Hordur Torfason is an Icelandic man, originally famous for his music, but more recently shooting to international recognition for leading the Icelandic cutlery revolution which resulted in the ejection of the Government as well as the boards of the National Bank and the Money Supervisory. Since then he has gone on to share his experience and advice for peaceful protesting around the world.
Hi Hordur, how are you?
I’m fine, thank you.
You’re travelling in New Zealand at the moment?
No, I am not travelling. I am here to write a book. I’ve been here for five weeks. Going to stay here at least three months. Even longer. It’s going to take some time.
Are you in the North Island or the South Island?
I’m in Wellington. The North Island.
Have you been enjoying your time there?
I thought to begin this interview asking you a little about your background, prior to the Icelandic cutlery revolution?
Well, I have a long story as an activist. Actually since 1970, when I graduated as an actor from the National Theatre in Iceland. I learned a lot of things there. I’ve always been interested in society, really. I’m gay. And in those days it was legal to be gay, you know, it was allowed by law, but publicly, in general, people didn’t like gay people, there was a lot of prejudices. As all people who were gay in Iceland in those days I suffered for it. And in 1970 when I graduated as an actor, I became very famous within a year, for music and songwriting, acting and dancing, being a foto model. But I was more interested in going abroad. I went to Denmark and I learned, to my surprise… I went there to study political theatre. But it turned me off, because I don’t like people with truth… you know, one solution, one truth for everybody. I just disconnected myself from political theatre, almost immediately. But what I learned was that there was a gay organisation in the Scandinavian countries. And I was there, and I got access to the library of the gay organisation in Denmark. And I spent a lot of time there reading the history of gay people. And I always thought that this is something we need in Iceland.
More openness and acceptability?
More openness… and I kept on talking about it. And I was suffering always, for being famous… I was allowed to behave in a certain way because I was a VIP and all that. But at the same time I saw people being beaten up and mistreated, for being gay. I’m gay, they are gay, we are actually the same people. But I am in the luxury class. So, it dawned on me… in ‘75 I stepped out as the first gay man in Iceland. And with a terrible result, because I was excluded from the society almost immediately. No job and so on.
Oh okay. Would they have known you were gay before you stepped out officially?
No. People didn’t know it. Of course there was gossip, because I have never tried to hide who I am. But this was the turning point again in my life. And this is how I became an activist really. Because, I went into exile in ‘77. And, well, I was really just exhausted. I was very young, very sensitive and all that. I tried to take my life. But at the second I was about to do it I… I just understood that if I would take my life then I would simply have sacrificed everything for nothing. So, instead of giving up, in September ‘77 I went back to Iceland. With the aim of establishing a gay organisation. I was there in September and I managed to get the organisation established in May ‘78. When that was done I moved away again. Because I couldn’t live in Iceland. It was too dangerous for me. I started working differently. I lived in Copenhagen and I started travelling to Iceland with songs, and music and travelling around, talking to people about human rights. The necessity of respecting our differences. Asking questions like;, if I am not who I am, who am I then? So there, in those years, I learned… learned a lot. I always worked alone. I think that’s my weakest and my strongest point.
Is that because you think you are more effective when you are alone?
Yes. Yes. Yes it is more a practice because if I am in a group of people I have to spend a lot of time talking talking talking. And political groups, there are enough of them. They are all around me. There are very few people who work the way I’ve been working.
Sure. I like the idea of you having been inspired by the Greeks, in regards to giving public addresses in a public square.
Yes. Exactly. Everything is there before I was born. So it’s a matter of picking up the best things. And being a one-man theatre, it’s like… it only takes one person to create a theatre. And an audience, of course. Like I am saying to people, to be an activist means you have to do things. It’s not enough to talk about. Because everyone is talking about everything. People are very unhappy about this and that, but they don’t do anything about it, and that’s what counts. So, that’s where I step in. I’ve done it a few times in my life and that’s how I operate. That’s why I am here trying to write a book. To put this vision into a book so people can read about it. And because I have… my experience is… well, I’ve done it a few times in my life. And every time I step forward there is one hundred percent success. So there must be a good reason, well, people must be able to learn something from this. So that’s why I am trying to share this in a book.
And in regards to the Icelandic revolution I was wondering what were your biggest struggles from that time and what were the biggest lessons you learned?
