How to be hot in Iceland (the country)

I was invited to Iceland by a group of activists who read 'The Independent' on the internet
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The Independent Online

The nation of Iceland, I can reveal, is becoming more fascinating than ever. It's not always easy to relate this, because after a visit there, you find yourself having the following exchange several times in a row: "I've just been to Iceland." – "What? The shop?" As if anything could happen in Iceland (the shop) that would be worth beginning a conversation with. So the next time it happens I might just agree and say armed robbers burst in yelling: "Fill this sack with crinkle chips – NOW!"

The nation of Iceland, I can reveal, is becoming more fascinating than ever. It's not always easy to relate this, because after a visit there, you find yourself having the following exchange several times in a row: "I've just been to Iceland." – "What? The shop?" As if anything could happen in Iceland (the shop) that would be worth beginning a conversation with. So the next time it happens I might just agree and say armed robbers burst in yelling: "Fill this sack with crinkle chips – NOW!"

I was invited to Iceland the country by a group of activists who read The Independent on the internet. So this paper is a route to Icelandic stardom. And I'm only in it once a week; Donald Macintyre would be mobbed at the airport by teenage girls, screaming at him to do the one about the likely effect of a euro referendum on the Liberal Democrats.

They've certainly grasped new technology. Everyone is constantly on their mobile phone, so you know the population must be an even number, because if it was an odd number, there'd be someone not on the phone, and they'd be exiled in disgrace. And they're eagerly embracing the tourist industry, setting up attractions such as the "Viking Centre" where you can go and watch a Viking opera sung by fat actors with a tankard and a hat with horns. The advert says it's authentic but it can't be, because I always thought the point about Vikings is they came to you. If it was authentic you wouldn't need a centre, you'd pay your 2,000 krones, then they'd burn your hotel down and steal your sister.

More authentic is the maze of nightclubs, all packed with alarmingly friendly revellers of all ages, in which the only tension came at five o' clock when I announced I was going home. "Home?" they spluttered, "but it's only five o' clock" and I realised from their hurt expression I'd said the Icelandic equivalent of "I curse your God and spit on your mother's grave."

As well as the clubs there are countless live bands, including a splendid rapper called Rottweiler who raps in Icelandic, presumably about drive-by shootings from a dog sled. The sociability of the place is helped by the fact that everyone seems to know everyone. I heard a wonderful punk band, whose album includes a song that ends "Prince Charles, you seduced that chick/ You're a polo-playing prick", but couldn't find their record, so one of my hosts just rang the guitarist and a couple of hours later he dropped it round. If you tried that with Britney Spears I bet she wouldn't be round for over a week.

But as with most of the world, no matter how varied and exhilarating the differences, the arguments about how the place should be run are familiar. Mainstream politicians insist there can be no interfering with the free market, to the extent that Prime Minister Oddsson boasts that Margaret Thatcher recently told a friend of his that she was a fan of his policies. So no project takes place unless there's something in it for big business. For example, a new aluminium smelter and power plant is to be built, backed by a handful of businessmen who it will make richer than ever, though most people oppose it, including Bjork's mum, who is so outraged she spent three weeks on hunger strike. Surely the fairest way to settle that dispute is to get Don King to promote a fight between Bjork and Margaret Thatcher.

And while the old left now backs privatisation and the war on Iraq, a new left group of Independent-reading activists campaigns vigorously against both and won 9 per cent of the vote in the last election, giving them 6 MPs out of 63. So Iceland and Brazil are moving in the same direction. Those who voted for Lula in Brazil would recognise the Icelandic proposals to cut public spending and introduce student fees, and their assurance that George Bush can use their military base on the way to Iraq. The similarities are such that both countries are capable of astounding feats at football, one winning the World Cup and the other losing to Scotland.

The events I spoke at were packed with young enthusiastic opponents of the war, and I was invited on to the Sunday afternoon political chat show with the Icelandic Jonathan Dimbleby. At one point on air I told of the moment I realised I was no longer a youthful activist, saying, "I was singing along to the Rage Against the Machine chorus that goes, to paraphrase, "Screw you, I won't do what you tell me", then I realised I was doing this while I was Hoovering." The presenter looked puzzled and said, "But surely the song goes "fuck you", not "screw you"."

"But we're on television," I mumbled. "It's OK", he said." I replied, "If this was Newsnight on the BBC, by now the lights would have gone out, the studio would be surrounded and the gas would be pouring in. "Really?" he said, and asked if I thought the Conservatives could recover under Iain Duncan Smith. What a fantastic country.

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