Sigrun Davidsdottir: the kreppa

 Dr. John Tucker and Sigurn Davidsdóttir
Photo by W. D. Valgardson
Sigrun Davidsdóttir´s third Beck lecture was a smashing success. Luckily, Trish Baer and John Tucker had anticipated the crowd and had booked a regular room plus a larger room. Well before the lecture was to start, we all  had to move to the larger room.
It may be that people love hearing about disasters. It may be Sigrun´s reputation. It may be that people are fascinated by Iceland and all the bits and pieces they´ve heard about the economic crash over the past four years.  Maybe it was a bit of all three but the audience was intent and after the lecture, the question period went on for a long time. Sigrun is good at answering questions. Here answers were clear and to the point.
She started off saying that Iceland lost 80% of its financial sector from 2008-2011. That got people’s attention.
She called the story about the crash a saga with thirty protagonists, several hundred fellow travelers and a whole nation of spectators.
Her position, living in London, England, reporting for Icelandic radio, with a father and brother who were both bankers, gave her a unique position from which to observe and analyze what has happened.
She emphasized, once again, that the collapse of a bank or an economic system is not a natural event. It is an event caused by some people.  No one person can do it alone so other people have to be involved. And, a lot more know what is going on but refuse to admit it.
There were the fellow travelers. The politicians, the people who worked in the banks, then there were the general population who saw what was going on but didn’t understand it.
As Sigrun talked about the Kreppa, I couldn’t help but think of the Costa Concordia. Ships don’t run onto the rocks by themselves. There was the captain. There were his senior officers. There were all the people who might have noticed something was amiss and there were all the people on the ship who were forced to be participants against their will.
Sigrun took us back in time and gave us an historical context for the crash. Iceland has several political parties. The Conservatives have been the political backbone of the system. The Independent party brought about changes to the Icelandic fisheries. Quotas could e bought and sold. This was done in such a way that quotas that hadn’t been purchased could be sold for large amounts of money. This brought an inflow of money into the Icelandic market.
As well, the banks were privatized in 2003. The banks had been controlled by political parties and many people thought the privatization would end the political influence but it didn’t. Other changes were made so that there could be international business companies that aren’t owned by anyone in the country. All these changes were part of a dream to make Iceland a financial centre.
Iceland, Sigrun pointed out, is a country of contacts. Who you know is critical to how well you get ahead.
Who you know if more important than what you know. From 2002-2006 there was record growth, record profits. But in 2006 the Geysir crises occurred. It was a mini crisis. Financial institutions outside of Iceland started to pay attention to what was going on in Iceland. Other banks started to give Icelandic banks bad reviews. The Icelandic banks were not being funded by the Icelandic people. Instead, bonds were being issued to outside organizations.
From 2006-2008 a difficult time started with short spells of things going well. The credit crunch had begun.
When she was working in Copenhagen she started having questions about the Icelandic economy because businessmen would contact her saying they were going to set up businesses but the businesses never were started. In London in 2005, 2006, Icelandic businessmen were happy but other business people dealing with them were not.  One Swedish banker described Icelandic businessmen as teenagers.
I was amused by this description. I immediately remembered the year that Landsbanki representatives came to Gimli. They set up a display at Islindingadagurinn with the intent, I was told, of getting people to invest. Iceland was offering stupendous rates on its bonds while other countries were offering paltry amounts. I asked a friend if he was going to invest in the bank. He said no, he only had a few thousand dollars to invest and the people from Iceland weren’t interested in anything under a million dollars. The lecture brought back a host of memories from the years just before the crash.
Teenagers are known for their enthusiasm but they aren’t great managers. Not surprisingly, things started to come apart. There were attempts to save the banks. The Central bank was aware that the banks were running out of liquidity. The UK offered financial advice. It was ignored. One gets the impression of incredible arrogance on the part of the Icelanders involved. There was a meeting with UK authorities in 2008, the Icelanders promised all sorts of things to make the situation better. None of the promises were kept. After a meeting with the Icelanders about the ICE SAVE accounts, after the Icelanders left the room, the UK minister said to his people don’t believe anything these people say.  Icelandic financial credibility was gone.
The banks collapsed. This created a power vacuum. For ordinary people there was a sense of relief by the end of December. There had been tremendous pressure for everyone to make money.If people weren’t making large amounts of money, they felt they were being left out and were failures. With the collapse, the pressure disappeared.
After Oct 2008, the banks were split into domestic and foreign. The foreign  banks went bankrupt. Currency controls were put in place.  A special prosecutor’s office was set up. A thousand page report on the crises was released. After that, it was not possible for the people responsible to say that they did not know what was happening.
What were the things that were done that brought about the crash? Sigrun gave us a list. It was shocking.
1.       The banks had favoured clients.
2.       There was unsecured lending.
3.       Loans, when they came due, were rolled over.
4.       There were no margin calls.
5.       Clusters of companies were set up off-shore. They were given huge amounts of money.
6.       There were big schemes and small schemes of various kinds.
 For example, one man had 6 companies. The assets that were worth something were put into one of these companies and the debts put into another. The one with the assets he would keep and the one with the debts would go bankrupt and the bank and its depositors would lose.
The big losers in all this were the foreigners who had loaned the Iceland banks money. German creditors took a huge loss. Icelanders who had some money to invest, lost. People with foreign exchange loans. The pension funds.The all lost.
As vast as this credit crash was, with so many people both in Iceland and abroad affected, there were only a small number of people who directly caused it. Sigrun estimates about fifty. Many people at the centre of the crash haven’t suffered. They’ve managed to hang onto money through various schemes.
However, the law grinds slowly but it does grind and, it is inclined to grind very finely. The first charges have been laid. There will be others.
The lecture was packed with information. It sparked an array of questions. What more could one ask? The topic, of course, is so complicated and vast that it could be the topic of an entire semester’s course.
The Richard and Margaret Beck trust is a foundation set up by the Becks for lectures on Iceland. 

