As I sit here in my Sarah Lund Fair Isle sweater, polishing my boxed sets of Borgen and nibbling on a small piece of herring, it briefly occurs to me that perhaps I too have fallen victim to the prevailing mania for all things Scandinavian. Just about the only person who’s stayed resistant, it seems, is Michael Booth, the author of this book.
At home in Copenhagen — he’s married to a Dane — watching the incessant drizzle falling through the perpetual twilight, Booth begins to think he’s losing his mind. How come every survey ever commissioned into human happiness puts the Scandinavians at the top of the list?, he wonders. It doesn’t make sense — especially not when all the Scandinavians Booth meets are frosty, charmless and even more emotionally constipated than the British.
And that’s not all. Their food is filthy and their telly — with certain notable exceptions — rubbish. Even the Scandinavians themselves seem baffled by their alleged contentment. ‘We are all so boring and stiff,’ one Swede tells him, not without a tiny glimmer of pride.
In an attempt to plum the mysteries of the ‘Nordic miracle’, Booth sets off on a grand tour of the region. It soon becomes clear that anyone who thinks that happiness has anything to do with hard work is hopelessly wide of the mark. The Danes turn out to be astonishingly lazy, with over 20 per cent of the population doing no work at all. As for the others, they do work, but in a very desultory way, knocking off every day at 4 p.m. and vanishing from their desks en masse on Fridays on the stroke of one o’clock.
The reason so many Danes can get away with not working, of course, is because the rest of them pay so much tax. Danes have the highest taxes in the world — their basic rate of income tax is 42 per cent. They’re massively in hock too, having the highest debt-to-income ratio in the Western world.
Hot on their heels come the Icelanders. As far as I know Iceland has never topped any poll to do with human happiness — certainly not in the last few years — but Booth goes there anyway, on the grounds that it’s ‘more Scandinavian than Scandinavia’.
There he finds the food is even filthier than in Denmark: in one place he’s offered something called a Hamburger New Fashion which comes with lashings of tandoori sauce, camembert and parma ham. Although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit a country where — according to yet another survey — 54.4 per cent of the population believe in elves, it’s hard not to warm to somewhere that had to axe their version of The X Factor after three series as they’d run out of contestants.
If you want to know why Norwegians are so happy, you don’t need to know anything about psychology: just look at their balance of payments. A treaty signed in 1965 gave Norway the richest oil fields in the North Sea. As for the Danes, they got next to nothing. Ever since, there have been rumours that the then Danish foreign minister — who happened to be an alcoholic — was drunk when he signed the treaty and failed to notice that the line on the map was in the wrong place.
If anything, the Norwegians are even lazier than the Danes, with a heroic one third of them being on indefinite gardening leave. They’re also fiercely isolationist, so much so that in 2011 the entire country was reported to have run out of butter.
While Finland may have the best schools and the hottest saunas — in 2013 a Russian competitor at the annual Finnish Sauna World Championships died after the temperature was turned up to 110 degrees centigrade — the pick of the bunch appears to be Sweden. Everyone from David Cameron to Barack Obama wants to do things the Swedish way, with one of the few exceptions being the American feminist Susan Sontag, who lived there in the 1970s and reckoned it was a dump. Even Swedish pornography was ‘the wrong kind’, she declared — ‘like illustrations from some male gynaecologist’s encyclopaedia’.
This is a strangely schizophrenic book. On the one hand Michael Booth is a dogged investigator, always going off to interview some business leader or academic (‘My next meeting was with Ove Kaj Pedersen, head of the Copenhagen Business School and one of the most respected economists in the Nordic region’). But on the other, he’s a frenetic wisecracker who never stops sticking his elbow in your ribs.
This can make for a wearying combination. There are some odd omissions too. Although he’s travelled all over Scandinavia, there’s little sense of place, or even of the Scandinavians themselves. Like the secret of their happiness, they stay shimmeringly out of Booth’s reach. Either that, or they just saw him coming.