Superiority of Scandinavian Systems

Kenneth Branagh

It must have been a week ago that the BBC weather forecast got it more than usually wrong. You remember that night when they said there were going to be blizzards in London? They said it was going to be a white-out. The Almighty was going to Tipp-Ex us off the map, they said.

So, at round about 10pm on Sunday, when the snowstorm had not materialised, I was getting a bit fretful. I switched on the BBC in the hope of finding the news and I was indeed confronted by a blasted landscape – frozen, desolate and rimed with white.

It turned out to be the face of Kenneth Branagh, alternating imperceptibly between horror and depression as he played the role of Kurt Wallander, the Swedish supersleuth. After about 10 minutes I confess I was completely gripped by the mystery. I don’t mean I wanted to know who the baddie was, or why he was importing human organs from Africa. I didn’t really care why the shawl-wearing debt-relief activist had been blown up in her Volvo.

Boris was completely indifferent to Wallander’s problems with women, or his difficult relationship with his father. What he wanted to know was:  ” why is the British public so obsessed with Nordic crime yarns? Why has the BBC spent millions of pounds of hard-pressed licence-payers’ money to send Branagh to roam the fjords in search of Swedish gangsters? Can they really affjord it? And don’t we have plenty of perfectly respectable gangsters here in the UK?

I ask the question because Wallander is only one of the new Scandinavian detectives who have been hitting British bookstores with the ferocity of a Viking invasion.

I don’t know about you, but for Christmas I received no fewer than two copies of Stieg Larsson’s latest brick-sized account of the doings of the heavily tattooed Swedish supersleuth Lisbeth Salander, and I gave one to my mother-in-law. That is to say, I gave my mother-in-law a copy I had already bought.

If my Christmas is remotely representative, therefore, there must be tens of thousands of readers who spent some of the recent cold snap tucked up with members of the krispbread-crunching, Volvo-driving, mildy depressed Scandinavian forces of law and order. What is it all about?

I would say the phenomenon began more than 15 years ago when the world was introduced to Peter Høeg’s wonderful Danish heroine, Miss Smilla, and her feeling for snow. We had a new type of detective: young, female, wise, independent, and with a suggestion of bizarre sexual proclivities. Which is exactly the same trick, of course, that Stieg Larsson has played in offering us the diminutive, karate-kicking, bisexual heroine Lisbeth Salander. Then you might add on a Wallander-type male lead – the gloomy but honourable chap in the grip of a mid-life crisis – and you start to assemble the classic ingredients of the Scandiwegian crime superseller.

There is the appeal of the mise-en-scene: the twilit beaches, the Ibsenian gazing through windows at the rain on the fjord. There is the way these Nordic types are like us, but in subtle ways not like us. They look roughly the same. They speak English almost like us (or in many cases, alas, rather better); but in one crucial and fascinating respect Nordic society is different from ours – and it is here that we come to the heart of the mystery.

What is it about the agonised mumblings of Wallander, or Blomquist, his equivalent in the Stieg Larsson novels? It is the earnestness. It is the deep, pale-eyed sincerity with which they try to do the right thing. And what is it about Sweden and the other Nordic countries that serve as the scenes of these crimes? Why are they such powerful landscapes of the imagination?

I am afraid it is because we think of these Nordic societies as being in some important respects more virtuous than our own. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland – these are the pre-eminent UN countries, the people with an international conscience. Wherever there have been earthquakes, famines, diseases – there you have found Scandinavians doing their best to help. For 50 years their model of social democracy has been held up as an example to us in Britain of how you can lead the world in building slimline mobile phones, and still look after the poor.

Just look at the UN’s Human Development Index, and the Scandinavians leave us standing in virtually every relevant category. The Danes are rated the happiest and least corrupt people in the world, closely followed by Sweden. Iceland and Norway are the leaders in maintaining a free press, and Denmark, Sweden and Finland have some of the world’s most open and competitive economies.

Let’s face it, folks, these countries are global goody-goodies. With their historic (and unspoken) aversion to immigration they boast considerable social cohesion, extraordinary literacy rates, beautiful and emancipated women and such an effective health and safety culture that their cars must drive with headlights on in broad daylight in the middle of summer.

And that, of course, is why we are so fascinated to read about whatever crime problems their distinguished authors care to invent. That is why we are thrilled to discover that the whole place is in fact a whited sepulchre of organ trading, prostitution rings, child murder and all the rest of it.

