The way mad-eyed Helga told us the story it went like this. The troll-queen Skadi was angry with the Norse gods for having killed her father, so she came to Asgard looking for reparation or vengeance. It was decided that the only way to buy her off would be to marry her to one of the gods, but Skadi refused unless they could perform one impossible task—to make her laugh. None of the gods had any idea about how this was to be accomplished until the crafty Loki got hold of a goat, tied one end of a rope to its beard and the other (Helga gestures) “round here”. The goat then went one way, Loki’s person went the other and the troll-queen laughed.
That was the only act of propitiation I heard about in four days spent in the Trondelag region of central Norway. Otherwise no one was asked to appease or understand anyone else. The farmlands and hills, the fjords and small towns harboured no people who wanted to blow complete strangers to caliphate come. After the last month in London with the raids, headlines and sirens it was an odd kind of relief to be in a place that was so completely unthreatened. It got light at 4am and dark at midnight and in all those 20 hours of day I didn’t see a single flashing blue light.
Except on Saturday, which was the day that the king came to Stiklestad. Harald V, a tall, balding, smiley kind of monarch in a sober suit, had arrived in the small town to celebrate the anniversary of the death in battle of Norway’s first Christian king, Olav Haraldsson. Back in July of 1030 King Olav had fallen while fighting against an insurgent coalition of local nobles. His astute supporters had subsequently characterised the struggle as being between Christianity and paganism, had discovered a series of miracles performed by King Olav, so carried his body back to Trondheim, and declared him a martyr for his faith.
Every year since 1954 a play about Olav the Holy (also apparently known in his day as Olav the Fat) has been performed at a huge open-air amphitheatre in Stiklestad. Over the course of a week 50,000 people show up for the performances, to look around the museum, buy ocarinas at the medieval craft fair and meet their friends. Mad-eyed Helga was giving a pair of us Britons a tour of the museum when she told us about Loki’s slapstick, and the flashing blue lights were on the two small police cars that had accompanied King Harald and Queen Sonya to the play.
Such a security arrangement might not seem particularly intimidating to many of us who have been in Britain for the last month, or who have passed through a British airport recently, but I was assured by one of the play’s organisers that events in London had indeed affected their preparations. There were, apparently, several plain-clothes detectives mingled with the crowd (I saw just one). And this year each one of the 100 men, women and teenagers dressed up as the Viking-age soldiers from Olav’s army, and between whose ranks the modern king entered the amphitheatre, had been security vetted—just in case their number had been infiltrated by any terrorist interlopers who might have taken advantage of the weapons and the proximity to wallop the smiley king over the shiny head with an historically correct axe.
It was not, however, easy to imagine such a thing. In the Trondelag we were a universe away from the Middle East, from the clash of civilisations that some people seem so anxious to have, from bottles of explosive with nails stuck to them and from Paddington Green police station. Up there Heckler & Koch are probably a pair of Arctic comedians.
To judge by the Stiklestad festival most Norwegians live very comfortably and are almost absurdly law-abiding. They are also all white. Over the four days there and in Trondheim I saw thousands and thousands of Norwegians and liked them immensely as a group. But in all that time I only saw one dark face—one little boy as he tried his hand at archery—and the only immigrant I met was a German silversmith now living in Tromso. Nothing could be more different from the Babel of London than this homogeneous society where someone from Oslo stands out, let alone someone from Cairo.
Such a prospect pleases some people now. A homogeneity like this means not worrying about the sons of Somali refugees, the descendants of Mirpuri peasants, about the occasional madrassa-educated malcontent or the prison convert. This complete Norwegianness could suggest a possible future Britishness, insulated against outside shocks by closed borders and an insistence on cultural conformity.
I was struck, on returning home yesterday morning, by a letter in Saturday’s paper from a Mr Stuart Millson, of West Malling in Kent. Mr Millson complained about the Balkanisation of Britain and—while professing the “greatest respect to people of that religion”—singled out the “large scale presence of Islam in our cities” as “one of the factors that has eroded the Britishness of Britain”. He was suggesting, I think, that we needed somehow to reverse the history of the past few years and return to a period of greater homogeneity.
I don’t know why, but some synaptic spark flew and prompted me to enter Mr Millson’s name and town into an internet search engine. There I discovered that Mr Millson is no Mr Joe Public on the subject of Britishness. Unless there is a school of Stuart Millsons in Malling, then he is also an activist in the Freedom Party, the editor of a magazine called Right Now, a former member of the British National Party and someone who dined with the leader of the French National Front, Jean Marie le Pen. Mr Millson is also, I would guess, the same man who recently wrote an article criticising the Queen for praising multiculturalism in her Christmas address.
None of this of itself necessarily makes him wrong about the problems of diversity. Others have said what he has said since July 7 and even more have thought it. Myself, I see intolerance of difference and of freedom as a problem that is not monopolised by over-zealous imams. In Norway the TV news also brought us the story of the black boy axed to death on an evening street in Merseyside.
But even suppose you could turn the date back to 1950 and a British society as white as Narvik in January, and as Christian as St Olav’s tomb, is that really what we would want? The play in Stiklestad has been performed since the year that I was born. In the programme there were photographs of performances going back to 1954. In all that time the only thing that has really changed has been the position of the orchestra. Otherwise the characters look the same, the set is the same, even the tree-trunk where the blind man sits is in the same position. A country like Britain can’t be like that.
I’d rather we continued to be dynamic and ever-changing. To defy our enemies our best weapons are a goat, a rope and a bit of imagination.