Culture / History

Robert Ferguson Searches for the Soul of the North

In 2017, when the UK was gripped by the new Scandi trends, ROBERT FERGUSON set out to make us look backwards. His personal journey through Scandinavian history, incorporating various writing styles, reminded us of that this region also holds a fascinating past…

Xander Brett

By 2017, the UK was filled to the brim with hot Scandi trends. There were books on hygge, lagom, sisu and fika. It was as if the Nordics simply hadn’t existed until we looked north for inspiration. But Scandinavia had existed. Its rich history was being ignored in favour of the latest ‘Nordic noir’ boxset. It was the job of Robert Ferguson to make us stop. Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North is a combination of biography, memoir, analysis and history. Ferguson weaves us on a seemingly random journey through Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. We learn of King Frederik VII, pause for a theatrical interlude, and re-emerge in time for the mass exodus and the Second World War.

In the 1970s, Ferguson worked variously as a postman and fruit picker. He read Scandinavian Studies at UCL and ended up with a deep-rooted fascination. He moved to Oslo in 1983 and never left, becoming a dual citizen last year. Ferguson arrived at the start of the oil boom that changed Norway from a poor, predominantly rural society into an urban ‘new money’ free-for-all. But, despite the clamour, Ferguson says there’s still a working class, even if many blue-collar positions are now taken by immigrants.

Speaking to me from Oslo, Ferguson tells me how Norway emerged from hundreds of years of occupation. “In the 1800s, Norway got rid of its aristocracy. That set it apart from Sweden. On independence in 1905, it harked back to a Viking past. It elected a prince of Denmark to be monarch but changed his name from ‘Carl’ to ‘Håkon VII’ to create a direct link with the last king of that name, in an independent Norway back in the 14th century. So, it revived an old identity at the same time as the oil boom cemented its new identity.”

Favourably reviewed by The Times and The New York Times, Ferguson’s journey follows his biographies of T.E Hulme, Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen and Henry Miller. Ferguson has also written two histories of the Vikings, two novels, and translated texts from Norwegian to English. He began his career writing radio plays, later also working on film and television scripts. I asked him if that changed the way he wrote. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he replies. “My radio plays were similar to Icelandic sagas, and I also leave a lot to the listener.” This book lends itself perfectly to that unique format. Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North is a welcome moment of reflection among still endless rounds of Nordic pop music, cool furniture and clean food.

ROBERT FERGUSON is a British-Norwegian writer. Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North is out now.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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