Friday 28 February 2014

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Michael Booth
 I should probably come clean and admit that I have a deep fondness for this part of the world, a fondness that in the case of Finland probably extends into pure adulation. I love so many things about the area, most of which are incidental to the presumed worthiness of their socio-politic structure. I find the history of the region fascinating from the Viking expansion across so much of the world, through the Swedish power of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and right up to the varied experiences of WWII found amongst the assorted countries. The region has had such an deep impact and involvement in European history as a whole, and yet in the 20th Century seemed to deviate so massively from the experiences and actions of most other European areas that I am properly familiar with. The fact that I spent time as part of a Viking reenactment group only fuelled my interest in the area more (I took the unusual step of choosing Gotland as my personal area of study here, basing my 'Viking persona' here, so this area of Sweden is of especial interest to me.) Coming into the present day like so many others I have loved the output of Scandi films and TV shows. Borgen was never missed in this household, and alongside my Bergman collection I have a collection of films that includes wonderful little gems like Adam's Apples, Open Hearts, Dead Snow, The Green Butchers, A Royal Affair and Brothers. Having watched a Swedish copy of the two Arn films, I was rather annoyed that the only version available in the UK cut the two down to a single film, missing most of the action and story out. At the same time my music collection leans heavily to the Nordic, with lots of Finnish groups, the odd Dane or Norwegian and even a few CD's from the tiny Faroe Islands. I must admit that I found the lack of Finnish music actually on sale in music shops in Helsinki to be slightly confusing, as I had assumed I would be able to restock heavily. I'd have probably have had to remortgage my soul to do so, the down side to the north is how insanely expensive everything seems, but still.
 Moving onto the obvious literary side of Scandi culture, like lots of us I have a pretty good collection of Scandi crime novels ranging from the obvious Steig Larsson, through the more hygge Mari Jungstedt, all the way to the deeply dark and twisted Icelandic authors like Arnaldur Indridason and the wonderfully named Yrsa Sigurdardottir. I also have copies of the Sagas, and various other classic Scandi authors such as Par Lagerkvist etc. My list of funniest books ever includes Scandi titles such as Doppler by Erlend Loe and The Hundred Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson.
 I cheer on Norwegian and Finnish skiers, even having to invent a Finnish heritage so that a particularly officious Austrian flag salesman at the Kitzbuhel Men's Super G would let me buy a Finnish flag to wave; and there are several Nordic men who I wouldn't kick out of bed for eating biscuits. (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or Aksel Lund Svindal you are welcome to come eat biscuits in bed anytime you like, just in case this gets a wide audience ;) )
When a recent Internet quiz decided that my natural European home was Finland, I was pretty damn chuffed. Who cares about the insane over use of vowels in the language, the lack of daylight for a good proportion of the year, or the high suicide rate? This is the land of the Moomins for goodness sake, a place where Soviet era submarines sit on beaches alongside Swedish military forts, a country that seems to have virtually no TV in it's own language (when I was there TV shows seemed to be mainly in Swedish or English... all without subtitles.) a country that produced Lordi, that has some of the most interesting tattoos and facial hair I've ever seen; and even if they do seem to enjoy Hale and Pace reruns, did produce the funniest TV advert that has ever been made, (it seemed to involve a llama knocking on people's doors trying to sell them mobile phones). What's not to love? 
If this book is anything to go by there are a few things. Michael Booth is married to a Danish woman and has spent many years living in Denmark so he is starting from the position of mildly frustrated, but fond outsider. He happily admits that this book can never be a totally accurate look at how the various people of the Nordic states view each other, but is simply a record of how they are willing to discuss their neighbours with a nosey Englishman. Despite, or possibly because of this, the book is a fascinating look at the various social norms and hang ups found in the region. The insistence on community in Sweden for example, this coupled with the state control of so much of Swedish life, the slightly dodgy fascist past (anyone who has read book one of the millennium trilogy knows about this) and the surprisingly (or not considering the fascist leanings) poor record when it comes to things such as state enforced sterilisation makes Sweden look like very much the most unlovely of the Nordic countries, at least from a British point of view. These 'failings' alongside the outright tedium of Swedish society are given as explanations for the high levels of criticism made against Sweden by their neighbours. It seems that no other Nordic country has much good to say about the place, or at least when they do it is heavily qualified by just how awful other aspects of life are. Denmark is shown to have some disturbingly right wing leanings as well as high taxes, poor public services and a potentially annoying tendency to keep things hyggelig and folkelig. This hyggelig thing is probably wonderful, right up until you simply don't want to sing a folk song any more and have to pretend to be Finnish (even better Swedish) just to get some time away from it.
Norway stands out as the unexpectedly wealthy hillbilly, and is evidently viewed as such by the countries around it. The lack of community spirit on the fjords is seen as suspicious, but appears natural given the lack of historic communities in the area. While the recent economic insanity of Icelandic banking can be seen to have origins in the Icelanders view of themselves as Viking rebels. At least they are not concentrating on keeping things 100% hyggelig at all times. Finland is shown to be brooding, violent and silent. Something that doesn't totally match up with my experience of the place, but then I have only visited the bright lights of the southern cities. The reputation of Finns as heavy drinkers seems to be based more on the Finnish self critical nature than on any fact although it does appear that when they do get drinking, they consume pretty much their yearly quota in one sitting, and if the research quoted here is to be believed this does impact on the 'warrior gene' which is commonly found among ethnic Finns.
For anyone who is planning on visiting the area, or of interacting with the region in any meaningful way I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a fascinating, funny and at times critical look at how the Nordic people view themselves and each other. As well as how they choose to present themselves to outsiders. The writing style is lighthearted but informative and intelligent in the same way as Bill Bryson or Simon Winder, and the book is a delight to read. Before I read this I was a fan of the region and reading the book has not changed that, it has simply given me a greater understanding of some of the idiosyncrasies that I had found maybe a little irksome. I think that with this additional understanding I may well come to love the region all the more, despite the odd failing here and there.

No comments:

Post a Comment