The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Patrick Kingsley

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Patrick Kingsley


Summary: We loved How To Be Danish: From Lego to Lund. A Short Introduction to the State of Denmark by Patrick Kingsley and when he popped into Bookbag Towers there were quite a few questions we wanted answering!
Date: 21 November 2012
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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We loved How To Be Danish: From Lego to Lund. A Short Introduction to the State of Denmark by Patrick Kingsley and when he popped into Bookbag Towers there were quite a few questions we wanted answering!

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Patrick Kingsley: I see lots of people looking very cross at something I've written. They're all cross in lots of different ways – and the thought of each of them keeps me on the straight and narrow. Some are people who've stumbled across my writing by chance: for them, it's important to keep things lively and entertaining. Others are experts in the field I'm writing about – and they stop me saying things I shouldn't. Some of the time, anyway. And then there are the online trolls. I try not to imagine them too much.

  • BB: You've written on a huge variety of topics as a journalist - what made you decide to write about Denmark for your first book?

PK: The first seed was sown about a year ago, when I watched the first episode of The Killing, which is set in Denmark. I was intrigued. Here was a country that lay one short leap across the North Sea, but yet still seemed so exotic. They spoke a strange language – lumpy, but oddly beautiful. They wore cosy jumpers, and had impeccable design taste. And, as the show hints at, they have a bizarre coalition-based politics, an enlightened education system, and a much more collective sense of identity. I was hooked.

And so, it turned out, were quite a lot of other Brits. Around a million people watched each episode of The Killing, Borgen, and The Bridge. Danish knitting was in. Noma, a Danish restaurant, was named the best in the world for the third year in a row. Scandi fever (or to be more precise: Danish delirium) gripped the nation – and so we had the idea of writing a book that tried to join all these Danish dots together. How to be Danish is the result.

  • BB: You interviewed some fascinating people for How To Be Danish. Could you pick a favourite one?

PK: It's a tough choice. I got to meet the chap who made The Killing; the bloke who set up Noma, the world's best restaurant; the man in charge of building Arne Jacobsen's Egg chairs; the woman who knitted Sarah Lund's jumper – and a chap once named the happiest man on Earth. But I think the interview that sticks with me most is the one with Fatih Alev, a Danish imam. He chairs the Danish Islamic Centre, which is the only Danish-speaking mosque in Denmark. We chatted for a couple of hours about the challenges faced by immigrants in Denmark, especially Muslims – a delicate subject for a country that spawned the controversial Muhammed cartoons. I was very moved.

  • BB: Do you read to relax and if so, what do you enjoy reading? Have books played a big part in your life?

PK: I read a lot for work, but I try to read for reading's sake two or three nights a week. I'm reading a lot of Geoff Dyer at the moment. I just finished Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and now I'm rereading Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It. Dyer is superb. He's the Homer of procrastination. I don't think anyone writes better about faffing around.

I just read this great exchange in Yoga…, which made me smile:

D'you speak English?" he wanted to know.
To a very high standard," I said.

I'm also reading a lot of writing about alternative politics – James Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism is by my bed at the moment – and that's for both work and pleasure. I'm currently writing a series for the Guardian called Doing Things Differently – it's about communities who are doing just that.

More generally, yes, books have played a big part in my life. I'm really lucky that my parents taught me to read so young, which meant that I always had a book on the go from the age of about three. And I ended up studying English at university, where among other things I wrote about a) the manuscripts of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and b) authors who try to humanise so-called non-places – things like roads, shopping malls, and petrol stations. To be honest, though, there have been times in my life when I haven't enjoyed reading (a subconscious rebellion against my education, perhaps!) but I am definitely on the wagon at the moment.

  • BB: Do you think the Danish really are the happiest people in the world, in line with some of the surveys that have claimed this?

