Category Archives: Writing

S. was far away from the lives of others when she was in school, she once told me; some people are. She did her homework by the bins at recess to be alone. She just liked to learn. Of course the other kids came over and mocked her. They called her things I don’t want to say here. It broke my heart when she told me that. I loved her with a deep, protective love, though I myself was far from the lives of others – and from hers, it turned out. If I were to tell her something now that I’ve learned it would be that real life happens slowly, mostly undercover, mostly in secret. When you’re in trouble, do what you have to do, and wait. Hibernate like an animal. You’ll come into your own in time, if you can find your own time. You’ll know, looking back, if you did.

I’ve started seeing people on the street I think I recognise from Norfolk. A few times I’ve even stopped and looked back at them, puzzled. Sometimes a word comes into my head and I’m sure I see it straight after, on a sign or a passing van, say, or hear someone say it in passing on the street.

I’m glued to my phone, my laptop, the TV. A million words and images pass me by every day. Occasionally something stays, for a second. On the busy streets and even in the parks it’s the same. Only my crows, when they warily hop up to me when I walk up the hill, give me some grip on the day. It’s something quite different, I like to imagine: a silent little friendship. You take your scraps of nature where you can in the city.

*

The new nationwide app for logging into all the social service systems is down. This makes it very hard to sort out all the admin things I have to do, which have all come at the same time. At the moment there are five different systems I need to log into using this app in a four-step process involving my phone and my laptop, both of which have to be regularly updated or nothing will work. Sometimes you just sit there stunned by the needless complexity.

It’s impossible to avoid being connected to every digitalised social system here. The Danes are proud to be ‘world leaders’ in do-it-yourself digitalisation. The average citizen spends much of their life administrating their taxes, healthcare, property, banking, pension and insurance policies online, signing into and updating apps, devices, logging into secure email accounts from different organisations, keeping track of their usernames and passwords.

In the ideal world that’s being created, one will rarely need to speak to another person face to face. The end goal is clearly total digitalisation: to seamlessly link up all of these systems. This end is already in sight. For example, the tax and banking systems are closely joined up (tax officers have access to your personal account), and the payment systems are centralised. It seems to be taken for granted that this is the direction to take, that this is a goal to be achieved as quickly as possible. But why? These systems don’t seem to make things easier; or only on the surface. They don’t create a sense of unity; or only on the surface. Haven’t our lives become more complex and fragmented? The elderly can’t keep up, the young are overwhelmed, the unsavvy poor get pushed out to the margins.

*

Copenhagen in the nineties was a rather rundown place, full of skæve eksistenser, as we say here: misfits. But local. You have to go far from the centre to hear a Copenhagen accent these days. All the old monuments and sights are still here, but most everything else has changed.  Only the middle and upper classes, and internationals with good jobs or scholarships, can realistically afford to live here now: the result of a deliberate political policy to squeeze out the undesirables and bring in more tax revenue and investment. Small council-owned flats were converted into larger ones then sold to private owners; new builds had to be a certain size; crumbling warehouses were transformed into massive corporate buildings or apartments. Subsidies were given for renovations, investments were made in cultural attractions, food halls and the like, the dirty old trains with smoking carriages full of butts and beer bottles were scrapped and replaced with sleek, state-of-the-art versions. In the twenty years I was away, the city was upended while a Metro system was built. A total urban regeneration project was begun that’s still going full throttle. This is now the most expensive city in Europe.

People on benefits were paid to move to Lolland in the south, which is now a deprived area. The same happened elsewhere, so that there now exists what they call the ‘rotten banana’: poor areas curving down from Norwest Jutland to southern Zealand. In a similar manner, unwanted immigrants are shipped to an island off Copenhagen and soon to centres in Rwanda.

I’m part of the problem, as they say. I’ve sold the flat my parents transferred to me last year and moved temporarily to theirs. I should probably feel some compunction, but instead I’m starting to feel free, after twenty years of living hand to mouth.

Because the social-services app has crashed, I can’t register my move, which means I’m out of the system for now. It also means I’m incurring a fine with interest. There must be many who are genuinely desperate right now.

Think primitively, said Kierkegaard. Start from your deepest concerns, which your cryptic everyday self conceals. Uncover the secrets you keep from yourself and others. Sweep away the boxes you’ve been taught to think in and think for yourself for once. A tall task.

I miss touching S., having her body near me, the private pillow talk that couples have. I’m so far from people now it seems like I’ll never come back.

Then start from the ground up. Think it all through from the beginning and start again. Open yourself and God will tell you you’re not alone – even if in a sense you were living alone the whole time.

