“So which bit of the Vikings do you like best? The rape or the pillage?” a colleague asked me once. She didn’t ask me again as I answered with a long and historical diatribe. Yes, a diatribe; the Vikings, my dears, are worth it.
It is a measure of the scope and power of the Viking culture that they are always remembered and derided as ‘raping and pillaging’ as if no other culture or civilisation has ever done such terrible stuff in all their existence. This is an example of how history gets written by the men who steal the pens and paper. Britain, remember Britain? Squiggly island place off the coast of VikingLand? Britain had an empire. Oh, sorry, Empire. I don’t think this land grab was achieved by our navy and commanders mooring at the nearest harbour, rolling a tea trolley loaded with scones and jam down the gangplank and saying “Hello there, we’re from Britain, soon to be Great, do you want to join in and share with us all your natural resources? Bring us your gold and your diamonds, your minerals and coal and we’ll all have some lovely scones.” or Beads of course, they were quite high on the currency list.
No. We sailed in with swords, swagger coats and a lack of diplomacy. We owned the oceans, except for the tides that the Dutch sailed around on offering foreign peoples pancakes and tulips so that we could all share in the earth’s lucrative bounty.
So. Anyway, back to the important people, The Vikings. I’m a big fan of all things Scandinavian and all things Viking. This passion started with the Kirk Douglas film ‘The Vikings’ and its amazing Lur heavy theme tune. I loved this film as a kid, the music is stirring and the story is worthy of any Norse epic; a tale of brothers and love. Never mind the fact that they seem to sail to Wales and find it on the East Anglian coast, gloss over that, this was Hollywood.
Kirk Douglas himself, not a bad specimen of manhood and of Russian descent. The Russians being, of course, descended from the Vikings, the Rus. The rusty ones, the red ones. Who doesn’t like a Ginge in a longship?
My love was deepened by frequent trips to that most Viking of cities, York. What? The Romans? Oh yes, well I love them too but that’s for another blog.
I lived all my early life in the land of Danelaw, or Lancashire as it is also called. Every place name carries its Viking stamp. Except possibly for Miles Platting.
The Vikings were, like any culture, a mixed bunch. They were skilled and ambitious, living on a rocky archipelago or two they wondered what was over the horizon and they built ships of great beauty and engineering in order to get themselves there.
Believe me, a Viking ship is a splendour, I have visited the Vikingships Museum in Oslo. They take your breath away. It is one of the most affecting museums I have ever visited. If you’re in Oslo DO NOT miss it.
The Vikings were masters of teamwork, the yarls and their communities joining together in any enterprise. If you think they were ignorant and brutish look no further than the hoards of silver, of finely worked, craftsman jewellery. This treasure is not forged by monsters. Consider the importance of women in Viking culture; the women who were the shamans and holders of magic. Women who held sway over the homesteads while their husbands sailed off to find new lands. The women who sailed with the men as shield-maidens, equal and part of the scrummage. Women who were thought to have instinct and a better head for financial matters. Read the Havamal for the way to live like a true Viking, a manual of good sound advice, an insight.
And by the flickering firelight at the edge of the fjord, listen to the tales of the Norse men. Of Odin and Thor, of Baldr and Grimnir. We’ve been telling these tales for a long time.
Which brings me to a quick point about the Nazis. One of the sad facts is that Adolf quite liked the Northmen too and tried to culturally appropriate their heritage and lore. His dirty finger prints stain everything he touched and people sometimes think that if you like Viking culture or Norse mythology you must, per se, be a Nazi. WRONG. The Vikings were here long before the twit with the moustache. He has no claim on them. Just to be clear.
Anyone who wants to learn more would do well to read The Vikings, by the estimable Neil Oliver. It’s such a good book, very moving in parts (the swans wing in the grave, oh, sorry spoiler alert). Here is a man who confesses that he too was given an interest in the Vikings through repeated childhood viewings of The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas.
The Vikings drew me to Orkney, a never to be forgotten experience. Orkney was like a mythical land in my head for all my life and to finally go there exceeded all my expectations. The Vikings were only human, they lived and died and thought of the Gods. We look at the mystery of the runes and imagine that everything is deep and philosophical. It isn’t. For a glimpse of their humanity, read the runes at Maes Howe where one Viking wag carved, ‘I wrote this, up high’ on a long ago winters evening as he sheltered in the tomb.
