Scandi social democrats falling out of love?

A story from Politiko in Denmark today, or, rather, one sourced from the Swedish title Expressen, which, if true, indicates the problems facing Scandinavian social democracy (and indeed, Europe-wide social democracy) ahead of today’s election. Apparently the ruling Social Democrats in Sweden have been distinctly cool about lending support to their counterparts in Denmark due to the tone the centre-left has adopted in Denmark on immigration. This underlines a problem with political parochialism in general: it shuns internationalism (and therefore runs the risk of fracturing bodies of support and alienating potential allies within a wider continental frame, especially if they don’t happen to agree with the actual policy).

New parties key to Denmark election result?

The Denmark election is taking place today with polls on a knife-edge. A Gallup poll late last night had the centre-left bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, narrowly trailing the centre-right bloc, led by the man Thorning-Schmidt ousted from the premiership in the 2011 election, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

Just as was the case with the shock Conservative victory in last month’s UK general election, it would be rash to jump to simplistic conclusions (or indeed predict the election outcome), not least because these polls certainly do not present a cut-and-dry case for ‘Thorning-Schmidt bad, Rasmussen good’.

The Gallup poll projects that Thorning-Schmidt’s governing Social Democrats will actually gain two seats and narrowly increase its vote tonight (a parallel of sorts with former UK Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has had to deal with the paradox of suffering the most devastating defeat for his party in 32 years whilst being the first person to increase the Labour share of the vote in 18 years).

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

At the same time, Rasmussen’s Venstre Parti is set to post what in any normal circumstances would be an exceptionally bad result. Having suffered the indignity of coming third in last year’s European elections, they are projected to lose ten seats on the basis of this Gallup poll. Within the right-wing bloc at least, the party with all the momentum behind it is the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), who are pursuing the same populist right-wing agenda that has served them well at the polls for several years. The Gallup poll projects that they will win ten seats.

Although there is evidence that anti-establishment politics is gaining traction in Denmark, I would argue that this is not borne out by the standing of the People’s Party itself. Having played a key role within the right-wing coalition that governed Denmark between 2001 and 2011, it seems more establishment than anti-establishment, not least when its views on the EU and immigration are not exactly unconditionally rejected and repelled by Thorning-Schmidt herself. 

The ‘anti-establishment’ zeitgeist seems better represented by the Alternative Party, a green political party that has nonetheless remained coy about saying whether it does ‘left or right’ politics (although it is technically part of the Thorning-Schmidt bloc going into tonight’s election). The party itself dates back to 2013, but Gallup projects that it will pick up eight seats tonight (having of course not won any mandates in 2011). Perhaps on the evidence of the Wiki description, ‘green entrepreneurship’ would describe its ethos better.

Similarly, the Liberal Alliance, formed as recently as 2007, and part of Rasmussen’s centre-right bloc going into the election, are projected to gain four seats – even though the Danish Wiki page seems to bear out concerns that it is rather light on policy, its commitment to EU membership notwithstanding.

Although the new parties seem key to the election result, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments are defining the political debate in Denmark, irrespective of who wins. The worrying aspect for the left must be the projected retreat of the minor parties within the centre-left bloc, with the pro-immigration Danish Social Liberal Party projected to lose the eight seats it gained in 2011 and the Socialist People’s Party projected to lose seven seats, just as it did in 2011. This may be the most potent factor with regards to the overall result as voters go to the polls today.

If Thorning-Schmidt does hang on, there may well be a sense that she has scrambled over the finishing line with no particular momentum for the left, with the main story a direct net switch from the Venstre party to the Danish People’s Party and not enough voters defecting from the left bloc to the right bloc.

That was more or less the pattern of last year’s election in Sweden, when support for Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling Moderate party collapsed and the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats benefited. The Social Democrats, under the much-vaunted leadership of Stefan Löfven, had seemed certain to gain power, but their vote barely increased and they barely got over the finishing line (or indeed didn’t at all given that they had to form a minority coalition with the Greens which barely made it through last year and into this one in one piece).

Stefan Löfven - unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Stefan Löfven – unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Unlike the UK, the question of exit from the EU seems less potent in Denmark (for now, at least). But a recent piece in the German press suggesting that the direct train connection between Berlin and Copenhagen is in jeopardy seems in some way symbolic of Denmark’s predicament at the moment. It is part of the EU, unlike Greece it is not in a state of financial crisis that threatens its very presence in the European project, and under the Social Democrats unemployment has gone down somewhat since the nadir of the 2008 financial crisis (belying concerns that immigrants pose a threat to actual job availability).

For all that, Denmark looks curiously detached and wary of the outside world, even in a decade where numerous countries look detached and wary of the outside world. That’s a particularly big irony at a time when Danish televised drama has once more its best to conquer the televised drama world with 1864, a series which seems to resist jingoism and parochialism with every ounce of its conception and realisation.

Esbjerg and the layperson’s Mount Rushmore

The manifold joys of recently watching early noughties Danish cop drama Unit One (Rejseholdet in Danish) have included watching Mads Mikkelsen on the inexorable rise to stardom (but doing it on his own Danish terms) and the showcasing of individual locations in Denmark in each particular episode. There’s something formulaic yet varied and enjoyable about this format, not least because it draws attention to monuments and vistas which might have completely bypassed the non-Danish viewer otherwise.

Particularly attractive in this respect is an episode set in Esbjerg which offers an impressive shot of an impressive monument, the Mennesket ved Havet work by Svend Viig Hansen. I like to think of it as a layperson’s Mount Rushmore: it makes use of a humanoid quartet but the four individuals could be anyone, not just a suite of statesmen. It is Scandi elegant egalitarianism wrought large, not least because the figures are both imposing and graceful, lending them a certain androgyny (it’s worth noting that menneske translates as both man and human). For my part I would cast them as four nautical types: ship’s cook, shipbroker, dock warehouse guard and fisherman seem as good as any identities.

