Scandinavia and Nordicism

I picked up on Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the north (Amazon) by Robert Ferguson via a review in the TLS. More reviews: Scandi gloom | Irish Times.

Hailed by Richard Eyre as essential reading “for anyone interested in the allure of the Scandinavian landscape, character, history and literature”, I was interested to see how the book would tie in with the UK’s Scandimania, so availed myself of a review copy.

Ferguson has lived in Norway since 1983 and has a largely Norwegian-focused back catalogue. As he himself attests, his Scandinavia is based on “a 19th century dream”.

His first idea was to take a road trip along European route E6 from Trelleborg in Skåne to Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border in a quest for the Scandinavian sense of melancholy. This might have worked, but instead the book is a retelling of historical episodes from the Vikings to WW2, combined with lengthy sections rooted in the literary life of Oslo.

While the commonalities of the three core Scandinavian countries, a crucial part of their self-image, cannot be denied, I’m wary of seeing them as essentially the same. A glance at the map shows puny Denmark at the bottom left hand corner of a landmass stretching, well, true north, an obligatory side-step on Ferguson’s road trip. This geographical difference has implications which are frequently overlooked due to the Danes’ lengthy political dominance of the region. Further, Sweden features very little in Ferguson’s retelling, and with the book’s acknowledgements including one “for help with questions on matters of Danish culture and language” it seems that perspectives may be a little constrained.

The dust jacket (re)states that the quintessential Scandinavian is perceived as “tolerant, socially progressive and possessed of a gently introspective melancholia”. The bagside of the first two is touched on, with a discussion of Janteloven (“the requirement for a degree of social conformity that some found – and still do find – oppressive”), noting that famous Scandinavian artists, writers and filmmakers tend to be extreme figures, “ferociously individualistic and fuelled by a kind of cornered anger”. (Likewise, celebrities tend to go over the top at the drop of a hat.)

Where we are really in trouble though is with the issue of melancholy, supposedly the heart of the book. I’ve never connected this with Denmark, and indeed fairly early on Ferguson is told in one of his name-dropping conversations with writers, here with Danish poet Jesper Mølby (can’t trace), that “we Danes aren’t melancholic”. Bleak maybe, it is conceded, but lacking the romance of melancholia. Ibsen is with me on geographical determinism, “convinced that it was the topography of Norway that made its people so secretive, so brooding, so guilt-ridden”, but we can also see an element of correlation not causation at work: “it was almost as though Scandinavians had embraced the cliché as truth”.

Danish culture offers up two gloomy personalities for discussion. Of the first, the melancholia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be attributed to English fashions of the time and a popularity for all things Danish following the marriage of James VI & I to Anne of Denmark, an early example of Scandinavian allure. The character of Hamlet may even be based on John Dowland, an English lutenist at the court of Christian IV.

The second gloomy Dane, Kierkegaard, is presented here as a cautionary tale on individuality. Ferguson’s interlocutor descriibes him railing against “the Christianity of the Danish state church [which] took all the power and danger and challenge out of stuff”, resulting in an ‘asymmetrical paternalism’ which refuses to recognise the existence of bad or even alternative thoughts and treats the thinker of them as a ‘victim in need of treatment’. Today, substitute the welfare state and a system of unwritten social rules for the church and you have a society where diversity is as rare as it is welcomed. Ironically, in Denmark the popular view of Kierkegaard is as doomed lover.

Ferguson has a subscription to glossy Danish archaeology magazine Skalk, and Vikingery features large, as well it might. As far as I’m concerned all that was done and dusted in Primary 3, along with Robert the Bruce and his spider, although I have re-visited things slightly after trips to Orkney and the Faroes. It’s notable though that Scottish/Celtic Viking connections are Norway related, while England’s Viking invaders hailed from Denmark. Their heartlands are to be found on Jutland, a small world away from today’s Copenhagen, if not exactly rugged or remote. If William the Conqueror had sailed east, things could have been rather different.

Moving on, of the 15 chapters a good handful have a Danish story at their heart – Denmark is the one with the history, albeit one of constant shrinkage all the way up to 1864 (“tensions over Slesvig and Holsten had flared up again”), a national trauma recently commemorated in a Sunday evening TV series which didn’t export too well. With Copenhagen a centre for German culture in the 18th century and many Spuren (traces) to be found in the city, Germany’s influence on Danish culture feels generally under-explored.

Many of the retellings in the book are reproduced in the form of conversations with local literati – this framing device doesn’t work for me, not least because it comes over second hand, with a touch of the unreliable narrator about it. Other chapters, in particular that on the Scandi experience of WW2, may well be mainly the output of diligent desk research, while a 50 page interlude, a play called Ibsen’s ghosts, is out of place. All in all it’s a bit of an oddity, and not one for the Scandi fanbase looking for the comforts of hygge (nary a trace) or Booth-like repartee. Plus it cites Norway as the world’s happiest country, surely some mistake?

At the end of the book Ferguson reflects on his experience of moving to another country:

I began thinking again about immigration and the rootlessness that comes when it doesn’t work out. I was lucky. Even though I was an immigrant, I never thought of myself that way. I had chosen to come to Norway out of a deep attraction to what I knew of the culture. For me, it was and remains a peculiar sort of honour simply to be allowed to live here.

This sums up the book, focused on the allure of the classic Scandinavian dream and ranging too widely to present a more nuanced picture. As Ferguson is finally almost happy to concede, the narrative of melancholy is a cliché, a literary illusion based on “all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians” and an expression of Nordicism. The local experience may be rather different.

