Madeira – and why it’s not just for cruise passengers

The Portuguese island of Madeira has been more readily associated with cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts. But with its consistent weather and jaw-dropping landscapes, it’s starting to reinvent itself as Europe’s adventure sport capital

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2014. Photography by Tim White)

Somewhere along the way, Madeira got the wrong reputation. To many, it’s still a slightly tired cruise ship stop-off and its capital, Funchal, is often seen as a place for a cable car ride, a hotel buffet or a meal in the old town sold to you by over-eager waiters and accompanied by My Way on the accordion. There’s a slightly sad saying here that Madeira is for “newly weds and nearly deads”.

Yet all of this seems like a staggering folly when you see the place and drive around a bit. The lush, craggy island – arrived at on a runway that juts out into the sea – looks like Tracy Island by way of Middle Earth, with the formidable ocean crashing into sheer cliffs backed by the lush, World Heritage-protected Laurisilva forest. The sea’s always warm, it’s basically spring all year round, and because the volcanic island rises steeply and dramatically from the Atlantic, there are whales and dolphins frolicking off Funchal all year round. The roads are mostly good, the villages are quiet, the seafood fresh and the fruits exotic.

If you’re into the outdoors, it only gets better from there. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with trails criss-crossing the 57km length of the island, and the old levada aqueducts – which have been built since the 16th century to transport water around the island – make for great ready-made hikes. With its stunning peaks, like the Tolkien fantasy that is Pico do Arieiro (1,818m), the island has also become a magnet for trail-runners, including the 116km Madeira Island Ultra Trail race. It’s now set to become a stop on the Ultra-Trail World Tour.

The volcanic landscape, forests and steep cliffs also make it one of Europe’s fastest-growing and best mountain biking spots, while the warm blue seas are good for surfers as well as dolphins, with clean rocky point breaks off sleepy villages on the island’s south west. It’s also considered Europe’s best spot for canyoning, which involves scrambling and abseiling down its volcanic ravines. The world’s most prolific paraglider is here, as are a growing number of kids who ride their longboards down the steep mountain roads (just type “Madeira longboard” into YouTube).

Of course, if all that’s too much, you can just chill out, take in the scenery and watch the sea roll in under low-lying morning clouds. This is not a place for the nearly dead after all – in fact, it’s a pretty great place to be alive in.

The trail runner: Manuel Faria

Manuel Faria seems to have endless reserves of energy and patience. We’ve been up since 5am, trying to see the sun rise over the staggeringly beautiful peaks around Pico do Arieiro (1,818m) in the centre of the island, and we’re cold and tired. But Faria keeps running and keeps smiling, even as we ask him to jog up and jog down the same spot more than 10 times – all before he heads off to work at a Funchal communications agency.

Of course, this is child’s play when you’re used to running races of over 100km, across mountains. Faria is the top trail runner in Madeira, rivalled only by his good friend Luís Fernandes, who joins us for a few hours at sunrise, before jogging off to his job in the army. At last year’s Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a punishing 116km ultramarathon with steep climbs and descents, Faria had a bad race and came seventh against a strong international field. Like Fernandes, he’s won regularly in local trail running events – now he has a trainer, a daily schedule and is looking to take on the world, with three 100km-plus events in the coming year.

“Racing that distance, it’s all mental,” he says. “You have to listen to your body constantly, but you also have to realise that it can do things you never thought were possible. Most of the time in ultramarathons, it’s peoples’ minds that give up, not their bodies.” While many ultramarathon runners have reported hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, Faria says that he’s gained perspective: “You have a lot of time to think about your life, and the decisions you’ve made – it’s almost like therapy.”

Faria took up trail running less than four years ago, when it was still a very small sport – but it has grown rapidly, with more than 700 people on the island now running trails regularly. Madeira is so good for the sport that it’s being put forward for a slot on the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the world’s top trail running competition. We meet development manager Jean-Charles Perrin, a Frenchman who’s flown into Madeira to plan logistics for the event: “It’s just about getting the organisation right,” he says. “In terms of a location, I mean… wow, it’s unbelievable.”

Faria says that being in touch with the island is one of the main attractions of trail running; the other big one is pushing your body. “People want to push their limits, and it’s a personal thing rather than a competitive thing – when you’re in a 100km race, you have to help each other out.” Faria practises what he preaches – he recently gave up the lead in a local race to help a competitor who’d fallen in a levada irrigation channel. “This sport is not really about winning – it’s about more than that.”

The Mountain Biker: João Fernandes

Around 15 years ago, 12-year-old João Fernandes was one of a group of young folk who got bikes and started exploring the roughly 250km of trails that criss-cross Madeira. What the members of the nascent scene found was an almost unlimited supply of routes, running from the highest peaks (1,818m) down to sea level.

“You’ve got it all here,” says Fernandes. “Mountains, sea, incredible views and trails running down every valley. You can feel like you’re riding on Jurassic Park island, but then you always end up on the beach.”
Nowadays, the mountain bike world is starting to cotton on. Pinkbike, the world’s biggest mountain bike website, wrote recently that it was “like a mini New Zealand… Every trail we rode was up there with the best ever.”

The growing buzz around the island has been stoked by Freeride Madeira, a mountain bike tour company Fernandes started with sales manager Filipe Caldeira and marketing manager Roberto Chaves in 2011. The company runs tailored tours and holidays on the island, and it’s become central to the local scene, organising events and competitions, and helping to maintain the island’s hundreds of trails.

Go to their very slick website, and the video on the homepage tells a lot of the story – clouds rolling beneath mountain peaks, ridges, forests, sea cliffs, and a host of British pros saying that Madeira offers “everything you can imagine in one place”. We spent two hours riding the Calheta hills with Fernandes, looking over the sparkling sea from the green hills, and we can confirm: this place is a bit special.

The Canyoner: Filipe Ferreira

With its steep volcanic ravines, waterfalls and pools, Madeira is by most accounts the best place in Europe for canyoning, which involves jumping, abseiling, sliding and scrambling your way down a canyon. There are hundreds of routes, ranging from beginners’ trails to tricky advanced routes.

Canyoning guide Filipe Ferreira has been doing the sport for five years, and has been an instructor at Madeira Adventure Kingdom for three. He’s also part of the island’s hardcore Fast Descent canyoning team, who make videos of themselves descending giant waterfalls and leaping into rocky pools. When he’s not canyoning, he’s fond of spearfishing, hiking and rock climbing.

“It’s really starting to change here,” he says. “Young people across the island are growing up with adventure sports, and it’s starting to change tourism here too. Ten years ago, just about everyone who visited Madeira was older, and they just wanted to stay in Funchal. Now there are more young people wanting to explore the island and the activities on it. There are also more people from different countries – it used to be mostly English and German tourists, but now we’re seeing people from across Europe. It’s growing every day.”

On our trip with Madeira Adventure Kingdom, Ferreira and co-guide Tiago Freitas guided us down the beginner’s trail at Ribeira das Cales, a gorgeous ravine 1,500m above Funchal. It’s great fun, from abseiling down a 15m face to sliding down rocks (you’re in a protective neoprene suit) and whizzing down a flying fox. There are also plenty of chances to jump into the fresh mountain water – though you don’t have to do what Ferreira does, leaping from a 10m cliff and back-flipping off a smaller one.

There’s also plenty for experienced canyoners and rock climbers, with Ferreira saying that the best canyons are around Seixal, a beautiful seafront village on the island’s north-west. “But really, this is for everyone – it’s just another way to be part of this beautiful island.”

The Surfer: Orlando Pereira

Growing up in the sleepy seaside village of Jardim do Mar, on the island’s south-west coast, Orlando Pereira first “surfed” by paddling with a wooden plank. While the odd American and Australian came here to surf the rocky point breaks in permanently warm waters (17oC is as cold as the sea here gets), there wasn’t a surfboard on the island. Then, in 1993, Surf Portugal magazine came to do a story, and left behind a single board, which five local kids shared, trying to emulate the visiting surfers they watched. Pereira was, in his own words, “the most nuts”, and 21 years later is considered the godfather of a scene that now numbers 60 or so local surfers.

On the way he became the island’s first pro surfer, competing between 1997 and 2005, and winning the Madeira surf championships in 2000. Today, he’s calmed down, and is a kind of ambassador for surfing on the island, welcoming visitors like big wave legend Garrett McNamara, even if his four kids are more keen on emulating Madeira-born football icon Cristiano Ronaldo.

When Pereira’s not surfing, he’s either working as a hotel receptionist or running Madeira Native Motion, which specialises in surf lessons but also does everything from levada walks to diving and canyoning. Like most people we meet in Madeira, he’s unfailingly obliging, happily driving us round the island and jumping out of his jeep into the sea for shots.

“You know, I went to Hawaii expecting a surf paradise,” he says, “but I was really disappointed. The waves weren’t how they look in the surf films, and there are hundreds of people in the water. Here it’s a crowded day if you have five surfers, the water’s warm and the breaks are consistent – this is my Hawaii.”

If so, it’s a very low-key Hawaii. Slow doesn’t begin to cover the pace of life at Jardim do Mar, probably the island’s main surf village, where the staff at the beachfront bar sport tattoos and surfer’s tans. Just along the coast at Paul do Mar, reggae wafts out from the Maktub bar (locals just call it the Reggae Bar). The mural outside the rainbow-painted shack reads simply: “Legalise Life.”

And while Madeira hasn’t traditionally been sold as a surf destination, Pereira says things are changing. “We’re getting more young people coming here to surf, and more beginners wanting to try it out – it’s not just the crazy big wave guys any more, which is right because we have waves for everyone.”

The Paraglider: Hartmut Peters

When we first spot Hartmut Peters, “the crazy German”, he’s where he is more than 330 days a year – up in the sky over the Calheta district, on Madeira’s south-west coast. After a dash up to the top of the hill at Arco da Calheta, we find the patch of grass overlooking a steep cliff where Peters takes off and lands. At first there’s no sign of him, but then he glides over the brow of the hill and seems set to land right on top of us. “Incoming!” he shouts, as we scarper.

Soon he’s in a heap on the floor with his passenger, who’s laughing hysterically. It’s a little like Doc Brown and Marty crash-landing into the future. “Who the bloody hell are you?” he says by way of introduction.
For all that Peters is gloriously eccentric, he’s also a serious and world-renowned paraglider – in fact, he’s the most prolific in the world, flying more than 1,650 hours and registering more than 3,000 flights since 2008. He’s been paragliding for 22 years, but has lived on Madeira since 2000, where he bought a patch of land on the edge of a cliff and turned it into a paragliding centre with its own pool and charmingly roughshod take-off zone.

Looking at the panoramic view from the cliff edge, with seaside villages and rolling valleys on either side, it’s not hard to see the appeal. “In my opinion, this is the best place in the world to paraglide,” says Peters. He decided to come after a flight in Austria in -20oC in 2000. “I remember someone asking if it had been a good flight – it was, but I couldn’t move my lips to say so.” In Madeira, temperatures never drop much below 15oC, and Peters reckons Arco da Calheta is the sunniest spot on an island famous for its microclimates (you can’t paraglide if it rains, which it often does on the north of the island). He knows – in the early days, there weren’t the webcams and internet analyses there are now, so Peters clocked up 20,000km driving around the island, developing an almost intuitive understanding of its weather systems and all-important thermals.

After a career in telecommunications near Düsseldorf, life is good now. “If someone asks me for a drink down in the village, I can paraglide down,” he says. In fact, one of his sponsors is the local bar Taberna da Madalena, 800m or so down on Madalena beach, though he insists that he never flies after drinking poncha, Madeira’s fiendish, fruity spirit.

And for all that his number of clients is ever-growing, and Red Bull have come to film him, he’s not going to change any time soon. “If they think, hey, that’s the crazy German, that’s fine with me – I am,” he says. “As long as they know that, when I’m up in the air, I know exactly what I’m doing. You can’t afford to make any mistakes up there.”

 

The mafia, Louis XVI – and the curious history of pinball

Europe’s largest pinball museum in Budapest is a fascinating primer on the game’s surprisingly colourful history – involving police raids, Chicago mafiosi, and a wild party at Louis XVI’s castle

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2014)

Balázs Pálfi was five or six when he fell in love for the first time. “It was in a hotel near Budapest, when I climbed onto a small chair to play pinball. It was love at first sight – every time I saw a pinball machine, I wanted to play, though I wasn’t always allowed. It’s a simple joy that’s never left me.”

Today, Pálfi owns and runs Pinball Gallery Budapest (or Pbal), the first pinball museum in Hungary and the biggest in Europe. It is home to around 170 machines that he’s collected over the past five years. Visitors can turn up and play 130 of them, including some of the all-time pinball classics, as well as legendary arcade games, from Space Invaders to Pac-Man. Above each machine is a little sign telling you its history.
“Every time I play, it takes me back to my childhood,” says Pálfi, now 42, who quit a job as a fund manager before he started collecting pinball machines. “It’s totally different to a video game – you’re in the real world, and you’re using mechanisms rather than technology. I don’t see that as a retro thing, I see it as something timeless.”

After Pálfi bought his first machine, 1986’s Strange Science game, in 2009, he couldn’t stop. In 2010, he spent €30,000 (NOK245,000) buying a batch of 50 machines from a pinball operator in Poland – and began struggling to find room to house his purchases. The idea of a public space formed, but it took until April 2013 to find a suitable space, a basement right in the centre of town in District XIII, not far from the Hungarian parliament and the iconic Széchenyi thermal baths. After that, it took another year to get permission from the ministry, prepare the space and fix the machines , as more than half weren’t working when he got hold of them.

While it’s fun to simply come here for a game on machines with themes such as Indiana Jones, the Addams Family and Arabian Nights, it’s also a good way to get a handle on pinball’s surprisingly colourful history.

It arguably all started with a lavish party in 1777 at the royal Château de Bagatelle outside Paris. Queen Marie Antoinette had challenged her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois, to renovate the dilapidated maison de plaisance within three months – with the help of more than 800 workers, Louis XVI’s brother managed it in 63 days, creating a stunning estate surrounded by manicured gardens.

The château needed to open with a bang, so as well as courtesans and illusionists, the count had a new game commissioned, a narrow inclined billiards table on which players would use cues to shoot an ivory ball towards fixed pins. The game was dubbed bagatelle, and became a hit with the French aristocracy, eventually spreading and morphing into billard Japonais (Japanese billiards), which replaced the cue with a coiled spring and plunger (and had very little to do with Japan).

But it wasn’t until 1871 that modern pinball was arguably invented, when US-based British inventor Montague Redgrave was granted US Patent #115,357 for his “Improvements in Bagatelle”, which shrank the game to a tabletop size, with marbles instead of balls and small metal pins as wickets. At Pinball Gallery Budapest, you can see the Redgrave Parlor Bagatelle from 1871, a rusted wood and red metal board with some parts missing, which Pálfi proudly claims to be the first modern pinball machine.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1930s when pinball really took off, its target market having shifted from the French aristocracy to the unemployed youth of Depression-era America, who wanted to find cheap entertainment to pass the time. Coin-operated bagatelles had appeared, now called “marble games” or “pin games”, and you could find them in drugstores and taverns across the US.

Pioneering designer David Gottlieb’s 1931 Baffle Ball game became the first major pinball hit, and signalled the beginning of two of its most important companies. Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney had sold all of his units of Baffle Ball (more than 50,000 of them in the States), so he developed his own version, called Ballyhoo, a version of which you can now see at Pbal.

It was slightly more challenging than Baffle Ball and was even more of a smash, selling 50,000 units in just seven months. Moloney called his new company Bally after his game, creating a rival to Gottlieb’s company. Both would design and build machines into the mid-1990s.

On the way, Bally became a 20th-century entertainment behemoth, before being bought by Hilton Hotels in 1995. It ran casinos, arcades, fitness clubs and the famous Six Flags amusement parks, and made everything from fitness equipment to early arcade games and even a home computer, the failed Bally Professional Arcade. The early Bally machines, sometimes called “Bally’s bingos”, were often used for gambling, which worked because there was little or no skill involved.

Thus, pinball was banned in most American cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from the early 1940s until the mid-1970s. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia believed it robbed children of hard-earned nickels – so, just weeks after the Pearl Harbour attacks, he told city police that their top priority was to round up pinball machines and arrest their owners. The machines were smashed with sledgehammers, many by the mayor and police commissioner themselves, before they were tossed into the Hudson River.

Pinball became legal in New York in 1976, when a pinball hotshot – 26-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe – was called to play in front of a city council hearing to prove that pinball was a game of skill (and therefore immune to gambling). Struggling with a new machine, he played his Hail Mary, promising that he’d use the plunger to send the ball into the middle lane at the top of the machine. He later said that, had he missed, “I’m not sure pinball would be legal today.”

Still, some places persisted with bans – an 80-year ban in Oakland was only overturned this year; the local RadioShack restaurant chain held a month-long pinball competition to celebrate the lifting of the ban. It’s perhaps for this reason that pinball has its place in popular culture as a sign of teenage rebellion – the Fonz in Happy Days plays in just about every episode; The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, is about a deaf, blind and dumb boy who becomes a pinball wizard; and The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob once proclaimed that, “Television has ruined more young minds than pinball and syphilis combined.”

All of this is represented, albeit obliquely, in the form of iconic machines at Pbal in Budapest. You’ll find, for example, Gottlieb’s 1947 Humpty Dumpty machine, the first in history to use player-controlled flippers, adding skill to the game for the first time. The early flippers lacked the power to get the ball to the top of the machine, so Humpty Dumpty has three pairs.

Pálfi’s favourites, though, didn’t come until the early 1980s, another golden age, when classic games were also being developed for early arcade machines (by 1981, in the wake of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Defender, the arcade video game industry was worth US$8 billion).

Pálfi’s all-time favourite is Fathom, made in 1981 by Bally: “It was from when I was a child, and it’s still a great game, with beautiful graphics and challenging gameplay. There are lots of balls, the sound’s great, it’s just really exciting.”

Another from the era he points to is Gottlieb’s Haunted House (1982), famous for its use of Bach’s organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Some consider the Haunted House the perfect pinball layout.
Today, only American company Stern regularly produces new pinball machines, like the bestselling AC/DC game, yours for US$7,495 (NOK27,200). Pálfi has one of Stern’s 2013 Star Trek machines still in its box, ready for its “ceremonial opening” (Stern’s other game themes include Metallica, Mustang and Iron Man).

Nowadays, machines are increasingly in the hands of collectors – part of the reason Pálfi wanted to get the public playing. “Twenty years ago, there were no pinball collectors, and almost all the machines were owned by operators who’d have them in their arcades or whatever. Today, around 80 per cent of new machines go to collectors, many of whom are buying up the old ones. The problem with private collections is that not everyone can play on the machines. I wanted to get people playing – it’s not only great fun, but you’re playing on a piece of history.”

The most prolific writer on Earth

Sverker Johansson has created more than three million Wikipedia articles, around one tenth of the entire content of the site. How, and why, does he do it?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2014. Illustration by Thomas Burden)

Despite his position as the world’s most prolific author, Sverker Johansson hasn’t lost his Swedish sense of self-deprecation. “Well, three million articles is hard to beat but, you know, a lot of them are quite boring. If you read 100 entries about beetles in a row, you’ll probably fall asleep.”

Johansson, the director of research and education at Dalarna University, is the man behind more than three million Wikipedia pages, most in Swedish but also in Cebuano and Waray-Waray Filipino. That means he’s created around 10 per cent of Wikipedia’s roughly 30 million articles, which come in 287 languages, 4.5 million of them in English. He is almost singlehandedly responsible for making Swedish the world’s second most used language on the website, and Waray-Waray the tenth.

Johansson has specialised in cataloguing birds, plants, animals and Filipino towns (his wife is from the Philippines), creating more than 50 pages on Afranthidium bees alone, from Afranthidium abdominale to Afranthidium villosomarginatum via Afranthidium repetitum, which might be the most apt given that the pages don’t exactly make for scintillating reading.

This is partly because Johansson isn’t sitting at a computer churning out articles. He’s created a software programme called a bot, which essentially uses an algorithm to scan online databases and fill in blanks about a particular subject, creating short Wikipedia entries that typically aren’t longer than a few sentences. As Johansson describes it, “It’s like a fill-in-the-blanks form: ‘Blank is a kind of blank discovered by blank in blank.’”

There are hundreds of bots active on Wikipedia, with names like Wizzo-Bot, Cheers!-bot and SmackBot, some of them doing work maintaining the site’s millions of pages – but none is close to being as prolific as Johansson’s Lsjbot, which might not have the catchiest bot name but is by far the most prolific in existence.
Johansson doesn’t make a penny from creating up to 10,000 articles a day, with his bot running constantly and churning out an article every 5-10 seconds (it could produce them quicker, but there are rules on bot creation speeds so that Wikipedia’s servers don’t crash). When we speak, Lsjbot is in the background creating pages about potatoes for Swedish Wikipedia and mosses for Cebuano Wikipedia.

So the question is: why do it? “I’d been using Wikipedia for years when I started looking into how it’s written and why people write. Wikipedia’s vision is to make all human knowledge available to everyone – it’s a vision that resonates with me.”