Well, haha, as an individual I learn a lot, of course. Well, you know what happened then when I just went down in front of the Parliament building and started asking questions. That was on purpose. I did this in front of the Parliament building, at twelve o’clock, lunch hour, so I could really speak to the Parliament members. Ask them the same questions. And that’s what really shocked me, because when I learned that they didn’t really know. Either they were lying, or they were honest and they said they didn’t understand what was happening. They had no explanations. That really was a turning point for me personally, because that’s when I decided to put up a big meeting. To try to get explanations. Because, the media in Iceland, they were most certainly not explaining anything. They were talking on behalf of the power people. And their message was that we, the people, should just go on with our lives as usual. They would take care of business. But, ah, personally I didn’t trust them at all. They had afterall betrayed us. As has been proven again and again. Many of the power people knew what was going on a year before the crash came. But they were busy saving themselves. So…
And when you go to make a speech like that in a public square and hope that people will listen, how do you make sure that you appear professional and intelligent as opposed to eccentric and crazy? How do you command that different level of respect in that scenario?
Ah, that’s always a difficult part. I think it’s just… you have to work with time. From the moment you step forward there’s a lot of people attacking you, trying to pull you away, making you look crazy or stupid. Or like an idiot, or a violent person. I’ve had all this. This is one thing… I’ve was under attack all the time, from the moment I started. Especially after the first week. But what can you do? There is nothing you can do about that. Except, don’t reply to it. I never do. Because I was under attack in the media, and even on the streets, I have to be very careful, this is one side of it. But, like I’m saying, when somebody asks me a question like you are asking, I ask them back: If somebody offers you a cup filled with poison do you drink it? I most certainly don’t. I don’t respond to it. I don’t waste my time responding or answering these people. I believe if you are honest and sincere in what you are doing and you show responsibility, people will understand. It will get through to people. It does. That’s my experience. But also, my point is that I work with the system. I am not trying to make a revolution to arrest people, or execute people, or change the society. I am a part of the society. And I work within the law. So I get a permission from the city authorities. I work with the police. Because it’s always about ideas. And this is the way I’ve been working. Well, with the cutlery revolution, people in Iceland knew who I was. Because I’ve done things like this before.
So you already had a platform, a little bit.
A little bit, yes.
And now that the Icelandic revolution is known internationally and probably given you a larger platform, do you feel that being the representative of that revolt has taken over your identity at all? Do you feel like it has changed you?
Well, like I’m saying, I did this with honesty. I just stepped forward and I led it for five months. I put forward claims and I activated people. My speech is called ‘When I becomes We’. That’s the spirit I work in. I am a man who gets ideas and I act upon it. That’s the difference between me and many other people. For example, when I established the gay organisation in Iceland it took me many months, and it took me a huge sacrifice to do it. But the minute the gay organisation was established I backed out. Because I am always much better without being placed in an organisation. Or a political group. That’s how I work.
You are the spark of the fire.
Yes, I’m the spark. This is the same with the cutlery revolution. There are lots of people who don’t understand what happened. Especially in Iceland, they think this happened automatically. I’m reading this many times… people just think they did it by themselves, it was not organised or anything. But of course they are very wrong, because why doesn’t it happen again? I am reading about it every day online and on Facebook. People are talking about a revolution. But the thing is they talk. They’ve been talking for five years. But it takes more than talk, more than words to do things. You have to act upon it. And I don’t see anyone doing that, so far.
It’s interesting you say that about talking and acting, because I’m Irish and in Ireland we have a culture of talking and complaining when things are going badly but very little action. Of course, part of it is that nobody wants to be the guy protesting outside Government building waving a placard…
That’s understandable because you have to pay a big price for it. I, for example, I wouldn’t say I am going into exile again but it is very strong on my mind. Because you really have to pay a big price for it. But I’m willing to do that. It’s alright with me. I am a survivor by nature. I was in Ireland in September and I saw the very same symptoms in Ireland as in Iceland. People talk. One thing is…that I avoid, that’s anger. I find that among people, they are angry. And that doesn’t help. It really blocks your way of thinking.
Sure. And do you think there are other ways of effecting change than by protesting with placards and that sort of thing? Do you think there are different ways of acting that suit different cultures?