An open letter to Andy Burnham

An open letter to Andy Burnham, candidate for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

There is a Scandi link of sorts here directly mentioned below (the Nordic Council and the Nordic Passport Union). The other obvious parallel is the moribund state of social democracy in Scandinavia at the moment, with Norway, Iceland and Finland all firmly in the grasp of centre-right parties, the Social Democrats in power by default rather than enthusiastic voter support in Sweden, and one of the most important elections (if not the most important) in Denmark’s modern history taking place tomorrow at a time when there is nothing separating the centre-left and centre-right blocs in the polls (yet a time when anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric also shows no signs of abating). 

Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham

Dear Andy Burnham,

Thank you for your recent e-mails and texts asking what my top priority is as a new Labour party member.

Although I feel the most important thing for a political leader and a movement is a vision which transcends one or two priorities, I would stress that the country is in urgent need of reform to the housing and pension sectors that involves following something other than the free-market dogma which has underpinned political thinking and practice since 1979.

I am 41 years old and am still not on the property ladder in spite of having worked almost continuously since I graduated in 1996 (this not counting the work I did whilst I was an undergrad). I refuse to accept that somehow I have worked insufficiently hard to give myself a home of my own and income security in my years to come.

The Conservative policy of now wishing to sell off housing association properties is frankly awful and just about the most dire policy they have come up with since Margaret Thatcher became their leader in 1975. I don’t choose these words lightly as I am aware there is stiff competition on this front. Labour needs to present a radical alternative in order to make decent hard-working middle-income, lower-middle income and working-class communities feel like they are something other than a growing body of disenfranchised individuals precariously close to serfdom (again, I don’t choose this word lightly).

In a nutshell, I think Labour would be able to make progress on this front and bypass the credibility problems thrown up by the mansion tax and rent caps in the election if it still commits itself to (or seeks to increase) relatively high levels of taxation for the prosperous and introduces tax incentives for the social groups I have highlighted above (not least small business owners, whose numbers have mushroomed due to the paucity of well-paid jobs in established large companies).

This would help underpin a genuine long-term process of redistribution and make those lower down the ladder feel that they are being rewarded. It would also go a long way to detoxifying the familiar claim in the years leading up to the 2015 election that Labour is not tough enough on benefit claimants as it would demonstrate an understanding of the value and potential of those who do work hard for a living but who don’t get to see the rewards they would like.

I am sure this can be done in a way that produces healthy amounts of state revenue whilst giving some slack to those lower down the social ladder. The important issue stemming from 2015 is that Labour needs time to formulate these policies but also time to present them coherently so that they gain ground and favour with the public over months and years, not just a matter of weeks.

Labour’s leader at last month’s election defeat, Ed Miliband, was right to address the issues I discussed but wrong to present policies such as rent caps and the end of non-dom tax exemption so close to an election. This enabled the Conservatives to carry out classic diversionary and deflecting tactics such as saying the Labour leader had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ and was as such unfit to rule, trumping the immediacy of Miliband’s announcements with a new deliberately overplayed and unpleasantly alarmist – yet politically effective – immediacy. I hope Labour has learned its lesson on this occasion.

Otherwise I would mention various issues which I feel are of importance. (I have taken the trouble to present these in a letter format as I hope using an overpriced first-class stamp emphasises that I take them seriously and am not just prepared to respond for free in text or e-mail form!)

  • Europe; the party needs to be unambiguously committed to staying in the EU. As highlighted above, the idea that migrants are sponging off the system has a lot of the teeth taken out of it if Labour has a decent taxation policy in place (thus in turn taking the teeth out of Cameron’s reform negotiations);
  • Human rights; Labour needs to unambiguously explain why a British bill of rights is no more than a poor third-rate substitute for a perfectly valid existing HRA. I am concerned that Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner Tim Farron is doing an excellent job of ‘ground war campaigning’ on this front but that no Labour politician has seen it fit to at least actively join forces with him (not campaigning actively and jointly with Nick Clegg and indeed Nigel Farage on electoral reform in 2011 cost Ed Miliband dear in this respect);
  • The BBC; Labour needs to make the case for retaining the licence fee but introducing payments for playback coverage. This gives two perfectly feasible viewing choices, underlines the idea that the BBC is committed to viewer choice, and nullifies the right-wing argument that the licence fee is some sort of draconian poll tax (it isn’t as it is optional rather than compulsory but one needs good proactive policies to hammer this point home);
  • Scotland; Labour has gained nothing from unionist policies in recent times and I suspect Scotland itself does not particularly benefit from being in the union (the levels of poverty I saw there whilst on holiday in 2013 brought this point home emphatically). The odds are that the 2014 referendum was no more of a ‘one-off’ than the 1979 devolution referendum was and that Labour needs to accept that a more federalised (and probably eventually independent) Scotland is not some great taboo in the long term. Labour may have only won 231 seats in England and Wales on May 7 but that is the same as to say it did better in England and Wales than it did in the nadir of 1983, indicating that in the long run at least, independence for Scotland is not some electoral suicide. Labour needs to look at how the Nordic Council and Nordic Passport Union work in terms of trade agreements and freedom of movement and present a coherent and sensible framework for the existing UK countries embracing such an ideal. Committing to such a cause may seem bold, but in terms of how countries are actually governed, legendary figures such as Nelson Mandela and John Hume got the rewards for their long-term boldness. The SNP were wrong in the way they went about pursuing independence (especially Alex Salmond’s notion that the pound could be kept) but right in principle to pursue independence. Labour’s task is to take the lead on this issue and demonstrate it is not one predicated on mere nationalism;
  • Local politics at a national election level; the Conservatives won on May 7 because they got ‘local’ better (to coin a concept). I was really disconcerted by how disorganised and fatalistic a constituency Labour party sounded a week before the election when I rang to inform them the local Conservative candidate was retweeting spurious claims about Labour’s record in office. Given that the Labour majority over the Conservatives was less than 5,000, the person answering the phone should have at least known who the Conservative candidate was. Compare this with the astute ‘grassroots’ politics of Tory MP Robert Halfon, the assiduous attention paid by Tories to Lib Dem marginals well before May 7, and the canny selection of born-and-bred local Tory candidates in bellwether seats. Labour needs to embrace local activists and actually ensure that its candidates can ‘talk human’ as the late Charles Kennedy might have said. In this sense, there is not much point in selecting genuinely local candidates if they are not allowed to expound their ideas in civilised fashion to the national media (which was the disconcerting impression given in Nuneaton during a John Harris video report for The Guardian newspaper just prior to the election).
  • Local politics at a local level; Rotherham is a truly shameful moment in Labour’s history and gives the impression that in too many instances too little attention is paid to local issues as long as the seat or council is safely Labour. I suspect that on this front at least, Labour needs to start accepting that the Big Society is a plausible way for describing the untold amount of community and charity work that people in this country do carry out. In order to strengthen communities and marginalise those who would be anti-social to an extreme nature (or convince them of their wrong), be it paedophiles, ASBO teenagers, Muslim extremists, or right-wing nationalist extremists, Labour needs to operate on a social level as much as a political one and find some way of incorporating this community and charity work into its modus operandi (thereby echoing the spirit of the Rochdale Pioneers). People may sniff at charity if it seems too contrary a concept to socialism, but abstract socialism counts for little at the moment if it is failing to prevent people from starving under five more years of Conservative government.

