Someone asked me not long ago to describe Icelanders and their character, and although I thought I knew the place and the people well enough, I immediately started wondering what to say, and where to start. How do you describe a whole nation without resorting to timeworn clichés? Brits are stuffy and drink hot water with milk, but only when they’re not knocking back warm beer? The French eat garlic for breakfast while Italians drink red wine in bed… The list can go on endlessly, more than likely with some far-distant grain of truth behind it.
But Icelanders? It’s not easy, even though there are so few of them. To start with, Reykjavík and the rest of the country aren’t the same thing at all, in the way that the attitudes and the atmosphere of Copenhagen is very different to those of Thyborøn, and Milan and Palermo are both Italian cities, but remain very different.
In fact, the 101 district of Reykjavík, the part that the visitors tend to see with its coffee shops, hipsters, bars and bands, is quite different from the suburbs, just as Knightsbridge and Tower Hamlets belong to London but are still worlds apart.
Reykjavík has a frontier feel to it. Much of the city is new and it’s still expanding. The vast majority of the city’s population either grew up somewhere else, or their parents did as the last third of the twentieth century saw a steady exodus of people from the countryside and coastal towns to the city and both the work on offer there and the luxuries that the rest of the country doesn’t have, such as a choice of cinemas or access to higher education. Reykjavík is a melting pot of all sorts, and in the last decade or two the mix has been spiced by the addition of a dollop of immigration, much of it from eastern Europe. It’s undoubtedly healthy for the gene pool, but a sudden influx of people with different languages and cultural ideas doesn’t always sit comfortably, especially when times are hard and rancour at the ‘people taking our jobs’ inevitably pops up.
A friend told me recently with a hint of sadness that he sees the process still going on. His parents came to Reykjavík for the opportunities the city offered, yet his children now live in mainland European cities for just the same reasons, and are unlikely ever to return permanently to Iceland.
So what is it about Icelanders that makes them different? There’s that frontier mentality again. Iceland was almost completely isolated for hundreds of years. A few of the wealthier people were able to leave the country to study abroad, but they were just that; a few. Until steam ships began sailing to Iceland in the twentieth century, the place was largely cut off and foreign visitors were very few. The Second World War changed everything as the occupiers brought with them new ideas and pocketfuls of money, and Marshall Aid propelled Iceland into the new century a couple of decades late. The residue of the long isolation leaves an elusive blend of fierce (and justifiably so) national pride, resentment, a lingering undertone of an inferiority complex (which many of my Icelandic friends probably won’t thank me for mentioning), all coupled with the independent spirit that the island’s long isolation fostered. If something needed to be done, there was nobody else to turn to and things needed to be fixed by yourself.
It’s an odd mixture. Icelanders are Nordic but not Scandinavian, and although culturally close to the Scandinavian countries, Iceland seems closer to Britain in the way Iceland’s politics work – the corruption is much the same, just less adroit and closer to the surface.
In some ways Icelanders can be bone-headedly illiberal. Just take a quick scan of the people who populate the Parliament. There’s far from much new or original going on there as the nepotists and the old boys’ network rule the roost, for the moment at least.
In other ways they can be delightfully laid back and liberal – bending the rules is a national sport and the attitude to sexual mores is remarkable. Before the reformation and the advent of the Lutheran church, back when priests were supposed to remain single, the very idea that anyone would want to remain celibate was seen as outright lunacy and priests had their discreet common-law families. There has been nothing unusual about children born out of wedlock for generations, and homosexuality stopped being a crime thirty years before the same thing happened in Britain. When the same-sex marriage bill went through Parliament there were no votes against and it was done and dusted in a matter of minutes. No big deal, and the thinking was that what consenting adults get up to is entirely their own business.
But the quality that stands out is the unbounded optimism, sometimes hidden behind a shroud of dour outward pessimism, that seems to allow Icelanders to get away with things that the rest of us couldn’t. Occasionally it comes badly unstuck, such as when the ‘þetta réddast’ (it’ll work out) attitude is applied to banking, but normally it means that Icelanders have a spark of originality and energy that gets things done with flair and style.
Now, if only they can make sure the bankers don’t go back to that way of thinking, and maybe instil some of that energy and flair into the political class, they might be onto something magnificent.