A Response To Anthony Browne And The Telegraph

It has been heartwarming to see and hear the outpour of sympathy and solidarity with us Norwegians following the 22 July attacks in Oslo and Utøya, from Britain and around the world.

Though I reacted with shock reading Anthony Browne’s piece in the Telegraph, titled «This tradegy marks the end of Norway’s innocense». First he describes Norway – his mother’s home country – as an idyllic place. Fairytale-like “where King Harald rides proudly rides the tram with his subjects”. Well, I remember a photo of  his father, King Olav, ride the Oslo tram during the oil crisis 1973. If ordinary citizens couldn’t use their cars to their Sunday skiing excursion, he shouldn’t either.

The photo turned out to be staged.

“Crime is low people often don’t lock their doors”.

Well, they do where I live.

Norway is not a fairytale land, unlike what Mr Browne likes to think. It is a one of the most modern and developed countries in the world. Our problems aren’t that different from those found in other Western nations.

“Yet as the attacks show, the country has a dark side. Norwegians have, until very recently, had very little contact with the outside world – they couldn’t afford to travel, and no one went to visit”, Browne writes, and describes Norwegians as inward-looking and insular.

Very little contact with the outside world? When Brits were still – pardon the obvious exaggeration – trying to find a way out of their caves, we were highly skilled boat craftsmen, sailing to the middle east, founding colonies in Normandy, the British Isles, Iceland and Greenland. The Normans –  yep the very same word Norwegians use to describe themselves today (nordmann, meaning “man of the north”) – later conquered England and became the ruling class.

Oh, I almost forgot. We even discovered America. Over a thousand years ago.

Only Ireland sent more immigrants per capita to America than Norway. Many returned, like my grandfather who emigrated to Canada in the 1920s and later came back. After the war, Norway¨s merchant fleet was the biggest in the world, yet we don’t brag about “ruling the waves”, where thousands of working class Norwegians got a chance to travel the world.

Since, Norwegians have travelled abroad – thousands every year – to study. Check with the head of admissions at Strathclyde University in Glasgow for example. Or Humboldt in Berlin. Or Grittith in Brisbane/Gold Coast.

In my group og high school mates who “used to meet every Friday” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Weller) of twelve people only two did not attend university or spend a high school year abroad. I went to uni in Germany. My sister got her Bachelor’s in Chichester, and has lived extensively in Barcelona. My wife lived four years in Birmingham, attending Birmingham College of Food , Tourism and Creative Studies.  A time spent enjoying the multinational student fraternity, the vibrant nightlife, the balti houses that make my mouth water when even writing it.  The two of us met whilst working in Ireland.

Sound like inward-looking folk to you?

All around the world people have been touched these last few days by eyewitness accounts by the Utøya survivors. The Norwegian youth have given well-articulated interviews to the international press in English – a foreign language – that average Brits in the same age group could dream of.

Brits go on holiday to Spain, not even bothering to look up the Spanish translation for “beans  on toast, please mate”. David Beckham spent years in Spain and don’t command basic Spanish. He even sent his children to English schools, denying them the gift of a free second language and making them citizens of the world. Why? Because there isn’t a Spanish equivalent for “beans on toast, please mate”, so learning Spanish is pointless?

Now that is insularity.

“Only in Norway have I heard someone order a taxi and request that the driver is white. News reports can display an unwitting racism that is shocking to British ears”, Browne writes.

True, working as a taxi driver I often heard “at last, a Norwgian driver”. Uneasy, I changed the subject. Though, I don’t know how British or how sensitive Mr Browne’s ears are. From British expats in Norway (there’s quite a few in my area) I was asked for my phone number, so they could contact me directly as they were “sick of being ferried around by Pakis”.

Maybe it’s taxi drivers in Britain that are racist, rather than the taxi passengers? On a ride from Central London to Harrow-On-The-Hill I had to sit through a tirade of racist comments. And pay for the pleasure too. I just couldn’t resist a “go easy on them blacks, eh mate” as I shut the black cab door.

I am in Spain on holiday at the moment. We have plans to refurbish my father’s holiday apartment. My wife went to the local kitchen supplier, run by an Englishman. Finding out her country of origin he said: “Not many blacks there. That’s why I left England. Too many immigrants”. And with those words he lost a kitchen job worth around 3000 euro.

Or a few years ago I Amsterdam I befriended a group from Barnsley. A fun lot, I thought. Until the “hold on to your wallets, lads” was delivered with laughs every time a black person walked past.

As a massive football fan I have travelled around Europe to watch the game I love, both following the Norwegian national team and watching club games. Never have I heard Norwegian supporters sing that a rival club “on the way to Auschwitz, Hitler’s gonna gas’em again” (I am after all a Chelsea fan). Nor have I heard supporters of the Norway team shout anything resembling “I’d rather be a Paki than a Kraut”, the England fans’ soundtrack of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

It strikes me how tolerant London is. Wherever I go – post office, pub or restaurant – I as a foreigner will have a better command of English than the England-residing person who is serving me. Londoners never seem bothered by this. The sights such as Parliament, The Tower of London or Stamford Bridge is reason enough to visit the place. Though,  it is its cosmopolitanism which is the real reason. A day spent in London is a day spent travelling the globe.

