The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'sweden'
It has been two weeks since The Covfefe forced us into hiding. Or, more precisely, since everybody at the company I work for was strongly encouraged to work from home. A Google spreadsheet was set up where those needing monitors or office chairs could request them. The weekly Friday afternoon fika was moved to a video meeting, a sort of non-work-related status report. Other than that, things stayed the same: the company is an IT company, and most business is arranged over Slack (or occasionally email), so not a huge amount changed. People who work in other industries are undoubtedly less lucky.
Other than that, Stockholm is calm, or perhaps in denial. The bars are not only not closed but quite busy, though as a concession, are only offering seated table service. A tobacconist near where I live has started selling surgical masks, though nobody has started actually wearing them. There are perhaps slightly fewer people out and about, and perhaps more social distancing going on, but not a huge amount. Some rationalise it by saying that Sweden has an advantage in social distancing even in normal times; others point to the consensus-seeking nature of Swedish society, always trying to find a lagom medium between the extremes.
It feels in some ways like the calm before the storm. As I write this, and people go about their routines, the Covfefe is undoubtedly spreading silently through the population. It seems unlikely that Sweden will escape the necessity for a comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services. (What constitutes an essential service, of course, is a sticking point; various US states have listed gun shops and golf courses as essential services; I imagine a case could be made for Systembolaget and providers of freshly baked kanelbullar to be given the same status here.) As of today, events of 50 or more people have been banned; this is down from 500 or more a few days ago.
On a personal level, a number of things are up in the air. I was going to be going to London this weekend, on occasion of the Even As We Speak gig, but of course, that is not happening. In fact, it is hard to consider any future plans in the next 18 months, if the shifting nature of The Covfefe may mean restrictions being adjusted tactically at short notice. (Some say that the current lockdown may last a few months, leaving a window in July and August, before the colder weather causes a resurgence of infections.) On the other hand, I might finally get around to reading some of those books. In terms of socialising, going out for a meal or a drink is, of course, not feasible, though people have been looking into online alternatives, such as Discord servers or the new Animal Crossing game. (I have set up a Discord server as an experiment, though have yet to buy the aforementioned game for my Switch.)
Also, if I am going to be spending a prolonged amount of time in my flat, I should probably consider adopting a cat.
As of today, I have lived in Stockholm for a year.
A year ago, I arrived at Arlanda on a one-way flight from London, with two checked bags and carry-on luggage; I caught the train to Stockholm, and a taxi (regular car-shaped, though a Tesla with a large iPad-like screen in the middle) to a friend's house. The following day, I picked up the keys to my new flat and went to awaited the arrival of the removalists with a lorryful of packed boxes. It got dark before they arrived, and I noticed my first difference between Swedish apartments and their Anglospheric equivalents: light fittings are not included. Other than the kitchen, each room was devoid of ceiling lights, having only a small socket (of a standard type) and hook on the ceiling. I quickly bought one light from a nearby thrift shop, and the flat wasn't completely dark by the time my things arrived, borne up the stairs by two muscular Russians who could plausibly have been Olympic weightlifters.
I stayed at my friend's place for a few more days as I made the flat habitable; gradually reducing the ziggurats of boxes to piles of flattened cardboard and a mass of familiar objects not yet having a canonical place, and making repeated trips to IKEA. After a while, it was habitable if cluttered; the clutter would take longer to fully dissolve.
Other aspects of getting set up in Sweden went relatively smoothly, if not always quickly. I was able to get a basic, limited bank account in a few days, though it took me a few months to get a Swedish personnummer (ID number); having one of those unlocks many of the mechanisms of the highly digitised, largely cashless society that is Sweden, including a digital identity infrastructure used for pretty much anything to do with finance and the Swish mobile payment system, which is used for everything from buying at flea markets to squaring up tabs. Trading my British driver’s licence for a Swedish one was pretty seamless. Other than that, there was not much hassle; for the moment, my British passport is sufficient to let me live and work here, and I’m informed that, in the worst case, I’ll have a year’s notice if that changes. I am, of course, hoping it doesn't come to that.
The year passed relatively quickly; winter came, shrouding Stockholm with snow and treacherous ice; spring followed, the ice melted, trees came into bloom, and the city came to life as the days became longer. By midsummer, there was barely any night left, only a few hours of twilight, though after the solstice, the night gradually began pushing back. I travelled a little, finding myself back in London more than I expected; first for a gig, then work, conferences, and en route to other events. London changed and yet remained the same (my old flat, with its low ceiling, stifling summer heat and the aroma of kebab grease never far away, had found a new tenant pretty much immediately; a favourite café closed down); friends were mostly still around, and I caught up with various of them on various visits. Ironically, my travels outside the UK have been fairly limited so far: a trip to Denmark for an exhibition, a visit to Barcelona for Primavera and a small amount of travel within Sweden.
Every change of scene brings with it a change of perspective, and a test of assumptions. Moving from Australia to Britain, two cultures with historical connections and cultural similarities, was a subtly uncanny experience, partly from the differences between British and Australian cultures, but also between the actual Britain and any number of idealised Britains, absorbed through old books, childhood TV viewing, pop music, or other media. A move to Sweden, a country that can speak English and yet is not officially an English-Speaking Country, and that was always separate from the British/American sphere, was a jump to another subtly parallel universe; one familiar and different, in different ways than London was from Melbourne.
There are the obvious things: traffic, for example, drives on the right (which, if you cycled in left-driving countries, requires some retraining of muscle memory; I'm still not at the stage of favouring my right leg to rest on at stops). The architecture is more continental, and vaguely mitteleuropäisch, a world of art-nouveau apartments around courtyards in the Germanic fashion and more recent geometric modern blocks of post-Bauhaus functionalism, rather than either the Victorian terraces and semi-detached houses of Britain or the more Italianate terrace houses, motel-style flat blocks and American-style suburban bungalows of Australia. (My eyes, trained on the Anglosphere's landscapes, pick out echoes of other parts of continental Europe; a bit of Paris in Norrmalm, a cleaned-up, more affluent Berlin in Södermalm, and so on.)
Then there is the landscape the city is built on, which, being spread over a set of islands and peninsulae, is slightly fantastic. The pieces of land are often dramatically rocky, and as such, the city is full of sets of parallel streets on different levels, connected by steep stairways, dramatic overpasses and houses with different ground levels. (London has a few of those things as well, though nowhere near as many; Edinburgh probably comes closer.) Sheer rock faces often jut out on the sides of roads carved from them, with the entrances of parking garages or other facilities hewn into them. All this is surrounded by harbour views that make Sydney look bland by comparison. Out in the harbour are hundreds of islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, some inhabited and sporting timber houses, linked by a system of ferries. Then there is the city's small scale (it has only about a million inhabitants), and the fact that nature is never far away, which warps the perception of its space in interesting ways: I can leave my flat in Södermalm, cycle for half an hour (and Stockholm is a great city to cycle in, at least for the 8 months or so of the year when one can cycle without coming to grief on treacherous ice), and find myself in a secluded cove that, other than specifics of vegetation, looks like somewhere one may reach after driving for three hours out of Melbourne.
And, of course, there is the question of language. In Sweden, English is everywhere: almost every adult speaks it very well, companies which hire international talent use it internally, and one sees English around in the city: not just in bilingual signage, but in ad slogans, business names and repurposed neologisms (an “afterwork”, for example, is early-evening drinks in a pub). Some of this Swedish English does have a slightly uncanny feeling one can almost put one's finger on: shops with generic-looking names as if out of an architectural rendering, or English-style pubs with excessively English names, usually related to Charles Dickens. And yet, of course, the language of intellectual and cultural life here is not English but Swedish. After a while, one becomes aware of this, of there being layers one is not privy to. The locals generally are polite, and switch to English when a non-Swedish speaker joins their conversation, though it's there. This also exists in places where there is no language difference, only a different cultural history; while I have lived in Britain for 14 years, and have absorbed enough second-hand knowledge of recent British cultural history, I will never be British enough to understand the references in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. The language difference, though, adds another dimension to this; it is as if there were a membrane between oneself and the cultural life of the country; that until the moment when one becomes fluent in Swedish, one is disconnected, floating.
Sweden has an English-speaking personality, and a subtly different native-language one, which manifest themselves in their culture. The parts of Sweden one sees abroad are different. For example, if one were to think of Swedish indie music in, say, Britain, the US or Australia, one might think of Jens Lekman, or The Radio Dept., or perhaps The Knife. In Sweden, though, the biggest indie band was Broder Daniel, who, while they sang in English, did not match their local success abroad. (Second to them is the solo project of their drummer, Håkan Hellström, who did not sing in English.) Generally, Swedish indiepop in English was strongly influenced by British indie, particularly things like Sarah Records, C86 and the Glasgow school; switch to Swedish, and the reference points often become more elusive and unfamiliar, made for a domestic audience. On the subject of music, the live music scene in Stockholm appears a lot smaller than in London or Melbourne, with fewer gigs and venues; I'm told it used to be much better, before a lot of venues closed down, and/or in the Golden Age Of Swedish Indie, which was some 10-20 years ago.) What venues survive do so tenuously: the last outpost of the institution known as Debaser is facing an uncertain future, as its lease may not be renewed after next year. Record shopping also is a bit thin on the ground; in shops that sell new records, the range of new releases is fairly small; in one shop, the featured CD wall may have half a dozen recent releases, surrounded by rereleases and back-catalogue; if you want to fill in your Black Sabbath or Queen collection, you're sorted. There isn't really anything on the scale of Fopp, let alone Rough Trade, here (perhaps everyone in Sweden is over buying music, and just streams it on Spotify?), though for some reason, there is an abundance of secondhand record shops.
Other things: there is an abundance of high-quality baked goods made with cardamom, cinnamon and/or saffron; Sweden is to those what Australia is to coffee, in that what passes for a cinnamon roll abroad would be unacceptable here. Sweden is a coffee-drinking culture; traditionally filter, though espresso is common now. If you want non-dairy milk in your flat white, there is generally one brand of local oat milk, whose ads are obnoxiously ubiquitous; a few places have soy milk, though nobody seems to import Bonsoy or make anything similar. The supermarkets have an abundance of dairy products, including pourable yoghurts in cardboard cartons (fun fact: Tetra-Pak is a Swedish invention), though Icelandic skyr is less popular than in the UK; oddly enough, Swedish supermarkets include things like caviar in toothpaste-style tubes and entire aisles of different types of bearnaise sauce. Sweden has a reputation for expensive drinks, though a beer is not much more expensive than in London; a gin and tonic, however, will set you back at least twice as much. There is also the state liquor monopoly, with its extensive network of well-provisioned booze supermarkets, previously discussed here; they are closed on Sundays for historical reasons. Sweden is historically Lutheran (and, before that, of course, Norse pagan), though no longer has an established state church. As far as I can tell, the Swedish ideas of lagom and Jante Law are, in practice, a bit like the English idea of social class: there's a grain of truth to them (though with many untidy exceptions), but they're vague enough that any commentator can find them in what they see, like a Rorschach inkblot.
In any case, Stockholm is a good place to live, if perhaps a bit quiet at times. It is easily the most beautiful place I have lived so far.
So yesterday, England beat Sweden in the world cup, securing their first place in a final in decades, and setting off riotous celebrations. Some football fans, filled with the euphoria of the moment, trashed an IKEA in London, terrorising staff and customers. Others just blocked off streets and jumped on trapped cars.
It’s tempting to see this match, and its aftermath, as the latest flare-up of the Second English Civil War, this time not between the Cavaliers and Roundheads but the Gammons and Snowflakes, and on a broader scale, a Right-vs.-Left grudge match of two fundamentally different world-views of our time. On one hand, England: the bad-boy buccaneers of Brexitland. On the other hand, Sweden, the very symbolic epitome of European liberalism as most unacceptable to the Gammon majority who see themselves as custodians of England’s values, not to mention their fellow travellers in red-state, red-cap America. England may hate the Germans the most, and have hated the French for the longest, but the Swedes are the most egregiously antithetical to the harsh, robust values of the contemporary middle-England whose voice is the Daily Mail. Everything that paper rails against—gender-neutral parenting, multiculturalism, human rights, high taxes spent on the unworthy—is supposedly rampant in Sweden, and if you listen to right-wing older relatives, you will learn that the country is a bankrupt wasteland (due to the inevitable consequences of socialism) and/or an ISIS rape camp.
Sweden is lagom, everything in moderation, with a residual Jante Law stigma against putting oneself above others giving rise to an innate egalitarian tendency. In English, however, it is said that equality is the opposite of quality. We revel in excess. We’re a meritocracy of luxury flats, kept empty as investment units, towering over streets full of hungry, undeserving tramps; a land of teachers and nurses share-housing well into their 40s, and buy-to-let landlords building their well-earned empires, unmolested by redistributive taxation. We’re a nation of hard-working taxpayers who’ve had a gutful of uppity minorities asking to be treated with unearned respect. We're Terry Gilliam jealous of the privileges of imaginary black lesbians, and Morrissey spouting off about Those People. In England, a hedge-fund manager is literally worth thousands of paramedics. And where Sweden believes in universal human rights, inalienable dignity every person is, by definition, entitled to, England, however, divides humans into two camps: “deserving” and “scum”, with the latter to be treated punitively lest they get ideas above their station.
All over the streets outside pubs, mobs of men with St. George flags celebrate jubilantly, blocking traffic and chicken-dancing on the roofs of trapped cars; it's a big boffo day out, like everyone's best mate's stag do. The police come some twenty minutes later and move them on, in their own good time; they’re good lads, just a little overexcited. Hours later, and packs of blokes walk the streets, bellowing out ugly chants about German bombers. We are England, they seem to chant: the English, the English-speaking world, riding the ascending surge of the age. Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, is ultimately our leader. Boris Johnson is our shit Churchill for this shit age. Human rights, social justice, Political Correctness, Cultural Marxism, the Frogs and Krauts and all their vino-drinking, garlic-eating chums, all lie vanquished under our boots. And we’re just getting started.
The word on the street here is that the Cup is coming home: home being, of course, England. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but at this stage, it is more plausible than at any recent time. Meanwhile, outside of football, Britain struggles with the consequences of a decision to leave the EU, that has been doubled down upon repeatedly even as it began to look increasingly dubious: Parliament was whipped to irreversibly tear the brakes out of the moving car and throw them out the window. Now, as funding irregularities and connections with Russian government officials emerge, some are talking about the inevitability of a second referendum. If Britain does look like winning the World Cup, perhaps we can expect to see Westminster do a rapid volte-face, approving a second referendum and rushing it through to happen within 24 hours of the victory celebration, in the hope that a groundswell of triumphalism will translate to an increased Leave majority. And in his room deep underneath the Kremlin, the chaos-magus Aleksandr Dugin watches with a smile, knowing that everything is falling into place exactly to plan.
Brexit, Trump and one world cup, all under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.
