At the baggage claim

I came to Norway four weeks ago, so it seems a timely moment to reflect on my experiences so far. One of the big issues that most people struggle with when arriving in a new place is the shock of adjusting to a new culture and a new way of doing things. It can be hard anywhere, but if some are to believed it is especially difficult in Norway.  No story perhaps captures the experience of moving to a new country like my very first experience here.

I landed in Oslo’s Gardermoen airport and had my first experience of Norwegian rule following while waiting at the baggage claim.  At the belt to collect our bags, I was eagerly eyeing the conveyor belt as it passed. I had just landed in a new country, and my girlfriend was waiting on the other side of the exit for me. It had been a few weeks since we had seen one another and now I was finally here. I was scanning the bags as they spun slowly past, getting ever more anxious for the bags from Dublin to be visible on the belt. I recognised around me many of the people who had been on the same flight. It was taking an inordinately long time for our bags to appear. Some were checking the oversized luggage belts and elsewhere, vainly hoping that the long wait was the cause of misdirection to the wrong bag belt rather than the loss of bags.

Eventually the bags started churning through, though not mine. With each revolution of the belt, I crept closer and closer to the conveyor belt, anxious and locked into position to snatch my bag up as soon as it was in my eye line. That’s when I got a tap on my shoulder. A tall, thin man in his 50s, pointed out that I had crossed the red line which, I now noticed, was painted all the way around the bag belt. It was about a foot out from the belt itself and was clearly meant to keep order and allow the maximum number of people access to the belt as bags were collected.

He pointed this out to me upon which I mustered a tired “I’m very sorry” and wanted to explain what a long day I’d had, that I had just moved country, and that my entire life was laying itself out in front of me, unknown, but surely full of such awkward encounters as these as I adjusted to my new home, and  the culture in which I found myself. “It’s ok”, he said, “it’s the system, and if the system is to work, we all have to follow it.” You can’t say fairer than that really. Any such things like queues or barriers physical or imagined, only work if we all accept the implicit rule and fairness that underlies them.

I apologised, stepped back to the correct side of the red bag belt line and that’s when I noticed something that this man, taller than me by a good foot, could hardly have failed to notice: I was not the only one in breach of the red line rule. In fact, more than half the people standing around, were on the wrong side of the red line. Everyone of course, in an airport, is anxious to leave. Either to get on a plane or get off. Waiting for your bags at an airport means you’ve arrived, but not quite. Baggage claim is the ultimate limbo. Get your bags quickly and your holiday, your new life, can start as quickly as you like. The longer the wait the greater the dread of the bags being lost, and if that happens, it will colour everything else to come.

While his point about the rules needing to be followed if everything was to run smoothly and efficiently was perfectly fair and correct,  the man’s problem with me in regard to the red line, however, was not that I had broken the rule. It was that I was the only one doing it in his immediate vicinity. His point about the system working for all was absolutely right but he was really annoyed at the fact that I was standing directly in front of him. To our immediate left and right there were people doing exactly the same as me.  Pointing my error out was, nonetheless, a quick crash course in the way Norwegians respect the rules of how things are done, and was as good an introduction to the country as I could have asked for. I’ve had a few moments of minor cultural breakdown since, but of all of them, this is the one after four weeks that has stuck in my mind. You never forget your first, whatever it might be!

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Banshee Issue 3: Autumn / Winter 2016

I’m delighted to say that I’m among many wonderful and talented folks who have work in the newest issue of Banshee magazine. My own poem is called Karlovo Namesti, a square in Prague with which I became very familiar while living there. Aside from myself, there’s non-fiction from Dylan Brennan, whose Blood Oranges from The Penny Dreadful is one of my favourite collections of poems by a young Irish writer in the last few years. There’s also new fiction from Deirdre Sullivan, and more poetry, fiction, flash, and non-  from a wide array of voices.

You can pre-order the issue for as little as €10 if you live in Ireland or Northern Ireland. It’s only a €2 more expensive for those living elsewhere.

I would strongly encourage you to support this magazine of new Irish writing, which is edited by three women who want to bring all that is best and vibrant about contemporary Irish writing to the fore. Click the link below for more:

Banshee Issue Three

Oslo Rådhuset

Since moving to Norway, each time I am in Oslo I am captivated by the extraordinary two-towered city hall, Oslo’s Rådhus. Today, while in the city centre, I finally went and took some photos of the Rådhus, to share.

