London’s premier bookshop Foyles held a launch event on 4 September to celebrate the UK release of Jón Gnarr’s book “Gnarr – How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World”. The book covers the story of Jón and the Best Party’s surprise election to the office of mayor of Reykjavík from 2010-2014.
At the Foyles event, Jón was interviewed by Zoe Williams from the Guardian in front of an audience of approximately 200, followed by audience questions and signing of the book.
As you can imagine I was very excited about this event – Jón’s public appearances in London are few and far between.
In terms of the questions, for me, there was a bit too much emphasis in the beginning on questions Iceland’s financial crisis and bankers, although I do appreciate that much of the book is set during this timeframe and some people may not have heard some of the details. Jón really came alive during some of the more varied questions from the audience members and proved again that there is much more to him than being a politician. People were laughing more and more and it all became a bit less serious. Throughout, he really considered his answers. Below are some of the highlights of Jón’s answers – please note that what follows is not a complete transcript and is only what I could capture at the time.
On why he decided to go into politics:
In a financial crisis, things like theatre and arts are the first to be cut…I was doing a standup show and came up with the idea on stage. It was funny, just saying you would promise anything. Then people started saying you should really do this, I would vote for you and doing the thumbs up sign. We made that the symbol of the Best Party, it’s the international symbol of friendliness.
In the early days, I was the comic relief of the whole thing. But maybe we were in deep shit because we were too ignorant. I would think of the phoenix from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. We would laugh at my stories and then laugh again when the media tried to interpret it. ‘Is he that stupid? Yeah, he is…’
It was the middle of the pots and pans revolution. We channelled it in a more positive way.
On whether the Best Party was a critique of neo-liberalism:
This was one of the main reasons why we were in the situation, the privatisation of banks. Capitalism – I like some of it. I like Apple. If you have a new iPhone out I will read about it. There is a serious downside to capitalism if not regulated.
On the campaign:
We made our campaign song Simply the Best – I said I was friends with Tina Turner on Facebook and people believed this. The video became an instant hit. Specialists were asking how much it cost. We used a Canon and it didn’t cost anything except our time, we had no sponsors.
On the first day at work:
I knew very little of contemporary politics. I had never been inside the mayor’s office. I didn’t realise it came with loads of people. It’s more than office, it’s a workplace! I imagined I would be sitting alone with a phone and someone would call me. It was a big surprise.
Early days in office:
I was not prepared for the severity of the city. I thought it was a mindset problem then realised the problem was first and foremost financial so I had to try and understand it. We had to consider things like special fees for electricity and hot water. This was very important in Iceland, feeling of why should we pay for it when hot water is coming out of the ground everywhere? There had been no change in rate for 20 years – why should it cost anything? Well, it’s not that simple, there are pipes and engineers…people in government didn’t want to ask for things that would make them unpopular.
The media left me alone for 100 days. My first interview was really confrontational. They asked what I was going to do about something and I said ‘I don’t know’…I mean, I can check and get back to you… it was so awkward. I felt humiliated and so stupid. After that people came up to me and said ‘thank you – that was so brilliant – politicians never admit they don’t know, they lie.’ Even in failure was victory!
Entering into politics is like going into a hostile alien territory because everything is so hostile.
On tourism and the Icelandic mindset:
Iceland is a very strange culture – we went from fishermen/farmers to being a banking nation and when all that collapsed it now changed into tourism. To be happy in Iceland you have to be quite adaptive and opportunistic. This may be part of that. It can also be seen as opportunism. This was somehow part of the mentality and success of the Best Party.
On social networking:
Social networking is huge in Iceland – there are 350,000 Icelandic accounts on Facebook! (note – this is more than the population) Most of our campaign was through Facebook and YouTube. Other parties campaigned through the newspaper and not on social networks. All politicians in Iceland are on Facebook and Twitter now.
On his continued support of the LGBT community:
I have led the Gay Pride parade in Reykjavík dressed in drag. Last year I dressed up in the women’s national costume. I was afraid some of the older women who have strong emotions towards the costume would feel somehow offended and that worried me…in the parade I saw they were the ones who were most inspired. They were glowing. It was like “respect”! Inspiring to me. Genuine support is from the unlikeliest people.
On whether he had anything to do with the sudden proliferation of cycle lanes in Reykavik:
We designated money to it and were heavily criticised In Icelandic traffic law (outdated) there is no definition of a bicycle lane. I saw it as an alternative form of transport that could save money.
On what he is most proud of from his time as mayor:
That I lasted the whole term. I was the first in a long time to do that. Also, that I don’t consider that I have changed. The experience has matured me and given me a deeper understanding of society and people in general but I have not changed as a person when many expected me to. I am also very proud of the work we did with difficult financial issues. If I hadn’t come along Reykjavík might have gone down similar path as Detroit.
Jón also touched on other topics such as the strong support from his family while he was in office, his visit from a Chinese delegation where he petitioned for the release of Liu Xiabo and comedian Doug Stanhope’s show at Litla-Hraun.
Following the talk there was an eager queue of people wanting their books signed.
I always feel sorry for authors having to do this kind of thing but it actually means a lot to fans. Despite being terrible about self-promotion, I forced myself to mention the blog and he said he had seen it! I nearly died. Yeah, ok, he didn’t say he liked it but I’ll take what I can get.
So, is the book worth reading? Yes, even though there isn’t much new content if you are a regular follower of Icelandic news and social media. It’s still an interesting read which covers a time in Iceland which already feels a bit like history.
For those of you who want to know more about Jón’s time in politics, there is also a DVD called Gnarr which covers the election and early time in office in great detail. This is not easily available in the UK but you can get it on import from the US or Iceland.
Jón’s autobiographies are finally about to be translated into English and the first will be out in May 2015. I would also urge anyone who hasn’t seen his comedy to start with the great series Næturvaktin (again available as an import from Iceland) which should get you hooked enough to investigate further.
Thanks to Foyles for a great event! They have more signed copies of the book to buy here.