The weather, of course

I’m back in Iceland, visiting over the holidays, and the local weather gods seem intent on making the visit as memorable as they can.

Turns out that my flight yesterday was the last one that could land safely. I stepped out of the terminal, with my dad, into a snow storm with only a few yards of visibility.

Now, normally, in Iceland that wouldn’t be a cause for much concern. With a decent driver, as long as you can see the road and the car in front of you, you’re going to be fine. But as soon as we drove off, the storm weighed down on us and visibility went down to zero. So, we did the only thing sensible: pulled over and put on the hazard lights.

Most of those who didn’t pull over and stop ended up stuck in snow or off the road.

So, to make a long story short, a trip that would normally only take about 45 minutes took me five hours yesterday, two spent sitting in a car off to the side of the road, two spent stuck in Keflavík as the road to Reykjavík was closed, and then an hour to drive back.

Spent most of the time in Keflavík in Hlölla, a hamburger/fast food joint which had an excellent bacon burger special to tide us over while stranded in Keflavík.

This was the worst snow storm to hit the Reykjavík area for about twenty years. Most of the roads outside of the main routes were blocked and impassable. Cars were stuck in snow all over the place. We counted 22 abandoned cars on our way back.

Did they cancel school? Nope. “Drive your kids to and from school and start earlier.”

Did the universities cancel their final semester exams? Nope. “It’ll take you longer to get to work so just start earlier.”

Did people take a day off work? Nope. My sister walked to work through a zero-visibility snow storm. She wasn’t the only one.

Why did she walk? Because there was too much snow for the buses to run.

Welcome to Iceland.

Tolerating the heat, noticing the water

I’m not suited to this heat. I don’t know if it’s genetic or merely a side effect of being raised in Iceland but my comfort zone for outdoor temperature is anywhere between 10–18˚C, 15 degrees being ideal.

So, in an effort to keep going during very English heatwave (‘30˚C! how will we survive?’) I headed out to a café with a book (Black Mass by John Gray) intent on surviving on icy cold lemonade for the afternoon.

Sound plan, as far as it goes. And it didn’t get too far anyway. I hadn’t stepped out of the door before thoughts began to crumble into my headspace. Normally, I find it very easy to just pick a task and lock in on it—indeed lose myself in it so much that I have to rely on my phone alarms to let me know when to eat—but this time my mind was choosing its own topics. It definitely wasn’t keen on letting me read.

What was on my mind?

The state of being in between. Of being both and neither.

I haven’t felt completely Icelandic for a very long time now. And I’ll never feel English or British, no matter how long I stay here, no matter how vague my accent gets. Being partially removed from a place you know as well as a native gives you a perspective shared by neither the native nor the foreigner. You know the place and the culture well enough to understand the subtleties, forgive some of the foibles, and know the context to some of the things that just seem plain weird to foreigners. But you maintain enough of a distance for you to see some of the larger patterns and the cultural artefacts the locals don’t even notice. You become a fish aware of the water. And the other fish don’t see the water so you never quite blend in.

I go to Iceland and I see things they don’t see. I go to Britain and I hear things they don’t hear. At times it almost feels like you’re going mad—delusional.

But…

Then you turn around, see another fish noticing the water, and the both of you can laugh, nod to each other, and carry on, knowing that the ‘heatwave’ hasn’t driven you bonkers yet.

Peasants

I have moved from Iceland to the UK three times in my life. The third, which not so coincidentally took place in 2008, is likely to be the last.

(The two attributed quotes in this post are thanks to Íris Erlingsdóttir’s awesome blog post where she collected them all in Icelandic.)

The first time I moved back to Iceland was in 1984 when my parents returned after finishing their studies abroad. Of course, knowing our luck, we returned at the start of what ended up being one of Iceland’s longest general strikes, lasting from the 4th of October to the 30th.

Iceland was in an economic crisis, what we call ‘kreppa’. What most foreigners don’t realise is that Iceland has been in a bipolar boom-bust cycle ever since we declared independence from the Danish. And before that we were in a poverty spiral of misery, hunger, and sky-high childhood mortality rates.

Continue reading

Iceland’s ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution is dead

The true history of Iceland’s ‘innovative’ constitutional reform.

One of the recurring issues in news coverage on Iceland is how absolutely rubbish foreign news media is at reporting about Iceland.

We’ve seen how detached from reality economic news on Iceland is, ignoring our burgeoning mortgage crisis and the consequences of the government’s harsh austerity measures.

Their frothy and exuberant reports about Iceland’s proposed new constitution also tend to gloss over the details and ignore domestic discourse in favour of completely fabricated spin.

If you read what foreign language blogs and newspapers wrote about the constitution you’d believe that it was a daring experiment going from success to success and that we were now enjoying a completely new crowd-sourced constitution that had been passed into law with a referendum last autumn. Which is not true.

A complete and total clusterfuck is much closer to the truth.

Continue reading

The falcon’s shriek

I was just strolling through downtown Reykjavík, it being one of my quiet days off (no twitter, no social networks, limited email), munching on a hot dog, as I spotted a couple of ravens.

One thing that people often forget is that Iceland has a rich mythology beyond that of the nordic mythologies.

Of course, without us, nobody would remember much about the nordic gods, since Iceland is the only place that properly documented and preserved those myths, but Iceland’s myths continued to evolve and grow after we turned to Christianity.

