"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 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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.