If you walked into Copenhagen’s equivalent of Waterstones, you’d quickly spot three books about North Dorset. Authors Hanne Tang Christensen and Liv Bentsen have delighted Danish readers with stories of Shaftesbury life. Alfred’s Keri Jones met ‘The Danish Ladies’ at their home in our town.
Liv Bentsen and Hanne Tang Christensen were modest when I told them I was impressed that their books are bestsellers. “They sell out, let’s put it that way,” said Liv. “It’s been gratifying.”
It feels exciting to view one of the authors’ book covers, featuring an image of a golden misty sunrise above the Blackmore Vale and St James’ church tower, with the picture overlaid with Danish text.
‘The Danish Ladies’ have created a popular series with a name that references the footwear of their new country lifestyle – the Danish word for wellies. “When we published our first book, it was the publisher’s idea to give it the title, ‘Danish Ladies in Gumboots’,” said Hanne.
The books are only published in Danish, so few Britons will have read them or will be aware of this series. And the women have no intention of translating their work. “They are written with a Danish audience in mind. We pick up things here as foreigners which you may think are normal. We react because they are different to our lives. It’s often little things which make a difference between countries,” said Liv.
I had expected the women to focus on well-known British obsessions, like saying ‘sorry’ continually or our tea-drinking rituals. Surprisingly, it’s our furniture habits that Hanne finds different from the Danes. “Whether it’s a sofa or an armchair, there will be an ‘occasional table’ right next to it, where you can put your cup of tea. In Denmark, we have what we call a ‘sofa table’ – a coffee table in the middle. All other furniture – the sofas and the chairs – are arranged around this table. Some of our friends say it’s a confrontational model. You open up the gathering,” said Hanne, referring to the British obsession with the occasional table.
“We close the conversation so everybody in the room has to be around the same centrepiece and they are all talking about the same thing,” added Liv.
Hanne and Liv delight in sharing the positive traits of the British. They admire our urge to undertake unpaid work and to encourage others to make a difference. “One of the ways in which you English are very special is the amount of volunteering. There are personal and private initiatives. Somebody has an idea, a passion or a dream and starts doing something about it and inspires other people, friends and acquaintances. Then things happen,” Hanne said.
Whilst Shaftesbury residents feature in their writing, I wanted to know their story. How did they discover our town? “After many years in publishing, every year I used to visit the London Book Fair at Olympia. I was talking to an editor from Element Books, which used to be a publishing house in Shaftesbury – Annie Wilson. She told me that she was going to become a yoga teacher here, which she is today. I said that I was living on my own and had a friend also living alone and we both fancied trying something different to Copenhagen,” said Liv.
Annie sent Liv a photo of a Shaftesbury home and the women travelled over from Denmark to view it. “We stayed at the Royal Chase and walked down to Enmore Green and saw a very pretty house, but it was tiny and wasn’t suitable for two separate families. We ended up sitting at the top of Gold Hill with a cup of coffee and thought, ‘We are here in Shaftesbury now. There must be a reason’, so we looked for somewhere else.”
Switching countries, and from city to country life, was quite a change for Hanne. “Most of my life I had spent in either Copenhagen or Aarhus, which is the second-largest city in Denmark. It was a life on cobblestones, with no garden and no fields with cows or sheep. This was a completely new, wonderful experience,” said Hanne.
‘The Danish Ladies’ were worried about being accepted in a different country, but their fears subsided hours after moving into a North Dorset village. “We were very surprised at how quickly we were accepted. We moved into a small rented cottage in Ashmore, a few months after having arrived in England on 23rd December. We wanted to get the move done, because Hanne’s daughter was expecting a baby back in Copenhagen and we wanted to be able to fly off when the child arrived,” recalled Liv.
She remembers standing in the kitchen, in the dark, covered in dust and surrounding by packing cases. “A row of lights came up the front garden path. We looked at each other and wondered whether we should duck. It was carol singers who had come to welcome us to the village. They all piled into the kitchen. We had nothing to give them, but they sang two carols for us. That was one of the things that made us feel welcome, right from the start. We didn’t feel that we were intruding in a little village. People were very kind. That’s what we have found all of the time,” Liv recalls.