Eurovision 2016 has been and gone. This time, much of the weirdness apparently fell by the wayside in the semifinals, thus arguably making watching the finals even more essential for fans of the Old Weird Eurovision. Further weirdness was lost when Romania failed to pay its EBU bill and was unceremoniously disqualified, depriving audiences of a few minutes of dependable gothic oddity (to their credit, Poland tried to fill that gap, though they didn't quite manage it; Poland, after all, is not Romania). And, for the second time ever, Australia was invited to compete; this time, they almost ended up winning. Also for the first time ever, the event was broadcast to the United States, undoubtedly causing mass confusion there, though perhaps not as much as it would have some years earlier. Also, this year, the voting system was split: first came in the votes of the nations' juries of experts, and then the aggregated public phone votes, a system apparently designed to maximise suspense, something in which it succeeded.
As for the songs themselves: Sweden appeared to walk the tightrope of showing competence whilst avoiding the risk of having to host it twice in a row (something that almost bankrupted Ireland in the 1990s), and sent in a hair-gelled teenager singing something unmemorable. Cyprus brought the hard rock, or at least hard-rock-flavoured dance music, and Georgia went landfill-indie (and got douze points from the UK, the spiritual home of landfill-indie, for their efforts). France, I thought, were decent, and the two Baltic states that made it through were as well. Australia entered with a very competent minor-key electropop ballad about intimacy at a distance, with lyrics about FaceTime and cyberpunk-style visual projections, and for a while, looked like it would win, running away with a commanding lead in the jury vote; but it was not to be: the night belonged to the geopolitical faultline between Russia and Ukraine:
Russia, it seems, tried very hard to win, throwing vast amounts of resources at it, as if it were a matter of national prestige. Their song was, by Eurovision standards, first-rate, and the setting was helped with some impressive projection-mapping effects. It was as if Putin himself gave the directive that Eurovision 2017 was to be in Moscow, and instructed everybody to do whatever it took to make it happen, up to and including having the performer, Sergey Lazarev, butter up the decadent liberals of Euro-Sodom by having gone on record criticising Russia's anti-gay laws and the annexation of Crimea. As such Russia had been the bookmakers' favourite to win, geopolitics notwithstanding. When the votes came in, though, the juries largely snubbed Russia, with them getting nul points from 21 juries. Even the torrent of phone votes, which overwhelmingly favoured Russia (and again, that could be anything between overwhelming apolitical approval of the song and/or Russia's formidable internet spammers taking time out from bank fraud to do their patriotic duty) couldn't reverse this; Russia only made it up to third place, coming behind Australia. To add insult to injury, the winner was Ukraine, whose song, 1944, was a sombre, harrowing and pointedly political number about the genocide and expulsion of Crimea's Tartars by Stalin (and, indirectly, alluding to Putin's annexation of Crimea, sailing close to the EBU's rules against political gestures). Set to skittering dubstep beats à la Burial, it was a decent song, though standing on its own, not overwhelmingly the best in the show. Had it not also served as a middle finger raised at Putin's Russia, it might have languished in the middle of the rankings; but geopolitics is geopolitics. (See also: the Israeli entry, which should probably have also done better. Their song wasn't bad, but voting it down was a chance for the cosmopolitan liberals of Europe to signal virtue and tell Netanyahu where to stick his security wall, so it was doomed from the outset. I imagine Dana International had the benefit of a period of relative calm and optimism when she won.)
Geopolitics may also have a little, though probably not a lot, to say about Britain's dismal result. Their song was not abysmal (the UK has done worse in previous years; there was the jaunty number performed by a crew of saucy flight attendants, or the middle-aged bloke playing a teenage hip-hop gangsta-wannabe, or various times when they barely made the minimum effort. Perhaps Britain lost points because the Frogs and Krauts and their wine-drinking garlic-eating buddies are sick of our ongoing national tantrum about wanting to leave the EU. Perhaps they don't like our aloofness and smug sense or superiority (though, were that the case, how does that explain Sweden consistently doing so well?) Or perhaps we just don't get it; when everybody else does minor-key anguish soaring to triumphantly defiant choruses on a wave of synth arpeggios and key changes, we remain terribly British and aloof, tossing off a cheery singalong, all the better to shrug off as no big deal when we inevitably end up in the bottom five.
After all the contestants had performed and the votes were coming in, there was the usual entertainment. This year, they had Justin Timberlake to perform a medley of his hits, in an event referred to by some as Justin Toiletbreak; this was done either to welcome the Americans tuning in for the first time, or as a showcase for the Swedish pop songwriting and production industry that powered Timberlake's musical career. Sweden's musical history was also showcased in a medley of international Swedish pop hits since the days of ABBA (I had forgotten, for one, that synth-led hair-metallers Europe were Swedish; for some reason I thought they were German). The highlight of the break, though, was this deconstruction of the formula for a Eurovision hit, bringing in everything from bare-chested drummers to little old ladies baking bread and incomprehensible folk instruments.
So: Eurovision 2017 will, it seems, be in Kiev. It'll be interesting to see what happens: will Australia (which, not being in the EBU, has been there on suffrance, though managed to do impressively well) come back for a third time, or take its seat as the Sweden-equivalent of the Asia-Pacific song contest being planned? (Will Eurovision itself, in a few years, pivot away from being merely Europe-plus-a-few-neighbours and become a set of regional contests, culminating in a global final?) Will the Russians compete in front of what can only be expected to be a hostile away crowd in Kiev, or will this strengthen calls in Russia to turn their backs on it set up their own “Eurasian” song contest, one without all that problematic gayness? And if Britain, by then, has voted to leave the EU, will it also take its ball and go home?
Recently, I was in Sweden and Finland, catching up with some friends and seeing Loney Dear playing with the Norrbotens Kammarorkester in Lapland (which was amazingly good). At one point, I got invited to a party in the north of Sweden, with the advice that I may want to bring my own beer. Which is what found me in the aisles of the Systembolaget in Luleå.
The Systembolaget, for those unfamiliar with this word, is the state-run liquor shop chain in Sweden. The government there has a monopoly on the sale of strong beer and all kinds of spirits, and does so through a chain of shops throughout the country. Only those shops may sell any beer stronger than about
2.5% 3.5% or spirits. This is a cast-in-iron law, with no exceptions, which has some peculiar consequences; for example, air passengers flying from Sweden to anywhere in the EU are unable to buy spirits at the airport shops because tax must be levied on spirits not being exported from the EU, and only the state can do that.
Anyway, when I went to buy some beer, I was expecting the experience to have a sort of bland paternalism to it, deliberately avoiding any attempt to encourage people to actually drink. Having read about changes in Sweden between the 1970s and now in Andrew Brown's Fishing In Utopia, I understood that the Systembolaget used to look somewhere between a bookmaker's shop and the waiting room of a methadone clinic, being essentially a paternalistic harm-minimisation programme for those who, for whatever reason, insist on drinking, allowing—but never encouraging—them to do so, but had evolved into more of a standard consumer experience. Nonetheless, I was expecting it to look a bit more minimal and, well, institutional; perhaps like a Lidl or Costco for alcohol, with dim fluorescent lighting and pallets of bottles labelled with only their name and alcohol content in a monospaced laser-printed typeface. Instead, I found something that would put a North London Waitrose to shame; a brightly lit space with huge selection of beers, ales, craft beers and microbrews; each one had, on its shelf, a label enumerating food combinations it goes well with. (The only section where it lagged behind was the gin section, which was somewhat small and mostly limited to mainstream British gins; I suspect Sweden isn't really a gin-drinking country.)