The current city hall is of course far from the first. There were apparently several different town halls within Christiania (as Oslo was known from 1624-1924). The old town, hall now marked with a blue plaque, is at 7 Rådhusgata and shares a corner with Dronningens gate. It was town hall from 1641-1733, and is today the home of Den Norsk Forfattersforening (the Norwegian Authors’ Union).

The present city hall was designed by Arnstein Arneborg and Magnus Poulsson. Arneborg, as well as designing the Oslo city hall, also designed the interior of the UN Security Council in New York and the Viking Skipshuset on Bygdøy, which houses the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune viking ships. The idea for a new city hall on the waterfront at Pipervika came from Hieronymus Heyerdahl, and Arneborg and Poulsson’s functionalist design won the competition in 1918. However, it would take a long time before the Rådhus was completed. The foundation stone was laid in September of 1931, but the real work would not begin on the building until February 1933. Writing in 1948, Karen Larsen, in A History of Norway, noted that “the idea of functionalism was, of course, as old in Norway as her oldest log hut, but in its modern application this principle meant a break with all old forms, as every detail that had no utilitarian purpose was sloughed off… before long it was demonstrated, however, that the new materials, such as concrete, steel, and glass, lent themselves especially to large-scale buildings of substantial durability and real beauty.” These two qualities sum up neatly what is so powerful about Oslo’s Rådhus.

The building of the city hall from the waterfront necessitated the knocking of many older buildings, which were to be replaced by new office buildings surrounding the city hall which apparently went some way in financing the project. The second world war put a stop to the building but it was resumed after the war and finally was officially opened on 15 May 1950, to coincide with the city’s 900th anniversary.

Additions were made to the steps that ran down to the seafront in 1960 when several sculptures by Per Palle Storm were added, showing a variety of workers.

Another of Storm’s additions in the garden near the city hall was of a man drinking from a fountain, as you can see below.

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On the side away from the seafront at Fridtjof Nansen’s plass, there are also wooden carvings in large panels which take their inspiration from the Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson, including these two which show the Norns watering Yggdrasil – the tree of life in Norse mythology – and Embla (Elm), who along with Ask (Ash) was one of two tress given life by the Norse gods and who were the first people. These panels are the work of Dagfin Werenskiold:

There is also at present a metal sculpture which in honour Fridtjof Nansen, an arctic explorer and leader of the team that first crossed Greenland’s interior in 1888:

Oslo’s Rådhus is a functionalist building which thanks to additions speaks of Norway’s social democratic practices and its penchant for adventure and myth. It is an extraordinary piece of architecture and should be on any visitor’s list.

 

Reading History: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

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As with other posts in this series, I want to focus not on the book which made Frank McCourt so famous, but one of the books that the success of that book enabled him to write. Most people will have some passing familiarity with McCourt’s autobiographical memoir of his life in Limerick, Angela’s Ashes published in 1996. Many will know it, if not from the book, than certainly from the 1999 film adaptation by the same name.

Following the success of the book and the movie, McCourt produced two more books: ‘Tis: A memoir published the same year as the film came out and Teacher Man which followed in 2005. It is to the last of these three books to which I want to turn my attention.

I was young and impressionable when first reading this book, and was figuring out who or what I thought I might want to be. I was 17 when reading this, and it details McCourt’s life in the main around the time he was about 27, only ten years older than me. Now that I am roughly the same age as McCourt in Teacher Man and having, in no small part I think having settled on becoming a teacher of sorts myself because of reading this book, I find it even funnier than when I first read it.

As anyone who tries to write a memoir, but who is, by the normal measure of things, no one particularly important, McCourt manages to make himself his greatest subject. Indeed, so compulsive is his need to tell his story that he is scolded for this very act by a mother at a parent teacher meeting:

See? she said. That’s what I mean. I ask you a simple question an’ you give me the story of your life. That’s what you wanna watch, Mr McCurd. These kids don’t need to know the life story of every teacher in the school. I went to the nuns. They wouldn’t give you the time of day.

