Tag Archives: Reykjavík

A child of society

troll-imadeWEB-1The man with the tattered coat opens his briefcase, taking out a few sheets of paper and walks round the room to offer them to some of the customers seated at the tables.  Probably an insurance salesman looking for new customers he can hoodwink into buying his very latest special offer.   30 years ago, Hresso café was far from busy in high season.  The tourists had yet to arrive, while most Icelanders spent their holidays in the far-flung corners of the earth, giving young people a chance to earn a bit of pocket money during their holidays.  At that time, Hresso café was therefore mainly popular with scribblers, who spent hours there filling sheets of paper with their words, leaning on one side next to their white iron coffee pot.   At this time, you could only buy alcohol in State shops, and coffee was still served in large half-litre pots which kept the scribblers from dehydrating over the next four hours.  What’s more, it was not recommended to drink too many pots of this powerful beverage, and those of you who have survived the nightmare of caffeine poisoning, know what I am talking about.

Ragnar struck up a lively conversation with the man.  As it turned out, he was not an insurance salesman, but a poet trying to sell his latest poems.  The man wanted to know if his poems were not good enough, since Ragnar had not bought a single sheet, to which Ragnar replied that he already had these poems, before closing with these words:  ‘He is a child of society’

Haldor Laxness, had already developed philosophical considerations on the term society. In his book ‘Í túninu heima’, he looked into what might really be meant by this word:

‘Society didn’t even exist when I grew up.  Today, we would like to believe that it exists, in order to improve it, despite the fact that its address is unknown and it’s impossible to summon it to a court.  A while ago, I asked an intelligent acquaintance, if they knew what type of association society was: the people, the Government, the parliament, or perhaps the sum of these?  My friend frowned, then finally answered: “Doesn’t this word rather refer to the police?”

Today, subsequent generations know that while society does indeed exist, it cannot be improved.  Because what Albert Einstein said holds true:  “To be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself”. To which Niklas Luhmann added:

“ … What is really misleading about the mental state of members of society is the convergence of their ideas and concepts. We naively think that if most men share the same ideas or feelings, these must be fair.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Convergence on its own is no guarantee of intelligence or mental health.”

Society can be described by the fact that its members have activities that are successful enough to attract attention.  As for attention, it can be measured by the mental state as recorded by the daily TV ratings.  Over time, we have simply forgotten that communities originally formed in order to find sufficient food, protect themselves from the threat of other species and learn from one another.  With the disappearance of these needs, these healthy tissues have become cancerous tumours which we refer to as a society.  For example, if we were to compare the relationship between the number of people killed in the name of good, and those killed in the name of evil, we would find this difficult, because of those whom we don’t consider as criminals.

Bjarni_Bernharður-150x150The white iron coffee pots of yesteryear have long since disappeared, along with the scribblers.   Café Hresso is now always busy and full of young people and tourists who prefer coca-cola or a yellow liquid that has a certain resemblance to beer.

And the man?  He is still there.   However, now he stands in front of the door, against the wall, next to the ’Austurstræti stand.  The poet and painter Bjarni Bernharður still sells his self-published poems (Egóútgáfan), now available in the form of bound collections, together with a bar code and a ISBN number.

The kiss of the bat

I was living
in a dark cavern
in my childhood

When the bat
kissed me

That warm kiss
sealed my destiny
I took the path
of cold nights

on the boundary
between light and darkness

Bjarni-3Bjarni Bernhardur sells his latest collection ‘Koss Leðurblökunnar’, with his own illustrations for 2,000 crowns, but he also has English versions of his poems, for tourists. There is no greater proof that in his sixty-fifth year of life, Bjarni Bernharður is still a hopeless optimist.

Translation: Jackie Dobble

deEin Kind in der Gesellschaft

frUn enfant dans la société

Does Bielefeld exist?

troll-imadeWEB-1‘Listen carefully and repeat” was to be the phrase he remembered most when he began to learn German.   Critics suggest that with these words, he would have already learnt the basics of what characterises and distinguishes German schools.  Of course it’s not really true, as the example of a city such as Bielefeld proves.  But there are other German cities, such as Bonn, or any other city that has around 320,000 inhabitants.  So let us take one of these cities, let us take Bielefeld as representative of all German cities with an approximate population of 320,000 people.

The city of poets and bookworms

Eymundsson-150x150Bielefeld has 129 publishers, which in 2010 published a total of 1,505 books, including 350 works of poetry and literature alone, then 286 translations of foreign literature and poetry and in the field of philosophy, 16 works written by the city’s own philosophers, as well as 15 translations of foreign philosophers.

These works by Bielefeld’s authors were printed by printers and bound by bookbinders, then all 1,505 works were delivered to the city’s 26 bookshops in order to feed the reading habits of the good folk of Bielefeld who were impatient to devote their long winter nights to their hobby: reading books.  Of course, in Bielefeld a book is only a book if it combines the work of poets, graphic artists and bookbinders with the knowledge of the booksellers. From this it should be clear that the burghers of Bielefeld consider ‘reading’ to be anything but looking at sentences and devouring words.  And so, year after year they wait for the stream of books to return before engrossing themselves and are always surprised by any novelty, by anything that didn’t exist beforehand.

In Bielefeld, this situation has led to the rise of a community of all those connected with the publishing industry: the Authors association of Bielefeld, a union of authors whose role is to protect freedom of expression in literature.  This association handles agreements with the publishers, theatres, press, institutions and other bodies that wish to publish or use the works.

This is how, in Bielefeld, 70 writers manage to make a living just by writing; the city pays commissions to a special fund that covers the books loaned by public libraries and their use as educational tools in the city’s schools.

Such is the status of Poetry and literature in Bielefeld that the local dairy organised a poetry competition for the city’s schoolchildren and then published the children’s poems on their milk cartons.  Familes in Bielefeld could therefore enrich their days by reading the poems at breakfast, such as the one below:

In the past
I was so happy
To torment him
And no-one dared reproach me

I saw him,
Now he is famous,
I am jealous of him.
Who am I?
A nobody!

Welcome to the city

We should not therefore be surprised that the city’s mayor writes to those who visit it, the tourists, and explains to them that is very unlikely they are in this city, since most of humanity can be found elsewhere, a scientifically proven fact:

“Is our place of our birth an accident? Is it subject to a general rule?  Did I already exist in another form before I was born?  Did I have anything to do with where I was born? Why did Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun not have children? Surely they tried to have them?  Is it possible that no child would have wanted them as parents? I don’t know, but I don’t believe in coincidences.  I don’t believe that God rolls the dice, especially where human lives are concerned.  These thoughts inevitably lead us to consider  Schrödinger’s  cat. Here we have probably one of the world’s most famous cats (maybe a close second after Ninja cat?).  How is it that we still  don’t know its name?  So what was the name of Schrödinger’s cat?  Abracadabra? I can’t remember any more.  Let’s call it Phoenix.  It’s a common name for cats.  Phoenix was a type of cat that was alive and dead at the same time.  It has therefore always existed, and  even if Schrödinger killed his cat with undeniably bad taste, the cat is still alive in Schrödinger’s house, while Schrödinger himself died long ago:

Δx Δp ≥ h/2

Does this means that I have always existed, or perhaps I have never existed and what’s more, I don’t exist now either?  Impossible! This would mean that our entire existence was unreal and only existed in our imaginations.  So if I don’t exist, neither do you.  I find that difficult to believe.  The facts speak for themselves.  If I don’t really exist, then how can I take a plane for Finland, send myself a postcard of Tarja Halonen, the president, go back home and greet the postman as he delivers my postcard?  Who knows?“

“The father was an alcoholic and the mother always tired”

“We could compare the nation with a family, that has an alcoholic father who had been drunk for years … He had wonderful ideas, but only when he had them.  This loud mouth had no compunction in sending his family packing.  His catch phrase was ‘Stop talking bullshit!’, yet his family trusted him.  Partly because his family loved him in spite of his drunkenness and his mistakes, but also because they were quite simply afraid to stand up to him.  The family began to wonder if he were not some kind of genius rather than an alcoholic with psychological disorders, a brilliant man able to see things that your average loser was too stupid to see … In the end, he was indeed obliged to acknowledge his mental, physical and financial ruin.  He went off to rehab.  But the family were bereft, bewildered, confused and angry.”