Later, when I recounted my Systembolaget experience, and the way it differed from my expectations, to a friend, they mentioned that the staff are also experts in beer and spirits, and able to make knowledgeable recommendations. The implication of this was that, if you live in Sweden and know your way around beer, the government will want to employ you to recommend ales and pilsners to consumers. Now I'm far from a hard Thatcherite or a believer in the Libertarian ideal of the minimal “nightwatchman state”, though, having grown up in an English-speaking world, in which the free-market principles articulated by Milton Friedman are as accepted as Copernican astronomy (even by those who regard themselves as being on The Left; while there, for example, are calls for the renationalisation of Britain's railways, for example, few would call for the Upper Crust franchises to be kicked out of stations and replaced with the return of the much-maligned British Rail sandwich), this strikes me as rather exotic and a little weird. Beer-recommending civil servants? A state liquor monopoly simultaneously discouraging and encouraging drinking? The State not as Orwellian Big Brother but as the older brother you go to to ask about how to enjoy vodka? We truly are no longer in the neoliberal Anglosphere.
Almost all the Nordic countries have state liquor monopolies. The exception is Denmark, but the other Scandinavians regard the Danes, with one foot on the mainland, to be halfway towards being the wild, laissez-faire Germans (and yes, that is a stereotype in Scandinavia; while in the English-speaking world, the Germans may be stereotyped (at best) as precise, humorless BMW engineers and/or Kraftwerkian Mensch-Maschinen, in Scandinavia, they're an unruly people who drink in the street and don't tax their beer.) In Iceland, the equivalent monopoly chain is known as Vinbuð, though there was talk a while ago about rolling back or eliminating its monopoly. The Finns are slightly more liberal, in that one can buy beer from ordinary supermarkets, where (as in Australia) it's stored in a segregated section which (as I discovered shortly after disembarking from a Helsinki-bound train at 8:30) is physically closed off at 9pm. For stronger spirits, one has to go to the state liquor shop, which is called, with characteristic Finnish lack of euphemism, Alko. And it's not only the quasi-socialist Jante Law societies of the Nordic world that do this; in the US, the conservatively Mormon, and staunchly Republican, state of Utah also has a state liquor monopoly. I imagine that their shop shelves probably look less enticing than those at the Systembolaget.
In most European languages, personal pronouns (like she, him and such) are gendered; it can be somewhat awkward to talk about a person in English without disclosing whether they are (or are regarded as) male or female. (In some other languages, such as French and German, not disclosing the gender of a person is even harder, with words for “friend”, “coworker” and various occupations being gendered as well.) This means that speakers of those languages have to classify a person as male or female before discussing them, or otherwise go a lot of squirming. Interestingly, this is by no means a universal property of human language; in fact, 57% of the world's languages do not have gendered pronouns.
As the genders of people one deals with become less significant in most aspects of everyday life (discriminating between male and female coworkers could land one in legal trouble, and in the age of remote working, there's the possibility that you might not know whether your accountant or the freelance coder three timezones away you're working with is a man or a woman), this will eventually change, and gender-neutral personal pronouns will arise out of necessity. In English, what will probably happen is that “they” will lose its connotations of plurality, and become the natural way of referring to someone when their gender is irrelevant or unknown.
Not everybody is happy to wait for hypothetical linguistic evolution to take its course; in Sweden, unsurprisingly, they have taken things into their own hands, and introduced a gender-neutral personal pronoun into society, through the child-care system; a generation of Swedish toddlers is growing up used to referring to people as hen (he/she), rather than han (he) or hon (she). The pronoun hen was introduced in two Stockholm nurseries in 2012, and now has spread out of the nursery system to several newspapers; also, it has crossed the border, with reports of it being adopted into Norwegian. (There's a good chance that it'll make it into Danish as well, as it, Swedish and Norwegian are very closely related, and partly mutually intelligible.)
Not everybody is pleased with this, one can imagine the usual conservative talking heads, from Moscow to Wichita, fulminating darkly about “political correctness gone mad”, “Cultural Marxism” and/or “gender” (a term used pejoratively in reactionary circles to mean any deviation from traditional gender roles), in between making disparaging wisecracks involving meatballs and flat-packed furniture. And outside of that, there are some who think that teaching children to refer to people not as men or women but as persons is, for some reason, cruel:
But, argues Dr David Eberhard, a leading Swedish psychiatrist, a new pronoun won’t change the fact that the vast majority of people identify either as men or women. “Whatever you choose to call people, the biological differences between men and women remain,” he notes. “We should treat each other with respect, but ignoring biological gender differences is crazy. Making us identical won’t create more equality.” Boys should be allowed to play with dolls – and girls with cars – if they like to, says Eberhard, who coined the expression “safety addiction” in reference to Sweden’s health and safety system. “But”, he adds, “calling them hen instead of him or her? That’s child cruelty.”
I don't get why this is child cruelty; it's not that a user of a gender-neutral language would not learn to notice that some people are male and some female. The key difference is that this demotes gender from a defining attribute of a person—you are essentially a man or a woman—and turns it into a secondary attribute—you are a person, with a number of attributes (hair colour, height, maleness/femaleness). In a society which is (for the most part) no longer divided into hard-and-fast gender roles, should we still be using language which evolved when the two genders were organised hierarchically, with members of one all but owning members of the other as chattels? That's to say nothing of situations where one does not know the gender of a person (the aforementioned remote coworker), or indeed the rise of non-human personlike entities (with corporate personhood on the books in the US, it seems rude to refer to corporations as “it”, while they are obviously neither a “he” nor a “she”; add to that the prospect of artificial intelligences, which might not always be issued with gendered personae). Finally, one area where a non-gendered personal pronoun would reap immediate, if somewhat trivial, benefits is that of the naming of pets, especially ones hard to sex by superficial inspection (“Nice boa constrictor; what's his name?” “Her name's Ermintrude.”)
A few thoughts about Eurovision 2013 (which I watched slightly later than most people, having had prior commitments on Saturday evening):
- Firstly, Romania were robbed. Their entry (Klaus Nomi Dracula doing giallo eurodance with a dubstep breakdown) was, in my opinion, by far the best of the night, and barely ended up in the first half of the chart. It ended up considerably behind Moldovan Volcano Dress Lady (whose sets were impressive, though) and Belgian Justin Bieber (who was pretty weak tea).
- It's amazing how Russia can manage to make a saccharine song about world peace sound vaguely threatening.
- Bonnie Tyler's song for the UK was a bit bland (as someone else called it, “total eclipse of her art”). She also seemed to be heavily medicated on stage, as if wincing through a haze of painkillers. (The sacrifices one makes for one's country?) The UK didn't come anywhere close to winning, though managed to get the votes of half a dozen or so countries and scrape a respectable middle of the bottom half of the board, which, by UK standards, is good. Last place went to Ireland, whose entry, as far as eurodance balladry with taiko drumming go, was quite good.
- The intro video for the show showed a caterpillar travelling from Baku to Malmö, hitching rides on hot-air balloons (the dominant form of transport in Azerbaijan, not counting bleak Soviet-era trains or oligarchs' limousines), boats, mopeds and trains. The winner this year was Denmark, with a polished but conventional number. Which means that the intro video for next year's one will be a lot shorter, involving only a crossing of the Öresund Bridge.
- The bits between the songs, laid on by the Swedish hosts, were quite entertaining; at about half time, they had a local comedienne playing what is apparently a popular Swedish TV character, Ebulliently Clueless British Lady. After the songs, there was a humorously self-deprecating musical number about Swedish culture, which was quite entertaining. Coupled with the video “postcards” introducing songs being about the entrants' countries, not the many glorious facets of the host country, the overall effect was a lot different from the meticulously polished and vaguely authoritarian spectacles presented by ex-Soviet host nations. A lot more lågom and less arriviste.
Continuing the Margaret Thatcher Memorial Season on this blog: why the Left gets neoliberalism wrong, by political scientist Corey Robin. It turns out that the thing about rugged individualism is (once one gets beyond the pulp novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, not exactly founts of academic rigour) a red herring, and the true atom of the neoliberal world view is traditional, vaguely feudal, hierarchical structures of authority: patriarchial families, and enterprises with owners and chains of fealty:
For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim. When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.