Those later myths are odd to most foreigners. The Virgin Mary isn’t the gentle figure we see in the Christian doctrine of most countries but is titled ‘Queen of Heavens’ and behaves much like Frigg, Odin’s wife would have in the nordic myths.

Our myths also don’t feature reindeer or wolves much, since we don’t have any of those here, but focus on the various bird species native to Iceland.

The hidden people (fairies, fay, etc.), mermen, sea-cows and such also feature quite extensively, but the one fable that crossed my mind as I walked back, hot dog in hand, was the story of when Mary put the birds of the world through a trial of fire.

Two other mainstay birds in Iceland, besides the raven, are the falcon and the rjúpa. The rjúpa is a small grouse, called ‘rock ptarmigan’ in english. It is considered by some a delicacy and is regularly hunted into near-extinction since it’s only defence mechanism is to freeze and stand still, clinging to the faint hope that you are just going to go away. One of its distinctive visual features is that its legs are covered in feathers. It’s a classic arctic ground bird in that way.

The myth goes as follows (roughly retold and translated from this version):


Once upon a time, Virgin Mary summoned all of the birds to meet her. Waiting for them, when they arrived, was a shallow pit of fire. Mary ordered them to wade the fire to prove their loyalty to her. The birds knew that Mary was the queen of heaven and commanded great power. They dared not disobey her orders and instructions and so, one by one, they jumped into the flames and waded through the fire.

Everybody except the rjúpa.

Every other bird came through the fire with all of the feathers on their legs scorched off and the skin seared, which is how they have been ever since, all because of the Virgin Mary’s pit of fire.

The rjúpa’s fate was decided that day, since she was the only bird to defy the command to wade the fire. Mary was furious at the rjúpa and cursed her to be the most defenceless and harmless of all of bird-kind, and that she would be relentlessly stalked, harassed, and chased from here on, except during Whitsun. The falcon, the rjúpa’s loving brother, was now to hunt and kill her and feed on her flesh.

Mary had some mercy for the rjúpa and made it so that the rjúpa would change colours depending on the seasons, white in the winter, mossy-grey in the summer, so that she could hide from the falcon.

Since then, the falcon has hunted, killed, and eaten his sister, and his enchanted fury doesn’t waver or wane except for that one moment when he has torn through the rjúpa’s breast.

Upon seeing her torn open, her heart bare to the world, he realises that she is his sister – that he has eaten her to her heart – and is overtaken with such sorrow that his shrieks fill the sky for days afterwards.


If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, and again over the past few days, it’s that humanity is similarly cursed.

We descend upon those who disobey and defy, those who stand up against unjust commands, and we tear them apart.

The only difference is that we don’t have the falcon’s decency to feel guilt and shame afterwards, but hop to the next victim, hands and teeth marked with blood, hearts filled with glee, and stomachs filled with the flesh of our brothers and sisters.

What is actually going on in Iceland

Because I’m tired of you people spreading untruths

Since people continue to spread the factually dubious statement that Iceland “told creditors & IMF to go jump, nationalised banks, arrested the fraudsters, gave debt relief and is now growing very strongly, thanks” I find I have to write this here thing.

(This specific example comes from twitter but is almost identical, word for word, to the standard ‘Iceland is an economic utopia’ mantra that is being repeated ad nauseam.)

Because, for some reason, people won’t believe Icelanders when they say that the above is not quite the reality as most Icelanders experience it.

1. Iceland told IMF to go jump, go away, left the IMF program etc.

No it didn’t. Just look at the IMF’s country overview page for Iceland and read the reports.

https://www.imf.org/external/country/ISL/

(Too much to read? Well, boohoo. Don’t claim to know what Iceland’s and IMF’s relationship is until you have.)

Even a cursory look should tell you that Iceland didn’t throw the IMF out of the country and that the IMF’s praise for Iceland and our government is effusive and that Iceland followed the IMF’s advice to a tee. There are other details there, if you read through the archives, that are interesting, such as the fact that in several cases, especially when it came to the banks, Iceland actually went further along the libertarian axis than the IMF recommended.

2. Iceland told the creditors to go jump.

Yes and no. Iceland didn’t bail out the collapsed banks, but that wasn’t for the want of trying. If you read through the Report of the Special Investigation Commission you’d find out that the Icelandic government tried everything it could to save the banks, including asking for insane loans to pay off the banks’ debts.

The report: http://sic.althingi.is/

Most of it, and most of the really juicy stuff IMO, is only available in Icelandic, unfortunately. You can find the Icelandic version here: http://rna.althingi.is/

So the true story is that Iceland tried and tried and tried and tried as hard as we could to save the creditors. The only reason why we didn’t is that the Icelandic government, then and now, is completely incompetent.

Dumb things Icelandic officials did while trying to garner international support (mentioned in the report) :

  • Spin that a noncommittal but positive reply from the Russians was a loan agreement, pissing off the Americans and the Russians resulting in no loans from either.
  • Not answering Alistair Darling’s phone call (he was the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer or finance minister at the time). They literally put him on hold, then told him to call later and hung up.
  • Announcing on live TV that we were not going to help creditors, including those who had deposits, while they were in the middle of negotiations for funding to save said banks. Then having to backtrack to get any sort of help from the EU.
  • Lying to the governor of the Bank of England and the president of the European Central Bank about the state of the banks.