Nordicism and its clichés

So, the Scandinavian dream and its attendant Nordicism is an external creation of a familiar type – see Edward Said’s OrientalismOccidentalism and a list of other isms, right down to nesting Orientalisms. Nordicism is less explored, awaiting critique akin to Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (review), or Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania (Misha Glenny reviews both). I haven’t even come across a ‘how to write about’ piece (The BalkansAfrica…).

Maybe Nordicism is just in a different place on the hype cycle. A handful of titles examine the allure of the north and the UK’s relation to it, going so far as to ask: Is the UK really in Scandinavia, with an ancient geographic link via Doggerland (article)?

The Nordicist image of Scandinavia/Denmark (they tend to blur together) is a weird combo of Nordic noir (why the long face) and hygge (why so happy) – both through a distorted lens. Resorting to linkage:

For me the happiness thing comes down to glass half full vs glass half empty countries. Being ironically negative is part of the British DNA, one reason why the Danish gritted teeth style of happiness may grate on some. On the other side of the coin we have Bulgaria, 134th out of 158 countries in the 2015 World Happiness Report. Risa Buzatova explores Bulgaria’s consistently poor scoring: while happiness, or perhaps contentment, can be found in countries rich (Denmark) and poor (Bhutan), “Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride”. (Update: the 2017 World Happiness Report has Denmark slip below Norway at 2nd, with Bulgaria up a tad at 105th, the sixth highest rise.)

Finally, The Conversation debunks hygge by invoking Vikingery. It seems the allure of the Scandinavian dream will be around for a while yet.

And just to clear things up…

  • purists define the Scandinavian countries as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, perhaps with the addition of Iceland and the Faroes, both of which were under Norwegian and then Danish rule for centuries
  • include Finland at your peril, although it was under Swedish rule until 1809 – now you are talking about the Nordics
  • Orkney and Shetland were under Norwegian rule until 1472 and hence have Scandinavian heritage – they form a nice contrast with the Faroes, originally settled by Celts
  • Nordicism is not a purely UK phenomenon – it has certainly reached Belgium, and my US based cousin is currently experiencing the arrival of hygge on the other side of the Atlantic

Updates: came across a 2012 piece, which basically says look how European we areImmigration to Denmark is nothing new – just ask the Vikings…Knut Skjærven, a Norwegian photographer living in Copenhagen for many years, asked in a kronik in Berlingske (2 March): Hvordan undgår jeg at blive dansk? (how do I avoid becoming Danish; via Infomedia) – a slightly misleading title, however the piece underlines some of the differences between the two countries outlined above:

I Danmark tænker man horisontalt over flade marker. I Norge tænker man vertikalt op og ned ad bjerge. Neuronerne er koblet forskelligt. Og det er ganske vist.

And here’s Times Resonant on the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed:

…language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

Footsteps and sidetracks: adventures, explorations and reflections

Came across Richard Holmes (1945- ) via a review of his latest, This long pursuit: reflections of a Romantic biographer, “a glorious series of essays on the art of life writing and a worthy successor to his earlier volumes on the craft” (vs DJ Taylor in The Times: a “career-celebrating miscellany”). The library obliged with said earlier volumes.

The first, Footsteps: adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985), at first glance dwelt rather more on nuts and bolts than anything particularly essayistic and didn’t live up to the blurb (“a daring mix of travel, biographical sleuthing and personal memoir”), possibly because biography, or maybe creative non-fiction, has changed a lot in the last 30 years. A further issue was the subject matter, centred around the English Romantics in France and Italy and hence neither my time nor place. Possibly not the best place to start – chronological order doesn’t always work : p

Better luck with the second volume, Sidetracks: explorations of a Romantic biographer (2000), which consists of shorter pieces, described thus in the prologue:

A biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and a purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook…it includes two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material; to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.

This is useful, and in the best tradition of curated reading sent me back to Footsteps (which we now know was compiled from sketches written during 1980-85), where Holmes “questions his own art and the impulses which drive him on a quest” through the lens of place.

The first section of Footsteps takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Holmes retraced Stevenson’s journey in 1964, accompanied by a 1936 textbook edition “on the curriculum of generations of English and Scottish schoolchildren” (including I suspect my mother, a fan of Modestine) and described as a “model of polite essay-writing”. Essay-subjects (clearly a fan of the hyphen) given in an appendix include, delightfully, “What are the respective advantages of a walking, cycling, motoring, and caravaning tour?”

This was Holmes’ initiation into the art of biography, and while he notes that the route of Stevenson’s travels has been marked out, “leading the pilgrim from one point de vue to the next and bringing him safely down each evening to some recommended hotel”, he has no desire to return.

Section two marks 1968, the year of revolution in Paris, with a foray into that earlier revolution of 1789, as witnessed by the English Romantics and the White’s Hotel group of expats. He hits his stride with Mary Wollstonecraft, discussing the various likenesses of her which survive and chronicling her two year sojourn in France (1792-94), when she lived for a period in Le Havre with Gilbert Imlay and the ill-fated baby Fanny.

Holmes sees the impact of the French Revolution for the English as lying in the thirty years after Mary’s death, when the next generation, “one of the most brilliant literary circles that has ever existed”, returned to Europe. This is explored in section three, Exiles, on Shelley, Mary Shelley (who spent some time in Dundee at the age of 15/16) and Claire Clairmont in Italy, anno 1972: “my urge was to go directly to the original materials – and most especially to the places – for myself…I drifted without contact through the tourist crowds of the cities”.

