Not since Shakespeare declared that something was rotten in the state of Denmark have the inhabitants of that fair country been so disgruntled. A Copenhagen University academic has just produced some research that has shaken every Dane to his irreducible Viking core. He analysed all the products in an Ikea catalogue according to name. What he found was startling. It seems that Sweden's all-conquering furniture firm quite shamelessly names its fanciest futons, tables and chairs after Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian places, while reserving Danish place names for doormats, draught-excluders and cheap carpets.
Min gud, as they say in Danish. That has set the kat among the pigeons. The Danish press has accused Ikea of “symbolically portraying Denmark as the doormat of Sweden”. Ikea's response is that the Danes “appear to underestimate the importance of floor-coverings”. I can't work out whether that retort is a genuine attempt to smoothe ruffled feathers, or yet another sly Swedish dig at their neighbours. Either way, it hasn't helped to mollify the seething Danes.
But could anything do that, at this late stage in their centuries-old rivalry? It was the editor of the Danish paper that exposed this “Swedish imperialist scandal” who put his finger on what is surely the real reason for Danish disquiet. It's a national inferiority complex, pure and simple. “The Swedes,” he explained, doubtless through gritted teeth, “are so perfect at everything.”
I love a good feud. Quite apart from its value as a source of creative impetus (the world's stock of novels, plays, films and operas would be lamentably depleted if human beings didn't feud) I honestly think that it brings people together. Just consider the English and the French. Because of our intense mutual antipathy we spend far more time obsessing about each other than we would if we got on tolerably well - like, say, the English and the Portuguese. After all, to do a good hatchet-job on someone else's taste in clothes, food and politics - let alone a scornful debunking of their military record stretching back to the 13th century - you have to know them pretty well.
Indeed, some of the most ferocious feuds, fought out week after week in the pages of organs such as The Times Literary Supplement, are between academics working in such esoteric fields that their detested rivals are the only people on the planet who have any notion of what the argument is all about. Or between highly intelligent but narrowly-focused people working in semi-closed communities such as Oxbridge colleges or cathedral chapters - inward-looking establishments in which a single perceived slight can be magnified into a grudge that festers for years and poisons all contact between the parties. As Byron said: “Men love in haste but detest at leisure.”
But the feuds that fascinate me most are those that have absolutely no rhyme or reason behind them - the ones that mirror Tom Brown's famous old rhyme:
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
The trouble with the feud between the Swedes and the Danes is that (as with the Americans and the Canadians, or the English and the Scots) the antipathy is too obviously fuelled by a perception that one side has historically used its greater muscle to lord it over the other. Similarly, there's no mystery as to why the MacDonalds hate the Campbells, or the Poles hate the Germans.
A truly gripping feud, by contrast, must have no discernible cause. Or, if it does have one, the cause must be buried so far back in time that nobody can remember what it was. Or it must be so irrelevant to either side's present-day needs as to be hilariously redundant. Remember Jorge Luis Borges's description of Britain and Argentina going to war over the Falklands? “Two bald men arguing over a comb.”