Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

 

Susie Mesure
Sunday 23 February 2014 01:00
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A man, it seems, can have a surfeit of both Sarah Lund-style knitwear and slow-burn TV dramas. Not to mention a bellyful of anything foraged or fished from the sea. And his name is Michael Booth, a British-born journalist-turned-Danish-expat who has made it his mission to explode the myth of Nordic perfection that has, to be fair, permeated every pore of middle-class British society, including the hallowed Sunday night telly slot.

Never mind that this is biting the hand that feeds him, what with the Danish wife and sprogs, plus the articles he sells to our Scandi-obsessed media about his adopted home region. After all, a man must fulfil his duty according to the unwritten rule of journalism that states: Thou shalt seek to knock down that which has been overly puffed up, especially if there is money to be made.

The title sums it up: a book setting out to expose an “almost nearly perfect people” was never going to make pretty reading. Well, not if you’re the people in question, or possibly the people in love with the people in question (which, in the interests of full disclosure, includes me).

That said, it’s entertaining stuff and very readable. Booth takes the armchair Scandiphile on a trip around the region using his stint in each country to knock the halo off all those blond Nordic heads and investigate a few stereotypes. This sees him diss Danish “hygge”, a word mainly mistranslated to mean “cosy” and said to define Danish conformism; give the nature-loving Norwegians a hard time for racking up stacks of cash by selling fossil fuels; test Finnish “sisu”, or “machismo”, by subjecting himself to the national pastime of roasting oneself in a sauna; and tackle the Swedes’ reserved reputation by behaving as un-Swedishly as possible: namely by disobeying signs not to eat in the Nobel Museum and striking up random conversations. With actual strangers!

He peppers his amusing travelogue with some great stats, from lazy Danes’ working hours (1,559 a year against the EU average of 1,749) and the 32 per cent of Icelanders who believe elves “possibly” exist, to Sweden’s open-door policy on immigrants, pointing out that more have settled there than anywhere else in Europe. Then there are the random ones, such as the 50,000 hairnets handed out to Swedish army recruits in 1971 to contain newly fashionable long locks.

But did he manage to destroy the flawless Scandi illusion for acolytes like me? Well, I’ll settle for Booth calling them “almost nearly perfect”. That’s not bad, after all.

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