It was Hygge all along!

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There’s a concept that’s entered into the public consciousness recently, and it’s called hygge. Hygge is a Danish word (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), and although there’s not a direct translation, the main impression I get is “having a cosy time with close friends and family”, or “creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the simple things in life”.

My mom introduced me to the idea of hygge in Helen Russel’s book “A Year of Living Danishly“, which tried to uncover the secret behind Denmark’s number one spot in the World Happiness Index. (She has since developed a worryingly expensive obsession with sheepskin rugs, which she is convinced are the key to cosiness). But it wasn’t until I was flicking through the pages of the recently published Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking that I realized that this was a philosophy I’d been subscribing to all my life – I just didn’t know the word for it!

The first clue comes from my song The Littlest Libertine: “eating creme brulee for breakfast doesn’t qualify you for Rosetti’s scene”. The idea for the song came one morning, when I arrived at band practice particularly proud to have eaten dessert for breakfast. I thought this was one of the most decadent and hedonistic things that could ever be done. Jonny (the frontman) responded to my adorably small-scale attempts at debauchery by saying: “Aww, you’re the littlest libertine!” There was no other choice but to turn this into A Song.

But taking pleasure in the small, reassuring elements of life like hot drinks and good food is as hygge as it gets. And, for me, being a connoisseur of small pleasures is actually the definition of true hedonism: I don’t cave in to peer pressure and do crazy, out-there things just because I think I should. I genuinely only do what I really enjoy, even if some of those things might seem little and unimpressive to others.

One of the other points that stood out was that hygge is the perfect way for introverts to socialize. I’m not an introvert – I don’t know what I am. A friend once suggested that, to me, all conversations were just people interrupting my life. They’re not (please converse with me!), and he’s a professional magician, anyway, so what does he know? But I do tend to find loud, hectic environments full of cool strangers (e.g. “clubbing”) incredibly stressful. In fact, one of the most off-putting things to me is feeling pressure to have fun. I like fun to creep up slowly and surprise me – the preconception that everybody has to have fun from the outset is one of the main things that will prevent me from doing so! Whereas hygge allows fun and socializing to be done in a relaxed context.

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Hatstand, the most hygge of open mic nights

As a performer, and an acoustic singer-songwriting one at that, there’s nothing more stressful and soul-destroying than performing to a loud pub full of people having shouted conversations and ignoring you. One of the most hygge open mic nights I’ve ever been to is Hatstand, a completely acoustic open mic held in a beautifully-lit cafe where the audience have to devote their full attention in order to hear the performers. The intimate atmosphere and sense of camaraderie is second to none, and really brings out the full meaning of everyone’s songs. Playing round a bonfire, such as Folk in the Forest, is also incredibly hygge, and one of my favourite activities.

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Fig.1: Frumpcore at its finest

Another clue of my latent hygge tendencies is my mode of dress: a style I like to call “Frumpcore” (see fig.1). This mainly involves seeing how many layers of jumpers and cardigans I can don before actually becoming somebody’s maiden aunt. In fact, I’ve calculated that around 30% of my body mass is comprised of jumpers, and I’m actually really scrawny underneath, like when a lovely fluffy cat gets itself wet and you realize that under the fur it actually resembles nothing but a very tall weasel. One winter I was going through an existential crisis and took to wearing a jumper so bulky and shapeless it made me resemble a giant egg. I sure was comforted, though!

Talking of existential crises, one of the main points of hygge is that surroundings do matter. The Danish devote huge amounts of time and money to perfecting the interiors of their homes (no surprise when faced with the interminable Danish winter), and I’ve come to realize over the years that this actually is incredibly important to one’s happiness. I used to think that my living quarters didn’t matter, and as long as my situation in life was fine, I could live anywhere. And young people just out of university take “slumming it” as default. But it can really grind you down. When I was living in a shared house in Oxford, I spent all my time in a tiny, box-like room, perpetually messy as I had to use it for everything. After a while it made me feel as if my mind was in prison. Having to move back home isn’t ideal, but the feeling of walking around the large, airy rooms of the house after that horrible little shoe box was unbelievably liberating.

So I’m a full hygge convert now! And although I do still enjoy intrepid adventures, if you ever come round to visit, you’re more than likely to find me engaged in my favourite activity: sitting in bed, reading and eating.

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In Search of Evil

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the concept of evil. I’m not really sure why. Of course, everybody loves a good villain. But it’s deeper than that – how do we define evil? By actions or intentions? Is evil circumstantial, or objective and immutable?

I seem to be one of the few people who still suspects that some people are simply born evil. I don’t know why, I just get the feeling that there are people who, regardless of circumstances or the era they’re born into, will default to evil acts. Obviously, there are also thousands of people out there who are forced into evil acts by their circumstances (as the recent and controversial Derren Brown episode, where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were manipulated to the point where they would push a man to his death, will attest – although its authenticity remains suspect in my cynical eye). But there are also people who seem to perform evil acts out of some deeper urge. So how true is my assumption?

Sweeney Todd

Historically, the idea that people are evil simply because they’re born evil was by no means unusual – in fact, up until the early 20th century, it was the default. It’s only recently that the idea of the sympathetic villain has come to the fore – in the past, this would have been seen as scandalously morally ambiguous. Contrast the original “penny dreadful” serialization of Sweeney Todd, “A String of Pearls”, with the modern-day Tim Burton film adaptation. The Sweeney Todd of 1846’s motivations were seemingly limited to greed and the sheer joy of being evil. In a predominantly Christian society, there was an obvious moralising purpose to this: he was simply a force of the devil, over which the force of good must (and invariably did) prevail.

Phrenology head

But, without the knowledge of genetics and psychology that we take for granted today, there really was an idea that people were born to an evil “type”, and this was often associated with physical appearance. In the 1840s crazes such as phrenology were all the rage, and the shape of the head was meant to reflect traits as far-ranging as secretiveness, parental love and the perception of colour. Sweeney Todd himself was described as “a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.” Such unrefined features were commonly associated with evil (which had ugly connotations regarding race, social class, and a whole host of other pre-Victorian prejudices).

(As an aside, Dracula caused controversy by being one of the first attractive villains – although the deeply homophobic author, Bram Stoker [who, incidentally, stole Oscar Wilde’s first girlfriend, Florence Balcombe], appeared to have scored a bit of an own goal there. The sensuous, beguiling depiction of Dracula that has set the hearts of readers fluttering ever since was originally intended as a portrayal of unattractive, immoral un-manliness.)

The modern film adaptation of Sweeney Todd concocts a sympathetic back-story for our antagonist, involving an evil, wife-stealing Alan Rickman and 15 years of forced labour in an Australian penal colony (which would certainly explain Jonny Depp’s preposterous accent). With psychologists like Freud introducing the idea that past experiences build who we are today, modern audiences see a sympathetic villain as more believable. And, I suspect, we like to feel the thrill of moral ambiguity that comes with sympathising with man capable of slicing the jugulars of unsuspecting customers with a shaving razor and then baking them into pies. Such a questioning of morals would be unheard of in the Victorian era.

In fact, I’ve always thought that the Victorian view of evil was less moral – if someone’s evil out of the sheer joy of being evil, it implies that there’s joy to being evil, and maybe even that that’s what we’d all become if we yielded to our temptations or “let the devil in”. It gives evil an attractive allure, something that Robert Lewis Stevenson captured all too well in Jekyll and Hyde. A tortured, unhappy antagonist gives a far superior moral message. But that’s not the pure, unadulterated evil that I’m talking about.

The closest real-life example of pure evil in today’s society is, of course, the psychopath, whose absence of fear and empathy is caused by an underactive amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions). Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggests that this ruthlessness is what enables business and political leaders to rise to the top. In fact, the book estimates that people in positions of power are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average population – in other words, those responsible for shaping society and building the world we live in are not the same kind of people as us – society is disproportionately geared towards psychopaths. (No wonder I feel so discombobulated all the time.)

“Aha!” I thought, flicking through its pages, “I was right! Some people really are just born evil!” But what the book doesn’t mention is that even a condition as extreme as psychopathy can be brought about – or at least exacerbated – by early childhood experiences. One of my friends knows a social worker who is under strict instructions to keep an eye out for any babies or young children not receiving enough physical affection – because apparently, a lack of hugging can turn you into a psychopath! I always knew hugging was good for the soul.

So why do I still believe in the idea of pure evil? Maybe because I find it so impossible to empathise with unrepentant evildoers, or even to see them as real people like me. As first, I was worried this failure of empathy meant that I myself was a psychopath – but Jon Ronson’s book was quick to reassure me that if I was worried I was a psychopath, that meant I almost definitely wasn’t one – because if I was one, I wouldn’t care. And that’s what makes them so scary: it’s like there’s no way you can reach them. If you try to tell them they’re doing wrong, they don’t believe you, and even if they do believe you, they don’t care. As Neil Gaiman said in his latest anthology, Trigger Warning, “the people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness”.