Otherwise I would mention two pet issues of mine which don’t necessarily feature large in the Labour remit (but which I would argue are all the more important for that).

  • The police have had a wretched deal under the Tories (who possibly assume the law enforcers aren’t going to vote for Labour en masse and that the Tories can therefore get away with waging war on them, just as New Labour played roulette with its own core supporters). Time for Labour to work out how to repair fences with them;
  • Rural and semi-rural poverty is a really worrying indictment of what Britain is like in the 2010s, even if it goes under-reported. I fail to see how farmers who just about manage from day to day are any different from public sector workers who just about manage from day to day (especially following the 2014 floods in Somerset). I am rather tired of the tribalised enmity (at worst) or remarkable non-relationship between Labour and countryside communities (especially bizarre given the historical importance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs); as much as I would like the ban on fox hunting to be retained, I think this needs to go hand-in-hand with an understanding of issues such as the plight of dairy farmers in the face of cut-throat supermarket pricing competition. Labour may never convince some people that a hunting ban is correct, but, in the interests of representing everyone (not just a metropolitan elite, lifelong Labour voters in lifelong Labour seats etc), it also needs to ensure that rural life is not defined by this one issue alone and do so in an empathetic and discerning way.

I appreciate this is a long letter but it is one I have been meaning to write for a long time. I intend to publish it on my blog as well in the interests of at least presenting my ideas to a larger audience. There are themes not explored here that I need to address in my own time (and perhaps write about further); however, I expect you to be the next Labour leader and at the moment do not see a feasible alternative for at least starting the process of returning Labour to the sensible communitarian centre-left. Therefore I hope I have at least outlined some of the issues that concerned me.

Finally, I would warn Labour against being mired in a stupid war of words where ‘Taliban New Labour’ is actually genuinely considered a constructive way of moving on from Tony Blair. It serves the doubly defeating purpose of reminding people of Tony Blair’s most destructive legacy (the various conflicts in the Middle East and their consequences) whilst turning a blind eye to the fact he still won three elections for Labour. This double-edged paradox is perhaps the most sensitive and troublesome one in Labour’s entire history. It requires the utmost discernment to deal with it, not playground insults and name-calling from both sides.

Good luck with your leadership campaign.

Yours sincerely

Worldly Scandifriend

A short short story for St George’s Day: Talking to Harald Hardrada

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway 1046-1066

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway 1046-1066

Talking to Harald Hardrada

By coincidence I had served on most of the failed Danish conquests and occasionally set eyes upon the King, if that were permissible. I kept myself to myself and my head down but the thought always gathered and rolled like one hungry, welling sea wave in the mind that we would knock the wretched kingdom down – all too small and all too poxy.

When we didn’t and shifted our gaze to that land to the south-west, all of this dissolved into waves of disappointment for me and an acknowledgement of my over-optimism – not that I would have confessed a mote of this to the sour-faced swordsmen and oarsmen flanking me at intervals.

If they were sour, there was nought but trouble seething all around and in Harald; perhaps I should say he was steeped in bitterness. We clubbed our way across the northern seas in some kind of negative angry defiance, not in a particular mood of hope, and I got the glimpses of himself at various places that didn’t help. Scowling at the mouth of that Tyne river even as we brushed land mass; yelling at no-one in particular and to every frightened one on the cusp of the Humber.

That was when I was on the cusp of desertion and bunked off to go fishing for a few hours, coming back to no-one mouthing condemnation or even going through the routine of an interrogation. We were perpetually moving forward yet huddled together in mental passivity, waiting for something bad to happen without quite knowing whether that would mean battle or something else entirely.

