Newsletters Writings

The Moment When the White Rabbit Goes Past

In the fifth issue of Crossed Lines, I introduced my new role as leader of artistic and audience development at Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre.

This letter comes to you from a hotel room in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. The hotel is called the Arctic Eden. From the window, I can see the mine buildings that crown what’s left of Gironvarri, the mountain the city came here to devour.

The way I was told it, the Swedes knew there was a mountain full of iron ore, somewhere in this landscape, but the mountain was sacred to the Sami and they had no intention of letting the Swedes find it and tear it apart. Until eventually some prospectors got an old Sami man so drunk that he let out the secret.

The history section of the website of the company that owns the mine that tore apart the mountain is headlined: ‘Faith in the Future since 1890’.

In the foyer of the Folkets Hus is a scale model of the city. A red line loops across from the mine, taking in the whole downtown and chunks of the surrounding neighbourhoods. On the underside of the model, a reef of ore slants downwards more than two kilometres into the ground. As they keep following it, digging it out, the city itself will be undermined. The red line marks the zone in danger of subsidence. The answer is to take down the city and rebuild it three kilometres to the east.

You can take a bus from the current city centre that drives straight into the side of the mountain, the road spiralling down into the mine to a depth of five hundred metres, but that will have to wait for next time, because this time I came here to see a play.

Jag Kommer Härifrån is a story about what it means to come from a small place, to grow up with the idea that everything exciting in life is waiting for you somewhere else, somewhere bigger and brighter and more open-minded. Watching it, I was back in Darlington, twenty years ago, full of the desire to escape. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, it seems to me now, but there is a problem when it hardens into a claim about the objective superiority of life in the big city, held to be an obvious truth by people old enough to know better. This is the attitude I think of as ‘urban supremacism’ – what Anders Duus, who wrote Jag Kommer Härifrån, calls ‘metronormativity’.

The train from Stockholm to Kiruna takes seventeen hours. That’s a lot of time for talking – and the other reason I am on this trip is for the luxury of that time together with Anders and my new boss, Måns Lagerlöf, the director of theatre for Riksteatern. I still struggle to get my mouth round words like ‘boss’ and ‘job’, but for the first time in a decade or so, I have both of these things. Since January, I have spent much of my time in an office in a tower block in the concrete surroundings of outer Stockholm, trying to work out what it means that I am now the Artistic and Audience Development Lead for Sweden’s national theatre. If this job had been advertised in the newspaper, it would never have occurred to me to apply, but it came to me by one of those chains of coincidence which I have learned to trust.

I guess if you grew up in Sweden it probably seems normal to have a national theatre that is also a grassroots movement, a network of over two hundred volunteer-run local associations that own the national organisation and arrange performances in smaller and larger places, up and down the country. To me, this sounds like the start of some extraordinary story: the moment when the White Rabbit goes past, staring at his pocket-watch, muttering to himself, and you know that you have left behind reality as you knew it.

So, when the laughter and the applause have died away, the staging for Jag Kommer Härifrån is packed and loaded onto the tour bus, ready to head on down the road to the next town on a forty-date tour that stretches the length of the country. And having seen one of our productions out on the road for the first time, the organisation I’m working with just got a little more real to me.

I’ll be writing more about what I’m actually doing, as these newsletters get going again, and as I get further into the process of figuring it out. I should say that I’m working 70% (as we say in this part of the world) which means I still have 30% of my time available for writing, speaking and other freelance projects. Most importantly, I’ve wound up here because the things I’ve been thinking, writing and speaking about seem to resonate with what they want to do over the next few years, so this is a chance to put some of my ideas into action.

Jag Kommer Härifrån has fun at the expense of the hipsters of Södermalm, buying their organic groceries at Urban Deli on Nytorget. That bit reminded me of Venkatesh Rao’s essay, ‘The American Cloud’, where he suggests that today’s America consists of a Jeffersonian simulation, an imagined version of small-town life, running on a Hamiltonian platform of mechanised processes the scale of which is uncomfortable to think about. He starts with the example of a Whole Foods store, its pre-distressed wooden fittings connoting authenticity, while behind them is the concrete and steel of which the building is actually made. Steel that came out of a mountain like the one outside my hotel window.

The deposit of iron ore under Gironvarri is one of the largest and richest ever found. When mining began, there were 1.8bn tonnes of it down there. As part of the project of moving the city, the municipality held an architectural competition. The winning design was called ‘Kiruna 4-ever’. Today, less than half of the original ore remains to be mined. It seems that Kiruna has accepted the need to dismantle and re-mantle itself with little complaint. I imagine that only a city whose existence was this bound up with a single industry could be so accepting. The current rate of extraction of iron ore is over 25m tonnes a year. The new city hall will open next year and by 2021 the beautiful wooden church will have been rebuilt on its new site. The full project of moving the city will be complete sometime in the mid-2030s. By my reckoning, that is about when the ore will run out. I suppose that’s what they mean by faith in the future. Still, ‘4-ever’ seems an ambitious timescale.

Sent as Issue 5 of Crossed Lines, my occasional email newsletter.