Section four covers unfamiliarly unfamiliar ground, in Paris once more in 1976: “a calm, picturesque city; that is to say, a city of pictures. It celebrated the idea of the flâneur, the man who drifts round the streets, gazing at everything that meet his eye”. This results in an interest in photography, in particular the birth of portrait photography, via the archives of Felix Nadar, and to a new subject, Gérard de Nerval (of pet lobster fame), described by Proust as “one of three or four most important French writers of the 19th century” (he also features in Gros’ The philosophy of walking). At the end of this section Holmes comments: “My taste for travel and my ear for footsteps had diminished, it seemed. I was thirty, and it was time to consider the way I should go myself.”

Sidetracks, made up of seven sections each with a brief introduction, covers much of the same ground, but this time from the angle of how Holmes has moved from subject to subject over a nearly thirty year period. An early essay on 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton, described as “my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'”, led Holmes onto his first major subject, Shelley, while a period in Paris in the 1970s resulted in an unpublished 400 page biography and a radio play with the leitmotif of de Nerval.

Sketches and essays written for The Times present a series of experiments with style and storytelling aimed at ‘sidetracking’ the reader, such as “different narrative voices, entering at odd angles, reading facts through fiction or poetry, risking melodrama, facetiousness and sentimentality”. Holmes also returns to Mary Wollstonecraft, persuading Penguin to republish William Godwin’s memoir coupled with the essay she wrote on her travels in Scandinavia (invaluable material for another day) – the piece here is his expanded introduction, a blend of historical research and literary criticism.

Two further sections consist of more Shelley, with pieces written during research for a biography on Coleridge (“a case of pure sidetracking” in the form of an account of a found manuscript and a radio play on Shelley’s last days in Italy) and more Paris in the form of three pieces celebrating the city during 1994-95 while enjoying a “long dreamy trail of daily walks and wanderings” with novelist Rose Tremain. (My personal sidetrack from here leads us back to Tremain’s Music and silence (1999) about Christian IV of Denmark, which I have failed to read several times, and once again the story of Caroline Matilda – and now its contemporary reception via Mary Wollstonecraft – described in A royal affair, a novel I did read by Stella Tillyard, remembered as by Tremain…)

The final section, with the title Homage to the Godfather, consists of three pieces on (or around) James Boswell, written during a research period on Dr Johnson (1990-94). This is where things start to get really meta, with biography as a literary form increasingly popular, a new sub-section of creative non-fiction.

So where did Holmes go next? As it turns out to the bestselling The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008) and Falling upwards: how we took to the air (2013; review), on the history of ballooning. This breaks his hitherto meticulous chronology, which resulted in a major work around every 15 years and roughly four year periods of research, not necessarily overlapping.

His latest however continues the 15 year cycle of meta-works on the art of biography. Now in reflective mode, it consists of five personal confessions, five restorations and five afterlives, including a “fantasy alternative of Shelley’s middle age”.

The Amazon excerpt dishes up two approaches to writing biography:

  • the Footsteps principle: the biographer must physically pursue his subject, going to all the places s/he has lived, worked, travelled or dreamed – the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places
  • the two-sided notebook concept: a notebook with a form of ‘double accounting’, consciously dividing between the objective and the subjective (in Footsteps he describes the fragments of his own travels becoming scattered and disjointed, while those of Shelley’s become “ever more intricate and detailed and dark”

Taking the three volumes together gives an interesting insight into the work of the biographer, with in Holmes’ case 200 working notebooks used and reused over a period of decades.

And while it’s still a moot point for me how far you need to have an active interest in the subject, it proves the adage that the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. I’ll be taking a look at Holmes’ latest just as soon as the library can supply it.

Postscript: on a YouTube vid from 2008 Holmes gives his 10 commandments for biography. Worth a look. Plus The long pursuit is R4’s Book of the Week from 12 December.

Landmarks: the modern house in Denmark

Picked up on this coffee table book by Michael Sheridan somewhere or other. The library duly obliged.

Sheridan’s landmarks are 14 ‘single-family houses’ from the 1950s and early 1960s, “cultural landmarks designed to become part of the natural setting with an intimate relationship to the landscape”, dubbed humanistic modernism:

Simple and unpretentious forms, the celebration of craft and organic materials, a profound attention to human comfort…at once rational and romantic, sober and sensual, elegant and economical, deeply humane.

The houses, and the book, are indeed lovely things, if set to be filed under ‘Exclusive’.

Sheridan opens proceedings with an extended essay on the development of the detached house during the 20th century. As we have seen, unlike in Germany most architects in Denmark rejected “the industrial aesthetic and clean break with tradition” of 1920s modernism, remaining focused on neoclassicism. The origins of Danish functionalism can instead be found in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, with Erik Gunnar Asplund as chief architect. Asplund’s vision was of “a warm, sensuous modernism grounded in the experience of the individual” and a Romantic view of nature.

The Danish translation of this ‘humanistic’ version of modernism idealised the garden rather than the factory and was based on a vernacular ideal. Said Kay Fisker (perhaps “the most influential Danish architect of the 20th century”):

We strive after an architecture that serves people, which conforms to nature and isn’t intrusive, on the contrary; it tries to be anonymous.

This explains a lot about Danish architecture, if not Denmark itself, right up to the present day.

Anyway, after 1932 the yellow brick box with asymmetrical windows and a gently pitched roof became the model for the detached house in Denmark, based on Fisker et al’s design for Aarhus University.

‘Funkis’ developed further after WW2 with the adoption of ideas about space and structure from the US and Japan. During the 1950s houses were frequently financed by state loans, restricting the floor area to 130m and limiting construction costs. Hence bedrooms were small and corridors largely eliminated, replaced by a communal living area oriented towards the garden.

