Notes on Oslo

Monday 6th October

The back left tyre on my Land Rover Defender was flat. When I changed the front left on Saturday evening I had congratulated myself that (a) I had done it with little fuss and (b) I would not have to repeat the experience anytime soon. But on Monday morning, as I stepped out of our back door holding my suitcase, the Defender, windjammer blue and beautiful in its honesty and simplicity, was listing in my driveway. True, I thought grimly, to the British soul, and to our uneven progress since WWII.

I had to be at Heathrow in 2 hours to catch a plane. There was nothing for it but to persuade my wife and children to abandon their breakfast and climb into our other car and for us to race up the village street towards Pewsey station, six miles away. But there, before we had even reached the village church, was our neighbour, preparing to make the same trip. I flagged him down. A transition was made, my suitcase squeezed into the back of his little Peugeot and my neighbour and I were off to catch the London train. The wind was blowing and rain was falling and as we crossed the bridge by Cuttenham Farm I felt grim and full of foreboding. At the station we discovered that our train had been cancelled, and the train before it and no doubt the one to follow (which was anyway not due for 2 hours). Signals had failed up the line.

We set off to Swindon, a forty minute drive via Marlborough, over the downs and across the M4. The Monday morning rain continued. The traffic crawled through Marlborough and down the hill to the roundabout over the M4. More rain fell. We sat in a jam outside the Great Western Hospital, where my daughter was born. More jams into Swindon, passed the poor brick housing and the worn grass verges, the peri-urban in between and then the grey matter of the town: an ugly vertical there, a water-stained concrete car park squatting here behind thin municipal trees, the road extending, rain-slick and turning between the brushed steel shoulders of an office block. All the shite and dither and muddled thinking of the post war British distilled into a few hectares of urban malfunction.

The signalling failure was located between Reading and Slough. Along platform 3 of Swindon station men and women who desired nothing more than free passage to the capital, in this country where the capital is insatiable and sucks in everything it wants, gathered in the cold waiting rooms, queued to buy coffee and sandwiches at Upper Crust. It was like waiting in the midnight lobby of an over-worked A&E hospital without the redemption of gentle nurses and pain relief. The delayed train arrived from Plymouth but there was no room to sit. At Reading I got off, moments before the train manager announced that the train had just been cancelled, and would not be travelling on to London. Passengers were advised to make their way to London Waterloo via Basingstoke. Standing on an escalator, descending from Reading station’s hideous new passenger bridge, I watched the train evacuate, and vast numbers of men and women begin to come after me (my neighbour reached Waterloo at 1 pm).

I scurried through the falling rain towards the ticket offices of, which runs coaches to Heathrow. Behind me the new terminal rose like a great blunt instrument in brutal lines of grey and Prussian blue, clumsily juxtapositioned against the proxy Georgian brick of the old station buildings. An advertising hoarding boasted that First Great Western was making the greatest investment in the railway since Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I just had time to buy a ticket to Heathrow. Inside the coach it was mercifully warm. We joined the M4, headed towards Heathrow.

Fly North East from London and with a decent tail wind you will be over Norway in less than two hours. There is time for some reading, a sandwich, a doze and suddenly you are dropping through cloud and there, below you, is the tip of a state which stretches 2,500 kilometres north into the Arctic Circle. Up here everything feels calmer, further from the mainstream, less connected. Here there is an absorption with nature, and staying on top of it, which puts everything else into perspective. In Norway the climate is too harsh to risk signal failure: if a train is marooned in winter people might die. In Britain they might get their shoes filthy walking through a farmer’s field. Filthy shoes and bad signals are the price you pay for a temperate climate which releases its inhabitants from environmental angst, and permits them to focus their energies on non-essential activities such as colonising distant lands, play-writing, financial engineering, medical research and political innovations such as privatisation (which if applied with the messianic determination of successive British governments since the 1980s lands you with, among many other things, a shambolic and under-invested railway system).

From the air you can see pine forest, lakes, a new road being built along a fjord, in the fields the white dots of silage rolls, pine built houses and barns in their own plots of land, their rooves – red and black – angled against the rain and snow. Before Oslo airport a rolling landscape of wooded hills, the autumn trees flecked with gold. Even close to its capital this is a land of trees and empty quarters, of silence and space and the cold is never far away. Outside London are dormitory towns and light pollution and roads clogged and over-crowded, elderly trains held in stations because of signal failure.

We are above the tree line then at tree top level then sinking fast below it and jolting on the tarmac, taxiing towards a terminal. Behind it more wooded hills. Taxiing away is a Qatar airlines jet, its pearl and purple livery incongruous in this northern place, on its tail a desert gazelle. Like Qatar, Norway is oil rich, and since 1990 she has built the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (called the Government Pension Fund Global or GPFG), currently valued at GBP£885bn, with holdings equivalent to roughly 2 per cent of every listed company in Europe[1].

