Michael Booth On Scandinavia

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When journalist and author Michael Booth moved to Denmark ten years ago, he wondered what the Scandinavian people was like. Was it a homogenous group of people? It had recently been ranked as the happiest people in the world. Was it true and is do, how come? It resulted in his book, The almost nearly happiest people in the world. We interviewed Booth in Copenhagen last month.

120315-booth-book-cover-the-almost-nearly-perfect-peopleHow long did it take you to write this book?
When I first came to Denmark ten years ago, I saw for the first time the differences between the three countries, which I was not aware of. I barely knew the geography. I didn’t know what languages they spoke, and didn’t know the differences with Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. I knew nothing. And as I came here, as most Brits and Americans, I put it together as one homogenous group.

At that time I thought this might be an idea for a book. It was always there, but it lacked something. Just explaining cultural differences wasn’t really enough to make a book.

Then was this amazing cultural wave that came from these countries; the new Nordic food, The TV-series, Stig Larson, Wallander. It was so many TV-shows, you wouldn’t believe it, newspapers, magazines and everything.  For years it had been, “Go to Spain or buy a house in Toscany, where your dream life would be.

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Then came 2008 with its economic crises; the year which went down with the toilet water. People who had moved lost everything, or at least had to devaluate their properties. My theory is that the world somehow started to look somewhere else, a place with different values, less commercialized, more like work-life balance and less globalized. It was more about equality instead of what you could buy or what you could acquire. The Nordic countries were perfect for that. They became a kind of Utopia, which they are not.

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So there was the third stage of the book, to give a more nuanced picture of the people who was a kind of blinded by the Nordic light. I wanted to give it a more shaded image. That last process was about four years. I pursued my publisher to do it. In between I wrote another book actually.

Did you have a research team, or did you everything yourself?

I did the book alone, without a team. I wish I could have afforded a team. Six years before that I was always noticing things and reading articles, so I was aware of the stuff. I had a big file of cuttings. Somewhere in there was an idea.

My publisher was worried people would not be interested in Scandinavia, but he was wrong about that. The book has also created lots of buzz in the media; BBC among others, it caught on something.

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The book is classified under ‘humor’. Did you intend to write a funny book, or what was your idea?

I was walking on a kind of tightrope, so I was very conscious about that, because I live here, and I like it very much. I am joking that I am living here almost of my free will, so you have to be careful not to be rude to your own hosts. I am, but I laugh at myself a lot, but I like an easy target to laugh at. So the humor is very important, I think. But some people hate the humor in a book.

You are often ironical when describing the Scandinavian people, not without quite a deal of British humor. Have writing the book changed your mind about the Scandinavian people?

I learned so much I didn’t know. I got to know the people better. The history is special, new to me and really interesting. Still I would never claim I am an expert on Scandinavia or the Nordic countries. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know. There are so many places I haven’t visited, but coming to new remote destinations, I realize how amazing they are.
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As a journalist I had expected you to be more liberal to Mohammed cartoons than described in your book. Has your opinion changed after the incidents in Paris?

Not at all, if it is deliberately set out to cause grouse offence to someone, why should we do it? To prove a point of free speech? I disagree with that. I like nice good manners. I think we can arouse discussions without deliberately crossing borders. The cartoons in question weren’t even funny.

When traveling around to interview persons and experience the five countries, is there any experience not mentioned in your book you would like to add?

Memories keep actually coming all the time since I wrote the book. I was walking down a street in Copenhagen the other day, and I saw three young kids, maybe six or seven years old, having a race. The kid who won had a really celebration, almost like an American baseball player. His mom came and grabbed him by the ear and said, “Stop that right now!” That was a great illustration for me about the Scandinavian equality philosophy.

And there’s another one. My eldest son participated in a musical his class at school put on a Monday night. It wasn’t a big deal, just a performance that parents could watch. But the teacher who arranged it rotated the cast. It was Treasure Island. In one scene one child played John Silver, and in the next it would be a girl playing Long John. She did it to give everyone a chance. It was a joke. It was ridiculous. You wouldn’t follow anything So what was the purpose of that? It should be a kind of inclusiveness in the class. It’s a good example of misunderstood equality.

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Having lived in Denmark for some years now, what do you as a Brit miss the most?