In place of the brick box with windows these houses were conceived as a set of independent elements. Load-bearing walls were constructed from brick and timber, with open frames connected by large areas of insulated glass. Structural elements were often left exposed, with ceilings, interior walls and floors covered with untreated wood, stone tiles or natural fibres.

The end of the 1950s saw the closure of the state loan scheme, and the Danish housebuilding industry began to embrace standardisation and prefabrication in the shape of the typehus. Buyers could select their new home from a catalogue or a group of model houses, often erected as part of a competition or exhibition. Two architects, Henrik Iversen and Harald Plum (nephew of maverick WW1 profiteer Harald Plum), developed a series of 12 IP Typehuse of assorted sizes. Hundreds of IP houses were constructed up to 1985, with Iversen and Plum working with local builders to ensure quality.

The early promise of the typehus was however quickly overwhelmed by economic factors, with uniformity replacing innovation. More than 450K typehuse were constructed around Denmark over the course of 20 years, built at the rate of 50 per day, typically in clusters of around 20, and transforming both the landscape and society. These houses were long, rectangular boxes resting on a concrete slab, with prefabricated wooden roof trusses. Brickwork was reduced to a set of freestanding walls that sometimes extended beyond the interior, with gaps filled by windows.

So much for the diversion into mass housing. Sheridan presents 14 ‘landmark’ houses from the period in loving detail. Most are still private homes, with a handful saved for the nation by Realdania (English), who then let them out, in what always seems to me a bit of a weird move.

The earliest house presented is Jørn Utzon’s house (1952; Arkark) in Hellebæk just north of Helsingør. It was Utzon’s first completed work, and remained his base for the rest of his life. Also by Utzon is the House on Stilts (1953; Arkark) built for interior designer Svend Middelboe, raised one storey to make the most of the lakeside views.

Jørn Utzon’s house (1952)

Some architects employed creative solutions to get round the size restrictions imposed by the state loan scheme. Eva & Nils Koppels’ house (1952; Arkark) for the appropriately named heating engineer Jørgen Varming in Gentofte had a double height living area, while Karen & Ebbe Clemmensens’ house (1954; Arkark) in Jægersborg (“near a heritage-listed bog”, says Realdania) added a studio to the living area.

Sheridan includes two houses by Erik Christian Sørensen, who later embraced Brutalism and was responsible for not least the 1969 Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, now, alas, in need of renovation. His own house in Jægersborg (1955, Arkark) featuring load-bearing outer walls offering flexibility, a gently (30 degree) pitched roof covered with felt, and, unusually for Denmark, no cellar, was much copied by typehus builders, while the house he built for for Mee Tholstrup (1955; Arkark) on the hyper-desirable Rungsted Kyst sold in late 2014 for DK 6 million.

But the most fabulous house in the selection for me is Knud Friis’ house (1958, extended in 1970; Arkark) in Brabrand on the edge of Aarhus, dubbed “early ‘mild’ Brutalism” – no doubt the neighbours dubbed it The Bunker – run a close second by Arne Jacobsen’s house for Erik Siesby (1959; Arkark) in Sorgenfri. On the other hand Halldor Gunnløgsson’s house (1959; Arkark) on Rungsted Strandvej tips over into oh-so-sterile Scandi.

Knud Friis' house

Knud Friis’ house (1958)

I’m also less moved than many by Bo & Wohlert’s Louisiana, it’s just too staged, and the same can be said for the house they built for Arne Bøgh Andersen, aka the Ambassador’s House (1961; Arkark), also on Rungsted Strandvej, a modified version of Ønskehuset from a 1959 exhibition. Wohlert is also represented by an extension built for no other than physicist Niels Bohr’s summer house (1957) in Tisvilde, taking timber to its limits.

Better is the Bendix-Harboe house (1959; Arkark) in Charlottenlund, built by Knud Peter Harboe (1959). Knud gets a post in Graham McKay’s Misfits series, well worth a look, with pics also of some of the other ‘landmark’ houses.

Sheridan’s oversized baker’s dozen is rounded out by:

  • Poul & Hanne Kjærholm’s house (1962) on Rungsted Kyst; Hanne (1930-2009) was a woman architect of note, married to furniture designer Poul, with whom she designed picnic areas with concrete tables and toilets, now those I’d like to see
  • Inger & Johannes Exner’s house (1961; Arkark) in Skodsborg, the only one we have bagged so far, defying the passive-aggressive stares of the tenant to take a couple of snaps (there’s a Bronze Age burial mound in the garden, supposedly the site of trysts between Caroline Mathilde and Struensee, but where wasn’t?)

All bar one of the 14 houses are situated north of Copenhagen, in the so-called Whisky Belt, a favoured area for architects rather like Peredelkino for writers near Moscow. While it’s fun reading up on the architects and building a picture of the connections, there’s also mileage in keeping an eye open for less illustrious versions locally – as it happens our house was modelled on a competition house of the period and exhibits several now familiar features, such as a closed frontage with large windows opening onto an extensive garden, and a flexible interior, evidenced by the marks where internal walls have been put up and taken down. A fair few modernist inspired gems have been found on our daily walks as well.

modernist inspired house at Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Birke Allé 19, Hvidovre (1964)

Landmarks is also available på dansk as Mesterværker, published by Strandberg in 2011, with an accompanying TV series.

Ground control in Copenhagen

I’ve been catching up with some urbanist reading lately, starting with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, moving onto Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism and back to earth with John Grindrod’s Concretopia.

Yesterday I polished off Anna Minton’s Ground control (2009 edition). Having worked as an infopro in urban development environments for most of my career it all feels rather like coming home, although some of the jargon has changed, and Ground control helped to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions raised by our recent trip to London.

urbanist classics

my one note reading pile

What made me sit up though were the references to Denmark. To me central Copenhagen feels like the privatised public spaces described in the ‘Clean and safe’ chapter:

One of the problems the new ‘clean and safe’ parts of the city wrestle with is how to make places exciting. All too often they are strangely sterile, soulless and lacking in atmosphere, as the drive to create new places places little attention to real historic and cultural identity…

The contradiction is that while the managers of business districts want to create a ‘buzz’ and an atmosphere, they plan entertainment very carefully…the unexpected rarely happens…the growing micro-management of activities threatens to design out lingering and wandering around.

In Copenhagen the “authoritarianism and control” is innate, it doesn’t need to be imposed or enforced. Undesirable people (homeless, groups of youngsters, political protestors) and activities just don’t happen – or only when the Brøndby fans come to town. There is definitely the “feeling of an invisible hand directing what is going on”, with a chain of near identical public places “produced according to the same tick-box recipe”, changing and deadening the atmosphere and resulting in “participants who are unable to depart from the script”.

There’s a lot of idyllic Danery in the civil society section. In the chapter on fear of crime, ‘R/respect’, trust and happiness Minton discusses the role of strangers in cities in preserving the essence of civility and safety. Richard Senett (1977) described the city as the place “where strangers are likely to meet”, defining ‘civility’ as “treating others as strangers and forging a social bond based on that distance”. Jane Jacobs (1961) based her case on “natural surveillance”, built around the informal social controls of strangers, “eyes on the street”, resulting in an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves”.

Hence the role of strangers determines levels of trust in places, a “trust between strangers which occurs naturally in healthy places and is still part of daily life to a far greater degree in countries like Denmark”. The use of the word ‘like’ seems crucial here, as this statement goes against widespread reportage by internationals and the concept of ‘negative politeness’ as a key Danish value, which on a bad day can verge on the passive aggressive.

Minton notes that trust and happiness are highest in Scandinavian countries “like Denmark”, where “stark, visible differences between social groups are also among the lowest”. Networks of likeminded people, rather than “places which promote the diversity of strangers”, increase trust and social capital: “The more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust one anyone”. So there you have it. Danes “unconsciously trust each other and look out for each other” because they are all the same.

Plus there are downsides. “Life is no fun if it is perfectly safe…More importantly, when life becomes too safe, paradoxically we become more fearful and less trusting, as the natural human bonds which occur spontaneously between people are stifled”. An article in Politiken this weekend asked if Danes are addicted to tryghed (safety, security). It’s possible to see Denmark as a protected environment on a national scale, its own little homongenous enclave with an inwardly focused national discourse. To such as extent that there’s widespread surprise when ‘others’ comment on what they do – see the reaction to Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian.

The final chapter on possible solutions to the problems of the 21st city concludes with a section on reinventing the public, where Minton returns to Happy Danery: “many genuinely public places in towns and cities around southern and northern Europe, in [long list concluding with Scandinavia] are thriving. Families and groups of people stroll arm in arm taking the passeggiata, children run around and old people sit together on benches”.

I want to go on holiday with Anna! She cites – of course she does – Jan Gehl, “Danish urbanist and architect, credited with transforming Copenhagen” into a place where shopping is not the main reason for coming into the city. Apparently “four times as many people come into the centre of Copenhagen as did so in the past…simply to stroll around and take in the atmosphere”. This is a long way from my experience of the centre of the city, where over-designed and under-peopled asphalted public spaces are broken only by basketball pens and bike parking facilities. Plus pavement cafes, oh those pavement cafes…all this is why I as a rule I choose to wander in areas further afield, as yet untouched by the flattening hand of the ‘human scale’.

/rant

Update, 27 Feb: The Urbanist’s How do you create a healthy city episode offered more on this theme, with UCL’s Nick Tyler selecting Copenhagen as his example of a happy city. He redeemed himself somewhat by being more than a little troubled by “the cycling bit”, stating that “there are people who don’t cycle”, and that an unbalanced stress on cycling, with the potential for conflicting situations, could tip things out of balance. Cities need a whole variety of people – that’s where the vibrancy is. Quite. Plus a whole variety of scale, so the city doesn’t turn into Middle Earth.

Is it now taken as read that every city is travelling towards becoming a cycling city? It certainly is for The Urbanist’s next speaker, high heeled bike riding Bianca Hermansen of Cititek, who doesn’t choose to walk or use public transport. She’s in the nudging camp, favouring a context which “compels people to change their behaviour”, yikes, and preaching her message whenever she gets the chance. It’s all about lifestyle – and never mind anyone who doesn’t choose or aspire to that lifestyle. Luckily this segment only lasted four minutes.

Writing about a city: Berlin

Berlin has a sort of Three Sisters resonance in my mind. I’m particularly envious of its international writing scene, with place writing and cultural heritage galore.

Readux Books has published six and a half little books/essays about Berlin –  four in its Berlin series and two in its Urban voids series. The half is Eliot Weinberger’s The wall, the city, and the world, a good chunk of which is set in Berlin.

While the books are beautifully designed and all, at $1.99 a snip I thought they would work well as ereading experiment. I’ve never been drawn to ebooks, with years of trying to scan needless PDFs leaving me a digital reading sceptic. As Julian Barnes says, “books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information”, definitely a work thing. Having purchased five I was left wondering what the e/book format really added to these short pieces – take out the prelims etc and you have a rather different proposition.

The Berlin series

The four essays in the Berlin series portray the city in the 1910s, 1920s, 1990s and the present day. The two early works, Cities and city people: Berlin 1919 (excerpt), by critic and literary historian Arthur Eloesser and translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and In Berlin: day and night in 1929 (excerpt), by Franz Hessel (“a Francophile intellectual who brought the concept of the flâneur to 1920s Berlin”) and translated by Readux’s Amanda DeMarco (update: Walking in Berlin, feel of their time, while the later two are rather more interesting.

Berlin TriptychBerlin triptych (excerpt), by David Wagner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, visits three Berlin locations in 1998/2000 and 2013: Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west. The text previously appeared in DW’s Mauer Park (2013; KD’s post), an update of his In Berlin (2001). For another excerpt see An ode to Mauerpark (translated by KD), and finally Welche Farbe hat Berlin (KD’s post), short pieces written between 2001 and 2011.

In May 2013, in one of her sadly missed Going Dutch with German writers series, KD and DW go for a walk, DW’s preferred mode of exploring the city. (KD: “The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he’s one of those great walker-writers everybody loves.”) This walk makes an appearance in Mauer Park, how fab.

For more David, see the interview on Deutsche Welle and listen to his episode as part of R4’s recent Reading Europe series (highlighting the “tourist streets” of the former East Berlin, marked by stands with postcards of romantic ruins and charming Modernist architecture; the seriousness of German literature, making translations especially from English popular; how Sebald’s emigrants are now being replaced by immigrants, which may mean that subject matter finally moves on from Die Wende). For more Katy as flâneuse see The shadowboxing woman, a site accompanying her 2011 translation of Inka Parei’s novel, with photos matched up with quotes.

The texts are perhaps rather too rooted in the place for non-Berliners, but the overall themes of transience and transformation, currently most often expressed as gentrification, explore how history makes the city anew:

[Mehringplatz] is a remnant of a time that felt over-zealously obliged to make everything new and do everything better. Each era gets the architecture it deserves: the circle is lined by a double row of residential bunkers.

Construction sites serve as a motif, with empty spaces and the gaps between buildings gradually filled in. What happens when these constructions start to be pulled down and replaced by something new? Will Berlin ever ‘find itself’ – is the city ever finished?

Actually we all miss something. Or it’s invented in retrospect. (source)

City of RumorIn City of rumor: the compulsion to write about Berlin (2013) “Gideon Lewis-Kraus struggles with the very act of putting anything about Berlin into words”. A fine entry in the expat writing canon!

Gideon Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin for three years and City of rumor gives an account of his “shifting understanding” of the city, which finally took shape in the Berlin chapter of his first book, A sense of direction (2012), a travel memoir about pilgrimage and restlessness.

Katy Derbyshire has familiar issues:

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that “nobody in Berlin” gets up before the afternoon. That’s a Berlin I have never really recognized. (source)

As it turned out she didn’t hate City of rumor at all: “it’s less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others’ – compulsion to do so”. We all see  a different Berlin and experience a place differently, even if some prefer a “fantasy life of a country”. It’s a question of ownership and home vs restlessness and exile.

The urban voids series

The urban voids series examines “the places that are marginal, ignored, vacant, or destroyed…walking their fraying edges, or probing the absences that lie at their centers”.

Suburban wonder: wandering the margins of Paris and A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the use of phantoms tackle Paris and are hence on my backburner of prejudice for now, while the third title is an English original, The idea of a river: walking out of Berlin (extract) by Paul Scraton, also to be found Under a grey sky and Elsewhere.

City SpacesCity spaces: filling in Berlin’s gaps, by Annett Gröschner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, “explores the lacunae at the heart of our city…the history of erasure, demolition and annihilation that has shaped the face of Berlin” with pieces taken from Parzelle Paradies (2008).

Pleasingly, AG can be found on t’Web described as Die Stadtführerin. Her other works include Mit der Linie 4 um die Welt (2012; Amazon; review | video), the result of riding bus/tram nr 4 to the end of the line in a series of cities (latest: Rotterdam), and two collaborations with photographer Arwed Messmer: The other view: the early Berlin Wall (2011) and Berlin, Fruchtstraße on March 27, 1952 (2012). Time to dust off my German reading skills. See also KD’s Going Dutch from December 2013 and Berlin: alienated city (trans: Katy Derbyshire; auf deutsch) in Slow Travel Berlin:

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present…In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same.

So much for curated reading! The issues articulated and explored in the two series are just as valid in Copenhagen, if on a rather smaller and less striking scale. With a different mythology, Copenhagen seems to attract a different style of writing, an issue to explore further in 2016, along with an overdue return to Berlin.

A guide to occupied Copenhagen

Writing about place isn’t really a thing in Denmark, so here’s a big cheer for Turen går til besættelsestidens København (A guide to occupied Copenhagen), published in Politiken’s Turen går travel guide series. At 264 pages with an RRP of DK 250 (£25 give or take; ebook DK 165), it’s Danish publishing in a nutshell. (Thanks once more to the Danish library service.) Of the four (really!) authors (Claus Bundgaard Christensen, Jakob Sørensen, Joachim Lund, Sofie Lene Bak), three are academics and all are garlanded with PhDs. And in places you can see the joins.

In a parallel universe this could have been a nice topic for a blog, with a Google Map and everyone getting excited on Twitter. But Danish academics don’t blog or tweet as a rule, and there’s little in the way of non-traditional forms of dissemination or public engagement. (Note though, Claus BC offers byvandring). Instead it’s culture in a box, nothing to excite.

