Guardian journalist tries to shed light on ‘Danishness’

Intrigued by ‘The Killing’, Patrick Kingsley explores the positives and negatives of our national culture in his new book,’How to be Danish’

On a Monday morning earlier this year, a short skinny man was riding the S-train to Farum. As he tried to get a seat at the back of a packed carriage, his gaze fell upon the cover of the in-train magazine featuring a charming, assertive-looking woman in her late twenties. 

The man in question was Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist. At only 23, he’s a feature writer for The Guardian, and was recently voted as one of the top five young journalists to watch in 2012. He was in Denmark to write a book about contemporary Danish culture. 

The woman on the cover, meanwhile, was none other than Enhedslisten’s Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, a popular figure on the Danish left. Kingsley had received his first cultural shock.

“In the UK the idea of a train company interviewing a big leftie is out of this world!” he said. Subsequently Kingsley went back to his seat and picked up a newspaper whose main article is about Roskilde Dagbladet’s – by now infamous – headline: ‘N****r steals car from 80-year old’. 

“Within only a few minutes I was exposed to a very progressive and a very conservative side of Denmark,” he later observed. 

It has now been over six months since that train ride and Kingsley is back in Denmark in order to promote his newly published book ‘How to be Danish’. We met up with him in a Nørrebro café for a brief chat.  

Not everything Kingsley found while researching Denmark was positive

After becoming interested in Danish culture after watching ‘The Killing’ (Forbrydelsen), Kingsley set out to investigate key aspects of contemporary Danish culture, including design, architecture, food, transport, integration and the welfare state. ‘How to be Danish’ is based on a series of interviews with a selection of over 70 Danes including Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, ‘The Killing’ screenwriter Søren Sveistrup, and fashion designer Henrik Vibskov. 

What most impressed the young British journalist in his research was the level of equality in Danish society. According to Statistics Denmark, Danish lawyers earn on average 54,700 kroner a month – less than twice as much as what a rubbish collector earns (34,400 kr). 

“It’s staggering that the gap between the rich and the poor is so small,” Kingsley said. “Equality isn’t absolute, but Denmark is more equal than many other places, except that immigrants to a certain extent are left outside that overall equality.” 

Among the people Kingsley interviewed, he was especially struck by his conversations with Fatih Alev, the chairman of the Danish Islamic Centre. 

“Alev gave me such a fascinating insight into what it is like to be a Dane who has lived all his life in Denmark and yet still feels somewhat an outsider,” Kingsley said. “He was very illuminating on the challenges that immigrants and Muslims face. It was an eye-opener to the perhaps slightly more hollow side of Denmark, which was very moving.”

His time spent working on the book led Kingsley to believe that Denmark, and ‘Danishness’, is changing.

“The people who are making Denmark really exciting at the moment are in a way also subverting what it is to be Danish. People like Rene Redzepi and Bjarke Ingels aren’t Danish in the traditional way of believing yourself to be no better than anybody else. They see no reason for Denmark to remain a backwater. That ambition didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

Kingsley contends that one of the challenges Denmark currently faces is to figure out how to maintain its sense of togetherness whilst trying to branch out and be a player on the world stage. 

“Danishness evolves with time,” he said. “Many people aren’t digging the whole Jante Law thing anymore and are basically creating a different kind of Danishness. Meanwhile, if Denmark continues to be wary of newcomers, it risks losing one of its greatest tenets.” 

While Kingsley’s book may have some harsh words on Danes’ ability to open up towards others, it ultimately casts the country in a fairly positive light.

“A couple of Scots got in touch with me about the book,” he said. “They have been inspired by it because it shows people coming from a small country what you can do to put yourself on the map, be it focussing on low budget films or the local food scene. It’s possible to turn all that into something that makes people really excited about your country.”