Of course there is the difference in culture and so on. But the main thing is if you are going to do these things, you have to start… from the minute you start you have to go all the way. There is no way of, like, start something and just go on a holiday. It doesn’t work that way. You have to have an endurance. You really have to think and work. Let’s say the five the months I was doing this in Iceland… It was from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep. I was busy busy busy busy. I had three phones. And I was running between places. Meeting people. Talking to people. There were a lot of people calling me. Everybody wants to put forward ideas and tell me what to do and so on. So, my job is to listen. And to be ready… to wait.. for when some opportunities come along. This is like running a business. It’s a tough job and you have to be awake.
And more generally, I recently asked a senior political journalist if he thought there was room in Government for absolute honesty…
Ah. Aha. Well, absolute honest, I don’t think as a politician you would get far.
There’s no room…
Well, there is. But I’m talking about the way it is now. I would like to see a person who is honest go forward. I am sure there are honest politicians. Yes, there are. But it’s very difficulty. I don’t know, the way it’s been going for the past decades, or maybe always, it seems to be the rule no.1 is to be able to lie, deceive, fool people. Afterall, politics is about negotiating. I don’t know. People ask me to step into politics but I’m not the character to do that. I will never be able to be a politician. It takes a special person.
It seems people step in with good intentions but they find themselves pulled in different directions, having to give a little here to get a little there…
Yes. Precisely. The only difference between me and a politician is that the politician is a professional on salaries. And they get protection and a lot of money to do their jobs. I don’t get anything. I just work on the fact that I am a citizen. I belong to this world. And I have to fight it. I have to fight the unjust situation.
It seems too that a lot of people might like to change their Governments, but they need a leader to initiate the change. That can be quite a block to overcome sometimes…
Yes. Many times I see people, great people really, people I believe in, they step into the system. Political system, political grooves. And that changes them. It’s really like sometimes the system kills the leaderships. The best people sometimes just… they have to accept so many things. Negotiating this or that. And not always the best…
Sure. And another block is sometimes saying, “Well, I want you out”, but the other side of that is that you have to have something that you want ‘in’. So there needs to be an infrastructure of some type, somebody with a clear idea of what to implement afterwards. A lot of people talk and complain but they don’t offer a lot of alternatives.
Yeah. I know. This is what I did in Iceland. After the first big meeting, outdoor meeting. I mean, I heard thousands of people. Everybody had a demand, wanting this or that. So what I did right after that was to go among people and that took me about three weeks. I started walking around and asking ‘what is it we really want?’. I was trying to get people from the far left and the far right and the middle. I was trying to get hold of people with all kinds of political standpoints and I asked them the same question, ‘what is it we want?’. And from the very first meeting, the first day I stood there I heard things, and I was talking to people, but it took me three weeks to put forward three claims out of thousands. And when I had put that together the three claims were that; the Government should step down; the board of the national bank should step down; and also the board of the money supervisory should step down. I thought these are the three main demands we should put forward as a beginning, as a start. And then I started walking around asking people from all political groups, “Could you agree on this?”. And people said, “Yes”. And they wanted to add to it. But like I said to people, “If we achieve in doing these three things then we have achieved a lot”. This is the glue of the cutlery revolution. Because in every meeting, every Saturday, I asked thousands of people, “Do you agree on this?”. And thousands said, “Yes”.
And following the ejection of those people on the boards, were you and the people formulating ideas ready to implement something new, or was it let’s get the people out and then decide what’s next?
Well, it has to be done this way. You know, step by step. Because, many times I’ve pointed out to people, my experience is… in 1970 I was walking around, I was always talking. In 1975 I acted upon things. And it started rolling. In ‘78 I managed to get the gay organisation together. We finally got all these demands we had been working on, by little steps. Until 2008, the early spring of early 2008 we had won the victory of changing the society, of everybody’s equal. You know, the full gay rights, and transgender and so on. My point is it takes time to change society. We cannot do it overnight or over one year or something. It is always done in steps. So, the cutlery revolution done in 2009, it is the first step. And it proves, to me it proves, that people can change their own society. They don’t have to belong to political groups. In many countries, in Iceland for example, I have a constitutional right to protest. And I have used that more than once. But I always do it with the system. I work with the police and I have a permission to do it, so it’s legal. And I activate everyone around me.
It’s interesting you talk about ‘step-by-step’ because I was going to ask you if you had any opinion about the semi-recent protesting in Brazil? I was wondering what needs to be done next, because there won’t really be any change at least until the next election.
Well, it’s always like you look at life. It’s breathing. It’s in and out. Like I’m saying, doing work like this, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon really. If you are doing things, you have to step back and give the politicians space to do what you are demanding. You have to rest yourself. To be able to continue. This is what I’ve been talking to many people… I’ve been travelling to fifteen countries in the past few years. I don’t know how many cities in each country and how many meetings per day but I’m saying to people, “You have to take one day off every week and rest. Be with your families and your loved ones. You have to sleep well and you have to eat well. Because if you don’t do this, these things, you will just disappear, you will just wear yourself out. You will not come back. This is a marathon, and it takes time”. I don’t know. I try to follow what’s going on in Brazil. I’ve spoken to many people there. From many many countries. Like now. I do at least two, three interviews or Skype talks per week. And I’ve been doing that for more than five years, so it’s a lot of interviews from all over the world. But basically it is the same everywhere.
Do you feel that sometimes Government corruption isn’t so clear cut? A lot of times people look back through the rear view mirror, saying that things should have been done differently. For example backhanders in business, Government licences such as telecoms… but sometimes it’s just the way the country worked at that time and the infrastructure or processes weren’t established then to deal with things in a fairer manner. Do you think there should be some sort of allowance for politicians to make mistakes?
That’s our nature. We all do mistakes. And we should have the honesty to realise it and apologise for it. Sadly to say, many politicians don’t do that. I don’t know, the longer I’m in activism, I see that the politicians… I support the idea that you can go into politics and you can be active for eight years and then you have to leave.
Yeah, the career politics doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.
No. To become a professional politician, what does that mean? It’s about running our society, and on a bigger scale it’s about running our world. And we are facing huge problems today. I don’t trust people who are professional politicians. I just don’t. Giving people the power of decades, I don’t trust a person like that. Just to start with, you lose connection with reality once you get into politics because you get used to a lot of comfortable ways of living, lifestyle. And little by little, even if you come from being poor, you work your way up. This is what I see again and again. These people lose sense of reality.
Sure. I think one good example of the opposite of that is the Uruguayan president Jose Mujica.
Oh yes. Yes. He’s an exception. Great man.
I’ve heard you say things like, “We must keep our idea for a better society alive”. With democracy won’t there always be one person or group who gets the short end of the stick, and thus always be somebody protesting for change? Do you think people should just try to have a general awareness for fairness, in order to please everyone to some degree?
Well, that would help. You can never please everybody. Democracy is the most beautiful thing that I’ve come across. The openness that we should be able to debate our ideas, or how to do things and so on. And avoid the loudest to take over. Or most aggressive person or group to take over and do things exactly their way without concerning others. It is always this opportunity of debating and talking and listening to each other. A big part of my job is to listen. I’m talking to a lot of people here and there and listening to them.
I guess your example of creating the gay organisation in Iceland is a good example of giving a minority group a voice?
Yes. I was brought up in a society that was built for the healthy person. I am often referring to this. In those years handicapped people, disabled people, gay people… you know… each society is built up with many hundreds of minority groups. Two days ago I was just talking about this to somebody here, how the changes have come about in the past forty years. We are seeing society respecting handicapped people, disabled people, gay people, and so on. Why? Because they fought for it. All these ideas come from people. I’ve tried to point out, like in Iceland to use that as an example, the politicians, they are priding themselves on changes in our society. But if you look closely, the main ideas of changes come from the ordinary citizen. All the major changes after the cutlery revolution, they have come from individuals. There was one guy who brought in Eva Joly, the financial fraud investigator…
Oh yeah, the French lady?
The French lady, yes. And he just invited her. The Government wasn’t going to hire her. It wasn’t an idea from the Government. And he put pressure on the Government. And finally the Prime Minister had a meeting with Eva Joly and they accepted to establish an office of financial investigator in Iceland. Things like this, they come from individuals. But little by little you see the politicians try to put this into their own personal favour. It’s a bit funny, but that’s the way the world runs.
Somebody wants to try and take all the credit.
I was also curious if you involve yourself in other causes or are you solely focused on being a voice on how to effect change in general? For example, I was horrified to see the recent social bans in India, and other terrible things going on.
