July 9th. Make a note. You’ll want to circle it in your diary, I am sure, for that is the day I make one of my rare, hotly anticipated appearances on Danish national television.
The programme is called Sådan er danskerne and it ‘airs’, as we in the TV business call it, at 9.00pm on Danmarks Radio’s really big and popular main channel, DR K.
This is the first programme of a three part series featuring me as one of several expat talking heads reflecting on life in Denmark from the perspective of foreigners. The programmes have been made by DR’s history department and take their starting point from memoirs written by foreign – usually English – visitors to Denmark over the centuries, starting with the English ambassador Robert Molesworth, who lived in Denmark from 1689-1692 and pretty much hated the place. Unfortunately for Brand Denmark, his book was so successful that it essentially defined the world’s view of this country for over a century after it was published, to the extent that the Danish government tried – unsuccessfully – to sue him.
As well as Molesworth, we visit the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, women’s rights pioneer and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who travelled through Denmark in 1796 and was similarly unimpressed, but there is also English writer Edmund Gosse who visited twice in the 1870s and saw Denmark in a slightly more favourable light.
What’s fascinating for me is how often these writers’ observations resonate with modern Danish society and behaviour. Here is Molesworth on Danish taxes for instance:
“Denmark is a country which is plagued by terribly high taxes. The result is that everyone does what they can to cheat on their taxes … From the whole I conclude that there is a moral impossibility all these taxes and impositions should continue. The weight of them is already so great that the Natives have reason rather to wish for, than defend their country from, an Invader because they have little or no property to lose.”
Happily, the Danes have rather more property to lose these days, of course, but the taxes endure. Despite the taxes (or perhaps because of them: discuss), the Danes still claim to be the happiest people in the world whenever anyone with a clipboard approaches them on the street (even if they just want a donation for Amnesty International). Talking of happiness, here’s Wollstonecraft on the Danish life satisfaction paradox as she saw it a couple of hundred years ago:
“If happiness consists in opinion, they are the happiest people in the world for I never saw any so well satisfied with their own situation.”
Wollstonecraft wasn’t the last visitor to wonder whether Danish happiness is merely some kind of delusional mass self-satisfaction. Most Danes do genuinely believe they have created the greatest society in the world. They may be right, of course.
The historical authors’ minor observations are endlessly entertaining too: the Venezuelan, Francisco de Miranda, who visited in the 1780s, describes the constant building work around Kongens Nytorv. For the TV programme we took a drive around Copenhagen’s grandest square – it’s been a building site since I first saw it a decade and a half ago, and thus it remains.
More positively, Gosse who swanned through Danish high society like a latter day Pippa Middleton meeting Hans Christian Andersen and even the preacher NFS Grundtvig, was struck by the classlessness of Danish society in the 1870s. He describes being in Tivoli and seeing a working class fellow asking the foreign minister for a light. This would have been unthinkable in 19th century England with its syphilitic class system and government filled with Oxbridge public school boys, aristocrats and landed gentry.
So, it turns out, Denmark isn’t the only country where things never change.
Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle.