It’s 2am and I’m biking like Boudica through the balmy Copenhagen night to burn off the pains of an impermissible love. The streets are silent, deserted, suspended in time. Somehow I end up at the harbour front by Den Lille Havfrue, The Little Mermaid.
Described in the Rough Guide as “perennially disappointing”, one can’t help wondering how this basically crap sculpture by Edvard Eriksen, commissioned by Carlsberg heir Carl Jacobsen in an attempt to immortalise his pash, prima ballerina Ellen Price, came to symbolize Denmark. Smothered by Japanese tourists, ice-creams and iPhones by day, on this quiet night she and I were alone, face to face with our predicaments.
Few people realise that Hans Christian Anderson seriously trained for a career as a ballet dancer, finally throwing in the towel after admitting to hopeless clumsiness. Thank god he realised. The world would contain far less magic without his stories.
As a child I wept every time at this story of sea goddess sacrificing her divine powers for love of a mortal prince. Having made an irreversible deal with an enchantress to sacrifice her elegant fish tail for womanly legs, knife pains at every step and permanent loss of immortal powers, the poor girl steps out in agony only to see her Beloved Prince chatting up another woman.
“The prince asked who she was and how she came there;
She looked at him tenderly and with a sad expressions
in her dark blue eyes, but could not speak”.
Hans Christian Andersen, illustration (left) by Edmund Dulac.
Split-tailed mermaid siren illustration from 1480 print run of “Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina”, a translation of Jean d’Arras’s “Roman de Melusine”, arguably one of the first best-sellers of the the early years of the printing press. Observe less raunchy version on right hand side as evil StarBucks logo.
My first snog was like this. Aged 14, crippled by Christianity, my first tongueless moonlit kiss on a National Youth Orchestra course, with its instant plans of lifelong marriage (in my head) were dashed on the rocks a mere 2 hours later when I witnessed my husband-to-be necking viola player Sarah Heartfield in the cocoa room. Not an auspicious start.
Victoria Beckham’s tortured feet in killer shoes. For context, read on.
Rich in metaphor and steeped in ancient mythology, this tale sits deep in the human soul with its longing for divine love on earth. Mermaids abound in the stone carvings of ancient chapels and shrines throughout Cornwall and Brittany, singing their siren song to pagan longings lost in time.
On a more prosaic level, Victoria Beckham has suddenly sprung to mind. The Copenhagen apartment I’ve been living in during my residency here belongs to a fashion design student and contains no less than 2000 back issues of Vogue. Here’s the view from my bed.
At the centre of these computer smoothed out goddesses, Posh Spice stares me in the face.
After years of wearing 6 inch Manolos, Beckham’s feet are famously crippled by bunions, her back trashed by the posture they force on her, every step an agony. She and the rest of us brain washed women pay daily billions into the fashion and cosmetics industry to split our fish tail to get Princes to fall in love with us and stay in love with us. And whilst at it, stay young forever. How much will we spend before clocking that this plan is Not Working?
That said, check out these shoes I’ve just bought for an upcoming film with Signe Klejs.
Not so Lille Havfrue in these.
Perhaps instead of aqueous immolation, she should have simply cut her losses and headed off to one of the countless hip cafés in this town to, erm, drown her sorrows. Every one of them has old jazz vinyls playing in the corner, NOMA class coffee, free wifi and beautiful hip people doing beautiful hip things with Scandy face furniture, tats, tans and streamlined laptops.
Here’s beautiful former sound engineer Beate Bak (in black) at her wonderful Kaffebaren på Amager, the best coffee in town and now my office. For occasional afternoon consultations you might also find me at painfully hip Sweet Treats in Christianshavn, also with A1 coffee. Both have vinyl.
In truth, I have never heard the word “hip” as much in my whole life as in this city. It has serious currency here. Encapsulating Copenhagen hip was a recent gig curated by SNYK and Wundergrund Festival director, Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen with Kayak Republic, a rowing club nestling under Knippelsbro bridge in the centre of town. They’d cooked up a cutting edge lineup of electronica artists, including Finnish laptop legend Vadislav Delay, warmed up by an experimental percussion and flute duo and, erm, cabaret from me.
Spot the odd one out.
Meta-brain, curator and key mover and shaker in Denmark’s experimental music and sound performing art scene Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen (far right) in a production meeting with the Kayak team.
With a mere 48 hrs FaceBook warning, Tout le Copenhagen Monde du Hip had shown up to check out the latest party venue, a cool underground alternative club space reminiscent of early Beatles Hamburg haircut haunts.
There’s a strange sense of release knowing that you’re going to bomb, in public. Against the noise of traffic from the bridge overhead and constant chatter from the packed open door café next door, without theatre lighting or space to move I somehow got through a set of almost entirely new material written in the weeks before, all with backing tracks put together at the last moment.
