With the risk of insulting my Nordic compatriots or appearing defensive to everyone else, I have reviewed Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle. Like Booth, I have been pleasantly surprised by all the recent media attention on the Nordic region, but I too have sometimes wondered about its universal praise. As we all know, nowhere or no one is perfect, and that, sadly, goes for the Nordic countries and their populations too. Michael Booth, a Copenhagen based Brit married to a Dane, had enough of the one-sided coverage and set out to discover the whole truth. With British humour at its best, Booth dissects the ‘Nordic Miracle’ and discovers that all’s not well. The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a well-researched book, enviably elegantly written, at times deadly serious, at others side-splittingly funny.
Starting with his adopted country Denmark, Booth’s book consists of five sections, one for each country. For obvious reasons, Denmark is the country and the people closest to Booth and the one he probably describes the best; gloves off, however, when doing so. For example, how does Denmark’s number one position on happiness surveys gel with the fact that Danes are also the second largest consumers of happy pills in the EU? With record high private debt levels, a thriving black economy and one of the shortest workweeks in the EU (1,559 hours a year compared to the average of 1,749), Booth can’t help but conclude that the Danes must be the Greeks of the north.
It seems the Danes are behaving to type every bit as much as the Greeks, yet somehow their image remains untarnished. And for that, at least, you have to admire them.
Booth has gathered some astonishing statistics. Did you know that 5% of Danish men admit having had sex with an animal, or that 54% of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves? Or that alcohol is the leading cause of death for Finnish men, not because they consume more alcohol than the rest of us, but because they drink it all at once?
The author digs into the history of each country to explain the psyche and behaviour of its inhabitants. He describes, for instance, the incredible political balancing act the Finns pulled off during the Cold War, appeasing both the Russians and Americans, successfully avoiding invasion by the former and alienation from the latter. Did you know, for example, that Finnish and Russian politicians had a buddy system, by which they were paired up and expected to hang out in their spare time? Or that every Finnish home was required to keep a log, recording the name of its residents and that of every single visitor, which had to be shown at the police station once a year? No wonder the Finns are known for keeping their heads down and their mouths shut.
The section on the celebration of the Norwegian national day and the favoured garb for that occasion, the ‘bunad’, an eighteenth century rural costume, had me howling with laughter. Like all Norwegians, it is a day that conjures up childhood memories of unlimited amounts of ice cream and buckets of fun, but I can understand that foreigners, who haven’t been fed this with their mother’s milk, would find it, well, just a tiny bit weird.
What Booth finds, as he moves from country to country, is that the Nordic people have their national peculiarities and are far from the homogeneous crowd they might appear to foreigners. The Icelanders, for example, with their strong sense of invincibility, spurred on by their proximity to extreme natural phenomenon and their feral Viking blood are very different to the conformist, law abiding Swedes who lives under, what Booth terms, ‘benign totalitarianism’. The Social Democrats, who have been in power for the best part of the 20th century, makes ‘General Franco look like a dilettante, the Soviet Communist Party mere fly-by-nights,’ according to the author.
There are some curious omissions, though. Booth has a self-declared soft spot for the Finns; perhaps that is why he mysteriously let them off the hook when it comes to immigration (2.5% of the population are immigrants compared to over a third in Sweden). While giving the Swedes and Norwegians a (mostly, well deserved) beating for their lack of effective integration policies and simmering racism, the Finns seem to have done nothing wrong in that department. We are not even told the reason for the low levels. Anti-immigration policies? No one wants to go? He also seemed to have missed the extent to which social benefit dependency has become almost a national sport in Norway; there is now even a verb for it: ‘NAVing’. But for the most part, the The Almost Nearly Perfect People is thorough in its dissection.
I could go on and on. Instead, I suggest you read the book yourself. You might not like everything you read, particularly if you are from this part of the world, but it can be quite illuminating to get an outsiders opinion on yourself, however uncomfortable that might be.
To be fair, there are also quite a few aspects of Nordic life that Booth is full of admiration for, gender equality (‘If I were a woman I know where I’d want to live’), the natural beauty, the child friendly aspects, the high levels of trust, to mention but a few. The book is filled with interesting titbits of information as well as more in-depth analysis and although Booth doesn’t arrive at any grand conclusion, The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a very enlightening and entertaining book, highly recommended reading.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth is published by Jonathan Cape, p. 393