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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 11:06 GMT
Welcome to the other capital of culture
Lighthouse at Eigeroy near Stavanger

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine, Stavanger

A bustling port, English spoken with a distinctive accent, grown men who worship Steven Gerrard - Europe's Capital of Culture 2008 is a wonderful place. But this isn't Liverpool. It's Stavanger in Norway.

A poem written in hay bales at Stavanger's Sola airport

Not a lot of people know about Stavanger's big moment. Or at least, not a lot of people in the UK, for whom there is only one capital of culture, Liverpool.

But since 2000, there have been two capitals of culture on four other occasions.

At Stavanger Airport there is a poem - Arne Garborg's Mot soleglad - written in white bales of hay to mark the prestigious occasion:

    There rises from the sea a country of elves
    With peaks and moorland
    It can be clearly seen against the horizon
    in the blue of the evening sun.

As the year of cultural happenings wears on, the poem will disintegrate as farmers cart away the bales for use.

Map showing Stavanger
Awarded by Council of Ministers of the European Union
Up to 2000 one capital per year
Nine cities for the millennium
Two capitals in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2007
Stavanger's joint bid with Sandnes backed across Norway
Post-Stavanger restricted to EU members

After this poetic welcome, the first thing any visitor will notice is the wind. Strong enough to blow spray off the sea, strong enough to make a solid building whistle and moan, strong enough to blow the spectacles off your head.

Stavanger does not look like Liverpool. Visitors to Capital of Culture 2008 (Liverpool) will see streets of neat brick Georgian terraces, neighbourhoods of Victorian two-up/two-downs and monumental Edwardian city centre architecture.

Visitors to Capital of Culture 2008 (Stavanger) will see wood. This corner of south-west Norway boasts of being the wooden house capital of Europe. Cobbled streets meander and white, wooden clapboard houses proliferate in the old town, with fairy lights completing the Christmas card image.

It seems remarkable that with the wind - in the depths of winter at least - ripping in off the North Sea, its inhabitants historically have chosen to put their faith in wood. Then again, in Norway, there's a lot about. A big project to build new wooden buildings is called, needless to say, Norwegian Wood.

The history of this part of the world is told in natural resources, of towns built in wood, of fortunes made from timber and paper mills, of an empire built from wooden ships.

Traditional white wooden houses (Picture: Duncan Robertson)
Many residents put their faith in wooden houses
And after wood, oil. In the 1960s the discovery of black gold in the North Sea and some astute manoeuvring on the part of local politicians and businessmen saw Stavanger become Norway's oil boom town. Planes go to and from Aberdeen every day carrying the oil workers that make the local economy tick.

So it is perhaps appropriate that the head of the Capital of Culture organisation is a Scot, former violinist and arts journalist Mary Miller. She has had to address a degree of scepticism from some residents.

"There is no Bono, there is no Tall Ships Race, there are not the names people expected here," she says.

Instead the theme is "Open Port", a year of events that will encourage international artists to come, work with local artists and generally galvanise the population.

At its heart is four month-long residencies - music theatre company Muziektheater Transparant, Lithuanian group Oskarus Korsunovas Theatre, Israeli dance company Inbal Pinto and the South African Handspring Puppet Company. Paul McCartney it ain't.

But the aim is very different from some other capitals of culture. Each company will hold workshops so ordinary people can make their own art.

Person with Norwegian flag on cliff near Stavanger
Stunning landscape surrounds the city (Picture: Duncan Robertson)
Despite its wealth, Stavanger is a place that aspires for more - for recognition of its status, of its culture. But its very wealth can be an obstacle to participation.

"When I first arrived, I thought why does this place need to be European Capital of Culture? It's an extraordinarily precious place, almost like a little utopia," says Ms Miller.

"It is a massive investment in people. We are not putting any money into bricks and mortar. You look at this pristine country, in many senses the chief enemy here is that it is as good as it is."

And as far as the economy goes, it is good. Whatever Liverpool's manifesto, the desire in Merseyside is to use the culture already there - pop music, art galleries, the city's vibrancy - to lure tourists and relocating businesses.

But Stavanger does not expect economic gain from its year in the spotlight. It's already rather rich.

The city's mayor, Leif Johan Sevland, offers a crushing handshake as he says: "We have unemployment of 1%. If you gave me 1,000 skilled people tomorrow, we could find jobs for them."

He's on message when he says it's all about stimulating culture and improving Stavanger's profile.

Stencil saying 'This is Culture'
There has been some opposition
But on the winding streets of the little city, heads are scratched and there are mixed feelings as the town prepares for the king and queen to launch proceedings on Saturday.

Dragging on a roll-up cigarette and bracing himself against the wind, shop worker Finn Ivar is not impressed.

"I think it's kind of a stupid event. It doesn't think of local culture. It's just all these concerts and art stuff and things like that. I can't see how it would benefit us."