This was the mayor’s speech during the second debate on the council’s annual budget and the citizens, who called his apparent flights of fancy ‘frighteningly accurate’, praised this speech.  Nevertheless, the mayor warned them against the rage that ‘burns’ energy and leads to exhaustion, since grief and despair breed inactivity.  “Anger is human and may be necessary, but if left to build-up, it becomes a deadly substance that poisons the mind.”  These were the mayor’s words and he had already announced in his speech on the city’s budget:

“We don’t share a set common ideology.  We are neither on the left or on the right.  We are both.  We are not even certain that this issue is important …. How many times can you cut a cake?  Who will have a small slice?  And who needs a really big slice?  What is luxury and what is important? Is it better to steel from children than from old people?  ’

The most honest politician in the country

gnarr_cover-182x300At this point, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a city we are talking about here, but a whole nation, which has no more citizens than a city like Bielefeld.  And this speech was given by a mayor who adopted the name of Jón Gnarr, and his term of office which put him in charge of the 8,000 employees of the city of Reykjavik is now over. He may no longer be in power, but that’s not to say he would not have been re-elected.  Quite the reverse.  After just one year of office, the nation gave him the title of the country’s most honourable politician.  According to a ranking of political figures in Iceland published in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið on 11/03/2001, Jón Gnarr came first in terms of sincerity (28.8%), working with local government (23.7%), personality (29.5%), while he was at the bottom of the class for determination (5.0%), power (5.6%), the firmness of his convictions (17.9%) and the ability to work under pressure (3.5%), which made him the most honest and the most honourable person in Iceland.

This ranking irritated more than a few:  Is it not those very qualities of ‘determination’, ‘power’, firmness of his convictions’ and ‘ability to work under pressure’ that sets politicians apart and makes them who they are, whether in a dictatorship or a democracy – which in this respect is the same – and irrespective of whether the regime is secular or religious?   And does that mean that politicians are only politicians if they are sincere, work with local government and are endowed with a strong personality?

Well here are the last words from Jón Gnarr’s annual budget speech for the city.

“Miss Reykjavik has a future ahead of her. Perhaps she had an alcoholic father and a mother who was always tired.  But that won’t stop her.  She forgives everyone, and turns to face the light.  Reykjavik has the potential to the cleanest, most beautiful, most peaceful and most exciting city in the world, with a global reputation for sympathy, culture, nature and peace; it’s a diamond that we must polish if it is to shine.”

The comedian’

What is a comedian? Let us give the floor to Jón Gnarr himself:

“A year ago, I found myself on the island of Puerto Rico. I had just finished a film, which I had both written and produced with a few friends.  I found myself unemployed and wondered what my next project might be.

Until then, I had worked in an advertising agency, before being laid off following the recession and the economic downturn.  I kept up-to-date with the situation in Iceland by news sites on the internet,  I got into the habit after the collapse.  After the collapse, I was barely interested in politics and even had to make quite an effort to avoid having to follow the events in this corner of society.  This is what I did until everything collapsed in a huge crash and our Prime Minister appeared on television to ask God to bless us.  It felt as though I had been hit with a wet cloth.    What had happened? After that, I began to follow the news closely.  Wherever I went, all discussions revolved around this: in parties, business meetings and with friends I met in the street.

In an instant, I became addicted to news.  And the more I followed the news, the angrier I became.  Angry against the capitalist bankers.   Angry against the system that had failed.  But I kept my fiercest anger for the politicians.  All, without exception, were incompetent, egotistical idiots, or so I thought.

I was mad at myself and mad with the people who had elected these politicians.  I wanted to do something.  I went down to Austurvollur several times to participate in the demonstrations. But I couldn’t make up my mind to join them, heart and soul.  I didn’t want to throw faeces into Alþing, nor put up with the police.  I didn’t want to vent my rage by launching a blog.