And plenty more. All in the special report. Read it if you care about what happened in Iceland. The short version is that they tried to save the banks, save the creditors and screwed up completely.

Other tidbits from the report: Icelandic MP’s received a lot of no-strings-attached free money from the banks and the key players in the banking bubble and ensuing collapse are not the same as the people who are being convicted for fraud or insider trading.

Except for two:

A ministry department head (also my namesake) who sold all of his stock soon after he attended a meeting on the state of the banks was convicted for insider trading. Baldur sakfelldur. The only reason why he was convicted is because he was too stupid to even try to cover his tracks.

And Lárus Welding, who some consider a key player and is mentioned several times in the report, was convicted yesterday and will be jailed for six months, plus three months probation. He gets to keep all the money he made and he’s going to appeal. Given the libertarian slant of the high court, his conviction is still not a certainty. The jail time he has just got in the lower courts is much much less than the prosecutor was hoping for, which does not bode well for later cases.

(A newish story on his conviction. It should work fine in google translate and you can nod along to the video, pretending to understand.)

The prime minister was found guilty of negligence in his job but was completely unpunished. No jail time, no fine, no nothing. I’d call him a scapegoat if he hadn’t actually gotten away scot-free.

Guardian: Iceland ex-PM Geir Haarde cleared of bank negligence. The Guardian piece was originally titled ‘Iceland ex-PM Geir Haarde found guilty of banking crash failure’ which is the headline that got distributed on twitter, of course, being the absolute opposite of the truth.

Icenews: Former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde found not guilty

Everybody else who has been convicted to date are to the Icelandic banking bubble what Bernie Madoff is to Goldman Sachs: fraudsters who took advantage of the climate but weren’t key players in the bubble or the collapse.

It’s a bit like arresting a Nazi lieutenant when Hitler and Goebbels are still running around. What am I supposed to say to that? Well done? He’s small fry but I guess he’s a start? Pat them on the head and say better luck next time?

Bah, humbug.

(I guess the above also addresses 3. Iceland arrested the fraudsters, showing that it’s patently not true. Iceland arrested some fraudsters: the pawns, small fry, and the lackeys.)

4. Iceland nationalised the banks.

This much is true. Iceland then privatised them again in record time. Two out of the three collapsed major banks in Iceland are now owned by the creditors. (“But I thought Iceland shafted the creditors?” Hah! Yeah, funny that.) The third bank, Landsbanki, is still nationalised but that’s solely because of the ongoing court cases involving Icesave (more on that later).

Most of the creditors actually sold their stakes to foreign hedge and vulture funds and the like. Again, google translate it if you actually care about the facts.

So, not only did Iceland re-privatise the banking system, we sold it out of the country.


ETA: Some more detail on the nationalisation question

As pointed out, the government technically never nationalised the banks, just took over them after they went bankrupt using emergency legislation. While it seems reasonable to call government control and management of a bank nationalisation, and even though it’s colloquially referred to as nationalisation, strictly speaking the term does not apply here. Which just makes the ‘Iceland nationalised its banks’ mantra even more of a lie.

The government handed control over the banks to the creditors around fifteen months later.

Or, technically, they handed control over the banks to the receivers managing the old banking companies who in turn are managing them for the creditors, several of whom remain unidentified.

Establishing the identity of the creditors and their nationality has taken a long time and is still relatively unclear.

The nationality of the creditors is important because the banks have taken over several companies whose ownership is regulated by law in Iceland. Fisheries companies must only be owned by Icelanders or companies in Icelandic ownership, for example. There are also limitations on the nationality of ownership of companies in the energy industries and other regulated industries.

So, the receivers haven’t yet handed direct control over the banks to the creditors. There’s a good chance they won’t do that until the banks have divested themselves of ownership over companies where the nationality of ownership is regulated.

Some of the bankrupt banks only remained in government control for a few weeks. SPRON, for example, was merged into Arion Bank which in turn was given to its creditors a few weeks later. SPRON customers, like me, were essentially a free gift to Kaupthing’s foreign creditors.

Why is this record time?

Because the banking bubble and the crash was an incredibly complicated affair. We still don’t know exactly what happened, where the money went, who owned what, and who was actually making the decisions. The Icelandic banks used complex ownership and corporate structures to hide and obfuscate details. Those structures were so complicated and intricate that they make Enron’s schemes look about as complex as a Fisher-Price toy. Sorting through the rubble and making sure that the government actually knows what the banks were, rebuilding a banking system, reforming the regulatory bodies, and such, takes more than fifteen months and as soon as the government gave up control they made it next to impossible to enact the reforms they needed to enact.

(Many of the reforms that would solve the household debt crisis in Iceland, for example, are only possible with the cooperation of the banks.)

Also, the banks are under ongoing investigation for fraud, tax evasion, market manipulation, and insider trading. As soon as the creditors took over the banks, the banks themselves (especially the overseas but wholly owned subsidiaries) became much less cooperative and began to shield themselves again behind banking secrecy laws.

It’s my opinion that by giving the banks back so soon, the government destroyed what little chance Iceland had for banking reform and sabotaged ongoing criminal investigations.


5. Iceland gave debt relief.

The answer to this one is yes, but not really. The key to understanding what happened is to try your hardest to not be a numerically illiterate idiot who refuses to read original sources. I know. It’s hard. Still, you should try. It’d make your mother happy.