The book is especially interesting now, as I say, for having stood in front of classes of people and tried to teach them. Although the bulk of my experience has been in college, teaching first and second year history students doesn’t strike me in some certain fundamentals as being all that different from what McCourt, and other teacher friends I know, have experienced. The book is divided into three parts and the first part ‘It’s A Long Road to Pedagogy’ details McCourt’s early years as a teacher figuring out how to deal with all the things that the pedagogists fail to teach about:

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

McCourt worked for thirty years teaching English, a long time when contrasted with his four years of education training at NYU. Like most teachers, he acknowledges that theory and philosophies of education are important, but they don’t teach you everything. I have tutored and lectured in university and taught English as a foreign and second language to adults. Knowing, understanding and using pedagogical theory is important and ought not to be dismissed but McCourt knows, like many experienced teachers, that classroom management is the key. He also knows that you are more than merely a teacher. While he writes that “Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning. And you call yourself a teacher?”, he goes on to say that

I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown,  a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool,  a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

He is both hopeful and cynical about the profession of teaching. Sometimes he clearly hates the place and the job. “There are days I’d love to walk out of here, slam the door behind me, tell the principal to shove this job up his arse, head down the hill to the ferry, sail to Manhattan, walk the streets…” This is what is best about this book. It is as good a memoir of the business of teaching as I’ve come across. It is honest, and it is at times absolutely hilarious. While I’m sure it’s message left some bearing on me when first reading it, re-reading it a decade or so later, I recognise far more in it than I did, or could have then. Perhaps one of its key values of reading it at a young age was that it gave some insight into how the teacher looked at us while we were still in school. It also helped me to grasp the idea that teachers were people too. Human, all too human, very often. But as McCourt notes himself

Facing dozens of teenagers every day brings you down to earth. At eight a.m. they don’t care how you feel… There they are and there you are with your headache, your indigestion, echoes of your last quarrel with your spouse, lover, landlord… You couldn’t sleep last night… They’re looking at you. You cannot hide.  They’re waiting. What are we doing today, teacher? The paragraph?

Teaching isn’t easy. And there’s no glory, and certainly no money in it. And there’s a lot less time off than people think. Teaching is bloody hard work. And McCourt’s book captures its highs, lows and its doldrums with  great style and flair, with real wit and a deep understanding of what makes teachers, students, principals and parents tick.

In defense of the Rose of Tralee poem

The Rose of Tralee was on this week, and caused not a little stir for a number of good and bad reasons. Two of the main causes were the commendable efforts of the Sydney Rose to raise an issue that is fundamental to women in Ireland: the need to have a referndum on (and hopefully see the repeal of) the 8th amendment to our constitution. There was also the ill-judged and utterly failed attempt by Fathers for Justice to hijack the event briefly. The competition, like almost all beauty contests of one shade or another, ismore or less completely out of whack with contemporary progress views of what it means to be a woman, and to be valued as one. There are people (chiefly women) who are far more qualified to offer their take on the Rose of Tralee as something that enforces gender stereotyping. Which it definitely does. Why else would it have been caricatured twenty years ago in Fr. Ted as The Lovely Girls Competition? But that’s not what I want to write about in this post.

Rather, I want to offer a very brief defense of the poem as party piece in the competition. First and foremost, it needs to be said that I can rarely recall a poem I heard recited at the Rose of Tralee contest over the years that could be by any objective measure of the form be considered good. Most poems would be filed under what is known as doggerel. But that’s okay because, while the poems were rarely up to much,  I heard plenty of good recitations of bad poems. The take-away for me is this: I heard poems. On a show that was such a part of Ireland’s own bizarre culture of packaged Irishness for the diaspora that is watched by hundreds of thousands, presumably millions, of people annually for more than 60 years, I heard poetry. I can think of few places where one did not have to go and actively seek the poetry that might be found on the airwaves of RTE – on obscure radio and tv programmes. Or at state funerals. Poetry as part of the competition surely has some role in normalising the hearing of it. Sure, I wish the standard of poetry was better. And while many will no doubt object that no poetry is better than too much bad poetry for you, I’m not so sure.