I find the travel guides over-written and lacking in the content department compared with English language equivalents, although my partner claims they offer a handy introduction. Is the tie-in more than a gimmick? The overall design is the same, with numbered maps, short(ish) factual snippets and longer articles. An excerpt (27 pages; on Issuu) consists mainly of the foreword and introductions, when a sample of how the places are presented might be more tempting to a potential purchaser. And surely there are maps? Jada…

book spread with map

spread from Den Korte Avis’ review, showing 30 selected points in central Copenhagen and Vesterbro

As well as comprehensive coverage of the buildings in the city used by the occupying forces or targeted for sabotage and other resistance activities, spots covered include memorials, bullet holes and even graffiti, selected with an eye to there still being something to see today,

Overall, though, the style is drier than dry, suited more to a reference book than a travel guide – there’s certainly no sense of place to be gained. Divvying the guide up by area means that places which are practically next door to each other appear in different sections, and with no index by place the whole thing is pretty hit and miss.

The longer articles, aka themes, offer a lot of reading, but again it’s all very factual (maybe, though, this is just, err…Danish??); TBH the book might have worked better, and been rather cheaper, without going over the same ground as numerous other books about the German occupation and just offering the key content around the places.

Basically it doesn’t do either bit very well – as history it’s well trodden ground and not very readable, as a guidebook it’s too confused and lacks decent maps. In a rather more inspiring piece of writing Politiken‘s review notes some examples of spiritual resistance not listed in the guide:

Kortene burde også henvise til Riddersalen i Allégade, hvor den første frihedssang, PH’s ’Man binder os på mund og hånd’, blev modtaget stående af publikum.

Til de provokerende Dagmar-revyer – endda i stueetagen til tyskernes Dagmarhus.

Til Frue Kirke, hvor Kaj Munk prædikede trods forbud.

Til Det Kgl. Teater, hvor man dristigt opførte Gershwins sorte opera ’Porgy og Bess’ trods nazistisk raseri, hvor Kjeld Abell afbrød en forestilling for at mindes den myrdede Kaj Munk, og hvor teaterchefen overnattede i huset som modtræk til bombetrusler.

It would be easy enough to plot the city centre sites of most interest to visitors on a map (added to the todo list, meanwhile see list below), but for me the more interesting places are those further afield. On our travels last weekend we drove past an imposing building in Nordvest:

Emdrupborg (1941), Tuborgvej 164 (photo: 1001 fortællinger)

Now part of Aarhus University, Emdrupborg is the closest thing to a piece of Nazi architecture in Denmark. Designed by Werner March, also responsible for the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the building was a school for the children of German functionaries stationed in Scandinavia. The clock tower was used as an observation tower during the occupation. After the war a red stone wall was built to hide the building’s concrete foundations, the monumental entrance hall was converted to classrooms and oak panels were added in the aula to hide the ‘Nazi’ pillars.

Giving a rather different perspective on events, the open field at Kløvermarken at the top of Amager was from 1945-49 the site of a huge refugee camp. In one of those forgotten stories, between February and 4 May 1945 a quarter of a million Germans fled to Denmark from the Eastern Front. The Kløvermarken camp opened in November 1945, made up of 950 red Swedish barrack houses spread over a 500km2 area surrounded by barbed wire. At one point the camp housed 18,000 refugees, 51% women, 36% children. There were 263 registered deaths in the camp, 44 of children under one, mainly due to malnutrition. (13,000 refugees, almost 8000 children under 5, died in Denmark in 1945 alone.) Some of the barracks ended up in Ellebjergvej in Valby as housing for the homeless, and are still there today.

Copenhagen is flat

Kløvermarken today

Reviews and excerpts: Den Korte Avis | DR | I Byen | Østerbro Avis | Jyllands Posten (also in Finans) | Oplev København i krigen | Politiken.

City centre spots (story):

  • Gothersgade 100: bullet hole from fighting in April 1945
  • Grundtvigshus, Studiestræde 38: used by the Luftwaffe; graffiti on wall (by appointment only)
  • Hotel d’Angleterre: the Germans’ military HQ; Adolf Eichmann stayed in the hotel in 1943; Navy HQ at Hotel Phoenix on Bredgade
  • Krystalgade: Holocaust Memorial (1989, the first in Denmark) in the synagogue
  • Nyhavn: memorial to the 6000 members of the merchant navy who fought with Allies, 2000 of whom lost their lives (the big anchor, 1951); during the war a lawless area, where German soldiers took their recreation
  • Persilhuset/Jernbanegade 7: now housing Macdonalds and an Irish pub, was the SS’ HQ, where  6000 were recruited into Frikorps Danmark
  • Rosengården 11: WW2 bullet hole: Rosengaardens Bodega, behind the counter, from the liquidation of a collaborator by BOPA in 1944 (in the Gdn, Nov 2016)
  • Skt. Annæ Passage: housed the offices of the Danish Nazi Party’s newspaper Fædrelandet, and today Information, founded as an illegal operation in 194?
  • Skt. Annæ Plads: equestrian statue of Christian X (1954), who rode through CPH every day during the Occupation until an accident put a stop to it in October 1942
  • Skindergade 44: memorial: to the executed members of the resistance group Skindergadegruppen
  • Strøget: Café Mokka  and Restaurant Tosca, where Danes and Germans used to fraternise, were both bombed (the latter was ransacked on liberation day); ditto Hviids Vinstue on Kongens Nytorv
  • Tivoli: bombed by the counter-sabotage Petergruppe on 25 June 1944, resulting in the destruction of several buildings including Glassalen and part of the rutsjebane; Wivex restaurant, where the Hard Rock Cafe stood, was popular with collaborators and informers, who held business lunches with Hauptsturmbannführer and others

Edgelands: the spotter’s guide

Updates: this has popped up on R4 a couple of times and I’ve loved it each time – a true classic. See also Towards a taxonomy of edgelands literature and Tate Britain’s Edgelands & outliers course. For how to present your edgeland, see My Pomona.