There has been plenty of debt relief here. The the top 1% has had almost all of their debt written off, for example. Wasn’t that nice of the banks?

For the rest of us, the picture is a lot more complicated.

Household debt in Iceland comes in two forms.

A. Loans linked to a currency index.

B. Loans linked to the consumer price index.

Loans of the type A more than doubled during the collapse. Those that owed a million ended up owing two million, etc.. There has been a modicum of debt relief for the currency loans because they were blatantly illegal.

The routine has devolved into the following idiocy:

An almost bankrupt Icelander takes the bank to court because the loan was illegal. (2011) (2012)

The court forces the bank to write the loan down.

The government maintains that the court’s decision does not set a precedence and sets a law that limits the extent of the debt relief. Example

An almost bankrupt Icelander takes the bank to the court because the loan was illegal, and the ensuing legislation by the government was illegal, winning the case. E.g..

This goes round and round and round. The Icelandic government has fought debt relief tooth an nail, with every resource and tool available. They have in every way possible been the banking system’s crony.

The type B loans are a bit more complicated and require more explanation.

Normally, when loans are linked to the consumer price index (a rare thing in and of itself in other countries) the payments increase in line with inflation.

The Icelandic system is different. If you borrow 100 000 kroner and a year passes with 10% inflation (not unusual in the post crash era, inflation has ranged from 4% to 20%) then at the end of the year you will own 110 000 kroner, even if you have been paying interest. This means that if your mortgage is of this type B, you will never manage to pay it off, because Iceland has never in the history of having its own currency managed to have low inflation.

The Icelandic kroner was introduced in 1922 at parity with the Danish krona and has since then lost 95.95% of its value. Inflation is endemic and permanent in Iceland.

Most loans in Iceland are of the type B, price index-linked loans.

There was a debt relief program called the 110% rule that lowered any mortgage that was over 110% of the property’s value down to 110% of the property’s value. Those underwater remained underwater and it did little to help them because a few months later they are back where they were.

All in all, debt relief for Icelandic households amounts to 196.3 billion ISK while indexed loans have grown by 360 billion ISK since September 2008 due to index-linking. Source.

Basically, households are worse off now than they were, not better off, and the debt relief programs were little more insubstantial political manoeuvring to gain votes, not proper debt amnesty like that campaigned by the Occupy movement.

More on indexation Icelandic loans: 1 2

The kicker with the loan system in Iceland is that only idiots took loans that were indexed-linked to a foreign currency. Anybody who is numerate and sat down with the numbers could see that the foreign currency loans were an incredibly stupid risk to take so all of the sensible people, the people who have received little to no debt relief, took the price index-linked loans. The idiots and those irresponsible took the foreign currency linked loans and have now been rewarded with a disproportionate share of what little debt relief there has been.

Again and again, the sensible and the fiscally sound are punished in Iceland.

6. Iceland is now growing very strongly

Unless you’re the kind of person who looks at a child with leukaemia and says ‘look at little bald Charlie, how strongly he’s growing’ then I’d have to say no to that one. Surviving is not growing strongly.

Inflation for 2012 is around 4%, for 2011 it was around 5%.

Growth is estimated to be 2.7% in 2012 and was 2.6% in 2011. (Sources: http://www.hagstofa.is/ the estimate.)

For the innumerate among you, the above numbers show that the Icelandic economy is running to stay in place. This isn’t strong or healthy growth. This is ambling about, not dying, barely. Especially when you look at the numbers from http://www.hagstofa.is/ and http://www.sedlabanki.is/ which show that most of that growth comes from a growing real estate and property bubble in Iceland. Companies aren’t recovering.

Pre-tax wages in Iceland. The new housing bubble in Iceland.

Also, bear in mind that growth is measured in Icelandic kroner which are worth around 20–50% of what the were worth in 2008, which in turn means that these tiny growth numbers are little more than rounding errors in Iceland’s collapse in foreign currency terms.


ETA: More on the growth issue

I don’t think people got the point I was trying to make with the GDP section. That’s my fault. I should have explained it. Which I didn’t and that was dumb of me.

Income has dropped for Icelandic households. Their debt is index-linked. The growth is largely due to a resurgence of the property bubble and return to bank growth due to index-linked loans surging upwards, i.e. households don’t benefit from it much, if at all. They can’t tap into the booming property market because they are already over-leveraged, Icelandic bankruptcy laws prevent people from walking away from their mortgages (you can’t even die away from them, if you die, your children have to pay) and the property market is largely dominated by captured money, foreign capital that can’t escape due to the currency restrictions.

That’s why I mentioned the inflation figure. When your mortgage is index-linked and your pay is static or decreasing, high inflation completely destroys whatever economic benefit your household might get from the economic growth. The prevalence of index-linked loans means that inflation has a disproportionate negative effect on households, especially compared to other countries where you can get non-index-linked loans.

The higher the inflation, no matter how much higher growth is, chances are the end result will be devastation for Icelandic households. So even if Iceland manages a miraculous 5% growth, if the underlying inflation is 10% then the result would be national economic devastation due to the fact that the majority of Icelandic loans and mortgages are bound by Iceland’s warped and eccentric variation of consumer price index-linking.

And for the same reason, if Iceland had managed 2.6% growth over 2% inflation (instead of 4%), the economic effects on household debt burden would have been different and we wouldn’t be facing as imminent a crisis as we’re facing as we head into 2013.