As talents go, reciting a poorly crafted poem is no better or worse than doing a “hip hop dance” – surely that should be breakdancing, and that Rose the other night was not breakdancing – or rapping. After all poetry and rap are cousins. And as for making a breakfast roll… If getting rid of poetry is an attempt to make this contest seem more in touch with the yoof, well then, the contest hardly grasps its main demographic – i.e. the one that doesn’t hate tweet it live or watch it with dollops of irony. Basically, getting rid of the poem as part piece probably doesn’t do anything to speed up the show, nor make it more attractive.  Modernity would be more of what the Sydney Rose offered, not less poems with an abab rhyme.

 

Robinson Crusoe på norsk: week one

Well, I’ve finished, just about, the first chapter of this translation of Robinson Crusoe and so far I’ve recorded around 60 phrases or words, the meanings of which I was unsure of. This is quite a lot but it is at least in part because of the fact that a lot of the vocabulary revolves around ships and sailing.

To briefly synopsise the first chapter, we have Robinson at home being told by his father that he doesn’t want to be abandoned by his son, Robinson breaking of the promise to go to Hull, and joining a friend of his on his friend’s father ship. They encounter a storm which they weather, and are then hit by a second storm whereupon they are rescued brought back to shore, Robinson doesn’t want to return to his parents, and so goes off making money and learning how to be a seafarer with the captain of another ship. With this same captain he heads for the Canaries before being way-laid by Pirates and ends up a slave in Morocco

Of course central to the whole book is the ship and the loss of several. So as words go, it comes up very frequently in this opening chapter. But the word used here for ship is not the one I know for ship in Norwegian.  Although skip is the standard term for a ship in Norwegian, this book uses skute or skuta. So why the difference?

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Is it båd, is it a skip? No, it’s a skute!

Cappelen’s Store Engelsk Ordbook, notes skip as the first entry, but says that to “desert a sinking ship” is forlate en synkende skute. This doesn’t offer much in the way of help. Happily, the blå ordbok from 2012 notes that skute is a “ship (especially in reference to windjammers), vessel or a craft.” While Robinson Crusoe takes place in the 17th century, long before windjammers existed, evidently given that the ship which he is aboard is a big sailing vessel – what might be know familiar to people as a tall ship – the term is more appropriate maybe than the more standard skip. Certainly it is no mere båd.

As a result of this heavily nautical opening chapter I also now know that “så de måtte reve seilene” means they “had to reef the sails”,”mannskapet” is crew, “kahytt” is cabin, a landgrubber is a “landekrabb”, and “every man had to pump [water]” is “Alle mann måtte til pumpene”. I also know that the word for pirate is “sjørøver” which translates literally as “sea robber”. A pirate ship is “sjørøverskuta”. All dead handy for when I begin my sailing career.

 

The Desirability of Emigration

In today’s Irish Times, as part of their ongoing Generation Emigration section, they noted that despite many improvements in Ireland’s economy “emigration is still a desirable option among Irish people, with 31,800 moving abroad in the period”. The article goes on to point out that just one in 10 emigrants was unemployed before leaving. As such, it is suggested that “they may be departing for the experience of living abroad, or because they are unhappy with their current job situation in Ireland.” But what does all this really mean?

First I want to address the fact that only one in ten people who emigrated in the period were unemployed. Emigration isn’t cheap today and it wasn’t in the past either. While in the past people boarded steamers in a variety of classes, the cost was not cheap and while we may have lots of cheap flights to lots of destinations, until you try to put your life into a 20kg bag and move to another country, you won’t realise how hard it is to do and how costly it can be. In addition to the cost of getting there, setting up in a new country is expensive. If you are going to go without work already secured, you need to have some savings behind you. Even if you go with a job contract in your back pocket, you’ll have to find an apartment to rent, take time out from your job to register with the local police, probably buy a local phone, whether pay as you go or bill. None of this stuff is cheap. It’s also terrifying, interacting with a new culture, possibly a new language, knowing few if any people, and trying to navigate the culture shock.

Emigrating is not going on an extended J1 visa. It’s real life. And it can be absolutely dread inducing. Absolutely yes, the experience gained living abroad is invaluable and the more people who get to do it,the better. You have to learn to embrace  your new situation but that takes time. It can be exhausting putting yourself out there and meeting new people, people you can’t be sure if they’ll be passing acquaintances or lifelong friends. Being an emigrant – even an educated, adaptable and positive one – can be hard.