My whole being cries out for love, for something different. Nothing in my face or movements betrays it: I’m Danish after a

ll. Denmark is considered one of the world’s happiest countries. That’s always confused me. It seems too real to me, with its lifeless suburbs and perfectly sensible people. So real it’s dreamlike. Happiness here means nothing and no one out of joint: no cracks, no one out of the system.

Hayfever, brainfog. Despite the discomfort it’s a relief to have an excuse for not being able to connect things in my head. It’s a bit dreamlike, walking through the park – which is full of blooming flowers these days – but not like the grey dream of the past couple of years. I feel better.

I told myself before I left Vienna that it would take two years to get over it. Now how would I know that? I didn’t think it when I walked past the building sites in the North Harbour that winter day when she told me the Russian had moved into our flat. I hoped a crane would drop a breezeblock on my head, or the wind would sweep me into the freezing water. It was a pleasure to imagine.

In dreams, as everyone knows, things and events are often out of joint. Yet sometimes there are lucid moments when you can almost see through the dream and have the power to change it, for example when you can suddenly fly where you want. I’m starting to think one can sense one’s future in the same way. You sense where the dream is going and bide your time until the right moment.

The only real question I’ve asked myself in these past two years is whether it was fate or chance that led me here. But now the question seems wrong, and unsolvable, it only led me in circles.

The difference between writing, say, an email and typing in this journal, even if you write the same sentence; there’s an abyss between them.

And from the depths of falseness God answers, and my world seems vanishingly small. No matter where in the world I am.

*

Yesterday I went to see the building where Kierkegaard wrote The Sickness Unto Death and his autobiography. It took me a while to spot the plaque. His flat was above a tanner’s business, and he was bothered by the stench of entrails in the gutter on the street below. His solution was to move to the neighbouring building, where the smell was just as bad. Today the tanner’s business is a skincare clinic.

MAY

The North Harbour, where my flat is, is a massive construction site, with half-built corporate buildings, a metro station, ugly modernist apartment blocks – and behind it hundreds of shipping containers stretching out to the Sound. When I stick my head out the window I count five cranes. On the street are two scaffolds and stormwater protection works. I hear the tok-tok of a train pulling into the station and an underwater thudding: they’re building another artificial island to make room for more buildings and prevent flooding when the rising water comes.

I go to the Aldi by the station, walk past the Little Mermaid and around the ramparts. I last about a week at a time here before I pack my rucksack and cycle to my parents’ place in the posh part of town, near the city’s biggest park, my crows, and the zoo, where I walk about looking at the animals in their cages.

*

My mind’s muddled after all this time alone. I don’t know if I’m good or bad, how or where I should live. I’m starting to think in Danish. Unnerving as always to live among Danes and listening to how they think. I passed an ad for a political party on the side of a bus stop today:

Community.

Community.

Community.

That hasn’t changed, I think to myself. But it rings extra hollow now.

*

Now a quiet evening sinks over Copenhagen, with that sweetly melancholic Danish light the old painters captured so well. It makes me so uneasy I have to go out and bike halfway around the city.

*

A dream last night. I was in a sort of compound: a mix of a festival site and a slum. Someone took the food I was carrying and threw it up a stairwell, where rats swarmed on it behind a corner. I tried to get it back but had to retreat. I left through a gap in a fence, where I saw my wallet, which had been trampled into the mud. I hadn’t realised I’d lost it.

*

Please God, I said when I walked by the church yesterday, out of nowhere. Please God. It made me feel better for the rest of the day, even if it seemed false as I said it.

A few words come now and then as if from far away. What a relief it would be to speak in proper solitude rather than in this lame dispersal. Rilke said to write as the first man. What did he mean?

I take the laptop to the park and sit at a bench, open a bottle of beer with my lighter, and look at the artificial pond with its spurting fountain. Pink-footed geese graze on the lawn around me, which is covered in their droppings. There’s a palace on the hill on the other side of the pond. I write a few lines of a translation I’m working on, then click over to this journal. What to say?

This park was constructed in imitation of the French and British styles, with tree-lined avenues and little Romantic touches: pagodas, a waterfall, grottos. All carefully manicured. Danish poets walked around here waxing lyrical in the nineteenth century. Now it’s full of tourists and lycra-clad joggers.

*

Malinka Stalin, they called him, his Russian friends in Vienna: Little Stalin. He turned up at her dancing class. During lockdown he invited her to the park to dance. She’d be gone for hours. He gave her Russian delicacies. I cycled over and watched them dance. How naïve I was. She watched me let it happen. I thought about fighting it, but what was there to fight for, exactly? I was always elsewhere in my head. Can I blame her?

After I left and he’d moved into our flat, into our bedroom, I became convinced he was a Romeo spy. It gave it a sort of logic. Now I have no idea where they are. I’ve learned that these kinds of convictions tend to get blurred over time. I’ve missed her terribly, but I guess those feelings will get blurred too.