We must never lose the treasured Orkneys

When, last summer, a group of Orcadians declared they’d like to leave the UK and join Norway, it became clear just how little most of us in the south understand Orkney. Friends who know I go there often ask me where it is (somewhere near the Hebrides?), how many Orkney islands there are, and whether they are mountainous or flat. As Peter Marshall explains at the start of this astonishing tour de force, the 70-odd Orkney islands lie just 25 miles north of Scotland, separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth – the point, he says, at which ‘the North Sea meets the Atlantic, a place of hidden, treacherous

Why did Jon Fosse win the Nobel Prize for literature? It’s baffling.

The Nobel Prize for Literature this year was awarded to the Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse (pictured). He has long been admired by anyone in the literary world keen to advertise their seriousness. The Canadian critic Randy Boyagoda, writing of Fosse’s Septology in the New York Times, said that he’d ‘come into awe and reverence myself for idiosyncratic forms of immense metaphysical fortitude’. The technique is to bury statements of mystic vision or horror in piles of mostly tiny and uninteresting events Fosse is published in Britain by Fitzcarraldo Editions, that elegant firm bringing all sorts of high-minded writers to our attention in matchy-matchy formats. The Spectator’s literary editor

Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 1 November 2018

At the Brexit-related cabinet last week — as revealed by James Forsyth in these pages — David Lidington made an intervention in support of the Prime Minister’s approach to the negotiations. He was, he said, the only person present who had been an MP at the time of ‘Black Wednesday’, when the pound fell out of the ERM on 16 September 1992. It had been so disastrous and divisive, he went on, that the government must at all costs avoid a repeat over Brexit. Many heads nodded sagely. Mr Lidington, a moderate and public-spirited man, was quite right about the pain caused to his party 26 years ago; but the

Rising star: The Wolves of Eternity, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reviewed

The Wolves of Eternity is the second volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s trilogy which began with The Morning Star, but is that book’s prequel. The Morning Star examined events in the lives of various narrators at the time of the appearance of a bright new celestial body, bringing uncharacteristic heat and luminosity to Norway. It read like a shiver-inducing drama penned by a combination of Phil Redmond, Irvine Welsh and Stephen King. Part of its genius lay in fleshing out the characters by expressing the ugly thoughts we all keep repressed: irritation with over-familiar strangers; frustration with lovers; the thunderbolt of lust; and boundaries and the ways they are breached.

The fast and furious world of reindeer racing

Don’t ever ask a Sámi person how many reindeer he owns. It’s about as polite as asking someone in Britain how much cash he’s got in the bank. But enquire after the health of his reindeer, or which are the ‘stand-out’ specimens in his herd of between 300 and 1,000, and you will be fine. In fact, get ready for a detailed response from someone whose Arctic community often still lives symbiotically with its animals.  Racing reindeer has been popular among Sámi people for hundreds of years, but began receiving wider attention in 2005, when the Midnight Sun Marathon organisers and the Sámi Valáštallan Lihttu sporting body arranged the first championships to be run in Tromsø in Norway.

Not enough snow on the slopes? Try Tromsø

Europe’s ‘winter heatwave’ has left large parts of the Alps and Pyrenees bereft of snow over the past fortnight, causing grassy pistes and cancelled ski holidays. So where to go for a guaranteed winter wonderland? Well, Tromsø in Norway is 350km north of the Arctic Circle, so reliably snowy. In an average winter, it sees 160 days with at least 25cm of snow on the ground – and at the moment locals are having to dig out their cars. This small yet sophisticated city on the periphery of continental Europe is well worth a trip, especially if you’re after some wintry pursuits a little less high octane than downhill skiing.