Like Thorbjørn T.H., but with far less trendy tactics, my mission statement includes finding new ways to get new people to listen to new music in new places without realising. Hurling myself into the lions’ den of hip, I got on with it.
Vadislav Delay doing his thing at the Kayak gig.
Miraculously they listened. Equally miraculously they listened to the Saarriaho flute pieces that followed. Incredibly, SNYK and Kayak’s plans to start a new venue for experimental music seemed to be paying off.
Completing my set in astonishment at not coming to physical harm from outraged hipsters, I escaped to the backstage area to find Vadislav Delay sitting on an upturned kayak surrounded by an impossibly cool retinue of fans replete with tats, dreds and an insatiable hunger for cutting edge electronica.
“Ah!” I gushed from some uncontrollable suburban place in my head. “You must be the Finnish laptop legend!”
Mr Delay simply turned his effortlessly hip head in my direction, and said:
“Yes. I am.”
For reasons best known to my subconscious, I’d decided to try out my new Sarah Lund sketch, knowing that no one has seen The Killing in Denmark. They looked shocked in my first days here when I innocently raved on about Troels, Pernille and Nanna Birk Larsen. In England the direct equivalent would be to rant about the marvels of Midsummer Murders.
Here’s actress Sofie Gråbøl with trademark sweater.
A couple of hours later the performance space was packed with Vadislav’s followers, every one clasping a beer, every one facing the empty stage with its trippy, wheeling light designs, no one dancing, no one talking, too hip to move; utterly tranquil and at peace in the midst of atom-splittingly loud electronica.
A few slipped off in twos to the loos, to emerge in exactly the same neutral state. What kind of cocaine or LSD or K does that? I marvelled. Are even the drugs themselves here too hip to make a fuss? Do they too obey the Law of Janta?
With nostalgia I remember a cosmologist higher math geek friend of mine from university days running for a student union presidency with the campaign slogan: “Be In with the Out Crowd”.
British ways of letting off steam have changed little since Hogarth painted this tavern scene, the 3rd of eight scenes from his Rake’s Progress series (1733).
At the same event in the UK, the Brits would have dealt with their own brand of emotional suppression by getting absolutely TRASHED on whatever was at hand. They would be shagging in the corners, glassing each other with broken beer bottles, paralytic with alcohol and A-Z drugs. Many would steal and have had things stolen. The following day, most would have no memory whatsoever of the night before or the causes of their multiple head wounds, ripped clothing and marriage breakup. They would try and repair the damage with the B-grade coffee on offer next morning.
A relatively short Viking raid away, yet these two nations, in some ways, are planets apart.
The 10 laws of Jante (below). Scary stuff…
Janta Law, respected by some as an unofficial code of Scandanavian conduct, discourages the success of the individual, putting the emphasis on the collective. Indeed, deliberate attempts to distinguish oneself from others may be viewed with hostility. The concept was outlined by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933. In my view, it still holds strong here.
Suddenly there was a ripple in the atmosphere. An incident had occurred. As far as I could make out, someone had thrown a bottle outside and parked illegally. Jante Law had been transgressed.
When hip blends with Jante it becomes tyrannical. If every single person is hip, if every single café has vinyl playing in the corner, and every “alternative” performance event features electronica, can it still truly be defined as hip? After all, the hipp-ies of ’68 were making radical political, rather than stylistic points.
Eco houses in Christiania.
The phenomenon can perhaps be best summed up by a touching scene I witnessed the other day just outside the national symbol of anti-capitalist free thinking: utopian self-governing proto-commune Christiania (about which there is not enough room in this post), where 3 bearded anarchists stood at a completely empty crossroads waiting for the green man to flash.
Also, stoned, which perhaps may be the crucial hidden factor in much of Denmark’s pseudo-socialist Lutheran conformism, to coin a phrase. The Luther bit may feature in later posts, but for now know that it can be summed up by the Dane’s insanely ascetic bathroom arrangements. Neck high luxurious hot foam baths, a must in my litany of pleasures, are clearly acts of supreme sin here. Apparently one actually couldn’t buy bubble bath here until recently. I rest my case.
Martin Luther (right) 1483 – 1546. Monk, priest, theologist and iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation. And as far as I know, not a fan of bubble bath. And Bob Marley (below), who probably smoked it.
1.) No woman: no cry = without women we’re happier
2). No! Woman, no! Cry! = the imperative call to grieve
3.) No, woman. No cry = shut up with that wailin’
Waiting to see the Danish Ballet in action at the fabulous new Royal Theatre the other night, a friend of mine handed me a giant spliff fresh from Christiania’s controversial pusher alley. He warned me that a mere 6 hits had wiped out more than half his previous day. With anti-Lutheran bravado, I ignored his advice and toked up, a total amateur.
It was an interesting evening.
To find out how this panned out in Danish ballet society, stay tuned for Z blog.
Next episode follows shortly.