Utopia for Sad Liberals
We didn’t start watching The Killing in my house until long after everybody else did – at the beginning of this year, I think, when somebody gave us the box set of the first series. By that time I was a bit bored of Sara Lund and her famous jumper – she wears it far too small and clingy, in my view. The trophy knit of the moment should hang from the shoulders, big and square. But I did love the women’s hairdos, mouse-brown and tied back on a good day, left out lank and mournful on the many bad. I couldn’t even tell who was who to begin with, they were all so ordinary in their jeans and parkas, groping through tears and the Danish darkness, nodding and saying hej and tak.
But then, as things got clearer, there came the beginnings of an exciting thought. If an independent Scotland really does start following the Nordic welfare-democratic model, is this what things will look like, in the dark days following a gruesome murder – police and teachers and removal men and politicians, incomes clustered cosily together on a shallow Lorenz curve? Or, to put it another way: I wonder if this is a deep reason for the popularity of The Killing, and of Skandi noir in general. It enacts a world, a dreampolitik, in which public servants are glamorous, well paid and respected, and dedicated to the point of obsession. This flatters the many viewers who work in the public sector, even the ones who hate their jobs and want to retrain in reiki. And it offers all of us something warm and elegant to look at, like the row of Poulsen lights in the politician’s chilly kitchen. It’s utopia for sad liberals, restrained and minimal. It’s the closest a lot of us ever get to a vision of social hope.
‘It is amazing,’ Darian Leader writes in The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression, ‘to realise that this is what most people do after work: they watch programmes in which someone dies and whose death is subsequently explained and made sense of.’ Usually I can’t be bothered with all those autopsies and abductions, but I make an exception for The Killing, and I think it may be exactly all the autopsies and abductions that I like about it best. As Theo Tait wrote in the LRB last year, it’s not that The Killing isn’t stuffed with all the usual porno-sadistic clichés, because it totally is: in Series 1, a young woman is imprisoned and repeatedly raped and tortured. In Series 2, a team of former soldiers are picked off one by one, including a priest, battered in his own church. Yet, for once, the deaths felt properly grieved and acknowledged: by nurses and technicians and taxi drivers and civil servants, in hospitals and schools and ministries and police stations. Within the logic of the genre, the death of Nanna Birk Larsen did not feel it was in vain.
Fans are always saying how much the spoken Danish sounds like English, though I don’t think it does at all. The impression, I think, is an auditory illusion, brought on by the way this Skandi dream-world maps over that of its British fan-base – so close to us and yet so different from what we’re used to. (It’s like how, a few weeks ago, I woke up in a dreadful panic, thinking that somebody on the radio was telling the story of my life: it turned out to be Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale, on Radio 4’s Book At Bedtime. There’s a bit, towards the beginning, that has Mrs R walking through the streets, in 19th-century Edinburgh, that I used to walk in the 1980s, and which, I’ve noticed before, I seem to dream about a lot.)
Skandi noir bleeds into the fashion for Skandi stuff in general – Wegner sofas, lice-pattern jerseys, throws from Ikea, lovely lighting – and on into serious questions about the future for cold, dark, wintry little countries, how they will keep their lights on and manage to stay warm. In Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, for example, David MacKay makes the point that whatever else we do with whichever energy policy, it has to be based on ‘improving the control of temperature (through thermostats, education, and the promotion of sweater-wearing by sexy personalities)’. And that was back in 2009. Should Lund augment the jumpers with a thermal base layer? Series 3 begins on BBC4 tomorrow, so maybe we will find out.
Meanwhile, in the real-life Edinburgh of nowadays, the winter streets are lit by a series of talks organised by Nordic Horizons, ‘an informal group of Scottish professionals who want to raise the standard of knowledge and debate about life and policy in the Nordic nations’. On 28 November, it’s going to be Professor Jon Kvist of Denmark, with a how-to session on social investment:
From the land of Lego and fairytales we bring you the building blocks to create your own welfare systems... policies that not only mitigate social ills but also prevent deep social cleavage.
The week after that, it’s ‘Cycling in Copenhagen’ – welcome to the Ecometropolis. In the summer there was a session on Swedish hutting, led by Andy Wightman – giving reasons other than trendy lifestyle ones for why Scotland should build lovely scruffy little wooden cabins for its children, a bit like the one Lund was supposed to have retreated to with her boyfriend in the first series of The Killing.
In the middle of September, Wightman was already tweeting about ‘the dark streets of Edinburgh’: it’s terrible, how fast the nights draw in at that latitude – it was one of the main reasons in the 1980s that I needed to get out. ‘Walking home through the dark streets of Edinburgh with a packet of Ryvita I feel Nordic,’ Wightman wrote. Though actually, Ryvita comes from Birmingham – the company was founded in 1925 by ‘an enterprising Englishman’ who had ‘seen Crispbread abroad’. Not that I would ever have imagined that, if I hadn’t just looked it up. Which in a way is exactly my whole point.