There is a striking piece of graffiti on the wall of Asker station north of Oslo. There, in large green letters, you will find two words: ‘Mother F**k’.
And these are not my asterisks – the graffiti artist used them himself. Try to understand a culture which is so desperate not to harm, distress, offend or otherwise inconvenience anyone that even the teenagers spraying swearwords on the station walls try to make them less shocking. That’s Norway.
Norway: a nation of raw herring and recycling bins; of long winter nights and state-controlled alcohol monopolies; where the kids get their kicks by smoking during cello practice.
One young cellist I met in Oslo Central Station was telling me how tiring it was to practice hour after hour, day after day, and how difficult it was to relax after a hard day at the conservatory in the company of other musicians. Rather stuck for something to say, I shrugged and said: “Well, you could always score some smack and spike up.”
“Smack. You know, Heroin.”
“Oh no, I could never take heroin. That would be wrong.”
She smiled at me. I was forced to agree with her; and yet I could tell that there was no question of this sincere, pretty, dull young person actually disapproving of me. She accepted as a mere fact that I would unwind from cello practice with a big squirt of skag: if I had instead asserted that I enjoyed playing my trombone outside child murder trials or wanking off orang-utans, the reaction would have been the same.
In Norway, I learned, poor taste is never treated as immoral or even humorous, it is merely treated as poor taste. And yet not with any degree of revulsion, or even censure. Poor taste is tolerated in the same way that lesbianism and pipe-smoking are tolerated, with a kind of bland, uncritical equanimity.
The longer you spend in Norway, the stronger the impression that many Norwegians would actually like a heroin problem. Not for themselves, certainly. No self-respecting Norwegian would like to steal other people’s televisions for a living. But at a social level, in a way that would involve not too much vomit or septicaemia but plenty of horrifying statistics and government action plans, they would love a really bad heroin problem. An outlet for their compassion; a conduit for goodwill; something to do. And wanting a heroin problem, but manifestly lacking one, Norwegians are forced into a sad little subterfuge.
The cellist at the station urged me not to go outside with my bags. The exterior of Oslo Central Station, she assured me, was a quaking morass of homelessness and drugs and crime. So I went straight outside; it sounded interesting.
Before my arrival in Oslo, the cleanest, safest, most well-ordered city I’d ever seen was Hamburg. Hamburg is all right-angles and stainless steel, civil obedience and swept pavements. Yet even there, the outside of the main railway station serves as an exotic tableau vivant of junkies, whores, poo-stained drunks and dogs on strings: the clumsy failed bag-snatchings and half-hearted solicitings a welcome contrast to the Hanseatic opulence of the rest of town. There, at least, was failure and disorder, a reassuring touch of human weakness.
In Oslo: nothing. Outside the station: no junkies. No beggars. There was a man selling hot dogs, but he didn’t look homeless. Admittedly I didn’t ask – I didn’t like to. But to judge by the price of his sausages he could easily have had a nice duplex apartment in the city centre and a cabin on the coast.
And hence the subterfuge. Norwegians have to pretend they have social problems in order to be interesting. Ironic, considering that their biggest – a national addiction to strong drink – has survived all attempts to crush it. Punitive taxation, restrictive licensing, the control of all sales of wine and spirits by the national wine monopoly, have failed to stifle the Norwegian thirst.
Even the decor in the pretend Irish pubs – and you haven’t been in a pretend Irish pub until you’ve been in a Norwegian one – can’t dissuade them. If they want to get drunk they’ll do it, even if they have to look at a mural of James Joyce smoking a spliff with Bob Marley and the Pope.
For the visitor to Norway, the national battle with the demon drink has an unwelcome side-effect. Namely: the cost of a casual pint is breathtaking. In the Vinmonopolet the cheapest wine costs twice, perhaps three times as much as in the UK (and it’s piss). Whisky is sixty quid a bottle. So, as a tourist, you soon learn not to go out when you’re thirsty: like going to the supermarket when you’re starving hungry, it isn’t a good idea. But then the worst that can happen to an impulse shopper is that he comes home with six bags of pre-cooked cocktail sausages and no milk. Thirsty foreigners on the streets of Norway end up broke and not particularly drunk.