Johansson is every bit the intellectual polymath, with degrees in particle physics, engineering, economics and linguistics. “From the age of five, I was curious about everything, whether it was the universe or extinct animals. I kept asking ‘Why?’, and I guess I’ve never stopped.”

He’s been in academia his whole life, mostly at smaller universities “because you can be eclectic”. He’s written books about the origins of language, physics and astronomy, and is currently working on a paper about Neanderthal speech (“The evidence is that they did have a language, but we don’t know what it was like”).

“It’s a bit unusual to study the way I do,” he admits. “It doesn’t fit the mould, and it doesn’t help the academic career to publish in such disparate fields.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Wikipedia would appeal at some point, and in 2007 he wrote his first entry, on the origins of language on Swedish Wikipedia. He’d handwritten more than 100 entries on everything from Blondie’s Call Me to writer Kate Mosse when he started considering using a bot in 2011. “I’d seen articles about animals on Dutch Wikipedia that were created with a bot. I thought, I can do that, but better.”

So he created Lsjbot for a small project about birds, after a “long discussion” with the Swedish Wikipedia community beforehand. “There are thousands who contribute now and then, but the core of the community is a few hundred really active creators. Unofficially, if you’re going to do a project like that, it needs to be passed by the community.” He also needed to get the project passed by a wider group called the Bot Approvals Group.

After around two months of work on the software, done on evenings and weekends, Lsjbot’s first major project catalogued 8,000 of the roughly 10,000 species of birds (the rest had been covered), starting with the pied thrush (Zoothera wardii), which is a passerine or perching bird found mostly in India and Sri Lanka. The Lsjbot scoured databases such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature to collect information on the bird species, though Johansson says the first project “didn’t use a very good method”.

He’s since improved the Lsjbot to document everything from authors to lakes and obscure towns. He says the accuracy is “pretty good, though there’s no such thing as 100 per cent accuracy. You’re never going to get a software program that’s completely free of bugs, but the accuracy of the Lsjbot is generally better than handwritten articles.”

As for the general mutterings that bot-created pages are dull and unhelpful, Johansson says, “The point is not to be fun. It gives you specific information that you can then use how you want – the articles don’t pretend to tell the whole story, and I’m not making any claims to be a great creative author.”

Still, there’s a certain amount of power from holding the keys to so much potential information – something Johansson wants to use positively. “There are a lot of imbalances in the information out there,” he says. “Males get more coverage than females on Wikipedia; a village in Europe will get more coverage than a major city in China. You become very aware that most of it is written by young, white male nerds – the wars in Tolkien’s novels are better covered than the war in Vietnam.”

Hence, he plans to redress things – one possible project is authors in Asian countries, though he’s still figuring out how to set the Lsjbot’s parameters. “It could maybe just be authors who’ve published a certain number of books; it could exclude self-published works. I’m not sure yet.”

Either way, he has no plans to stop and is enjoying his new-found recognition after the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece about him in July. “No one had heard of me before that, but now I’m doing interviews every day,” he says. “It’s nice – and it’s good for people to know that I’m more interesting than some of my Wikipedia articles.”

 

The world’s smelliest catch

A tin of surströmming fermented herring is considered the world’s smelliest food, and is essentially illegal outside Sweden. We head to the Baltic coast to see how it’s produced

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2014. Photography by Erik Olsson)

If you look up surströmming on YouTube, three videos on the first page contain “vomit alerts”. In one, the three frat boy hosts of American channel Wreckless Eating all puke ostentatiously after simply sniffing an opened can of Sweden’s famous fermented herring. In a video for the UK’s more taciturn Daily Telegraph newspaper, the suited journalist dry retches as his cameraman looks on bemused, wearing a gas mask. “It smells of rotting dog faeces” is one of his more flattering verdicts on the odour.

A much-quoted 2002 study in Japan found that a newly opened can of surströmming is the most putrid food smell on the planet. The Baltic Sea herring, which has been a staple of Northern Swedish cuisine since the 16th century, keeps on fermenting once it’s tinned, so much so the tin bulges from all the pungent acids at work. It’s banned by most airlines as an explosion risk, and is effectively illegal outside Sweden.

Yet more than 800,000 cans are sold every year in Sweden, especially around the Surströmmingspremiären (Surströmming Premiere) on the third Thursday of August, when the year’s new batch hits the shelves. Across the country, and especially in the north and the Stockholm area, Swedes hold surströmming parties, serving tiny slivers of the fermented fish on tunnbröd bread with potato, onions and sour cream. The only dispute is whether it should be eaten with snaps, lager or – as the purists claim – cold milk.

It’s mid-May, and I’ve come to Skagshamn, on the north end of Sweden’s Höga Kusten (The High Coast), to go fishing for herring and to see it processed at the Gösta Hannells Fisksalteri, one of the world’s largest surströmming salting houses, which is best known for producing the iconic Röda Ulven (Red Wolf) brand since 1946. Baltic herring, which is smaller and less fatty than the common Atlantic herring, spawns off the coast of northern Sweden for just a few weeks between late April and mid-May.

It’s 2.30am, and I’ve had a fitful two hours sleep in an Umeå hostel, 90 minutes’ drive away, when I meet fishermen Pontus Berg and Hans Soderlund in the half-light by the deserted dock next to the salting house. While Berg is only in his second year fishing for herring, Soderlund has been doing this for two decades – according to the younger man, he’s “a master; he just knows where the fish will be.”

As we head out to sea, with the rising Arctic sun turning the sky a pinky orange at around 3am, Berg explains their trade. Soderlund doesn’t speak much English, but laughs a lot and plies us with super-strength coffee. The pair are essentially freelancers, selling their catch for around SEK10/kilogram to the salting house, which can ferment around 110 tonnes of herring a year. Around seven boats go out in the area, competing for their share of the catch.

“On a good day, we can pull in four tonnes,” Berg explains. “But it’s the near the end of the spawning period now, and the catch is likely to be lighter. We’re almost done for the year.”

With herring their focus for just a few weeks of the year, and the water freezing in the winter, the fishermen have to be resourceful. In the summer, they sell salmon and other fish direct from the boat; in the winter, Berg does odd jobs while Soderlund used to work at Skellefteå airport, north of Umeå.

After around 40 minutes, we come to the first of two nets the fishermen laid yesterday. The nets are 180m long and 4m high, and are invisible to the herring, which swim straight into them. It takes around 10 minutes to winch in the thousands of Cuban cigar-sized fish, thrashing around as gulls squawk and circle overhead.
After repeating the process with another net, the most time-consuming part of the process is shaking out the nets. A machine at the stern of the boat jerks up and down, sending fish flying around the place as Berg and Soderlund reel in the nets by hand. At one point, I’m trying to have a nap in the front of the boat when a herring travels 5m through the air and hits me in the face.

At the end of the process, which takes almost an hour, the entire floor of the back section of the boat is carpeted with fish. Berg reckons they’ve reeled in just under a tonne, a satisfactory if unspectacular haul.

We get back to the dock at around 7am, where we have ham and brunost sandwiches on the boat with what must be the tenth coffee of the morning. Afterwards, Soderlund uses a forklift to lower a huge net to the side of the boat as Berg opens a hatch and flushes the fish into the net with a hose. The fish are then released from the nets into large boxes, ready to be processed.

A little after 8am, the Gösta Hannells Fisksalteri slowly kicks into gear. Essentially it’s a giant shed filled with machinery, unused tins and hundreds of plastic barrels filled with salt water and fermenting herring. From the moment fish are delivered in boxes to the moment they leave in tins ready for the customer, every part of the process happens here. From late April to mid-May, they get the herring fermenting into large saltwater barrels; in June and July, a small army of casual workers comes and puts the fish in the mostly iconic red and yellow tins, ready to be sent around Sweden.

It all begins with the rhythmic whirr of machines. From the boxes, the herring are dumped into saltwater pools and sucked up onto a conveyor belt. The three workers manning the machines all wear beanies and earphones, and bounce around to what I’ll later learn is mostly heavy metal and hip hop. With my stomach fragile from lack of sleep and bouncing around on a boat, the smell is nauseating.

The workers’ main job is to keep the process running smoothly and to discard disfigured fish (around 3-4 per cent have been stood on, or their stomachs have exploded). The herring that pass muster are neatly and swiftly decapitated, with their bodies going one way and their bloodied heads heading another to be spat out into a huge, macabre bin. The bodies that pass the tests will go into another huge bin before being put in smaller saltwater barrels to start the fermenting process.

Up in the office, I meet factory manager Johan Berlin. He started here 12 years ago as a summer worker, putting the surströmming in tins in June and July, but has been manager for two years now, overseeing the whole operation.

He tells me that on a good day the salting house might process up to 20 tonnes of herring, with the eight-til-five day extended if there are more fish. And while he’s got used to the smell – “it’s worse in June and July, when the herring have had some time to ferment” – he says the best thing about the job is working for an iconic brand. “Surströmming is part of the fabric of the local area,” he says, pointing out that the world’s only surströmming museum is just up the road in Skeppsmalen. “There’s a lot of history bound up in this. It’s partly why a lot of local people want to work here.”

Berlin works here year-round, managing distribution when the summer frenzy ends, but the rest of the workers do other things – Johan’s brother Linus, who’s one of the seven other workers on shift today, is a hockey coach, while others work as everything from welders to PAs.

And while surströmming is still more popular than most vomiting TV hosts might believe, it’s not a growth industry. While most the workers are males in their early twenties, Lena Larson has worked on and off in the office here since 1963. “Back then, there were 16 in the office,” she says. “We’d produce up to half a million tins a year, whereas now we produce around 200,000.” With more than a half-century of working around surströmming, Larson’s nose and taste buds have done some adjusting. “I think it smells lovely,” she says, without a hint of irony.  The issue, says Berlin, is the way people eat the dish today. “There’s an older generation who still eat it as a staple dish, but they’re getting fewer,” he says. “We sell most of the tins in August.” As recently as the early 1990s, Gösta Hannells produced 400,000 tins a year, a number that has halved.

Still, the salting house is doing fine. As Berlin stirs a bloodied barrel of fish, he tells me they’re very close to reaching their quota for the year. Things will soon wind down, with the small crew of semi-skilled workers being replaced by around 20 15-to-18 year olds for the tinning.

The last thing to do, then, is to eat the stuff. The crew, led by Larson, set up an appealing spread on a table outside, with cans of Norrlands Guld beer as an accompaniment. Berlin scurries off to open a few tins. It’s a crisp day with a slight wind, and yet a second after the tin opener punctures the lid, the smell hits my nostrils hard. People have claimed to smell newly opened tins from 100m away, and it’s just about believable. It’s not pleasant – the “zombie of the sea” smells, well, rotten. Used diapers are often invoked as a similar smell, and though that seems a little unfair I’m too tired to come up with a better olfactory description.

Still, everyone says it tastes better than it smells – and that the American TV hosts are idiots for simply eating chunks straight from the tin. While most tins come with the fish pre-filleted, I naively opt for a tin of un-filleted fish, and do a terrible, messy job of skirting around the bones, hoping no one’s watching (they are). Hence I have minimal slivers of fish on the tunnbröd with the peeled boiled potatoes, onions and sour creams. Still, the flavour shoots through, and it’s hard to describe if not entirely unpleasant – like a mix of strong cheese and fish, with an enigmatic, slightly metallic flavour. Most importantly, my fragile stomach is up to it, even if a gulp of beer goes down a treat.

One part I do like is the roe, which you only get in a few female pieces of fish, making eating surströmming a little like a lucky dip. Unlike the enigmatic flavour of the fish, the roe somehow still tastes like pure sea – it’s incredibly salty, but pops in your mouth.

Unsurprisingly, everyone around the table loves surströmming. “People don’t normally love it straight away,” says Berlin, “but after a while you somehow get it. Anyone can eat normal herring, but this is one of a kind.” I won’t be eating this every day but, sitting in the sun in Arctic Sweden, I think I could just about get it. I’m ready for the Surströmmingspremiären.

How not to wreck the sea

Deliberately sinking ships might not seem an obvious way to help the world’s marine life – yet as a new programme in Cyprus shows, it’s a viable way to kick-start underwater ecosystems

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, July 2014)

All around Cyprus, ships are sinking. There’ve been four in little over half a year – first an old French fishing boat sank, then a Russian trawler and a couple of mini cruise vessels.

Yet far from being bad news, boats keeling onto their sides and disappearing beneath the sea have represented hope – for divers, fishermen and anyone who cares about the marine life around the island. The ships have been deliberately sunk as part of the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme, a government-sponsored scheme which has created four Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the island, fishing-free areas with their own tailored wrecks and other types of artificial reefs made from ceramics, cement, steel and limestone boulders.

“Doing this is win-win all round,” says Giorgos Bayadas, the project manager for the programme, who has been involved since it started more than three years ago. “The fishing conditions have become dangerously bad in Cyprus, and this is a great way to replenish fish stocks. Then there’s the diving industry, which has been pushing us to do this for a long time.”

Cyprus has form with wrecks. The Swedish-built cargo ship MS Zenobia sank in mysterious circumstances outside Larnaca on its maiden voyage in 1980, leaving a monster ship filled with more than NOK2 billion worth of cargo, many of it cars and trucks for which the insurance was never claimed. The Zenobia is today considered one of the best dive sites in the Mediterranean, and it draws 57,000 divers a year. They come not just for the wreck and the mystery surrounding it, but for a cast of fish worthy of Finding Nemo.

Andy Varoshiotis, the vice president of the Cyprus Dive Centre Association, who has also been involved in the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme from the start, says the newly sunk vessels will provide a link for divers coming to Cyprus. “Instead of coming just to dive the Zenobia, » visitors will be able to come for package trips, where they might dive three or four wrecks around the island.” Plans to attract 120,000 divers next year is good news. Since the Cypriot financial crisis in 2012, when the tax haven’s credit rating was downgraded to “junk”, tourism has overtaken financial services as the island’s number one source of income. The aim is for Cyprus to rival Malta, which is currently the Mediterranean’s diving capital. As Varoshiotis puts it, simply: “We need this.”

The new wrecks aren’t on the scale of the 178m Zenobia. The Nemesis III, the first to be sunk last December, is a 25m fishing trawler, deliberately scuttled in shallower waters just half a kilometre off the shore at Protaras, on Cyprus’s east coast. At a depth of 21m-25m, it makes a good wreck for beginner and intermediate divers, and complements what’s already a great dive area that boasts an underwater canyon full of stingrays, a Blue Hole and a cliff jump/dive spot called the Chapel.

Since the sinking of the Nemesis III, followed by 1,800 curious divers on the first day, the programme has sunk three more ships: the Costandis and Lady Thetis off the coast of Limassol in February, and the Laboe cruise vessel near Paphos last month. A donated naval vessel The Kerynia will follow in 2015, and plans to further the programme include sinking larger ships.

According to Bayadas, the first stage of the programme has cost around €350,000 (NOK2.86m), funded largely by the European Fisheries Fund with support from the tourist board and divers association, with €80,000 (NOK653,125) spent on acquiring the ships and the vast majority of the rest going into cleaning and preparing them.

“It’s a massive job,” he says. “You have to remove any wiring, asbestos, oils, wood and any traces of liquid and anti-fouling paint. We also had to make holes and openings in the vessels so that they’re safe for divers. In the end, you’ve basically got a metal skeleton.”

The Nemesis III was sunk by drilling holes into the hull and plugging them with valves. The team of 10 overseeing the project also added cement to the boat’s hull and pumped in water to ensure a swift and straight descent to its resting place.

But what’s really interesting is what happens next. From the first week of the Nemesis’s sinking, small invertebrates and marine flora started covering the ship’s surface, and squid laid eggs in the vessel. “It slowly creates a chain,” says Bayadas, who points to the Liberty, an old Russian cargo vessel that was sunk 300m from the Nemesis in 2009.

“The Liberty is almost as vibrant as any natural marine reef,” he says. “If you dive around the Liberty you might see everything from groupers to eels, octopus, parrotfish, squid, bream and yellowtails.”

Having seen what’s happened around the Liberty, Cyprus’s marine biologists and oceanographers have worked to make sure the latest wrecks will be as welcoming as possible to marine life. As well as the »
ships themselves, they’re sending down about a hundred man made constructions, from limestone boulders to concrete breeding pods and clay pots designed specially for octopus.

“The Liberty site is full, and it’s growing all the time,” says Varoshiotis. “And every time we dive the Nemesis, we’re seeing new things – it’s incredible watching an ecosystem build before your eyes.”
With fish and divers happy, the final part of the triumvirate is Cyprus’s fishermen. The way Varoshiotis describes the deal for fishermen, “It’s like a deposit. They agree to not fish in a few areas but they get benefits outside it because of the spill-over effect. Fish will breed in the protected areas and then leave those areas in greater numbers. It’s good news if you’re catching fish.”

Sinking ships to create artificial reefs isn’t a new thing, and it’s far from unique to Cyprus. Japan first introduced primitive artificial reefs in the 1600s, and the practice has been widespread since the 1970s; the Reef Ball Foundation in Georgia, USA, supplies breeding balls to 56 countries.

Malta has sunk six ships in the last 20 years, while Florida alone has sunk four ships in the same period, including the world’s two largest artificial reefs, both decommissioned naval ships – the USS Oriskany in 2004 and the USNS General Hoyt S Vandenberg off Key West in 2009, which is notable for its spectacular onboard satellite antennae.

One of Europe’s most ambitious projects in recent years has been the Ocean Revival programme in the Algarve, where four naval ships were sunk in a small area close to Faro in 2012 and 2013, including the 102m, 2,700-tonne Hermenegildo Capelo frigate, a naval ship since the 1960s.

The man behind the plan is Luis Sa Couto, who started working on Ocean Revival more than six years ago. “I’ve dived since I was 16, and I’ve always loved wreck dives,” says Couto, who runs a diving centre at Praia da Rocha, on the Algarve. “The primary idea was to create a public attraction. This area is known for beaches and golf, but it’s never been seen as a diving destination. We were creating something out of nothing.”

The bill for cleaning the ships alone came to a whopping €2 million (NOK16.3m), which Couto and his team raised largely from corporate sponsorship. “The ships were donated, so the rigorous process of cleaning the ships and adapting them for safe diving made up 80 per cent of the cost of the project,” he says.

Couto, like Pagiatis, emphasises safety because one of the key objections to wrecks as artificial reefs has been the possibility of danger. Five people have died at the HMCS Yukon, which was sunk off the San Diego coast in 2000, with complaints that it’s too deep (30m) and too disorientating for divers operating with limited air. “The key with the Ocean Revival wrecks,” says Couto, “is you can always see the way out. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure you won’t get trapped.”

And when you’re diving, the fish will be plentiful. Couto says: “Things happened fast – after a month you could see huge schools of fish, which started attracting bigger fish.” Today you’ll find everything from groupers to conger eels, sea bass and even damselfish around the old wrecks, as well as crabs, lobsters and up to 150 species of invertebrates.

“The University of the Algarve has been studying the wrecks, too,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity to watch an ecosystem grow, and they’re really excited about it.” Divers have been excited, too – from practically zero, the area is expecting 7,000 dives this year.

The final argument against sinking ships for artificial wrecks seems to be that it’s a form of waste disposal, putting man-made items in a natural environment. This doesn’t hold much sway with Couto: “It’s for divers, it’s for fishermen, it’s for the sea. The way we see it, this is an intelligent way of disposing of ships – these ships are still serving Portugal.”

Or, as Giorgos Bayadas of the Cyprus Artificial Reef programme puts it: “Usually, a vessel goes to a scrapyard after 50 years. This is a nice end – our trawlers have gone from catching fish to hosting them. There’s a beautiful symmetry to that.”

And then God created Montenegro

Montenegro is one of the most naturally and historically blessed countries in Europe – but it’s also one of its smallest and newest states. We head to beautiful Kotor to see how the area is adapting to life as a toursim hotspot

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2014. Photography by Tim White)

The Romantic poet Lord Byron famously put it thus: “At the moment of the creation of our planet, the most beautiful merging of land and sea occurred at the Montenegrin seaside… When the pearls of nature were sworn, an abundance of them were strewn all over this area.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century and blue-eyed Balkan ship captain Radomir Rajko Cavor is still saying pretty much the same thing. “We need better roads and better hotels,” he points out, “but God’s done us a hell of a favour with the rest.”

Whether or not you believe in divinity, it’s hard to disagree with either Byron or Cavor as you drive round the Bay of Kotor. It looks a bit like a mash-up of Lake Como and Norway’s Geirangerfjord, with a few mini Dubrovniks scattered around the water. Once called Europe’s southernmost fjord, the bay – all steel-blue water and steep cliffs – is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon (fjords are created by glaciers). But, whatever – all you need to know is that it’s stunning.

The Bay of Kotor, and its eponymous main town, is possibly the best place to get an idea of how tourism has developed in Montenegro. The tiny postage stamp of a state, with a population smaller than Stockholm’s, only gained independence from Serbia in 2006, and it’s been busy trying to recreate its post-war/pre-war heyday, when Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe would frolic along the coastline.

