"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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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit