Vive La Difference! Or Spot the Similarity?

I’m spending time Borgen-side, an ideal opportunity to put to the test some of the Scandi characteristics I wax so lyrically about on this blog. It often sounds just too good to be true, doesn’t it? So what does the dark side of Denmark’s moon look like? Apart, of course, from The Killing (‘Forbrydelsen‘), The Bridge (‘Broen‘) and all those other ‘The Something-Or-Others’. Plenty of dark there.

Perusing a daily newspaper you could be forgiven for thinking that you were still in the UK (apart from the language. Obviously): “Shocking tax department bungle forces up rents and rates“, “Secondhand car dealers loans break the law“, “Productivity goes into a coma – again“,  “The Liberal Party embraces Trades Union boss” – ok, so perhaps not that last headline. And then some lament about Mylie Cyrus’ new album not being remotely as engaging as her on-stage antics.

So far, so similar – and before you accuse me of bias, I know that all those headlines are from the same newspaper, but at 35 Danish Kroner a pop –  a cool three quid in real money, I can only afford to buy one paper.

I’ve now effortlessly got on to the Metro and am pondering how daily expenditure is a ‘swings-and-roundabouts’ affair in Borgen-land. Paying through the nose for a newspaper is your choice, paying for your train ride to work isn’t a real choice. So the state sees to it that your Tax-Kroner provide the most sumptuous Metro service for next to nothing. Dormant escalators effortlessly glide into action as they sense your approach, roomy platforms make for a pleasant wait for your air conditioned train, which arrives on time, complete with onboard TV news screens, free WiFi, small tables and, of course, bike racks. Lots of bike racks. But not necessarily with a driver. Drivers are being phased out on newer routes. Bike racks, however, will never be phased out in Denmark. These biking Vikings can’t run a decent country without bike racks.

A week’s commuting around Copenhagen will set you back about the same as a pair of pølser – Jumbo Frankfurters with all the trimmings and a beer, from a street stand. 10 Quid. Again, forking out on sausages and beer is your choice, travelling on a train to get somewhere – is not. So sausages are taxed, trains are not.

A picture is beginning to form in my head. A picture that the UK-US axis might consider a kind of modern Marxism? What? In perfectly-polite-middle-class-Danish-society? Surely not.

An unusually chatty fellow Metro passenger (Danes are not generally that chatty), puts it to me that three quid is not unreasonable for a 26 page quality newspaper. “We’re a small country with only 5 million people to pay for our newspapers”. Put like that I guess the exorbitant price compares favourably with our UK papers, available at roughly half the price. Actually, £3 begins to look like a real bargain.

It’s worth noting that Politiken is read by 1 in 56 Danes while its UK equivalent, The Guardian, is enjoyed by a meagre 1 in 331 citizens. At the Red Top end of the market 1 in 25 Brits buys the Sun, while only 1 in 100 Danes buys Ekstra Bladet – the Borgen equivalent. Statistics, statistics … but they probably do reveal something about the respective levels of education in the two countries.

Politiken’s Kultur section does some more lamenting about how Scandi Noir TV series are the new culture gold to the detriment of feature film finance, and complains about how the ‘vacants’ (jobless) meekly agree to be hung out to dry on reality TV, or ‘rightwing propaganda programmes’ as they call them. So their telly’s not that different either then.

Moving on to the education section and, just like in the UK, Free Schools are never off the pages, the topic clearly sells newspapers. In this edition Per Krøis Kjærgaard (little pron. challenge for you there), holds forth about their superior results. PKK is head teacher at a free school, so he would say that I guess, but the results do speak for themselves. In Denmark, parents who choose to send their kids to such ‘free’ schools have to pay part of the running costs of the school. PKK debates whether this is fair but, assuming you think it is, he lobbies for the level of top-up fees to be affordable for all and that no one is excluded on the grounds of wealth – or on any grounds, come to it. So there’s a bit of a departure from our UK attitude to inclusion/exclusion.

But, in general, on it goes, all depressingly familiar to a Danglish person: Politicians with their snouts in the trough, public building projects running way over budget, hospital scandals, unacceptable youth unemployment and, on the sports pages, there’s even a Schmeichel in goal. Oh, it’s junior – Kasper Schmeichel, spit of the old man, though.

So, if it’s all the same, why is life in Blighty so bloody miserable and the Danes so annoyingly happy?

I look at my fellow Metro passenger, happily forking out three quid for his newspaper, and am reminded of my Scandi friends who pay their 55% income tax with a shoulder shrug. The Metro’s free WiFi allows me to do a bit of web-digging and I Google ‘Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue and Customs’. In Danish: ‘Hendes Majestæts Indenlands Indtægt og Toldvæsen’. Nothing. Odd? They have a Queen. Doesn’t she have an Inland Revenue and Customs Department?

I Google ‘Skat’ (tax) – which intriguingly also means ‘darling’. And lo and behold, Borgen’s HMRC equivalent is called Skat, yes just Skat – . Brilliant.

I decide to investigate the sausage-tax, as you do, and there’s more brilliance. Heading up Skat’s pølse-page is the following little mantra:

SKAT: Welcome to Fairplay

“Our goal is to ensure that we all contribute justly so that we can continue to have well functioning schools, universities, hospitals, care homes, libraries, kindergartens and a sensible infrastructure.”

I feel a sudden urge to hug my new Metro mate, but he’s got up to extract his bike from the rack, this is his stop.

The Metro glides off again and I’m left to conclude that la Difference Borgen-style has little to do with what we, or they, actually do. We all do pretty much the same stuff so fixing that would be easy. The difference does, however, have everything to do with how and why we do what we do.

And that’s a whole lot harder to change.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ever stop trying


2 thoughts on “Vive La Difference! Or Spot the Similarity?

  1. Interesting piece. Any chance you might consider a piece about swearing? Not being flippant here. Alex Forrest is an ex-political correspondent for ITN who has just moved to Copnehagen to cover Danish politics and she says that she is shocked at the prevalence of swearing in Denmark. She has a wordpress blog at Got talking to her about it cos of a post I’d written about the translation of swearwords in Borgen subtitles (and on Irish tv too)

    • Interesting question. I certainly agree with Alex that swearing in Danish newsprint regularly makes even me oddly uncomfortable and, without going into specifics, I have been known myself to turn the air an attractive shade of blue. I’ll have a think and see if I come up with anything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s