Help please! Nordic Culture and the British Zeitgeist

Hello everyone — hope you’re all having a lovely summer. I’ve been contacted by a Danish journalist at Politiken newspaper, and I hope you may be able to help me answer her question, which I’m finding quit tricky to answer in an objective way. The journalist is wondering whether the British are increasingly interested in Nordic culture because of something in the Zeitgeist. She mentions, in particular, cycling, childcare, working hours, and healthy lifestyle. Playing devil’s advocate, I must admit I’m a little bit sceptical about the Zeitgeist idea. Isn’t it just fashionable for journalists to write about Scandinavian lifestyles at the moment? And isn’t it just fashionable because people are discovering Nordic crime fiction and television? Or do you think there is something more essential going on — are these the values and practices that British people secretly aspire to? If so, why are people aspiring to the Nordic way of life at precisely this point in history? Please let me know what you think, and I’ll pass your comments on to the journalist (maybe we’ll all get quoted in Politikenfame at last!)



Filed under Nordic lfestyle

18 responses to “Help please! Nordic Culture and the British Zeitgeist

  1. Mike Ellwood

    Sorry, I’m a bit late contributing to the discussion. I’d say there is a niche interest in Scandinavian culture, and another niche interest in “Nordic Noir” (or Nordic fictional writing, film and drama), to some extent overlapping, as represented in part by, for example viewers of BBC4 and readers of The Guardian. (I tick those boxes, as does my wife, but I’m sure there are readers of other newspapers as well, and maybe also people who never watch BBC4….but the Guardian in particular has been in the fore of enthusing over Nordic drama (Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge), and BBC4 has done us fairly proud with e.g. 3 versions of Wallander…etc.

    If there is a “Zeitgeist” effect, then I’d say it’s the Zeitgeist catching up with this niche, and not the other way around… 🙂 And of course, some of us have been cycling for years….we don’t do it because we saw Birgitte Nyborg cycling to work in “Borgen” (a practice which I was sad to see she stopped once she became Staatsminister!).

    Us Grauniad readers have espoused Scandinavian-style virtues of co-operation and social responsibility for years, and we’d love to see them taken up in Britain, but I’m not holding my breath in the era of competitive thrusters like Cameron/Osborne/Blair/Milliband….etc.

    Kærlig hilsen fra

  2. drclairethomson

    Thanks all! Well, here’s the article, for those of you who read Danish! Nordic Noir Book Club gets a mention, as does my evil twin Claire ‘Thompson’:

  3. PS I should, of course, have included Arnaldur Indridason and Asa Larsson in my list of excellent Scandinavian crime authors, two of my very favourites. (And I can recall first UK publication of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, which started off the whole scandi-thing, really, given that though Sjowall & Wahloo had been published here, they had not caught on in the sense that Hoeg, Mankell and S Larsson did. It is good that they are receiving just recognition now.

  4. drclairethomson

    A quick note to say TAK! to everybody who has taken the time and trouble to contribute to the discussion. Really useful, thought-provoking stuff. I’ve passed the link to this page onto Politiken, and will keep you posted about further developments.

  5. I think one of the reasons why we enjoy Nordic crime is the fact the books seem better structured than English or American crime novels. The officers tend to talk to each other, rather than the “lone gun” attitude most seem to fall into. Sure, the demons the officers have are the same. Then you have the scenic settings, they tend to lend a hand to escapism. We can better see these in our mind’s eye. The snow, the beautiful forests, the snow covered towns and cities. They lay a tapestry of freedom, rather than the cramped large cities of America. Overall it just comes down to better writing, and far, far better Inspectors and officers delving into the crimes.