For many going away, coming home isn’t the end goal, may not in fact be desirable. It’s easier now to come home than it used to be, but as the Generation Emigration series has shown in many of the individual stories that have been told, often those who stay away for a few years find it harder and harder to envision actually coming back. Because then you are dealing with reverse culture shock.

Now, to turn to dissatisfaction with a person’s job situation in Ireland. I know plenty of people with good, fulfilling jobs in Ireland. But I know plenty of people whose jobs don’t even pay well, nevermind offer any kind of satisfaction. And even if they do pay okay, how are they meant to keep up with the kind of rent increases we are seeing, where in Cork it has risen by 18%. Dublin , as we all know, is a nightmare. This is the net effect of too much concentration of new business only in those cities. Many other places are lagging far behind in terms of recovery. We can’t and shouldn’t all have to live in Cork or Dublin.

No one is likely to forget the cynical appropriation last Christmas by the then-Government in Ireland of the #hometovote hashtag related to the Marriage Equality referendum. They turned in to #hometowork but as we know, there aren’t jobs for the hundreds and thousands to come home to. The return of that many en masse would constitute a crisis for the country. The new Minister for the Diaspora admitted himself that some qualified graduates were more equal than others, after all. In an article back in June, the Irish Times noted:

Identifying opportunities in the science and engineering sectors, Mr McHugh said that while Ireland required people with these skills, it would be wrong to suggest there were jobs for all emigrants. That situation may change as the economy recovers and services are developed, but it is likely to be a slow process.

To give some credit to today’s Irish Times article they do quote Marie-Claire McAleer who works as head researcher for the National Youth Council of Ireland. McAleer says  that “young people would continue to leave in high numbers if issues such as high living costs and insecure working conditions are not addressed.”

Most people I know can’t afford the deposit on a house to get  a mortgage, and things like car insurance is still insanely overpriced for the young in Ireland. We are, in almost all the markers of progress through adult life, priced out. Wages in Ireland do not reflect the cost of living there. That’s the simple truth. So imagine being in your 20s, educated, qualified and with some work experience behind you and being offered a more secure better paying job elsewhere. Why wouldn’t you go?

 

The Wrestler: the disposable bodies and lives of athletes

As a young boy and teenager, I loved Friday night. It meant WWF (later, and now WWE) Raw on Sky Sports. Popcorn and Coke. Two and a bit hours, sometimes three, of bigger-than-life characters, crazy fights and crazier storylines. Heels, faces, turns. It was an entire world unto itself and I loved every second of it for years. I had wrestling actions figures, even had the SmackDown! ring as a toy. I bought the wrestling magazines. The videos. Got my parents to pay for the pay-per-view events, set the VCR to record in the middle of the night to have it watch later in the week.

My favourite wrestling characters were The Undertaker (although I was terrified of him as a child, I loved his transformation into the American Badass), The Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Jake The Snake Roberts, and Mick Foley in his many and varied guises. I remember viscerally hating Chris Jericho, Triple H and a host of others. I watched so much wrestling as a kid, I remember figuring out that the guy who used to go by The 1-2-3 Kid became X-Pac. It was a first clue to the gap between the wrestlers and the characters they assumed.

Professional wrestling taught me a lot about what it means to play a role, a character, about the extremes of personality. It also taught me that commentary tables were very shoddily made. It taught me a little bit about breaking the fourth wall before I ever even knew there was such an idea. One of the watershed moments for any wrestling fan of my generation I think must have been the death of Bret Hart’s brother Owen, during a botched stunt during a live pay-per-view event in 1999. I remember the buzz in the playground at primary school that week. I can remember conversations about whether it too was real or fake. It was of course, all too real. Wrestling, for all that it was fake, we learned, still needed real people and real bodies to perform and their performances were physical, athletic, and demanding.

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1999 documentary that looked at life outside the ring.

What brought home the reality of wrestling to me most  though was the documentary Beyond the Mat, released in 1999. Following Terry Funk, Mick Foley and Jake The Snake Roberts in particular, the film, though far from perfect was at the time eye-opening for an 11-year old. It showed what a deeply unglamorous business wrestling could be for the majority of practitioners. It also showed that while fame, and fleeting fortune, could be part of the professional wrestling game, for many it was a worklife with no seeming end in sight.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mickey Rourke in a scene from 2008 film The Wrestler.