A friend suggested that the women should write down their Shaftesbury tales. “We had tried to write a novel but that didn’t really work. We wrote down on paper all the wonderful people we had met and their stories. We also wrote about the history of Shaftesbury, for example the Abbey and some other National Trust houses we visited,” said Hanne.
The National Trust has featured frequently within Liv and Hanne’s chapters. I was fascinated to learn that something that we might take for granted would be considered so interesting to readers across the North Sea.
“We don’t have anything equivalent to the National Trust. We wrote about how it was started initially, to give people in London and other cities the ability to get out to somewhere green. It was more about that than the posh houses. The only thing that we have that is a bit similar are the things organised by the Danish state,” said Liv.
Liv returned to the British sense of volunteering which clearly had impressed her. “Lots of the things you can do here – visiting houses and gardens – were started as private initiatives by individuals and were kept going by volunteers and charities. It makes a lot of difference,” she said.
The women’s’ books present Shaftesbury in a warm way, reflecting the friendly welcome they have experienced here. “What struck us was the welcoming aspect, the village-like quality. Even though it is a town and is growing, it still feels like a village. People are interested and kind. There are all sorts of initiatives and activities. Nobody needs to be bored or lonely, there is so much to do here. People come from all walks of life and retire to Shaftesbury, as well as the proper old Shastonians. It’s a charming town in many ways,” said Hanne.
One charming local who has featured in his own chapter in the ladies’ latest release is 94-year-old Shaftesbury Fringe performer and tea-dance organiser, Tony Hawkins. “He and his family kindly invited us to join them for a ballet evening at Hatch House a few years ago. We have written about that,” said Hanne. “One of the sons dropped out and there were two extra places at a table for ten. We were invited, had a great meal and saw the Royal Danish Ballet. It was fun. They are so young and active.”
Hanne and Liv have shared their observations on our town’s calendar events, too. “We’ve written about Gold Hill Fair, The Byzant Ceremony and the Snowdrop Festival. It’s clever to get the children planting in Trinity churchyard. It’s very wacky, but fun,” said Liv.
Many locals are proud of Shaftesbury’s independent high street and, as residents, Hanne and Liv love our range of shops. And they’ve made one, long-established Shaftesbury business rather famous in Denmark.
“We often ask, ‘What would we do without Hine and Parsons?’ If we were in London, we would properly have to go to ten different shops to amass the same number of different things. We use it a lot for presents to send to Denmark, because everything is soft and you can put it in a Jiffy bag,” said Hanne.
Danish visitors have, reportedly, called into Hine and Parsons after reading about the store. And Win Harvey at Teddybear Corner might have had Danes peruse her displays, too. The women share Win’s story of a customer – a bus driver who wanted to buy a bear on display in her window.
“He couldn’t stop the bus,” said Liv. “He called Win with his Visa card number and stopped briefly outside the shop. Win ran out and popped ‘Harvey’ onto the front seat and he drove off happily. We thought that was a lovely story.”
Liv and Hanne’s third book features more shop owners. “Sue and Rob Neely of The Dorset Store are a couple that have done a lot for the town,” said Liv, adding, “I have picked up a lot about Rob’s Welshness, because he tells stories in a very Welsh way. He told us that he had received a box of tiny hedgehogs about the size of a hand. One of them had lost its glass eye. He put them out on the table and a customer said, ‘Look, a blind hedgehog. I have to have that’. As soon as she left, Rob took one of the eyes out of all the other hedgehogs and they all sold like mad, because they were all blind hedgehogs. We thought that was very clever.”
Bee campaigner Brigit Strawbridge also gains an honourable mention in their book. “It’s such a good initiative. It’s been very good for the town. The idea of using fewer pesticides and getting children involved is a good, gentle way forward,” said Liv.
Through their books, Hanne and Liv have subtly promoted Shaftesbury as a tourism destination. “I don’t know how many Danes we bring to the town, but we have had people visiting who have read the books and made friends with us,” said Hanne.
Although their books continue to fly off the shelves, sadly the writers are considering calling time on their Shaftesbury series with the publication of their third title. “We haven’t planned a book number four,” said Hanne. “It seems that we have rounded this off with our trilogy.” But the pair are not putting their notebooks down, yet. “I don’t know where we are going but something else will happen. So beware,” laughed Liv.