Monday, 1 August 2011

Quiet Is the New Loud

You might remember the title of this post as the Kings of Convenience's first album title. They're a duo from Bergen, Norway, who slot in between the simple folk-pop of Simon and Garfunkel, and the baroque chamber-pop of the Pale Fountains.

They come to mind because, over the days since the Utøya massacre, I've been musing, in an uninformed way, on Norwegian culture. I may have mentioned before that I think it all went wrong for the British Isles when Harold Godwinsson resisted Harald Hardrada and his armies in 1066. OK, there'd have been a little light pillaging, but we'd have ended up in a lovely left-wing paradise, with liveable cities, good pensions and unprepossessing international respect.

Brevik hasn't changed my mind about this. To me, Scandinavian culture is one of respect: for each other as citizens, for other cultures, for the environment. This is hopelessly naive, of course: the existence of Norwegian death metal is the natural concomitant of a general culture of tolerance. The murder of Swedish PM Olaf Palme in the 80s, Norway's presence in Afghanistan, the rise of the fascist right in several Scandinavian countries and the wave of dark crime thrillers all point to an obverse to the tolerant wonderlands you see in tourist ads, and I'm certainly romanticising them as civilised alternatives to the greedy, shrill, selfish, consumerist, cheap, short-termist hell that the UK has become (characteristics that have affected me, however much I'd like to deny it).

And yet… can you imagine the response of a British government to an atrocity such as Breivik's? In a sense, we don't need to. There have been plenty here, and the response is always the same: war, covert surveillance of entire communities, internment without charge, shrieking headlines and above all, politicians fuelling the hysteria with harsher, dumber, more sweeping attacks on anyone who might be a little different. We saw it all last week: the Sun immediately blamed the killings on 'Al-Qaeda', while the Prime Minister wheeled out the same tired old rubbish about security crackdowns ad infinitum.

But in Norway - still reeling - the tone was different. They could be forgiven for going on the rampage, banning this and burning down that. But they didn't. Their politicians made the kind of speeches that would have ended their careers in Britain, once the Sun and the Daily Mail had their say. They called for reflection, for thought, for research, for debate. They pointed out that curtailing a free, tolerant, liberal society in response to a man who hated free, tolerant, liberal societies would be to give in.

Scandinavian societies might be a little bit dull (as some Norwegians told me!), but they still have a public discourse which isn't dominated by vicious extremist tabloids and the venal, short-sighted politicians who make their careers by pandering to their know-nothing instincts. Instinct is the key to this: Scandinavian societies don't jump to their instincts, whereas we seem only too happy to abandon our intellects in favour of jerking our knees in mindless unison.

Which brings me back to the Kings of Convenience and their slow, calm, thoughtful songs. Rather than giving in to the shrieking of our newspapers, rather than bombing and bullying our way round a world which thinks we owe it a living, how about we adopt the Kings' motto and agree with Norway that Quiet is indeed the New Loud?


Jason D Jawando said...

Your theory about how Britain would have turned out if we'd become Scandinavian is an interesting idea. Personally, I'm a bit resistant to straightforward accounts of history. There is, for example, a strong Scandinavian influence on place names in the North-East of England. The name Sanderson, which is popular in the Scottish borders, is derived from a dialect word for 'stranger's son' - the original Sandersons were Scandinavian immigrant labourers who didn't return (just imagine if they'd had the Daily Mail back then). Before Britain joined the Common Market (as it was then called) we were part of EFTA, a non-aligned group formed by the Scandinavian countries.

The Scandinavian influence on Britain may be greater than we realise, and yet our cultures seem so different. Or perhaps they aren't. Reading about the response of the Norwegian government, I thought about the German bombing of Coventry during WWII. The Daily Express, predictably, called for retribution. Many inhabitants of the city responded with an open letter urging reconciliation.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Jason. I was being deliberately facetious in ignoring the hundreds of years of complicated history separating the nations!