All this anger in me and around me began to make me afraid.  I was afraid that it would grow and strengthen until something awful happened.  I felt everyone’s suffering.  I empathised with those who, as a sign of protest, remained silent while banging on pots and pans; but also with the worried politicians who hurried to their cars, or who stood in front of the cameras, with fear in the eyes.   I empathised with the policemen who stood facing the angry crowd.  At the time, my father lay dying in hospital.  He had been a policeman in Reykjavik for more than forty years.  During all those years, he had never been promoted to a higher rank, because he was a communist.  I was sad that he was dying without ever having known that the socialist-green party had taken power at Alþing.  That would have made him very happy.  I love this city and I love this country.  I love the people who live here.”

This makes one wonder whether it is fair to measure the greatness of a nation by the size of its population.

The Frankfurter Rundschau ran the headline:  “A clown moves to serious matters” and Henryk M. Broder reported live from Reykjavik: “Reykjavik is on standby for a coup d’Etat’.

Jón, the ‘clown’ handed over the town council to his successor.  The coup d’État was over. Yet, was he a clown?  Was it a coup d’État?

Translation: Jackie Dobble

deBielefeld gibt es gar nicht?

frBielefeld n´existe pas ?

Resonant bodies

troll-imadeWEB-1They were back.  It was impossible to ignore them.   The cooking pot lids.

With every topic discussed, the owner of the hair salon struck a mannered pose:  “Politicians are like pigeons.” From behind he examined the expression of the culprit in the mirror and seeing that his phrase had not missed its mark, he answered the questioning, silent gaze: “When they are below you, they eat out of your hand, when they are above you, they shit on you.”

Demo_12-150x150Clearly, this man knows his pigeons.  In front of Alþing, the Icelandic Parliament, you could hear people banging pot lids, spatulas, or anything you might carry in your pocket were your path to lead to the Parliament building. People we beating and hitting any surface capable of making sure that the people’s voice penetrated through the closed windows.  Indeed, what’s the point of standing outside in the wind and rain for hours on end, if you can’t get your message through closed windows and make it so loud that any normal conversation becomes impossible, except by shouting at each other?

The idea that we can draw lessons from the past and that the parliament, which was accessible without the slightest security measure until 2008, needed to be protected against its people, proved to be a very stupid.  That year, the people stormed the Parliament, a sort of “Defenestration of Prague” but without any defenestration, and Halldór Guðmundsson reported in his book We are all Icelanders that parliamentarians only owe their lives to the lack of an available tree on which to lynch them, since the last tree had been been burned.

To understand the Icelanders better, it’s clear that such a thing would never have happened, even if parliament had been surrounded by an entire forest.  No angry individual would have dreamed of it.  The Icelanders enjoy humour when it falls under the category of the ‘smart Icelander’.  The act of burning the only tree in front of the Parliament, the gigantic fir tree, that Norway sends to the Icelanders each year by boat in time for Advent, must therefore be fall under the category of ‘smart Icelander’. That year then, this majestic fir tree had gone up in flames.  Icelanders don’t like inflating the truth.  Kiss goodbye to peace, joy and cupcakes.  In the end it is a matter of pure survival.

These events clearly left a deep mark on the ladies and gentlemen of the parliament and the building has now adopted the continental fashion of a ‘security perimeter’.  A kind of ‘iron curtain’ between the people and its representatives, more than a thousand years after the island was first settled.

Not that the people have become more violent over the centuries.  In any way. Quite the reverse even.  But it is easier to set up a security perimeter than rack your brains trying to understand how we could have got to the point of being forced to protect the people’s representatives against the ideology that they are supposed to represent, but in reality don’t, and who as a result, either through fear or ignorance, only differ from Louis 16th by the non-heredity nature of their office.

Demo_3-150x150The security perimeter proved to be a stupid idea, because it used metal barriers.   An invitation appreciated by all those who were forced to stand in front of the door.  And this is how more than a hundred boots were battered against the barriers, not discordantly, but rhythmically, generating a pulsating beat that could be heard as far away at the church of Hallgrimur. The beating rhythm echoed through the rows of houses like invisible drums calling the warriors to the battlefield; the parliament, like a circle of wagons, was under siege and there was no John Wayne in sight to free the gentlefolk from the clutches of savages.

A few of these stoic messengers showed their ‘smart Icelandic’ spirit: they turned their back on the parliament and faced the people, without forgetting to hit back, like an Icelandic horse that punishes an inexperienced groom for getting too close.