The disaffected Mr Ivar is not alone. There are local artists, musicians and performers who are not onboard. The organisation "Ka da ittepa?" or "What then after?" believes the year may have no lasting effect. Other critics see a waste of money, and an unpatriotic few can't see how Stavanger deserves this elevated status.

When it comes to big names in the world of music, film, art and performance, the city is not exactly replete. Jan Groth, a Stavanger-born, New York-based modern artist, is one of the bigger ones.

Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger
Oil has its own museum
As far as modern culture goes, the city has its fair share. Its symphony orchestra punches above its weight with the help of funding from main Norwegian oil firm, Statoil, and this year it hosts the European Amateur Brass Band championships, a big event in a country where such bands are an institution, particularly for schoolchildren. Maijazz is its annual jazz festival, Numusic is a club-based electronic music festival.

Much of Numusic takes place at Tou Scene, once a derelict brewery with an obvious echo of Liverpool. The brewery closed in the 80s and production shifted elsewhere. In recent years, under the stewardship of composer Nils Henrik Asheim, it has been transformed into a music and arts venue with a fashionable bar at its heart.

The same can be seen in Liverpool's former warehouse district - deserted symbols of changing economics transformed into places where fun can be had. Stavanger's museums also tell its story. There is a sardine canning museum about a past resource that ran out, and the oil museum talks of a future of renewable energy.

Any efforts to hold joint events with Liverpool during the culture year have fallen through, but the links with the UK are still strong.

Questions of identity are important in Stavanger as in Liverpool. In this corner of Norway they have the term "Siddis" for a native. The strictest definition means someone born there, who speaks the dialect, and whose parents were from Stavanger.

Stencil artwork
Banksy has Norwegian fans
And yet Stavanger's occupants describe it as an international city, more so than any other in Norway because of the cosmopolitan nature of the oil industry. The question "do you speak English" is answered invariably with "of course I do".

Linda Svendsen, a worker at the Outlands comic shop, is one of those who has lived in England, has an English boyfriend and is excited about the culture year.

"It seems to me a lot of people here have forgotten. It's kind of cool, but then again my boyfriend's dad is from Liverpool."

Signs of the Capital of Culture are not everywhere. But for a countdown in the main square and a massive blue marquee in the city centre, it's easy to forget that Saturday's launch is even happening.

Old boat
Old skills like wooden boatbuilding are being revived
And for all the international artists, there is a laidback, restrained feel about much of what is going on. At Engoyholmen, on an island in the fjord, part of Stavanger's story is being told with the building of traditional wooden boats and buildings.

This is a place where young people, many who cannot stay in a normal school, learn boatbuilding and sailing. A century ago on the coast, before the bridges came, everyone could handle a boat and many would have had the basic skills to repair or even make one. But in dynamic, thrusting, modern Norway, these skills are in danger of being lost.

As he stares at the churning foam of the inlet, project worker Ketil Thu intones: "Stormy weather, stormy life."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I was fortunate enough to Visit Stavanger briefly last year. The wooden buildings have a unique charm I've not seen elsewhere and there was plenty to see for a couple of nights stop over, though not cheap it was well worth a visit. A thoroughly welcoming place and I wish them well for a deserved year in the spotlight.
Steve, Abingdon

Another connection between the two cities is that Antony Gormley's 'Another Place', aka the Iron Men of Crosby Beach, was installed on the beach at Stavanger before it moved to Merseyside. Where they go, culture follows, perhaps?
Sue McLoughlin, Manchester, UK

I returned home from university this Christmas to find yet more building sites set up in Liverpool's buisness district and I was not at all surprised. What still surprises me is that many people still view the Capital of Culture as a culturally orientated event. It is something of a mis-noma intended to attract businesses to the city. It is and was nothing more than a lottery for economically failing cities to bid for help from the EU. This isn't to say that Liverpool 08 is a bad thing; it is creating more jobs and has triggered much economic growth. The problem rests simply in the ironically chosen title of 'Capital of Culture.' The bid has served more to destroy the city's culture and change its image rather than show it off.
Christopher Blundell, Liverpool

Yes there are still a lot of building works ongoing in Liverpool due to regeneration projects which will bring huge benefits to the cities economy. Perhaps the Tate is not to everybody¿s taste, but believe me there are many locals who enjoy cultural visits to theatres and galleries, including the Tate, and who also enjoy the rich architecture of our city. Perhaps if Liverpudlians like Brian had a bit more civic pride we may be able to shed the poor image that we have managed to cultivate over past years.
Proud to be, Liverpool

Another link between Liverpool and this region are churhes in Liverpool including the Scandinavian Seamen's Church in Park Lane, Liverpool. This was built in 1884 to serve the pastoral needs of visiting scandinavian seafarers and still operates today. There is also a Norwegian Fishermans' Church in Southwood St., Liverpool operated by the organisation Sjomannskirken, which deserves to be better-known.
David, Bromley, England

