Concert promoter, bass player, social pedagogue and recently instated mayor of Dalabyggð Grímur Atlason is a true jack of all trades and has recently become a powerful spokesman for Iceland’s countryside. The Grapevine caught up with him and learned his take on life in Reykjavík, outside Reykjavík and the difference between the two.
Tell us about yourself, your background and how you wound up becoming mayor of two small towns
I was born in Reykjavík, but as a first generation “gravel dweller”, meaning that my parents are emigrated to the city from the small towns they originate from. As such, I have strong ties to the Icelandic countryside and spent all the summers of my youth either in the small town of Raufarhöfn or at farms in the country. I have a degree in Social Pedagogy and father a large family, with four children.
I started playing in bands in my teens and it quickly became apparent that I had a knack for organisation and management, so I often oversaw that aspect. I also started promoting shows through my school’s arts clubs; one of my first ventures into that world was when I booked the Happy Mondays to play here in 1990. I’ve held jobs in the care industry since school. For the last decade I’ve gotten more and more involved in the music industry, as a promoter, along with actively participating in politics, representing political parties [namely the Left Greens and the Left Coalition] in various boards and councils. Then, in 2006, I was appointed mayor of [small Westfjords town] Bolungarvík, effectively starting my government career. To sum it up, you could say I started off in the care industry, moving along to the music business before settling in my current post as mayor. But I still play music.
I’ve never been the “101 or death” type, so moving out of Reykjavík was an easy decision. As I said, my base is in the countryside, and being there has always felt good for me. I attended Ísafjörður’s Aldrei fór ég suður [I never went south] festival with my wife in 2004, and that was the first time I visited the Westfjords, even though my father was born in Súðavík. To put it plainly, something within me clicked and I started thinking that maybe the region offered a lifestyle that could suit the family. I even looked at some houses. And when I got the job of Mayor in Bolungarvík, we decided to jump at the opportunity.
And then you left Bolungarvík this spring and became Mayor of Dalabyggð.
Yes, after the majority in Bolungarvík burst and I had to abandon my post I was disappointed. I wanted to continue with the great work we’d been doing. So I feel taking the job in Dalabyggð is an opportunity to do that, in a way.
As a born and bred Reykjavík dweller, what is your experience of living in these small towns? What are some of the benefits and downsides involved?
It’s a good life. I felt very good in Bolungarvík, and I just moved to Búðardalur and am happy here. Sitting by the window in the evenings, looking over Hvammsfjörður, surrounded by mountains and valleys. This is a beautiful environment, and a good and wholesome one to raise children. Shorter distances mean less time spent behind the wheel. That’s also very economical. This is the main difference between life in cities and small towns is probably the simplicity of it, and therefore its quality, is much greater.
Of course life here has its downsides. There’s no Bónus store in Dalabyggð, so we have to pay three or four times the price for many household necessities. But I digress, complaining isn’t what life here is about. It’s not about the bad roads or Internet connections, it’s about something else. People tend to focus on the wrong things, complaining about trivialities instead of looking at the big picture and what each place has to offer. Of course it would be great to have a Bónus here, but an incessant complaints choir will not encourage them – or anyone – to come.
What are some of the problems faced by Iceland’s smaller towns?
The countryside’s biggest problem is probably the government’s regional policy, that’s been effect for 30, 40 or even 50 years. It is incredibly short sighted and mainly involves building roads that ensure local produce can be moved quickly to Reykjavík harbour, where it can be shipped abroad. This means that less value is created locally – it’s all shipped to the capital. This is the dumb hand of efficiency at work; changes and things that may seem convenient and clever for the short term often have the opposite effect in the long run. We seem unable to look beyond four years in either direction, which is a problem. If we focus on the long term, if we look back twenty or thirty years and see what we could have done differently then, we have a much better chance for success.
A lot of mistakes like this have been made, that have resulted in rural Iceland being drained of good people and left with a negative vibe. And that’s perhaps our biggest problem; we’re stuck with a feeling of loss, with thinking about what’s wrong and what needs to be different. This makes us forget what we have, the qualities of life that are right by our doorstep. This is partly a result to the quick transition Iceland went through, from being a nation of oppressed farmers in huts to living in towns and cities, elsewhere in Europe this development took much longer and was therefore more balanced.
But the future is bright for Iceland’s small towns, and there are many opportunities here. We just need to adapt to the current situation and build on that. People have already started looking to life outside of Reykjavík; people can do their work anywhere now and if the smaller towns with their pristine environments are cheaper, healthier and more fitting for raising families, then why stay in the city? The future is definitely bright.