"You’ve got soup. Why haven’t I got any soup?" barks a demanding Withnail in "Withnail and I".
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The Swedish menu: Bong water and a casserole beyond William Burroughs’s worst nightmares

Searching in vain for chicken soup in Gothenburg.

In the end, I made it to Gothenburg but I was so ill by the time I got there that all I could face eating was soup. I was in the grip of a hurricane-force cold that would have legitimately permitted me to call in sick if I had an office job. Four weeks of mooching about the place feeling sorry for myself and hardly eating had finally taken their toll.

Sweden is not a country that is particularly big on soup, if the shelves of the local supermarket are anything to go by. Back in England, even a Tesco Express will have a tasty selection but in this neck of the woods the best-looking was a tin of something called “meat soup” made by an entrepreneur named Gustaf Bong, who flourished around the turn of the 20th century. The Beloved looked at it doubtfully but it had a picture of a silver tureen on it and I was about to die so I feebly called for it to be placed in the shopping basket. (Which, incidentally, was on wheels and was pulled along by its handle; when I was well enough to do so, I amused myself by pretending it was a dog, whistling and saying, “Here, boy.”)

The soup, on closer inspection, was perfectly acceptable, being composed chiefly of salt and water. The manufacturers wished us a hearty “Bong appétit!” after the cooking instructions (they suggested, as well as heating it up, adding some herbs to make it taste of something).

I came to learn a few things, some of them disturbing, about Swedish cooking. The Beloved has a horror of fish so that rules out at least half of it but there is plenty more to stir the appetite, especially if you are fond of variations on pork and potatoes. But it is not all like that.

Take flygande Jakob, which translates exactly as “flying Jacob”, a dish that the website scandinavianfood.about.com describes as a “classic Swedish casserole” but whose recipe was first unleashed in a cookery magazine called Allt om Mat in 1976. Its chief ingredients are chicken, bananas, peanuts, bacon and whipped cream. Allt om Mat is the Swedish for “You’ve been had”; I began to see the deep wisdom behind The Muppet Show’s decision to make its crazed chef a Swede.

As it turns out, the Swedes have incredibly sweet teeth and can be seen promenading around town every Saturday with a bag the size of a rucksack filled with confectionery – the kind you’d get from a pick-and-mix at a service station. Apparently, they used to do this every day until the dentists made them promise to do this only on Saturdays. You think I’m making all this up, don’t you? They’re also very fond of their cinnamon buns, which even I have to admit are rather yummy. The miracle is that I didn’t see a single overweight person while I was there.

Not that I saw too many people. There are only about 12 of them in Sweden and I was mostly confined to my sickbed, being nursed by the Beloved, with lashings of Gustaf Bong’s finest to keep me going.

I had a fat, new biography of William Burroughs to occupy me when she was at work. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that he had been to Sweden; Malmö, to be precise, which was in those days, according to Burroughs, “one of the great centres for the distribution and disbursement of anti-Semitic propaganda”.

As for the country and its neighbours as a whole, Burroughs was not impressed. “Scandinavia exceeds my most ghastly imaginations,” he wrote to Allen Ginsberg, which is quite something from the man who dreamed up the talking arsehole and much worse, but I suspect some of his disdain may have been down to the draconian licensing laws in operation, which were even worse than they are today. You were only allowed two drinks of an evening – which had to be served with food (typically a couple of curling sandwiches, for legality’s sake) – and whenever you entered a restaurant (there were no bars), a doorman would smell your breath to see if you’d been drinking already.

It occurred to me that this might have been the origin of the flying Jacob: a dish that was so patently disgusting that no one in full possession of their faculties would be able to eat it; a satirical dish, anti-cuisine. And yet, for some reason, the Swedes took to their hearts this concoction that even William Burroughs could never have summoned from his darkest fantasies. I take my hat off to them. A nation that can eat a flying Jacob is capable of anything.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Brexit, betrayal and English football

Plus: what Nietzsche knew, Douglas Carswell's curious tweets and why David Cameron is like an essay crisis.

A couple of years ago I met the then Tory MP Douglas Carswell at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in London. He had not yet defected to Ukip and, with his eyes blazing, he began talking at me about sovereignty and direct democracy as well as comparing the campaign to liberate the British from the EU to the struggles of the Levellers and Chartists. It was hard not to stifle a yawn. Still, I listened politely and in the spirit of pluralism invited him to submit a guest column. The column never arrived, and in the intervening years I turned off the television or radio whenever it was announced he would be on. He struck me as a pious, moralising, single-issue crank, without any of the breezy wit or charisma of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader whom Carswell loathes and longs to unseat.

