An Island

“Arriving in Keflavik is like landing on Mars.” I hadn’t thought that it would rain this much on Mars.

At first, the transition away from Britishness was gradual: depart through a terminal gate emblazoned with “Barclays”, arrive through one logoed “Landsbanki”. Airports exist to facilitate the free movement of capital, not of people, not that I was in any danger of forgetting this: like a growing number of my student peers, I was an economic migrant. Come to Iceland on the ERASMUS program, pay less rent than London, and receive an additional grant together with a tuition fee waiver. Alone in a new country, speaking none of the language, I suddenly had cause to doubt my own economic logic. Was any of it worth this?

Outside the terminal showed more promise. I peered through my coach window, stunned by public art that wasn’t a hideous corporate abortifact: a metal seed sprouting hesitantly among a pile of rocks; the Norse gods’ rainbow bridge, Bifrost, reaching up into the air. Perhaps Iceland is different, I thought.

First impressions confirmed that. Reykjavik is a spacious, green city, with better weather than Edinburgh: colder, brighter, with winter snow that’s less hostile than driving rain, heated by free geothermal energy. I saw no homelessness; sleeping rough in winter would equal murder. I found that I breathed more easily once outside the UK, away from the grinding negativity of the media and from new-found fear of the police, inspired by student and activist friends’ accounts of truncheons and dubiously legal arrests.

I did feel that I had escaped something by coming to Iceland, but exactly what? Contrary to the hype, Iceland hasn’t escaped the economic consequences of the banking crash, facing cuts and 
the ratcheting open of the country to outside corporate investment. Still, as Iceland’s government stated firmly to the IMF, this is a Nordic social democracy, with a solid social safety net. Was the difference here purely economic?

Something did feel different. There was no nastiness in the air, no murmuring about scroungers and laziness. Some of my friends had the kind of precarious service-jobs that usually serve up micromanagement and bitter depression to their workers. Here this was completely absent, personality clashes aside. Crime was rare, supervision minimal, and people were free to work under their own initiative.

Still, clearly the Crash showed that everything wasn’t hunky-dory, with many of Iceland’s richest people having fled abroad to escape prosecution. This wasn’t some kind of capitalist utopia. Socially, historically, and geographically Iceland is different, even from the other Nordic countries: family and social bonds are strong, and, knowing this, many women have children young – and choose to do so across social classes. There is less pressure on women to be thin, to regulate their sexuality, to fit into a specific media-mediated mould. Society in general felt less controlled, less hierarchical, and more open to possibility.

I opened my own mind, too, and found myself thinking less about how much of freedom is economically determined, and more about how much is not.

Living in Iceland, I found myself linguistically privileged. Most Icelandic people speak English, and are happy to do so when asked, otherwise defaulting to Icelandic. People talk freely in English about the rich, about Klein’s Shock Doctrine, yet most of the country’s political debate is conducted in Icelandic. If there is nastiness in Iceland, it doesn’t make it across the language barrier. Whatever regulatory regimes exist work on those living within a culture permanently, mediated through social connections and language. As a foreign visitor, albeit a long-term one, I got a free pass.

This, naturally, led me to 
read about the English. I read about how much of class is mediated in Britain through language: the usage of living room, sitting room, or lounge being one gross, banal example. Iceland isn’t the classless society it would like to be, but it doesn’t have that. I also felt free through not being part of the horrific grind of British politics, with its accompanying apocalyptic levels of pessimism from Left and Right.

I wondered: when I did feel hopeless about the future, how much of my pessimism was based on direct experience, and how much on media-mediated narratives, on shows and articles commissioned for profit? Anyone who reads anything online knows how awful and unrepresentative comment threads are, and how impossible they are to avoid. A few awful experiences, a few hate-filled idiots, are far from the totality of experience, though in terms of word-volume it feels as though they are.

When Occupy Wall Street began to take off, I attended meetings in Reykjavik, understanding little, speaking less, and ultimately cooking in lieu of words. I saw Occupy Reykjavik evolved, not into the equitable meetings between homeowners, nationalists and radical left that we hoped for – and initially saw – but into two or three hardy men sleeping in tents, raising awareness of something that everyone in Iceland was perfectly aware of already. Something had gone wrong here, and something inevitable: instead of working on change in Iceland, we were replicating what we saw on Youtube and looking overseas.