Both India, Russia… If I think back, like forty years or so, when I was alone in Iceland and I was travelling with my guitar trying to talk to people without lifting my finger to preach or moralizing. I was just talking about how wonderful life is if we respect the differences in our culture, within our societies. I was doing this for decades. It took years for people to understand what I was talking about. Today I’m travelling the world. I’m more on the international ground. It’s very hard for me to be in Iceland, as an individual. Because, the result or example… let’s put it this way… in ‘75 I was very popular. My songs were regularly played on the radio and on television. They were doing programs about me. All this disappeared overnight when I stepped forward and said, “I am gay”. My music stopped selling. They didn’t play my music on the radio. And I, you know, became persona non grata. Which was okay because the world was bigger than Iceland. I just moved to Copenhagen to save my life and all that, although I survived a murder attempt there by an Icelander. I used to have annual concerts in September with eleven-hundred people, up to 2008. 2009 there were I think two-hundred-and-sixty people who bought tickets. This is the response of people. You know, people get scared. They don’t want to be associated with me as an artist since I stepped forward and mixed into politics. Which is wrong, because I am not into politics. I’m not a politician. What I’m saying is that… I have to move away from Iceland and that’s why I’m staying away from Iceland.
Would you say you have a generally positive view for humanity, or do you worry about all the problems we’ve created from political to environmental to cultural?
Well, when I look at us humans I see more positive things than negative, honestly. And I believe more in people than not. That’s my experience. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m not a bitter man. I have a sense of humour, that saves my life. You have to have that. And you have to accept that there are people in angry or bad moods. And there are people with different views and all that. But as long as they don’t use violence I will talk to them.
What for you is the biggest change you would like to see happen in the world?
Corruption. To be honest with corruption. And it’s a huge problem we have with how many people are on Earth today. It’s scary. It’s really scary. More honesty into our lives.
And do you have any heroes or people you very much admire?
Well, I’m sure, there’s not one or two persons like that. Never has been. But of course I am affected by my culture. In my case it is more like this inner voice of justice. I have always been very strong on my point as an individual since I was a small boy. If you do me wrong I am not going to accept it.
And what else do you like to do in your own personal life in regards to other interests, music, drama, art etc?
I would honestly like to have more time for that but it seems since the cutlery revolution it seems I haven’t had any time to do with music. Or as an artist. Except I consider my work that I’m doing as an art. I am an artist by profession and this is my job. Of course I would like to perform, write more music, but there is no time for it. And it really pulls me away because people stopped buying my CD’s. People stopped coming to my concerts in Iceland. So automatically it just… I was prepared for it so to speak. Out of my experience with people. But then again when one door closes another one opens up. That’s always the point. So people started inviting me to do talks. Sharing my experience. And well, it’s not a bad job, it’s an invitation and I’m treated very well. And I enjoy going among people and sharing my experience and listening to other people and talk to them. And now Im here in New Zealand doing other work. Because people here were interested and ready to support me doing this. And I think that’s an important step. To work on the book, to share the idea and so people can buy it and read it and talk about it.
Sure. Are there any books that you’ve read yourself that have had a big effect on your life?
Ah… there are so many (laughing). People don’t understand it, but when I was young I read Dracula by Bram Stoker and it taught me a lot. To me, that book is a social parody, criticism.
Oh, brilliant! He was Irish.
He’s Irish, yes. When I read that I saw the symbolism of Dracula. It’s exactly what we are dealing with today. The Draculas of today. The greedy people. The people who suck the life out of you. If you allow them. That’s the point with Bram Stoker. Dracula cannot enter your life unless you allow him. There are so many things in this book… this is one of my favourite books. And another thing; you cannot see the vampire in the mirror.
On a final note, I really like your general philosophy of ‘Let’s try’. I wondered if you might have any other words of wisdom you could leave us with too?
Always when I am asked a question like this I get black, I get empty (laughing). I am not a man of wisdom, I am a man of experience. That’s why I’m writing this book. But understanding in my life, in my line of work, it takes endurance. You have to be ready, if you start something, to work on it from the beginning till the very end. And that takes endurance and patience. It’s quite demanding.
Brilliant! It was a great pleasure speaking with you.
Likewise. And let’s stay in touch. Nice talking to you. Take care.
For more on Hordur you can follow him here on Facebook – Hordur Torfason