Date finished: March 8th 2015
If there’s a criminally overlooked area of the world when it comes to travel writing, Scandinavia is surely it. In a way, it’s unsurprising that the ever-stable, jumper-loving, cloudberry-consuming Nordic block would be sidelined for far more romantic journeys around Spain and Italy, the US mountain ranges, Asian railways routes, African Safari trails, Amazon river trips, and explorations of the coastlines of Oceania.
But in another sense, Scandinavia is a fascinating area with a lot to explore. Famously home to the Vikings, the Nordic countries have also had a vibrant interrelationship whilst mostly cut off from the rest of the Europe, before emerging as some of the most economically and socially advanced states of the twentieth century. This has led to Scandinavia being viewed as the closest thing we have to a utopia, but what factual basis does this myth really have?
Who better to explore this conundrum than English expat and journalist, Michael Booth? Booth having lived in Denmark for several years, had read so many articles about how great Scandinavia was, he decided he’d have to investigate to dispel his misgivings over such ideas.
And so starts a hilarious romp through Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and, finally, Sweden, in order to scrutinise the quirks and eccentricities of a region that neither he nor it’s inhabitants are entirely convinced is worth writing about.
“Scandinavians tend to regard themselves rather as we do, a bit like bottle banks: functional and worthy, but plagued by an unremitting dullness which tends to discourage further investigation.”
Booth begins in his adoptive Danish homeland, charting the Danes’ industrious attitude towards work and leisure, their taxes – the highest in the world, their excessive patriotism (they get the flag out for the most meaningless occasions), and the intricacies of Jante Law and hygge painting a picture of an insular and self-satisfied little country, happy to get on with things at its own pace and unworried about the wider world, an attitude common to all of the Nordic states to some extent.
Next up is the honorary Nordic state Iceland, where Booth takes a particular interest in the banking crisis which heralded the 2007 recession, the country’s unique response to the economic turmoil, and how the nation has sprung back since. He also takes a look at the reemergence of pagan religion and a trip out to the eerie volcanic landscape which makes Iceland such a deceptively popular tourist destination.
From here, Booth takes the trip over to Norway to explore the surprising response of the Norwegians to the devastating shootings that occurred on the island of Utøya in Oslo when a lone terrorist murdered 77 people. He then explores Norway’s own colourful political situation, its history of racism, its vast oil-wealth and how it has become seen as the wealthy idiot of the Nordic block.
Finland follows, and Booth’s examinations of this forgotten land are perhaps the most insightful and funniest in the book. He chronicles their enviable education system, lauded as the best in the world, as well as their ingrained modesty, can-do attitude (entrenched in their tongue by a fascinating linguistic peculiarity) and utter disdain for small talk, as well as Finland’s darker side: high rates of depression and alcoholism which could have something to do with 6 months of darkness a year…
Finally, Sweden gets its hearing, and comes across as an interesting and conflicted nation. Booth explores their remarkable industry-driven wealth, their strange homogeneity, the terrifying minefield of Swedish social decorum as well as the results of socialism gone too far, and the contradictions of one of the most equal and well-off societies in the world also being a country with extraordinary issues regarding class and race.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People is less a spacial travel book, and more a guide to the psychological landscape of Scandinavia, with a particular focus on the social quirks, demography and economy of each nation. Indeed, the ‘economic miracle’ is heavily explored in order to gain an idea of why the Nordic states always top international surveys of happiness, education and equality. Booth’s writing is as warm and sardonic as Bryson’s whilst simultaneously possessing a truly unique voice. His exploration of these Viking lands is as informative as it is hilarious and does much to dispel the idea of a Scandinavian utopia whilst simultaneously shining an intriguing light on this strange and captivating conglomerate of countries. After immersing yourself between the pages of this fascinating journey, you’ll want to go investigate for yourself.