Looking to New York, and to London, centres of global economic hegemony – and world centres of the English language.

It turned out that I couldn’t escape after all.

Yet now I don’t feel so hopeless. Another world is certainly possible, though not one I can step into by boarding a ‘plane. I couldn’t cut my ties to the UK so easily: every day I was online reading, talking with friends and relatives, all in English.

I love Iceland, and my hopes go with it into an uncertain future; I remain confident in Icelanders’ ability to fight back against negative social changes, no matter how economically inevitable they are painted to be. Yet building something new, something needed? That’s something we all need to do, through organisation and through language, and hiving off and becoming an island is the only thing that isn’t possible.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them

Derek Walcott

2 responses to “An Island

  1. !! I love your choice of quotes. I was hoping the title was an allusion to Donne once I started reading, but then also Walcott and how those are mediated through the discussion you put in front of them and generally ❤

    Um, yes. Sorry. I'm a wordgeek first and a student of broad-scale political thought second, if ever. As such, I find the way you've been thinking about this stuff fascinating – I tend to just assume that the media's only options about the cuts are "we're all in this together" or "no we're not but there's bugger-all we can do about it from this side of the power divide" and hadn't really realised this wouldn't be the same everywhere. I guess it makes total sense that actually if places like Iceland don't have governments who take on a grotesque paternalistic tone to lecture us about austerity and cut disability benefits from their second homes, then 'we're the 99%!' isn't the right tack to take.

    Interesting that activists there would look to the English-speaking world to protest, though. I guess the Occupy movement has so much energy and recognition it made sense to grab for it, but, I don't think I've ever been in a room full of activists who weren't overloaded with grievances to fight. I'd be interested to know more about what they were campaigning for, and how they decided on those tactics…

    Hope you're well!! x

    • Ahh, thank you! 😀 It felt so apt as I first read Donne for class while in Iceland- and in fact I read Walcott first, then both together.

      Gosh, no, the Icelandic media is very different: every newspaper was in favour of Occupy, for example. When government ministers are people you meet on the street – one got constant comments for having a driver for his car, something quite unheard of – it’s quite impossible to maintain that kind of authority, particularly combined with the Icelandic sense of equality and readiness to speak out.

      However, I feel Iceland was actually rather beyond the “we’re the 99%!” stage, and that protests outside English speaking countries – I’m thinking of particularly Spain as well, as my knowledge of others is far more limited – were actually set back in a way by Occupy, as they stopped being so much about having this huge social dialogue that brought together left and right, and talked about local and national-scale – or economic and language-unit scale, which is the same thing in different terms – solutions. This stopped, it seems to me – it’s certainly what happened in Iceland. Occupy had a chilling effect on what was going on, and part of that is about hegemony and being unable to change unless things change worldwide. However, I think a lot of it is about language, rather than economic determinism.

      In Iceland, you have the non-parliamentary left, who see capitalism as a failure and going to fail worse, soon, the homeowners, who saw private debt become public debt and added to their mortgages – better, in most people’s opinion, than cutting the welfare state more, but understandably unjust as a thing in itself – and thirdly, the nationalists, as I understand it, who seemed to blend environmental concerns, wanting to keep foreign capital out, and a kind of cultural conservatism alien to us, as in, that’s genuinely progressive. I didn’t understand the third group much despite having a friend in them, so I could be quite wrong.

      All these groups were having some degree of dialogue, as although they have different perspectives they want broadly the same things: en equal Iceland able to develop sustainably without being oppressed in any measure from abroad. I, and others, felt that if they all pulled in the same direction, then some kind of social revolution would result, and that was broadly in the air from 2009-11. Now it’s gone, and it vanished at around the time that Occupy happened; I hope things change there and geopolitically so that it comes back.

      How was it decided to support Occupy? Well, by consensus, but the specific decision on mode of action – tent camping and outside meetings, at night during Icelandic winter – was driven, I felt, by a small group of male anarchists. Were there other more viable alternatives? I don’t speak Icelandic, I don’t think it was fully explored, and I’m not sure there were really – it’s hard to get indoor meeting space, it’s expensive or free and quickly evicted. The 99% slogan also has positives to it – it points towards broad social change, so I can see why it was adopted. In any case, here we are.

      Hope you’re well, too! xo

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