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Sunday, 13 August 2017

That Old Northern European Social Democracy Fetish Thing

Over the past few years I've noticed a new sub-genre of travel and history books popping up on UK bookshelves. These books are kind of an explainer of other northern European countries, typically written by British men who have met a partner and decided to elucidate on the quirks of their partner's home country. Their grasp of the local language isn't usually perfect, but they make up for it by their enthusiasm in detailing how much better the Germans/Dutch/Danes/whoever do the big stuff than the Brits.

Though I've been reading these books for quite a while - since at least 2012 - I've only thought to write about them now, having just finished the latest example last night. It's called Why the Dutch Are Different, and was written by Ben Coates, a former political whatever for the UK Conservative Party who met a Dutch girl on holiday and ended up moving to Rotterdam.

It's a fairly interesting book, not least because I'm currently learning Dutch on Duolingo. It also takes a fairly contrarian view about a couple of aspects of life in the Netherlands, in part because of Coates's background as a Tory and his experience as a middle-class, white immigrant, compared with the experience of those who've come from Turkey or Morocco. Which isn't to say that he's particularly right-wing (in the negative connotations of that term), just that it makes for an interesting contrast with the books written by, for example, Guardian journalists.

As I said, the authors of the books tend to revert to a type - white, middle-class, current or former journalists - but so, in a way, do the themes. Comparing and contrasting the different brands of Protestantism is common, as is noting the similarities in British and (for instance) German food. There's also the intense interest in these other countries' welfare states, and the question of whether they're sustainable.

I noticed these books popping up in the final couple of years I lived in London, spurred no doubt by the popularity of Danish and Swedish crime TV (which is touched on in Patrick Kingsley's How to Be Danish). I wouldn't say loads of my group of friends was particularly into northern Europe - one friend admitted to internalizing his grandfather's view of the Germans - but there was definitely something in the air that suggested the Brits were getting more interested in how the Dutch, the Danes or the Germans organized their societies.

The trend seems to have started with Germany, as a number of authors sought to present a rehabilitated view of the country. There was Ben Donald's Springtime for Germany, which I didn't read but that seems to acknowledge that it's a little odd to be persuading people to visit or learn more about Germany. The one I did read was Simon Winder's Germania, which is more of a history than a travel essay or memoir, but does the admirable job of talking about German history before World War II. There were a number of others, each touching on different aspects of German history, but all aimed at reintroducing Germany to the Brits (a phrase that caused a friend of mine to yell at me for how down I always was on British people).

Given some other blog posts I've written about Germany and the dearth of German-speakers in the Anglo-American world, I was intrigued by this trend, and read more than a few examples. My favorite is probably Philip Oltermann's Keeping Up With the Germans, which is actually kind of a reversal of the formula, as it's by a German who moved to the UK as a kid.

Others started appearing around that time, such as Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, and the aforementioned How to Be Danish. I suspect that geopolitics had something to do with this efflorescence, in a number of ways. For one thing, the financial crisis that started in 2007-08 may have made the southern European countries seem more chaotic; alternately the free movement among EU countries was starting to throw up more of these couples, causing more books to be written about what the authors were finding when they ventured north or east, rather than south.

It's also not hard to see the hand of the market, as Provence and Tuscany are pretty played out as destinations for authors to "find themselves". On a personal note, I've always found those types of books - Bella Tuscany, A Year in Provence, Driving over Lemons, etc - to be faintly patronizing, as an Italian. As if the appeal were precisely that the author's new neighbors were "fierce" and "full of life" and there explicitly to teach the author to appreciate the simpler things in life, similar to the "Magical Negro" trope in fantasy fiction.

I also suspect that the chaos at home influenced the popularity of these books about northern Europe. In addition to austerity caused by the financial crash, Britain saw a lot more polarization in its politics, along with a head-long rush to privatize everything. In those circumstances, it makes sense that authors (particularly Guardian journalists) would want to look abroad and ask how other countries were still able to offer a social safety net. More baldly, people dissatisfied with what's happening at home are more likely to look at places that they perceive to be stable and functional.

Predictably, there are excesses caused by this trend, and the inevitable backlash. Every time I'm back in London I marvel at the popularity of Tiger, a sort of Danish version of Woolworth's filled with cutesy but well-designed crap. And Michael Booth, who's written a number of food travelogues and lives in Denmark with a Danish wife, also took it upon himself to deflate this love for all things Nordic in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. I haven't read it, so can't comment, but the back-cover copy always seems more dyspeptic than affectionate, and so I keep not buying it when I'm in the UK.

Overall, whether you think the Nordics or Germany are overrated, I have to appreciate this interest in that part of Europe. For one thing, it's nice to see a color scheme other than black and red on the German shelves in the history section of bookstores - without wanting to excuse or downplay the Second World War, I feel it's worth understanding German history both before and after the Nazi era.

The other admirable thing about these books is that they are genuinely aimed at providing some context. Britain has long held this opinion that everything from the continent is suspect, an idea that was reinforced by WWII. Now, however, with inequality ramping up people seem genuinely interested in seeing what they can learn from neighboring countries. Paradoxically, as Brexit gains speed, I suspect we'll see more of this comparison (notably, each of the books I've read was written before the Brexit vote last year), even as it becomes more difficult for British people and continentals to mingle.

What I'd like to see is more American authors doing the same. Where the Brits are finally starting to get over calling Germans Fritz or Jerry and not mentioning the war (at least some of them), Americans still don't have a sense of how interesting Germany or the rest of northern Europe can be. In fairness, most Americans don't have any sense of the value of anything beyond their borders - and I'm including a lot of the more "cosmopolitan" Americans here - but with the amount of crap that isn't functioning in this country, I think it'd be nice for us to learn how societies that are actually safe and egalitarian have managed the feat.

I suspect I may be waiting for a long time, but as an optimist I live in eternal hope.