What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.By this analysis, while neoliberalism may wield the rhetoric of atomised individualism, it is more like a counter-enlightenment of sorts. If civilisation was the process of climbing up from the Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short, and establishing structures (such as states, legal systems, and shared infrastructure) that damp some of the wild swings of fortune, neoliberalism would be an attempt to roll back the last few steps of this, the ones that usurped the rightful power of hierarchical structures (be they noble families, private enterprises or churches), spread bits of it to the unworthy serfs, and called that “democracy”.
On a related note, a piece from Lars Trägårdh (a Swedish historian and advisor to Sweden's centre-right—i.e., slightly left of New Labour—government) arguing that an interventionist state is not the opposite of individual freedom but an essential precondition for it:
The linchpin of the Swedish model is an alliance between the state and the individual that contrasts sharply with Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the state and preference for family- and civil society-based solutions to welfare. In Sweden, a high-trust society, the state is viewed more as friend than foe. Indeed, it is welcomed as a liberator from traditional, unequal forms of community, including the family, charities and churches.
At the heart of this social compact lies what I like to call a Swedish theory of love: authentic human relationships are possible only between autonomous and equal individuals. This is, of course, shocking news to many non-Swedes, who believe that interdependency is the very stuff of love.
Be that as it may; in Sweden this ethos informs society as a whole. Despite its traditional image as a collectivist social democracy, comparative data from the World Values Survey suggests that Sweden is the most individualistic society in the world. Individual taxation of spouses has promoted female labour participation; universal daycare makes it possible for all parents – read women – to work; student loans are offered to everyone without means-testing; a strong emphasis on children's rights have given children a more independent status; the elderly do not depend on the goodwill of children.So, by this token, Scandinavian “socialism” would seem to be the most advanced implementation of individual autonomy and human potential yet achieved in the history of civilisation whereas Anglocapitalism, with its ethos of “creative destruction”, is a vaguely Downtonian throwback to feudalism.
In Sweden, the generous welfare state offers benefits for various conditions, such as being really into heavy metal, to the point of not being able to show up for job interviews not dressed in full metalhead regalia or to work without loud music playing:
"I signed a form saying: 'Roger feels compelled to show his heavy metal style. This puts him in a difficult situation on the labour market. Therefore he needs extra financial help'. So now I can turn up at a job interview dressed in my normal clothes and just hand the interviewers this piece of paper," he said.
The manager at his new workplace allows him to go to concerts as long as he makes up for lost time at a later point. He is also allowed to dress as he likes and listen to heavy metal while washing up. "But not too loud when there are guests," he said.
Scandinavia And The World is a web comic drawn, in anime fan art fashion, by a Danish illustrator, and exploring Scandinavian culture and stereotypes (and, occasionally, the rest of the world). In it, Denmark is never without a beer bottle (the Danes, you see, don't have the punitively high alcohol taxes and state liquour monopolies that are the norm in the Nordic world), Norway is always carrying a fish, Sweden may or may not be gay and Iceland is a bit nuts; with cameo appearances by America (a loud, not-too-bright bigot and his sister, Paris Hilton) and England (who wears a monocle and speaks like a P.G. Wodehouse character and/or Hollywood villain). There are comic strips on topics ranging from mutual stereotypes of the other Scandinavian countries and the differences in the sound of their languages to the gloomy nature of Nordic cinema and the varieties of putrefied fish consumed in the Nordic countries. Well, when it isn't veering off into fits of anime-otaku sexual innuendo.
(via David Gerard)
Rick Falkvinge, a member of the Swedish Pirate Party, claims to have received copies of US embassy cables (from the Wikileaks archive) exposing the full extent to which the US government has been dictating Sweden's actions on copyright laws and the prosecution of The Pirate Bay. (The original article is here; an English translation may be found here; and the cables detailing US requirements for online surveillance provisions against file-sharing are here.) If this is true, then the Swedish government is even better at following orders from Washington than Britain is, despite its carefully managed image of nonalignment. This follows closely revelations that Sweden is a secret member of NATO, with military and intelligence cooperation being concealed from its parliament.
Julian Assange has been arrested in London, and is facing an extradition hearing to do with some somewhat suspicious-looking rape charges in Sweden. There is triumphal news coverge in the US, with statements like "the international manhunt is over"; in the official narrative, this is a high-value terrorist mastermind who has just been captured.
It looks like Assange is about to find out what happens to those who pick a fight with a hegemonic superpower. (Hint: they don't use lubricant.) Wikileaks, however, intend to keep publishing. How they'll keep funding the organisation is unknown, given that MasterCard has now suspended all card payments to them, and it's likely that Visa will follow suit.
I wonder whether Assange will even make it to Sweden, or whether (a) the rape charges will evaporate into thin air as soon as the US submits an extradition request (they don't have any laws they could charge him under—the 1917 Espionage Act is somewhat shaky on the matter—but they do have the benefit of a compliant British government who might reasonably be trusted to rubber-stamp and fast-track an extradition request in the interest of the "Special Relationship" if given a half-plausible pretext to do so), or (b) the plane chartered to take him to Sweden will take a detour to Guantanámo or Diego Garcia (or some pro-US Middle Eastern government with practiced torturers and reasons to be pissed off about their back-room dealings with the infidels having been made public). Perhaps they'll even find some child pornography on his laptop beforehand, just to underscore that this is a bad, bad man, and not any kind of martyr.
Of course, this is just one ringleader being made an example of. Wikileaks is still out there, and still drip-feeding the world with its revelations for now, and there is a list of mirrors in case the main site is shut down, and symphathisers are hosting an encrypted file, allegedly containing very damaging revelations. However, the NSA has acknowledged that it is monitoring traffic to and from Wikileaks, and thus probably has a good list of downloaders. Social network analysis can find people they know who may have anti-US or anti-establishment sympathies. A series of synchronised raids by law enforcement and security services, seizing or "sanitizing" computers, may destroy most copies of the data and, more importantly, put the frighteners on anyone thinking of sticking their head up and saying "I too am Wikileaks".
In the longer term, though, another Wikileaks will happen sooner or later unless they reengineer the internet from the ground up to eliminate the possibility of anonymity and provide mechanisms of centralised control. The MPAA and RIAA have been pushing aggressively for this for reasons of protecting their intellectual-property-licensing business models, but now Wikileaks may have made this a matter of priority. Perhaps from now on, we can expect the US to agree with China that the internet should be made controllable.
Recently, there was an election in Sweden in which the votes were electronically counted. Write-in entries had to be hand-written, but that didn't stop wiseguys trying to pwn the election by pulling a Bobby Tables-style attack:
R;13;Hallands län;80;Halmstad;01;Halmstads västra valkrets;0904;Söndrum 4;pwn DROP TABLE VALJ;1Or, indeed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to pwn the browsers of anyone looking at the results (thwarted by the transcriber entering the wrong type of bracket):
R;14;Västra Götalands län;80;Göteborg;03;Göteborg, Centrum;0722;Centrum, Övre Johanneberg;(Script src=http://hittepa.webs.com/x.txt);1It's not clear whether they expected to succeed or were just aiming for a laugh from the geeks of the world.
Internet memes (once described, perhaps unkindly, as "like in-jokes for people who don't have friends") aren't purely an American or Anglosphere phenomenon. Cracked has a list of seven quite peculiar internet memes from foreign countries.
The Russians have two entries: PhotoExtreme is an offshoot of live-action role-playing games, as one would expect in the sort of hardcore place that Russia is fabled to be. In this meme, one person comes up with a bizarre scenario, and others act it out, take photos and post them online. The scenarios are acted out in public, without anybody being informed in advance, so bystanders are likely to be confronted with surreal, often violent (ontologically, if not literally) spectacles.