Politeness, manners to people you meet in the shops or in the streets. This is of course from a weird British perspective – we might have too much of it, but I miss it. I miss the chatting to people in working shops. I miss choices, cultural choices, compared to London, or even Brighton, where I come from. I miss good radio. This is not a criticism to Denmark, just a statement of what I miss. My Danish wife complaines about the Danes as well.

I like it when foreigners describe how they view our countries. Opinions from the outside are important. If you had been a politician, which advice, if any, would you give to our state leaders?

I have written just a humorous travel book. I have no solutions there, I am just an observer. Of course, I have trouble with the taxes. I don’t like to pay such high taxes. Just a reduction of four to five percent, like in Sweden, would have been a good thing. But I am not a politician.

Do you have any new projects?

Not, actually. I have written five books back to back during the last ten years, strictly with no break in between them, and it’s nice not to have to do it. And I am very busy working as a journalist, teaching, and my book has recently been published in the U.S, and is published again in Britain as a paperback. So you see, I am quite involved, giving talks, and other tasks have exploded.

I even had a talk at the Oslo University among other speakers doing TED-talks (Techological-Educational-Design), where people talk for 18 minutes for global organizations.

I wrote a book on Japanese food several years ago, which has been translated into Japanese,  so I will even go to Japan to talk on Japanese television by the end of this month. I will, however, never get rich from my freelance writing, paying 50 percent taxes.

As a journalist and writer, do you read a lot, for writing purposes or for pleasure? What book do you read right now, if any?

I am always reading subjects about my books. That’s all I am reading. My first book was about Hans Christian Andersen and his journey to Istanbul in 1840. So I was reading everything I came over about that, including a lot of research, and it gave me a new perspective on Andersen. I detected the places he had been to, and I actually got to know him a lot better.

He wrote a journal, he wrote letters, and he wrote a travel book about that journey, so I was going to the places where he had lived, places where he ate, museums he had visited and so on. My book was never translated into Danish. It came out just after the 200th anniversary, and I think people were sick of it all by then.

And then I did a couple of food books. The books might have been forgotten, and I move on to other things.

Japanes tekecision will make a series about my Andersen book. I still think that book’s got potential. It will have nothing to do with me, just about Andersen’s journey, but it’s my project. Now, that I have so little spare time, I read novels, mostly American.

Do you have any role models? Any book recommendations?

It’s a book called Danubia, about the Austrian-Hungarian empire, by Simon Winder, who also wrote Germania, which is a kind of historical travel book about Germany, and it’s very funny. Winder brilliantly mixes really interesting research with a lot of humor. Actually, he gave me permission to write more or less in his style.

What is the future of books in your opinion?

I have been very depressed for a while. But I just heard that ebook-sales have gone down again, and I think, or hope, that people go back to books, because we like the smell of the print, the sense of a book you actually has seen. I write for the magazine Monacle, a high quality product, so I am more optimistic actually. I would have been very worried if books had gone the same way as music has gone, and you can’t get them for free.

Any reactions from the Nordic readers of your book?

It’s quite funny to talk about the reaction to the book I have gotten from different Nordic countries, especially since I wrote a rather provocative article in the Guardian.

Mostly they are nice, they got the humor. Swedes have been rather pedantic about mistakes. In my book I cannot deal with stereotypes, so I generalize. I am absolutely guilty about that, but it’s fun. The Danes were somewhat crossed with me. The Norwegians had the strongest reactions, mostly negative, but more regarding the article than my book, probably because I talked about the oil and the climate change. I had actually been to Norway and spoken with experts, so Norwegians have told me this stuff. In fact, I got personal, nasty notes.

But all reactions were conforming to stereotypes.

What can the world learn about these stereotypes?

Americans could perhaps learn to redistribute the wealth a bit better, which is the bedrock of these societies. I would like to cite a Finnish journalist, who said, “Helsinki is a fantastic place to live, but you have to get away from it a lot.”

My favorite quotation appeared in the Economist, “Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born…but only if you are average.  If you have average talent, have average ambitions and average dreams, then you’ll do just fine, but if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams,  great visions, or just a bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first.”

Machael Booth on Scandinavia was interviewed by Tor Kjolberg
Portrait photo (on top): Tor Kjolberg
All illustrations: Graphic Stock

Read our review of The Almost Nearly Perfect People