You will feel nothing: The Worst Person in the World reviewed

The Worst Person in the World is a Norwegian film that has made a big splash. To date, its star (Renate Reinsve) has won Best Actress at Cannes and it has been nominated for two Oscars (Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film). It has also attracted rave reviews. I can now only conclude: I must be the Hardest to Please Person in the World as I can’t fathom what all the fuss is about. It’s not atrocious. It’s not Batman. But it’s nothing special. And until I read that it is a ‘romantic comedy’ I hadn’t realised it was a comedy at all. Perhaps I am also afflicted

The ideology of madness

On the wooden jetty from which the ferry used to depart for the little island of Utoya, there stood for a while a small obelisk around which people deposited flowers. ‘If one man can show this much hate, imagine how much love we can show together’ was the marvellously trite inscription on the obelisk: vapid and close to meaningless, in either Norwegian or English. Utoya lies in the Tyrifjorden Lake about 45 minutes north of Oslo and it is where the Labour party’s ‘Workers’ Youth League’ once held its summer camps — until one afternoon in July 2011 when a man called Anders Breivik turned up, heavily armed. Breivik murdered

Unkindly light: The Morning Star, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reviewed

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle sequence is one of this century’s great projects: an intimate epic in which the overriding obsessions of our times — identity, gender, the meaning of truth — play out through six maddeningly detailed, curiously compelling autofictions. It’s the kind of work that casts a long shadow; any fiction that follows, the author knows, is in communion, and competition, with that momentous work. Which is why The Morning Star, Knausgaard’s return to the novel after an almost decade-long break, is both fascinating and frustrating. With its biblical allusion title and occult MacGuffin (a new star has mysteriously appeared in the night sky over Norway), the book

Whiny, polite and beautiful: Kings of Convenience’s Peace or Love reviewed

Grade: A– The problem with Norwegians is that they are so relentlessly, mind-numbingly pleasant. Well, OK, not Knut Hamsun or Vidkun Quisling. And probably not the deranged fascist murderer Anders Breivik either. But then maybe that’s what unrestrained, suffocating niceness does to a certain kind of person: they end up strapping on a machine gun, or yearning for Hitler. Or both. Kings of Convenience are two earnest and very pleasant youngish men who often wear nice jumpers. They come from Bergen, which is as pristine and congenial a city as you could wish for: sharp, clear northern air and wooden-framed houses filled with agreeably plain furniture. Oh, and fish everywhere.

Does the SNP really want to copy Norway’s gender revolution?

Five years ago, in June 2016, Norway allowed anyone to change their legal gender. Legislative Decree 71 was everything that the gender identity brigade would like to introduce in the UK: no diagnosis, no medical reports, pure self-identification. The age limit was set at six years old, providing the child has at least one parent’s consent. This matters to the UK. Self-identification may be off the table at Westminster but it remains a live issue at Holyrood where Nicola Sturgeon’s government seems determined to force it through. Defending their draft bill on reform to the Gender Recognition Act, the Scottish government explained that ‘This proposal is in line with the

How border closures halted Covid-19 in Finland

Back in April, I listed five measures governments can take to prevent the spread of Covid in order to prevent any need for economically devastating lockdowns, drawing on the experience of some Asian nations. Four of the measures (test and trace, healthcare capacity, facemasks, and good communication about distancing) have all proven their worth, but the fifth may be the most important of all: imposing border checks in time. That’s exactly what Taiwan did well. It has managed to keep its number of Covid cases down to just 842, with a population of nearly 24 million, by halting flights from China early on and implementing strict quarantine rules. In Europe,

The farce of the Nobel Peace Prize

Betraying the Nobel opens with a detonation from Michael Nobel, Alfred’s great-grandnephew. The vice-chairman and then chairman of the Nobel Family Society for 15 years, Michael believes that the Nobel Peace Institute has betrayed the ‘original conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will and intentions’. Its selection process is ‘very sketchy’ and its committee of Norwegian parliamentarians reflects the balance of power in their parliament. Its awards follow ‘personal interests’, ‘political and national considerations’ and ‘human rights or global warming’, all of which have ‘little or nothing’ to do with Alfred Nobel’s bequest. The Prize was a dynamite idea when it was founded in 1900. What better way to avoid war than

Was the EU ever going to offer Britain a good deal?

