Why Are We So Scandi-Crazy?
We in London and the rest of the UK are obsessed with Sweden. The trend and general hysteria has only become more and more ubiquitous. In Golden Square Soho you can now eat cheese and pickle sandwiches (made out of rye bread of course!) while downing a delicious posh coffee at the Nordic Bakery. Unsurprisingly, it’s décor is intensely minimalist (imagine the walls of a sauna but with tables and chairs) and is perfect for brooding and contemplation for all us 21st century Hamlets. On Regent Street you can party and dance the night away at ICEBAR, a club made out of snow and ice from Northern Sweden. Then when you’re hungover the next day and can no longer stomach your grim surroundings, you can take a trip to IKEA and buy a whole new set of furniture so that you can pretend you live in Sweden and not in some run-down flat in Lewisham. How did this happen? And no, I’m not asking about your dingy flat and depression (you can blame your life choices for that). How did Swedish culture become something we wished to emulate? And furthermore: are we succeeding?
While Sweden is known for cross-country skiing and the prestigious Nobel Prize, interestingly, it’s biggest cultural export makes the country look like a much grimmer place than it actually is in reality. I’m speaking, of course, about the immensely popular Swedish crime thriller. Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has been a regular staple of airport book racks and journeys home on the tube. Then there’s Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels (which have been adapted to television twice, with Kenneth Branagh playing the lead detective in the English version). In these gritty novels: Sweden is a grey crime-ridden place, filled with racism, bigotry and violence. Yet in actual fact Sweden has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. The very placidity and safeness of Sweden has influenced a wave of writers and readers to be obsessed with violence and enjoy it as entertainment because for them, that’s all it is.
In other words, these Swedish crime novels are the cultural offspring of a politically progressive welfare state. With one of the highest tax rates of any country in the world, Sweden provides both universal healthcare and free university education among other state-led social assistance. The country has earned accolades in international surveys ranking quality of life, civil liberties, and economic equality. Sweden is also paving the way in terms of gender equality; taking parental leave from work so seriously that both men and women must take time off work to get the maximum amount of benefits from the government. Even the official dictionary of Sweden has added the gender neutral pronoun “hen” as a way of referencing anyone while keeping their gender anonymous. Sweden has marked itself as a country with strong egalitarian and socially progressive values. It’s for these reasons that we should admire the Swedes.
But we don’t.
Instead we envision fancy interior décor, ski chalets, and goth cyber-hackers—letting Swedish political systems and ideologies fall to the wayside. Why is this? My guess is that it’s a combination of shallow obsession mixed with fear and laziness. By eating rye bread and watching murder detectives that live in stunning homes, we revel and indulge in the dream of Sweden; tricking ourselves into thinking that eating smoked salmon will somehow make the rest of our society more forward thinking, wilfully ignoring the real pragmatic socio-political decisions that Sweden has made. We think saunas and IKEA meatballs—as wonderful as they are—will somehow deliver serene high quality lifestyles. But those things are just the window dressing.
Beneath the fun Scandinavian aesthetic and social welfare is the reality of what that culture looks like. Michael Booth, a fond admirer and critic of Nordic countries, observes in his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, that Scandinavian countries lack a sense of individualism and free thinking. He writes of the “the predictable monoculture, the stifling insistence on lowest-common-denominator consensus, the fear of anything or anyone different from the norm, the appalling public manners and the remorseless diet of fatty pork, salted licorice, cheap beer and marzipan.” These are hardly horrible offences for a culture to have; it’s the kind of social norms that would evolve from a society that values equality. Which makes me wonder: could Sweden’s progressive politics make it to London where we want it all—to be hip, artistic, capitalist iconoclasts. Maybe if half of posh coffee’s six pound price tag went to social services we could have the equally calm lifestyle of the Swedes.
Perhaps it’s this quiet contentedness that scares us. That to actually become more like Sweden would be to settle down, to abandon a sense of superior significance on the world’s stage, a retirement from excitement. But as Michael Booth says, Sweden might be “the economic and societal role model of the future.” And if for some reason we do get bored being good, there’s plenty of grisly murder novels to entertain us.