Besides their shared dependence on fossil fuels, Norway is as different to Qatar as it is possible to imagine: democratic, fair-minded, down-to-earth (Qatar is none of these things). The GPFG is run by an arm of Norway’s Central Bank which must follow strict protocols to protect the Fund’s capital – for example, nothing can go into the GPFG unless the government’s annual budget is in surplus. “All our oil and gas revenue goes by law into that fund and the only thing we spend is the financial return from the fund” a former Norwegian Prime Minister told Americans in 2013. “So actually we spend zero oil and gas revenue. What we spend is the financial income from the fund – never the installments. In that way the fund can last forever.”[2]

The Qatar plane taxies past towards the desert kingdom; inside the sheikhs in first class are tucked under blankets sipping champagne. One day their oil and gas revenues will run out (their sovereign wealth fund is currently valued at USD$170bn  but I doubt they are only spending the interest) and they will be left with a cluster of eye-catching but disastrously high maintenance skyscrapers built between the sea and the burning desert, a large US military base and a furious population of indentured labourers stranded and desperate to see their families. But for now the sheikhs are fine, and enjoying the good times.

Many in Norway believe that the government should start paying out more from the GPFG. All of Norway’s political parties, even the ‘far right’ Progress Party (a populist anti-immigration party) is to the left of Obama, an Oslo-based client of my business tells me over dinner in a sushi restaurant. There is no lack of support for public spending programmes. Norway’s consensus is profoundly social democratic. My dining companion is proud that in Norway sexism has “disappeared”, and he argues that accepting refugees is supported by Norway’s 5 million people as the country’s “moral responsibility” to the rest of the world. But human societies are never simple, and wealth brings complexity. Driving me back to my hotel he tells me that most Norwegians disapprove of elite achievement. But they are a free-minded bunch and also dislike the idea of serving one another. If there is a problem, it is always the customer’s fault. I suggest this might be egalitarianism. He suggests a little bit of superiority. “So we get Swedes to serve us in our restaurants. Swedes are very service orientated.” He laughs; it amuses him that Sweden once ruled Norway, and “now the boot is a little bit on the other foot”. Go to Stockholm and you’ll hear the Swedes joke that Norwegians clock off at 4pm to count their money. And Norway’s school system sounds old fashioned, rooted in community life (obviously good) but less innovative than they might be (maybe not so good). They focus on the least able, neglecting the needs of the brightest, a parent complains.

Tuesday 7th October

Overnight the weather has turned. Oslo has enjoyed a mild September but this morning there is a stern wind blowing down Storgata. Walking into the city centre I am pre-occupied by the quality of the light (grey, like ground glass, or with powered snow mixed in). Is this the true colour of the north? Or the colour of the true north? If this lowering sky was over Kampala people would be preparing to run for shelter. But in Norway it is unremarkable. There are Roma on the pavements of Storgata, a shopping street and tram line which reminds me of Tottenham Court Road, pre-gentrification; a Roma woman sitting on a roll of carpet, too miserable even to beg, a little further on a family breaking bread, an old man shouting into a mobile phone, a Coke bottle half full with hooch pinched between his thighs. This is a migrant part of town, there are money transfer shops and travel agents advertising flights to Baghdad, Dhaka, Khartoum, Lagos and Cameron. Next, a store selling military gear, in the window a skull-faced mannequin posing with an imitation British Army SA-80 automatic rifle. Black Africans walk past me, tall and as visible as trees, their roots pulled out. Beyond the Cathedral, the stone-coloured water of the fjord. The pavements and the buildings are granite to withstand the cold, and to hold it in. Men and women walk by on their way to work, the trams slide by on their shining rails.

I have a business meeting in a deserted street near the Royal Palace. Afterwards I cross the street to a café. The black tarmac is littered with autumn leaves, pressed flat and banana yellow. The café smells of coffee and cinnamon. The Norwegians (whose national dish is fermented trout called Rakfisk) are smitten with both. How far these exotica have come, shipped from Africa to the world’s icy roof top. The souls of Norwegians, now passing into a long season of darkness, sing for sun-drenched Africa, hold their hands out to warm them a little in its glow.


In Eidsvoll Square a group of Kurds wave STOP ISIS placards outside Norway’s parliament, which is called the Storting (“the great council”). The black flags of Islamic State are this morning flying over the outskirts of Kobani, a small town on Syria’s border with Turkey presently defended by the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Kurds are heavily outnumbered and not expected to hold-out. Turkey had previously vowed to intervene in any attack on the town, and yesterday advanced its tanks towards the border. But they are now stalled inside Turkish territory; Ankara has lost its nerve. The US is trying to provide air cover but ISIS is pressing on. The Peshmerga, Obama’s boots on the ground in this particular battlefield, feel abandoned, and fear that they will be slaughtered.