Tiny Kotor, which has been an important port since Roman times, revolves around a gorgeous old medieval town made up of pretty squares, churches and old limestone captain’s houses. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the main influence since its formation in 535 AD has been the Venetians, who ruled for the best part of 400 years, when it became a centre for shipping and Renaissance literature. But while it’s considered the best-preserved old town on the Adriatic, it’s changed hands too many times to list, and been tossed about a bit – plundered by Saracens in 840 AD, damaged under the First Bulgarian Empire, besieged by the Ottomans, attacked by the British Empire and destroyed by an earthquake in 1979. It was rebuilt completely, and you wouldn’t know half the town lay in rubble. If there’s any negative to it, it’s the same issue you’ll find in any beautiful Balkan old town: tourists, and lots of them, many dawdling around with earpieces and blank expressions.

The best man to show you round Kotor is Miro Đukanović, who was possibly the town’s first modern guide when he started tours here in 1984. He has the easy charm of a man who’s been around and lived to tell the story. He worked his way into hospitality by washing dishes in a Slovenian hotel, and spotted an opportunity in his native Montenegro in the early 1980s, a time of relative peace and prosperity as part of the former Yugoslavia. “Back then, this place was 90 per cent industrial,” he tells us over a lunch he’ll insist on paying for. “There was a rubber factory making pieces for Yugo cars and washing machines; a metal factory making bearings; a shipping company that had 17 ocean-going ships. There were cosmetics, too – the official cosmetics for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 were made here.”

Then the Yugoslav Wars started in the early 1990s and everything changed. “The factories closed, the jobs dried up, and it was a struggle,” says Đukanović. “Still, there was no actual fighting here, so we were lucky – if you’ve lost an arm or a leg, it’s a different story.” Đukanović made do with stints as a radio journalist (“You journalists are paid terribly,” he tells us, not incorrectly) and working in a student hostel.

But as soon as the troubles were over in 1999, he started guiding again, and set up his own company after independence in 2006. He now employs 12 people and says he can facilitate up to 50 guided tours a day. “It’s grown so fast,” he says. “We might get six cruises in a day, and the number of visitors is almost more than we can stand.”

It’s little wonder the tourists come, and Đukanović says Kotor has more to offer than Dubrovnik, the more famous old town an hour and a half up the coast in Croatia. “Kotor’s much older, more original and more charming,” he says. “We’ve got six 12th-century churches here; the Dubrovnik cathedral was built in the 17th century.”

Still, as you’d expect from a new country suddenly trying to make the most of its natural and historical advantages, there have been bumps in the road. Corruption here isn’t said to be as bad as in nearby Bosnia, but it exists, and Đukanović says the government was too quick to sell assets after gaining independence. Aside from ruined factories and deserted shipping headquarters, Kotor’s greatest white elephant is the Hotel Fjord, a derelict hotel which sits at the end of Kotor Bay on what must be one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the Balkans. In 2006, Montenegro sold the site to the now-disgraced Irish banker Michael Fingleton for €5.5 million, with the former CEO of the Irish Nationwide Building Society promising to turn it into a five-star resort. Since then, nothing’s happened, and Fingleton faces criminal investigation over the deal. You can still see the decaying tennis courts, infinity pool and marina, and imagine exactly how it would look with a gleaming Kempinski or Ritz-Carlton.

Still, while the hostelries in the old town are charming but basic – we stayed in the comfortable Hotel Marija – there are attempts to up the game in terms of accommodation. We head 3km round the bay to the slightly bling-y Hotel Forza Mare – 10 themed suites built into a modernist hotel with a gorgeous location right on the water – which is the closest thing in Kotor to high-end luxury, and was Montenegro’s first five-star hotel when it opened six years ago.

Perhaps dating back to the Sophia Loren days, high-end hotels in Montenegro tend to measure themselves by the celebrities who’ve stayed there – the Wikipedia page of Hotel Splendid, the five-star option in tourist-y Budva down the coast, has a whole section devoted to famous guests, from Brad and Angelina to the Rolling Stones.

At Forza Mare, hotel director Bojan Joketić, a former national youth team water polo player (water polo is the national sport here), reels off the list of celebs who’ve stayed here: Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Tom Cruise, Tina Turner, Roberto Cavalli, Pep Guardiola… and British politician Peter Mandelson. While he says Cavalli and Guardiola were the friendliest, Tina Turner didn’t like having pictures taken and hosting Cruise “was difficult. There was a boat with five or six paparazzi on it the whole time. And for Beyoncé and Jay-Z, we had to switch off the CCTV and ban all photography.”

Attracting foreign superstars seems to be a bit of a theme. The following day we head to the nearby town of Tivat and the new Porto Montenegro superyacht marina, which was converted from an old naval shipyard in 2006 by Canadian billionaire Peter Munk, and a glamorous consortium of Rothschilds and Arnaults. It’s a staggering sight – hundreds of superyachts that make Saint-Tropez look like a small-fry harbour. An official gets irate at us for taking pictures of Ulysses, a 56m monster owned by New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart; and we’re told not to take pictures of Dijana, Novak Djokovic’s superyacht.

We’re shown around by captain Radomir Rajko Cavor, another gentleman with a near-permanent glint in his eye, who stops every 20m on the walk round the marina to say hello to friends and slap backs (“I didn’t know who that one was,” he admits after one encounter). Captain Cavor has a well-earned reputation round these parts – a Kotor native, he’s worked on ships for 24 years, 18 of them as a captain. Originally working on cargo ships, he’s diversified – not only does he bring in boats to Porto Montenegro for the likes of Roman Abramovich and Roberto Cavalli, as well as huge cruise ships, he also runs Le Coche d’Eau, a 420-seat tourist boat imported from Paris, which is the world’s only franchise of Paris’s iconic Bateaux-Mouches company, famous for its Seine river cruises. He’s a busy man but, like everyone we meet, he’s obliging and generous with both time and coffee.

As we walk past the new Regent Hotel, which is due to be opened this summer by the exclusive Aman group, he tells us the plan is for Porto Montenegro to become Europe’s biggest marina, stretching a mile from the land into the sea. It’s hard to believe it’s all happened so fast. “Well, it’s one of the most beautiful bays in the world,” says Cavor, “and, put it this way, billionaires know how to save money.” One of the measures to attract foreign investment has been cutting VAT for maritime-related services from 19 per cent to seven per cent.

Cavor makes a few calls and soon we’re stepping onto various superyachts. One of them belongs to a Bosnian minister, and before we can ask how a Bosnian politician can afford a boat like this, Cavor shushes us with a knowing smile.

On the face of it, Porto Montenegro seems like good news for the area – there’s a Knightsbridge international school at the marina, and Gary Player has designed Montenegro’s first golf course at nearby Luštica Bay – but there have also been complaints that not enough jobs at the marina have gone to Montenegrins, almost 2,000 of whom used to be employed by the old naval docks. Cavor has made the transition, but the challenge is for more local people to do the same.

Still, Montenegro’s far more than bling. Probably the most picturesque spot on the bay is tiny, perfectly preserved Perast, overlooked by the islets of St George and Our Lady of the Rocks. Strict planning laws have kept the baroque palaces and cobbled alleys almost perfectly intact, including Dublin, which is surely the world’s most beautiful Irish pub.

On Our Lady of the Rocks, the only artificially built island on the Adriatic, we meet Don Srećko Majić, the busy priest who’s been here for 44 years, overseeing 22 churches in Perast and nearby Risan, 17 of them active. He’s also helped create the local museum and runs a hostelry for pilgrims. Though he doesn’t speak any English, he manages to use sign language to indicate that more and more tourists are coming every year, and that he’s conducting more marriages for foreigners on Perast’s twin islets – 10 already this year.
Still, it feels unspoilt. In the village itself, with visitors ambling around and eating on terraces that jut into the water, the one thing that seems to be missing is a top-level boutique hotel. Like a lot around Kotor, it’s a developer’s wet dream.

And this is the thing about the Bay of Kotor in 2014. Locals say Montenegro has to develop – it needs motorways (there are currently none) and more hotels – but then you only have to see the built-up seaside resort of Budva just half an hour down the coast to see the high-rise perils of misguided development (“At least the girls there are pretty,” guide Miro Đukanović told us). Either way, it’s a fascinating time to visit – and whatever you think Montenegro should do with its natural and historical treasures, you won’t be in any doubt that God has done his bit.

The amazing true story of the DeLorean

The story of the DeLorean DMC-12 is as fantastical as the Back to the Future films that made it a cult classic. We head to Los Angeles to hear about an unlikely renaissance

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2014. With research by James Bartlett)

At the Endless Summer Classic Car show on Los Angeles’s Hermosa Beach, there’s little doubt what the stars of the show are. Four DeLorean DMC-12s, their gull-wing doors up, are lined up in the car park, and the smartphone cameras are out in force – it’s as if Brad and Angelina have turned up. “Dude, where’s your flux capacitor!” shouts a passer-by.

“I always get that one,” says Ron Ferguson, the president of the DeLorean Owners Association and the Southern California DeLorean Club, and one of the men at the centre of California’s vibrant and very passionate DeLorean scene. “They also ask me where Doc Brown and Marty McFly are, where I get my plutonium from, and what happens if I go 88 miles per hour.”

Ron, an engineer himself, has answers to all of these questions, as he has to just about anything you could ask about DeLorean cars (and yes, he does have a flux capacitor). There are around 6,500 DeLoreans in the world today, and of the nearly 1,000 in California, Ron’s DMC-12 is one of the most pimped. He has a full Back to the Future time machine set-up, with a time travel display, the flux capacitor in the boot, and a registration plate that reads “TIME MCH”. Ron’s even got a hoverboard, though it only makes sounds – he laments that a recent news story about a startup that had invented a working version turned out to be a hoax.

“One time,” he says, “I got pulled over by a policeman on a motorbike. He strolled over very slowly, took two very slow laps around the car, inspecting it carefully. I had my documents ready and was wondering what was wrong. All he said was ‘Nice car’, and then he walked off.” Most days he drives his DeLorean, though, there’s a near-endless stream of people pointing, taking photos and high-fiving. “It can be quite hard getting gas – it often takes 20 minutes to leave.”

The reason DeLoreans are still so much part of the popular imagination has a lot to do with the Back to the Future film trilogy, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year – 2015 is also the year in the future that Doc Brown and Marty McFly travelled to. “The DeLorean is more popular than ever,” says Ron. “It’s partly because of the Back to the Future factor, which still has this hold on people, but it’s also because the true story of the DeLorean is something even Hollywood couldn’t have written.”

It all began in Detroit with John Z DeLorean, the son of a Romanian immigrant born in 1925, who worked his way up the ladder at Chrysler and then General Motors. DeLorean morphed into a tall, tanned jet-setter, who sported sideburns and open-buttoned shirts, and had a succession of  model  wives and a talent for self-promotion. He had been the youngest division head at General Motors, and was credited with the success of the Pontiac GTO, the world’s first muscle car, in 1964. He was prolific, immensely successful, and not afraid to tell the world about it: interviewed in 1996 he said, “I was a pretty talented engineer, and still am. Today I don’t think there’s a car running anywhere in the world that doesn’t have something that I created on it.”

But just as he seemed destined to become president of General Motors, he left (some say he was fired) in 1973, with the dream of a sports car for the masses that would see his DeLorean Motor Company usurp the General Motor Company. In a typical move, his DMC logo was cheekily similar to the GMC logo of his old employers.

At first, DeLorean had little more than a sketch on an envelope, but he moved fast. He had a prototype by 1976, which he then handed over to Lotus engineer Colin Chapman and legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who made the DMC-12 strikingly similar to his design for the Lotus Esprit. The plan for the DMC-12 was to create a rust-proof, stainless steel, eco-friendly “ethical sports car” that would be extremely safe and would sell for a reasonable £12,000. It was as revolutionary an idea as a car design gets.

But DeLorean needed to get it built, quickly and as cheaply as possible. Ever the opportunist, he had been toying with Puerto Rico but eventually decided to establish his factory in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, which in the late 1970s had been ravaged by a decade of sectarian violence and was an investment-free zone. The British government put up £53 million of taxpayers’ money for DeLorean to build a high-tech factory in the desperate Belfast suburb of Dunmurry, smack between Catholic and Protestant communities, creating up to 2,000 jobs.

Construction began on the factory in late 1978, with car production supposed to start the next year, though engineering problems meant the first DeLorean didn’t roll out until 1981. Even with delays, it was a mad rush to production. The first 379 cars to be shipped to Long Beach, California – some for celebrity investors such as Sammy Davis Jr and Johnny Carson – simply weren’t up to scratch, even as prices were more than double what they were supposed to be and adverts billed the car as “the most awaited automobile in history”.

“Those first cars, they were dogs,” factory worker Dave Winnington told 2004 BBC documentary Car Crash: The DeLorean Story. “A lot of people around the company were secretly hoping the boat would sink.”

For a car that was meant to take 50 hours on the production line, mechanics and engineers in America spent up to 500 hours retro-fitting the flawed vehicles. But while slowly improving cars continued to be shipped to the States, DeLorean kept getting hit with setbacks: first he was accused of misusing taxpayers’ money by his office manager in 1981, something of which he was cleared. But, more importantly, as the company was shedding money, sales in the States took a nosedive due to an unusually harsh winter.
With the UK’s new Thatcher government refusing to prop up the ailing company, DMC was in receivership by early 1982, with an increasingly desperate DeLorean flying round the world begging for funding. The nail in the coffin came at the end of that year, when DeLorean was charged with drug trafficking, caught on video referring to a suitcase of cocaine as “good as gold” in a classic FBI sting. Though he was later cleared in a high-profile trial, the dream was over.

No cars were made after 1982 – having promised to churn out 30,000 cars a year, the final tally stood at around 9,000, even if thousands of parts had been shipped to the US in anticipation of the influx. DeLorean, who died in 2005, later became a born-again Christian, patented a monorail system that was never built and filed for bankruptcy in 1999, selling his 434-acre New Jersey estate to Donald Trump.

A first sign that the DeLorean car wouldn’t slip into the annals as just another failed idea came during the production of Back to the Future. The time machine was originally going to be a laser device, and then a refrigerator, an idea director Robert Zemeckis scrapped because he didn’t want children to climb into fridges and get trapped. The DeLorean was chosen because they wanted something that looked like an “alien spaceship”, but also – with an ironic nod to the DeLorean’s patchy production – “didn’t look too perfect”. The idea was that Doc Brown had thrown the car together with parts found in a hardware and electronics store.

Just as art imitates life, so life imitates art. If Back to the Future became the catalyst for the DeLorean’s cult status, it’s second coming has been the result of real-life Doc Browns. The prime among them is Stephen Wynne, a Texas-based Liverpudlian who bought the company in 1995, acquiring the trademark to the iconic DMC logo and all the remaining inventory parts, bringing them to a warehouse in Humble, Texas, on 80 trucks at a cost of US$250,000.

At the California branch of DMC in Huntington Beach, which is run by Wynne’s son Cameron, he stands surrounded by three or four DeLoreans in various stages of repair, and huge piles of spare parts.

“It was always my dream to do something with this car,” says Wynne, who owned a DeLorean long before he bought the company. “I’d always thought that John DeLorean was a visionary who wanted to break away from the mainstream, and I dreamed of improving on his car. But I didn’t want to be seen as a crank, so I waited until people started asking me.”

People did start asking, and since 2008, Wynne has been slowly churning out around a dozen new generation DeLoreans a year, using old parts to assemble completely new vehicles at a cost of around US$57,000 (NOK337,655). Wynne is  passionate about all things DeLorean – he has
a mini-museum and a Back to the Future pinball machine back in the Texas warehouse, and doesn’t miss a beat when asked how many parts it takes to build a DeLorean from scratch: 2,650.

But the plan is to do something altogether more ambitious: he not only wants to up annual production to 50 a year, but is working on a prototype for a new electric DeLorean, which he hopes will be ready for the anniversary year next year. “It really is the way to bring the DeLorean back to the future – it will look the same, but it will have tomorrow’s technology.”

The new electric DeLorean will cost up to US$100,000, with a host of luxury upgrades, like the ’80s tape deck being replaced with a state-of-the-art entertainment system. “We have an advantage because the brand is so strong – we think it can be as big as Minis, Volkswagens or even Harley Davidson bikes. Part of it is just the wow factor. I’ve been at car shows and seen bored kids see a DeLorean – their eyes just light up.”

There are 200 or so people on the waiting list for the new electric DeLorean, including Ron Ferguson, who has driven a prototype. “It felt great, very responsive and smooth,” he says. Having had his own DeLorean since 2000 (he originally bought it for his father, who then insisted they share the vehicle), Ron should know. He knows that DeLoreans have stiff steering, a wide turning circle and underpowered engines (most modern DeLoreans feature powered-up engines); he knows that they perform better at speed, because he’s had his up to 110mph (177kph) on controlled roads; that you can fry an egg on the stainless steel shell; and that the famous gull-wing doors only require 11 inches (28cm) of clearance.

For all their fancy design and quirks, DeLoreans were built to last. “I know of DeLoreans that have more than 500,000 miles on the clock,” says Ron. “Of the 9,000 or so that were made, 6,500 are on the road today – that’s almost unheard-of for a 33-year-old car.”

A big part of that, though, is the reaction. As Ron knows from a thousand high-fives and comments about flux capacitors, it’s a car people respond to. “It’s the movie, it’s the story, it’s everything,” he says. “But most of all… just look at it.” The DeLorean seems to be going nowhere except into the future.

Svalbard – and why it’s not what you expected

We took the whole N by Norwegian team to Svalbard to make our special May issue, meeting many of its biggest characters and soaking up one of the most beautiful and surprising places we’ve ever visited. We expected a ‘Holy crap’ destination – but it’s better than that

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2014)

A lot of people in Svalbard call it the Arctic Bug – when you come here, they say, you feel this intense urge to come back. As a team, we didn’t expect to catch it. We made the decision to do a special Svalbard issue mainly because we’ve been fascinated by it since we made it the cover story of our first issue in January 2013.

It was the the polar bears, the shotguns, the windswept glaciers and the abandoned Russian mining towns that piqued our interest. We expected it to be spectacular – but also a sort of novelty trip, where we’d take Instagram photos of polar bear warning signs and send postcards from the Arctic.

We found all this, but it was just a fraction of what makes Svalbard such an exciting and special place. Yes, there’s a “Holy crap” around every corner: the muffled beauty of travelling by dog sled; the sheer joy of putting pedal to metal on a snowmobile and whizzing through gigantic glacial valleys; the weirdness of finding toys in abandoned Pyramiden – but it’s so much more than that.

One thing we definitely didn’t expect was that the main town of Longyearbyen – a town built on mining, which has also become a hub for science and tourism – would be quite so cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The food and service at Huset, the best restaurant in town, would stand up to scrutiny in London or New York, not to mention the wine cellar, which boasts 25,000 bottles and a Two Wine Glass rating, the wine equivalent of two Michelin stars. In town, the Karlsberger Pub looks at first like a classic man pub, with rock ’n’ roll playing on the stereo and Rankin-esque black-and-white portraits of miners on the walls – but then you look behind the bar and see northern Europe’s widest range of single malt whiskies and Cognacs. You can find Thai or sushi here; artisanal chocolates and great lunches at Fruene; tasting menus at the Funktionærmessen Restaurant (which also boasts more than 70 types of  Champagne); and dishes like the stunning smoked whale at the wood- and fur-bedecked Kroa. These are not small-town venues, and there’s not a Peppe’s Pizza or T.G.I. Friday’s in sight.

Then there are the hotels. Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg is the town hostel, but really defies categorisation. The theatrical Mary-Ann is a wonderfully colourful character, and has poured all of that into this old miner’s rig, dotted with bizarre calendar shots of naked women with polar bears and Mary-Ann herself in full vaudeville mode. There’s great food (including the obligatory seal and whale); a wood-fired outdoor hot tub overlooked by a busty statuette; a smoking area in an old mining bus; and, of course, a stuffed polar bear watching over the fun from his permanent seat at the dining table.

Quirk aside, the Radisson Blu, Trapper’s Hotel and Spitspergen Hotel are all world class, and the second place we stayed – the new Svalbard Hotell – is a smart, modern mid-range hotel, all WiFi, Nespresso and clean, airy design.

But what really blew us away were the people, who were remarkably kind and obliging to a slightly clueless and overenthusiastic magazine team. Take Jason Roberts, an Australian who’s been here for 24 years. If you’ve ever seen a polar bear on screen, from the BBC’s  Frozen Planet to Hollywood movie Far North, he probably helped film it. He took the time to don an outfit based on the anorak worn by Amundsen during his South Pole conquest, and drove us out of town so that we could get the perfect shot.

There’s a high turnover of people here, with the average resident staying for six-and-a-half years. There aren’t generations of locals, and there aren’t too many older folk, with little in the way of care for the elderly (the more mature folk we did meet are formidable characters, though). It’s not necessarily easy living here, but what it means is a young, dynamic and interesting population of self-starters, not least because most of them made the decision to move to the world’s northernmost permanent town. There’s zero unemployment, practically zero crime; the average age is 34 and the average income is 23 per cent higher than mainland Norway, helped by the fact there’s no VAT and minimal income tax. One caveat is that it’s expensive, even without tax on alcohol and other goods.

