"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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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