A Song on My Lips in Copenhagan

ACCORDING to my nearest and of course dearest, I am a sponge when it comes to tunes. Far be it from me to refute such an allegation. And it is true that sometimes one finds oneself humming a tune without the slightest idea where or when one absorbed it - until she starts to laugh. ``That's what I was singing at breakfast!'' she announces in a tone that suggests a distinct kind of triumph. Maybe she sets me up .... Generally I consider this tune-catching business a pleasant (if unwitting) form of musical comraderie. Music, after all, is better if participatory. But there are times when it may get a bit out of hand. It is a state that can, for example, be brought on geographically.

Visiting Paris I have caught myself reiterating - under my breath, like a looped tape - the strains of ``Under the Bridges of Paris with Me''; in London, sometimes, I find I have an uncontrolled urge to sing ``Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner'' (even though I am not, and neither was the American who wrote it).

Driving through Yorkshire I can be entirely taken over by the morbid gusto of ``On Ilkley Moor Ba Tat'' (which, translated, means ``Without a Hat''); at home in Glasgow it's (inevitably) ``Glasgow Belongs to Me'' (which, as a Yorkshireman, is a bold and foolhardy claim); and in Zurich I have found it virtually impossible to escape the insistent refrain of ``Edelweiss, Edelweiss.''

But it is worst of all in Copenhagen. Work and pleasure have taken me on brief visits to the Danish capital several times now. It's a gentle, undemanding city in which I always feel at home - partly because we have good friends there. But with all the repetitive and meaningless relish of a parrot I will, whenever I'm in Copenhagen, hook myself roundelayingly onto the lilty choral exhilaration of ``Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen....''

I know how it starts at least; when I run out of remembered words (which is soon enough) I resort, with demented glee, to ``dum-da-da, dum-da-da, deeee'' and then - if the sun has got his hat on and nobody's standing too near - I break into trombones and trumpets. It's a good sing (even if you can't) but it is undoubtedly best confined to the resonant privacy of the bathroom.

I do feel rather strongly, in spite of myself, that it is not the song to sing while in Copenhagen - any more than ``Edelweiss, Edelweiss'' should be indulged in Switzerland. Both songs belong firmly to Hollywood, and ``Edelweiss, Edelweiss'' (a dull, dusty, woolly little plant of little distinction, and not at all worthy of lyrical, or national-symbolical, celebration) comes from a film which was set in Austria, not Switzerland.

``Wonderful, Wonderful'' comes, of course, from Danny Kaye's children's film fantasy ``Hans Christian Andersen.'' This was (is) a slight film, to speak bluntly, though with a great bunch of songs; and it has an extremely tenuous connection with the real Andersen.

``Wonderful, Wonderful'' itself is sung aboard a fishing boat rocked by studio waves, with a freshly laundered collection of American actors variously impersonating Danish sailors and fishwives with good singing voices. The moment is supposed to represent Andersen's first approach to the Big City. In fact he came into Copenhagen, not as the film has it, an adult shoemaker, but as a naive, idealistic boy; and he arrived by road not sea.

Naturally enough the tourism of Copenhagen is to a degree tied up with Andersen, a figure of national importance and repute. The Copenhagen Tourist Association inevitably exploits him.

The statue of his ``Little Mermaid'' has become a symbol of Denmark, and a favorite tourist attraction. The spell she casts was probably increased when in the early 1960s vandals beheaded her. A replacement was available, and potential foreign visitors were told in ads that ``you too can lose your head over Denmark!''

She actually harks back not to Andersen's time, but to 1913. And for many years she sat on her rock, in all her fishy insouciance, alone and ignored by tourists. No longer; the last time I saw her - in drenching rain - I found myself holding his umbrella for one of a coach load of Japanese visitors intent on capturing her in Fuji color. What I remember with delight was not so much the shiny dripping mermaid herself, but the considerable amount of bowing between me and the gratefully dry photographer, post snap.

We are all children when tourists, and when we visit a city for a few days, even on business, we can hardly be more than tourists. You can't know a city in a day or two, any more than you can get familiar with a mountain by driving past it. But the childish impressions of quick visiting do have their own quality and value. Brevity concentrates the attention.

Andersen was himself an inveterate traveler - he even came once, I found out the other day, to Glasgow - and he approached the art of tourism ( so much slower then) with childlike pleasure.

But Andersen's childlikeness has been generally overemphasized. Experts inform us that his style has been badly translated into English, missing it's rough directness and missing its sophisticated irony and satirical tone. Ib, the husband half of our Copenhagen friends, tells me Andersen wrote his miscalled ``Fairy Tales'' as a kind of release for various frustrations. They come out of adult experiences.