The university, UNIS, is doing world-leading research into everything from glaciology to climate change and Arctic technology – the vibe is very much MIT with snowmobile suits and Fjällräven jackets, and the whole thing looks exciting and great fun. Competition for places at UNIS is intense – around 16 people apply for every position – so what you get are the brightest and the best. At SvalSat, the world’s biggest satellite station a 20-minute drive from town, people walk around with “KSAT in Black” T-shirts (after the satellite company that owns it) and say their aim is to have “16 per cent more fun every day” – it’s the slightly geeky joie de vivre you imagine at Pixar or the Googleplex, and it’s hardly surprising given the sheer beauty of where they work.

Then there’s the cosmopolitanism. In Longyearbyen, the second-biggest ethnic group are the Thais, who have their own supermarket and restaurant. Ah, the ever-smiling sous-chef at Kroa, is one of many who raves about what a great place Longyearbyen is to live in, even if it’s a little different to Bangkok. What started with miners coming back with Thai brides has grown into a fully fledged community, who are welcomed as much as any group in Longyearbyen, with the caveat that every family here needs to be working.

It shouldn’t be surprising, as Svalbard in general is an international place. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 meant that 40 countries could conduct commercial activities on Svalbard without discrimination, albeit under quite strict Norwegian legislation (the governor, Odd Olsen Ingerø, admits there’s even more bureaucracy here than on the famously bureaucratic mainland). The northern research town of Ny-Ålesund, home to the world’s northernmost post office, is essentially a collection of scientists from across the world (winter population: 35; summer population: 180), while there’s a Polish research station at Hornsund at the southern end of the archipelago.

Then there are the Russians, who have been the dominant group on Svalbard for much of the time since World War II. Since the Grumant and Pyramiden mines have closed (in 1965 and 1998 respectively), leaving eerie ghost towns in their wake, Barentsburg is the only active Russian mine left. Of its 490 or so mostly Ukrainian inhabitants, it’s said three speak English and two speak Norwegian. Arriving there on a snowmobile (or a boat in summer) is a bizarre experience.

A trip to Barentsburg or Pyramiden – whose 1,000 inhabitants deserted the mine town in a single day in 1998 – makes a fascinating counterpoint to all the natural beauty on Svalbard, which is fiercely  protected by some of the strictest environmental laws on the planet. Strangely, the one thing we didn’t see on our trip was a polar bear, despite the fact that in Longyearbyen you can barely walk 10 metres without seeing a picture of one. Everyone here loves a good polar bear yarn – “This one broke my door down, that one wrecked my snowmobile” – and at the Statoil petrol station, there’s a series of photographs of a bear encircling a car with menacing intent.

For us, the weather was too bad to ride snowmobiles to the east coast, where you have the best chance of a sighting. Despite problems for the polar bear, from shrinking ice caps to oil spills and low reproductive rates, Svalbard is one of the few places where polar bear populations are actually rising (up to more than 3,000). Still, it’s said that for every one you see (and it’s not guaranteed, even on trips specifically for the purpose), nine will see you.

We didn’t see any, but it didn’t matter a bit. The polar bear may the symbol of Svalbard, but there are thousands of reasons to come here besides. Anticipating our trip, we expected to have cabin fever by the end and to be desperate to leave. Instead, we came back dreaming of snowmobile commutes, endless skies and a place where most people seem genuinely optimistic. We’ve even been daydreaming about what it would be like to permanently set up shop on Svalbard. In other words, we got it bad – we well and truly caught the Arctic Bug.

The great Swedish pop machine

How Sweden’s domination of the international pop charts started when a failed glam rock front man met a bootleg DJ who couldn’t play a chord (and neither one of them was in Abba)

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2015. Illustration by Thomas Burden)

Guess the song. It was written by a Swede and produced by three Swedes. It was initially rejected by the Backstreet Boys and TLC, before a young American singer agreed it would work as her debut single. When she recorded it in Stockholm in 1998, she was so nervous on the first day that she needed a big night out in the Swedish capital to calm her nerves. When she did nail the vocals, she had two Swedes as backing singers, a Swede on guitar and a Swede on bass.

The result was number one in every country in which it charted, sold more than 10 million copies, and its video (hint: schoolgirls) was voted the third most influential music video of all time by Canadian magazine Jam! You’ve possibly guessed by now that we’re talking about Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, which was produced by Rami Yacoub, Max Martin and Denniz PoP, three of the great Swedish pop producers of the last 20 years.

You could play a variation of this game with countless recent pop hits. Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way and Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger are just a tiny sample of the international mega-hits produced by Swedes, not to mention home-grown acts from Ace of Base to Robyn, Swedish House Mafia and Avicii. Sweden is the world’s third biggest exporter of music (behind the UK and the US), and in 2011 the Swedish music industry turned over SEK6.3 billion (NOK6bn). Last year, more than 40 US top 10 hits were produced at least partly by Swedes.

“The music which rules the charts today was first created in Sweden,” says John Seabrook, an American journalist who has spent a lot of time with Swedish producers and written extensively for The New Yorker on the Swedish pop phenomenon. The question is how, and why?

One version of the story has Björn Ulvaeus at a Beatles concert in 1963, the same year that Ulvaeus’s folk band, the Hootenanny Singers, had a hit with Jag Väntar Vid Min Mila (I’m Waiting by My Charcoal Kiln), which was somewhat put in the shade by Love Me Do. He told one newspaper, “I thought to myself, bloody hell, I would love to be in a pop group… Deep in our hearts, what we wanted to do was pop music in English.”

The rest is history, but Seabrook says Abba are only part of the reason Swedes came to dominate modern pop. “Abba made it okay to listen to pop music,” he says. “When they started, progg political music was in the ascendancy and Abba were initially seen as the ultimate plastic commercial schlock. When they were finally accepted at home, it became cool to be pop, or at least not uncool.”

But acceptance of catchy schlager music (the German translates roughly as “a hit”) has only a tangential relationship to how the modern pop sound started, according to Seabrook.

One more appropriate starting point might be 1992, when Denniz PoP (christened Dag Krister Volle), a former DJ known for producing bootleg remixes of underground hits, received a demo track called Mr Ace from an unknown synth group called Ace of Base – after playing it over and over in his car, he decided to give it a dub-reggae makeover and call it All That She Wants. The song became one of three number ones in one of the most successful debut albums of all time, and Ace of Base – who adopted PoP as their producer and mentor – eventually sold more than 40 million albums, a number bested only by Abba and Roxette among Swedish acts.

As All That She Wants played across America and the world, PoP co-founded Cheiron Studios with Tom Talomaa in Kungsholmen, Stockholm, and soon came across Karl Martin Sandberg, nicknamed Martin White, the leader of a moderately successful glam-style metal band called It’s Alive. PoP, with a touch of irony, had been seeking a heavier, rockier style (this was the era of Nirvana), and produced an album for It’s Alive. The record tanked, but PoP – who couldn’t play a chord – saw something in Martin, a gifted musician who could transcribe partitures for violin. PoP asked Martin to help him write songs, and on an early track sleeve changed his name to the catchier Max Martin without consulting with him. (“Who’s that?” Martin asked when he saw his new name).

Somehow, PoP and Martin’s backgrounds in everything from underground dubstep to funk, classical and glam rock helped form a brand of pure pop that would dominate the charts for years. As PoP and Martin led a group of producers, including Yacoub and Kristian Lundin, Cheiron’s first smash was with a group of Florida teenagers called the Backstreet Boys, who had been playing at SeaWorld and shopping malls when they flew to Sweden, intrigued by PoP’s work with Ace of Base.

“With the Backstreet Boys, Cheiron somehow came up with a winning formula,” says Seabrook. “If you listen to their early songs, like Britney’s, it’s this danceable, keyboard-heavy music, with hard-hitting funky rhythms. It became the way that pop music sounded, and they started it.”

By 1998, when Denniz PoP died of stomach cancer, aged 35, he had also helped launch ’N Sync, Robyn and Five. Martin, meanwhile, was on the way to becoming the most prolific pop producer of all time. In 2001, with Talomaa, he founded a new pop factory, Maratone, and started churning out hits for, among others, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, Pink and Christina Aguilera. He’s had 17 US number one hits, and been the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ (ASCAP) songwriter of the year in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2011, 2012, and 2013, reflecting a stellar last few years in which he’s brought Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to the world’s attention.

“The interesting thing about Max Martin,” says Seabrook, “is that he went out of fashion after 9/11, when his music was seen as too light and soft. But he reinvented himself in 2004 with Kelly Clarkson and a more hard-hitting rock sound. He’s a master of the melody, and working it into parts of the song. He’s also great at hooks in a chorus, so that it has maximum impact on the dance floor. Everyone’s trying to do it, but he’s the one to beat.”

Today, Martin is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Swedish producers. The likes of Klas Åhlund (Kylie Minogue, Robyn, Madonna), Shellback (Usher, One Direction, Taylor Swift, Icona Pop) and Martin Terefe (Westlife, James Blunt, KT Tunstall) have regularly produced international chart-topping hits in the last few years. Swedes have also recently conquered the world of J-pop and K-pop.

According to Seabrook, Swedish producers still largely follow the collaborative formula used by Cheiron. “If you look at American producers, there’s often a lot of ego,” says Seabrook. “You’ll get one guy wanting to do the whole song, and to say, ‘That’s mine’. The Swedish way, which PoP and Martin mastered, is a lot more group-oriented. You might have different guys doing various beats and melodies – it’s often a collaboration, and there’s an ability to let people stick to their areas of expertise. It helps, too, that Swedish producers tend to be very professional – they don’t turn up stoned and three hours late.”

And while many have put the success of Swedish pop producers down to cluster theory – the success-follows-success idea that, for example, saw a glut of Swedish tennis players in the wake of Björn Borg – there are other factors at play. Karin Jihde of STIM, a non-profit organisation that provides royalties to Swedish music creators, says: “A lot of factors have come together in Sweden to create this space for creating pop music. For a start, Swedes have always looked abroad, because we don’t have a big enough market at home – and the fact of singing in a second-language has helped put an emphasis on really strong melodies. Then you’ve got a growing interest in the Melodifestivalen (the feeder competition for Eurovision), high levels of computer literacy and great musical education – Swedish youngsters can learn an instrument for free, and there are high-school courses on music production.”

According to a 2004 study, 30 per cent of Swedish children attended publicly funded music programmes – and it was one of these that nurtured Martin’s talent. According to Pitchfork, the Swedish Arts Council contributes more than SEK300 million (NOK288m) a year to musicians, venues and regional music organisations. “That education keeps going, and there’s a tradition of mentoring,” says Jihde, who nonetheless says that music funding has reduced in recent years. “The top guys pass down what they know.”

What Swedish producers don’t tend to do much is talk much to journalists. For this piece, we approached Max Martin, Klas Åhlund and Sebastian Ingrosso, formerly of the Swedish House Mafia, as well as Norwegian production duo Stargate, who are responsible for many of Rihanna and Beyonce’s biggest hits. None of them spoke to us.

“Max Martin says no to almost everybody,” says Jihde, “as do most of these guys. They are songwriters, and if they wanted to be on stage they’d be on stage. They’re happy in a studio, hanging out and jamming. It takes a certain personality to sit for hours to find a single note that might make the best take.”

Plus, says John Seabrook, the industry doesn’t really want to hear about the producers. “If they put out too much, they get in trouble – the artists often don’t like it and, in terms of image, you want to feel like that’s a Katy Perry song, not something written by a bunch of middle-aged Swedes in a conference room.”

But, really, that’s the truth. As much as you want to think that Britney came up with …Baby One More Time at the end of a boring day at school, it ain’t so. Britney, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry… their biggest hits are as Swedish as Ikea.

Facing up to the darkness

How The Act of Killing, a Danish-backed documentary about the Indonesian death squads in the 1960s, might just change Indonesia forever

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2014)

Of all the reactions to The Act of Killing in the last year or so – awed, angry, dumbstruck – perhaps the most telling comes from the editor of Tempo, Indonesia’s largest news magazine, who has said there are “now two time periods. The time before The Act of Killing, and the time after it.” One Tempo critic called the arrival of the film “a historical event in itself”.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s genre- and mind-bending documentary, co-directed by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian director, has got Indonesia and the world talking about a subject that was previously staggeringly under-reported: the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, where up to a million alleged communists and communist sympathisers were butchered by local death squads. A predominantly Danish film, produced by Final Cut for Rea with Norwegian and British funding, has shone a light on Indonesia that is changing the country. The fact that it’s hotly tipped for an Oscar this month seems almost by the by.

At its core is the story of Anwar Congo, a leader of North Sumatra’s most feared death squad during the 1965-66 killings, who boasts that he killed 1,000 communists personally. He’s a grandfatherly figure who wears Hawaiian shirts and Scarface-esque white suits; and a bon vivant who likes cigars and Elvis. One of the film’s early scenes involves Anwar re-enacting his preferred method of murder: strangulation by wire, because beating people to death created too much blood.

“I’d give him [the victim] a cigarette. We’d still be laughing, dancing. It was like we were killing… happily,” says Anwar in the film, after dancing a cha-cha and recalling how he’d drown his morbid nightmares in marijuana, ecstasy and booze.

But if it seems The Act of Killing can’t go any deeper into its own strange moral vacuum, it does, and then some. Anwar and a small group of his Hollywood-obsessed cohorts agree to make a movie re-enacting their deeds, with many of the increasingly gory scenes based on Anwar’s nightmares, and often hammily performed by gangsters in drag. As they make their gory film-within-a-film, the killers joke, banter and boast like men discussing the football: one man recalls murdering his girlfriend’s father; another jokes about raping 14-year-old girls. As the vain gangsters script and act out their schlocky film, and things get more and more horrific, it’s also perversely funny in parts.

Yet slowly, the gangsters, especially Anwar, seem to find a new awareness of what their victims went through. Anwar, who has convinced himself that his victims will thank him in heaven (the subject of a horrendously kitschy song in the movie), becomes increasingly haunted as he plays the people he murdered, obsessing at one point over the open eyes of one dead victim. After desperately convincing himself that “it’s only a movie”, he finally admits: “What I did was wrong… but it had to be done.” At the end, returning to the scene of his murders, Anwar begins yet another justification for what he did but starts to gag, choking on the rooftop in which he murdered so many innocent people. As Oppenheimer says, the ending is “anti-cathartic”. There’s no escape and nowhere to go, for Anwar but also for the viewer.

Anwar’s stare into his own dark past is now being echoed by Indonesian society at large, where Oppenheimer estimates that at least 200,000 people have seen The Act of Killing, online and in secret screenings, even if it is officially banned (the entire Indonesian crew behind the film remain anonymous) and the gangsters still control many local areas.

Unlike in countries such as Cambodia, Bosnia or Rwanda, there has been no official recognition of the genocide. The Pancasila Youth paramilitary group that ran the death squads still boasts three million members, and current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s late father-in-law was one of the key generals behind the killings. In the film, one of the gangsters sums it up: “War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.”

Tempo magazine had only written sporadically about the killings before The Act of Killing, silenced in part by long-running propaganda that insists the communists started the violence. After the film, though, the magazine sent journalists around the country to interview some of the many perpetrators – like Anwar, a large number boasted about their exploits. The result was a special edition, “Confessions of the 1965 Executioners”, which sold out in record time and has been made into a book.

According to Iwan Kurniawan, who edited the special edition: “The media had written about the victims before, but until The Act of Killing no one had ever thought to publish the confessions of the executioners before. We were amazed that they were open and seemed to feel little or no guilt about what happened. It’s made people reconsider the killings, which many Indonesians didn’t know about because it’s not in the school text books. The calls for the government to apologise to the victims have grown louder – we’re not sure if one film and one report can change Indonesian society, but it has certainly triggered a discussion.”

According to Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based journalist and researcher for Human Rights Watch, the film has helped but there’s a long way to go. “You have to remember this is a country where you can be jailed for owning a book of Marxism, and where the anti-communist propaganda still runs deep,” he says. “Many of the provincial capitals are essentially ruled by the sons and nephews of the killers, and it’s important they keep up some kind of justification for what happened.” Human Rights Watch is among the organisations that have called for a government investigation into the genocide, but it’s largely fallen on unreceptive ears. It doesn’t help, says Harsono, that the evidence is almost 50 years old.

Still, he is hopeful. “In 20 years, we’ll see the real impact of this mindblowing film. At the moment, only the educated urban young who have internet connections have been able to see it – and it’s changing their perspective. People in Indonesia have reported that they watched the film and literally didn’t move a muscle – a lot of people had never even heard about this before The Act of Killing.

“Crucially, the government can’t deny any of it – those are real people talking to the camera, and you can’t argue, twist or spin that. We desperately need to understand the violence in Indonesia’s past and overturn it.”

If an official recognition of the genocide, far less an apology, still seems like a long way off, Oppenheimer says that the increased awareness makes his own Heart of Darkness-style journey worthwhile. “It was gruelling and intense, and my family were begging for me to go home [he was living in London at the time] – but there was nowhere to go, I had to tell this story,” he says.

Oppenheimer’s crew spent eight years filming in Indonesia, and had initially planned to make a film about the victims of the genocide – but many were too scared to speak and they’d often get local officials barging in and disrupting filming. “Then someone said: ‘The people who killed our family members live just down the road. You could speak to them.’

“We approached very cautiously, thinking that the perpetrators would be reluctant to talk – but to our astonishment and horror, they started boasting about the atrocities they’d committed. They were telling these grotesque, grizzly stories in front of their grandchildren. It was like wandering into Germany and finding the Nazis were still in control and boasting about the Holocaust. Suddenly, all the doors were open to us.” Oppenheimer recalls how he started asking the perpetrators to recreate their murders. “It wasn’t a trick,” he says. “It was a response to their openness.”

But it was still two years and 40 in-depth interviews until Oppenheimer met Anwar Congo. After all he’d seen, he was still “astonished” as Anwar danced the cha-cha on the spot where he’d killed so many people. What was different to some of the murderers, he says, was that “there was a real pain not very far from the surface. In a way, he was making his own desperate attempt to justify what he’d done, so that he doesn’t look in the mirror every day and see a mass murderer. He wasn’t in denial of the facts; he was in denial of their meaning.”

For all his flamboyance, Anwar is a complicated character who elicits complicated reactions, and he and Oppenheimer developed an intense and difficult relationship. “The challenge was to walk that tightrope between revulsion and sympathy for Anwar. I set myself a rule – that I’d never make the leap from ‘Anwar has done monstrous things’ to ‘Anwar is a monster’. I had to see Anwar as a human being. I’m lucky that I’ll never find out how I’d have acted in his situation.”

Oppenheimer says of the final gagging scene: “I had this desire to put my arm around him and say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ In that moment, however, I had this sickening realisation that, no, it will not be okay – and this is what it looks like when it is absolutely not okay.”

Today, Oppenheimer says he speaks to Anwar every three or four weeks, “and perhaps I always will. I wouldn’t call Anwar a friend, but we have real love for each other.”

Oppenheimer was with Anwar when he watched the film for the first time. “At the end, he was very tearful and quite silent. He said: ‘This film shows what it means to be me.’ It was one of the most moving moments of my life.”

As for Anwar now, Oppenheimer says, “His life is much the same as it was. He has no criminal jobs now, but I still don’t think he can consciously say it was wrong. But at least he’s been encouraged to talk about it.”

Even more than a year after the film’s initial release, Oppenheimer seems overwhelmed by it. It’s won scores of awards, most recently at the European Film Awards, and at press time seemed a strong bet for the BAFTAs and Oscars.

Perhaps ironically, while he calls it “my love letter to Indonesia”, he also knows he can’t go back to a country he’s spent so much time in. “The risk of an attack or of being put in prison is too great. I had a screening for Indonesians in Berlin, and asked people to raise their hands if they thought I could go back. No one did. One said you can go back but you might never get out again.”

As Indonesia slowly starts to look back at what happened, Oppenheimer says the film can be read as an analysis of how humans continue to commit atrocities, in Indonesia and elsewhere. “In the end, I think humans are essentially moral,” he says. “So they have to maintain a moral lie that leads to further evil. Because, having killed and written a victors’ history to justify that killing, you must now blame the victims because the propaganda declares it to be their fault. You have to dehumanise them because it’s much easier to live with yourself if the people you killed are not fully human. And you have to kill again – because, if the government instructs Anwar to kill another group of people for the same reason as he killed the first, refusing the second time is tantamount to admitting it was wrong the first time.”

Slowly, perhaps, Indonesia might start looking at the lie that it has told itself for 50 years. As a response to a film, winning an Oscar seems meaningless in comparison.

The ravings of a memory champion

The bizarre scenarios that helped turn Swede Jonas von Essen into the world memory champion

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2014. Illustration by Stephen Cheetham)

It’s a summer’s day and a cool breeze is blowing across Gothenburg’s Liseberg amusement park. By the iconic wooden rollercoaster, Dolly Parton is juggling laser swords, while just down the walkway Sherlock Holmes is licking a puddle of vomit. Beside the botanical gardens, a giant fish is transforming itself into a gun, while nearby Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović is eating a toilet.

