Tuesday 5 October 2021

1989 Oslo


Oslo – why Oslo?  I have been here before for a press trip – to Norsk Data – since plunged into the red, as predicted – probably because it took irrelevant journos like me on junkets.  My vision of the city was a fleeting one.  But pleasant.  Going north to colder climes and dour people was attractive.  I needed to get away for various reasons.  As soon as I arrived at the airport, it felt right.

Oslo is so neat and civilised.  There are fountains everywhere, attractive blonde women, long broad streets, a lack of tall buildings.  Everything is on a human scale.  Vastly exciting, it is not: the what's on guide is embarrassing in its paucity of offerings.  I arrived at 11am, and went straight to my hotel – the Savoy (sic) on Universitetsgata.  Then a wander down to the tourist office to pick up maps and info.

I am now in the café of the Grand Hotel, eating reindeer liver pate – very strong.  The price of food is terrifying here.  Across from me is the Stortinget, a Romanesque fantasy which reminds me of the Victoria & Albert MuseumKarl Johans Gate reminds me of Helsinki.  Beautiful weather – hot sun, cool air.  Good news: no  smoking in public places; bad news: cyclists on the pavements.

In the Slottet grounds: two guardsmen in navy blue, with green epaulettes and feathered helmets, walk with a strange formal loping, left hand on their belt at the front, right hand swinging.  Earlier, I saw a procession with brass band – for the changing of the guard?  The palace is a rather modest affair, a miniature Buckingham Palace, two guards on duty, talking to passers-by.  The creamy, yellow colour seems quite common here: most of the older buildings seem eighteenth, nineteenth century.  They look like those in Leningrad.

After lunch, to the Nasjonalmuseet.  A few good old masters – especially Delacroix, interesting Norwegians – the stunning scenery makes "landskips" a doddle – and the cream of the Munch.  Strange pix for such an urbane-looking young man in his self-portrait.  "The Sick Girl" is slashed by deep lines – a battle of a surface.  "The Scream" is thin and almost a sketch.  The door to the Nasjonalmuseet very heavy – as have been several others – I almost gave up.  As in England, young mothers with kids everywhere.  

9.45pm – out into the cold rain – and a surprise: it's light.  I had forgotten this consequence of northward travel.  Otherwise an evening watching French, Norwegian and Swedish TV – plus Sky and Super Channel – the last two dire.


A grey morning, but clearing.  Out to the Munch Museet.  The Oslo underground is new and ultra-clean.  A wonderful smell.  And expensive.  Out to the suburbs, full of neat blocks of flats.  The museum is a low squarish building, easy to miss.  Rather fewer pix inside than I expected.  But big rooms full of wild garish colours.  I was pleased that most were familiar.  Interesting that those in the Nasjonalmuseet are often duplicated here – "Skrik", "Pubertet", "The Sick Girl".  New were the etchings.  Best of these were eight of "The 
Sick Girl" in close up – obsessional reworkings, all the more effective for the cumulative impact of the eight versions.  A very personal vision, but once again, I am glad I am not a painter.

Back on the T-banen, then to the harbour to take a boat out to Bygdøy.  Glorious weather now, scudding clouds, stiff breeze.  It is the first time I have looked out into the fjord.  Low islands across the sparkling water.  In the harbour a gleaming tall ship, three or four masts.  A proud beauty.  As we pull out, I see the castle which I must visit.  Looks unimpressive compared to Brit stuff.  Nice modern architecture along the harbour – why can't the Docklands get this?  Mooring on Bygdøy, then I walk to the Folkemuseum.  Very plush here: BMWs in quiet roads outside immaculate weatherboard houses, white in the sun.

I am sitting in the famous Stave Church – thirteenth century, and one of the most remarkable buildings I have ever seen.  Unlike most, it feels authentically old.  Outside is like some hazy northern pagoda. Both the church and the other buildings have a strange and wonderful property: their spaces seem particularly real.  That is, the space is won and constructed.  Modern buildings are typically divorced entirely from the outside space: there is no relation between in and out.  Here the two communicate, perhaps because the imperfections of the buildings never let you forget the act of construction.  The assemblage of these old empty buildings is touching.  As is the old ghost town which has been constructed.

It is starting to rain, so in to the Folkemuseum proper.  [Parenthetically, in the Munch Museet, three glorious portraits: Ibsen, Strindberg and Nietzsche.  It is strange how each seems defined by their facial hair.]  I write this in the old assembly room, a northern, scaled-down version of Palladio's Teatro Olimpico.   The museum is deserted.  I am left only with the smell of old wood and leather, and the still gazes from beneath wigs and perukes.  This place is thick with time.  To the building opposite.  A crazy exhibit of log chains.  Glorious smell of pine.