Telling, certainly, is Andersen's reaction in old age to the proposed statue of him in Copenhagen. Signe Toksvig wrote: ``The good simple sculptor submitted a design in which the author was seen practically enveloped in listening children. Andersen was furious. He lost no time in informing the sculptor that he could not endure anyone behind him when he read aloud; and that no one had ever seen him with children at his back, on his lap, on his knee.'' His tales, he asserted, were for adults quite as much as children - maturity was needed to grasp their whole meaning. So, says Toksvig, ``the children were instantly peeled off.''

THE statue is today a tourist draw, and was joined in 1961, in the Town Hall Square, by another (child-free) statue. It ``smiles,'' they say, as it looks toward what is probably the most successful tourist draw in the city - the Tivoli Gardens.

Tivoli is an urban pleasure park, open in the summer, best after dark - a combination of fantasy, fairground, fountains, fireworks, bandstands, restaurants, cafes, fairy lights between trees, lakes, bridges, and flower beds. It is unashamedly of another period, and it is immensely popular with the young of most ages. The Danes themselves apparently flock to it.

Here, particularly, I tend to hum Danny Kaye's song. But I'm still self-conscious about it. I believe the film wasn't all that popular in Denmark. Not only did it grossly distort Andersen, however innocently and enchantingly, it also persistently mispronounced the word ``Copenhagen.'' The Danes prefer English speakers to come closer to their pronunciation so that ``hagen'' sounds more like ``haven'' than ``bargain.''

But also, in a funny kind of way, the prettification of Copenhagen into Hollywood sets, however obviously fantastic they may seem to an adult, leaves a false impress on a child's mind. I have a feeling that much of Copenhagen seems somewhat ordinary by comparison. There's a tinge of disappointment, perhaps, that the city is not as pretty as expected.

And tourists are further encouraged by the usual distortions of travel brochures and posters to look for an unreal place: by selective and sunny photography, by selective and sunny coach tours, by a concentration on royal palaces and mermaid statues and twisted stock exchange spires and even, probably, by the newest manifestation of Danish color thirst, the freshly painted Palads Theater, home of 25 cinemas, which looks for all the world like an enormous ice cream cake that thinks it's a rainbow. And then to crown it all, the Tourist Association has actually adopted as the city's tourist slogan the words ``Wonderful, Wonderful.'' So that's why I can't get it out of my head - it's subliminal advertising.

But Copenhagen isn't all wonderful. What city is? There is also the awful pedestrianized thoroughfare - bulging with barging, time-squandering crowds - no more delightful here than in any other city. There is noisy, difficult traffic. There are gray, dim, undistinguished warehouses and uninspiring backwaters and boring streets. There is a flatness everywhere, and a sameness of roof line. There is a feeling that here is a city which hasn't quite managed cohesion.

The best things, anyway, about quick visiting any city, are unusual moments. Usually these are of merely personal significance - and for me the experience of Copenhagen is as rich in them as anywhere. There was the time Ib took me to a university residence to see a painting by Danish artist J. F. Willumsen - friend of Gauguin - of a mountaineering girl. It's not generally known to the public. Even Ib hadn't seen it before, in this setting which was once a reading room but is now a student billiards room. Willumsen is an extraordinary, and still underrated artist, with an exotic, expressionistic vision - and a passionate feel for mountains.

There was the time I found my own way to the botanic gardens and spent a pleasant hour there - particularly struck with the wealth of skunk cabbages growing along a stream alive with ducks.

There was the time I sought out an Egyptian carving of a hippopotamus in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. It's small. It's round and very discreet and complacent. Its anonymous artist understood perfectly the indubitable satisfaction of being a Nile-wallowing hippo. For me it was like meeting an old friend.

And there was the time I went into a secondhand bookshop with little confidence of their having an out-of-print book on Danish Ships' Figureheads I'd been shown in a museum. After a short rummage they pulled it off a shelf for me.

And there was the time we came across and ordered the six ash-wood chairs that now elegantly grace our dining table. They could only be designed and made in Denmark; they could only be bought in Copenhagen.

SUCH things belong to ``my'' Copenhagen. They don't matter much, I'm sure, to any other soul. But it strikes me that Copenhagen must mean similar things to countless others - and that it is this kind of potpourri of disparate experiences that really make a city wonderful, perhaps even twice over, and worth singing about.

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