These may sound like the imaginings of a madman, but they are the images Swede Jonas von Essen used to win the World Memory Championship last December. The 22-year-old from Gothenburg, who is studying to be a maths teacher, beat the German world number one Johannes Mallow (aka “The Human Hard Disk”) over three days of events, ranging from remembering random lists of words to matching names and faces, and memorising as many numbers in an hour as possible. In becoming champion, von Essen achieved the competition’s highest ever score.

Among other feats, von Essen memorised more than 24 decks of cards in an hour, and recalled 3,841 binary digits in half an hour – helped by Dolly, Sherlock, Zlatan and co. “I want the images to be memorable, but also to have some meaning,” he explains. “For example, I imagine that Zlatan is sponsored by a toilet company, and that they’ve sent him a toilet cake he has to eat; or the fish is turning into a gun to get revenge on the fishermen who killed his friends.”

So what exactly is going on in von Essen’s head?

Almost all memory competitors use a technique called the Method of Loci, or Memory Palace technique, a system that was developed 2,500 years ago by the Greek poet Simonides, who is said to have first used the technique to identify the guests killed when the roof fell in at a banquet he was attending. As explained by Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein, his brilliantly entertaining book about “memory athletes”, the Memory Palace is a building or physical space that you walk through in your mind, placing images that relate to the things you have to memorise.

For von Essen’s 3,841 binary digits, he used seven memory palaces, including Liseberg amusement park, his cousin’s house and the Gothenburg Book Fair. As he walked through, he would place different scenarios in order through the memory palaces, which represent 18 binary digits each, converted into decimal. Zlatan is number 16 (001 and 110 in binary), eating is number 45, and a toilet is number 08 – so Zlatan eating a toilet stands for 164508 (or 001110100101001000).

All memory competitors (read Foer’s book to hear about the weird and wonderful characters involved) insist that anyone can learn this technique, an idea borne out by a 2002 study at University College London (UCL) that showed memory champions are made, not born. “My memory was nothing special, and it still isn’t,” says von Essen, who says he routinely forgets his keys and even doctors’ appointments.

Von Esssen only started learning the techniques two years ago, after seeing a book in the library, Memo by Norwegian Oddbjørn By. “I guess the difference between me and a lot of people is that I didn’t just read the book, I really tried to use it. If you go to memory competitions, you get this amazing range of very different people, but I think what they share is a certain curiosity.”

Von Essen improved fast. “Once I realised, ‘Hey I can do this,’ my goal was to become the Swedish champion. When I started beating most of the Swedish records, it dawned on me that I was becoming one of the best in the world.”

But a key question is whether a good memory is even a benefit in these post-Google days. Foer argues that, with the inventions of the alphabet, printing presses, cameras and finally computers, it’s become gradually easier for humans to externalise memories, to the point where it seems we don’t need them any more. In a TEDTalk, he described it as “outsourcing our memories to technology”.

Particularly in the Western world, education has moved away from memory – in a time when students take exams with spell-checks, calculators and often reference books, learning by rote has become old-fashioned.

While not endorsing a return to rote-learning, Foer argues that everyone can benefit from memory training, and that it fires rather than hinders the imagination – something von Essen agrees with.

“The internet is making us more stupid,” he says, “because the information is being stored outside of our minds. If you really want to use information, it’s vital to actually get it in your brain, where it comes alive. It’s the mash-up in your head that’s interesting, and which allows you to come up with new thoughts and new ideas.”

In more practical terms, von Essen says he has become more confident – he can remember peoples’ names, and knows what he has to say in interviews for jobs or with inflight magazines. “Learning memory techniques has made my mind more effective,” he says. “It’s easier to separate the bits of information in your head and to find the things that you want.”

It has also taught him to open his eyes – on most holidays, he’ll remember things and use them as potential memory palaces, whether hotel rooms or walks through the city. He has one, from a trip to London, that goes through Buckingham Palace, into the palace gardens and past souvenir shops on the way to Victoria station. He admits, though, that his memory places aren’t always 100 per cent accurate – “Sometimes I’ll go back to the real place and it’ll look quite different.”

Either way, what he’s doing when he remembers makes him look less like a human calculator, and more like someone who’s learned to develop his imagination. That 2002 UCL study took 10 memory champions and 10 people with “normal” memories, and found that the former group had no superior intellectual capabilities – what they did find, however, was that the champions had taught themselves to use parts of their brain more effectively, especially the area of the hippocampus used for spatial navigation. The same researchers found similar results in London taxi drivers, who have to remember every road in London, and the fastest route between any two destinations.

The taxi drivers learn to see spaces and roads as living entities, packed with associations – they seem to assign the roads with meanings and then process them, just like Jonas von Essen does when he imagines that Sherlock Holmes is tasting a puddle of vomit to figure out who puked (number 640242, in case you were wondering).

Because, let’s face it, 164508 is quite hard to remember; and the image of Sweden’s greatest footballer chowing down on a toilet is quite hard to forget. Jonas von Essen’s no genius, he’s merely learned a way to let his mind do its own thing.

Punk, politics & football in Hamburg

How did FC St Pauli, a middle-ranking team in Germany’s Bundesliga 2, garner 11 million fans around the world? The answer has a lot to do with punk, politics – and the soul of football

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2014)

For those who don’t know what going to a football match is normally like, going to watch FC St Pauli  is perhaps equivalent to getting on a plane where they’re playing the Ramones at full-volume, the air stewardesses are wearing leather jackets and ripped jeans, and the messages on the intercom are protests against capitalism.

In these days of highly corporatised all-seater stadiums, FC St Pauli is that unique. It’s a rainy Friday night, and I’m in the Millerntor Stadium, bang in the heart of Hamburg’s lively St Pauli district, known for its docks, its left-wing activism and for the infamous neon-hued Reeperbahn, the bustling street that forms the backbone of Europe’s largest red light district.

In the South Stand, with the team about to take on FC Köln in Germany’s second division, everything’s different to most grounds. There’s no advertising, just entire walls covered in quality street art; the loos are covered in punk and political stickers; just about everyone is wearing St Pauli’s iconic skull and crossbones emblem; and lots of people seem to be collecting money for something, whether it’s clean water for the developing world or a community playground. Before the game, as the crowd launches into the chorus of AC/DC’s Hells Bells, someone unfurls a flag reading “Refugees Welcome”, a reference to a recent fan campaign against immigrant stop-and-searches.

“This isn’t like any other football club,” says the amiably tipsy Christian Evachenko, an American army vet whose large frame is dominating the walkway in his St Pauli leather jacket covered in anti-capitalist and punk badges. Evachenko, who was posted to Germany before the Berlin Wall fell and has stayed ever since, had no interest in football until his son got into the game 10 years ago. They started coming to St Pauli and, as he describes it, “I was hooked like a fish. It’s like heroin.”

Formed in 1910, FC St Pauli was a fairly normal working class football club until the mid-1980s, when the club became the antidote to a rising tide of far-right hooliganism on German football terraces.

Earlier in the day, I got the story first-hand from Sven Brux, who might just be the living embodiment of FC St Pauli’s recent history. He’s a former punk with a glint in his eye, who still wears an earring, smokes roll-ups and meets us in the stadium offices in a pair of battered black Reebok trainers. He founded the club’s supporters’ group and its first fanzine, Millerntor Roar, and has been involved with St Pauli since 1987. Today he’s the club’s head of organisation and security, a big job given that the club boasts roughly 600 worldwide supporters’ groups and 11 million fans – the same number as Tottenham Hotspur in England. He’s also an elected chairman of the Jolly Roger, the legendary fan-owned bar near the stadium.

“I came to Hamburg to do my civil service in 1985,” he says. “I’d been into football as a young boy, but then I got into the punk scene and football fans became the enemies. Nazis and hooligans were ruling the terraces, and if you saw football supporters at the central station, there’d be trouble.”

He became aware of FC St Pauli, which in the early 1980s was lucky to draw 3,000 fans to a home game. “Hamburger SV had been the only club in town, and St Pauli was deep in the shadows. But when the far right started to take over in the ’80s, people started to say, ‘We can’t stand side by side with Nazis.’

“At the same time, there was a harbour crisis in St Pauli, and the dock workers were being replaced by squatters, artists and other alternative types. As they started going to the football, the people disenfranchised by Hamburger SV started to see that they could come to St Pauli and not get any trouble. Suddenly, you had all these people in the stadium who you’d never see at football.”

Nothing that followed was planned, says Brux – like the time that Doc Mabuse, the singer of a local punk band, stole a skull and crossbones flag from the Hamburger Dom carnival next to the stadium. The skull and crossbones – which had long been associated with St Pauli on account of legendary pirate Klaus Störtebeker – became the club’s unofficial emblem, and is now so iconic that it’s been worn by countless bands and you can barely pass three shops in the area without seeing it. You can buy St Pauli skull and crossbones hoodies, iPhone holders and even jewellery at the airport. As Brux says, “It suited us immediately. It spoke of a little club, of the little guys against the big guys. When we were promoted in 1988 and went to play the likes of Bayern Munich, we became known as the pirates.”

Fast forward 15 years – a few promotions and relegations later – and what’s changed? Brux accepts “you can’t run a football club without money”, and at press time the club was in a court battle over the rights to sell club merchandise, including the skull and crossbones (they’d sold the rights cheaply in 2003 to save the club from bankruptcy). The three or four people in the club’s office have swollen to almost 50, and Brux seems almost rueful when he points out that there’s now a corporate identity department.

Still, it remains unique. According to Brux, the worldwide Football vs Racism movement was born at FC St Pauli in the 1980s, and the club’s fans founded the Alerta anti-fascist network, which today includes supporters from clubs as diverse as Atletico Bilbao, FC Bordeaux and FC Minsk. St Pauli fans organise a biannual anti-racist supporters tournament, and the club has played friendlies in Cuba as part of a policy of left-wing solidarity. In 2006 (during the World Cup) the club was the site of the FIFI Wild Cup, for states not recognised by FIFA – Northern Cyprus beat Zanzibar in the final, with Gibraltar third and the Republic of St Pauli fourth.

Around 30,000 of these fans turn up to most games – even, as Brux says, “when it’s pissing with rain and the football is complete crap.” The reason, he says, is because “we are here for the supporters like no other club. The new stand is 50 per cent standing because the fans wanted that; and the stadium name will never be changed because the fans decided that. If fans say we don’t want commercial shit, we listen. It works because we get higher attendances than most Bundesliga 2 teams, and have one of the best attendance percentage records in Europe. We can look ourselves in the mirror and say that we make our money the right way.”

The rain and crap football comment turns out to be prescient that night, as a much sharper FC Köln run out 3-0 winners, with the home side reduced to 10 men in the second half. Yet what’s most interesting is what happens off the pitch, starting with a minute’s silence before the game for recently passed St Pauli club hero Walter Frosch, a merciless defender and a German football icon. With his floppy hair and moustache, Frosch was known for his off-field antics (he could smoke 60 cigarettes in a day) and for getting so many yellow cards (18 in the 1976/77 season) that FIFA introduced a one-match suspension for players after four (it’s five today).

St Pauli like their club icons atypical. Cornelius “Corny” Littmann, who was club president from 2002-10, was not only Europe’s first openly gay football club president, but the theatre impresario and owner was instrumental in saving the club from oblivion in 2003. Today he runs the Schmidt Theater and Schmidt’s Tivoli on the Reeperbahn.

A classic example of the curiosities of FC St Pauli came a few years ago, when Reeperbahn strip club Susis Show Bar installed a pole in their corporate box. The fans, who boast that they have more female supporters than any other club, launched an inevitable protest, reaching a compromise that there would no stripping during matches. The stripping pole is still there, as is a model train that trundles around the stadium with hot dogs on it (like much inside the stadium, it was built by a fan).

What’s interesting is that the St Pauli fans seem to sing even louder when they go 3-0 down, culminating in a cacophonous chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone. After the game, they clap the players off the pitch as if they’ve just beaten Bayern Munich – and the players look bashfully grateful.

As Brux told me earlier, the criteria for being a St Pauli player “is about your head as much as your ability”. All new players are taken on a tour of the immediate area, so they understand its unique heritage, and many former players own bars and run charities in the area, including the near-ubiquitous Viva Con Agua, an initiative to provide drinking water to developing countries that was started in 2005 by St Pauli player Benjamin Adrion.

After the game, I head to the supporter’s club downstairs, which looks like a basement punk bar in 1970s Greenwich Village. It was funded, built and decorated entirely by supporters, and the walls are covered in a mix of graffiti, stickers and black and white archive images of the Millerntor Stadium, creating a kind of punk living museum. Leather- and denim-clad figures are bouncing around in the red, smoky light. I’m tired, and can’t really hack the pace, or the pounding of the Dead Kennedys, so head home to bed (note: light sleepers should avoid hostels on the Reeperbahn).

The next day I go back to the Jolly Roger, the fan pub that was too packed to get into the night before. Before the day’s Bundesliga 1 games are about to kick off on the TV, I ask if we can take pictures of the patrons at the bar (it’s dark and covered in stickers and graffiti, but you’d probably guessed that by now). Led by one girl in a Cockney Rejects beanie, they decide they’re unimpressed I’m from an airline magazine, and will only grant photos if I buy the whole bar a drink. I’ve never made this manly gesture before, and am sweating as the barman plonks 13 tiny bottles of Kuemmerling herb liquor on the bar. After throwing it back, I only stop grimacing when the barman tells me how much it has cost me: “Thirteen euros,” he says. I’m definitely not in Norway.

Later, I’m watching the Bundesliga matches under a scarf commemorating a match between St Pauli and FC United, when I get talking to Michael Dickson, a Celtic fan who’s over from Dublin to watch St Pauli (Celtic, like Standard Liege, have a special relationship with the club). Dickson owns Casa Rebelde, a shop that specialises in retro football gear, and tells me that FC St Pauli is his best-selling brand of merchandise. “There’s something about this club that resonates with people,” he says. “Going to watch Celtic these days is nothing like it.”

Dickson regularly comes to St Pauli games and used to have a season ticket. “Guys from the Fanladen [supporter’s club] here came to my wedding, and I went to theirs,” he says, before reeling off a rush of FC St Pauli anecdotes: about the St Pauli/Celtic parties that draw 400 Celtic fans to Hamburg; or the tradition of hiring two rail carriages for the final away game of the season, emptying them save for a bar each, and installing a DJ. “There’s usually a dress code, and you’ll have a couple of hundred people dancing the journey away.” For him, like St Pauli’s millions of fans, the club represents a time when football wasn’t about transfer deals worth tens of millions, and when clubs were there for the supporters. In central Hamburg, surrounded by an intoxicating blend of hip bars, neon-lit strip clubs and anti-capitalist squats, that ideal still exists.

Morocco’s big break

In less than 15 years, the Moroccan village of Taghazout has gone from a hippie secret to a world-renowned surf destination. Yet somehow it hasn’t lost its charm

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2013. Photography by Tim White)

When Portuguese pro surfer Alexandre Grilo first came to Taghazout in a camper van in 2000, he found a unique spot – a sleepy Berber fishing village surrounded by 15 or so world-class surf breaks, where you’d be woken for a morning surf by the call to prayer. “I remember my first day surfing – it was hot, and I was riding these perfect clean breaks under blue skies,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe there was no one else in the water.”

Grilo went on to found the Lapoint surf camp, and was at the vanguard of a change that has seen the town turn from a hippie secret into a surf mecca. Today, there are at least a dozen surf camps in town, and waves like Anchor Point – which you can surf for 2km from one village to another on the right day – are world famous.

Yet what’s most striking about Taghazout is that, as the surfers have poured in, the small town hasn’t lost its charm. The call to prayer still rings through your window at around 5.30am, and you can’t get a stronger drink than a mint tea in the seaside cafés and restaurants. The fishermen still go out most mornings, and you can buy a whole fresh-caught white tuna for 30 dirhams from the beach-side fish market.

In the evening, as the sun sets, there’s almost always an energetic yet cultured game of beach football going on, while the fishermen sit and play cards by their boats, many of which house sleeping cats. It’s small enough that you can have the town pretty much figured out in a few days – after four days, we’re receiving high-fives from locals like Rashid, who works at the Ali Baba gift shop and knows everyone and everything in town (if he’s not there, ask Hassan at The Surf Board Surgery).

And this is Taghazout’s real magic. The locals have the ready smiles of people who’ve spent their lunch break surfing (“Work sucks, go surfing” T-shirts are ubiquitous) and, aside from the odd performing camel, there’s little of the harassment that visitors get in some parts of Morocco. While people charge you to take their photo in Marrakech’s souk, here almost everyone is happy to pose, even if many insist on sticking their tongues out and doing a thumb-pinkie surfer gesture that makes them look like Miley Cyrus on a bad day. The only place we couldn’t shoot was at the local barbershop, because the mayor was getting his hair cut.

“Life is good, you know,” says Ahmed, a local who fixes up surfboards and just about everything else you can imagine. With his cigarette and boiler suit, he looks like an extra from Grease, and his shop is daubed with psychedelic surf murals. Aside from the boards, he’s also fixing up a snapped skateboard and a busted guitar, which he poses with, Elvis-style. “Taghazout’s changed, but it’s all good – the surfers are cool, and I like everyone who comes, especially the foreign girls. You don’t need lots of money to be happy here.”

At the fish market, we meet Said and Mohammed, father and son fishermen. Said has been fishing in his simple blue boat for 50 years, while Mohammed has been doing it for 15. “We still do our thing, there are just more people to sell to,” smiles Said, pointing at his day’s catch of white tuna, sardines and his favourite, dorado. Mohammed, who’s better known as “French”, is a surfer, and after a morning’s fishing near Anchor Point often comes back, grabs his board and heads to the same spot to ride waves.

Life for many here revolves around the surf. The Aylargan spa, run by glamorous Agadir native Loubna Sehimou, closes in the summer, when there are no waves. When it is open, the gratifyingly hard deep-tissue massages are designed specially for surfers, who make up 80 per cent of the clientele. Another “surf surgeon”, Farid Bosco, turns to scuba diving in the summer, and catching fish with a speargun – taking a break from sanding a board, he proudly shows us a photo of a 50kg corvina he caught this year, while explaining that he sells his uncle’s cakes in the surf surgery during the summer.

The predominantly Muslim town, long known for its fishing and the Argan oil from the nearby mountains, wasn’t always as surf-obsessed. According to Grilo, “when I first came here there were only a handful of local surfers. There was nowhere to stay and no surf shops – if you forgot your board wax, tough luck.” Grilo spotted an opportunity, though, and started running trips to Taghazout in 2001 before renting an apartment in 2002 to host visitors, many of them pro surfers. “People said I was crazy,” he recalls. “My parents were afraid I’d get kidnapped. But the truth is this is a small town where everyone knows everyone – it’s totally safe.”

His initial aim was “just to cover the rent”, but by 2006 Lapoint (named after the local short-hand for Anchor Point) had become so popular Grilo was struggling to find time to surf, with visitors including American surf celebrity Kelly Slater.

One of his guests that year was a Swedish ex-pro snowboarder called Sebastian Kjellström, who offered to help take Lapoint to the next level. “I had a lot of offers at the time, and I didn’t think much of it… but a few months later I got a call from Sebastian saying he’d raised €30,000 (around NOK200,000) from sponsors, bought a van and lined up bookings for the whole of December. That’s when we became partners, and when Lapoint became a real business.” Lapoint moved into a hotel on the main street, and now runs surf camps as far afield as Portugal, Norway, Bali, Costa Rica and, most recently, Sri Lanka. Today, the vast majority of customers are Scandinavian.

As Lapoint has grown, the surf culture in Taghazout has exploded. “The kids see it as cool,” says Grilo. “They see surf instructors getting girls, and they realise they can make money from surfing.” Grilo, who has been surfing since 1995, has played his part, mentoring and giving boards to promising young surfers. One, Ramzi Boukhiam, is now sponsored by Quiksilver and was the European junior champion last year.

On the beach we meet another of Grilo’s protégés, 20-year-old Yassin Bellqber, currently ranked number three in Morocco, and considered the best local surfer in Taghazout. “I started surfing at nine, and I’ve surfed pretty much every day since. It’s normal around here,” says Bellqber, whose “day job” is as a surf instructor. Boukhiam moved to France in 2007, and it’s still hard to get noticed if you don’t leave Morocco. “The sponsors and the big competitions are all in Europe,” says Bellqber. “It’s still hard to make a career as a pro in Morocco.”

Lapoint, like many of the camps here, only uses local instructors, which Grilo says is a rule: “It’s important to us that all our » camps serve the local community and give something back. A big thing for us is getting people out into the town and to experience the culture – whether it’s going to the spa for a massage or the souk in Agadir.”

He says the balance did take time to get right. “For a few years, local authorities were trying to kick out foreigners who started setting up surf camps here; we had to convince them foreigners wouldn’t come, and that would harm them.” Compromises were reached, and Grilo says things became better organised – associations were formed, and the new surf shops started paying taxes, even if some of the goods on sale are still knock-offs. “Now there’s a level of understanding and respect – it works.”

Either way, you feel welcome in Taghazout. On our last day, we’re eating lunch at Panorama, the oldest seafood restaurant in town. Manager Charif appears from the beach with surfboard in hand, offering a beaming grin and a vertical handshake. The calamari takes a while to arrive, but watching the undulating waves from the restaurant’s pretty tiled terrace, it really doesn’t matter. Life is good.