On Karl Johanson Street is a discrete entrance into the Storting, leading to the public gallery overlooking the Chamber. Anyone is allowed to enter while the Storting is sitting, even me. Behind a sheet of glass stands a young guard wearing a blond beard and short-sleeved white shirt. Behind him a middle aged women in uniform sits knitting socks. The young guard takes my bag and the woman takes my coat. An older guard watches me through an x-ray and I am on the inside.

The scallop-shaped chamber is small, gilded and quiet. The President – dark suited, thin dark hair, diminutive, frowning – sits on a throne on a raised platform chair with an extra burgundy-coloured leather cushion for his comfort. The staging and furniture is Morwegian larch, with gilded edges. On the wall above his head is mounted Norway’s coat of arms: a lion rampant brandishing an axe in its two paws on a gold, crowned shield. Besides the President sits a Clerk – lots of white hair and a beard – also allowed an extra cushion, and in front a stenographer (no extra cushion). The President sits with his back to a large portrait commemorating the founding of Norwegian’s constitution in 1814. He faces Norway’s elected Representatives. Between the President and the Representatives spreads a cranberry-coloured carpet. Over this carpet a heavy chandelier. The Representatives sit in pairs or on their own, in rising tiers. Aisles aid access, and coming and going. The politicians sit not in party blocks but in alphabetical order, arranged by their constituency. It is not permitted for Representatives to barrack, or cheer, whoever is speaking, or even to stand at their desks. Behind the highest tier of Representatives rise clear windows looking out on to Parliament Square. Below these windows the Kurds are demonstrating but in the Chamber it is quiet. Norway cannot stop IS.

A Representative it speaking from a raised podium placed to the left of the President. The Storting is beginning its parliamentary year, and convention allows that each Representative is granted several minutes to share their priorities and concerns with their colleagues. Thus Norway in her remoteness, her farmers and her fishermen and loggers and oil men and the accountants and teachers and lawyers and shop-keepers and bus drivers and social workers and builders, every one heir to the GPFG and every one the GPFG’s guardian, come to the capital to speak. The fjords and mountains and the fields and the forests and towns and villages are heard – Norway’s faraway places are represented.

The President is a stickler for timekeeping: each speaker gets 5 minutes, a red light goes on with a minute to go and then the President stands, his arms folded and his eyes fixed upon the speaker and quickly they are gone.

I count 37 people (20 are women) in a Chamber designed for over 169. Of the 37 present, 23 are on their blackberries. The air is informal, consensual. A man without a tie takes to the podium. “Mr President” he begins. I can understand nothing else. While he is talking another man – young, bald, bearded, dressed in a tight blue suit – strolls across the cranberry carpert, whispers in a female Representative’s ear, and strolls away and out of the chamber

“I’m going to buy a cinnamon bun from Samson’s – fancy one?”

Is that what he says?

A women takes the podium. The politicians come and go. This is the theatre of democracy: the discussion, the attacks and the retreats, the competition, the winning and losing that has replaced conflict in democracies.

“It makes my blood boil! I am going to raise this on the floor of the Storting.”

It’s not difficult to spot the ambitious ones, the ones with talent. Most Representatives speak poorly but there are Young Turks and Grey Beards who get it, and know they are good. A bald old man, a senior figure in Norway’s Labour Party, warns about the government’s plans to curtail the unions, speaks through the red light and leaves the podium only after the President has been standing for a while. He returns slowly to his seat, shaking his head.

A sharp-looking young woman argues well and goes up and down a good deal and feels clever and knowing and sensible. The most valuable quality in a politician? Good judgement. Does she have it? I couldn’t tell you but she probably does. When she has sat down a handsome young man in a brown beard and a tan suit, white shirt and fashionably narrow brown tie sidles over and sits himself besides her in the vacant seat and putting an arm behind her back leans in to confide and congratulate and she leans in to him and in an otherwise slow day in the Chamber these two are suddenly a draw so one wonders what else they get up to and what’s the agenda and is it shared and are their constituencies close enough to make this practicable? She dips her head so he must get the smell of her hair and he is telling her something back, closing his fist and pulling it back and forth to make some point and all the while they both watch the new speaker at the podium – a weathered blond who reminds me of the hard-drinking journalist in Borgen. Then the young man goes, but halfway to the exit checks himself and comes back and leaning over her, now folds his friend into the warm protection of his suit jacket so that she must now smell him – his underarm, warm body smell. More banter, a plan, a smile, the he is gone and she is still smiling.

The sharp woman stays to watch her neighbour speak: an earnest older man in a grey shirt and purple tie. She stays and she watches attentively – he has value to her, she needs to pay her dues, and though by the time the man has finished she is on her feet at the back of the chamber, she waits until he is back at his desk and she can patter over and tap him gently on the shoulder to turn him, and have his attention and whisper something flattering. Then she too is gone.

[1] ‘Let’s talk about Norway’, by Andy Davis, Prospect Magazine (October 2014)

[2] Prime Minister Jens Soltenberg speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, ‘Avoiding the oil curse: the case of Norway’, (September 2013).

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