The announcement that Brexit negotiations are set to continue will no doubt alarm Brexiteers who fear compromise, sell-out and fudge. In fairness to Brussels however, they set out their stall early on and stuck to the script. The EU is unwilling – as they see it – to let Britain have its cake and eat it, by having large access to the EU’s market while not being a member or leaving the club and not ‘paying a price’. This might explain what could otherwise be seen as an unduly recalcitrant attitude. It also explains why any deal which the EU agrees to is likely to be on its terms. The

Outsider art | 21 February 2019

If you’re tired of hygge then you’ll like Harald Sohlberg. The Norwegian painter  eschewed the cosy fireside for the great outdoors, eager to see what view might greet him as he wandered the woods and country roads of Norway in the failing light. While his contemporary Nikolai Astrup filled his landscapes with people, Sohlberg preferred to bring nature to the fore, at once unnerved and mesmerised by its power. He excelled at depicting the scene just stumbled upon or left behind. In ‘Summer Night’ (1899), a table is set for two on a veranda overlooking the Kristiania Fjord off what is now Oslo. The glasses are half full, the fruit

Echoes of The Tempest…

‘I should not have gone back to the island but I did it all the same.’ So begins the Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s brief, dark and wonderfully atmospheric 12th novel, The Tempest. Islands play a special role in our literary imagination. They are crucibles, havens, prisons and escapes, places of magic and mysterious transformation, worlds that can be shaped and owned. There is a rich history of island-writing, from D.H. Lawrence to J.M. Barrie, Compton Mackenzie to Aldous Huxley, William Golding to John Fowles. Behind them all sits Shakespeare’s late, troublesome, self-reflexive play of creativity and destruction, forgiveness and retribution. Sem-Sandberg’s island is one of a small archipelago sitting in

Why the Norway model wouldn’t work for Britain

In the corridors of Westminster and the salons of some remainers, there is a lot of excited chatter about the “Norway option”. This would involve being a member of the EEA and single market, but not of the EU. Depending on who is pushing, Norway is presented as either a temporary or permanent alternative to Theresa May’s troubled deal. But there are problems with this quick fix. The well discussed issue that being in the EEA doesn’t end freedom of movement is one; another is the fact that the Norway option doesn’t end EU budget contributions. But more fundamentally, few appreciate just how a regime that (sort of) suits Norway

The faulty logic of a ‘Norway for Now’ Brexit

The campaign ‘Norway for Now’, an idea promoted by Nick Boles, is that Britain should join the European Economic Area and EFTA, until such time as we can move further out of the EU, for example with a Canada-style free-trade deal. This is what Norway and Iceland and Liechtenstein do. The idea sounds nice as a friendly and temporary compromise. But in fact the psychology is wrong. Such arrangements were devised more as an entry chamber to full membership (which is what Norwegian elites still want) than as part of an exit strategy. The Norwegian Prime Minister is now making this point. The point of Leave is to escape the gravitational

The lady vanishes | 15 March 2018

‘Close your eyes and be absorbed by the storytelling,’ urged Jon Manel (the new head of podcasting at BBC World Service) as we settled into our chairs. We were just about to hear the ‘world première’ of the latest podcast from the BBC World Service, launched dramatically in the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House in front of a packed, expectant audience, with full surround sound, every raindrop magnified (and there was a lot of it). It was odd to realise quite how far podcasting has already transformed radio. Along with the usual Radio 4 crowd (who were surprisingly enthusiastic about the chance to hear this latest podcast), there were hosts

The Norway model: a new approach to immigration and asylum

Germany is this weekend seeing whether or not Angela Merkel will be able to form a government as she deals with the political fallout from her immigration policy. Quite a contrast from Norway, whose Conservative-led coalition recently entered its second term after taking a very different approach to refugees. Last week I met Sylvi Listhaug, who holds a recently-created position: Norway’s Minister for Immigration & Integration. She’s with the Progress Party, the junior partner in coalition. You often read about her being ‘outspoken’ or ‘controversial’ and I was interested to see what kind of radical views she holds. At the end of the interview, I was left wondering if her