We would therefore be within rights to enquire what provoked this confrontation.

It was the EU entry negotiations. But we would be mistaken in believing that this angry crowd was for or against Iceland joining the EU.  It was purely and simply about respecting a campaign promise.

During the election campaign, the winning party had promised to put the question of whether to continue the EU membership negotiations to the vote and let the people decide.  Scarcely after taking office, the government stopped negotiations with the EU, because statistics showed that in any case, most Icelanders would vote against joining.  Despite the logic of the Government’s decision, the gulf separating it from the view of the people was immense: it wasn’t a question of knowing whether most Icelanders wanted to join the EU or not, it was about knowing that if a politician makes a campaign promise, however absurd, we must accept that he will break it. And this is what makes a people great: a word is like a signed agreement.  If contractual fulfilment is stupid, that’s the problem of the person who was unable to remain silent.  If he had said nothing, he would have stayed wise and got off scot free.  That may not seem very pragmatic, but it all depends on how you define pragmatism.  For Icelanders, making an electoral promise and then breaking it is not pragmatic.  A pragmatic approach involves either coming good on a campaign promise, or promising nothing.  And to ensure the message is heard loud and clear, there are always pan lids and spatulas in the kitchen.

Well, the parliamentarians heard the message and quickly learned the lesson.  The following day, the metal barriers had disappeared, replaced by a plastic noise reduction plastic strip.

It was completely useless.  Since in front of the Parliament, there are enough metallic objects that can be used as resonant bodies: lamp posts, street signs, parking posts, etc. Spatulas and pan lids therefore went on with their daily grind, since nature has taught each Icelander from their formative years that water drops falling one after the other will dissolve even the hardest of basalts.

Since it seems that the Parliamentarians didn’t dare leave the building. because the people were in front of the door, those who were standing in front of the door fulfilled their duty of assistance and brought sustenance to the representatives of the people.  They couldn’t after all be accused of giving their MPs hunger pains.   Only scandalmongers would say that bananas were a reference to the fact that by abandoning an electoral promise, the Parliamentarians had lowered the Republic to the level of a banana republic.

That being said, the process of cooling one’s heels in front of the Parliament building for hours, day after day, cannot necessarily be transposed to other countries.  That could lead to the collapse of the nation.  Because you would need to drum for 365 days.  Each year.  In front of parliaments, at the town, county, regional and national level.  Breaking electoral promises is therefore a well established problem in these countries.  What was the point of me chattering yesterday?  We take offence and fall into the same trap the next time. He who believes that apples never fall far from the tree is indeed a fool.

In a democracy, the servant chooses his master, and the fish decides on the head.  There is therefore not much point in poking fun at the master or the head.  Better consider the fish or the servant rather than the head of the master.  Those who want to become good citizens understand they must conform in time.

EU-gurk-Flagge-B2-150x150We therefore create structures in which the fundamental right of a cucumber to have a specific radius prevails over the right of every person to sell tasty cucumbers.  And soon we’ll have the idea that one thing cannot be bad in Europe if it is found to be good elsewhere.  In the event of an offence, the State is reminded of its duty: the explosive conclusions of a firm of lawyers has already been drafted and waiting in the drawers to be handed out the the MPs.  In the form in orders, with 9 digits before the decimal point.  People here, people there.  And now, it is no longer the noise of pan lids which affects the MPs to the bottom of their souls.  The magical phrase is therefore:  ‘Hello, this is Boston Legal! My client has a pebble in his shoe.  Do you want a lawsuit for damages? ’

Demo_9-150x150Isn’t there a pan lid just under the sink? Could it be that we have noticed rather too late that the human right ‘All humans are created equal’ is also used for purposes for which it was definitely not intended?  For example, people who hide behind the expression ‘free market’, are really interested in their bank balance and not their ‘rights’ at all.  Other than the right to infinitely increase their balance?  Indian rice farmers driven to bankruptcy in their villages fell into debt for something that until recently was a negligible cost: seeds.   And in a democracy, is it not the fish that chooses the head rather than the head that chooses the fish? Security perimeters here and there?

Let’s cook the fish! Here’s the lid … And now who wants some butter for the fish?

Translation: Jackie Dobble


Corps de frrésonance