Inflation matters in Iceland.

I’ll acknowledge I didn’t get that point across properly. I just assumed that people would understand the point I was trying to make after reading the section on index-linked loans in Iceland. As I said, inflation directly increases household debt burden in Iceland while pay has remained static (actually gone down quite a bit if you go by the latest numbers). That’s why you can’t talk about growth in Iceland without bringing in the inflation number for context. In normal economies, 4% inflation underlying 2.6% growth doesn’t result in everybody’s loan principal increasing 4% over the year. But that’s exactly what happens in Iceland. So you have to bring inflation into every discussion on growth in Iceland.

I had assumed that after discussing the index-linking, just mentioning the inflation in the context of growth would be enough for people to get what I meant. Which was clearly dumb because there was no way of doing that without them being mind-readers.


7. Icesave

This is the root of all of this nonsense. The short version of the story is that Landsbanki, run by the convicted fraudster Björgólfur Guðmundsson (which in and of itself should have been a warning to you people), started a dodgy savings account scheme that promised unrealistic returns in the UK, Netherlands, and elsewhere, collected money from a bunch of greedy idiots, went bankrupt and the money disappeared to god knows where.

You can find a somewhat reasonable overview over the Icesave dispute on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icesave_dispute

Björgúlfur and his son, nota bene, have not been prosecuted for anything, despite being key players in the banking bubble and its subsequent collapse.

The UK and other governments promptly paid out all of the deposits in full, not limiting themselves to the amount that is guaranteed by law, then turned around and demanded that Iceland paid them back the money, with exorbitant interest rates.

Iceland said yes. The Icelandic government said yes, but added a few reasonable clauses involving payment rates and the such and sent it back to the Brits and the rest.

The British said no. Pay us everything, with loan shark interest rates, or else.

So, Iceland said yes again. The government and parliament accepted the insane terms over massive protests by Icelandic citizens. The president refused to sign it, forcing a referendum on the legislation. Icelanders overwhelmingly rejected the loan agreement.

This went back and forth a couple of times, Icelandic voters refusing to pay each time. In the end the Brits and the rest gave up and are now suing the Icelandic government in various courts to try and get the interest rates they want.

A few things to note here:

  • The Icelandic governments have always accepted the terms of the Dutch and the British. They agree with them that we should pay.
  • The voters disagree and only get a say because the president is keen on making everybody forget that he is a bankster collaborator who was in the pocket of the banks right up to the crash.
  • Icesave is being paid, no matter what Icelandic voters say. The dispute is solely about how high the interest rates are. (Bretar fá greitt.) Iceland has not refused to pay Icesave, the majority of it is paid already and the government plans to pay the rest. The dispute and the referendums have been entirely about whether we should pay loan-shark level interest rates or not.

There’s more

I could go on about how servicing household debt takes a bigger and bigger share of every Icelander’s budget, how income levels have collapsed, how the government cutbacks have resulted in massive drops in service quality, both in the health service and in the education system. I could talk about how the Icelandic government has bought wholesale into the austerity myth. I could talk about how Iceland’s nordic-style welfare system is being dismantled. I could talk about how the elderly are being starved to death or how the poor are being refused help. I could talk about the brain drain as specialists flee the country. I could talk about how product selection in grocery stores has collapsed. I could talk about the political crisis where none of the political parties dare to take a stand against the banks. I could talk about how the banks are again expanding and playing the exact same game they did in the bubble. I could go on and on but if you haven’t been listening so far, nothing else I have to say will convince you.

Of course, that means that you are an idiot who refuses to acknowledge facts, but, thankfully, being a moron is your burden to bear, not mine.

Finally, what the hell is going on?

Why are these myths being spread about Iceland? Why do people think that Iceland is a progressive paradise when in actual fact its a Thatcherite’s wet dream? Why is Iceland being paraded by the occupy movement as an example of how things should be done?

I don’t know. My theory, born out by the names of those who seem to be the sources of the biggest myths, is that there is a group of Icelanders who are blatantly lying to foreigners.

Possibly they are doing this to balm their wounded nationalistic pride, have convinced themselves that it’s true and that Iceland really is great and unique. Possibly its because they see profit in lying to gullible foreigners. The latter was a national sport during the banking bubble and has been a standard Icelandic tactic throughout the ages, but I can’t rule out the role of idiotic nationalism in this nonsense.

I don’t know. The only thing I know is that you are being lied to and that Icelanders are very good at lying to themselves. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be in this mess.


ETA: This isn’t a blog post on economics. Pointing people at the public record, what legislation was actually enacted and what wasn’t, what court cases were won and lost, who was prosecuted and not, what actions the government took and not, is not economics and not open to interpretation. You can debate about the long-term effects of the legislation that was enacted (and there’s a debate to be had there) but you cannot debate the basic facts of what was actually done and what wasn’t.

The only thing debatable in this blog post is whether you think the growth numbers are positive or not. (If you do think the growth numbers are promising, that only tells me you don’t understand the pension system crisis in Iceland, the imminent collapse of the national housing fund, or the burgeoning housing bubble, but I’ll acknowledge that you can debate these things. The rest, no, they are not up for debate. There are things that the Icelandic government did and there are things it didn’t do. Its actions are on the record.)


ETA 2: I added the following in the comments, deserves mention here.

Another thing to mention is that even if Lárus Welding loses his appeal and the six months jail + three months parole sentence is upheld, that doesn’t mean that he’ll actually be in jail for six months.

The way incarceration works in Iceland, he’s likely to be out in a halfway house with a GPS tracker on his ankle in two months, and completely free in three, serving the remaining six as parole.

And he gets to keep all of the money he made. Which was lots.

Baldur Guðlaugsson, the other major conviction mentioned, only served six months out of 24 in prison.


ETA, 29 March 2013: I’ve written a blog post about our failed attempt in Iceland at changing our constitution: “Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution is dead: the true history of Iceland’s ‘innovative’ constitutional reform.”

Books of Christmas Past

My original intention with this post was to write about beautifully designed books from past years but I admit I lost my way a bit. No matter, it was mostly an excuse to talk about a lovely book published last year called “Íslenskir fuglar” by Benedikt Gröndal.

Benedikt Gröndal was a very talented man. He was a poet, artist and a natural scientist. He was the first director of The Icelandic Natural History Society in 1889 whose main goal was to build a Museum of Natural History in Reykjavík. This guy did a lot more interesting stuff but I honestly can’t be bothered to translate it right now. Maybe some other day.

fuglar

Benedikt Gröndal did some calligraphy too.

Anyway, last year Crymogea published Íslenskir fuglar which he finished in 1900 but it was never published. In this book he documented all birds seen in Iceland before 1900. He drew them, described them and wrote down what was known about each species at the time. This book is amazing. There are two versions of it. The normal one you can buy in book stores and the special edition. The special edition is bound in leather and comes in a wooden box. They only made 100 copies and each copy is numbered. It is, of course, pretty expensive.

benediktgrondal-8

Paper package.

benediktgrondal-4

Edges.

The regular version is awesome too. It comes packed in paper and on the front is written in Benedikt Gröndal’s handwriting: “This book is my property and has nothing to do with the financial aid given to me by the Parliament”. They left in a lot of his own writing and even used his original calligraphed title page. When his own handwriting wasn’t used, they use a typewriter font so it keeps with the old manuscript feel of the whole thing.

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Lovely pattern.

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List of birds.

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No more caffeine for this owl.

The drawings are brilliant. They’re obviously not quite what they do these days but you can just feel the passion and enthusiasm he had for nature. Benedikt Gröndal was definitely a pioneer in this area in Iceland. For this one guy to sit down and meticulously document not only birds but also plants and mammals at a time when Iceland was…well lets just say things were pretty shitty. Good job Crymogea for publishing this book.

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The Great Auk. Extinct since the mid-19th century.

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Eurasian Curlew.

Now when I decided to do this post I was quite optimistic about finding more brilliantly designed books published in Iceland in the past few years but I honestly came up a bit short. I must say the design of Icelandic book covers has improved dramatically in the last couple of years.

While desperately searching through Bókatíðindi I came across a couple of books whose popularity astounded me at the time. One such book is “Sumarlandið – framliðnir lýsa andláti sínu og endurfundum í framlífinu” or “Summerland – the deceased describe their death and reunions in the afterlife”. Yes that is the title and it sold out completely before christmas 2010, was reprinted in February 2011 and sold out again.

When it shot up the bestseller list in 2010 I remember briefly thinking that maybe we are a little bit weird as a nation. But it’s really not that surprising. We do have a reputation of readily believing all sorts of stuff. The book has a good message and was published by Guðmundur Kristinsson, a writer in his eighties who has quite a bit of experience in writing about these things. According to Bókatíðindi, it was published due to encouragement from beyond and when the dead encourage something I really do think it’s best to comply. And it all worked out. I’ll bet the big publishers were a bit annoyed at this surprise bestseller.

Another book that took me completely by surprise was “Og svo kom Ferguson…” or “And then came Ferguson”. It’s about Ferguson tractors in Iceland. When I first saw it I couldn’t help but wonder who would buy this book. Turns out lots of people did. If I remember correctly it also sold out before Christmas 2010 much to my amazement but in a cultural and historical context it all makes sense. Ferguson tractors were start of mechanisation in Icelandic agriculture. Before Ferguson tractors came to the country farmers used mostly people and small horses. As someone raised in the city what would I know about the importance of tractors? Interestingly enough a second book was published in 2011, this time about Farmall tractors.

Now I’d like to end this post on a low note because, why the hell not? The following is the worst book cover I’ve ever seen. It also came out in 2010 (clearly a weird year in publishing) and its name is Blowballs all over the place (it sounds even worse in English).

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Share the pain, that’s my motto.

Yes, those are naked people with blowballs (such a silly word) as heads. And yes, this book is real. When we opened the box containing this wonder we honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s just oh so bad.

Design highlights from the Icelandic book season

Gísli from Uppsalir

Like so many professional illustrators, I just happen to work in retail. My particular expertise is actually art supplies but the store I work in also sells office supplies and books. And since now is the most exciting time in Icelandic publishing, I’d like to talk about a few books coming out in this year’s Christmas Book Flood. During this time a lot of our effort goes into piling up books on massive tables, constantly changing the prices in attempt to have the best offers and flipping through “Bókatíðindi” (Bókatíðindi is a catalogue that lists all the books published this year) trying our utmost to memorise every single book.

There are some surprisingly good book covers this year and overall lovely designs. I just want to mention some that caught my eye. Now, I’m aware that most of you can’t actually read any of these books but at least you can look at the pretty pictures.

The first one I’d like to show you is called “Gísli í Uppsölum”. It’s a book about man most people over a certain age in Iceland know about. Gísli was basically a hermit thatlived on a farm in Iceland in almost complete isolation with only his animals as company and no technology. It was only in 1984 that he was introduced to the nation through a TV show called “Stiklur”. Now we have a book about his life, his family and the bullying he endured. Definitely a must-read in my opinion.

Not only is this book interesting but it also visually stunning. There are some gorgeous photographs featured in it and instead of piling them up in the middle like so many biographies do, they blend in beautifully with the text. They’re not printed on special glossy paper but instead simply printed on the same paper as the rest of the book.

First Chapter Spread

13th chapter: the unexpected guest

Gísli dragging hey

Last example from Gísli á Uppsölum

Now another book that caught my eye for it’s clever design is called “ð ævisaga” which pretty much translates to ð a biography. It’s the story of the letter ð, from its origins in the writings of Anglo-Saxon monks and how it became an inseparable part of the Icelandic alphabet. As far as letters go, I think ð is one of the more interesting ones but this book is definitely not for everyone (although I kinda want it because I’m easily swayed by pretty covers and ð is kinda interesting and why did we start using it in the first place? I actually do sort of want to know).

The biography of the ð

I’m always attracted to simplicity and the cover of ð ævisaga is just that. And I love their use of colour. From the bright green title page to the red chapter breaks and little bits of red text. It’s very visually accessible which makes sense since there are three graphic designers involved in the writing of the book (and one historian).

Ð examples

Ð in signage

Now these are the first two books I’d like to mention but I’d also like to quickly express my  delight in the republishing of some of my favourite Scandinavian children’s literature. Ronia (by Astrid Lindgren) was one of my favourite books as a child and one of the few children’s books I could read without crying in frustration (I’m looking at you Enid Blyton). And The Brothers Lionheart (also by Astrid Lindgren) is such a lovely, heartbreaking and traumatising story. A must read for all children.

They also republished one of Ole Lund Kirkegaard’s books. I’m not sure English speakers are familiar with him but he wrote some of the weirdest, wackiest books of my childhood. In one of his books a couple of kids draw a rhino on a wall and it comes alive. Another is about a boy who’s physically weak and gets bullied at school. He then meets a witch that makes him strong for a day so he gets a chance to show up his bullies only to become weak again the next day and life goes back to the way things were. I think it’s very important for kids to read books with a good message so I really do hope they continue republishing his work.

News, updates, and the Icelandic book market

I’ve been mouthing off all over the place over the last few days, as usual.

I’ve been trying to convince my sister to blog here but she’s suffering a bit of blog anxiety.

One of the subjects she wants to blog about is one she cannot believe anybody would be interested in. The conversation went roughly as follows (translating and paraphrasing from Icelandic, of course):

Jenný: I’d like to blog about the Icelandic book market. There are a few books coming out that have unusually good covers. I’d also like to write about some of the weird and quirky books that are published here on a regular basis. And there are a few really interesting reissues of historically important Icelandic books that I think I could blog about. Do you think anybody would be interested?

Me: Awesome!

She: Does that mean you think people would be interested?

Me: Would they? Of course. Book geeks love hearing about that sort of thing. Hell, I’d love to read those posts.


Jenný remained sceptical.

My sister works in the Icelandic book industry and has a front row seat for observing the Icelandic Christmas book season. I can’t think of anybody more qualified to comment on it than her.

And I’m pretty sure that updates, weirdness, and stuff about the unique Icelandic book market would make for great blog posts. So, am I right or am I wrong? What do you guys think?

High tide and a room of your own

Under the glacier

The germ of the idea behind ‘Loot, kill, obey’ comes from two sources, one literary, one from real life.

The literary germ is going to be obvious to you once I mention it: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Specifically the scene with the wreckers towards the end.

Of course that led to a bunch of research that revealed how the whole scenario doesn’t really work, you’re more likely to wreck a ship by turning off a real lighthouse than by erecting a fake one. Which is then what I had the wreckers do in my story.

The second inspiration is a little bit more personal: my great-grandmother’s farm in Staðasveit.


My great-grandmother, María Ásmundsdóttir, was a remarkable woman. She was one of Iceland’s earliest photographers. When she was born, Iceland was a pre-industrial agricultural economy. When she died, it was an advanced western economy with high living standards, free healthcare and free education.

When María was born, a child had only a 50/50 chance of reaching the age of five (which is why life expectancy numbers are so misleading, but that’s a topic for another day). She survived tuberculosis, two wars, saw Iceland declare independence, and got to experience radio, photography, movies, cars, TV, computers, airplanes when they were new and shiny inventions nobody had quite figured out yet.

She also made a decision early in her life which meant that her descendants are cut out of the farm on Snæfellsnes.

Well, maybe cut out is too harsh a word. Her siblings’ descendants own the farm. Her own descendants don’t.

For good reason, as well.


My great-grandmother’s farm

The farm is a beautiful thing to behold. It isn’t a grand thing like you’d expect an old well-to-do farm in Europe to look like. Iceland doesn’t have cottages or estates. A nice two story building covered with corrugated iron is pretty much as grand old style as Iceland gets.

The current farmhouse was built when my great-grandmother an adult. The farmhouse she had grown up in was a traditional Icelandic turf house.

Yeah, like I said. Iceland was a pre-industrial farming economy until the 1940s.

I’ve never seen the original burstabær, it was in ruins by the time I managed to visit the place, but María lived there with her two daughters for the first few years of their life. My grandmother, Áslaug, on a good day, could recall stories and details about the old farmhouse, about a way of life that hadn’t changed much Iceland for almost two hundred years.


My great-grandmother was a single mother in the early twentieth century.

Now, anybody who is familiar with Icelandic culture knows that most Icelanders are proud to live in a country where a single mother can raise her kids without sinking into poverty, anything else is a failure of society. There’s no judgement or condemnation. You cope. Relatives help. Whatever flaws Iceland has (and there are plenty) intolerance towards single mothers isn’t one of them.

This wasn’t the case when my great-grandmother was raising her two daughters.

Iceland used to be a strict Lutheran society. Thinking bad thoughts was a sin. Everybody was a sinner. Strictness and intolerance was the norm. More things were banned than not. Iceland was one of the earliest alcohol prohibition nations and one of the latest to lift it. In one word: puritanical.

Of course, María didn’t help matters by having two children with two different men and never showing any interest in marrying them or regret about them not marrying her.


Snæfellsjökull

The farm is in an unusual location. The only way to reach it is to walk, during low tide, along the beach, with the roaring ocean on the left and sheer cliffs on the right. It’s a bit of a trek to reach the actual farmhouse from the nearest road and you have to time it so that you get to the farm before the tide comes in. Otherwise you’d be washed out into the sea.

Of course, nowadays you can also use an SUV or a proper off-road vehicle to reach the farm, but back in my great-grand-mother’s day they didn’t have that luxury.

Most Icelandic beaches are black; the sand is made out of volcanic rock ground down by the elements.

Unusually for Iceland, the beach leading to the farm is white, like one of those white sand beaches you see in the Mediterranean.

It wouldn’t look odd to a foreigner, but to me, an Icelandic college student, this was one of the few times in my life that I had actually seen a white beach and seeing one in Iceland was an alien, somewhat weird, feeling.

Seeing the famous Snæfellsjökull just ahead, hovering almost mystically over the countryside, only made the experience weirder.


Snæfellsjökull is Iceland’s most famous mountain, volcano, and glacier. Or it used to be before Eyjafjallajökull erupted. It was the opening to the underworld in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In Icelandic folklore it is Iceland’s point of greatest magical power, affecting all those who live around it in weird ways. Those born “undir jökli” (by the glacier) are said to be different from the rest of us.

Others say that it’s like a magnet for Iceland’s hidden people.

One group of cranks has congregated there on a regular basis because they believe it will be the landing site for a visiting species of benevolent aliens.


Dividing an estate caused friction. It always does. There’s something about inheritances that drives siblings to argue about things that ultimately don’t matter.

When her parents died, my great-grandmother was the cause of a schism in her family. She argued with her siblings about what should be done about the farm.

They wanted to continue to run and keep the farm. She didn’t.

Her logic was impeccable. If they kept the farm, she’d be doomed to live and work there, raising her daughters there, for the rest of her life. If they sold the farm, she could buy a flat in the capital—have a room of her own, so to speak.

In the end, she forced a sale, took the money, and moved to Reykjavík with her daughters, buying a tiny flat by Hringbraut in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær. Many years later, the descendants of her siblings bought the farm back, sans most of the land, which now belonged to a neighbouring farmer, and have been using it as a summer house since. They let the rest of us visit the place occasionally, if we ask really nicely.

María Ásmundsdóttir lived in that flat for most of the rest of her life, only moving into a home during the absolute last years of her life.

That small flat at one point housed six people when my grandmother moved back in with her mother with her four children after she left her husband. The flat was a life saver.

My great-grandmother spent the rest of her life sewing, painting, and photographing. She held her first gallery show of her paintings when she was eighty. Her daughters only found that she had suffered from glaucoma when she told them about the operation that fixed it, after the fact. She, a half-blind octogenarian, had managed to conceal her half-blindness, organise the operation and doctor’s appointments, and make her way to the operation all without any help from anybody.

Then she went back to painting, sewing, and taking photographs.

She was an awesome woman whose frequent criticisms of people were both brutal and especially stinging because she invariably had a solid point. There were times when she was absolutely terrifying. I miss having her around as she was one of the few people who had a tendency to be even blunter than I am.


From the last leg of the trek to the farm

The small town of Galti in “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” is inspired by my great-grandmother’s farm. The beach-side walk that is only passable during low tide, the horizon lined with mountains, the small dock and simple buildings are all drawn from my memories of that place.

And, although none of them are based on, María, my great-grandmother, the memory of her and the other awe-inspiring women in my family are the motivation for the creation of the female characters in all of my stories.

In Loot, Kill, Obey, four of the five main characters are women, as are two main ‘bad guys’. The sorcerer Cadence, a character in Knights and Necromancers 1 (and in stories five and six), was created because I wanted a character who was, frankly, as intimidating as some of these women were in real life.

You don’t see truly intimidating women that often in fiction even though they are all over the place in real life.

I hope I can change that a little bit.


You can buy “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, on the iBookstore, and from Kobo.

Or, possibly for a limited time, you can read it for free online.