The other Russian meme is a more innocuous one, not unlike LOLCats, which originated from a rather naïve American drawing of a bear, and involves photoshopping said drawing into images. In Sweden, meanwhile, they do something similar with an image of a guy with a horse's head; this meme is named "Snel Hest" ("Nice Horse") and often involves horse-related puns. Meanwhile, the French go in for sarcastically 'shopping their self-aggrandising president Sarkozy into various historical scenes (it seems to be akin to the "Al Gore invented the Internet" meme of the 1990s) and in Australia, a video of a racist bogan chick went viral (the great Australian public doesn't really go for highly conceptual, it seems). The Kenyans, meanwhile, have a supercool tough-guy hero named Makmende, whose name comes from a mangling of Clint Eastwood's famous line "make my day".
Pitchfork has a piece looking at government support for musicians around the world, in particular the Nordic countries (where governments plough a lot of money into supporting up-and-coming acts as a matter of principle; consequently, Sweden is the third biggest exporter of popular music and Norway, Denmark and Iceland punch well above their weight), Canada and the UK (Canada follows a vaguely Scandinavian line, more out of fear of becoming an American cultural colony than deep social-democratic principles; the UK still has some vestiges of the pre-Thatcherite arcadia—White Town's government grant-funded first single was mentioned—though apparently the golden age has been sacrificed to Blatcherite mercantilism, with art schools being more efficient assembly lines for producing employable human resources than the legendary hothouses of freeform creativity they were when Jarvis was flirting with Greek heiresses), and the US (where musicians struggle to get health care—something Obama's bill won't help much with—though, at least, they can console themselves that they're not in Iran or somewhere).
Sweden may be associated with supercool indie, twee-folk and fashion-electro these days, but the biggest subculture there are the raggare, essentially rockabilly/greaser types who cruise around in old American cars (bought en masse cheaply when America was hit by oil crises), dress in 1950s attire and fetishise a half-remembered, half-contrived 1950s rock'n'roll Americana.
While they started off as hellraisers, fighting amongst themselves and beating up members of other subcultures, a few decades have given them respectability; there are raggare awareness groups visiting schools, the government consulted them on import taxes for classic cars, and the Swedish post office even issued a raggare commemorative stamp a few years ago. It can't be said that the Swedes undervalue their pop-cultural heritage, even when it is second-hand.
For young Swedes, these giant American cars, which contrasted with the safe, boxy Volvos their parents drove, were the ultimate symbols of rebellion. And they were dirt-cheap. "They were stupid," Georg says about the Americans. "Some of the cars were limited edition. They built maybe 70 of them and they were selling them to us for a few thousand when they were collector pieces."
When the raggare have parties, they tend to have them in their garages: comfortable enough spaces, filled with pots of grease, car jacks and stacks of fenders. The more capable raggare jitterbug and twist; others shuffle from foot to foot, stopping occasionally to pull out the kink in a poodle skirt or run a comb through a greasy quiff
Prospect Magazine has an interesting article about Sweden:
Inevitably, the subject turns to sex and marriage. I'll never forget asking one group what they thought of marriage in a country where most educated young people (and half go to university) don't get married or bear children until they are well over 30. A young woman gave me a thoughtful answer and so I asked her, "What are you looking for in a husband?" Without batting an eye or pausing for thought, she answered: "Three things. One, he must be good in bed. Two, he must be a good father. Three, when we divorce, he mustn't be bitter."
At the moment Reinfeldt is leading the four conservative parties who form the government to reform some of the deeply held attitudes of Swedish society. "What we are is anti-conformity. We have opened up the schools and health services to competition and worked to end the many monopolies in our society." The propensity towards conformity bugs both Reinfeldt and many of the foreigners who work or study here. When I said that I find the Swedes are the Japanese of Europe, he nodded his head in agreement.
Apart from a well-travelled elite, the majority of people look down on those who buck the Swedish lifestyle trend—those who are a day late at the end of every month with paying their bills, those who cross the street before the light turns green even if no traffic is coming, those who miss a meeting of the committee of tenants that supervise their block of flats, those who don't do immediately what the committee has told them to do. (The penalties are severe—as I found out. You can be thrown onto the street for disobeying, even though you own your flat). Swedes just about can bring themselves to vote for different parties. But when it comes to big issues they usually follow the Stockholm elite's concensus. Very rarely is there a furious debate in parliament or the courtroom. People prefer to agree than disagree.
Swedes tell you that there is pressure in society not to raise your head too far above the parapet. One shouldn't push too hard to get ahead, to ask too demandingly for a salary increase, to engage in conspicuous consumption, to build too big a house or to own too posh a car or dress in a fancy or even stylish way. The very well cut business suit or skirt and jacket, much less the bejewelled theatre, concert or partygoer are not welcomed.
The Independent had an article this week on how Stockholm has become a centre of web technologies and social software, from the likes of Skype and Spotify to more ethically ambiguous ones like The Pirate Bay, and why this is the case:
Rick Falkvinge is the leader of Sweden's most plugged-in political group, The Pirate Party. "In the rest of Europe," he says, "the internet roll-out was done by telecommunications companies, who had an incentive to delay it for as long as possible because it shattered their existing business model. When you put disruptive technology into everyone's hands, it changes public perceptions of what you can, and should, do with it."
Technology must be in the Swedish genes; in 1900, Stockholm had more telephones than London or Berlin. When Crown Princess Victoria announced her engagement last week, she did so via a video on the royal website. The weekend's biggest film opening was an adaptation of novelist Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The heroine of the title is a young computer hacker with a flexible attitude to the law.
Sweden has long been held up as a model of social democracy. So is there something in the mindset that predisposes the Swedes to the provision of free, communal culture online? "There's a law [Allemansratten] that I think is unique to Sweden, about common spaces," says Andersson. "You can go out camping in nature anywhere in Sweden without asking the landowner's permission. That sort of attitude predominates here."Which is not entirely true; England has the ancient "right to roam", which is still valid everywhere that's not owned by Madonna. However, Britain has more of the Anglocapitalist model of culture, predicated on intellectual property licensing and marketing, than the collectivist, Jante-compliant variety in Scandinavia. Were three Londoners to start a BitTorrent tracker in the UK, they'd be extradited to the United States (whose intellectual property, after all, it is) faster than you could say "Gary McKinnon".
A Swedish school confiscated birthday party invitations handed out by an 8-year-old pupil because he failed to invite two of his classmates, violating their rights, and possibly the Jante Law as well:
The school, in Lund, southern Sweden, argues that if invitations are handed out on school premises then it must ensure there is no discrimination.
He says the two children were left out because one did not invite his son to his own party and he had fallen out with the other one.The boy's father lodged a complaint with the parliamentary ombudsman. A verdict is expected in September.
Naming things, it seems, remains political: Danish academics have acused Ikea of cultural imperialism, for giving Danish placenames to its cheaper products, whilst reserving Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian ones for the more prestigious items:
The researchers claim to have discovered a pattern where more expensive items, such as beds and chairs, have been named after Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian towns whereas doormats, draught excluders and runners are named after Danish places.
Mr Kjöller analysed the Ikea catalogue with a colleague at the University of Southern Denmark. He said it "symbolically portrays Denmark as the doormat of Sweden, a country with a larger economy and population".
Legal fictions are a powerful thing; firstly unlicensed reproduction of copyrighted materials was equated with violent robbery at sea by being termed "piracy", and soon, at least in Sweden, it may be categorised as a form of paedophilia. Well, it had to be either that or terrorism...