And yet it was the King who, of all of us, at the last sounded most virtuous and graced by hope, even if it were in the minutes creeping down to our being poleaxed. We were within sight of York and I was sent to deliver the latest in a clasp of formal and very tedious messages. For some reason I expected to find him beery, vulgar and callused, but instead he was the model of quietness, so much so I found myself thinking about the mild pallor of late September here  rather than any construct of deference. He read, cogitated, nodded, and then spoke with maximal deliberation.

“What make you of this land, son?”

“One more place to c-conquer, my lord, surely?” A slight tremor on my part because I anticipated what he was going to say and regretted what I’d said in the moment I said it – all in the second.

“Apart from the fact I don’t conquer other places. I can conquer my own country without even having to think about it. But this – pah! Foreign missions. I’m either missing some kind of trick or I’m going soft the wrong side of fifty. What I’d like to do in this land is bring together everything I’ve done in the past. Consolidate it. Just get on horseback for the sake of it. Go rowing not as a break from fighting but instead of fighting full stop. Write the poetry they say I do instead of getting some halfwit scribe to do it for me so as to preserve my reputation.

“No son, it is milder here. The flower buds will crack through the ground earlier every March and they’ll die far later. Not too cold for the Byzantines, a bit warmer for the Russians. I’ll bring those folk of faith over from them places just like I’ve done elsewhere – not because I can, because I think God’ll grow on ‘em here, grow on the natives – in a…fair to middling climate.”

For one moment he was entirely at peace. Then we both heard horse hooves and knew it was something other than a reconnaissance by our own men. He was not shocked at all – even though our men surely would be. At that moment, he was all in emotional transit, transported from cloudy weariness to a venom heightened by the fact he couldn’t foretell whether he had enough to stave off Godwinson and get what he’d supposedly come here for.

"StamfordBridge1066" by Egghead06 - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StamfordBridge1066.JPG#/media/File:StamfordBridge1066.JPG

“We’re just one more lot of fighters here, aren’t we? Yes, I know about William the Bastard knocking on the door down south, I know about the Anglo-Saxons uprooting themselves and then rooting themselves down here as if it were God’s will and it ain’t-  if – we – are – talking – about – the – godless. All coming here for our crown’s worth. All kings turned mercenaries looking for a bucket of gold, all yer fiefdoms under the thumb and a nice bolthole for the winter, or the summer, depending on what you’re trying to get away from.

“But I’ll fly on the waves between Norway and here, son, and keep them all in check. I won’t need to farm out responsibility and rule to my son or any other.”

He spat the words out and rose, now resembling the broad-shouldered warrior who had won acclaim so often rather than the brooding and budding retiree from seconds earlier. For him this land signified hope and some incorruptible beacon of new potential, no matter how the visitor or the native had been shafted, undone or usurped in the past. For my part I pondered on whether such optimism was an eternal conceit and blessing.

England short short stories number 1 – Mel Smith, 1952-2013: Getting Friendly With Raymond

mel smith

It was a stupidly brief bus ride to Chiswick in the circumstances, he surmised. Stupid because of the gulf between the place he’d been thinking of returning to permanently and the place he was now. Regarding the now, he was in BBC Television Centre in the boring prosaic sense, but it was a palace that they’d stormed if you liked to get symbolic about that sort of stuff.

People talked about breaking down the walls of comedy, but even the sceptic in him marvelled at that point, in 1980, at what the four of them were going through. They were on some kind of tightrope where you were rebel and royalty all at the same time and you didn’t stop to think about what was lurking on the drop either side. Just as bloody well really.

The bus ride to Chiswick would have taken him back to the bookies’ shop where he’d grown up and where he’d been ready to return and play the day job game for good. It was doing what he loved  acting that had propelled him on when he was ready to chuck in the thing he loved, but you could have said that about the three other people around him as well. They’d all had to claw like hell to get anything remotely resembling a break, and maybe some of that hard-bitten drive had channelled its way into the photoshoot which resulted in the cover of the first tie-in book.

He was too modest to say it, but that picture had pulsated earnestness: all four of them crammed disarmingly and possessively into the lens, two heads upon two heads like Freddie Mercury and co in that video five years earlier but with none of the sense of high camp. He’d clenched his mouth shut and eyeballed the camera, perhaps, some wag had suggested, with a touch of Al Capone alongside an attempt to emulate his childhood hero, Tony Hancock.

not-the-nine-oclock-news-book

Rowan had not gurned but had deadpanned, genuinely glumly withering and – yes – faintly hostile. For that second, he hadn’t been a comic character: he’d been something impenetrable. Pam had just done perfect demure ice queen: maybe not scowling like her male counterparts, but not welcoming either.

And Griff: well, he’d spend his life in Griff’s pocket and vice versa forever and a day after that, but even years after a certain familiar comfort with Griff’s tics and traits, he marvelled at how his friend had nailed it: wide-eyed, lips slightly parted (unlike the others), imperiously glowering and yet awestruck as if he were staring down a black hole at a future he couldn’t fathom. Years later, it was easy to admit that the kind of humour you’d pioneered was out of fashion; at the time, he wondered, only half in jest, if that kind of look would make everything else unfashionable forever.

So that was the zeitgeist. Looking back, he hoped he’d openly acknowledged how much the other three had been part of it at the time, but he wouldn’t sell one of his particular moments short either. The producer, John, couldn’t assert enough how they were trying to create realistic comedy – no more stilted sketches with elaborate wordplay in pubs with flat caps, warm beer and obsolete shove ha’penny boards, and no more smut-but-no-swearing-for-bourgeois-audiences if the truth was that vernacular language was the language of the street.

And indeed, in that moment, in that sketch, where he’d been the professor who had taught a gorilla to talk and who had regretted it forever, he wasn’t some scatty, mutton-chopped, wild-haired dapster with Victorian vowels – he was a dressed-down, bogged-down, tested academic forever looking a little frayed, and, as his character had said, now looking at his serious scientific project being pulled apart by the wretched creature who should have brought him acclaim.

