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Reykjavik's cross-dressing mayor

In 2010 Reykjavík elected Jón Gnarr, a cross-dressing ex-punk comedian

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

Londoners may think their mayors are eccentric, but even Boris Johnson has never turned up to work dressed as a Jedi Knight. At the National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavík, the city’s elected head is working the room in full Obi-Wan Kenobi garb. What’s perhaps most surprising is that no one seems surprised. People talk happily about planning and the status of local schools despite the man responsible listening from within the sanctuary of a voluminous cloak. But then, Jón Gnarr is not like other politicians. Since he won office in June 2010 on a protest ticket in the wake of Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse – his campaign slogan: “Afram allskonar!” or “Hooray for all kinds of things!” – his sartorial choices have lost the power to shock. To back gay rights, he wore full drag; to show support for Pussy Riot, he donned a pink dress and a balaclava; to give the State of the City address, he obtained the help of a puppet. The Jedi robes, nevertheless, are a particular favourite. He wore them when Lady Gaga was in town to receive the LennonOno Grant for Peace award and again when voting in Iceland’s recent parliamentary election. Ask him why, however, and Gnarr seems as unsure as everyone else.

“Why not?” he answers simply. “It’s very comfortable and made by a woman in one of the villages outside Reykjavík. You should get one for yourself. I can give you her number.” 

“But why a Jedi?” I persist.

He shrugs, his cape falling open to reveal a utility belt as he does so. “I like Star Wars,” he says, “and it’s fun to dress up.”

I always thought that those who worked in politics were generally idiots and fools... Then I start working here and realise that those people are neither fools nor idiots. There are many good people here

Such are the priorities in the bizarre world of Gnarr, the teetotal punk-rocker, self-professed anarchist and reformed juvenile delinquent who has broken every rule of conventional electioneering but has still become Reykjavík’s longest-serving mayor this century.

Five years ago he was a professional comedian, renowned for making crank calls on his radio show to the CIA and FBI asking if they had recovered his lost wallet and for playing a megalomaniacal, emotionally repressed Marxist called Georg Bjarnfredarson in numerous Icelandic film and television projects. He was so famous that once, when chased by a maniac wielding a sledgehammer through a supermarket, everybody watching presumed it was a skit when in fact the situation was terrifyingly real. Then the financial crisis hit, Iceland’s banks collapsed, and the existing political class was discredited as the country was left with debts equivalent to £116,000 each for every man, woman and child. Gnarr’s disgust at how this had been allowed to occur prompted him and a band of fellow poets, punks and musicians to set up the Best Party in November 2009, then announce that it would stand in the forthcoming city council election. Reykjavík has a population of 120,000 in a country with only 320,000 citizens, making its mayor the second most powerful politician in the country. 

When I was kid I was not somebody you would necessarily want to invite to your home

At first it seemed one big joke. The party’s “ten-point” platform featured 13 points, and he pledged to secure a polar bear for the zoo, ensure parliament was drug-free by 2020, provide free towels at swimming pools, to never go into coalition with any politician who had not watched all five seasons of The Wire and – most importantly – to break every election promise if actually in office. But – with public anger at the country’s political leaders so great that police had to deploy tear gas for the first time since 1949 – the Best Party won 34.7% of votes, beating the incumbent centre-right Independence Party into second place, and Gnarr suddenly found himself responsible for a budget of two billion Icelandic króna (£10 million) and 8,100 city employees. If the campaign was a joke, it was one now seemingly on him.

“I would do it on totally different terms if I were to run again,” he admits. “We weren’t a political movement. We didn’t have any policies. We didn’t have a membership. I’d do it instead as a serious project – make an ideology to build on. But I hope people will not think I have changed. Matured maybe, but not changed.”

The last three years have certainly seen little to laugh about. Taxes were raised and the city budget slashed by ten per cent. Bus services were cut, subsidies for poor children to go to music school cancelled, electricity prices increased and municipal workers sacked. Last year, while giving an award to a social worker, Gnarr burst into tears at the thought that he was cutting just the sort of services that helped him as a teenager, when he was in and out of institutions and had problems with alcohol and drugs.

“Like many,” he says in the 2010 documentary Gnarr, “I always thought that those who worked in politics were generally idiots and fools... Then I start working here and realise that those people are neither fools nor idiots. To the contrary, most of the people who work for the city are trying to give something to society and do their best. There are many good people here. This job is very unappreciated.”

We move on to Reykjavík’s central bus station, which, Gnarr suggests, best shows where his journey to political office began. The Jedi robes are gone and he is now dressed instead in the quality knitwear of a Scandinavian fishing jumper, a style of clothing which surged in popularity in Iceland after the traumatic events of 2008. What makes his jumper idiosyncratically Gnarr, however, is the massive anarchist symbol knitted into the front.