To the Viking Ship Museum.  Aptly enough, this is in the form of a church-like cross, three ships in three arms.  And what ships.  Black monsters, superbly preserved.  Very shallow draught, and intricately ornamented on the prow and stern.  And the carriages and sleds.  It is hard to connect these fearsome Viking images with the civilised people here today.  A nation which changed the face of England, France, Sicily, Russia and elsewhere.

Back on the boat to a sunny late Saturday afternoon in Oslo.  Most of the shops were shut by 3 o'clock.  I am now sitting down from the Stortinget, in an open air café – exorbitant but worth it.  The rows of elms are a bright, young green; the horse chestnut is a mass of leaves.  Behind the latter, more fountains susurrate.  Everywhere there are pretty, attractive blonds.  Blue skies.  "Selig", as a poet once said.


Glorious weather: strong sun, refreshing breeze.  Out to Frognerparken to see the Vigeland sculptures.  Those on the bridge as less impressive than those around the column.  The latter are more varied and inventive, and gain from their grouped setting.  The rock is beautiful: it looks so sensuous.  The carving is remarkable for its consistency.  The column is artful: lower down the basic lines are flat; then a diagonal enters – a left corkscrew into the sky.  At the top, verticals.  But I can't help feeling more tapering would have helped.  Aren't women's buttocks wonderful?  From the column, you get a splendid view down the alley to the road.  Hordes of tourists disembark like locusts.  Alongside the simple strength of the granite figures, they look mean and tawdry.

The main fountain is impressive – even in this city of fountains.  The bronze figures surrounding it are curious: they stand or crouch beneath trees; the trees look like alien flora from a Dan Dare comic strip.  

Last night, walking home from dinner at Mona Rosa's, I passed a young woman sobbing violently as she sat in a doorway.  What could I do?  You can't comfort in a foreign tongue.  I walked on, but felt sick at heart.

I am sitting in the chapel of the Akershus Fortress.  An organist – typically attired in suit and organist glasses – has just entered and started playing a strongly modal piece on some softer stops.  Outside the sun breaks through white and dark clouds, sending blurred images of the windows onto the blue carpet in front of me.  This is a real Sunday.  The sound and the occasional fluffs remind me of the short time I learnt the organ.  I was still at secondary school, but I remember driving to a church for practice.  I had to knock someone up for the key.  I remember vividly the smell when the door opened, the fat man wiping a hand over his greasy mouth, chewing still.  I had disturbed his dinner.  The air was think with lower-class living; children squealed distantly.  Once, upon obtaining the key, I went into the church to find a corpse laid out in its coffin.  It was cold and the darkness seemed thick around the light on the organ.  But it all seemed appropriate too.

Old glass in the church windows.  Seven o'clock and still as warm as an English summer's afternoon – the sun as high.  After the concert – before an audience of 12 – I have spent most of the afternoon near Stortinget, sitting in the sun, drinking coffee, watching the world – and young ladies – go by.  Unfortunately these erstwhile Vikings are smokers.

Dinner: devastating avocado, prawns, roe and cream; then reindeer medallions followed by summer fruits in champagne.  This lack of night is so disconcerting.  I am sitting on the wharf side opposite Akershus Slott (Akers is Oslo's river), which is eerily illuminated in the gloaming by sodium glare.  There is a very impressive waterside development here – far better than Docklands.  One warehouse has been converted into shops and boîtes – very lively.  But who are all these boys and girls in red/blue boiler suits?  And what are they selling?  To my left, the Rådhuset blocks stand out like blocks of patterned chocolate.  Half moon tonight.  The smell of sawdust in the air; new buildings behind.


Beautiful morning again.  A walk round the deserted city – a holiday today.  Then to the cathedral, the bells ringing clangorously with wonderful software discords of major seconds.  Inside, and I am immediately back in Helsinki cathedral – a memory long lost.  A Greek cross with a low crossing painted with a wild pointillist frieze.  Gilt everywhere.  I preferred Helsinki.

To the Rådhuset, which really is a beautiful building.  The dark brickwork conceals a wealth of detail – diagonally set bricks, rose circles.  It is, obviously, a very vertical building, emphasised by the tall vertical slots above the regularly placed windows.  Also, the squat central building throws the two flanking towers into prominence.  The astrological clock is a superb stroke: like an intricate jewel on a great flowing robe, it draws the eye in.

There are many races here: orientals, blacks, Arabs, other Europeans.  It will be interesting to see if the melting pot melts.

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