THE ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE NORDIC MIRACLE
BY MICHAEL BOOTH
The last few years has seen our enthusiasm for all things Nordic grow. From their bleak television dramas to their chunky knitwear, it seems we can’t get enough of the Scandinavians.
In this timely book, writer Michael Booth leaves his adopted home in Denmark to travel through the five Nordic countries to discover the truth behind the myths and successes of these northern folk.
- Why are the Danes the happiest people on earth when they pay the highest taxes?
- Why do 54% of Icelanders believe in the existence of Elves?
- Why do the Finns believe all Swedish men to be gay?
- And most worryingly, why have 5% of Danish men had sex with an animal?!
Booth doesn’t just present us with the answers to these questions and other interesting facts, he writes with humour and gentle teasing about his findings. Some have accused him of being snotty, but I don’t agree, he’s just offering his opinion based on what he experiences from the point of view of his own liberal outlook. Fantastically readable and very funny, there is nothing to skip over here, a book packed with fascinating content.
You’re almost certainly thinking of bacon and Vikings and of our more recent crushes with the country – Sarah Lund, Borgen, big jumpers, The Bridge and the foraged weeds served up in their world renowned Noma restaurant. But there’s more to the place than that.
Booth has lived in the country on and off for ten years and was, like many of us, staggered to hear that Danes had been voted the happiest people in the world in a 2012 UN World Happiness report.
“The happiest?” he asks, “well they’re doing an awfully good job of hiding it.”
It certainly does seem strange especially when you consider they pay the highest taxes (each taxpayer pays 58-72% in direct and indirect taxes).
In investigating this happiness phenomena he discovers people who seem grateful for their lot, who make the most of the resources available and who enjoy the simple pleasure of community life. They have thriving wind turbine and pork industries, absence of poverty, free education and healthcare plus generous benefits.
However, they also have the lowest life expectancy of the Nordic family due to an over consumption of booze, sugar and dead pigs.
Booth ruminates on how the Danish laid back attitude to work-life balance is certainly a positive in the happiness stakes but is also something of a negative when your country is part of a global recession. He does conclude, nevertheless, that they have a “great deal to teach us about not taking life too seriously.”
When Booth reached Reykavik, as part of his research for this book, he found the place to have “the feel of a house the morning after a truly epic party…those I spoke to were at turns very bewildered, angry and shell-shocked.”
This would be largely due to the fact that this is a country facing grim economic times since its three main banks borrowed over $140billion between 2003 and 2008. Iceland (and its 319,000 residents) is located half way to North America and away from its Nordic neighbours. Egged on by its closer ties with the US, their culture and the American dream that anyone can get rich quick, Icelanders spent what they didn’t have in a very short space of time.
We discover how this lavishness extended to Elton John even being flown in to sing one song at a birthday party and Michael Booth brilliantly sums up this “un-Nordic excess” by saying; “one minute the Icelanders were up to their waists in fish guts, the next they were weighing up the options list on their new Porsche Cayenne.”
The debt at any one time still stands at between £38,000-£210,000 per Icelander.
He adds; “The country finds itself sitting on the global naughty step with its pocket money confiscated.”
Lucky then that they have a dramatic, beautiful landscape and fairy folk to take their minds off their woes (a 1998 poll revealed 54.4% believed in Elves whilst only 45% in God!)
Here we take a trip to a country as it is still reeling in the aftermath of Anders Breivik’s mass murder of 77 people in the summer of 2011. Michael Booth confronts the racism and extremism issues that have since surfaced and their relation, if any, to the “fierce patriotic fervour” he encounters in Oslo and beyond.
He also explores the impact of the vast oil wealth for the Norwegians and yet finds that despite Norway having the second highest GDP per capita in the world, one third of those of working age do nothing at all for employment.
Perhaps they’re just enjoying their special relationship with the landscape and their love of Friluftsliv (“open-air life”) which is quite understandable. He perfectly describes the fjords as “staggeringly, CGI-ishly beautiful.”
Finland is home to the Moomins, Formula 1 racing drivers and mobile phone giant Nokia, as well as extreme drinking, death metal and long dark winters. I certainly found Finland to be the most interesting of the Nordic family.
The country is made up of 75% forest and 10% lakes and records high rates of anxiety, insecurity and gun ownership amongst its people. Yet the sauna at the heart or social life, tidy and functional surroundings and frankness replacing small talk made it all quite appealing to me.
Perhaps not the whole winter thing though.
Throughout the book we learn that for one historic reason or another, the rest of the Nordic region find the Swedes annoying.
Hard to believe for those of us still thinking of ABBA and Bjorn Borg and more recently the airport bookshops crammed full with the works of multi-million selling authors Henning Mankel and Stieg Larsson.
Modern, liberal and collectivist the Swedes can also be seen as a little stiff and boring or as Booth initially describes it; “a Stepford Wife of a country.”
Some of the funniest moments of the book arrive when he travels around Stockholm behaving as “un-Swedishly” as possible starting up conversations with strangers and breaking some of their unwritten rules to provoke them out of their stiff, uptight appearance.
Subjects like immigration, politics, the Royal Family and the presence of Donald Duck in a vast number of Swedish homes are also thrashed out as our author and guide meets with experts, political figures and anthropologists. All hugely entertaining.
SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 8/10
Notes on the author – Michael Booth
- British writer for numerous newspapers and magazines
- Author of 4 works of non-fiction including Eat, Pray, Eat
- Lives in Denmark with his wife and children