Aug 152011
 

Ever since a Norwegian psychopath massacred 69 people at a youth camp, the Norwegian population has been more united than it has ever been before, including during WWII. Such unity will not last, of course, but for now, it is touching.

The political party furthest to the right, to which the perpetrator had belonged, also bowed its head in grief and horror. The entire country did. Every one of us was dumbstruck and tearful, and many of us still are, though we found collective relief, one Monday afternoon after work, in demonstrating what we felt, with roses. Millions of roses.

Fortunately, the perpetrator was a blond Norwegian, not somebody with brown skin, in which case, his act might not have united but divided. In Norway, 11.4% of the population is of foreign stock, and in Oslo, the proportion of foreigners is 27% [http://www.ssb.no/befolkning_en/]. Needless to say, in any majority, there will always be somebody who resents minorities,  and there will always be minorities who deeply resent the majority, even in the best of times, and when the chips are down, as in the UK these days…

Chips have been down in the UK for quite a while, haven’t they, at least for a large and perhaps growing part of the population. Take a look at these figures: http://www.poverty.org.uk/summary/eu.htm (in the left column, click under EU: primary indicators or secondary indicators). The UNDP gini coefficient – which is a measure of income inequality – is 0.36 in the UK, which is, frankly, pretty lousy, if you ask me. In fact, as far as I can see, only Portugal is worse off in Europe… and oh, yes, Russia. [http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/161.html]

Unfortunately, I cannot find older UK gini coefficients (other countries have them). Could it be that the UK is loathe to expose that inequality has risen rather than decreased?

In the light of the above, Mr Cameron, we are puzzled here by some of your statements concerning the riots’ relationship to poverty. Obviously, looting and violence cannot be condoned. On the other hand, I’d say that what your country has done to the poorest 20% or 40% of its population cannot be condoned either.

I live in a non-white area built in the early nineties. I moved here because it was cheaper than all-white neighbourhoods and because it looked inviting and sunny. It even had a beautiful view. There were children playing outdoors, and I hadn’t seen children playing for years. I don’t regret for a moment having moved here.

But I will not deny having felt a vague “them vs us” malaise to begin with, a certain distrust, which affected my attitude to my new neighbours. In the end, it was the children that won me over. Coming home to be occasionally surrounded by their bright-eyed eager questions about my dog, or just seeing them engrossed in their make-believe games, distributing roles (“you are the watchman, and I’ll be the terrorist”), made me look forward to seeing them, to appreciate their harmony and to respect their parents.

On my bike, I visit adjoining areas. I live just by the edge of one of Oslo’s wealthiest (and most beautiful) neighbourhoods. Weaving your way through it is a treat, but never do I see a child or, for that matter, anybody at all. Gardens look institutional, and are probably kept by hired gardeners.

In the other direction, I come to a recently built, mixed residential area; post-modern blocks of flats, surrounded by rolling lawns and patches of woodland, together with a large piece of land dedicated to a multitude of little private gardening plots (each about 3 by 5 meters). When I cycle past, as I often do because the whole area inspires me with hope, a dozen or so adults will be tending their plants.

The area’s heart is a great big football field, surrounded by pathways – its arteries – with a not too large, rather beautiful school on either side. Every time I go there the pathways are peopled by ambling adults walking their dogs or babies, or just chatting to each other.

In such an area I imagine that you have to be very dedicated to be able to breed a criminal gang. It is possible, of course, and there are – needless to say – criminal gangs in Oslo. But living in a brown area, I am very surprised to see no sign of them (obviously they are here too, as social workers would be able to tell me).

Gang prevention requires more than thoughtful architecture, of course. For one thing, it requires brave and dedicated teachers, health and social workers, etc., something that in turn requires decent wages and working conditions, so that people will be willing and able to put heart and soul into their work. What is also required is that politicians do not insult the part of the population that has a foreign background or is underprivileged for other reasons, one of them being that the UK has a poor track record in the matter of wealth distribution. Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Cameron?

I think, Mr Cameron, you would find a visit to Oslo – mind you, the part of Oslo where I live – interesting. And since I do not doubt your honest intentions, I should be very glad to show you around.