I’ve touched on edgelands before, but now I’ve read the book. I bought Edgelands: journeys into England’s true wilderness (2011, Amazon; reviews by (in) Geoff Dyer (FT) | Robert Macfarlane (Gdn) | Ken Worpole (New Statesman) | Marion Shoard (Observer) | Tom Fort (Telegraph)Karl Whitney (3:am Magazine) by ‘northern poets’ Paul Farley and Michael Symmonds Roberts back in October 2013 when I first started looking into nature writing, but this one is a tad different. Divided into 28 chapters each looking at a single element found in the edgelands, it’s almost a spotter’s guide.

Of an age with the two authors, who grew up in the suburbs of Liverpool and Manchester in the early 1970s, I spent my childhood on the edge of Edinburgh, with the familar edgeland tropes of a nearby main road, an airport and a plethora of golf courses. The book reminds me of the first stop I took on this blogging journey, John Zeaman’s Dog walks man, where Pete the poodle leads John out of the comfort zone of the suburbs into more unexpected territory. Trying to resist both “the pull of nostalgia…[and] producing more ‘ruin porn'” meant that the book came about “thematically, in categories” (source), leading one LibraryThing reviewer to comment that it could have done with more of the personal, but as a series of short pieces, in places taking lyrical flight, it works for me.

Robert Macfarlane describes the book as “wryly contrarian” – not least for being a two hander. By aiming to “break out of the duality of rural and urban landscape writing” and avoiding using the edgelands as a “short cut to misanthropy”, he finds it “re-performs the thought-crimes of which [the authors] accuse traditional landscape romantics”, while Karl Whitney asks whether “just because the edgelands were often the places where we grew up, should they be sites of reminiscence – nostalgia, even?” He finds “the book runs the risk of elevating [the edgelands] to the level of the type of generic and interchangeable space that psychogeography had attempted to combat”.

Edgelands are a thing in English literature of place, with the term usually attributed to Marion Shoard (PDF):

The netherworld neither urban nor rural which has taken over great swathes of land on the urban fringe. The rough, unkempt wasteland of the edgelands shares many of the characteristics of wild land in urban areas…

Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic.

Crucially, they are “the story of our age”, and like every good story, inspire and provoke – see the article and comments on Skyliner’s Pomona article in the Guardian, and the lovely My Pomona. Attempts to “sanitise or otherwise neuter the edgelands” may sound laudable enough, but frequently tame the unique into something less evocative and less interesting.

The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unacknowledged: the edgelands – those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside – have become the great wild places on our doorsteps.

The neither/nor aspect evokes the suburb, sliding quickly into the edgelands, the “space left over after planning”. Edgelands are “not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities”. This can be what makes them real in an over-planned world.

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists.

It’s not for nothing that the first chapter is on the car -“edgelands are a driver’s dream – few queues, long, straight roads and ample parking – including the authors’ first off piste musing, the idea of a modified satnav or edgenav with a facility for identifying shipping containers, graffiti on bridge overhangs, landfill sites, blank unnamed pools and routes away from main arterial roads. They imagine walking the abandoned roads of the future, such as the M1 Way, with its service stations converted into hostels.

Some more spots:

  • Containers: domestic storage centres, hotels for things, your own container, anchored in a solid, watertight building, budget hotels with rooms as small and bare as containers, modular housing…everything can be contained
  • Gardens: the ‘reverse view’ you get from a train, passing through cities patterned on roads; trains afford us the best views of allotments, a secret landscape often invisible from our main roads
  • Bridges: “nameless bridge…carries a minor road across six lanes of motorway”; sometimes a name will stick, and sometimes a whole history and mythology, too
  • Wasteland: sites “either lying completely fallow or in the process of being redeveloped…the dreaded landscaping, the overwhelming urge is to tidy up, to make everywhere look like pleasing-on-the-eye parkscape”
  • Ruins: “places which exist in a hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future development…they become non-places, quite literally off the map…they atrophy because their blood supply is cut off”, offering a collage of time rather than the heritage industry’s freeze frame, reordered, partial and tidied up
  • Power: and other essential, invisible functions; “power stations are brutal, dirty and ugly, eyesores spoiling the view”, but up close they can be truly appreciated for what they are
  • Hotels: “these places are never empty”, but somehow they are never full either; with many people in a party of one, others in a half life between work and leisure with the lounge as breakout room
  • Retail: motorways with a “boulevard of retail, car showrooms, tile centres, leather worlds, carpet empires and fast food bars”
  • Business: “Nothing in a business park is public. There are no parks or playing fields, no common ground…No one visits without an appointment, because no one is just passing…when the ‘doughnut effect’ has gone into reverse, the silence of business parks will be broken.”
  • Lights: what does the edgelands night look like? Meatpaste.
  • Airports: “Plane-spotting, unlike trainspotting, is a quintessentially edgelands pastime. As boys growing up in the Seventies, we remember the thrill of visiting an airport. But we never flew.”

Is the edgeland a transitory phase and place, less and less likely to be found in a borderless landscape lacking the essence of either the urban or the rural?