other people,” and that “Swedish women try to moan as little as possible during childbirth and they often ask, when it’s all over, whether they screamed very much. They are very pleased to be told they did not.” According to Booth, the Finns know all too well about ‘how Swedish ultra-feminism has emasculated [Swedish] men’.

This evidence will undoubtedly dispel all manner of dreamy illusions about Swedish women, and one can’t but help feeling relieved that, in the world of publishing today, there are pioneers like Booth ready to span the globe in order to reveal the truth about imaginary national identities. Sweden: ‘the China of the North’, repressing the pangs of childbirth, ravaged by dissolute youth unemployment, and, to boot, ‘one of the world’s largest arms exporters’. Such a terrible country that Booth can’t even think of anything good to say even about the food.

Unlike the mean Norwegians, the totalitarian Swedes, and the wretched pig farming Danes, the Finns are introduced with relative warmth. ‘I am very fond of the Finns,’ exclaims Booth, ‘a pragmatic, redoubtable people with a Sahara-dry sense of humour.’ But, he asks, would he want to live in Finland? ‘In summer, you’ll be plagued by mosquitoes, in winter, you’ll freeze – that’s assuming no one shoots you, or you don’t shoot yourself.’ And thus, Finland is dished up like a re-heated school dinner of clichés. Booth’s observations about binge-drinking and the extent of alcohol-related deaths are accompanied by a curious comment from Heikki Aittokoski, foreign correspondent with the Helsingen Sanomat, who attests to the large presence of drunken violence in Helsinki. This is questionably relative, at least to anyone who’s been to Cardiff on the weekend.

Dismal Finland is plagued with drunken violence, the highest rate of suicide and the highest murder rate in Western Europe. The media, however, is always jostling with statistics. The Daily Mail insisted in its recent ‘League of Shame’ that the UK topped the charts as ‘the most violent country in Europe’, with Sweden fourth and Finland seventh. Clearly, this is a title that is drumming up some heavy competition.

Schadenfreude warms Booth’s heart as he cites how Nokia, ‘the tarnished crown jewel’ of Finnish industry has been ‘devoured by Microsoft’, and that now, morbidly, Finland’s economy is limping along on the sales of paper to Russian porn barons, mashed from the trees that line the length and breadth of its ‘samey’ landscape.

Like most Brits who don’t know how to deal with the flack flying from the dire educational situation in the UK, Booth, with typically English bad spirit, seems eager to knock even the Finnish education system. Fully aware that he can’t bluff with some statistics, he aims a very low blow, citing the recent spate of school shootings and the burning of Porvoo church in 2006 as an indicator of the delinquency of Finnish youth and the less than rosy reality of Finnish schools.

How a British bloke can write this with any integrity is astonishing. Surely, no one from a country that has run its educational system into the gutter and left its youth to rot can rightfully pass any judgement on such things? Furthermore, virtually every church in the UK has had its copper roof nicked and its stained glass windows smashed.

There we have it. The Finnish: introspective, reticent, riddled with war-taboos, murderous, suicidal, delinquent, gun-toting alcoholics.

Booth’s writing is not, however, entirely without reference to some of the more complex characteristics that seem to define the Nordic people. Articulating something that outsiders are not generally aware of, Booth rebuffs the foreign idealistic marvelling of the Nordic states: ‘The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism’. He also mentions how the so-called Law of Jante, understood to rule latently throughout the northern countries, has set in place a seemingly ethical resistance to individual distinction at school level and beyond.

Leaving cliché aside, it might well be true that the negotiation between an ethics of equality and the support of distinguishable talent and potential is a very significant issue for contemporary Finns. Economic and educational parity seem key to so many of the country’s successes, and yet the social democratic foundations on which they are based are under threat by the rise of neo-liberalism, with its imperative to embrace, necessarily, that one’s winning comes at the expense of another’s loss.

This is certainly a major point of contention not only for Finland but also the entire Nordic region. Could it be that Finland can respond to criticisms of its national character without jumping into a self-abusing process of denial of its social democratic roots? Could it be that Finland could dispel some of the clichés and at the same time surprise the sceptics by proving that a country can be successful, economically and culturally, by balancing the values of distinction and equality?

Despite the kinds of miserable overdeterminations that constitute Booth’s publication, the Nordic and Scandinavian countries can take some solace in the fact that what makes it easy for a British writer to pursue such low humour and deliberately mean-spirited observation is, sadly, the fact that no one can say anything as bad about the UK as a Brit can. National self-esteem is, quite rightly, so low that cynicism reigns supreme. For every one book knocking the north, hundreds more could be written about the shocking truths of British society. The fact is that Nordic people generally don’t need to make a living abroad by writing cynical books.