Sigrun Davidsdottir: combining journalism and fiction

Sigrun Davidsdóttir´s second Beck lecture was on the combining of her role as an international journalist and a fiction writer. Along with her career as a journalist, writing for Icelandic radio but also for major international publications, she has also written novels and children´s stories, her latest novel being Samhengi  hlutana. This is a combination in which I,  personally, am interested.

There are historic precedents, for example, Hemingway was both journalist and fiction writer. Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage) worked as a reporter. Mark Twaine worked as a journalist. So, even though the two worlds of journalism and creative writing seem quite separated, the one built of facts, the other of imagination, those two worlds have quite successfully come together many times, in many ways. I have  never been able to see this great gjá that separates the two. It is true that there are reporters, journalists who lack imagination and equally true that there are fiction writers who are too lazy to research their facts. But that is a failing of individuals, not of a failing of the professions.

Sigrun, like all Icelanders, even though she h as lived abroad since 1988, has been affected by the kreppa, the economic crises or crash of 2008. Because she was reporting on the crash and its effects on people, she built up a store of knowledge. From that, she wanted to create a novel because a novel can tell the story that, at this stage, may not yet appear in the newspaper.

This most recent novel, Samhengi  hlutana, takes place in London and Reykjavik during the years 2002-2010.

She says she was inspired by a variety of writers.

Leif Davidsen is one  of those. He‘s a Danish author, educated as a journalist, he worked as a freelance journalist, began covering news from Russia for Danmarks Radio. He was stationed in Moscow. Since returning to Denmark, he‘s been writing political thrillers.

John Grisham, of course is well known. He learned his material working as a lawyer and turned that knowledge into novels like The Firm. 

Chris Morgan Jones wrote An Agent of Deceit. The author worked at a business intellience agency for eleven years advising Russian oligarchs and he uses the material he‘s learned to create a thriller.

All of these novelists, although they helped move her toward writing a novel about the Kreppa, were unsatisfactory. Their short comings were that the reader doesn‘t get to know the financial information, the tax evasion schemes are never completely explained. She wanted her readers to know what happened in Iceland.

If anyone was a direct influence it would be Peter Hoeg‘s novel Smilla‘s Sense of Snow.

In Writing Into Reality, she wants a credible story, a world the reader can step into and believe. She wants a balance of reality and fiction. Reality can‘t get in the way of the story but the facts still  have to be right. If the story is well told, it shouldn‘t matter from where the readers come from. This is a good attitude because, today, with ebooks and international publishing readers may be in Japan, India, Russia and any number of other countries.

 Like all authors, she wants her book to be a page turner. She wants the reader get to the last page. The thriller often has a set structure/plot but Sigurn didn‘t want her book categorized as a thriller. She was going to write a novel set in Venice in the 18th C. Instead, 2008 happened. The result was a book set in the present, a book in which she wants to take the reader through the mental landscape of the crash. It isn‘t just the financial manipulation that matters but the way of thinking by the participants.

That, the desire to create the psychological and moral (or immoral) landscape of the people who created the crash, was the most interesting element she mentioned. In a way, she is following in the footsteps of Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage where he describes the inner world of a young soldier. The focus is on the mind of the character.

Sigrun repeated many times that economic crashes are not acts of nature. They are created by people. In many cases, a small group of people. In Iceland, the crash may have been created by as few as fifty people but then there were all the others who went along with what was happening or, who refused to see the evidence in front of them, of what was happening.

The crash occurred because of choices some people made. Who wanted the banks privatized? Who worked together to get it done? Who set up a system of loans without collateral? Nature didn‘t do it. Some people did it? What were they like, how did they think, what were their morals, motives?