Oslo, of course, isn’t like that at all (at least not on that scale). London is the world’s capital. Oslo is the capital of Norway, a peaceful and small corner of the globe. So you couldn’t expect it to be.

But to believe London’s tolerance level make British people in general less racist than the average Norwegian, is ludicrous. Travel around a bit, Mr Browne. Visit Stoke-On-Trent for example- Or pick out a few postcodes in Glasgow, and you’ll see.

Abroad Norwegians speak and comment on what he/she hears or sees in normal voices, since nobody will understand their language.  English people mutter and sigh, and wait until they are somewhere private to voice their opinions. Doing so in public abroad, well there’s a big chance people around you will understand. Maybe that’s the simple difference in how the two peoples’ xenophobes would express their xenophobia too?

Mr Browne’s article is a part of a search for an explanation to why this 32 year old blond Norwegian could commit such horrendous acts. That’s fine. But some level of truth would be fine too.

Norway is not a particularly racist country. In eastern Germany today far-right groups have become surrogate boy scout organisations. In England in the 1980s half the country’s football terraces carried National Front membership cards. Such open racism has never existed in Norway. We don’t have political parties like Vlaams Belang (Belgium), NPD (Germany), Front National (France) or BNP (Britain). The closest thing we have is the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), a party without an ideology who’d just jump on any issue the ordinary bloke down the boozer would be annoyed about. High taxation, expensive alcohol, too much bureaucracy, and immigration.

In Britain they’d be Daily Mail readers.

The reasons for the attacker’s actions lie not in some sort of demons of racism and fear of the unknown in the national psyche. In fact, his kin – the eurofascists and counterjihadist – are represented behind computer screens in every Western society. In Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, Benelux, the British Isles, Germany, USA and South Africa there will be white supremacists cheering his actions. Are they white supremacists because “in their on the surface idyllic societies, Odin is lurking underneath” (as one British Sunday paper today wrote about the reason for the attack. Makes you wonder what they’re smoking in the newsroom in between the phone hacking)

Friday we’ll be back from our three week long holiday in Spain – a time where my oldest daughter learned to swim and picked up more Spanish phrases than David Beckham did in five years in Spain, and my country has experienced its worst attack since the war.

Will the country be different? Probably.  Less xenophobic? Probably not. It wasn’t that xenophobic to begin with.

This probably sounds like a anti-British rant. It wasn’t the point when I started writing. I have many friends in England and Scotland. I was born in London (Chelsea country to be precise). I travel there every year. It’s like a second home country. But it has what I view as enormous social problems. Social problems the average Norwegian won’t believe exist (the average Norwegian after all has grown up on Agatha Christie, Bergerac, Yes Minister and Christmas shopping trips to Harrod’s). And when, from Britain, a picture is painted of Norway as somewhere where happy smiling faces is about to burst into shooting rampages, my blood starts boiling. That somewhere there’s an Anders Behring Breivik in all of us, is just plain bollocks. Mate.

Thankfully I don’t know any of the dead. At least that I know of, since names aren’t released yet. My dad works a nearby building. He could easily have been walking to the train station as the bomb exploded. A cousin of mine is on the Prime Minister’s staff. Her office is in that building. She was away on holiday at the time. She’s a mother of three children – playmates and second cousins of my own children. She has spent many summers on Utøya island as a Labour Youth activist, and will know many of the victims personally. Utøya is ten minutes from my home.  I often play golf with my dad on the course situated on the island next to it. Terror struck awfully close to home.

My favourite tweet the last few days were the one comparing George Bush’s “we will hunt you down” response post-9/11 to our prime minister’s “we will retaliate with more democracy”. It shows the true spirit of the country. And not the “Odin lurking under the surface” stuff, that some are looking for.

So pardon me for sounding slightly angry.

Jens Stoltenberg has shown leadership qualities beyond comprehension. The way he has handled this atrocity is superhuman, but with a human face. Just by typing his name I get a lump in my throat. And I didn’t even vote for him.

He could be the picture of Norway’s true spirit that the international press is looking for. Or the holidaymakers at the campsite near Utøya who rushed to their boats to pick up the youth who’d jumped into the water to escape the gunman, bullets flying whilst they saved the young people from the cold water. Or the Red Cross volunteers who have arrived from all over the country to help search for the persons still missing. Or, those young politicians at Utøya, who have, despite being traumatised, stood up for their dead comrades and told their stories to the world. That, Mr Browne and others, could be the true face of Norway.

After all, they have been all along.

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