Even early on in that sketch, even as Pam’s interviewer character delivered the lulling intonation about some extraordinary breakthroughs in communication between men and animals, he’d felt a frisson in the audience as if they knew this might be something new hatched: all the surrealism of Python and yet something recognisable from their own lives as well.

professor and gerald

They got it when Pam looked ever so slightly horrified after the gorilla had interrupted his master and said he’d been taken into captivity in ’68, not ’67. They got it that Rowan was almost entirely hidden within the gorilla costume but that you could still see his eyes and lips: it was all too false and all too real at the same time. And they’d erupted with laughter when Rowan had delivered the first pungent verbal gag: the one about the gorilla not just being wild upon capture but being absolutely livid. As such, Mel knew he’d have to make the most low-key line the most loaded, and, appropriately in a show starting with the word not, he was oddly aware of a faint mantra in his mind as he prepared to take his cue.

Professor: Yes, he’s living with me, yes.
Gorilla: Though not in the Biblical sense! (self-satisfied laugh)

Not the betting shop. Not back to the betting shop again.

Interviewer: Er, yes, I was going to ask you actually Gerald, do you have a ‘mate’..?

You can gamble. Splutter all the money on horses you want. Live the good life. Play your 45 folk vinyls until they’re worn out. But not back to the bookies like that.

Gorilla: Yeah, I’ve got lots of mates, erm, there’s the professor, there’s his son Toby, there’s Raymond next door..

Interviewer: Er, no, actually…

Gorilla: Oh, I see, oh I see what you mean, crumpet, crumpet!

Not now Smith, not now.

Interviewer: Well…

Gorilla: Well…

Now, Smith. Now.

“You didn’t tell me you were friendly with Raymond.”

The audience almost too shocked to laugh.

Laughter like the sound of a faint alarm.

Raw nerves and laughter all mixed up.

Knowing what’s going through their heads:

The professor’s going to lump the gorilla.

The gorilla’s going to swing at the professor.

If this isn’t living in the Biblical sense, what is it?

A love triangle. An envy triangle.

All the horrible domestic rows we know about taking place the length and breadth of this country every night.

All condensed and vacuum-sealed into nine words.

And there, unseen, the all-too potent Raymond.

And for one moment, he, the actor, had got into their heads with the sharpest of snapshots of their lives.

No need for self-doubt on that one. It was a given.

You could bet on it.

Story copyright Aidan McGee 2015, with script attributed to Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson quoted from Not The Nine O’ Clock News, Series 2 Episode 5, BBC2, 28th April 1980.

 

Two quick* thoughts on UKIP and the Sweden Democrats

Here in Britain, the populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party has completely upset the longstanding Conservative/Labour/Liberal Democrat apple cart of British politics and soared to levels of support of around 20%. As a result, the outcome of the general election next year is anyone’s guess.

But in terms of an electoral precedent in Europe, you need only look back to September’s election in Sweden and the strong performance of the Sweden Democrats – not to mention the Danish People’s Party in last summer’s European elections, not to mention the remarkable success of the Finns Party in the 2011 election in Finland…and then of course, beyond Scandinavia, the Freedom Party in Austria since around 1986 and the Front National in France since at least 1982…we’ve been here before (not least on this blog).

As such, you have to wonder about the ‘maverick’ credentials of UKIP leader Nigel Farage (and indeed UKIP in general). As we have argued here before, a healthy traditional scepticism of ideology in Britain (which saw it by and large resist the trend for extreme authoritarian government models as seen across Europe during the economic crisis of the 1930s) seems to have given way to a rather more convergent populist right-wing model (and one, at this stage at least, with apparently far more momentum than Oswald Mosley’s New Party of the 1930s). In this sense, culturally at least, you wonder if UKIP really are bucking any particular trend on a continental scale and whether they are not as much the United Kingdom Independence Party as the United Kingdom Just Like Anywhere Else Party.

Nigel Farage: genuine maverick or part of a common European trend?

Nigel Farage: genuine maverick or part of a common European trend?

But that is not to belittle the success of UKIP in polls and at the ballot box – certainly not recently, anyway. Nor their contemporaries on the populist right spectrum in continental Europe, for that matter. The Sweden Democrats performed so well in September’s election that they once again served as a spoke in the wheel in preventing either the centre-left or centre-right blocs from forming a majority coalition (admittedly that sounds like a contradiction in terms).

There is little doubt that there was burgeoning dissatisfaction in Sweden with outgoing Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his Moderate-led coalition, especially on factors such as unemployment. Yet this simply didn’t translate into support for the Social Democrats in a way which would have once been considered a natural response (you only have to look at their far more convincing returns to power in 1982 and 1994, vote-wise, for evidence of this). Instead, the Social Democrats have to hope that a minority government with the Greens really is going to operate well in legislative terms. At the same time, they surely have to wonder if the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, don’t pose a threat to their disaffected voters.

Jimmie Åkesson - Farage-like in his gregariousness, and similarly putting a katt among the duvor

Jimmie Åkesson – Farage-like in his gregariousness, and similarly putting a katt among the political establishment’s duvor

Much the same can be said of the UK. The Guardian this week rightly nailed a key issue that has probably been latent (though perhaps less evident) since UKIP’s breakthrough in the European elections of 2004 – that UKIP are now not just getting votes from disillusioned traditional Labour voters, they’re consciously targeting those voters. The centre-left should be making hay out of concerns about wage stagnation, employment security, executive pay, food banks, zero-hours contracts, the future of the National Health Service and everything else. But it seems remarkably mute on such themes.