Let‘s hope that Samhengi  hlutan, Not A Single Word, gets published in English.

Icelandic food through history

Trish Baer and Sigrun Davidsdottir (photo credit, WDValgardson)
Sigrun Davidsdóttir gave a lecture called “Icelandic Cuisine: from poverty to pizza” on Sunday, 26 February, at the University of Victoria. Her visit was arranged and sponsored under the auspices of The Richard and Margaret Beck Trust which is administered by Patricia Baer and Dr. John Tucker. Trish Baer is completing a Phd on images in the sagas. Dr. Tucker is a member of the Medieval Studies department and an avid supporter of all things Icelandic.

Sigrun is making her first visit to Canada. She left Iceland in 1988 and lives in London, England. She works as a professional journalist but, like many Icelanders, is successful at many different tasks. She has written novels, children’s stories, worked for radio among other things.

This visit is particularly meaningful because, besides having relatives who immigrated to Canada, she is the sister-in-law of Kladia Robertsdottir, a long-time resident of Victoria.

With an audience that ranged from Icelanders who have immigrated to Canada to people who know little or nothing about Iceland, Sigrun left nothing to chance.

She started by explaining that in spite of its name, Iceland is neither very hot nor very cold. This climate has shaped everything to do with food in Iceland. With salt, the normal preservative of hot climates, too expensive for everyday use in preserving food, the Icelanders had to find some way of preserving food. They used whey. Iceland is the only place in the world where this method is used.

The sagas, 12-14th C., have some references to food but not many. Food was, even in those days, for surviving, not enjoying. There are references in Egill’s saga: fish, eggs, whales, and livestock. In Grettir’s saga there is a verse in which an immigrant to Iceland bemoans having left behind grain fields for wasteland.

In the early years of the settlement, the weather was still mild enough that barley and oats could be grown. Around 1400 the climate grew colder. The growing season became shorter. From that time grain would not ripen.

There was only fresh meat in autumn. There was a small tradition of cheese but that disappeared because skyr was more efficient.

For a long time fishing was just for local consumption. Only small amounts of fish were exported. There was no tradition of Gravlax, or pickled herring or of curing and smoking salmon.  There was no seafood tradition. There was no bread tradition because of the cost of imported grain. Flat bread and rye bread were made but that was all.

Something that kept an elevated food tradition from developing was the lack of an aristocracy. There were no wealthy local merchants.

The lack of variety in the Icelandic diet lasted into the 20th C. The diet was very limited until after the war.

Sigrun gave an example of an uncle of hers who had been born in 1920. His father died and his mother was left with nine children. The mother farmed out six children and kept the three youngest. The uncle was sent to live on a farm. He worked as an errand boy. His job was to bring food, porridge and skyr, sour blood pudding, to the people working in the fields. His clothes were wet all the time. He was never dry. Life like this was not considered poverty. It was just normal life. Although Sigrun didn’t mention it, Bjartur of Summerhouses, in Independent People, says that he has been wet all his life and it hasn’t hurt him.

In the 20th C fishing takes over on an industrial scale. This brings more money into the economy and with it better food. There was no food language in Icelandic. They borrowed it from the Danes. They also copy the Dane’s in creating housewife’s schools where young women can learn how to do domestic tasks, including cooking.

Fifty years ago, a group of foreign politicians, including a Bulgarian, visited greenhouses in Iceland. The visitors were given tomatoes that were grown in the greenhouses. The manager of the greenhouse said to them that these were the vest tomatoes in the world. The Bulgarian was amused. So was the audience.

At one point, Sigrun needed to earn more money and, being resourceful, realized there was a real  need for some cookbooks. Inspired by her sister-in-law, Kladia Robertsdottir, Sigrun wrote the cookbook, A Cookbook for Young People of All Ages. In it, she tried to show Icelanders what they could do with local ingredients. However, her culinary language was Danish and she had to relearn or recreate an Icelandic culinary language.

She did things like suggesting using wine and spices when making head cheese and serving blood pudding with cooked apples and pears.

If foreigners go to Iceland in winter, they get to experience Þorramatur. This is not an ancient feast or ritual. It was created by a restaurant owner in the `1960s. By offering food in the old way of cooking, he was such a success that you now can find these items anywhere.

Today, Icelandic cooking is international. However, since the Kreppa, there has been a new emphasis on local food.

The Icelandic diet today is much better than it was in the past but the other side of that is a large problem with obesity.

Of all the Icelandic foods, the one that has the greatest international success is skyr.

She highly recommended two restaurants: Dill and Sjávarétta-Kjavarinn. Oh, and as a reminder, there are now beer micro breweries in Iceland and the beer is excellent.