The natives drink at home (where it’s cheaper) making the practice invisible, like wife-beating or the harvesting of navel fluff. And because it’s invisible, concerned Norwegians have to find other social ills to wrestle with. Sometimes they are even forced to wish them into existence. Like traffic congestion. Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, has uniformly superb public transport and everyone uses it. I failed to see any congestion. But when it came to driving from my hotel – overlooking the old harbour – to the Newcastle ferry, I quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be as simple as that.
I could see the ferry from the hotel lobby. I could have hit it with a thrown herring. But in order to drive there I had to travel in the opposite direction, the wrong way around the very circumference of Bergen, on a one-way system designed to alleviate the weight of traffic in the town centre. A journey which would have taken ten minutes on foot took nearly half an hour – certainly once I’d got lost and had a row with my wife about whose fault it was – and this was with no other traffic on the road. Bergen’s one-way system, it struck me, is possibly the world’s only example of pretentious highway engineering.
And being pretentious doesn’t come easily to the average Norwegian. I mean it as no insult when I say that they lack the imagination to be properly pretentious. Virtues they have in plenty: intelligence, compassion, moral fibre, taste, modesty, patience, a sense of duty, hardiness in the face of danger. But imagination they have not – they are extremely literal-minded. A race not given to metaphor, poesy, or the contemplation of the infinite. And yet, considering the physical nature of their country, this really is remarkable.
Norway is strikingly, staggeringly, windpipe-knottingly beautiful. And not just the fjords, whose chocolate-box contrasts launched a thousand cruise liners, all full of old biddies wondering why it’s herring for breakfast again. The land beyond the crinkly coastline is vast, wild, rugged; walk a mile from any town and stand among the birch, the shaggy spruce, the weathered stones daubed with lichen, and you are seized by the sense that the glaciers have just left and you are walking on the first page of human history. The valley meadows, the high pasture are laid out as neolithic man would have found them; beyond the flowered uplands the broad-backed mountains break the horizon like hunting whales.
Travel north: enter the arctic across a high plain of powdered granite fringed with snow and try to remember what a city looks like. Stop at the northern cape, with Europe at your back and the waves at your feet, and peer out across the edge of the world. This is a land to which a Wordsworth or a Goethe might have done justice – because with no disrespect to the English Lakes, it makes Grasmere look like Stratford bus station.
Norwegians, however, like bus stations. They do them rather well. Lysaker bus station in the suburbs of Oslo is nothing special by Norwegian standards, but as I waited at the stand for a bus to Honefoss I was struck by the dry stone wall which enclosed it: all along one side, a hundred metres long, a sinuous silver-grey stack of flat shards, straight and hard but without a right angle anywhere; battered back against the embankment of the Oslo rail link in a million facets of rock. Then again: it was just a wall at a bus station.
Norwegians excel in the prosaic. They may have a boring answer to every interesting question (“Why does this valley produce such good goat’s cheese?” – “Because this is where the goats live”) but in the art of the everyday, they are accomplished masters. Buildings, roads, stoves cushions, knives and forks. Partly because their society is thoroughly bourgeois, and the homely world is the orbit of their ambition. Partly because they spend so much of their lives contending with the dark – a gloom which shadows the national psyche and elevates the value of domestic comfort.
They set store by craft, by design. Perhaps they have so much wilderness that they have to take refuge in artifice, the power of a man’s hand to shape the little patch of ground an arm’s length from his fireside. Or perhaps they have a more practical approach to natural beauty than the average Londoner, whose idea of open space is the bits between the dog shit on Peckham Rye Park.
They love their landscape. It’s crisscrossed with hiking trails in summer and cross-country ski tracks in winter.
They hunt; they fish; they climb; they use the land. It is a civilised approach to it, being practical, informed and unsentimental; yet it is strangely primitive, too. The animus of the Norwegian landscape resonates to Beowulf more than to the Lyrical Ballads. It is cold, troll-like; sunless, terrible, untamed, preying on the lost and the unready. In Norway, darkness and fear have always walked hand in hand – but both are exorcised