  6. Tim Collison

    I always worry when journalists, academics etc starting talking in terms of zeitgeist…it’s often an excuse for a lot of self-indulgent rhetoric! I believe that there is a growing interest in things Scandinavian. Countries, ways of living, styles etc go in and out of fashion and I think things Scandinavian have been in the ascendandancy over the past few years. This was the case in the 60s and 70s. Not surprisingly, I think it takes its lead from the middle classes in the metropolitan areas who, fuelled by a variety of media – from mainstream newspapers and TV to more niche magazines such as Monocle – are travelling more and more to the the Scandinavian capital cities, and are also enjoying the countryside in the summer and the snow/winter activities. I don’t think the organisers of the Scandinavia Show in London had any idea so many people would turn up to their events. For some people in the UK, visiting parts of Scandinavian can reveal a life/place that is similar to where they live, but – on a surface level – in many ways is seemingly better. Everything runs/functions well, people are polite/educated, and “things seem” attractive and well designed. In combination, although not necessarily directly related, is the current vogue for mid-century design. Scandinavian design – particularly Danish and Finnish – was a big part of this, and 50s/60s classics are the bedrock for the likes of Skandium. And then you have the arts. Scandinavian crime fiction has been well documented. But I think the growth of Danish cinema is important in this context. Often punching above its weight (in terms of the numbers of Danish directors and actors) Danish cinema has become well-respected around the world for its realism, studies of human life etc…which are all beautifully produced and directed.

    • jakobstougaard

      I agree. But why is it dubious for journalists and academics to discuss Zeitgeist? What makes considerations of shared cultural movements, ideas, desires and anxieties a worthless effort in itself? I agree that any description or determination of a Zeitgeist has to be considered in terms of where, by whom and through which channels such a Zeitgeist is expressed. It is certainly worth considering what fraction of the British public, media, publishers and opinion makers share a sense of a common ‘spirit of the age’ and what influences or power these groups have on public opinion and the political system in general. You determine the urban, middle class as a driving force behind an appreciation of all things Nordic, which is probably quite true, though the urban middle class is today an incredibly varied and complex grouping. Wouldn’t you think that people included under such a label would amount to the largest grouping in the UK? And surely a relatively small fraction of the urban, middle class watched The Killing, even though it had more viewers than Mad Men (was it about 500,000-600,000? The current Scandimania is a very small wave on the sea of Zeitgeist in the UK – sorry for the mixed metaphors:-). However, the fact that what is probably a perceptive group of viewers, readers and journalist find a common interest in Scandinavian crime and all things Nordic, apart form all the very good reasons you and others in this thread have presented, may be due to a Zeitgeist shared by some, which has nothing or very little to do with Scandinavian crime fiction or IKEA or Børge Mogensen-like chairs in MacDonalds. Somehow, the current image Nordic cultures enjoy in the UK (which may have no or very little ground in reality in Scandinavia) fits in as a piece of Lego. We have to realize, though, at least based on all the good people who are members of this Nordic Noir Book Club, that the reasons for appreciating Nordic Noir are many and varied, and the readers we meet, although they necessarily mostly are Londoners come from many walks of life, age groups, experiences and backgrounds – My guess is very few of them are deluded by a rosy-red picture of Scandinavia or the UK, but most of them will agree with your comment and appreciations.

  7. Brian Robson

    I think it would be pretty contradictory to argue that Scandinavian fiction is becoming more popular because we aspire to Scandinavian values and practices, given that so much of the genre (especially Sjowall/Wahloo, Mankell) is intended to expose what they see as the reality of the social democratic model.

