John Burnside. Photo: Helmut Fricke.

"As soon as I arrived in Norway for the first time I felt an overwhelming feeling that I had come home."

John Burnside, writer.

Arts Exchange – Norway 

John Burnside is one of Scotland’s best known writers, whose work explores spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth. He is a former writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee and now teaches at the University of St Andrews. He spoke to British Council Norway about his love-affair with the far north of Norway, which provides the setting for A Summer of Drowning

What prompted your interest in Norway as a young Scottish lad?

As a child I was very taken with what was then known as the Lapps, a now dated term for the Saami. To me they were intriguing – their culture, their dress, their language - and I spent a lot of time looking them up in the encyclopaedia and seeking out references to them in library books. I then had the opportunity to travel to Norway a few times which only increased my interest in the country, especially the most northern parts which have a unique quality of life. As soon as I arrived in Norway for the first time I felt an overwhelming feeling that I had come home. 

Was your first trip to Norway linked to literature?

It all came about in a rather strange way. In 1995 a Professor of Philosophy from Tromsø University happened to be in England conducting some academic research. En-route to Newcastle, whereupon he would catch the ferry to Bergen, he stopped in Durham and attended one of my poetry readings. I was just starting out as a writer, so imagine my excitement when a year later I received a letter suggesting I fly to Tromsø to participate in a conference at the University that summer. It was a stunning, clear day when I landed, and I was picked up by a man who drove me to my hotel and seemed to know a little about me. I’d assumed he was a local taxi driver with a generous spirit. But when he reappeared the next day at the conference I realised that he was the same Professor who had seen me in Durham. We became fast friends and I stayed for two weeks. The conference made for fantastic, wide-ranging discussions about a variety of different themes and disciplines in literature. Twenty-three years later I still look back on that experience as encapsulating what I associate with Norway: kindness, modesty, beautiful nature and imaginative minds. 

Has Norway has been close to your heart ever since?

Over the next few years I tried to visit Norway regularly, especially the Northern Norway. Then, in 2001, I received a grant from Creative Scotland which allowed me to spend a little longer in the country during that same summer along with my wife and young son. The weather was gorgeous and I look back on the time as the happiest in my life – a time when I had the chance to maximise an opportunity that others may never have and really develop as a writer. It was then, with some freedom from home, that I decided to write about the country – the light, the landscape, the drama of the seasons and the quality of the people.

Was ‘A Summer of Drowning’ the result?

Yes and no. My first idea was actually about the history of whaling and trading in the North Sea. My agent back in the UK almost had a heart-attack, believing that nobody would be interested in a book about a one hundred year old woman whose memories of whaling and the occupation of north norway by the Nazis, which made up the best part of that proposed volume. To this day I believe that the novel could have been an epic! Instead, I decided to use A Summer of Drowning to say something about the importance of close-knit communities in the Arctic and the way in which individuals become reliant on local networks for good and bad effect. Inspiration came from my visits to Norway, but iwas supplemented by other sources, for example a small exhibition of work by a German artist who had created life-masks of all the people in Andenes, on the island of Andoya. What struck me was how, despite all the talk of finding solitude and peace of mind in the Nordic countries, in fact life there can bring the opposite. In order to survive, one needs to depend on communal support, which means that one’s life is actually shared with many others as opposed to just oneself. 

Would you say that Scotland is akin to Norway in this respect?

 

There surely are places in Scotland where one’s neighbours are more invasive than not, but there is also a sense of space and emotional investment in the open landscape. But I’ve found that there are two big variations: a differing sense of what ‘national’ means; and a dissimilar celebration of the white-nights. What I experienced in Norway was that everyone goes out and rejoices in both dressing up, speeches, dances, dinners and drinking for the National Day on the 17th May, and bonfires and revelries in June during the summer solstice. There is a real sense of shared, country-wide excitement and what I’d refer to as ‘charming nationalism’. In Scotland the nationalist spirit is too attached to a single party, the SNP, whose style of government has left me disappointed. And the long bright summer (albeit not always quite that) isn’t enjoyed with quite as many people going into the country, tending to their summer cabins and generally spending a lot of time outdoors. Having said that, one of the most alarming encounters I had on the 17th May was with the ‘bunad police’ in other words, Norwegians of a certain generation, shall we say, who believe that ‘national dress’ should have enforced rules and regulations with respect to colour, cut, embellishment and even hairstyle!

The hills on the island of Andoya. Photo: John Burnside.
The hills on the island of Andoya. Photo: John Burnside.

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