So that was Eurovision 2007. A bit of a surprise; the Serbian entry which won it seemed rather lacklustre compared to some of the others, but romped home in the voting, presumably due to Serbia being located in a geographical/demographical sweet spot. Interestingly enough, Eastern Europe dominated the voting, with the highest-scoring western-European nation being well in the bottom half of the rankings.
There were a few highlights: Georgia's entry started off as a traditional torch song by a woman in a red dress, but then morphed into eurodance, and then the dancers whipped out swords and started dancing about, Cossack-fashion, with a wild glint in their eyes. France eschewed the usual white-gowned piano balladeer in favour of a troupe of Dadaist mimes in Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes, highlighting the ridiculous side of Gallic culture. (Fat lot of good it did them, they ended up something like third-last. I guess it's back to the chanteuse and pianist next year.) Romania's entry was a bit like France's on a budget; five blokes dressed like the habitués of a slightly unsavoury tavern, singing "I love you" in every language on earth. The music was vaguely gypsyish, and sped up dramatically towards the end. Neighbouring Bulgaria's started off like Dead Can Dance with extra percussion, and then went electro. And, of course, there was Ukraine's entry, with its sequined, uniformed drag queen, looking like Elton John crossed with Austin Powers. It had camp and kitsch in spades, and raised a few questions. What, for example, was the significance of them counting in German, and did they really sing "I want to see Russia goodbye", and if so, how did that make it past the vetting process?
The lowlight was probably Ireland's entry, which was pure, unadulterated Celtic kitsch of the most obvious variety, and quite deserving of its final position at the bottom of the board. This year, though, nobody got a nul points, and they limped home with 3 points or somesuch. Britain did a bit better, largely thanks to Malta giving them 12, though their song was stuck firmly in the mid-1990s. And the teeth on that stewardess were frightening; granted, Scooch, as uninspired as they may be, were a lot less cringeworthy than last year's entrant (a middle-aged bloke pretending to be a teenage hip-hop street thug, surrounded by dancing "schoolgirls" who, apparently, were borrowed by Turkey this year). And I'd have to give a dishonourable mention to Russia, whose entry was a piece of soullessly machine-extruded commercial pop, trading on sex appeal (sample lyric from the three immaculately coifed girls doing the singing: "put a cherry on my cake and taste my cherry pie"; ooh-err!) lacking any of the madness or wrongness that makes for an interesting Eurovision entry.
The other competitors: Belarus (incidentally, the last remaining state with a KGB) had black-clad female dancers scaling walls like assassins and John Barry-esque strings over its power ballad. The full might of the Swedish culture industry was unleashed in the form of 1970s glam rock attired in monochromatic retro cool. Latvia's entry was in Italian, and like a low-rent version of The Divs. Germany had a bloke named Roger Cicero (son of Herr und Frau Cicero, I presume) doing a Sinatra-lite swing number, in German. Armenia's entrant seemed to follow, stylistically, in the footsteps of that other great Armenian singer, Charles Aznavour, only with an overwroughtly woeful and somewhat strained ballad. And Turkey's entrant was a short, hirsute man wearing a red jacket and a broad grin, surrounded by belly dancers Terry Wogan persisted in pointing out were British. Presumably giving the United Kingdom something to be proud of even should they have ended up with nul points.
While some speculated that Lordi's astounding triumph last year (reprised in the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque opening video) would have opened the door for a flood of hard-rock/heavy-metal bands, this did not entirely come to pass. Finland followed up their win with a new genre, which could be dubbed, Tolkienesquely, MOR-Goth, consisting of torch songs with emo-esque lyrics and plenty of black clothing and gothic makeup. The other main Lordi-influenced act was Moldova, whose song sounded like the sort of alternative-rock song that ended up on Hollywood action-film soundtracks in the late 1990s; all minor-key strings, crunchy metal power chords and drum loops.
The promotional videos played before the musical numbers were done quite well, executed as whimsical stories featuring elements of Finnish culture. Some of the odder ones featured a goth riding a rollercoaster, hackers coding computer demos at the Assembly festival, a heavy-metal festival full of corpsepainted teenagers, a troupe of clowns giving an athlete an instant makeover so he could enter a restaurant, a twattish-looking bloke in DJ headphones playing the pipes at the Sibelius monument, and Santa Claus playing chess with one of the Moomins. Oh, and lots of mobile phones (Nokia, of course); the Finns, it seems, use them at the dinner table, and even propose marriage with the help of their cameraphones. Other than mobile phones, heavy metal appears to be a big part of the Finnish national identity; other than the promos, there was the entertainment during the vote-counting break, which featured the heavy-metal string quartet Apocalyptica, as well as acrobats.
Last but not least, one has to mention the astonishing phenomenon that is Krisse, the somewhat frightening-looking young woman with the pink puffer jacket and big ponytails plucked from the audience to interview competitors, stumbling through questions and going on about herself (sample question: "on a scale of 9 to 10, how beautiful am I?"). For some reason, she reminded me of Leoncie.
Sweden expands its soft power yet further, by becoming the first country with official diplomatic representation in Second Life. The Swedish embassy in the multiplayer environment won't actually issue passports or visas, but will tell people where to get them in
the real world First Life, and provide information about Sweden.
(via Boing Boing)
Jens Lekman writes about Gothenburg, specifically explaining the significance of Hammer Hill (which sounds like Sweden's answer to Bethnal Green or Notting Hill), Kortedala (which is apparently much, much worse) and Tram #7:
I told you where tram # 7 goes. It was a temporary stop. She don't live here anymore, it was a long time since we broke up. Still, taking # 7 from Sahlgrenska down to the Botanical Gardens is , if you do it at the right time, a breathtaking experience. The sky opens up, the tracks underneath creaking, the trees embracing you as you come down from the bridge and into the lushness of Slottskogen. I used to test my songs during this little trip. If they managed to keep me focused despite the heavenly views and the loud creaking, then they had something. The other day I took this trip and listened to the new songs. They did well.
TIBET is the nom de guerre of a Swedish underground artist, in the literal sense. His art involves making 11"-tall statues out of concrete, taking them into tunnels beneath Stockholm and gluing, welding or drilling them into the solid rock. Of course, very few people will actually see them down there, though given that they're going to be around for a long time, eventually someone might.
Jude Rogers (who, I believe, co-edits the Smoke zine, along with Matt Haynes) has an article in the Graun about the recent explosion of Swedish indie pop, and how Sweden seems to have recently become the homeland of indie-pop (in the old-school, pre-Britpop/Carling/Xfm sense of the word):
"Things have always been very do-it-yourself here," says Angergard. "Labrador has never had a grand, ambitious plan. Partly because bands don't expect much in Sweden. They never think of the fame, or the money like you do in Britain; there's just not that attitude. Bands are more laid-back, they all have jobs and normal lives." Angergard pats his chest contentedly. "They just make music because it's a fun thing to do."Which sounds a bit like Melbourne; at least compared to hyper-competitive, status-conscious England. Of course, in England you do get bands in the old-school indie-pop tradition, though they're the exception rather than the rule, and when you mention "indie" to someone, you have to explain that you're not referring to the Kaiser Monkeys or some other hyper-stylised, massively commercial, aggressively success-oriented outfit.
What's noticeable about these Swedish indie bands is their ambition - not in terms of a rock'n'roll attitude, but in terms of them wanting to put more in, and get more out of, their songs. Johan Duncanson of the Radio Dept - a Labrador band who had two NME singles of the week with their last album and hope for more with their new one, Pet Grief - reckons that this difference is because Sweden's musical culture's less laddish than elsewhere. "So much indie music in America and Britain these days is very male, very urrgghh. Dirty, smelly, heterosexual music. We're less about getting drunk and more about sitting with friends, playing around with keyboards and guitars, finding different sounds and textures - making something exciting for ourselves."