The more Labour fails to respond to the ebullient Farage (who has expertly tapped voter discontent), the more they face the prospect of (at best) a default minority government of their own with no convincing mandate or relief from the ongoing cultural right-wing pressure cooker or (at worst) another five years in opposition in which a Conservative-led government (in alliance with UKIP?) further validates, and builds on, the uncompromising economic and social agenda set out since 2010. Maybe Labour leader Ed Miliband needs to start looking to Sweden for some lessons (and ask why new Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven didn’t secure a convincing mandate two months ago) if he is going to break what looks like a very familiar pattern Europe-wide.

Ed Miliband - running out of time to put the populist right in its place?

Ed Miliband – running out of time to put the populist right in its place?

*Regarding the ‘quick’ in the headline here. These are ‘quick’ thoughts by my standards. I know I take time to elaborate on things. I acknowledge it but don’t make any apology for it.

Norway three years on: thinking of them forever

A short post to say that our hearts and our thoughts are with everyone in Norway today marking the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the country. A phrase that resonated on that day remains just as valid on this July 22nd and all those to come: I dag er vi alle nordmenn (today we are all Norwegians). We take the chance to repeat it every year. Wishing everyone in Norway (and indeed in all Norwegian communities worldwide) a peaceful July 22nd. 

50 ways of globally following Roger Federer

It’s early July, it’s a Sunday, and it’s still mostly lush and green at the All-England Tennis Club even if the grass has worn a little around the edges of the courts over the last two weeks of Wimbledon.

Maybe the same kind of description befits Roger Federer: a little worn around the edges career-wise at nearly 33, but still capable of finding green pastures results-wise when the occasion demands. He’s no longer a dead cert to be in the men’s final on a yearly basis, but on this early July Sunday in 2014, he’s there once again, with a chance of a record eighth Wimbledon singles title that would finally claw him free from fellow seven-timers Pete Sampras and William Renshaw. That said, he’s going to have to claw himself free from, and win three sets from, the redoubtable Novak Djokovic first. Subjectively speaking, it’s only Federer’s sense of occasion that seems to make this anything other than a pretty even, 50-50 battle in terms of pre-match prognosis.

There’s plenty of fervent and rhapsodic commentary across the Internet about the tennis skills and the personal charm of Federer: certainly enough for us to suggest that there’s not much more we can add to what’s already been said. But one thing about the Internet age (and the age of relatively cheap air travel) is that it has become easier to follow news and sport from all manner of locations.

Just as Paul Simon offered fifty ways to leave your lover (the number being symbolically important rather than mathematically accurate in the context of the song), we proffer some places and circumstances in which following Federer matches and catching up on the Swiss player’s results became a bizarre yet palpable rite of passage in its own way. Bizarre because a) we’re unlikely to ever meet the man; b) our tennis skills are rudimentary and we have a pretty good life of our own to be getting on with; yet palpable because, as former Wimbledon women’s champion Virginia Wade once perceptively articulated, a lot of tennis fans feel that they are living vicariously through Federer when watching him play even if they happily acknowledge that they can’t match his particular brand of talent. Plus c) where one happens to follow any sporting event is particular to oneself and takes on a vividness in its own right. We can only hope that what we have to write about this might chime with others instead of sounding self-indulgent. If it does we answer for that.

Let the list commence.

Completely wiped out from night shift work and going on a morning caffeine and pastry special in order to watch Federer’s victories on the other side of the globe against Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzales in the respective 2006 and 2007 Australian open finals. Being way too fidgety and sleep-starved in the early stages of both matches when both opponents demonstrated the sheer strength in depth of men’s tennis since around 2003 and really forced Federer onto the back foot;

Completely wiped out from night shift work and having to re-embark on afternoon living in the middle of a night shift watching the 2003 and 2004 Wimbledon finals. Same characteristics as above only more protracted. Somehow Andy Roddick’s frightening yet productive thwacking of the ball for the first couple of sets in the latter final seems more pertinent a memory than how Federer finally dealt with it;

All of the 2004 Wimbledon tournament and how others appeared to be living vicariously through Federer themselves. No sporting occasion in my lifetime has ever seemed more like a festival, as if people badly wanted the chance to see Federer playing even if they knew that in itself wouldn’t secure him the title. Two good examples being the eagerness of 1999 Wimbledon women’s champion Lindsey Davenport to watch a Federer match on her day off and Goran Ivanisevic almost surpassing himself for mercurial excitability when discussing the man himself on BBC television. I remember being in a CD chain store (one of those which has not outstayed Federer’s career) on the first or second day of the tournament and the woman serving me empathising with my anxiety to rush back with CDs in hand to watch the man himself: ‘It’s not about the serve, it’s not about the return, it’s about the everything.’

Watching on Ceefax (the prehistoric computerised BBC forerunner to the Internet) as the scores blinked up and renewed themselves in the 2005 Australian Open semi-final. A reminder that other people do know how to keep Federer at bay. Maybe the sheer torture of following a match in such laborious fashion might have eclipsed watching Federer unsuccessfully play a hot dog (a shot between the legs) at match point up against Marat Safin (who played brilliantly to beat Federer and then defeat Lleyton Hewitt to take the title). The match in its entirety is here; the hot dog is at 2:54:00.

Being in tropical Brazil when Federer won the 2005 US Open and was (unusually) reduced to second fiddle in terms of sport geekery on my culpable part. Blame England’s cricketers for finally winning an Ashes series against Australia on yet another continent or land mass around the same time. The Brazilian beaches and gorgeous acai sorbets awaited me; doing some Internet gannetry on Kevin Pietersen’s epic moment of series-clinchingness somehow got in the way. 