The park, the feminists and the billionaire

When Oslo billionaire Christian Ringnes announced plans to create a feminine-themed sculpture park overlooking the view that inspired Munch’s The Scream, the opposition was vociferous. Now that it’s opened, though, the naysayers have largely gone quiet

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2013)

It was, according to its critics, the park funded by a billionaire, with seven football fields’ worth of trees cut down to make room for kitsch art made by men around the theme “A Homage to Women”. Yet after Oslo’s Ekeberg Sculpture Park opened in late September, near the point on Ekeberg Hill where Munch had his ghoulish reverie, a very different story has emerged.

Every weekend, tens of thousands of people have poured into the 26-hectare park, dotted with 31 sculptures ranging from figurative classics by the likes of Dalí and Rodin to a twisted metal couple hanging from a tree by Louise Bourgeois and a series of perception-bending spaces by celebrated contemporary American artist James Turrell. And the visitors have been almost universally impressed – even Ina Blom, an Oslo art professor who called the feminine theme “reactionary”, has conceded that the quality of the art is world class.

“The overriding narrative was: rich, eccentric guy controlling part of the city. Can we trust him?” says Christian Ringnes, the grandson of one of the Ringnes Brewery co-founders, who has made most of his fortune in real estate and become a prominent art collector along the way, donating works to the city including Marc Quinn’s controversial Kate Moss statue in the reconfigured Opera Passage. He has invested around NOK350 million in the Ekeberg project, including a provision for future maintenance and repairs.

Ringnes had bought the famous Ekeberg restaurant when, in 2006, he submitted a proposal to renovate the adjoining forest, a prominent 19th-century park that had fallen into disrepair after World War II. The theme, he says, was about giving the park an identity rather than any explicit message. “We thought about what Scandinavia is known for, and peace and the relative strength of women kept coming up. We also wanted to create a counterpoint to the Vigeland Sculpture Park in the west, which is more masculine – it’s classical but brutal, with geometric lines. Our plan was to create a park where there’s no linearity and everything is organic.”

Immediately, though, opposition started forming from nature groups, heritage organisations, the art world and even feminists. “Not everyone was immediately sold on the idea,” he admits, “but throughout most of this process, around 55 per cent of people have been for the park and about a quarter against it. The noise level was much higher than the reality, but the press obviously play up criticism and conflict – and once certain groups get the idea of concrete football fields in peoples’ heads, it can be hard to shake.

“We used no concrete, only bark and gravel, and we cut down less than two per cent of the park’s trees. We spent a long time cataloguing the park’s flora and fauna. We didn’t touch 90 per cent of the park, and the 10 per cent we did touch was mostly repair.”

More importantly, perhaps, Ringnes says the whole process has been “completely democratic”. The collection was chosen and approved by a committee of city officials and art institution heads. That committee had to be approved by the city, as did every one of the 31 pieces of art, which went through a strict vetting process. “If you look at the Kistefos Sculpture Park in Jevnaker, it’s beautiful but all chosen by one man. This was nothing like that. The committee was made up of people who know a lot more about art than I do, and there was an element of ‘we decide, you pay’. I was fine with that. The most important thing is the quality of the work.”

While eight of the works – including two Renoirs, two Rodins and a Dalí – come from Ringnes’s personal collection, he admits that some were rejected because “the committee didn’t think some of my sculptures were good enough”. They also decided against bringing up the Kate Moss sculpture, a hint at how subtly played the feminine theme is. Other pieces were bought for the park – like Bourgeois’s iconic hanging couple – while six of the more ambitious works were specially commissioned, including Turrell’s Skyspace (“His best work yet,” says Ringnes) and a video wall by American installation artist Tony Oursler (“You can stare at it for an hour and constantly see new things”).

With the classic works clustered around the park’s entrance, and the rest spread around in their own spaces, the results are quietly beautiful, especially if you visit the 24-hour park out of peak times. But it’s been busy on the opening weekends, with kids getting pictures with British sculptor Sean Henry’s Walking Woman, and crowds gathering round The Dance, George Cutts’s dancing metal rods. “I was in the car listening to the traffic report on the radio, and I heard there were jams around the sculpture park,” says Ringnes. “That makes me happy, though we do need to sort the parking.”

Plans for the future include adding one or two sculptures a year, with an eventual limit of 80, and to put in a gondola that will run down to the new Munch Museum. Ringnes predicts it will be ready in “maybe 2016 or 2017”, but says there’s a lot of red tape to get through before then.

He’s most interested now in seeing people enjoy the park and its art. “Even the art professors and the feminists who were opposed have said: this is great.” It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment – whether or not it comes from a billionaire, Oslo has another world-class art destination to add to its growing list, and it’s hard to argue with that.

From Kiruna into space

Your next flight might be beyond the Kármán Line and into space. And you might be leaving from Kiruna, the city in Arctic Sweden that’s leading Europe’s commercial space race

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2013. Illustration by Thomas Danthony)

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” This was Neil Armstrong experiencing the Overview Effect, a feeling of life-changing awe so consistent among the 534 astronauts who’ve seen our planet from space, psychologists saw fit to give it a name.

In the near future, you may be able to experience the Overview Effect – and you may only need to travel to Sweden’s Arctic outpost of Kiruna to do it. The tiny city, best known for the world’s largest iron ore mine and the famous Icehotel, is also home to Spaceport Sweden, which is leading Europe’s new space race – the goal being to send us above the border of Earth.

Spaceport Sweden, based at Kiruna Airport, is in talks with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, the two companies who are in the testing phase for spaceships that will be able to take passengers more than 100km above the surface of the Earth – above the Kármán Line, the border of space, and high enough to see the curve of the Earth’s surface. Virgin Galactic believes it could launch its SpaceShip Two into space by 2015 – and 640 people have already signed up to pay US$200,000-250,000 (up to NOK1.5 million) for a flight, among them Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

While those first flights will take off from Spaceport America, in New Mexico’s Mojave Desert, Spaceport Sweden has been working since 2007 to build the infrastructure for space travel. “We want to put Kiruna on the map as the gateway to space in Europe,” says Karin Nilsdotter, Spaceport Sweden’s enthusiastic CEO, on the phone from Los Angeles. She’s been meeting with Virgin Galactic in New Mexico and is about to attend a conference run by SpaceX, the space exploration company started by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, whose ultimate goal is to enable life on Mars. It’s little wonder she sounds excited.

“Putting normal people into space is the next big development for mankind,” she says. “We think it will be transformative, not just in terms of creating this opportunity for people, but in terms of the innovations and new technologies that will come from it. We think this will be a big industry.”

Kiruna has previous when it comes to space. It’s clear, dark skies, due to its sparse population (around 18,000 people call the city home) and relatively dry climate, make it one of the best places to see the Northern Lights – and to look at the stars. The Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was established here in 1957; it later became the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. Since 1966, the Esrange Space Centre – part of the European Space Agency – has been firing rockets and balloons into space just outside town. Luleå University of Technology’s Department of Space Science is here, as is the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. There’s even a Space High School, an independent institution where talented students can do a three-year programme specialising in space science and technology.

But what’s different about Spaceport Sweden is that it’s not just for physics geeks. As it pushes to get regulations in place for the eventual goal of commercial space travel, it has started laying on cool space-related experiences to establish itself as an educational centre. As well as offering unique Northern Lights viewing flights above the clouds, since last year it’s been facilitating parabolic trips, where you get to float weightless on the inside of a specially-designed Airbus A300, with the seats in the middle taken out. And this year, for the first time, normal people can use a centrifuge at Linköping, south of Stockholm – basically a giant spinning arm used to test how astronauts react to the kinds of intense G-forces they experience in space.

“We’re trying to combine science with tourism and education,” says Nilsdotter, who studied engineering and space travel, but has spent most of her career working in tourism. “Parabolic flights have been used to train astronauts since the 1950s, and centrifuges since the ’80s. What we’re trying to do now is to bring those experiences to normal people, and to educate them. The point is space travel is coming, and we want to be ahead of the curve.”

As for when space flights will begin from Kiruna, Nilsdotter says: “the short answer is – when it’s ready,” adding that Spaceport Sweden is working hard to have infrastructure and a legal framework in place when the spacecraft are ready. Plans of how flights will work are already advanced – for example, you’ll have to check in three days in advance for a space flight, to allow enough time for training. “We want to make it so that as many people as possible can go,” she says, “but it’s still not a cake walk. The G-forces on your body can be quite intense, and you have to learn how to relax and breathe through it.”

But space passengers who do will be rewarded with that view of the curved Earth luminous against a backdrop of black. “A lot of astronauts say that once you see it, you’re never the same again,” says Nilsdotter. “They say it’s suddenly so clear that we’re one planet. When there are no country borders, you realise that we are one people and need to start acting like that.”

Stavanger: the unlikely street art capital

How a pioneering festival has turned an oil-rich corner of southern Norway into Europe’s least likely street art hub

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2013)

What do Williamsburg, Shoreditch, Kreuzberg and Stavanger have in common? The photograph on this page is a bit of a giveaway but, yes, well-to-do Stavanger – the home of Statoil and a contender for the title of Europe’s most expensive city – is indeed a hub of street art, home to around 70 works by some of the genre’s best.

On the bright houses of Bakkegate you’ll see a triptych of fantasy figures by Swoon and David Choe, two of America’s most respected street artists. The electricity boxes on the main Princesgata street are stencilled to look like mini high-rise buildings, courtesy of Berlin artist Evol. Even the breezeblock H&M is brightened up with a giant daub by London alphabet artist Ben Eine. Elsewhere, lighthouses, dockyards and old factory buildings have all been made over with subtly subversive works. Ironist du jour Mobstr sums it up with a giant roadside stencil that reads, “Look Mum I’m Painting Walls Legally Now.”

The question is, why here? The answer has everything to do with the NUART Festival, which has been bringing the world’s best street artists to Stavanger every autumn since 2006.

NUART is the brainchild of Martyn Reed, a British DJ and music promoter with a fine-arts degree, who moved to Stavanger in 1996 and launched an urban art festival in 2001 encompassing NUART and NUMUSIC (the latter is still going strong). Reed was initially more interested in digital art, until 2003, when he happened to be doing a Norwegian club night in Shoreditch, London: “I came out and saw Banksy’s monkey stencil on the wall, and it was like, ‘Wow’,” he says. “This wasn’t just graffiti and it wasn’t fine art – it was something different altogether and I became fascinated.”

By 2006, NUART had changed its focus to become solely about street art; soon there were Mona Lisas bearing their buttocks on the city’s walls, courtesy of Banksy rival Nick Walker (it’s since been “buffed,” in graffiti jargon). “We didn’t do briefs or conventional commissions,” says Reed. “We just gave the artists the freedom of the city.”

How did that go down? “Well, the Norwegian Arts Council initially cut our funding at the mention of graffiti,” says Reed, “but I just went to the bank and got a private loan. The public response was huge and overwhelmingly positive.”

Reed says that Stavanger’s relative naiveté – when he first moved here, people assumed the flyers he was handing out for club nights were religious pamphlets – has been a plus. “Unlike in other countries, where tagging and graffiti have these associations with vandalism and illegality, here people saw this as what it is – a new form of public art. It helps that we were only bringing the best of it.”

The Norwegian Arts Council ultimately agreed, reversing their decision to stop funding the festival in 2007. Ever since, NUART has invited around 15 artists a year from around the world to execute a project somewhere around the city; this year’s commissions include Polish artist M-City re-imagining Stavanger airport’s control tower and Norwegian artist Martin Whatson, who offers a new take on Magritte’s apple-faced Son of Man.

There is no approval process vetting the artists’ work so, in 2010, Italian artist Blu was able to paint a tower with an image of a figure in a sea made of pipes, guzzling oil as horrified fish looked on. “We thought there would be an outcry, but there was nothing,” says Reed.
“If you look at these artists, a lot of them have master’s degrees. They’re not rebels smashing up cities, they’re very sensitive to their surroundings. They are trying to make people think.”

He sees street art as a positive force in cities. “We want a real alternative to public art that is created by committee. At the moment, street art is something people only notice when it’s there, but wouldn’t it be amazing if people noticed when there wasn’t street art?”

An absence of street art is not something anyone will be commenting on in Stavanger.

The man who thinks BIG

Bjarke Ingels’ mind-bending designs have made him the world’s most influential young architect. Having helped redefine Copenhagen, now he’s taking on the USA

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2013)

In Bjarke Ingels’ world, energy plants double as ski slopes and blow smoke rings; housing complexes look like mountains and have bike lanes up to rooftop gardens; and towers look, in the architect’s own words, “like the Guggenheim turned inside out and put on a stick”.

Ingels, 38, is the architectural darling of the TED Talks generation, a walking fountain of big ideas and pithy mantras who has become as synonymous with progressive Copenhagen as Noma and pretty girls on sit-up bikes. He’s also probably the world’s most influential architect under 40 and was named the Wall Street Journal’s architectural innovator of the year in 2011. Wacky as his designs may be, they work.

“There’s always been this idea that being revolutionary, radical, avant garde or whatever, is somehow being against something,” says Ingels over the phone from New York, where he has a second office for his company, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). “For us, it’s the opposite of that – it’s about trying to meet as many criteria as possible without compromising. We want to say: you can have cyclists here, you can have baby strollers, you can be green. And you should make it all fun. We take functionality seriously but we take the element of enjoyment equally seriously.”

One project that sums up the Ingels philosophy is the new Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant on the edge of Copenhagen, due to complete in 2016. Even aside from the 31,000m2 ski area occupying the roof, with green, blue and black runs, the plan for Copenhagen’s tallest building looks more like a giant Apple product than a factory, boasting a curved monochrome exterior festooned with planters, watered by run-off from the factory’s own ecosystem. When the smokestack releases a tonne of CO2 it pumps out a giant smoke ring, which can be lit up at night; the smokestack houses a Willy Wonka-esque glass elevator from where people can see the inner workings of the plant.

This is classic Ingels. BIG’s design for the new Tallinn Town Hall has a giant mirrored “democratic periscope” in its main hall, so officials deciding policy can see the outside world and the outside world can see them (“They can check ministers aren’t playing Angry Birds,” says Ingels). All BIG projects are packed with similarly cheeky touches that provide ways for people to interact.

Ingels spends around 100 days a year in Copenhagen, where BIG maintains its head office, but the rest of the year he’s in New York, living in a Tribeca loft and driving a black Porsche around town. “Life is a lot of fun,” he says. “New York is the capital of the cosmopolitan world and it’s inspiring.”

The North American commissions are piling up, too, from the Phoenix Observation Tower shaped like a giant honey dipper (the “Guggenheim on a stick”) to a twisting block of flats in Miami, and a 150m-high Vancouver tower that curves and widens from a narrow base. “We go through hundreds of models for projects like these and often we discover that the most expressive, crazy designs are the most logical.”

His best-known North American building at the moment, though, has more in common with the Copenhagen housing blocks he’s most famous for. The pyramid-shaped West 57 apartment building will dramatically alter the largely unloved stretch of Hell’s Kitchen overlooking the Hudson River when it’s finished late next year (although it won’t open until 2015). Its twisted cut-out pyramid shape allows for a central courtyard filled with greenery and maximises light through every apartment. “It’s a kind of hybrid between this European idea of a block with communal space, but tailored to the density required in New York,” says Ingels, who initially moved to the US to oversee the project, as well as to teach at Yale and Columbia.

Architecture was a second-choice career for Ingels, who grew up in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, with a dentist mother and an engineer father. At school, he says, “I was the kid drawing the posters for the school comedy and designs for sweatshirts.” His first love was graphic novels and he only went to study architecture at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy because there was nowhere to learn to be a comic book artist. “I was basically thinking, right, I can learn to draw backgrounds for my illustrations. Up until then, I’d drawn humans, fighting, helicopters, and I needed somewhere to put them.”

The only architect he’d ever heard of was Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon (“and everyone in Denmark has heard of him”). He says it took a few years until he was fully engaged. “I became puzzled, I guess. It was essentially: ‘Why are new buildings so boring?’ Everyone loves old buildings – the towers, the arches, the ornamentation, the funky stuff – and I couldn’t work out why new buildings weren’t the same.” He came to the conclusion that architecture was “not some autonomous art form – it’s art and science and everything, but most of all it’s about life.”

While still studying in Barcelona, the first step to success was setting up a practice with three fellow students, which he did in 1999, and subsequently winning a competition to design an extension to Copenhagen University. This led him to work for Dutch architecture star Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. Returning to Copenhagen in 2001, he set up an agency called PLOT with Belgian colleague Julien De Smedt. PLOT co-designed the now-iconic wooden Islands Brygge Harbour Baths and created the VM Houses, a breezy 2004 update of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation concept in the newly developing Ørestad district. In a vote of confidence in his own design, Ingels moved in.

“Back then, the playfulness that we wanted in our designs actually seemed very un-Danish,” he says. “You had this school of architecture that was very classical and we felt like we were going against the prevailing thinking. It’s odd that, 13 years later, we’re seen as the epitome of Danish design.”

When Ingels went off on his own in 2006, BIG’s first assignment was The Mountain, down the road from the VM Houses in Ørestad. The brief was to create a housing block attached to a multistorey car park. Ingels came up with a cascading mountain of homes, each with its own roof garden fed by a giant watering system. People could park right outside their homes in a cathedral-like car park, served by an escalator, where holes in the exterior projected a giant image of Mt Everest. It won a clutch of awards, featured in a parkour video and established Ingels as a visionary who could reimagine even the most mundane spaces.

“You don’t often get critically acclaimed mixed-use housing,” says Ingels, who again decided to move into his own creation when it was completed in 2008. “It’s always a catch-22 – until someone’s done it, everyone’s afraid of the idea. We showed that you can take an odd combination and turn it into something attractive and functional.”

Housing projects such as these and the new Superkilen park – a beautiful temple to multiculturalism in a deprived corner of Nørrebro, filled with a Thai boxing ring and neon signs for everything from Russian hotels to Chinese beauty parlours – have helped create a new architectural identity for Copenhagen. “We’ve contributed to changing the city’s understanding of itself.”

There’s certainly an air of zeitgeist-y populism about BIG, which laid out its philosophy in a 2009 graphic-novel manifesto entitled Yes is More that invoked the Darwinian idea of adaptation and the Nietzschean notion that you should say yes to yourself rather than no to others. His other neat mantras include “Hedonistic Sustainability” and “Utopian Pragmatism”. In classic Scandinavian style, he’s next planning to write a conspiracy thriller about the death of architects, ending with a fight scene atop the West 57 building in New York. Oh, and he casually says that his next big challenge is to “radicalise the US high-rise”.

If some architects have accused BIG of not being ‘high design’ (New York architect Philip Ryan has said that Ingels should be compared to Apple rather than Herzog and de Meuron or Zaha Hadid), Ingels is unrepentant. “We’re looking at mixed-use housing blocks and power plants the way you’d look at an art museum. We’re making buildings designed for people, not architects.”

There is evidence that the BIG way is spreading. Not only are many of Copenhagen’s top architecture firms now run by former BIG architects, but Ingels says that “universities in the US are looking at our work the whole time”. He sees it as evidence that peoples’ views of buildings and how we interact with them are changing. “Just 13 years ago, we’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting a ski slope on an energy plant,” he says, “but we’ve widened the scope of what’s possible.”

Where Dreamliners are made

The 787 Dreamliner is the most advanced passenger plane ever and the first with an interior designed by passengers. As Norwegian gets its first delivery, we head to the Boeing factory near Seattle to see how it’s built

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2013)

Eileen Dickson has been giving tours of Boeing’s Everett factory for the best part of 27 years and you suspect some of her many jokes might be recycled. “You could fit the Pentagon in the factory,” she says, “though we say Red Square when Russians come.”

It’s a gag that has legs, because you can fit just about anything in the factory near Seattle, which is the single biggest building in the world by volume. It’s so vast there was an urban myth a few years ago that it has its own ecosystem and clouds form in the roof of the hangar causing rain.

That’s not true, but it is true that more than 30,000 people work in the 13,400,000m3 space every day. The plant has its own adjacent stretch of freeway, a credit union, fire station, DVD rental shop, phone store and water treatment plant. There are six branches of Tully’s coffee shop (Seattle’s poor sister to Starbucks) and 19 cafeterias churning out 17,000 meals a day. If you look past the rows of off-hours workers playing ping pong, you occasionally see hangar doors the size of American football fields open to let some of the world’s most iconic aeroplanes rumble out into the open.

This is where they put together the hulking 747, the world’s first jumbo jet, as well as the mid-size 767 and 777 planes. But the big news at Everett is the 787 Dreamliner, another mid-range plane which is described as a “game-changer” by just about everyone I speak to on a two-day tour of Boeing’s facilities.

Boeing has solved the problem with the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which grounded planes earlier this year – and the focus is now on what is simply an astonishing feat of engineering. The 1,200 or so mechanics, engineers, electricians and others currently working on the Dreamliner at Everett generally purr with approval at the mention of the name.

It’s not as big as the 747, and it looks like, well, a plane – but it’s what it does that counts. It uses 20 per cent less fuel than previous planes, largely because the traditional aluminium frame has been replaced with a composite of carbon fibre, aluminium and titanium.