Essay crisis PM

Whatever you think of Farage’s politics (and all NS readers will no doubt despise them), you cannot doubt his conviction, radicalism or political brilliance – no one did more to take Britain out of the EU than he. His triumph is total and contrasts markedly with David Cameron’s failure. For such a pragmatist, the Prime Minister gambled everything on the referendum. Perhaps a series of narrow victories, notably in the 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election, had beguiled him into believing in the myth of his own good luck. But he never prepared the electorate for the referendum or made the positive case for the EU, until it was much too late. He is one of the guilty men who has led Britain to its present impasse, perhaps the guiltiest of all, because of his insouciance and carelessness. John Wheeler-Bennett, the conservative historian, described Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich as “a case study in the disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars”. Cameron, the essay crisis prime minister, has turned out to be similarly myopic. Now we all have to live with the consequences of his wretched defeat. 

Brexit and betrayal

Carswell sent an especially mendacious tweet during the campaign: “I am with @Vote_leave because we should stop sending £350 million per week to Brussels, and spend our money on our NHS instead.” As a monomaniacal Eurosceptic he would have known that he was lying about Britain’s EU contribution. He would have known, too, that the juxtaposition of this figure with NHS spending was wilfully misleading.

Yet when I called him out on his lies he suggested that I had not come to terms with my grief. I am not grieving (being no ardent lover of the EU) but I am angry – angry about the mendacity and cant of the Brexiteers, who are already retreating on promises and pledges made. The leaders of Leave are, in effect, free-market Randians who will be leading a coalition of social conservatives that cannot hold. Soon there will be plaintive cries of betrayal and, from the streets, shouts of, “This is not what we meant at all!”

Hodgson’s choice

In an interview in November 2015, the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said that there was no “‘English’ football any more  . . . no authentic English style”. How true. Roy Hodgson, who resigned after the abject defeat to Iceland (population: 330,000), was the highest-paid coach at the Euros, on £3.5m a year. He earned significantly more than Joachim Löw of Germany, a World Cup winner. For context, Chris Coleman, who led Wales to the quarter-finals, has an annual salary of £200,000. There were eight coaches who earned less than Coleman at the Euros.

Why is Hodgson paid so much? Because English football is bloated, greedy, arrogant and deluded about its standing in the world (does this sound familiar?). At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England were knocked out of the tournament within six days of the start, yet Hodgson stayed on to lead his hapless squad to another international humiliation. In manner, he is amiable but garrulous, speaking in looping circumlocutions: he sounds more like a prison officer in the 1970s sitcom Porridge than a contemporary continental football coach whose working methods are enlightened by data analysis, sports science and management theory.

After four years under his auspices, England had no method or signature style, as Del Bosque recognised. They had no structure or shape, which is why they fragmented at moments of stress. A well-coached side, with positional discipline and an unbreakable structure, can withstand pressure when it plays poorly – think of George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 1980s. Hodgson did not seem to know who his best players were or in which formation to use them. He had no leader on the pitch. Wayne Rooney was his captain but, for all his bull-necked pugnacity, he is introverted. Hodgson kept picking Raheem Sterling (for whom Manchester City paid a laughable £50m) and Adam Lallana. Together they have 52 caps for England but only two goals. Should Hodgson have been surprised that his forwards did not score when he needed them most? Evidently he was, otherwise why keep picking them? Yet coaches can be transformative, as Eddie Jones has been so rapidly for English rugby, or Trevor Bayliss for English cricket. But here’s the thing: both men are Australians.

Laughed off stage

“Fuck off, we’re voting out” chanted the drunken English yobs at the start of the tournament in Marseilles (they were less exuberant once the Russian Ultras marched into town). England will not be missed at the Euros. Worse than this, they exited to the sound of derisive laughter, as they retreated to their island stronghold. The laughter has not ceased. You could say that, after Brexit, the English are becoming something of a laughing stock, alas. “Laughter I have pronounced holy,” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “You higher men, learn – to laugh!” Laughter captures the essence of a truth that cannot be communicated. The alternative is tears.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies