Knowing your Place


On Tuesday, I visited Aalborg, a small industrial city at the top of Denmark. As I pondered my destination I wondered whether it could claim to be the first entry in the world gazetteer. Which other town or city could surpass its opening double “a”s and followed by a respectable “l”? Even in a dictionary it would sneak ahead of the celebrated aardvark.

I consulted the definitive reference – the Times Concise Atlas of the World – smugly avoiding the internet and using a real book (you know those, big, rectangular things with pages). Straining with the unusual exercise of removing a volume from a shelf, I was glad I’d plumped for the concise version. Avoiding the temptation to lose myself for hours in the Indonesian Islands, I flicked to the index, which disappointingly revealed that Aalborg occupies a mere 7th place in the alphabetical pecking order of world locations.

Aa in France surpasses Aa in Germany by dint of the country-name countback. Two unassailable names, unless someone creates the town of A (maybe I will after lunch). My heart sank further. Aalborg is not even the first town in Denmark. There in third place sits its compatriot Aabenrae, followed by Aach and Aachen (Germany again) and the humble Aadorf (Switzerland) in neutral 6th. Scandinavian and Benelux towns dominate the top 20, so all the more credit to the surprise Lebanon entry of Aaley in 9th position. An honorary invitation in the eurovision song contest is yours, in place of Israel.

Undeterred, I consulted the Collins World Atlas 1977. A smaller, lighter, thinner cartography of the planet. I purchased this for my wife in the pre-internet age. I was an enthusiastic first year geography student; she has no interest in the subject whatsoever. The atlas does not look well used. Peeling through the pages for what I suspected was their first use, I found better news. In this esteemed reference book, Aalborg is right up there in second place behind Aachen.

Which just goes to show our status in the world is entirely dependent upon the company we keep.

Speaking of which – as I flew to Aalborg – I had found myself in a small 6 seater plane in the company of our CFO and a few lesser luminaries. I actually placed the pilot and co-pilot in 1st and 2nd place (the aa and aa of the party). The CFO would have to be content with number 3, and I was the back in the pack. Maybe that is why I was in the single seat at the rear, seemingly guarding the onboard toilet.

Status is an interesting concept. 98% of it is trained into our psyche. We are brought up through school in a strict slice of age sortation – 100 kids all born within the same 12 months. We lived in awe of the bigger taller boys in the years above, with their cigarettes, confidence and ability to talk to girls without going red. And in turn we treated those little kids in the strata below with justifiable derision. Look at them – still wearing their ties straight and trying to please the teachers! Then through university and into the scary world of work. I am looking forward to pushing in front of those sprites in the year below as we queue for our steak and kidney pudding in the old people’s home.

In work, however, age does start to make way for hierarchy. We will all remember the day we first worked for someone who was younger than us – and the deflated feeling of being overtaken by the young kids with their fresh ideas. These days if you haven’t made it to the top of your chosen ladder by the age of 45, you may as well relax and enjoy playing on the swings and roundabouts. Check out the ages of the British cabinet.

Denmark is a country which has moved beyond the need for status. A country comfortable in its own skin. Any ambition to conquer the world with Viking ships a distant memory. Any ambition to lead Europe thwarted by the Aa, Aachs and Aachens of Germany. The Collins World Atlas shows Denmark it as a ghostly spectre riding on the back of its enormous neighbour, and through which is the only lifeline to the rest of the world. And so it strains and stretches to break free from mainland europe, and become even more part of Scandinavia. One day no doubt, a minor rise in sea level will help it realise its ambition. Its highest point is a mere 560ft.

But none of this seems to worry them. They are amongst the old men of Europe. They have no celebrities, no world leaders and a language which is like the secret ones we invented as kids. Even the letters has strange and weird squiggles. If only we could crack the code.

So anyway, there I was flying over the North Sea in a small plane. Denmark is much further north than I imagined. Aalborg (let’s give them 2nd place) is in fact level with Aberdeen (7th in the new league tables). As we flew over the coastlines, looking down I saw a country made up of islands and inlets, like a badly laid patch of crazy paving without the concrete. Like sheets of ice melting and separating as they slide down the car windscreen in obscure patterns.

Denmark is cold, clean, quiet, efficient and effective. Contrast, say, Spain, which is often hot, dirty, noisy, inefficient and ineffective. I was reminded of the theory of Brownian movement – the random movement of particles, which as the temperature rises become more and more frenetic. At low temperatures, the world becomes slower, more predictable and easier to use. It was -7 in Denmark when we landed.

And so the queue at security was small and relaxed; the traffic is calm and regimented. The people are quiet – neither friendly nor unfriendly, and mainly dressed in black. They smile politely but do not seem to want to spark or provoke. The cold is like a sedative, sapping energy and draining colour. It is a black and white and grey country, dominated by snow, water, concrete and tarmac. The country has 4,500 miles of coastland and apparently lovely sandy beaches. But nobody gets up at 7am to grab a sunbed and a parasol. That would be crazy – and nobody in Denmark seems to be crazy. You wont easily find an insane Dane. Tranquillity and order reign, and who cares about the rest of the world.

  1 comment for “Knowing your Place

  1. January 29, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Do’h, just turned 46, is now the moment to move on the Archbishop of Canterbury? Or bottom of the ladder is it?

    These are the articles of yours I like the best. They flow with endless ease. They weave in and out of your subject like Ryan Giggs at his best. Your articles on leadership etc are good, but just much harder to navigate … in my opinion.

    Some of your word craft is inspiring …
    “As we flew over the coastlines, looking down I saw a country made up is islands and inlets, like a badly laid patch of crazy paving without the concrete. Like sheets of ice melting and separating as they slide down the car windscreen in obscure patterns.”

    Keep up the excellent work.

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