I’ve never been to Norway. Until a few months ago, my only real knowledge of the place came from a review provided by my great aunt – “expensive and watery” (I debated pursuing the point that “watery” was unavoidable – she was on a cruise – but ultimately decided against it). Over the last few months, though, my picture has started to change and I’m beginning to think that Norway might actually be pretty excellent.
My primary point of evidence for this is that I am now friends with two Norwegian people, both of whom are great. I’m not sure if I am hyper-aware because of these newfound friendships or if there genuinely has been a surge of newspaper articles about Norway in the British press, but three things in particular have caught my eye.
1. Norwegian tax payers pay less tax in November so that they all have money for Christmas.
Now arguably, given my great aunt’s assessment, Norwegians need all the help they can get to afford Christmas. If we think it gets pricey here, imagine what it must be like in the land of the expensive and the watery! Even so, there’s something pleasingly human about this. Very rarely in [serious newsreader voice] The Current Financial Climate [resume normal manner of speaking] do we hear of governments acting in a way that seems wildly impractical on a national scale so that Joe Bloggs on the street can catch a break. And in fact if Jim Bloggs, Jean Bloggs and everyone else (both within and without the extended Bloggs family) catches that same break, then isn’t that wildly practical on a national scale too? I’m pretty sure it’s dubious economics, but it’s excellent humaning. Also I blooming love Christmas.
2. Norway has the lowest rate in Europe for re-offends; their prison system includes an island which simulates life after prison.
You can read the full article from the Guardian here and form your own opinion. At first I thought it all sounded a bit Shutter Island, and doubtless there will be people who will be appalled at the relative ‘luxury’ bestowed upon criminals including rapists and murderers, but I suspect this might actually be good humaning on Norway’s part once again.
Primarily, I don’t think we can underestimate the significance of the statistics:
“In 2007, 14 prisons in England and Wales had reconvictions rates of more than 70%. At an average cost of £40,000 a year for each prisoner, this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”
Our justice system in this country is reformative; agree or disagree, but the purpose of prison is not to punish an offender but to turn them around. There’s a decent argument to say that in lots of cases and for lots of reasons, that system doesn’t always work out. That’s where I think Balstoy is getting it right. Again, regardless of whether or not you think they should be, all of the prisoners are due to be released within five years. One of my favourite soapboxes is about responsibility, and how much better I think the world would be if we were all a bit better at taking responsibility for our actions and choices. In prison, as well as taking away freedom, we also take away the need to be responsible. There’s a bitter irony that in a system intended to hold people accountable for their actions and reform them, we trap them in a routine where they don’t even have to take responsibility for their own basic needs. I’m not sure it’s surprising, then, that when we fling them back into the real world they’re not always so great at acting responsibly. And when people are irresponsible, they do things they shouldn’t. 70% reconviction is bad enough, but that doesn’t pick up on those that remain unconvicted, or the fact that not all bad choices are criminal offences.
Balstoy is concerned with teaching the inmates to take on the sort of responsibility that they will need to to turn their lives around in the real world, which benefits all of society. Reformation not retribution is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the victims of crime, but I think it might be the better medicine.
3. 20% of Norway’s population tuned into a recent twelve hour broadcast about wood, eight hours of which was just a log burning.
Can you imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch a programme about wood? I struggle to imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch anything. I have things to do, places to go, people to see. I was getting fidgety by the end of The Hobbit. Watching wood burn in real time would make my top five dull things to endure (alongside paint drying, grass growing, my first year Hebrew classes, and the tv show my grandad watched last night which seemed to be about tanks and fishing). So, either there are a few million people in Norway who really like wood, or they’re on to something that I’m not.
To be fair, both are plausible, but I like to think it’s the latter. I’m not sure what’s in the (apparently abundant) Norwegian water, but if they bottled it I wouldn’t mind a bit. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I find so brilliant about this story, but it suggests something of the same national character that appeals to me in the other two news items as well.
There’s definitely something to be said for having the ability to make the time and headspace for something away from the chaos of the humdrum – to do something literally extra-ordinary. And that’s about more than Norwegian Wood.