Friday, August 31, 2012 — Lutheran Cats


Reykjavik´s most promi­nent visual land­mark is the Halls­grim­skirkja named after Hall­grimur Peturs­son, a 17th cen­tury poet whose haunt­ing hymns I have record­ings of at home. It´s a twen­ti­eth cen­tury struc­ture, in con­crete, but it´s style so suc­cess­fully fuses mod­ern and gothic ele­ments that it has a “time­less” look. It is equally pleas­ing in the inte­rior. The statue in front of it is of Lei­fur Eiríks­son (Leif Eric­son). The res­i­den­tial streets around it have a pleas­ant jum­ble of old and new houses. Seri­ous, Lutheran-looking cats peer from the win­dows. Next to it, there’s a rather spooky lit­tle enclosed gar­den filled with the sculp­ture of Einar Jonns­son, and a museum devoted to him. His work might best be described as “heroic fan­tasy”. In this gar­den set­ting, it is quite enchant­ing. I don´t think it would look as good in the cold light of a gallery.

Einar Jonns­son sculp­ture garden

The houses in this neigh­bour­hood (the “101” postal code, made famil­iar in a movie title) has many of Reykjavik’s old­est houses, many with stern, Lutheran-looking cats peer­ing out their cur­tained win­dows. The older ones gen­er­ally mix well with the newer ones, since both have very sim­ple, un-ornamented styles. A few have some restrained gin­ger­bread. But one looked quite bizarre — a weird mix­ture of high Vic­to­rian gables, Ital­ianate porches and steps, and a bit of Hol­ly­wood vul­gar of the 1920s. It was aban­doned, boarded up, and decay­ing, some­thing entirely out of place in neat-and-tidy Ice­land. With a large yard, rusted gate, and a scrag­gle of semi-wild veg­e­ta­tion, it looked haunted. With ghosts trot­ting around Ice­land in great num­bers, you would expect it to pos­sess one. But when I asked an Islander who lived nearby who lived in it, she explained that it had been built by a rich eccen­tric long ago, then aban­doned, been owned by the city for a long time, then sold to a Nor­we­gian artist who let it run down fur­ther, then sold again to one of the Bank­boomers, who intended to ren­o­vate it. That brought it up to 2008, and of course, that prospect evap­o­rated in the crash. But no ghost. Count­less ghosts haunt­ing Ice­land, and none of them bright enough to install itself in a prime location.

Older houses in Reykjavik

I had two extemely pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sions with his­to­ri­ans at the Uni­ver­sity (Háskoli Islands).

Guð­mundur Half­da­nar­son is an affa­ble, imp­ish his­to­rian of the City of Reyk­javik, and he had all the facts I needed at his fin­ger­tips. His office is a hobbit-hole, stuffed not only with books, but with hun­dreds of mod­els, toy vikings, trolls and gnomes. A few min­utes in his com­pany put me at ease for meet­ing Ice­landic aca­d­e­mics. They seem to quite approach­able. I leaned that the town of Haf­nar­fjörður, just to the south, had been a can­di­date for the nation’s cap­i­tal until it was real­ized that the lava fields around it made it dif­fi­cult to get to by land (com­mu­ni­ca­tion by sea was still the Ice­landic norm at the time). But most of my ques­tions con­cerned munic­i­pal struc­ture and the divi­sion of pow­ers. There is no multi-tiered sys­tem of admin­is­tra­tion. May­ors in the past has sub­stan­tial direct pow­ers, and used them auto­crat­i­caly if they were so inclined. Only in recent decades has their power been curbed, and a greater dis­tinc­tion made between admin­is­tra­tive and polit­i­cal func­tions. Munic­i­pal pol­i­tics is party-based (unlike in Canada), but vot­ing pat­terns and loy­al­ties aren’t the same on the munic­i­pal and national lev­els. The national polit­i­cal par­ties could claim spe­cific towns as baili­wicks. How­ever, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Reyk­javik is a his­tor­i­cal anom­aly. Abruptly, after the finan­cial cri­sis, the angry vot­ers put in power a “joke party” com­posed of artists, bohemi­ans, and activists. The nation’s best-known come­dian is now the mayor — much to his own sur­prise. This group is now try­ing to face up to the prob­lem of run­ning a real gov­ern­ment. Any­one can imag­ine the kind of dis­as­ters that can hap­pen in this type of sit­u­a­tion, but no seri­ous ones seem yet to have devel­oped. They have been nei­ther dra­mat­i­cally suc­cess­ful nor unsuc­cess­ful so far, but they are widely per­ceived as a coterie pri­mar­ily inter­ested in the chic “101” neigh­bour­hood. We spoke of a num­ber of urban issues, but this, and the fact that the Dan­ish cul­tural influ­ence in the city’s his­tory has been over­stated in the books I’ve read are what I remem­ber most.

Eggert Thor Bern­hards­son is the head of the Depart­ment of His­tory and Phi­los­o­phy, and some­what more urbane and less imp­ish, but our talk was very long, and went into great depth. I found him fas­ci­nat­ing. He was able to describe in suc­cinct, evoca­tive phrases the social psy­chol­ogy that pre­ceded the finan­cial melt­down, and its sub­se­quent effects. His views con­firmed many of my guesses. He pointed out that the crash involved a gen­uine col­lapse of the country’s finan­cial insti­tu­tions, and this was the doing of gen­uine crooks, but the national finances were not par­tic­u­larly out of order at the time. The state had not run up great debts dur­ing the boom. The con­se­quences for most Ice­landers were not dire, and the present level of employ­ment is higher than most of Europe. Ice­landers still enjoy a high stan­dard of liv­ing, though their delu­sion that they had dis­cov­ered a money mill, like the Gods pos­sessed in the Vǫluspá, and many of their lux­u­ries have van­ished. Prob­lems cre­ated by a dis­as­trously deval­ued cur­rency remain, and their solu­tion is not obvi­ous. At the moment, a num­ber of promi­nent Islanders are propos­ing that the coun­try adopt the Cana­dian Dol­lar as its cur­rency. The party in power pins its hopes on the EU. Nei­ther of these strike me as par­tic­u­larly good ideas. Our dis­cus­sion ranged over wide fields in eco­nom­ics an his­tory, but focused on these points for the most part. The dis­cus­sion was exactly the sort of thing I came to Ice­land to experience.

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