Friday, 18 September 2015

Looking Back in Stavanger

Ah Norway! Home of ruddy-cheeked outdoor pursuits enthusiasts, responsibly curated oil reserves, A-ha, the Nobel Prize and for 48 hours or so last week: me. I gigged in Norway last year – in Oslo – and that was fun, but I don't feel like I got a real flavour the Nordic experience there, other than the seizure-inducingly price of every single item. Nothing will make you savour a Mars bar more than paying £2.30 for it. I hate to rise to a racial stereotype, but I did my absolute best to suck every last sugar crystal of value out of it. Oslo seems a good place, but I think it also fell foul of the homogeneity of European capital city centres, so I was really excited to head off into the unknown of Stavanger. Admittedly, part of this was because I had imagined Stavanger to be about 500 kilometres further north on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Turns out I wasn't headed for the luminescent skies of far north, but more of a Lego version of Aberdeen.

Stavanger is the heartland of Norways oil industry. Until the 1960s it was a small, humble coastal town – and it still has many of these traits – but since the discovery of gloopy magic melted fossils off the coast it has exploded with spondoolicks. I flew there via Gatwick and knew the world was going to treat me to a fun couple of days away when the airport security guard dispensed with th usual glassy-eyed stair and rudimentary fumblings to instead talk to me about Kermit the Frog's new girlfriend as if it were the hottest piece of sleb gossip going. We both agreed it wouldn't last and was almost certainly down to a mid-life crisis on Kermit's part.

My favourite thing about going to other north-west European countries is that they have a sort of Twilight Zone feel about them: there are so many recognisable images, places, words and customs, but Norway is what England would be like in an alternate reality where the landscape really makes an effort and people are actually sincere. There is a wholesomeness and desire to live life in the best possible way – because that's obviously how one should live – that is similar to Germany. The in-flight entertainment – which was slightly obscured by a man in a bobble-hat who I'm 98% convinced the Norwegian tourist board paid to sit in front of me – was a medley of Tom and Jerrry cartoons. Coming into land in Stavanger is brilliant – Norway is a country that had thousands of tiny archipelagos going out to sea, so you get a tasting menu of Nordic geography – mouthfuls of forest and little sips of lake and river. Once I hit the airport it was clear that I was in a superior country. Small clues like airport seating being focussed round a chess board, taxi drivers able to give you a full up date of the history and current affairs of the area and streets that are so eerily clean I was concerned that if I went outside with my hair too scruffy I'd end up being kidnapped by government stylists and thrown back out into the world neatly coiffured.

I was staying in the miniature third floor apartment of the promoter – Chi – was had vacated the premises to go to a wedding in America. This might be a sign of encroaching early-middle-age, but it was a masterclass in storage. She'd somehow managed to fit enough items for a fully-fledged townhouse into space that sometimes resembled a showhome based on the dimensions of John Cusack's office on floor 7 ½ in Being John Malkovich. Like almost everything in Stavanger, the flat was pristine, warm and welcoming.

So what about the gigs? Is it easy to make a bunch of cold-hearted, ergonomically-focussed, uber-polite Scandies laugh? Well...sort off. I love doing gigs abroad – partially because there isn't the depth of stand-up culture there, so I always look like a better comic than I actually am and because you're pretty certain not to have much hassle from the audience, so you're free to play. Gig number one was at Checkpoint Charlie. Amongst the sleek lines and fresh, community-focused architecture, it was no surprise that the comedy was behind the dirtiest, dingiest, most grafitti-covered door. It's where we belong. The show was lovely, but quite an off experience from the stage, as the audience were both the hottest and coldest I'd played to in a while. Without wanting to be Bertie Big Bollocks, they gave me more applause breaks than I've had for a long time – it was ace, but I'm putting it down to cultural differences, rather than me suddenly transmogrifying into Britain's greatest comic mind, not least because there were a couple times when they stared at me as though I'd just laid an ostrich egg. It made for quite a strange gigging experience as I oscillated between feeling like I was a belting comic and was speaking total nonsense.

Wednesday night's gig was nothing compared to the odd location of the following night. I have, in my time as a comic, gigged in such varied locations as a shed in a field in Suffolk, Hackney wetlands centre, above an amateur professional wrestling night and on a floating restaurant, but Stavanger Chamber of Commerce has to be right up there in the bizarre stakes. It was one of the more austere buildings in the city and when I entered it gave of an air of serious business, not least because of the black and white photos of chairmen and women of old who all had the same look captured on their faces, which said “business is paramount, none of your whimsical jesting here little man!” Anyone who has done private gigs in England for business people would understand my trepidation at playing to a room full of people who had just eaten dinner, were there to network and probably had little interest in the musings of a troll with too close an access to curling tongs. However they and I were wrong. Like everyone else I met in Norway this assemblage of grown-ups with proper jobs were warm, playful and friendly and insisted in filling me up with free finger food after I'd talked daftness at them for twenty minutes.

Even better, I ended up having a cracking chat with one of them who was on a rare night out away from her husband and kids who insisted on taking me out to a local bar. Now, there are many misconceptions about being a stand-up or an actor and one of them that it is a never-ending rock and roll lifestyle of falling in and out of bars with groupies and hangers-on. That's clearly not true of me for a couple of reasons: no one has ever wanted to hang on to me and I can barely hang on to reality after the fourth pint. However sometimes people do want to take you out and show you their town, so I was delighted to be taken to a non-descript bar, up a non-descript staircase (and thankfully not into a non-descript kill room) to find a warm, homely 'brown bar' selling comforting Guinness and playing some Super Furries and ska over the PA. We spent the evening righting wrongs of the world, chatting about Dante's Inferno, the disobedience of children and futility of ideal parenting. There's something especially lovely about travelling to a totally different country and still being able to enjoy a good few hours of chat over some booze. It's the most civilised of doings.

I awoke a little fuzzy the next morning, far too late to meet my grand plan of climbing a small Norwegian hillock to get a fine panorama of Stavanger. Instead I was driven to the airport and a few hours later landed back in messy, busy, smelly, infuriatingly excellent old London, after what felt like another world of cleanliness, politeness and outrageously expensive everything. Frankly, if I could spend Tuesday-Thursday gigging in a friendly European city I think I would, but this week it's been back to under-populated back rooms of London pubs and the ever-so-slightly dispiriting new material circuit, where the nearest you'll get to an applause break is going down in flames in a way that amuses the other comics. Still, I look forward to heading back to the Nordic paradise where it seems that even stand-up comedians get carried along in the higher standard of living for everyone.

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