The depot is a barren spot, only a few hundred metres geographically from the city centre, with its designer stores and fashionable bars, but a world away spiritually. A couple of drunks are sat on bright orange plastic seats and an old lady pushing an overfull shopping trolley is arguing over change at the ticket office.

I like Star Wars, and it’s fun to dress up.

“I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid,” Gnarr says. “I started skipping school and smoking, begging from people and sniffing glue. I know every item in this place, each with its own memory attached. Most of my friends (from then) are dead from accidents and overdoses.”

The son of a kitchen worker and a physically abusive policeman father, he stopped going to class aged 13 after deciding that what he was being taught had no value to his chosen future professions of pirate or circus clown. At 14 he was sent to a boarding school for troubled teenagers; at 16 he left education for good. What saved him, he says, was punk music. “It was a total revelation. I realised there were other people around the world like me. You didn’t have to follow the rules to come up with things because you could just make them up yourself. If others didn’t like it, they didn’t understand punk.”

Gnarr started a band, Nefrennsli (Dripping Noses), embraced anarchist politics and met the Sugarcubes, the band that would make Björk famous. He travelled with them, and his wife, Jóhanna Jóhannsdóttir, remains Björk’s best friend. This encouraged him to start writing comic songs, which led to a morning radio show, then TV, then film. 

The internet is every anarchist’s dream. It changes everything. The future will see the rise of new ideas. Anarchonomics. It’s like libertarianism – but nice

He is upfront that when he first took political office he and colleagues were completely out of their depth, telling interviewers that his strategy was simply to admit, “I know nothing.” But then something unexpected happened: the new administration actually started to get stuff done. A new budget was agreed; the city’s energy company was saved from total bankruptcy; the necessary lay-offs enacted. 

His more off-the-wall ideas were revealed as not totally facetious. Free towels, for example, was a plan to attract more tourists by securing spa status for the city’s seawater and sulphur public swimming pools. Under EU rules, this status can only be secured if free towels are on offer. Even the dressing up has some sort of method to its madness. Gnarr is insistent that the failure of the traditional political class to poke fun at itself helped prompt the arrogance which helped facilitate such an out-of-control financial situation. His most interesting move, however, and the one from which we in Britain could perhaps learn the most, was how he sought to evolve his anarchist principles into practical technological solutions for the Facebook generation.

Better Reykjavík is a platform launched by non-profit organisation Citizens Foundation just before the 2010 election that allows political parties to communicate with their supporters. The Best Party’s enthusiastic use of it contributed greatly to its success. In 2011, an official partnership between Citizens Foundation and the city council was announced; now users can use it to debate issues, make budget decisions and vote on micro-issues related to their own neighbourhoods. Any policy “liked” enough times immediately gets put at the top of the municipal administration’s to-do list.

“I’m an anarchist not because anarchism is the perfect ideology but because there is no perfect political ideology,” Gnarr says, “and the internet is every anarchist’s dream. It changes everything. The future will see the rise of new ideas. Anarchonomics. It’s like libertarianism – but nice.”

Older women are always coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re doing a great job and thank you for everything you’ve done.’ When old ladies appreciate you, you know you’re on the right track

Surveys show Gnarr to be Iceland’s most popular politician, but his party and the other anarcho-liberal parties that sprung up in the wake of the economic collapse are now lagging in the opinion polls, not least because the Icelandic economy is recovering after experiencing a steady 2.5 per cent growth rate for the last two years. This spring the centre-right Progressive and Independence parties, which governed Iceland for decades until the 2008 collapse, swept the parliamentary elections, pushing out the liberal government of social democrats and left-green supporters. Iceland’s traditional political status quo seems to be reasserting itself. Gnarr refuses to be downcast. He admits that he is considering running for a second term, and says he would continue to push his “utopian dream thing” through TV and film work even if not in office.

“I got a letter a few months ago from this young woman who lives in a little village out in the countryside, and she’s a lesbian. She said, ‘I’ve never told anyone that I’m a lesbian. I cannot tell my parents or anything. I felt hopeless and then I read your books and they gave me something, and I wanted to tell you about it.’

“I wrote back and said, ‘Hang in there; wait a few years until you’re old enough to move away and be who you are. Then tell them. There are places it’s okay to be a lesbian, even if not at the moment, so hang in there.’ 

“That’s what’s important: showing to kids in this situation that things can change. When I was kid I was not somebody you would necessarily want to invite to your home.” So much so in fact that doctors diagnosed him with severe mental retardation and ADHD, and Gnarr spent two years in a state hospital. 

But he still became mayor. “Older women are always coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re doing a great job and thank you for everything you’ve done.’ When old ladies appreciate you, you know you’re on the right track.”

So is that his desired legacy: to be remembered as someone who proved those who thought he would never amount to anything wrong?

Gnarr’s face momentarily contorts into a paroxysm of uncertainty. “I would like people to remember me as a mayor who was never drunk at work,” he finally says. “That’s good enough.”