Want to read more? Then here you go:
also you can try this: Nothing to do with Vikings but it passes an hour or so
I’ve taken up swimming again after a long absence. Don’t be fooled by this statement. I am not a good swimmer. At all. There are no gold medals hanging round my neck. When others were donning pyjamas and retrieving hoops from the deep end of the pool I was on the sidelines with a puncture repair kit and my armbands.
This state of affairs is because I was raised to be afraid of bodies of water, even ones as flimsy as puddles. This was not because they might transport me to Away or the Otherworlds with their deceiving and appealing reflective universe, no, it was because my dad declared that you can drown in an inch of water. I think I have mentioned his propensity for caution in a previous blog. Many were the horror stories of drownings and sweepings overboard. People who can swim, drown, I was told. Water was an enemy, a predator, whether it chose to lurk on rainy urban pavements or between glacial valleys. Every summer our local lake claimed at least two teenagers with its fatal mix of heated shoreline and the shock of the cold water. My dad rested his watery case.
People who splashed and crawled in this evil element always astonished me. And made me jealous. For all my dad’s warnings I have always loved water. I love the turned upside down world it reveals on its surface. As a child I paddled at the edges of Coniston and Ullswater. Many were the hours spent watching the glitter of light on water and then leaning to let my body shadow the surface so that I could let my eyes wander over the pebbles and weed, the small fish and crustaceans. Weed, water’s terrible accomplice. Weed will drag you down to the depths. My dad works part time as the fifth horseman of the appocalypse. At least he would if horses weren’t dangerous of course. Heaven forfend you might take a horse to water, well, that’s just asking for trouble.
Many too were the hours that I looked out across the black surface of the Lakes and longed to strike out, to glide and slither. Mermaids were high on my favourite mythical creatures list but I did not possess a fishtail and Fear kept me firmly tethered to the shore. That and a total lack of swimming skills.
My children are a different kettle of, erm, well, fish. My husband was, at a distant point in his life, a lifeguard at his local open air pool and so my two were hurled into the drink as soon as they’d been harpooned by the health visitor with the requisite jabs. Recently my daughter was shocked to find one of her friends couldn’t swim. How can they not swim? she asked, she considers swimming to be like walking or talking, something she has always done. Thanks to their dad and his gills and webbed feet my two have never looked out, wistfully, across black water, they have always dived into it. From a very early age they preferred to swim under the water, like seals. Many are the beaches of Britain, where in wind and high weather, my small children peeled off their kit and bounded into the icy waves. Water welcomed them.
Whilst I’m not very good at swimming I enjoy being in the water and of late it has helped considerably in the management of my creaky bones. I slide into the slow lane and, goggles donned, I begin my elegant breast stroke.
The first day back I started to panic, even water as controlled and contained as this is out to get me isn’t it? Isn’t that why I can’t breathe? No. You can’t breathe, Helen, because you’re having a panic attack. I clutched at the pool edge and thought of yoga breathing. Ah, oxygen, a lovely element. Fear subsided, the water nudged at me as another lady pootled by with an energetic doggy paddle. She moved through the water like a labrador after a shelduck. The water glittered and sploshed. I pushed out once more. Felt the buoyancy, felt the lightness, the kicking strength of my legs. As panic surged up again I reminded myself ‘this is not a race, this is not a competition. Relax.’ a yoga breath took me a few strokes forward.
Beneath me I could see the blue line lane marking. It coiled and twisted in the roiling water, looking like a serpent and I thought of Jorgmundr, the Midgard serpent. Here was the serpent come to greet me, to assist, curling and twirling this way, this way, this way. Some of you might think this is odd, Jorgmundr and his siblings have not had the best press, but I have a soft spot for all of Loki’s offspring. The serpent had revealed itself for a reason. I was in the water for a reason. I began to glide, to slither, to feel free.
Then, there was light. Sunlight poured golden from the pyramid array of windows in the swimming pool roof. In an instant the harsh shouts of the swimming instructor on the far side of the room were drowned out by the splashing sounds, by the glitter and glide of particle and beam. With one stroke I was no longer in the chlorine pond, I was elsewhere, the sky opened up, the water opened out. Wild. Wide. My muscles stretched and flexed. I was at the end of the pool before I’d realised. This was the way to go, the way of this blue lined serpent that never ends, taking me backwards and forwards until the whistle sounds and I have to rise into the air, heavy as a stone, but thankful.
Water alters the world. It lifts and lightens and carries us and can, I do understand, literally take us to the Otherworld if we are not careful and the element is unkind.
For my part, I am glad to return to it, even if it is this tamed version, caged beneath the skylight.