Moving house the day of THAT 2008 Wimbledon final. A curiously flat experience, or perversely vivid because it was flat. I just didn’t expect Federer to beat Rafael Nadal in a third Wimbledon final in a row. I’m sure millions did get absorbed in the match, and I did indeed find a Federer – Nadal Wimbledon final truly absorbing – just in 2007. Then I really had no idea who would win and Federer somehow pulled it out of the fire in the face of a mesmerising onslaught from the young Spaniard. Same can be said for the 2009 Australian Open final, when Nadal produced a masterful piece of matchplay over five sets to prevail on his less favoured surface (hard court) and provoke that rareity: Federer moved to tears by defeat. Maybe it’s a sign of real life and bathos intruding when you find yourself doing the laundry before the removal man arrives and following the match on a bad-quality analogue radio where the breathless passages of commentary don’t actually lift you from your torpor. I apologise to all Wimbledon 2008 finalites if that does sound like heresy.

And so to the Scandi connection. It doesn’t actually entail a match, much less following the lesser ATP tournaments, although I was doing that a lot via a very good internet cafe in London that served up sluicingly refreshing tonic water and lime cordial during the course of 2004. That was the same year I went to Stockholm for the second time and found myself wandering the side streets running parallel to the main shopping drag, Drottninggatan. They seemed ridiculously civilised and quiet compared to London (just as Drottninggatan often has about as much in common with Oxford Street as it does with Easter Island).

Amid the urban greenery, as if driven to a quiet moment after a frenetic work-hard-play-hard existence back in the big London smoke, I suddenly thought: ‘It’s the French Open soon. And Wimbledon. It’s Federer’s acid test. If he wins these both then the sky’s the limit.’ That was the holiday when I first saw the Gustav Vasa ship, improbably retrieved and brought to the surface of the water in Stockholm in 1961 some 333 years after it sank. The effort of building and then retrieving the vast ship denotes humankind’s capacity over the centuries to the test the skies.

On a smaller (yet still intimate) scale, Federer reached for, but did not completely scale, the sky heights in 2004. He went out to three-time former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros but still finally realised his position as the truly dominant force in the game, winning three majors and the end-of-year Masters and going 72-6 for the year.

For all the statistics, it’s the manner in which Federer in that year produced one of the most beautiful yet devastating displays in sporting history, his demolition of Hewitt in the 2004 US Open final, which evokes that old ain’t-just-what-you-do-it’s-the-way-that-you-do-it truism (especially true of an athlete where, as we have seen, the aesthetics play a big part). I severely doubt that if – and if – he beats Djokovic today, it will be as easy. That’s why I also hearken back to what I thought on that May evening in Stockholm ten years ago which serves as good advice as the final looms: it’s sport. Don’t get precious about it. Enjoy it while it lasts. Vicariously or otherwise.

Why Bulgaria reminds me of Finland. Or vice versa

This is my second visit to Bulgaria in quick succession after a very successful trip to Sofia and Shumen last September. Thus far this particular break in the city of Ruse, on the Romanian border in the north-east and overlooking the Danube, has been an unqualified success. Once again, however, I have found myself instinctively comparing Bulgaria to Finland on numerous counts. How can it be that one country invites parallels with one in such a different geographic (and climactic) part of Europe? Time for a point-by-point checklist, I guess.

1) They’re both at a geographic and cultural crossroads, not quite easily definable within a bloc of countries or states and yet sharing similarities with all the countries around them. Finland is certainly one of the Nordic countries, but there is an age-old debate about whether it is part of Scandinavia per se. The border with, and certain cultural affinities with, Russia underline this particular point; I remember once reading that Helsinki had the best Russian restaurants in the world prior to the end of the Cold War. And yet it’s a country where Swedish is the second language and where Estonia, with its highly similar language, is a quick (and often drink-fuelled) hydrofoil ride away.

Same can be said for Bulgaria. A bit too far south to be solidly within Eastern Europe. Plenty of Turkish heritage courtesy of centuries of Ottoman rule, but independent since the early 20th century (rather like Finland freeing itself from Russian rule at more or less exactly the same time). Cuisine similar to Greece and Romania, but no shared alphabet with either neighbour. The sense of other-wordliness has seemed more potent to me since I’ve been in Ruse; I’m sure I read somewhere that Romania seems like a distant and nebulous entity to many residents here rather than somewhere just over the river. On a personal level, this has been compounded for me by the fact that in the stifling summer heat, it becomes problematic trying to move any significant amount of distance in the city (never mind towards the 1950s Danube Bridge that takes you into, or out of, Romania).

And yet Romania seems so far away

And yet Romania seems so far away

2) Historical religious diversity. In a modern context, we’re used to the idea in post-Cold War multicultural metropolitan centres within Europe; in a historical context, we’re also used to the idea with regards to places in the Middle East such as Jerusalem and Beirut. But how about the Orthodox cathedral on Helsinki waterfront standing only a few hundred metres from the Lutheran cathedral, and both of them being very visually distinctive and prominent? That’s on a par with the historical mosque in Sofia standing close to the Sveta Nedelya church right in the centre of the city. The funny parallel in both instances is that this religious diversity in these two countries is easily overlooked (I’ve been as guilty of it in my time as anyone else) and yet seems perfectly understandable when one is in the countries themselves and sees the buildings close up. Well, that’s my experience at least.

Helsinki: where this (the Lutheran cathedral) is not too far away from...