Duncanson admits that it helps that the Swedish government is so supportive of the arts. Anyone can get money for guitar strings, or form a studiocirkel - a group of individuals who apply for government funding for rehearsal rooms. This encourages bands such as the Radio Dept to take the DIY ethos further. Bands who, in Duncanson's words, want to "go back to what indie used to be about, before it became a term that doesn't mean anything".Of course, this would never happen in Britain. There's no economically rational reason for the government to fund indie music, when corporate sponsors can do so, and additionally result with a more efficiently marketable form of "indie music".
Have these "old English indie principles" helped Swedish indie connect with indie kids here in Britain? It helps, obviously, that most Swedish indie is written in English - mainly, the bands say, because they have grown up with pop music being sung in English, or they have been Anglophiles themselves. Still, there are Swedish language bands such as [ingenting] (which means [nothing] in English) and Vapnet, who are getting record label interest over here, and who are regularly played at Brighton's Scandophile club night, Sweden Made Me. "It's mainly the sound of these records rather than the language they sing in," says the club's founder, Rob Sinden. "It's homegrown music, made in bedrooms, there's this whole DIY ethic. There's a pride about that, a real happiness about it, that appeals to English indie fans."
Finland's metal monsters ran away with Eurovision, winning it with 292 points; a lead of 44. The runners-up were: Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Sweden.
The bottom 3 were: France, Israel and Malta, with Malta
being the only ones to get nul getting one mercy point from Albania. I guess eyebrows just don't do it.
Lordi are taking to the stage, kissing the Greco-American woman, holding up the prize and giving a mighty roar, and getting back on stage with a reprise of their winning song as the credits roll.
Ireland's entry is fairly boring; just a well-coiffed gent in a suit singing banalities about every song being a cry for love or something. Bland and inoffensive and guaranteed to be impossible to laugh at, and thus to be easily forgotten.
And Sweden's entry follows the national tradition of sounding like ABBA. This year, they're ripping off "The Winner Takes It All". The singer has a Christian symbol inscribed on her bicep in black texta and scarily white teeth. I am told that she won Eurovision for Sweden in 1991, and then ended up joining some kind of Christian sect. That makes two representatives of fringe religious groups so far.
Pitchfork interviews Jens Lekman, in which he talks about how he deleted all his unfinished songs from his computer and went to work in a bingo hall to take a break, the numerous records he has sampled, being beaten up by Morrissey fans (apparently the jock bullies in Sweden listen to Morrissey) and his coming Australian tour, backed up by Guy Blackman and members of Architecture In Helsinki.
Commuters in Stockholm will soon have access to library book dispensers on the city's subway:
The idea is that residents will be able to stick their library card into the 'bookomatic' and choose from up to 700 titles. It was inspired by a similar machine in Lidingö library, which, since its launch a year ago, has been happily loaning out around 500 books a month.Sweden already has the ubiquitous free commuter papers, full of wire news stories and lifestyle articles listing the latest fashions/gadgets/DVDs/holiday destinations; the book idea sounds like a more Scandinavian socialist take on the concept, less concerned with keeping the reader running hard on the hedonic treadmill and more with an idea of civilised communal amenity and supporting public culture. (Of course, it could well be that the books are sponsored and carry ads and/or product placement.)
Meanwhile, The Times' Caitlin Moran deconstructs the very idea of commuter reading material and its true purpose, from a characteristically English point of view:
Library book dispensers on trains are nothing to do with books. Sweden isn't, as a result of all this, going to become more literate, and start quoting bits of The Brothers Karamazov during trade meetings at the UN. No one actually reads when they commute. "Reading" s all about avoiding eye-contact with anyone in your carriage. You are, after all, travelling at 80mph, in a sealed pod, with a great many people — any one of whom could try to talk to you about secret codes in the Bible, or George Galloway.
As anyone who uses the London Underground will confirm, the Evening Standard, circulation 350,000, isn't a newspaper at all. No one pays the slightest attention to the articles inside. It's merely a disposable, 40p screen that one erects for privacy between Goodge Street and Archway. But this screen is vital. Without it, the only option, on being approached by a nutter, is to pretend to have seen something fascinating out of the window — even though you are, at the time, in a 12-mile-long pitch-black tunnel under Camden Town. Halfway through such an exercise — maybe when staring intently at a brick all covered in black sticky fluff — one can start to wonder just who the nutter is here, after all.Moran then goes on to suggest, in Swiftean fashion, that this mass social avoidance is a wasted opportunity to discover the resources offered by one's fellow commuters:
For instance, we'd all love to have a wide selection of friends, spanning all ages, cultures, professions and sexual persuasions. Well — here they all are! Pressing into your back! Within these airless walls is a human Google — practically everything you could ever need in one lifetime. The number of a good plumber. The address of the best mojitos in Barcelona. A phenomenal one-night stand. Someone who knows Julie Elliman, with whom you lost contact in 1990. A guy you can pretend is your friend for the next ten years, sporadically tapping up for free legal advice. Someone who knows how to falsify a breathalyser test. A nun. If only we could all get talking, commuting would be transformed from a semi- unendurable hell into the biggest, most egalitarian networking mechanism known to man.Her modest proposal is to pump laughing gas into peak-hour Underground carriages, breaking down those awkward social barriers and getting everyone talking and having a great time. I'm not sure about laughing gas, though I imagine it may be an ideal test environment for aerosolised oxytocin.
Sydney's Anglican Dean, Philip Jensen, has said that the tsunami was a warning from God that judgment is coming, and that society has become too sinful and Godless. Perhaps if we banned pornography and Satanic rock music and indecent language on TV and kissing in movies and unmarried couples going about unchaperoned and started stoning homosexuals, witches and wearers of mixed fabrics to death as the Book of Leviticus commands, God would make all the earthquakes and tsunamis and tornadoes and suicide bombers and email spam and antibiotic-resistant superbugs and killer bees and killer sharks stop. Maybe if we were super-obedient, He would even see fit to bring down petrol prices or something.
Another religious leader, Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, claims that God sent the earthquake to kill 2,000 Swedish tourists because their country prosecuted a fundamentalist preacher for preaching against homosexuality. That would be a lot of collateral damage for a kind, loving God; though I suppose for Rev. Phelps' God, it makes perfect sense.
On a different note, the Ayn Rand Institute says that the US should not help tsunami victims, because (a) taxation is theft, and (b) altruism is evil.
The street finds its own uses for obsolete mobile phones, it seems. Football hooligans in the UK are getting around police weapon searches by throwing mobile phones instead. While knives and other traditional hooligan weapons are confiscated on entry to stadiums, football fans are allowed to bring in mobile phones, so the hooligans bring a few extra to lob at the other side. The extra phones are apparently traded around some football clubs. I wonder whether they leave them as is or hollow them out and fill them with ballast of some sort to do more damage.
Meanwhile, a man in Sweden has been arrested after firing arrows with attached mobile phones into a prison yard. Mobile phones have been used to plan three prison escapes in Sweden in recent months.
A hiking couple found 70 pairs of shoes filled with butter in a remote mountainous location in northern Sweden. The shoes include all varieties, from sneakers to tap shoes. There's some speculation whether it's an art project of some sort or merely fetishism, though it may or may not be a violation of copyright. (via jwz)
You find out the oddest things when searching Google for "bogans". For example, that there's a Swedish pop band called The Bogans. They seem to be more Britpop than AC/DC though; still, some of their hairdos look rather bogan. Most of the links are to news articles about some basketballer whose surname happens to be Bogans; though there's a web design firm called bogan.com. Apparently they had a family reunion page, but that seems to be gone; perhaps because it was inundated with posts from actual bogans as opposed to Bogans?