If this sounds like aero-babble – and you do hear your fair share during a few days with Boeing – for you as a passenger, the point is this: as the 930 Dreamliners on order enter the market (there were 61 flying at the time of writing), long-haul flights will get more plentiful, cheaper and more comfortable.

It’s the last bit that will probably impress you the most. I flew on Norwegian’s first Dreamliner flight from Seattle to Oslo and it was  a different experience to any flight I’ve taken, notwithstanding the celebratory Champagne and seafood platter.

The cabin has futuristic blue mood lighting, which subtly changes colours until there’s a rainbow effect that admittedly recalls a 1970s porn movie. The windows are bigger; there’s more space; the air feels less stifling; and the touchscreen inflight entertainment system is like using an iPad instead of the hellishly fiddly video-game controllers of most long-haul flights. And if you go on the Norwegian Dreamliner, there are natty black-and-white portraits of ice skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie around the place.

The reason it’s so good is perhaps because, in effect, you and I designed it. Blake Emery, Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, led the concept development behind the interior and says the process was led by passengers for the first time ever. “We thought planes were becoming a commodity and wanted to try a more holistic approach. Traditionally, Boeing always asked their direct customers what they wanted from new planes – in other words, the airlines. But airlines often didn’t have the resources to properly poll end users, so we decided to go straight to the passengers and ask what they wanted.”

Emery got 50 focus groups together across the world over five years in the mid-noughties, as well as experts such as French psychologist and marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille, author of the catchily titled The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. “Sometimes, we’d get 15 people in a room and just ask what they’d like from a plane if they could have anything; other times we’d put them in a mock-up of an interior and ask them how they felt; and sometimes we’d ask questions to subjects who had no idea what the interview was about – the aim was to get people to convey the actual emotions they’d like to have when flying.”

He says the results were interesting. “Often people can’t articulate why they like something, or why it’s pleasurable – but the questions were tailored so we got results.”

The changes on the Dreamliner are subtle but revolutionary in their way. Because people reported feeling cramped as they walked into a plane, the electronic, tinted windows are 67 per cent bigger than on the earlier Boeing 777, and even in sleep mode you can still see out. Blue lighting when you enter the plane makes it look more spacious, though the light warms up as you get higher (culminating in that rainbow at peak altitude), and subtly changes at meal times so the food looks more appealing. Because of the carbon-fibre fuselage, the cabin’s air pressure can be reduced to a more comfortable 6,000 feet from the usual 8,000 feet, while the humidity can reach up to 15 per cent compared to the usual 4 per cent. As Emery says: “You’ll feel better at the end of a long flight – less dry, less fatigued. You won’t necessarily know why, but you don’t need to.”

Early evidence shows I’m not alone in my response to flying on the Dreamliner. A poll of 800 passengers by Japanese airline ANA found that 90 per cent said the experience surpassed their expectations and 92 per cent preferred the cabin interior. Passengers even reported increased satisfaction with things that hadn’t changed, like the service and food.

While this was all going on inside the plane, there was also a change in the way they build the Dreamliner. Based on the lean manufacturing model pioneered by Toyota, Boeing had already restructured its factory line to cut the time needed to build planes. As guide Eileen says, some of the solutions were simple: “They thought we spent too much time leaving the plane to get parts. We’ve now got systems so the right parts are by the plane at all times, and we’ve got 1,300 bicycles and tricycles in the factory.”

For the Dreamliner, Boeing took another idea Toyota had perfected with its cars – outsourcing much of the plane, and having larger chunks come in pre-built. Jeff Klemann, Boeing’s vice president of final assembly, explains: “If you look at other planes, we make a lot more of them in the factory – we assemble the skin sections to make a barrel; we make a lot of the wing. With the Dreamliner, the major parts come in pre-made – we get a service-ready, pressure-tested wing from Mitsubishi in Japan; we get a whole nose section from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita that’s ‘stuffed’, which means that the wiring, hydraulics and pneumatics are already installed. It makes our job easier – we’re really just attaching pieces.”

While a million holes are drilled into a Boeing 747, the Dreamliner requires fewer than 10,000 holes – and the result is less time in the factory. By the end of this year, they’ll be able to finish a Dreamliner in five days at Everett, a remarkable feat given that the next quickest production line – for Boeing’s 737, produced at the Renton factory on the other side of Seattle – is 11 days. The 747 jumbo requires four months at Everett. One day, the 787 will be in and out of the factory in three days.

And once it’s ready to fly, it’s packed with more technology than any previous passenger plane. Production test manager Shane Decker, who manages a team of 21 that tests things like the toilets, seats, inflight entertainment, says: “The plane can order its own parts; in the air, if it’s in distress, it can self-correct, or combat turbulence. It’s the smartest plane we’ve ever seen.”

Eating bugs, Noma-style

By 2023 we are all going to be eating bugs as part of our regular diet, if Copenhagen’s famed Nordic Food Lab has its way

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2013)

I am not sure I’ve ever tasted anything quite like a “chimp stick”. The “dish” – inspired by chimpanzees using sticks to eat termites out of their nests – is basically a stick of liquorice root covered in honey, flaxseed, buckwheat, freeze-dried raspberries, shiso leaves and two types of ant. You lick it like a lollipop and then the flavours hit you: against a base woody taste comes this sharp citrus tang that’s somewhere between a turbo-charged lime and a kid’s sweet exploding in your mouth. The sharp flavour, almost unbelievably, comes from a red ant, or Formica rufa. When I later read up online about red ants, nowhere does it say they taste good.

The chimp stick was created by Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, a Willy Wonka-esque experiment on a house boat set up in 2008 by Noma co-founders Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer, the latter an eccentric TV chef and entrepreneur whose interests run from vinegar breweries to a new restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia.

On the boat, a young team that includes researchers, anthropologists, flavour chemists and botanists work with petri dishes of decaying cultures, and little packets of ageing seaweeds, foraged plants and tree specimens. They’ve experimented with everything from boar-tainted meat (the unpleasant flavour found in uncastrated males) to “noble rot” (the benevolent fungus that grows on Northern European grapes) and kombucha, a fermented tea made when you add certain yeasts and bacteria to lemon verbena.

But recently their main preoccupation has been with insects – and not just the Formica rufas they source from a Copenhagen biology professor who knows about these things. Bugs are high in protein, low in fat, cheap, environmentally-friendly and defiantly abundant. There are an estimated 10 quintillion of them on the planet, which equates to 40 tonnes of insects for every human. Yet people in the West aren’t that fond of eating them, something the Nordic Food Lab wants to change.

I meet a handful of the lab’s chefs at a test kitchen in west London, where they are preparing for an appearance at Pestival, a celebration of insects that includes maggot art, ant ballet and cockroach tours. The festival’s most in-demand event is the Nordic Food Lab’s sold-out talk that night, “Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects”, where attendees will be served a host of canapés, from moth mousse to cricket broth and roasted locust, all washed down with anty gin and tonic, and beer made with worms.

I get to try some of the little dishes before the big event in the company of the fast-talking Ben Reade, the Head of Culinary Research and Development at the Nordic Food Lab. Clearly an unconventional wunderkind, the 28-year-old Scotsman started at the Food Lab after talking his way onto a course at Piedmont’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, set up by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. He describes meeting Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer as “like tumbling down a rabbit hole”.

He explains the aim of the fancy insect dishes: “We know the arguments about sustainability and why we should eat insects, but the most  important argument for us is that we can make them taste delicious. There are about 1,900 species of edible insects to choose » from and an infinite variety of preparations. We need to prove that they can taste damn good.”

Aside from the mind-bending chimp stick, I sample the legless desert locusts, which are roasted with a green wild garlic and ant emulsion; the flavour is slightly nutty and salty, and you can just about believe Reade when he claims we’ll be eating these as bar snacks in the future. More haute cuisine is the wax moth larvae mousseline (it’s 51 per cent moth) with an earthy fermented morel sauce – here the morels provide the dominant flavour and I couldn’t really say what wax moth larvae taste like.

“For a lot of history, the majority of cultures have eaten insects,” says Nordic Food Lab director Michael Bom Frøst, a “sensory scientist” and senior professor at the University of Copenhagen. “Chocolate-covered ants were even a popular snack in Victorian England. The problem is that Western Europe stopped eating them, and the world looks at what’s happening in Europe and goes the » same way. An environmentally sound culinary tradition is slowly being abandoned.”

The sustainability argument is impossible to ignore – a study by FoodServiceWarehouse.com suggested that swapping pork and beef for crickets and locusts could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 95 per cent. However Frøst, like Reade, is keen that the project is not about presenting insects as some sort of unpalatable but unavoidable save-the-planet solution. “This can’t be a gimmick and we want to go further than just seeing this as something environmentally sound or a nutrition thing where we substitute insects for the protein in dishes. We want to create something that can win over the palates of the world.”
The Pestival event and the Nordic Food Lab’s work are manifestations of a movement that seems to be gathering pace. In 2012, Noma served ants at a pop-up restaurant in London’s luxury Claridge’s hotel and, since 2011, the UN has been funding projects promoting the farming and eating of insects in South East Asia and Africa, where an estimated two billion people already eat insects and caterpillar larvae as part of their regular diets.

If the Nordic Food Lab has its way, we’ll all soon be joining them. As Reade puts it: “In 2023 we’ll look back and we won’t be able to believe that we weren’t eating more insects in 2013.”

How the Moomins got rich

Business is booming for the Moomins – but they didn’t do it by selling out.
Sophia Jansson, niece of Moomin creator Tove Jansson, tells us about an unlikely renaissance

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2013. Photography by Liz Mcburney)

Moominpappa and Moominmamma never worried about money because, in Moominvalley, life is about so much more than that. Yet the characters first created by Tove Jansson in 1945 now help to create rather a lot of it, making the Moomins one of Finland’s less likely business success stories of the past decade.
Oy Moomin Characters Ltd, the company behind the brand, has doubled in size in the past five years, growing for 60 consecutive quarters. After 40 per cent growth in 2012, it currently pulls in more than half a billion US dollars in retail sales. Finnish magazine Talouselämä has called it the country’s most cost-effective business.
Business has certainly changed since the 1950s, when Tove Jansson and her brother Lars set up the Oy Moomin company to deal with the requests that were flooding in to make Moomin dolls and other products on the back of what was already becoming one of Finland’s best-loved literary creations. The nine original books and the comic strip that ran from 1954-1975 have now been translated into 45 languages; Moomin animations have run everywhere from Germany to Poland, Japan and Russia; and the brand extends from original songs to stage shows, a museum and the Moomin World theme park in Naantali, near Turku.
The carefree and adventurous hippo-like creatures are so ingrained in Finnish culture that former president Tarja Halonen was nicknamed Moominmamma, not just because of the Moominmamma bag she carried around – and yet it’s only been in the last five years that the business success of the Moomins has come close to matching their popularity. The turnaround has been led by Lars’s daughter and Tove’s niece, Sophia Jansson, who joined her family business in 1997 and took charge in 2005. In 2008 she employed managing director Roleff Kråkström, the former marketing director at WSOY, Finland’s largest publisher, who set about coming up with a plan for the brand.
“We knew it needed to be more professional,” Sophia tells me when we meet at Oy Moomin’s modest HQ on the Helsinki waterfront, around a table spread with colourful sweets and biscuits. “For a lot of the time the Moomins were being created, Tove and Lars made the corrections themselves; they haggled with publishers themselves. They were bad at saying no, but it was too much for them, and everything was being managed by touch and feel. In the long run, it wouldn’t have worked.”
When Sophia joined the company as director of artwork in 1997, it was in the wake of a resurgence of a resurgence of interest in the Moomins – what Finns call the muumibuumi (Moomin Boom) – prompted by a wildly popular 1990 animation that was shown in 60 countries, as well as the opening of Moomin World in 1993. Disney were interested in the brand, and its artwork was proliferating wildly. The obvious thing seemed to be to ride the wave – but Sophia did the opposite.
“In the 1990s, there was this great mix of Moomintrolls drawn by different people,” she says of a time when the ageing Tove and Lars were playing more of a backseat role in the company. “Some of it was hideous and I didn’t want to see these great works turn into a cheap, nasty brand.” One of her first moves was to remove unacceptable pictures (Tove was said to have been appalled by a Moomin holding a gun in one Japanese animation) and to draw up a style guide, which decreed among other things that all Moomintrolls should be white rather than coloured.
After Lars and Tove’s deaths, in 2000 and 2001 respectively, Sophia went further and insisted that all Moomin merchandise only feature Tove Jansson’s original artwork. “We wanted Tove to be remembered by her original vision,” she says.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, that seems to have been good business sense, not least in waking up the adult consumers who now make up half of all Moomin sales. “We’re criticised for being old-fashioned, but that’s the quality that sets us apart,” explains manging director Kråkström, who currently oversees more than 400 Moomin licensees around the world. “There are lots of literary characters and books, but very few have remained so true to themselves – many have sold out to big entertainment monsters. There’s this idea that books are disappearing; that all the illustrations should be 3D. But that’s not true. And increasingly, especially among the world’s growing middle class, there’s an interest in looking back at things that are more durable, whether it’s Burberry, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. We’re still a family business and we’ve had the same agent since the 1950s – that’s comforting for people, and it adds value.”
Another advantage is that, in many countries, three generations have grown up reading about and watching the Moomins. Japan, which still accounts for more than 30 per cent of all sales, has been reading the translated comic strips since the 1950s, and the country’s first Moomin animation in 1969 was one of the first cartoons in its soon-to-be-famous anime industry (Hayao Miyazaki, famous for Spirited Away, worked on it). In Soviet Russia, some of the Moomin books were mandatory reading in schools, while Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin and co also starred in a Soviet cut-out animation that ran from 1980-’83.
It’s a serious history, and Jansson had to suffer stinging criticism that she’d committed sacrilege by turning the Moomins into a streamlined business. “People said, ‘How dare you commercialise this heritage?’ I had to think about it, but I have no doubts now. First and foremost, it’s about keeping the books alive – it’s not evident to me that the books wouldn’t have been forgotten. We’re reprinting and translating works all the time, which shows that people are interested in the original works – not just mugs and candy.”
For Sophia, the whole business is deeply bound up with family, as the Moomins were to Tove, who based some of the characters on her family life (Moominmamma was based on her mother, and Tuu-ticki on her partner Tooti). Having lost her mother aged six, Sophia grew up with her father Lars, her paternal grandmother, her aunt Tove and Tove’s partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, known to the family as Tooti. The family were all artists in some way or other, and all distinguished in their own right – Lars had published a book aged 15; Sophia’s grandmother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was the daughter of a priest to the Swedish king, had founded Sweden’s girl guides and was married to famous Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson, who died in 1958.
“After my mother died, the family all made a special effort with me,” Sophia says of her bohemian upbringing, with summers spent on the Pellinge islands 80km east of Helsinki, where the family bought houses to escape an increasingly intrusive media and public. “A lot of what was there in the Moomins was there in my life, though I didn’t recognise it then. The most important value was to care for your loved ones and there was an emphasis on enjoying life: books, films and nice, funny things. It was about being an individual and seeing beauty in little things.”
Tove was an artist and illustrator as early as the 1930s, designing postcards and drawing cartoons for Swedish satirical magazine Garm (one depicted Hitler as a baby, being fed cake by Neville Chamberlain). She wrote and illustrated the first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, after the war, disillusioned and determined to write something defiantly unpolitical. But it was a comic strip for London newspaper Evening News in 1954 that made her famous, not least as she was said to be Europe’s first female cartoonist.
By the time Sophia was born in 1962, Lars had taken over writing and illustrating the cartoons, which he did until the last strip in 1975, as Tove became increasingly reluctant to embrace her burgeoning fame. Tove also wrote novels and short stories for adults, and painted her whole life, exhibiting her early impressionist and later modernist works in seven solo exhibitions.
Sophia says she grew up with little sense of who her aunt was. “I increasingly speak about her as a public figure. But growing up, I had no idea of her public persona. Only now do I realise how extraordinary and unique she was.” Sophia says her aunt was “friendly, funny sharp and loving. She could be verbally direct and distant if she didn’t like you, but she was always nice to me.”
As a teenager, it also dawned on Sophia that her aunt was gay. “It was suddenly, ‘Shit, she lives with a woman,’ but at the same time it never seemed that important. Tove didn’t flaunt it, because until 1972 it was a crime to be gay in Finland, but she wasn’t hyper-concerned about not showing it, either.”
As for Sophia, she wanted to travel more than be an artist. “I had a go at painting and writing but I felt daunted by the artists in my family. Tove said you have to do things you’d die if you didn’t do – and it wasn’t a do-or-die thing.” Instead she wanted to escape “bleak 1970s Finland”. She went to the States as a teenager, then to Spain for four years, where she met her husband and moved to London for the next eight years, importing glasses frames. After Lars had been diagnosed with cancer in 1997, he proposed that the now-divorced Sophia move to Helsinki with her two sons and work for the family business. “It wasn’t my first choice initially,” she admits. “Though when I came back and started working with the Moomins, it didn’t seem to be an option to let someone else do this.”
The Sophia I meet is an open interviewee and has a twinkle in her eyes that you suspect is a Jansson trait. But through the warm, bohemian side, I sense a steely character, even if she insists that Kråkström is the business genius. “It’s a fine balance between the heritage and staying commercial,” she says. “And though the company keeps growing, we know it can’t be forever – most things are cyclical. The challenge is to keep it alive, but we have the big advantage of having all these wonderful books with such
universal themes.”
Though her role is to keep the Moomin brand alive, she admits she also does it in part for the family. “I do hope, if they’re on some cloud, they’re proud of me.”

Fishing with heart in Ålesund

Even though the traditional local fishermen are a dying breed, the beautiful town of Ålesund remains one of the world’s great destinations for a fishing trip

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2013)

Fishermen in Ålesund love to boast about their fishy paradise with big numbers. In early spring, they say, the mass of herring roe off the surrounding coast weighs three times that of Norway’s human population. Those eggs draw a bounty of other fish, including the 500 tonnes of cod that swim into the fj ord around Ålesund (about the weight of 100 monster trucks, in case you were wondering). Given that mass of fish, they also say you can catch a 30kg cod here just by dangling a rod into the harbour and waiting for a bite.

This is all near-enough true, though the belief in hal – the idea that if a fisherman has plentiful sex the night before, he’ll get lots of fish the next day – certainly seems apocryphal. (Tom the photographer is not my type, and I caught plenty of fish – but more of that later.)

Whatever. Ever since it started producing klipfish (dried, salted cod) in 1750, Ålesund has become the fishing capital in a country that’s known for its sea life. The Vikings knew you could catch fish in the fj ords all year round – cod, haddock, halibut, pollock, mackerel, herring, ling, cusk, saithe and more – as well as trout in the nearby lakes and salmon in rivers such as Straumen, widely known as the world’s shortest salmon river.

But the fishing industry is changing here, as it is across much of the world: big operations are hauling in monstrous catches while smaller-scale independent fishermen struggle with rising costs and falling prices for their wares. “Until at least the 1960s, you couldn’t move for ships in the harbour,” says Arve Eidsvik, 78, who runs the picture-perfect Eidsvik Skipshandler fishing shop with his daughter Solveig, showing me old photos of tightly-crammed fishing vessels. “Just about everyone in the town would be out in their boats – they’d raise a flag at a certain time and everyone would drop their nets. The fishermen would come back and deliver fish to the whole town.” That still happens today, though on a smaller scale – if you head down to the harbour most afternoons, you’ll find fishermen ready to part with prawns or cod hauled straight from the sea.

It’s just that the numbers of the fishermen are dwindling, at least those wanting to feed the local population as opposed to the world. As Arve says, “There are fewer vessels, but they’re getting bigger, more automated and more profitable; our customers have become tourists as much as local fishermen.”

It’s little surprise tourists come. The pretty harbour boasts a neat line of brightly-painted boats while the shop, which is packed to its wooden rafters with fishing tackle, wooden boats, shipping flags and old posters, looks as much like a fishing museum as a store. And the charming Arve is an erudite historian, even though Solveig complains about the clutter of old papers and press cuttings he refuses to throw away. He shows me books from 1931 recording how his father, grandfather and his father’s uncle initially invested NOK8,000 in the shop, splitting the shares.

“In 1938, there were 640 boats fishing cod in Ålesund,” says Arve, pointing to an old newspaper article. “Now there’s barely 20.” Arve started working in the family shop in 1955 just after he’d finished his military service and has been here all his adult life – he was never one of those fishermen.

He calls up Ottar Ekremsaeter, who fishes on a small boat with his uncle, 75-year-old Elias Bakkebø – not only are the pair one of the few regular fishing duos in Ålesund (most crews, and boats, are bigger), but Elias is said to be the oldest active fisherman in town.

After Ottar meets us at the fishing shop, we walk round the harbour; it’s a cold day and it’s too windy to fish. He explains why it’s become harder for small-scale fishermen, even since the late 1990s. “Back then, you’d get NOK20 for 1kg of cod; now you’re lucky to get half that, while the cost of fuel has tripled,” he says. “Everything’s more expensive; if you’re a young person and thinking of getting into fishing, forget it.” Indeed, for Ottar, fishing is only one of his jobs; many people in Ålesund have migrated towards the oil industry and he spends about a third of his time working on an oil platform. He also drives a taxi.