I never say I’m British, or even English, instead I tend to say ‘I’m Northern’. I use this as an excuse for pretty much any kind of behaviour; overenthusiasm, cheeriness, loud laughter, ranting. My love of rainstorms and general bad weather and my selection of a raincoat as garb of choice is also due to my geographical upbringing. We did not have cagoules as such, when I was growing up (psst, it was in the 70s!) we were equipped with raincoats, or the slightly smarter, Mackintosh. You might also have a trench coat, but that generally was used by grandfathers when they were actually digging trenches, on battlefields and then later, on urban council allotments. Cagoules are, as any fool knows, a Welsh invention. I have it from the dragon’s mouth; my husband is Welsh and therefore has waterproofed seams. If ‘cagoule’ is truly Welsh then it ought to be spelt with at least one ‘w’. My estimate at the correct spelling in Welsh would be ‘cygwyll’ and it means, roughly, ‘my banner against the wild wind’. When you are a hardy Northern type there is an advantage in being married to someone who is Welsh and that is that they will share your love of weatherbeaten castles and thunderstorm picnics. Sunshine? Pah. It’s for Southern softies.
No one would challenge the fact that my husband is Welsh. He’s got the accent down and he frequently wears the rugby shirt. I think I have a Northern type accent, it is not your broad brogue used by fishwives and costermongers on rainy Wednesdays in Burnley but it has squashed its vowels flat as anything. I surf t’internet. In recent times, however, my general Northern qualifications have been brought into question by my son. My accent is no proof at all of my heritage. ‘You are the most Southern person I know.’ he smirks. He has, I am afraid to say, a rather Southern perspective of all things ‘Northern’. I don’t, for instance, wear a tweed cap, say ‘eebygum’ or possess a whippet. Or a loft of pigeons. No, he argues, his reasoning is more scientific than that and is based on the methodology that I have now lived in the South for longer than I lived in the North. Therefore, says the scientific offspring, my essential Northernness has been eradicated. I have, if you will, been assimilated. He is just about to go out, pulling on his outfit of choice. It took me ages to sew all those pearly buttons onto his interview suit.
You can take me out of the North but, you can never take the North out of me. I believe the North is a friendlier place filled with warm people who will ask you the time at a bus queue and then fall into a lengthy conversation about, oh, I don’t know, space travel or fruitcake. I visited my dad recently and was taken aback at the warmth of everyone I crossed from the girl on the cheese counter in Katsouri’s in Bury market, to the man on the till at the Pendle Heritage Museum. I had grown unused to the interaction. People do not talk to you in the same way in the South West. In my new neck of the woods people are, well, ‘friendly enough’ would be the phrase I would use. They are more reserved and less willing to communicate. You can chat to a shop assistant and after a few moments they will press the panic button, which is fine, because then you can chat to the lovely security guard on your way out. My take on this is that in the South West the Vikings never had a stronghold. They were held at bay by King Alfred and therefore, the genetic memory of the South Westerner is to hold strangers at arms’ length in case they’ve come to invade.
Northern, and The North are on the political agenda at the moment. We were long forgotten and basically allowed to run wild but enough of that. The bods in Parliament now see fit to take a gander in our direction to see if there is any political mileage to be had.
Good luck is all I can say. Take this Northern Powerhouse mullarkey for a start. It might shock people to know but The North has always been a powerhouse, driven largely by steam engines and the rise of the factory chimney. We were weaving and firing up kilns when our Southern ‘cousins’ shall we call them, were chiselling Stonehenge from the edge of Wales.
What makes someone ‘Northern’ then? There is the idea of your physical geography of course, but then, I’m sure there are people who began life in ‘The South’ and then moved To t’ North. If an archaeologist files a bit off your tooth they can send it off to a lab and tell you exactly who you are and where you are from. This physical geography hasn’t got any borders. There are people in Shetland who, unsurprisingly, are basically Viking. Traces of our living landscape seep deep into us and stay there. Our journey is in our bones.
That’s why I’m still Northern. I grew up under the heavy grey skies bulging with rain, and the minerals from the land washed into me. My ancestors were Irish and Viking and Scottish and Romany. They were ostlers and hustlers. Where I live now in the Wild South West, is beautiful and I love the landscape and I imagine that some of the chalk is dusting my soul, but it is only dust, a light covering, something I can wipe off to reveal the loam beneath, the bones made of grit and the burning desire to invite you in, whoever you are, wild stranger, and ply you with tea.