"By" is a Swedish word meaning "village" and is a very old word at that, predating the days of Norway's independence. It was interesting to read the possible etymology of "Scouse". Being a scouser in Scandinavia, I found that of great interest thanks Colin! This article has made me want to go and visit Stavanger now, cheers - of course, I'll be popping home to Liverpool in the summer to see what they've done to the city and if it really has made a difference or not.....
Jim, Skelleftea, Sweden (Ex UK)

I live within 5 miles of Liverpool, and although aware of 2008, I am unaware of what is going to happen this year bar a Paul McCartney concert, the MTV music awards and the Turner Prize (which is rubbish unless you like piles of sticks, holes in walls and film of a pantomine bear prancing around). The local press and TV seems to be very negative with little about content but more regarding ineptitude of the organisation behind it. Local public and those further afield need to be made aware of whats on offer, otherwise I fear it will be a dissapointment.
C Wright, Wirral, Merseyside

Ah, here we go again. Liverpool wins a supreme title and all people can do is knock it. Liverpool is indeed like a building site with fantastic new cutting edge buildings cropping up. The old derelict buildings are being knocked down through the 'stop the rot' campaign. A massive shoppping centre, Liverpool One, is nearing completion. We have a new state-of-the-art concert hall, The Echo Arena, we have FACT, a fantastic cinema and exhibition space. Liverpool John Lennon Airport now has 5 million passengers per year through it's doors. I visit The Tate regularly, as do many of my Scouse friends. Aren't people quick to knock when they have a chip on their shoulder about a city? The Capital of culture tag is not a joke. It is sepving to regenerate a great, vibrant city to it's former glory and beyond. We are proud of our culture, proud of beautiful, creative and wonderful city.
Gerry Beckett, Liverpool

I would suggest that Graeme Bell, Dinan, France, should bone up a bit on Norway. While the UK's North Sea concessions may be bigger than Norway's, once Norway's concession areas in the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea (Largely as yet undeveloped) are taken into account Norway's Oil and Gas industry is much larger. Norway requires little of what it produces from this industry as it relies heavily on very cheap hydro-power for electricity. The net result of which is that it earns a great deal as an oil and gas exporter, massive pipelines cary their product to northern Europe and to the UK (Ormen Lange Gas Field will supply 20% of the UK's needs).

No mention of Norwegian fish farming and its fishing industry which it managed to protect by not being a member of the EU. No mention of its shipping industry or timber to mention two of Norways traditional international earners. Also and possibly more important to those who promote Norway as independent Scotland's role model - Rate of tax 42% - would all Scots wishing to sign up for this please form an orderly line behind me please. An expatriate Scot who has worked and lived in Stavanger since 1996
Bill, Stavanger, Norway

Scotlands North Sea sector may be twice as large, but the oil traps and wells on the Norwegian side contain more oil, there are also more active wells on the Norwegian side. I am not defending the actions which divert funds away from Scotland - just pointing out the discrepancies in oil reserves accross the North Sea.
Andy , London

Re: Graeme Bell's comment. There's more to Norway's economic success than oil; Scotland shouldn't have to rely on nature's welfare payments.
Chris, Cambridge, UK

The person who wrote this obviously has not been to Liverpool recently. The city is like a large building site, with new developments cropping up while older buildings are deralict and left to crumble. It does have features like the Tate, but you are unlikely to see a local person in there. It's more like 'the building site that culture forgot' than the Capital of Culture.
brian rooney, liverpool/england

How interesting that Norway is so rich, having little industry and few natural resources apart from oil! Scotland's North Sea sector is twice the size of Norway's, but while Norway has hugely benefitted from the oil revenues, on the other side of the North Sea the money bypasses Scotland and goes straight to London. The result? Scotland is one of the poorest nations in Europe with the worst housing stock, patchy education and health service, while Norway is Europe's 2nd richest nation according to the OECD.
Graeme Bell, Dinan, France

To be honest the capital of culture thing is a big joke. In Liverpool it's putting money into completely the wrong places and taking away the uniqueness of the city. I'd rather visit Stavanger to see somewhere different. I can't name next year's capital of culture, nor the year after. I think 99% of people are the same.
Pierre Durand, Wirral

Another possible link between Liverpool and Stavanger - the word Scouse was originally a variation of "lobscouse", the name of a traditional dish of Scouse made with lamb stew mixed with hardtack eaten by sailors. The word "lobscouse" may be of Norwegian origin ("lapskaus" in Norwegian), which is possible, considering the Viking background of the area, illustrated by the number of Merseyside place-names ending in "-by" (Formby, Crosby, Kirkby, Greasby, Pensby, Roby).
Colin Vicary, Wells, UK

I don't speak Norwegian, but how does 'DET STIG AU HAU' translate as: There rises from the sea a country of elves With peaks and moorland It can be clearly seen against the horizon in the blue of the evening sun?

Norwegian must be a very pithy language. Or have the farmers carting the bales of hay away been a bit too hasty for the 'year of cultural happenings'?
Jamie, Wendover, UK


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