Helsinki: where this (the Lutheran cathedral) is not too far away from…

...that. Orthodox Christianity is a common feature of life in both Finland and Bulgaria

…that. Orthodox Christianity is a common feature of life in both Finland and Bulgaria

3) Great folk music that doesn’t fit in anywhere else. Except (maybe, just maybe) in the other country. We’ve written our love letter to Finnish folk legends Värttinä here before, but their piercing, haunting, idiosyncratic vocal melodies are so, so redolent of the renowned Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares recordings. In the same way that Värttinä randomly and effortlessly deploy all sorts of time signatures, so I remember first seeing folk music in that far-from-familiar 9/16 rhythm, courtesy of the Bulgarian tune Diacove. Maybe that’s Bulgarian music for you: I’ve spent the best part of a year listening to a CD by the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra and dividing my time between trying to work out the melodies and trying to work out the rhythms.

4) Sudden unexpected outbreaks of easy listening music. When I was in Tampere in late June 2010 and took a boat trip to the nearby island of Viikinsaari, I thought that the Midsummer celebrations would be defined by all that idiosyncratic folk music about which I have eulogised. Instead of which we got some very nice (but relatively low-key) waltzes played a bloke with a synthesizer. Ditto being in outstanding and thoroughly authentic (in terms of local cuisine) restaurants in Shumen and Ruse this year and last, where Bulgarian-language versions of I Just Called To Say I Love You (and some standard English-language pop covers) by a similar keyboardist/guitarist were par for the course.

Schmalzy? Well, actually, no; what was endearing on both occasions was a) the fact the musicians were making a concerted effort to entertain; b) the local contingent really enjoyed it. There’s something to be said for people actually getting up and doing old-style waltzes to the waltzes that are being played, as happened in Tampere that day. Maybe this thing does take place all over the world, but in all my years of travelling, it has seemed most conspicuous in these two countries. If, in its own way, it’s a genuine part of authentic local culture, well, why not?

5) Fab and completely underrated food. It’s not so long since former French president Jacques Chirac made some well-publicised (and snooty) comments about Finnish cuisine, but I’m reaching the point where I think the meals I had which were made with the most loving deliberation and care were in these two particular countries.

To quote an example from Finland, at Midsummer 2003 I feasted on fried whiting, game sausage and, to finish off, soft white cheese with cloudberry jam and cinnamon cream in a Lapp restaurant in Helsinki. In particular, the dessert was a really fine-tuned balancing act. I have always found cloudberry jam hardcore, a collision of sweet and sour that necessitates being doled out, and being complemented by exactly the right other foodstuffs, in exactly the right amounts. Job done that day: just a dab of jam, a modest square of cheese and a thin, but telling layer of spice-speckled cream to create a balancing act that seemed worthy of culinary Taoism (but for the fact that would involve Yin, Yang and Something Else).

Same goes for just about all the meals I have had in Bulgaria. The fish soup we have had more or less every night here in Ruse has (probably) got better by the night. What has been really impressive is the way the accompanying veg in the soup (potatoes, peppers, carrot) has been prepared. I thought crinkle-cut spuds only existed in the relatively unclassy frozen chip format, but here the potatoes are both cut into smaller, cube-like pieces and crinkle-cut and possibly cooked in (at least) two different ways as well; they taste as if they’ve somehow been marinaded (is that possible?), parboiled and parfried without turning into a dissolute mess or a skyscraper of carby greasiness in the process. Next to the fresh Danube fish in the soup, they take on a diaphanous, even silky, quality for the common spud that is both both unexpected and pleasing.

The Hotel Anna Palace, Ruse. Where I have stayed and dined this week

The Hotel Anna Palace, Ruse. Where I have stayed and dined this week. Now compare and contrast with image below

Bulgaro yellow neo-classical, neo-Rococo architectural similarities coming to the fore

Mustion Linna, Finland. See those yellow neo-classical, neo-Rococo architectural and aesthetic similarities coming to the fore

It’s not clear to me at this point what, if any, specific recipes might be common to both countries: maybe the access to high-quality, locally-sourced meat, fish, veg and grain in two agriculturally potent and relatively under-industrialised countries is a more telling common denominator than any particular recipe or recipes. What has been obvious in both countries is a sense of quiet, unshakeable pride and courteousness among those who have served the food.

Upon leaving Helsinki on that 2003 trip, I had apple cake and rhubarb and strawberry cake at the airport cafe. Both cakes were incredibly good; I told my work colleague (and fellow foodie) about them upon returning to England, and he articulated what I hadn’t managed to (possibly out of surprise) since returning: that they may well have been home-made and brought in by the cafe staff. I think my surprise was compounded (at the time) by the fact that the girl at the pay till smiled serenely and said: ‘Would you like some vanilla sauce?’ She was wearing a crisp blue and white dress that could have indeed passed for a variant on traditional national costume. The contrast with buying cellophane-wrapped, additive-aspyhixiated, overpriced crap from a flustered, underpaid staff member at a classic faceless customers-on-a-conveyor-belt chain outlet in an equally faceless airport terminal in certain other countries could not have been starker.

I have been reminded of that dignity and downright niceness this week when being waited on at the hotel restaurant. Normally I have eaten soup and then shared some salad and a traditional Bulgarian dish with my other half, and finished off (the savoury courses at least) with a modest amount of meat, just for the variety of taste as much as anything else. It is possible to order a cut of meat and no side dishes here: a concept probably more familiar to British greasy spoon ‘make your own breakfast’ cafes than it is to British restaurants, not for any good reason (that’s my polite way of saying I would like to see more of this at home, and at competitive prices).

Anyway. One night this week, I ordered a meatball. The waiter frowned a little, then smiled serenely and confidentially himself. ‘Really,’ he said. ‘You should have more than one. It’s the taste.’

He was right. Quality and quantity did converge. They were sumptuous, charred, herb-laden mini-burgers of sorts. In the plural. Because I did have more than one. Just as I had the vanilla sauce in Helsinki eleven years previously.