I was reminded of all these things over the weekend when, amidst Olympics fatigue, I finally sat down to watch the 2008 film that revived Mickey Rourke’s acting career: The Wrestler. Although the character took a deal of inspiration from Mick Foley, his story parallels moreso that of Terry Funk in Beyond the Mat since Rourke’s character The Ram is in his early 50s and despite a beat-up body, apparently unable to retire – neither wanting to give up the fading reflected glory of his own past nor being financially able.

A deeply sad film in many ways, it is also a moving account of the way in which sporting glory can fade quickly. Perhaps the most depressing scene is that in the American Legion hall where there is a near empty meet and greet with fellow ex-professional wrestlers, many carrying injuries which might seem more appropriate to war veterans.

The Will Smith-starring Concussion, released last year, tells the story of Dr Bennet Omalu and his fight against America’s National Football League in their attempts to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. The film opens with the death in 2002 of Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, whose life after playing was plagued by physical and mental health problems lived out of his pick-up truck. In many ways, it is a real-life example of what The Wrestler explores.

Criticizing this aspect of our professional sporting culture is not so new, in the movies or via other media. In the past, however, it was the lives of boxers which tended to be examined most closely. Films like recent efforts from Cinderella Man or The Fighter and classics like Raging Bull ask us many questions about the impact of sport and violence on people’s lives and the lives of those around them. Songs like Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore? or Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer do much the same.  Books like War, Baby: The Glamour of Violence which tells the story of the Nigel Benn and Gerald McClelland fight which left McClelland all but brain dead, and Allyson Pollock’s Tackling Rugby which presents strong arguments for understanding rugby injuries endured at school as a public health issue, all add to the growing body of work that shows that after the career ends, and after the money dries up, and the fame and glory fade, sport can leave behind in its wake discarded and damaged bodies and minds.

One of the interesting developments I remember when watching professional wrestling was the emergence of mixed martial arts  (MMA) fighters first like Ken Shamrock – who came to professional wrestling after a successful career with UFC  – and later Brock Lesnar who would swing back and forth between the two worlds. Although there is still huge money in professional boxing, MMA is increasingly popular, with UFC the biggest promotion with Forbes reporting a profit of close to $158 million. World Wrestling Entertainment (as the WWF is now known), had a profit last year of $24.14 million. While the WWE now apparently helps any former employees fighting substance addiction, the UFC is increasingly under fire for where it leaves its fighters in retirement, with the Chris Leben story in 2014 being a perfect example of this. While a certain amount of the themes are dealt with in the 2011 film Warrior starring Tom Hardy, this film is a far cry from The Wrestler but it seems that in the coming years it will be UFC fighters who are the focus of filmmakers who want to understand the lure of the limelight and the violence of sport.

 

Takk for maten: Norway’s food

Michael Pollan, in the introduction to his book Cooked (which also inspired the Netflix show) writes that ‘Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place.’ That ritualisation, that invented tradition – of dinnertime, of the family meal , its romantic and platonic equivalents – is central in some way to who we are as people. Certainly, it is a mark of a particular kind of modernity. Cooking, some have argued, is the key to our being human. Claude Levi-Strauss as far back as 1964 argued in  that it was cooking which ‘establishes the difference btween animals and people.’ Richard Wrangham in his study, Catching Fire , writes ‘around that fire we became tamer.’ The idea of a group sharing a hearth from which sustenance comes is a seductive one.

Sharing meals with friends and families has become a defining marker of sociability, social status and indeed social capital. Eating alone is considered a sad enterprise, though it need not always be, of course. Sometimes eating alone can be a pleasurable experience, even having the sense of the transgressive about it. In his comical but accurate The Social Guidebook to Norway, Julien S. Bourrelle writes that ‘They also eat alone / You do not need to talk / And it is a practical and efficient way to feed oneself quickly / You can then go home early / Or go training / alone’. Such glib humour has a ring of the true about it, but, so far at least, my experiences of Norwegian food culture have been in some respects highly communal.

Not only communal, but as so many food cultures, deeply rooted in both land and sea. In the 1981 book Norsk Mat the opening lines are:

den gamle norsk matkultur er sprunget fram av selvforsyningsprinsippet, og ble bestemt av den tilgang av matemner som landsdelen og garden kunne gi.

The old Norwegian food culture springs from the prinicple of self-sufficiency, and was determined by the food sources a region and garden could provide.

In the first chapter, ‘Norsk Matskikk’, ‘Norwegian food practices’, Hilmar Stigum notes that

Historien om norsk mat gir oss variert bilde med lysog og skyggesider. Vårt folk har spist den mat de hadde. Det falt ikke alltid sammen med hva de hadde mest lyst på, og maten innholdt ikke alltid de ingredienser som kroppen trengte. Det er en historie om fylte stabbur med kornbinger som innholdt så mye korn at det ville vare for flere år  fremover, og med rekker av delvis gulnede fleskeskinker  som var en følge  av overskuddet fra tidligere år. På mindre gårder var stubberene ikke fullt så innholdsrike , men oftest så fulle at innholdte ville rekke til nest års avling ble bragt i hus. Endelig får vi husmenn og småkårsfolk hvor forrådet ofte lå i underkant av det nødvendige  og some til tider var helt utilstrekkelig. Vi får også  høre om uår  flere år  på rad så katastrofale følger at det gjør  ondt å lese om det.

The story of Norwegian food gives us varied picture with light and shade. Our people ate what they had. It was not always what they wanted, and the food did not always have the ingredients that the body needed. It is a story about overflowing storehouses with grain bins that contained so much grain that it would last for several years, and with rows of partly yellowed pork hams which was the result of profits from previous years. On smaller farms the grain bins were not quite so rich, but often so full tthat next year’s crop was brought in house. Finally we get crofters and common people whose nourishment was just on the line and some at times was totally inadequate. We’ll also hear about crop failure for several years so catastrophic that it does evil just to read about it.

In a harsh landscape that was often far from suitable to farming, people eked out a subsistence living. As Karen Larsen’s A History of Norway notes of the mid-18th century:

Thousands of crofters were settled on the outlying parts of the larger farms, and they with their families cleared large stretches of land… Their lot was poverty and endless toil, often for hard masters and without economic security…

While a law to improve their lot was passed in 1750, itt is no wonder perhaps that in the coming century, some 800,000 Norwegians should begin to emigrate to the United States. And it is also perhaps, no wonder either, that Norway’s most famous novel by it’s most famous novelist, Knut Hamsun, should be called Sult (Hunger). The hunger of Hamsun’s character is both intellectual and physical and forms part of the long standing tradition of the flaneur wandering the streets hungry for many things. So feast and famine, hunger and fullness are part of the Norwegian food culture.

In every age however, food was shaped by outside as well interior forces. Larsen writes of the Viking age that ‘new vegetables, such as turnips and cabbage, were introduced from the British Isles and also new breeds of stock. The Norwegians also learned better methods of agriculture, which the English, and Irish had inherited from the Romans.’

lutefisk
The gelatinous, lye-soaked lutefisk is much improved by the addition of fried bacon and grease. A shot of aquavit also helps!

Fish of course was central not alone to subsistence and survival but also to commerce. Larsen again notes that for Bergen ‘more important [than iron mining] was the wealth of herring and cod [in the 17th century]. Nor was the salmon fishing in the many streams by any means negligible. The schools of herring came and went in the most unaccountable way, a gift of God in a special sense, it was felt, which might be withdrawn at any time as a punishment for sin.’ This fear of the potential dearth in the cold northern lands is perhaps at least a partial explanation for the practical methods of preservation that are such a mark of Norwegian fish eating – from the lye soaked cod or burbot of lutefisk and the fermented trout or char that makes up rakfisk. Nothing is wasted.

chanterelles-1341436_960_720.jpg
Chanterelle mushrooms, a firm favourite in Norway.

Picking berries and mushrooms from the wild growth of the vast forests is still very much a part of Norwegian eating. We are entering mushroom season, and so popular is it that in some places, at car parks near forests where people begin their hikes in search of mushrooms there is even a Soppkontroll (Mushroom Control). These volunteers advise people on their return of whether or not the mushrooms they have picked are safe for eating or poisonous. There are also plenty of ripe berries to be picked – cloudberries (moltebær), blueberries and something very unusual: markbær, a wild berry that is for all the world a tiny strawberry that tastes sweet and grows wild only for a short time. Self-sufficiency is still very much a part of the culture of food here.

A country’s food culture is a vital part of getting to know it. If cooking, and the rituals that spring up around the meal, are indeed what helps to make us human, then getting to know a country’s food culture is an excellent way to get to the heart of the place.

 

 

 

Reading History: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

My first encounter with Tony Judt was brought about by my sister. One year for Christmas, I was given a book that, thrown at a person’s head and striking it with its full weight and the right angle, could probably knock them clean out. I mean of course Judt’s magnificent doorstop history of Europe from the end of the Second World War, PostwarPostwar, like all of Judt’s books, like any historian’s work indeed, is not above reproach. For many, Judt’s apostasy around the new left is particularly troubling, especially in his treatment of the various revolutions on either side of the Iron Curtain in 1968. Nonetheless, Postwar stands as a magnificent history of Europe after the end of the war. It is, in my view, as essential a  book of reference on the second half of the twentieth century as Hobsbawm’sThe Age of Extremes. But that is the not the book I want to use in this next post in my Reading History series as my jumping off point. Instead, I want to look at one of Judt’s last books instead – Ill Fares the Land.

ill fares the land

I began to really fully encounter the writing of Tony Judt just as his body was giving up on him. I was recommended the first book through which he challenges his illness: The Memory Chalet. This was followed up by Ill Fares the Land and Thinking the Twentieth Century, co-written with Timothy Snyder, chiefly famous for his history of post-Second World War eastern europe, Bloodlands. The last book to emerge from Judt – posthumously – was When the Facts Change. All of these later books, the last being a kind of collected essays, exhibited what I think is best about Judt’s writing style – the ability to mix the personal, political and the historical with clean, intelligent – but only rarely simplifying – prose. While The Memory Chalet is surely the most affecting of these four books, and Thinking the Twentieth Century the most intellectually engaging, I think that Ill Fares the Land may be the most useful, and the most important.

It is, in the words of one (of two) ungenerous Daily Telegraph reviewer’s words a cri de couer. The implication being in the review that such a cry from the heart is an irrational one: that the cold hard truths of the market are still a better guide to how to change and shape human life than the ideas which underpin social democracies. Another reviewer of the book at the time of it’s publication was scathing of the ‘trente glorieuses’ which are at the heart of Judt’s lament, the same ‘trente glorieuses’ which allowed Judt and many others born in the wake of the Second World War to achieve a great deal. This reviewer, writing for the Indpendent says that:

were the three post-war decades so glorious? There were wars galore. Europeans in east or Mediterranean nations lived under tyranny. There was more equality between workers and the middle classes but only for a limited number of men. Women, gays, immigrants benefited little from the patriarchal, trade-union, Fabian world that Judt so admires. In fact, in this book every quote is from a dead white English-writing male.

That may well be the case; but, as the world looks at the (limited though frighteningly real) prospect of a Trump presidency, Brexit, a continually resurgent right around Europe and a backlash against refugees in the wake of the war tearing Syria apart and the increased violent attacks in Europe from Brussels, to Paris, Nice and around Germany, for all its faults the kind of social democracy which is vaunted in Ill Fares the Land seems much preferable to the race to the bottom that has characterised the world not alone since 1979 but especially 2008. Judt notes in the book that ‘distant upheavals with disruptive local impact… are the threats chauvinist politicians will be best placed to exploit, precisely because they lead so readily to anger and humiliation.’ This follows a brief discussion of Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential bid in 2008, which 8 years on, seems the thin end of the wedge.

Undoubtedly the world from 1945-1975 or so tended to favour the white, hetro male but it is on the back of identity politics for women, LGBTQ people and more besides that first emerged in those decades that have provided the few good news stories of the past 10 years or more in terms of social progress. We are far from perfect, but I’ll take the vision of the world which Judt offers – and in truth this isn’t just nostalgia mongering – than that offered by any of the various demagogues currently flaunting their wares in Europe and America. He knew himself it was no panacaea writing ‘Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past.’

Writing almost aphoristically at times, it is nonetheless difficult to disagree with Judt when he notes for instance that ‘the discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world’. One of the most impassioned sections – and one of the best arguments ever against the excesses of privatisation of a public good – relates to trains. He writes that

If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself.

The merits of the book on the whole outweigh its negatives for me and were a powerful example to me as a PhD student that a historian is allowed also to engage with the present as well as the past.