It is precisely because we have grown so used to hearing of the superiority of the Scandinavian system, that we are so gripped by the sight of the underbelly; and it is notable that in Stieg Larsson’s Sweden it is the all-powerful state that is the main purveyor of evil. That, in short, is why we all love a Nordic crime novel.

It’s like our joy in the Iris Robinson story. We wouldn’t be so thrilled to discover her in bed with a 19 year-old if she hadn’t spent all those years ranting drearily on about family values. Nordic crime writers profit from the fact that the blood is all the more vivid on the snow, the corpse more horrifying on the swish hygienic IKEA furniture. Scandinavia is still a mental landscape where crime is shocking, and that is a great compliment to Scandinavia.”

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29 thoughts on “Superiority of Scandinavian Systems”

  1. “With their historic (and unspoken) aversion to immigration”

    This is why Sweden has taken far more foreign refugees and asylum seekers per capita than us? Or why their immigrants are far more integrated into society than ours?

  2. Written by your ghost writer, Polly Filler, Boris? Nonsense as usual, only this time slightly less consequential. I watch Wallander because I like it, not because it is Scandinavian. For the same reason I listen to the Holberg suite, or listen to Ms Toksvig on the BBC. I don’t like Abba or Volvo cars. I do not care where people come from let alone judge them by it.

    Even Eton has some fine former pupils. Humph, for example (can’t think of any others).

  3. The Danes were the only occupied country not to cave in to the Nazis. When the Nazis demanded they surrender any Danish Jews, the Danes refused as a body. I hugely admire this.

    “Of the European countries occupied by the Germans, only one emerges untainted by the “moral corrosiveness of the Final Solution: Denmark. A concerted effort by the Danish population enabled 95% of the Jewish population to be spirited away.” “Auschwitz” by Laurence Rees.

    Through the intervention of the Danes as a whole, the majority of Danish Jews were spirited away to Sweden. In fairness to the Netherlands and Belgium, the Danes were helped in their rescue attempt by the fact that there was a neutral country nearby.

    I haven’t watched the Wallander series, because after looking at Gordon Brown’s miserable mush for so long, I just can’t stand to look at other miserable people.

    Really great article, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. The Swedish version of Wallender, with English subtitles, is better. Branagh is a bit too handsome and thespian for the part.

  5. Meanwhile, here in Bergen, the locals still complain bitterly about the council’s inability to clear snow and ice from the roads, pavements and playgrounds…

  6. I am blissfully unaware of Wallander, in fact reading this post is the first time I’ve heard the name. I would be alarmed by Kenneth Branagh’s face in any circumstances as, though he has done some good work, I find him slightly repellant. And we don’t “all love a Nordic crime novel“. I think Vicus makes a very good point and in this instance I would say I love a good crime novel, whether or not it is Scandinavian is of no significance, except that I cannot read Scandinavian. In fact I take exception to the Royal ‘we’ used so frequently here. ‘We’ are fascinated, ‘we’ are thrilled. No, Boris, WE are not. In attempting to speak for the people here you are mistaken.

    You see, Boris, ‘we’ do not expect Nordic countries to be more virtuous. It’s just that we should recognise a society that makes a better fist of things than we have.

    I really do wish politicians and MSM would address the public as if we are a bunch of people with infinite variety, tastes, needs and passions, rather than a target audience. Then perhaps we would have fair and sensible policies rather than the mass of fashion-chasing ‘initiatives’ that chase ratings and achieve nothing. And learning from others mistakes and successes would be good (but that has nothing to do with 19 yr olds being in bed nor expensive jollies for council emplyees or politicians).

    In fact, rather than a Scandinavian crime novel I think ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ should be required reading.

  7. In his take on things Scandinavian, Boris has missed
    the unique Scandanavian sense of humour.
    A recent example is the award of the Nobel Peace
    Prize to the henpacked, platitudinous and lightweight Obama.

  8. Whaaaaaaaaaaat? VICUS SCURRA FANCIES MS TOKSVIG????!!!!

    Ooooooh, bloooooody hell !

    No wonder he’s always angry with life.

  9. A Scandinavian has recently “made relationships stronger” for all of us. With the help of his Liver bird. He’s created an iPhone app called iTrust which prevents other people reading messages and logs any attempt at prying into emails or text messages.