PK: I think many of them are slightly more content – which is slightly different from being happy. I realised this when I went to Ringkøbing, a little town halfway up Denmark's western-most coast that was once named the happiest town in the world. The first people I met there were three drunk teenagers pissing against a wall. Teenage ennui was alive and well there – and people certainly weren't grinning from ear to ear. Rather, they were simply content with their lot – and I think that is quite a common condition in Denmark. The gap between rich and poor is very small. Thanks to progressive wage legislation and strong unions, a judge only earns two-and-a-half times that of a cleaner. University education is completely free. Most Danes don't walk out their door every morning and see someone markedly richer than themselves. This means they're not hunkering after things they can't have – which makes them content, if not ecstatic.

  • BB: During the SOPA blackout earlier this year, you sat down with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Who's Who to answer readers' questions at the Guardian website. What was the most useful thing you learnt that day?

PK: I learnt about this thing called an index. As a child of the Wikipedia generation, I had no idea that in the olden days you couldn't just do a Ctrl-F search for what you were looking for in a book. You actually had to thumb your way through this index malarkey. Who knew!

  • BB: 3 years ago you won the Student Journalist of the Year award at the Guardian Student Media Awards. What advice would you give to students looking to get involved in the media at their university?

PK: Just take a deep breath, start turning up to meetings, pitching articles, and write! At this stage, no one is any better or more experienced than you. They've just got better swagger. But it's all bluster, so if you put a bit of work in, you'll rise up the ranks of student journalism very quickly.

More generally, if you want to make it in journalism, think applying for a journalism masters, or a short diploma with the National College for the Teaching of Journalism. The Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the FT also run grad schemes. And in the meantime: freelance! I always give people five pieces of advice about this.

ONE: Read! Read and watch as much as you can – newspapers, magazines, books, noticeboards, documentaries, news bulletins, Twitter feeds. Anything and everything. This will do two things. First: you'll get a greater sense of what's going on in the world – important for brainstorming ideas, and making your articles more informed. Second: if you're reading and watching good journalism, you'll get a good idea of how to improve your own.

TWO: Write! Set up a blog, and write something every day. The more you practice, the better you'll get – and just as importantly, you'll then have a calling card to send editors when you pitch them pieces.

THREE: Niche! As in: find a niche. If you start to write about one particular subject, you'll become known for it, and soon you'll be a lightning rod for editors looking for an expert in that particular field.

FOUR: Pitch! You're not a student journalist, you're just a journalist. So act as such. Get all the editors' details you can find. Work out what kind of articles they go for – and pitch them ideas. Make sure you can summarise the potential piece in one or two sentences. Explain the peg (or why now is the time to write this piece). Mention why you're the person to write it. And then at the bottom give a bit more detail on who you might interview, and what you might cover.

FIVE: Diversify! Journalism is changing. It's no longer about just writing, or just making films. Digital journalists now have to be jacks of all trades: so if you can cut a podcast as well as write a beautiful feature, so much the better.

  • BB: On a scale of 1 - 10, how cool was the experience of opening Tower Bridge?

PK: Ah, that was a good day. In autumn 2010, I got to open Tower Bridge as part of a Guardian article. In Spinal Tap terms, it was 11 out of 10 cool. There's a little office on the bridge which houses all the controls. I hung out there for an hour or so one afternoon, manning the tannoy – and best of all: operating the little lever that moves the bridge up and down. I thought it would need a big wrench to move, but actually it's unnervingly frictionless. So unnerving, my palms kept giving me those little pangs of shock you get when you're doing something you find particularly daunting.

  • BB: If you had one wish, what would it be?

PK: I'd like to be able to always dance. I got quite into dancing two or three years ago, and there is little better than a boogie.

  • BB: What's next for Patrick Kingsley?

PK: In the immediate sense, I'm off to Denmark this week to promote the book – for the first time since I finished it. I've also got lots of articles to write for The Guardian. And there may be another book in the pipeline, but I don't want to jinx it, so I won't say much more than that.

  • BB: Have a good trip, Patrick and thank you for talking to us. We've really enjoyed it.

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