(Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country  – Helen Russell : non-fiction


The sub-title says it all. Brit journalist, Helen Russell accompanies her husband who moves to Denmark to work at Lego, legendary toy maker, on a year’s contract.
She leaves the buzzy London life somewhat reluctantly, but decides to treat  their year’s exile as a research project.

And she researches Denmark thoroughly, covering work, play, family life, the social support system . You name it, she phones up experts, talks to neighbours and friends, drives around, checks facts, and experiences as much as she can in an effort to determine whether the statistically nominated Danes really are citizens of the world’s happiest country. She asks the question wherever she goes: on a scale of ten  at the top and one at bottom, where would you rate your happiness? Most Danes answered with a nine.  I think one boldly declared a ten, and the lowest score was an eight.

Imagine that! How can this be? Simple, really. Denmark offers a cradle-to-the-grave social system and promotes social values of equality  regarding status, money and work. There is a high value placed on nurturing family life and achieving a good balance between  work and home. Reading about the secure, affluent life in Denmark from my precarious Third World African perspective, Denmark sounds like heaven.

But everything has a price. The taxes are staggering. They have to be, to keep the system running. For nine months of the year its winter in varying degrees of Arctic  freeze, not to mention almost total darkness in the depth of winter. As opposed to almost 24/7 daylight at the height of summer.

But the Danes take winter in their stride, creating hygge  in their homes. It appears they also drink a lot of alcohol. So it’s warm and cosy all the way. They love tradition and mark annual festivals and holidays with group activities, and in between all the fests they are keen joiners of clubs and societies, weather notwithstanding.

I was fascinated with the description of the  small Nordic country and its people. I live in a city of four million people; the total population of Denmark is just of 5.5 million. Because it’s a small country  with a small population that adheres staunchly to their Danish values, there’s a high level of trust, and kids have plenty of freedom to enjoy the outdoors with little supervision.

When the writer has her baby, she and husband finally go out to dinner, it’s their first date since Little Red’s arrival, and they park the sleeping baby in his pram on the pavement outside the restaurant , which is perfectly standard Danish practice. When I read this, my jaw dropped, and my brain boggled. Do that in South Africa and within two minutes, literally, your baby will be stolen, ditto pram, and a terrible fate probably ensues.

If I were thirty years younger, I’d seriously consider emigrating to Denmark, based on Russell’s book.  Read it for yourself and see if the Nordic lifestyle appeals to you.








I lived worlds apart, not only geographically, but culturally, from the American Beat Generation of the late 1950’s. There I was, Iiving in a British colony in Central Africa, while they were living in California, in the San Francisco Bay area. An unlikely meeting of minds, to put it mildly.
Oddly enough, it was my Mother who unwittingly set off my obscure interest. We were holidaying in Beira, Mozambique. It was our nearest access to the ocean from Malawi. An entire day’s rail journey . I suppose I must have been between the age of 15 – 17, at the time. Anyway, there we were, in a small Portuguese speaking coastal town, and I’d run out of books to read. This was a disaster. My family read a lot. All the time. So my Mother caught the tram into town and returned several hours later with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Seemingly it was the only ‘suitable’ English language book she could find. In those days parent were very vigilant about the ‘suitability’of books and films that young eyes could be permitted to view.
I dived into the book and was immediately enchanted. I’d never read anything like it. Hitherto I’d read kids’ books, some of the classics, and my Dad’s crime novels (Agatha Christie, Peter Cheyney, Rex Stout et al) and travel books. Intrepid journeys through jungles and over mountains, by ex-Army stalwarts; that sort of thing.
So to read about the free living, free thinking , philosophizing, Buddhist-addled, drunken Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous journey across America with his buddies for no other reason than they felt like it … I was blown away! The freedom! No planning, no equipment, no maps, porters, horses, floods, bandits, fires or poisonous insects … good grief! The Stream of Consciousness writing! The Buddhist Exotica! This was another Universe!


Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
Ten years later I stumbled across the Mayflower edition of The Dharma Bums which I still own despite my relocations around southern Africa. The pages have turned brown over the years – they’re excused, the book is over 50 years old – and the print is teeny-tiny. I remember being fascinated by the exploits of the two young men in the Sierra Nevada forests in search of solitude and freedom, via Zen practice.

Cascade Mountainsindex  SIERRA NEVADA
When I visited San Francisco in 2008 I begged my hosts to take me to the famed City Lights Bookstore, which they kindly did. I spent a happy half hour wandering through the store, paging through Ginsburg’s poetry and other Beat Generation writers. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in the famous Beat Generation bookstore! Me – all the way from Africa, and over all the years. Wow! I spent precious dollars on City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology – which reminds me, I must dip into it again.
So when the Literary Hub Weekly (3 July 2017 ) tagged a Washington Post article by Jeff Weiss “ Speaking with the surviving members of the Beat Generation … “, I pounced on the article. The remaining icons are very elderly – Ferlinghetti is in his 90s . The elder writer who interested me most was Gary Snyder, wilderness advocate, Zen teacher, writer and poet. A brief thumbnail sketch says Gary Snyder is an American man of letters. Perhaps best known as a poet, he is also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist. He has been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Wikipedia.
I bought The Gary Snyder Reader – Prose, poetry and translations and it is sheer pleasure to open it and read at random. Here is a brief extract from Gary Snyder’s poem The Blue Sky:
Horse with lightening feet!
A mane like distant rain,
the turquoise horse,
a black star for an eye
white shell teeth.
If you’ve never read any of his writing, give it a try.In addition to his own poetry and essays, Snyder has been translating Japanese poetry and texts for years, some of which appears in my GS Reader. It will be time well spent.
Did the Beat Generation influence me? Yes, they did. I found their ideas about freedom exhilarating. My early life was regimented by boarding school and African colonial life neither of which encouraged hippy-style free thinking. And certainly not adventures in Oriental religion and philosophy.
The Beats forays into Buddhism were exotically fascinating to me in those early years, and turned me towards Buddhist teachings and practice, for which I will always be grateful.
So you see it’s true: reading books can change your life!




I think we can all agree that the SPCA is a very worthy cause. So it was with a sense of praiseworthy virtue that I trotted off to the big book sale in support of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. Cape winters are wet and cold, so it’s no fun for those living outdoors, whether on two legs or four. At least shelters for the two legged homeless exist, whereas the animals don’t do so well.
I craftily timed my visit for the first morning of the four day sale, so on arrival, the tables were piled high. However, despite diligent delving, I only found two books to my taste, both non-fiction:

I rashly bought Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy on the strength of the title . I’m fascinated by the aftermath of Chernobyl, and have long planned to write a dystopian novella on the topic. I’ve seen TV doccies about the gradual revival of the flora and fauna, showing vine clad derelict buildings, bold deer and foxes wandering the crumbling roads, all of which has an eerie charm for me. So imagine my chagrin when I sat down to my fish & chip lunch, and read the blurb properly, to discover the book is in fact a memoir. The sub-title on the cover, “A Memoir” , was in very small print and I missed it. Apparently the writer is a Yugoslavian. Hopefully Chernobyl will enter the picture later? Watch this space.

I’m currently reading A Year of Living Danishly , subtitled Discovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, by Helen Russell and am absolutely enchanted. Russell’s husband was offered a job by the manufacturers of the world’s best selling child’s game: Lego. Did you know that Lego originated in Denmark and is still made there? I didn’t. So off they went to live in Billund, a town situated in rural Jutland. The contrast between their previous buzzy big city London ifestyle, and countryside Billund could not be more extreme. I’m reading the chapter about the much vaunted concept of Danish hygge at the moment, which sounds appealing in our winter, but if you live in Africa as I do … only for a few short months .
Life in Denmark sounds like pure bliss, compared to South Africa. Literally polar opposites. What I want to know is: are there any Danish Sugar Daddies who’d like to adopt a little old Sugar Granny? Please ? Pretty please? I’ll even learn how to pronounce hygge, I promise!



As ever, I read an eclectic assortment of books. My reads ranged from the trashy (the Grimwood Venetian fantasy) to the terrific (Ann Morgan’s psychological thriller). Twins were a feature of June’s reads. I find the theme of twins fascinating – it gives rise to so many questions about cloning; the mirrored appearance but the interior struggle to assert individuality and personal identity. And then there’s the issue of deliberate deception …
I’m not a huge fan of historical novels, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Victorian creepy: Bellman and Black. Ditto the Venetian dark adventure.
My least enjoyable read was Hunger Eats a Man.
I hope you find something to entertain and/or inspire you!

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill;
1* – dismal; zero * – no comment.

4* Beside Myself – Ann Morgan – psychological thriller (twins). See this blog for full review.

3.5* Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger – twins & the Highgate Cemetry, London
3.5* It might Get Loud – Ingrid Winterbach – contemporary SA novel, Cape Town setting. See this blog for full review.

3* Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – historical ghost story
3* Hunger Eats a Man – Nkosinathi Sithole – contemporary South African novel, Kwa-Zulu Natal – see this blog for full review.
*3 THE FALLEN BLADE – Jon Courtenay Grimwood – 15th century Venice, sword & sorcery
3* THE GORDIAN KNOT – Bernhard Schlink – industrial espionage

3* The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom – hall-of-mirrors story
Reading Jennifer Crocker’s review of the Fred Strydom novel (Cape Times 9 June 2017) helped me to clarify my ideas about what I had read. Make no mistake, it’s a confusing story! On reflection, it probably belongs in the 4* category, but at the time I felt justified in making it a 3*.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD – Ingrid Winterbach

51lDHu2oMnL._AC_US218_ reviewAfter a disturbing call from a certain Josias Brandt, Karl Hofmeyr departs for Cape Town to help his brother, Iggy, who is apparently running amok. On this journey Karl – hard-core heavy-metal fan – valiantly contends with inner demons as well as outer obstacles. Meanwhile, in an attempt to fend off a beleaguering emptiness, Maria Volschenk embarks on a journey to understand her sister’s search for enlightenment . . . and her subsequent death. These two narratives converge on a highly unconventional city farm, where Iggy is locked in a bitter duel with the inscrutable Brandt fellow, under the laconic gaze of Maria’s friend Jakobus. Die aanspraak van lewende wesens, the original Afrikaans version of It Might Get Loud, won five major literary awards: the M-Net Award, the University of Johannesburg Literary Prize, the Hertzog Prize, the WA Hofmeyr Prize and the Great Afrikaans Novel Prize.

This is my first foray into the acclaimed Afrikaans writer’s work. Luckily for me, Michiel Heyns translated this novel, so it was accessible.

What I liked about the novel was that it focussed on the personal stories of a group of very recognisable  modern South Africans, as opposed to being a vehicle for thinly veiled political polemic, or yet another re-hashing of The Struggle.  Over 20 years have elapsed since our breakthrough 1994 Elections when the New South Africa birthed, and now its time to move on and start story-telling once more. Yes, there’s a short section where Karl encounters three  far-right doomsday survivalists, sure, we have them. Only they’re not part of TV reality  series as happens elsewhere. But they’re a minor detour in the story trail.

On the downside, I have to say that I found two different narrative strands confusing, and it took me ages to sort out who was who in the missions: Karl  slowly travelling to Cape Town to rescue his brother Iggy staying on a city farm,  and Maria  also Cape Town bound to assist  her dysfunctional  son Benjy, and confront her dead sister Sophie’s partner Toby and get some closure about Sophie’s suicide. Plus each strand has a cast of assorted bit players woven into their story. The narrative kept jumping to and fro, and I had to retrace my steps to see who was who in this particular strand.

This said, it was an intriguing read. Particularly the factor of the little red notebook – Sophie’s only bequest to her sister. I’m still pondering the enigmatic  entry about a spiritual path through the Ten Gates.

The most interesting thing for me was that the  Karl/Iggy strand of the novel culminated at the city farm, which really does exist in Cape Town, situated in the old Military Camp in Tamboerskloof. I visited the resident artist there, about 20 years ago, and toured the Victoria era  munitions  storage area, the barrel vaulted dark caverns. When I saw them, the artist Andre Laubscher was using them to display his art works. The paintings hung in several of the vaults and were indeed badly illuminated by a single dim lightbulb hanging from the roof, just as the novel says.  The vaults that I saw were not crammed with junk as the novel  describes. But hey! You can accumulate a lot in 20 years.  In my opinion, Winterbach’s  character Jakobus  is definitely based on the artist I met.

I bought a large seascape from Laubscher on my visit, because I loved the colours, but in recent years its languished in its packing case because my current home lacks the wall space to display it . I’ll include a picture below. Laubscher is  a true eccentric and has his own chapter in Eccentric South Africa  by Pat Hopkins , published by Zebra, in 2001.

I’ll look out for more of  Ingrid Winterbach’s novels. I note that four of her other novels have been translated. If you want to try a South African contemporary novelist, who has won five major literary awards, and is readable then I recommend you try her work.



P.S. Laubscher told me the title was Mandela walks from Robben Island to Cape Town. Size is approx .900 cm x 1.3m . I will happily accept offers of around R4 500.