  10. ” They speak English like us ( or in many cases, alas, rather better ) … ”

    Oh, I don’t know. Last year I went there on a camping trip in the countryside. In the morning, I emerged from the tent and walked to a nearby farm for some hen eggs for my breakfast. Anyway, the old farmer saw me walking towards his farm gate so he approached me by the gate and greeted me in his mother tongue.

    I cheerfully said to him: ” Good morning! Hello there! Excuse me, have you some eggs? “. He looked rather puzzled and seemed not to understand my question. So I repeated: ” Have you some eggs? “. Still he looked very puzzled and scratched his head. So I repeated: ” Have you some eggs? Egg? Eggs? ” and helpfully pointed down at his thingies below the belt. Suddenly his face turned red and he went mad, snapped up a few Birch twigs from a nearby Birch tree and chased me off his land, waving a bunch of Birch twigs in his hand, and shouted angrily in perfect English : ” Bad! Bad! ”

    One could only assume he probably learnt the English word from listening to MJ’s records.

  11. I should take this opportunity to let you all know that I am unfazed and unsurprised by the rather intrusive speculation about my private life. Those of us in public life are always subject to such distasteful intrusion, and learn to shoulder this burden with dignity and tolerance. I am of course the subject of unwanted advances by amorous devotees. Whether or not Ms Toksvig is among their number, I cannot possibly comment – to confirm or deny the identity of any such individual would create an unwanted precedent.

  12. @angela:
    I think you need to check your facts, Sweden was not invaded per se, but they allowed the Germans to cross Swedish air space and use their railways to invade Norway as the price for not being invaded

  13. Ray I didn’t say that Sweden was invaded. It wasn’t which is why the Danes were able to transfer all the Jews there.

  14. Am rereading my post and for the life of me, cannot see how Ray thinks I said Sweden was invaded.

  15. Hi Vicus,

    The jokes we made are only friendly jokes which if they offended you then we are very sorry. Please believe that we honestly did not mean to offend you at all.

    All commenters here are just online friends to us, even though we don’t really know who they are, men or women. We only know them by the name they chose to post their comments under and certainly no more than that. The only people who we know are real people are Boris and Mel. So we hope folks here can see that our jokes are just friendly banters. And, we are sure, so are the other friendly jokes made by the other commenters.

    We hope that this will clear the air.

  16. @Philipa: Why, the old farmer did not understand my English, Philipa. Although sometimes I wonder if folks can understand my dodgy English at all, top tell you the truth. Anyway, because the old wedish farmer looked puzzled, I had to use sign language: cupping my hand as if I was holding a hen egg, then pointed at his thingies below his belt as a hint. At that point, the old farmer understood straight away!

    I didn’t ask if he had any pork sausages as i wouldn’t know how to use sign language to describe a pork sausage, to tell you the truth, even though I really wanted to sample a Swedish sausage to see if it is any better than an English one.

    Anyway, Philipa, when someone mentions the name Sweden people just automatically think of Swedish well known liberal sex views and ABBA. And not many people know about Wallander. Really, who was Wallander? Is he Mel Gibson or Christopher Lambert?

    Anyway, thanks to Mr Johnson’s article here, after reading it, people went off to Google search Swedish history and Wallander etc… and came back to chat about it. The power of internet, eh?

    ( Between you and me, Philipa – after reading Mr Johnson’s article about Wallander, I went off to Google search naked Wallanders pics. The power of internet, eh? Oh dear, after spending 8 hours ogling at the pics of naked Wallanders, now I think I need to see my local optician- my eyes are all red and very sore, Philipa! )

  17. @Edna: I’m none the wiser but thank you for your reply, Edna. You’ve given me the munchies for sausage which I do have around the house. I will seek it out immediately and have a nibble. Wishing you a delicious day.

  18. As if I had not already made it clear, dear friends, there is nothing on these pages that I have ever taken as a personal attack. I am happy to be on the receiving end of your comments, they inspire me.
    love peace and lentils

  19. @Vicus Scurra: You have passed the test of time and my hope is that soon enough all our friends will understand your essence in all its rich individuality and celebrate it as much as I do!

  20. I thought Boris did his best moonlighting on Wallendar last Saturday night. But he does need to lose some weight.

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