    • jakobstougaard

      Yes, you are probably right, Brian. I am just thinking out loud. There is no simple and straightforward argument when it comes to the role of fiction in Society (crime fiction being particularly elusive in this regard), and questions regarding inter-cultural or transnational influences are similarly complex. What I thought I had written, or what I meant to say, or the only thing I am pretty sure of, is that a good deal of Scandinavian crime fiction since the 1960s, the boom in crime fiction both in Scandinavia and in the UK since the 00s and the present rise in interest in Nordic life styles not only in the UK but on a global scale are all somehow resulting from global dynamics (not least the financial crises) that are, as the term reveals, shared conditions and concerns in Northern Europe. That Britain and the Scandinavian countries have different histories and have traditionally had different approaches to the remit of the Welfare State makes the import and export of cultural objects, dreams, desires and anxieties between Britain and the Nordic countries at this moment particularly interesting. And I shall maintain that whether some Scandinavian crime fiction is critical or not of the universal welfare regime (and I do believe that this critique of the Nordic Welfare regime was mostly straightforward in crime writing of the 70s in the authors you mention, to some extent in Mankell and in other Swedish writers of the 90s, the criticism or realism of crime fiction in the 00s is much more complicated, i think) it can still function as a catalyst or mirror for desires and anxieties shared by the contemporary British and Nordic cultures. Interesting Scandinavian crime fiction is sometimes about what has been lost (I believe the jumper in The Killing is a ‘woolly’ symbol for a loss of certain values that go back to the Golden age of the Danish welfare State in the 70s). Viewers of the TV-show in the UK and in Denmark may see different things but they may also share the nostalgia for the ideals the jumper suggest – I can’t believe I just wrote that. Anyway, good question however unresolvable, and fun to consider. I will let my students solve this next term.

  8. Maybe the UK is just more cosmopolitan than our continental neighbours give us credit for and we now have greater access to cultural and other exports due to free trade and advances in telecommunications.

  9. jakobstougaard

    I think there are some interesting and very complex dynamics behind what may now seem a curious and accidental interest in all-things Scandinavian in Britain. The role of the success of Scandinavian crime fiction in Britain seems to me a hen-and-the-egg question: why did Scandinavian crime fiction become an international success in to 00’s and not in the 90’s, where most of the really great crime fiction was actually published in Scandinavia? Why now? I believe strongly that Scandinavian cultures (rightly or wrongly) have come to represent a new way to imagine what it is desirable to aspire to as a nation. It has, for instance, been much publicised, both in political papers and life style magazines that Scandinavian countries have a high level of well-being (the welfare state being a central factor). The British government is this summer conducting extensive reviews of the well-being of Britain, and it seems that well-being on this side of the financial crisis will become the new measure of life quality. I believe that UK and Scandinavia in the 00s are countries and regions that have changed focus slightly towards maintaining well-being of the citizenry (albeit with little success, I think) in a period where crises abroad, globalization and financial instability threaten to undercut governments’ abilities to ensure growth and stability at home. Now, a Faroese jumper, depressed Scandinavian detectives, IKEA, Danish design from the 50s and Nordic Cuisine are probably not going to help anybody apart from Scandinavian businesses and tourist agencies but I strongly believe that these altogether offer a common image of personal and cultural aspirations that hit a note with (far from all) a significant segment of Brits who have access to a certain part of the media and the governing classes. Scandinavian crime fiction is to a large extent shoring up the bygone values of national, welfare state and family cohesiveness under the a new global regime – and the interesting crime novels question this nostalgic, homely, cozy provincialism. There seems to me to be a lot of the old Danish “what has been lost without (now to globalization) shall be regained within” going around both in Scandinavia and Britain – I guess a good evidence here is the Olympic opening ceremony show that was a celebration of British cohesion, the British welfare state, the invented traditions that had made Britain the global centre – by now reduced to a ballet of the NHS and Churchill a Shakespearean character speaking from a smoke stack representing past industrial domination. Scandinavia and particularly Denmark has spent centuries coming to terms with its loss of Empire, spent centuries on finding a new way to define the relationship between the state and the citizen under a new global regime (though granted Scandinavian countries struggle with globalisation in their own ways – immigration and multiculturalism to name a few). My sense is, following this long ramble, is that there is something going on in Britain that has made the political and opinionated classes look elsewhere for remedies for cultural, political and social losses – whether this import of Scandinavian crime and well-being is a smoke screen or whether it will fulfil some deeper needs for people in an age of depression and unpredictable global dynamics is another question.

