The song Oxford Street, based on adolescent memories of growing up in Hatfield, highlighted the genre of the song about small towns, typically about the homogeneity and stifling of creativity that such places can produce. Yet ‘small town’ can have a different meaning. Some capital cities are so big that you can only relate to a particular chosen district, whether it’s Stoke Newington, Cheetham Hill or Greenwich Village. Others manage to be big cities but still with a small town atmosphere, a term that in this context has a positive connotation. They are compact enough to be able to walk right across, they seem accessible and informal, more relaxed than places like London or New York. One writer said of Venice: ‘Venice is a small town with sweet, small town manners’ (Judith Martin in No Vulgar Hotel :the Desire and Pursuit of Venice).
The same could be said of several of the Scandinavian cities. In fact, just as it is said that visiting the Isle of Wight transports the visitor back in time to the 1950’s, so it easy to feel you have gone to the past in many parts of Norway, Sweden or Finland. It is not just the wooden houses and cobbled streets. In a conference venue in one of the smaller towns one might stumble upon not only a group such as Herman’s Hermits still on the road with original drummer Barry Whitwam and still doing I’m into Something Good – bringing to mind those Japanese soldiers who appeared from the jungle on Pacific islands in the 1970’s and 1980’s unaware that WW2 was over - but musical outfits that one might think only existed now in the pages of pop historical memorabilia: Johnny and the Hurricanes! (Big hit - Red River Rock 1959) The Spotnicks! (Big hit- Hava Nagila,1963)
So Copenhagen is one such place that has retained a small town atmosphere, with its gabled houses, narrow streets and churches. Another is Oslo, Norway’s biggest city with a population of half a million or so. Though it has a subway system, most of the centre is easily reached by walking and it isn’t hard to feel a sense of accessibility about the whole place, from the harbour to Vigeland Park. There is a novel called Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun that is worth reading before visiting Oslo. It is set in the Oslo of 1890 (Kristiana) and can be read for what it is: a compelling account of a penniless writer wandering the streets of the city in an increasingly desperate state of hunger.(By page 108, readers are likely to be searching for a snack if they hadn’t eaten before starting the book). But is also worth reading because of the descriptions of some of the streets and squares and parks that haven’t changed that much in the last 100 years or so - the place that the author/writer calls "that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him”. Dating from about the same time is the famous painting, Munch’s The Scream, set on a road overlooking Oslo.
The song here is simply called Oslo, by the Oslo-based Little Hands of Asphalt, largely the musical project of singer-songwriter Sjur Lyseid. It came out on the Leap Years album in 2009 but is timeless enough to have come from almost any era. The harmonies and soft melody sound at times like Teenage Fan Club of the mid-1990’s.The harmonica that comes in towards the end could be Donovan circa 1965.The lyrics have some witty touches- ‘But your good intent was clear when you split and left me here, to my regret I left my high horse upstairs’ – and they revert to the double meaning of ‘small town’. The song is a slightly awkward, introspective account of an adolescent romance breaking up or a friendship that has ended –but ‘I’ll be seeing you around, because Oslo is a small, small town’. In that regard, it could be the personal statement from someone growing up in any number of towns and finding the horizons too limited. It does also, however, have strong echoes of Oslo - the swimming in the lake and the closeness to nature, the celebration of the sunny summer months before the winter darkness sets in, a bit self-effacing, a slight touch of melancholy,
I had a possibly unusual experience of Oslo. I was staying in a hotel/conference centre an hour or so away and for reasons I never really understood in a country where gender equality has been long entrenched, women travelling with their husbands on the country bus into Oslo got a reduced fare. I therefore trundled back and forward a few times as a pretend husband so conference attendees could travel cheaply to shop in Oslo. However, it did enable me to wander round the streets and parks like the character in Hunger, though obviously not reduced to eating my pencil. A small town still at heart, perhaps, but probably not as easy to understand as it might first seem to a visitor.Link to song