Thursday night’s Wordplay event saw an audience of around 30 congregate in Mareel’s auditorium to listen to Lesley Riddoch talk about her book Blossom: What Scotland needs to Flourish.
Had this year’s Wordplay been timetabled in its usual early September slot the evening would have been different. If we been in the heady days leading up to the referendum, the turn out would, I believe, have been greater and the mood more hopeful.
As it was, this was a somewhat gloomy evening. Riddoch appeared at times frustrated, and at one point chided the audience for passivity in the face of their miserable lot.
The talk was accompanied by slides, which featured Riddoch’s own photographic portraits of Nordic people enjoying the good life.
We saw a “mad” Icelandic taxi driver who had spontaneously taken Riddoch on a tour of his country.
We saw two elderly Norwegian women out sledging: rosy cheeked and radiant.
We saw happy, hardy children playing in sub-zero temperatures.
These images were held up in stark contrast to the Scottish reality: lonely, fuel- poor pensioners, stressed out office workers and sickly, cosseted children.
“What strikes me about the Nordic countries”, Riddoch observed, “is their utterly independent mindedness.” This independent mindedness, she informed us, is a trait that we Scots also possess. We have so much in common with our Nordic neighbours: in fact, Riddoch reminded us, we were geologically attached at one point and still share much linguistically and culturally.
Here the audience visibly brightened as Nordic Nirvana hovered within reach. Sadly, we poor Scots have had had our independent mindedness “beaten” out of us by an unjust political system and a distant government who neither know us or care about us.
Using a mixture of quantitative data and anecdote Riddoch explored the numerous ways in which things are better in Nordic countries (with a particular focus on Norway). Many of Riddoch’s claims were familiar from the countless surveys which rate Nordic countries as the best places to be a woman, child or elderly person.
Child care is excellent. Locals own the land. Democracy works. Much of this enviable state of affairs, Riddoch argued, comes down to localisation. People have a say in what happens where they live and this makes for a healthier and much more equal society.
While nobody would argue that there is much to admire about Scandinavia, it struck me that Riddoch was strikingly selective about the aspects of Nordic society she chose to present. Norway’s famously strict immigration policy was not once mentioned: neither was the fact that a high proportion of the migrants who do make it to Norway find themselves living in poverty.
The less rosy side to Scandinavia was ignored altogether, although it is not hard to find evidence of the Danes’ enthusiasm for privatisation, the sharp rise of the Swedish right, or Finland’s drink problem. What is more, Riddoch was keen to lay the blame for all our ills at the door of our national political system.
Wider issues (such as global capitalism) were completely overlooked.
Like a disappointed mother, Riddoch listed our failures and wasted opportunities, comparing us unfavourably with the neighbour’s high achieving golden child. By the end of the evening I felt rather like an East Berliner might have done looking over the Wall: the good life which should rightfully be ours, seems so near and yet out of reach.
Riddoch offered little in the way of comfort: when an audience member asked what could be done to “move forward” she replied that “we need to realise that we are living in a weird country.”
Ultimately though, Riddoch’s vision involves chopping and pruning rather than “blossoming”. She suggests, it seems to me, that we should polish our own house and get everything just so before pulling up the drawbridge and cosying in for the night.
Such insular ambition is rather sinister, and I had to supress a shudder when Riddoch expressed her desire for the Dutch masters in our “so-called national gallery” to be moved to the basement.
Despite my quibbles with a great deal of what Riddoch said, this was a very interesting evening hosted by a relaxed, articulate and animated speaker.
The presentation was slightly marred by the venue though: Riddoch’s conversational style would have been better served by a smaller, cosier space. Or as Riddoch might have wistfully suggested, somewhere more hyggelig.