  10. My answer is “no”, too. In my opinion, “best selling” UK or US crime fiction has become increasingly formulaic (the detectives are all the same even if transposed in place or time, and the stories are depressingly narrow, often involving forensics/detailed descriptions of injuries and deaths, ugh), so discerning readers are looking elsewhere. The books by Mankell have been translated for many years and are popular among crime fiction readers – recent television versions have helped captured the popular mood. Then, the success of Stieg Larsson probably made more people look for other books from the region. Reissues of the Martin Beck series must have helped, too.

    Some of the best crime-fiction authors from Scandinavia, eg Johan Theorin, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, Leif Davidsson, Leif G W Perssson, Liza Marklund, for example, are original, different “takes” on the genre that aren’t following someone else’s paradigm. Often in these novels the crime itself gets almost forgotten amid the rest of the book.

    It is true that Scandinavian novels (that I’ve read in translation, and I’ve probably read most crime novels in translation from the region) tend to cover the wider social community, often in a rather political, sociological way, and I think readers like that (I do). But mainly, one feels that one is reading books that someone has written because they are talented and have something to say, unlike many of the standard rubbish that gets churned out in the UK and US.

    Of course some of the more recent Scandinavian crime fiction is deriviatve and pretty rubbishy, as authors/publishers try to cash in on trends (eg “Lars Kepler”, Hans Koppel), but one can still find plenty of good books to read from the region, which are distinctive compared with the latest Cornwell, “Patterson”, Reichs, lots of UK authors beginning with B, etc.

  11. Ian Charles

    Apologies to Quentin and Andy – it was Quentin’s comment I was referring to

  12. Ian Charles

    I agree with your scepticism, Claire: Scandinavian (or should we now say “Nordic”) culture has had its fashionable moments in the past, and ancient persons like me can remember the discussions in the 60’s about the Swedish model of comprehensive education – and where it eventually got us in the UK. Nordic has become very valuable for marketers of Scandinavian products, not just books and TV shows. Food is a good example, but will populations abroad really be gorging brown cheese and rotten fish in the coming years? Taking Andy’s point – I think at least one, possibly more Scandinavian furniture companies have tried and failed to penetrate the UK market in the last couple years despite the success of IKEA. It has also unleashed a lot of literary material that I think would not otherwise have seen the light of day outside the Scandinavian countries. That said, if we are hoping for another Arnuldur in translation or something that matches The Killing, we should be delighted to see the attention our Nordic friends are receiving. So, notwithstanding the scepticism, I’m very pleased that Nordic culture and custom are enjoying this flurry of fame.

    • Setting aside the other facets of Nordic culture (especially scourged sheep heads and Gammel Dansk) and from a purely bookish point of view, I’d like to see all this Nordic crime fiction as something of a breakthrough that may hopefully have cracked the usual British suspicion of translated books.
      A tiny proportion of books in English are translated from other languages, compared to the number published elsewhere in Europe. As there are plenty of fine writers who have yet to make it into English, maybe the Nordic crime writers have blazed a trail that others can follow.

  13. I think you’re right… the idea of Nordic lifestyles may have become fashionable among a relatively small number of broadsheet journalists, and that may be as far as it goes. I’d imagine that a great many more people have discovered Ikea than have watched Wallender, so maybe easy access to convenient flat-pack furniture is what most British genuinely aspire to?

  14. drclairethomson

    Thanks Andy. I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head: I can’t come up with a soundbite about this because, as you say, it all comes down the the individual reading/viewing and responding in complex and unpredictable ways. I need to sleep on it…Hoping to wake up to more comments!

  15. andylawrence71

    The concept of consumption predicated upon issues pertaining to Zeitgeist is problematic as it implies that those who enjoy the Nordic Noir subgenre are unwitting cultural dupes. Furthermore, it presupposes a singular mode of pleasure when what may be happening is that a variety of audiences consume these texts for differing reasons.

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