"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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt