Britain for sale: The Icelandic invasion

They fought us over cod, and now they are taking over our high streets, our pop charts, our television screens - even our football clubs. By Jonathan Brown
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It may boast a population barely higher than that of Reading and be stuck out on its own in the middle of the Atlantic, yet Iceland, famed for its fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and its determination to repel British trawlers seeking cod in its territorial waters, is reaching out to the world in surprising ways.

Tycoons from the island are buying up areas of British national life. This week West Ham Football Club was snapped up by a consortium financed by the Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, while many of the names on the high street are controlled from Reykjavik. In addition, Icelandic pop stars, artists and television programme-makers have made their mark on British culture.

Norse lore has it that Iceland was discovered by the sailor Naddoddr who, on losing his way en route to the Faroes, drifted ashore to a place he named Snoeland. The island attracted Celtic and Norse settlers over the next few centuries.

A volcanic eruption killed 9,000 people in 1783, wiping out 80 per cent of the island's livestock, while a series of harsh winters heralded mass migrations.

Iceland was granted autonomy from Denmark in 1874 and sovereignty in 1918. The Allies retook it from the Nazis in 1940 and 25,000 British troops were stationed there. The country was a Cold War ally of the West but developed economic links with Russia after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Relations with Britain have not always run smoothly and control over the fishing grounds has been a running sore between the two nations. Trouble began in 1893 when British trawlers were banned from fishing in Icelandic waters. The issue remained unresolved and resurfaced in 1958 when Iceland unilaterally expanded its fishing rights. The conflict became known as the Cod War. A series of clashes ensued and culminated in a stand-off when HMS Russel threatened to sink an Icelandic naval vessel. Britain eventually backed down.

Another round of hostilities flared in 1972 when Iceland increased its territorial waters again. Diplomats eventually reached a settlement. But the conflict ignited once more in November 1975 when Iceland increased its territorial waters to 200 nautical miles. After a series of rammings which nearly resulted in the capsize of an Icelandic trawler, Britain agreed to respect Iceland's territorial claims after it threatened to close an important Nato base. Iceland had won.


Until the arrival of Christianity 1,000 years ago, Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder, was one of the Icelandic settlers most powerful deities. The symbol of the hammer remains a popular one on the island to this day. So it is perhaps fitting that it should be a consortium led by the Icelander Eggert Magnusson, left, that has snapped up West Ham, the east London football club known to its fans as the Hammers.

The power behind the throne of the deal is another Icelander, the billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson. A former footballer himself, the tycoon made much of his fortune in the buccaneering and dangerous world of the post-Soviet capitalist experiment in Russia. It was the successful sale of a St Petersburg brewing business that built the bedrock of the fortune that fans hope will transform the future of West Ham.

British football fans have already seen ample evidence of Icelandic prowess on the pitch. The country has been well represented in England in recent years. Eidur Gudjohnsen, left, the captain of the national side, played six seasons for Chelsea, and survived the influx of talent paid for by the millions of pounds invested by another billionaire, Roman Abramovich. He moved to Barcelona in the summer. Herman Hreidarsson, currently with Charlton, has been playing in top-flight English football for nearly 10 years.


Who can forget the famous IcePop invasion of the late 1980s and early 1990s? In its vanguard marched the whimsical Sugarcubes, hailed at the time as the saviours of popular music.

Perhaps their lasting legacy was unleashing on an unsuspecting world the unique and temperamental talents of Bjork Gudmundsdottir. Known by her first name, she went on two produce more than a dozen albums, selling 15 million records worldwide.

As well as acting in a number of films, including the late Robert Altman's Prêt à Porter, she became almost as famous for her private life as for her professional work, not to mention her decision to wear an outlandish "swan dress" to the 2001 Oscars.

There was also an infamous encounter when she rounded on a journalist at Bangkok airport who, she claimed, was frightening her child.