We head up the hill to meet his uncle at the Sjømanns Kvile, or Seaman’s Rest, a subsidised block of flats for local fishermen, many of them of advancing age. There are wooden boats in many of the windows, and the porch is covered in old photos of sea captains and paintings of the harbour. We interrupt Elias as he’s tucking into a lunch of cod roe and liver in his kitchen, as – rather incongruously – a rerun of a 1991 cross-country skiing event plays on the TV in the living room. Though there’s a language barrier, he’s a gracious host, offering us a plate of cod roe with rye crackers, which prove to be something of an acquired taste. However, when we ask if we can join Ottar and Elias on their boat later, it’s a negative – it’s too dangerous, they say, though we sense they don’t want two credulous fishing virgins taking up space on their boat.

Nonetheless, while fishing on a small scale is inevitably declining, Ålesund on the whole is thriving. Some of Norway’s biggest fish exporters are here and oil earnings mean the town is beautifully maintained, from its network of bridges and tunnels to its famous art nouveau buildings, built in a uniformly elegant style in 1904 after a fire ravaged the town.

Then, of course, there’s tourism. Regularly voted Norway’s most beautiful town, Ålesund is nirvana if you’re a visitor who simply wants to get out on a boat and catch some fish, overlooked by rugged coastline and a vast, metallic-blue sky. The local tourism website says that you are “guaranteed to catch fish here”, and there’s not a lot you can’t do, whether it’s renting your own boat or taking a day trip to one of the salmon rivers.

We decide to test that out with two fishing trips in a day. For our first trip, we head out with Stein Magne Hoff, the captain of a stunning, traditional 15m fishing boat that was built in Lofoten in 1946. He takes visitors out on it as part of the Actin adventure sports company (they also do skiing, mountain biking and more).

We only have a few hours and it’s a few weeks until the cod season starts in earnest, so our catches are limited to a few smaller fish, but just going out on the boat is great fun. Stein and his second-in-command, Bjorn Hessen, are clearly good friends, and are constantly laughing and telling increasingly scattergun anecdotes. As well as plenty of information about fishing, Bjorn shows us the fj ord-side windows he used to jump out of as a teenager to impress girls, and the old herring smokehouse from which they used to pinch fish.

The trips are about eating well, too. Stein and Bjorn have an old-fashioned cooking stove onboard and all the way they give us little morsels to eat while trying to tempt us towards their impressive stack of booze (it’s 9am when we go out). There’s fish cakes from yesterday’s catch; reindeer sausages made from an animal that Bjorn hunted a few days earlier; and smoked salmon that Stein fished from a nearby river. Like most people we meet in Ålesund, they believe in eating fresh and local – and you can taste why.

Our second fishing trip of the day also has a foodie aspect, and is the one that tempted us to Ålesund in the first place. 62˚Nord, the town’s leading travel company, offers packages where you can fish and then have your catch cooked by the best seafood chef in town at Maki, the restaurant in the stunning waterside Hotel Brosundet.

The 12-person M/S Legona is significantly smaller than Actin’s hulking vessel, but she has a comfortable cabin stocked with drinks and enough zip to get further into the fj ord faster. We are issued with luminous, inflatable jumpsuits that make us look like Michelin men as we clamber onto the seating area at the top of the boat. Captain Tom Tøsse, another seaman with a twinkle in his eye, boasts of an uncanny ability to seek out fish, and he takes us deep into the fj ord as his younger assistant, Christoffer Rørvik, explains the science of fishing, his plans to move to Spitsbergen and how he trained as a sniper during his military service.

So, in a peaceful corner of the fj ord, as the rain abates and the wind drops, we drop our lines and the fish come. After about 10 minutes of jinking my line and constantly thinking I’ve got a catch when I haven’t, something bites – something really big. Actually, it’s not that big, but reeling a 4kg cod in for almost 100m is hard work on the forearms. In the end, I catch about three cod while Ann Kristin, our host from 62˚Nord, effortlessly pulls in about four (mostly bigger ones than mine), plus a couple of herring and a pollock. “I’m just always lucky,” she shrugs, only slightly irritatingly.

One of the most fascinating parts of the trip is watching Rørvik gut the biggest cod onboard (it’s Ann Kristin’s, obviously). He takes out the guts, giving us an eyeful of bowels and intestines before moving on to the main event. Nonchalantly cutting out the cod’s heart, he shows us the still-beating organ on his fingertip before plopping the tiny piece of flesh into his mouth and swallowing. “It’s good luck,” he tells us matter-of-factly.

Our final surprise is less macabre. Captain Tom tells us that he has a creel that’s a secret in the area, and which contains the best giant prawns and crab in the whole fj ord. There’s much fanfare as we reel it in – alas, its contents are four cans of Hansa Pilsner, chilled to a perfect temperature by the sea, which is about 6oC. Like most things when you’re on a fishing boat surrounded by the Sunnmøre fj ords, it seems to taste better.

The final stage of our fishing journey is perhaps the most memorable. Ole Jonny Hjelmeseth – the seafood fanatic and venerated chef of Maki – comes to collect our fish straight from the boat and takes us directly to the kitchen to see what happens when seafood chef meets sea-fresh fish (most visitors don’t get to do this bit, though you do get to eat the results).

A former steward at sea, Hjelmeseth opened his first Maki restaurant in 2001 in his hometown of Fosnavåg, a 90-minute drive up the coast – it was an instant hit and he opened the Ålesund Maki in 2007, hiring head chef Lars Petter Vikanes, who’s worked at Switzerland’s two-Michelin-starred Domaine de Châteauvieux and Noma in Copenhagen. Since then, Maki has become Ålesund’s number one destination restaurant, and there’s a growing sense – as one TripAdvisor reviewer notes – that Hjelmeseth would have at least one Michelin star if he were in London.

Hjelmeseth reckons the fish around here is the best in the world, and almost exclusively uses local seafood: “The water’s too hot in the Mediterranean,” he says. “The fish don’t stay fresh as long and they don’t keep their flavour.”

He gets to work on one of our cods, swiping effortlessly to get two fillets (“they’re not as big as I usually get,” he complains), cutting away the bony half to leave just fleshy chunks. Then he neatly slices out the tongue and cuts into the cheek, taking out the bone.

The result, as we find out during our stunning five-course meal later is astonishing: our cod cheek is part of a celery and cod cheek soup, topped with melba toast and a smoked cod roe mayonnaise; and our cod fillet is pan-roasted with oxtail, root vegetables, apple and potato, the fish crispy on one side and dissolving on the other into heavenly fluff. It’s almost unbelievable that something so refined came from the sea hours earlier – but it makes for the most civilised ending to a fishing trip we can think of.

Finnish gaming: beyond Angry Birds

From Angry Birds to Max Payne and Clash of Clans, Finland has a knack of producing blockbuster video games. With the industry set to be worth NOK11bn in the next decade, we ask how a small country became such a major player

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, March 2013)

For a while last year, a small Finnish company called Supercell became the most successful mobile game developer on the planet. Having only formed in 2010, in November 2012 it generated more revenue from its mobile games than American company Electronic Arts (EA). Not bad given that EA currently produces 958 iOS mobile games, while Supercell produces just the two – empire-builder Clash of Clansand farm sim Hay Day, both only for tablets.

While regular market leader EA narrowly bumped Supercell into second place in the most recent figures, Clash of Clans was still the world’s top game by monthly revenue. And though the Finnish company refuse to give us exact figures, we understand that it has been making up to US$1 million a day for its two mega-hits.

“We remember last year when our games were one and two in the charts,” says Supercell spokesperson Heini Visander. “We were in awe – we’re just a small game developer from Finland.”

There are echoes of Finland’s other great video games success – Rovio’s Angry Birds, which was launched by a company of ten people in 2009 and has now been downloaded more than a billion times, making it the most successful mobile game ever. Rovio now employs 540 people, while Supercell is still a wilfully small 85 people. “Angry Birds encouraged us that Finns can aim higher,” says Visander. “And other companies are getting the same message.”

Indeed, Supercell and Rovio are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that boasts 150 video game companies and where the industry produces more wealth per head of population than any other country bar Iceland, which only has 320,000 people.

“It’s boom time for video games here,” says KooPee Hiltunen, the director of Neogames, a non-profit organisation that supports the industry in Finland. “Finland has always had a lot of good game developers. What’s changing now is that the outside world has started taking notice of Finnish games.”

Hiltunen joined Neogames in 2003 and is, according to everyone I speak to, the leading authority on Finland’s games industry. We meet for coffee in central Helsinki along with Neogames coordinator Suvi Latva. Together the pair could almost be something dreamed up by Stieg Larsson – him all leather jacket and straight-talk; her, more bubbly, with a close-cropped short back and sides.

The pair tell me that while the Finnish games industry currently turns over €250m (NOK1.8bn) a year, it’s expected to leap to €1.49bn (NOK11bn) a year by 2020. “A lot of optimists we talk to say we might hit a €1.5 billion turnover sooner than that,” says Hiltunen. “I’d be amazed if we don’t see more big success stories like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans over the next few years.”

International investors and companies seem to be thinking that, too. Not only has US$73m (NOK403m) been invested in the industry in the past two years, but major players have come to Helsinki: Electronic Arts opened a studio here last year, as did game technology company Unity. Ubisoft, the third-largest game publisher in the world, bought Finnish company RedLynx in 2011, the same year that Disney bought Rocket Pack, a local company that makes online games for PCs.

The big question is why here, in a country of barely five million? “It’s hard to say why exactly, but what is true is that since the 1980s there’s been a really big demoscene in Finland,” says Hiltunen. Demoscene, he explains, is basically a computer-art subculture of recreational developers who gather to show off their skills, often at events and conferences. Finland’s Assembly demoscene parties, which have been going since 1992 and last summer drew 5,500 people, are renowned the world over as a hotbed of video game talent. “A lot of the early pioneers of the industry started at these events,” says Hiltunen.

One of Finland’s first major successes was Max Payne, a third-person shooter that has sold more than 7.5 million copies since the series started in 2001. Its makers, Remedy Entertainment, who also make the Alan Wake series, are very much a demoscene company. Four of Remedy’s founders were part of Future Crew, one of Finland’s most prominent demo crews in the early 1990s.

Rovio started in a similar way in 2003, when three students at the Helsinki University of Technology met at an Assembly game-development competition sponsored by Nokia and HP. The success of Niklas Hed, Jarno Väkeväinen and Kim Dikert’s winning creation, a real-time multiplayer game called King of the Cabbage World, encouraged them to set up their own company.

Rovio’s beginnings hint at another reason Finland is getting ahead, especially when it comes to mobile games.

Though traditional console companies such as Remedy are still doing well, around 80 per cent of Finland’s game companies see mobile – phones and tablets – as their primary platform, compared to around 50 per cent elsewhere in the world. “There are a few for that,” says Hiltunen. “Finnish company Nokia has been important, of course, because a lot of people here became interested in mobile technology and that culture became ingrained.”

More important, he says, is the fact that mobile games play into the hands of Finland’s many small start-ups. “Mobile games are different to console games because you can produce them in a few months, whereas big console titles often take years and lots of money to develop. The App Store has made things democratic – it means Finnish companies can compete against the world, and if the game’s good enough it will be a success. Finnish companies are often small and agile, and they can react quickly.”

The success of the likes of the Supercell titles has also helped inspire others to join the industry. While five years ago there was nowhere official to learn video-game development, 10 Finnish universities now offer game-development courses. “Traditional industries like forestry have faded out in Finland,” says Ville Heijari, Rovio’s senior vice president of marketing, ” so education facilities have started to think, ‘What are people going to do now?'”

Heijari welcomes the fresh competition. “There is a batch of companies coming up and any one of them can be significant. It’s good news and will fuel the industry.” He’s wary, though, about predicting the next Angry Birds. “We’re a bad example in a way, because Angry Birds is a bit of an outlier. Most developers are ecstatic to get two million people playing their games.”

Both Heijari and Hiltunen agree that diversity in the industry is good news. “We don’t want one giant company,” says Hiltunen.

“We want a thriving ecosystem. Of course, some of them will fail, but often the biggest success stories here are run by people who are on their second or third company. In Finnish, we call it the teachings of Siberia: a clever guy who fails once won’t do it twice.”

What’s clear when spending even a little time with game developers in Helsinki is that everyone seems to know everyone. The Finnish chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is one of the biggest in the world, and organises regular friendly meetups. Everyone seems genuine when they say there’s support rather than competition between the various companies. Hiltunen says: “Finland is a small place. It’s great for sharing information and inspiring each other, but the challenge is finding enough new people – the industry’s growing so fast that we need 200-400 new employees a year.”

At least you can see why young people might find a career in video games appealing. Supercell’s Visander describes her company as “the company of our dreams”, talking not just about the flat management structure and lack of bureacracy, but the adult-sized ball pit next to her desk. “We’re pretty nerdy,” she admits, though all of Finland’s game companies seem like good fun. RedLynx, a major game developer we visited, has a Fight Club meeting room with a soft mat and Mexican wrestling masks. And how bad can any career be with job titles like video-games tester?

Hiltunen, like everyone I speak to, seems convinced that the video-game industry in Finland is only set to grow – having met a few different companies, it’s hard to disagree. In this corner of the world at least, the geeks appear to be inheriting the earth.

The inside story of the Kon-Tiki movie

It’s Norway’s most expensive film of all time. Its producer spent 16 years getting it made. It’s about Thor Heyerdahl’s epic journey across the Pacific in a raft. And it’s up for an Oscar this month.

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2013)

If you’re a Norwegian director, it’s a ballsy move to take your country’s most-iconic modern story to the big screen with a record-breaking budget.

Although, admittedly, not quite as ballsy as drifting across the Pacific on a homemade balsa wood raft when you can’t swim. That’s what legendary adventurer Thor Heyerdahl did in 1947, when he, five crew and a talismanic parrot undertook the 101-day, 8,000km journey from Peru to Polynesia – all to prove a scientific point, namely that the people of South America could have colonised Polynesia more than 5,000 years ago, rather than people from Asia, as is the common view.

Though Heyerdahl’s scientific thesis has now largely been discredited, his legend has only grown. To this day, Norwegians grow up with the story of how Heyerdahl navigated the world’s largest ocean on the Kon-Tiki raft (named after an Incan sun god), with no “modern” equipment except a basic radio, at the whims of the ocean’s currents and having to catch sharks by hand for food.

Heyerdahl – who was fastidious about documenting his own story – sold 50 million copies of his account of the journey and won an Oscar for his filmic documentary.

So no pressure, then, on Joachim Rønning, 40, and Espen Sandberg, 41, the directing duo who have taken Kon-Tiki to the big screen, at a cost of more than US$16 million (NOK90m), filming in seven locations with a crew of more than 1,000.

“Of course there’s pressure,” says Sandberg, on the phone from LA, where he’s doing the rounds before Kon-Tiki‘s US release, just days before he’ll find out that the film has been nominated for an Oscar, adding to its previous Golden Globe nomination. “But he [Heyerdahl] didn’t sell 50 million copies of his book because people are interested in migration theories. We knew before we started that this is a unique story that moves people.”

Rønning and Sandberg had long been inspired by the Heyerdahl legend – and their own story has its share of Heyerdahl-esque pluckiness. The pair grew up best friends in Sandefj ord, not far from Larvik, where Heyerdahl was born. “He was from a small town like us and showed us that anything is possible,” says Rønning. “It’s very un-Norwegian to go offand do what he did. You’re supposed to think you’re not that special, that you should keep your place in society and just be satisfied.”

Rønning and Sandberg nonetheless decided as young boys they were going be film-makers. Inspired by films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, they started making their first movies, aged 10, in a makeshift studio in Rønning’s attic. “We were basically blowing up Star Wars figures with firecrackers smuggled in from Sweden,” says Rønning.

The journey to making their own blockbusters reads like a series of serendipitous encounters. As teenagers, the two friends found a local production company that taught them to edit VCR, which helped get them to film school in Stockholm. During their two years of military service, they met an officer who let them spend their time making propaganda films from helicopters. They moved into a decade shooting TV commercials for the likes of Budweiser, which was when they got a call from French director Luc Besson (NikitaLeon).

“He called us up out of the blue in 2004 and asked if we wanted to look at his feature film – we couldn’t believe it,” says Rønning. The Norwegian pair ended up in the Mexican desert with Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek, making Bandidas (2006), a tongue-in-cheek Western that cost €35 million, but received an underwhelming response from critics and film-goers.

But it was a start. Their next project was Max Manus (2008), a big-budget biopic about a Norwegian World War II resistance fighter. Along with the 560,000 of their fellow countrymen who watched Max Manus, the film came to the attention of Jeremy Thomas, a leading British movie producer, whose credits include The Last EmperorSexy BeastStealing Beauty and David Cronenberg’s Crash.

Coincidentally, Thomas held the film rights to the Kon-Tiki story and had been desperately trying to get a film made about the voyage ever since acquiring the rights in 1996.

“Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki was a huge story when I was growing up,” Thomas tells me over the phone from Sydney. “But it only occurred to me to make a film about it when I learned from [actor] Michael Douglas that a Norwegian industrialist and publisher called Johan Stenersen had the rights to sell.”

Thomas flew to Tenerife to meet Stenersen and Thor Heyerdahl himself. He recalls that it was tough work getting the great man to part with his story. “Thor is a great showman, and he was very charismatic and energetic even in old age. He’s also very PR-savvy and had fixed ideas about how he wanted to be presented. It was hard to get him to agree to give me the rights to his story.”

But he did agree – although Thomas has admitted elsewhere that the production process became easier after Heyerdahl passed away in 2002, aged 87. Initially, Thomas had envisioned a US$80 million, Hollywood-blockbuster treatment for Kon-Tiki, with Leonardo DiCaprio touted as a possible lead. Five scripts came and went, and Thomas struggled to secure the financial backing he needed. It wasn’t until he saw Max Manus that he realised there was another way to get his film made.

Rønning professes to having been amazed when he and Sandberg were approached by Thomas in 2009. “We’d always wanted to tell this story. We’d kown Jeremy Thomas had the rights but we’d thought, ‘Forget it, he’ll just want to make a huge Hollywood film.'”

In the event, he didn’t, he wanted to make a Norwegian film. In addition to his two Norwegian directors, Thomas got a Norwegian scriptwriter – Petter Skavlan – and a Norwegian co-producer: Aage Aaberge. As in real life, the crew of the raft in the film consists of five Norwegians and a Swede, led by the impressive Pål Hagen as a lanky, blond-haired Heyerdahl.

Yet the movie, which was filmed over 59 days in 2011, feels no less epic in scale than anything created in Hollywood. Filming the main raft scenes in Malta, Sandberg says they used more special effects in Kon-Tiki than the original Star Wars, though you’d be hard-pressed to know that the whale shark or the flying fish in the film aren’t real.

Perhaps what’s more interesting about the movie – which, almost uniquely, was filmed in both Norwegian and English – are the ways in which it is not your typical Hollywood film. The central cast are notably understated, with Hagen’s Thor barely suppressing his blue-eyed conviction. The drama between the crew is played out through subtle tensions, and a lot of the film has a meditative quality: the cast read, paint and often don’t say much.

“We’re Scandinavians; we’re not southern Europeans,” says Sandberg. “If you read Heyerdahl’s book, all the guys on the boat come offas these tough guys who never complained. Back then, men didn’t talk about their feelings, so the challenge was to reflect that, but also have emotion and drama in the film.”

While researching the movie, the team met Thor Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav, who was part of a 2006 trip that recreated his grandfather’s journey. Sandberg recalls: “He told us that you talk a lot for two days, and then there becomes less and less to say. When he got to land at the end, there was nothing to talk about. Yet he remembers this deep sadness – he wanted to get back on the boat.”

The one major departure from the facts is the character of Herman Waltzinger, the raft’s second-in-command. In reality an accomplished engineer, in the script he becomes a divorced former fridge salesman, whose background in engineering gets him onto the boat, but whose fretting, paranoid presence sets him apart from the rest of the grizzled cast. “We put Herman there to ask the questions that the audience would,” says Sandberg. “You need that questioning voice because, really, Thor believes he’s right at the beginning and still believes he’s right at the end.”

The film has already been a big success in Norway, where it was released last August and has since been seen by more than 600,000 cinema-goers. “It’s tricky, because Thor lived one of the most-documented lives ever,” says Sandberg. “For Pål Hagen playing him, it was a real challenge. Thor has a famously strong Norwegian accent, so it would have been easy to slip into a parody. But Pål did so much research – the way he moved, how he talked – and pulled it off brilliantly.”

When the film is released this month in the US and Europe, the directors hope what will shine through is simply a phenomenal story of triumph against the odds. “For us, it was never about the theory he was trying to prove,” says Sandberg. “We were interested in why a man who couldn’t swim wanted to drift across the world’s biggest ocean on a makeshift raft. It’s a Norwegian story, but there’s something universal about it.” Steven Spielberg could hardly have come up with a better story – best of all, this one’s true.