Then there was the case of a deranged fan who filmed himself while constructing an acid bomb intended for the star. The device was intercepted and the fan killed himself.

However, there was more to IcePop than Bjork. The ethereal, experimental Sigur Ros have left a lasting musical legacy in Britain, collaborating with Radiohead in 2003. Music from the band's recent album Takk features as the soundtrack to the BBC's Planet Earth and was used during television coverage of England's recent World Cup campaign.

On the classical front, the mezzo-soprano Thora Hallgrimsdottir has been performing in London for the past four years, while the tenor Gardar Thor Cortes also boasts an international following.


Having solved Iceland's childhood sloth problem single-handed, Magnus Scheving, aka Sporticus, has been in the process of exporting his Lazytown phenomenon around the world this year.

The children's show, devised, produced by and starring the former aerobics champion, espouses a philosophy of healthy eating and zestful activity.

The Icelandic government credited it with helping boost the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables there by 22 per cent and for reversing the childhood obesity curve. It is topping the ratings in the UK and is the fastest-growing show in the US, where it is shown on the Nickelodeon channel.

Lazytown has been nominated for a Bafta this year and a further 18 shows are planned for next. Each episode is filmed at a specially built studio in the Icelandic tundra and a recent visitor was Quentin Tarantino, allegedly seeking inspiration for a film.

Before the arrival of Scheving, Britain's best-known Icelandic television celebrity was Magnus Magnusson. Born in Reykjavik but brought up in Edinburgh, the former journalist presented the BBC's Mastermind for 25 years before handing over to John Humphrys, who continues to use Magnusson's catchphrase: "I've started so I'll finish."


Olafur Eliasson tapped skillfully into the British obsession with the weather when he embarked on his audacious installation to fill the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2003.

The Weather Project proved to be an instant success, drawing vast crowds to the converted Bankside power station to stare in awe at the effects of sun and mist he created. Thousands of visitors took in the work by simply lying on their backs facing the ceiling. It was suspected many of the reveries were assisted by illegal drugs or drink. Sheer numbers created something of an inconvenience for gallery staff.

Iceland's most famous writer is Halldor Laxness, the author ofThe Fish Can Sing and Independent People. The devout Catholicexplores themes of peace and war in his books - particularly his native Iceland's dislocation from the fighting in the Second World War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 having won the Stalin International Award in 1949.


From toys to frozen food, to leading fashion, Iceland exerts a unique grip over the British high street.

The fashion chains Oasis, Karen Millen and Whistles are all partly owned by the Icelandic Baugur Group, which is also the company behind the toy store Hamleys, the department store House of Fraser and, perhaps inevitably, the supermarket Iceland.

The company began as a single food shop in Reykjavík 17 years ago. Founded by Johannes Jonsson and his son, Jon Asgeir Johannesson, below, the store Bonus promised the lowest priced food in Iceland. Within three years, the store expanded nationwide.

After merging with another Icelandic supermarket chain in 1992, the company changed to Baugur - which means Ring of Steel - and started acquiring companies overseas.

Last year in the UK, the Baugur Group bought the jewellers Mappin and Webb, the high street fashion chain Jane Norman and the Big Food Group, owner of Iceland supermarket and Booker cash and carry. This year, it added the tea company Whittard of Chelsea and House of Fraser.

As well as owning shares of media and telecoms companies in Iceland, Baugar also part owns department stores and property companies in Denmark.

Mr Johannesson's hard work has paid off; he is now 751st on the Sunday Times Rich List and is estimated to be worth £65m.

Other Icelandic entrepreneurs include Agust Gudmundsson of convenience food maker Bakkavor Group and Kristjan and Jan Olafsson who run Room Service, a company that delivers food from more than 80 restaurants to homes in London.

In the City, Armann Thorvaldsson and Kristin Petursdottir run the UK-based banking group Singer & Friedlander. The boutique investment bank provides loans services for people buying yachts, planes and houses.