Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Musical Recommendation of the Week:
Something's On Your Mind - Karen Dalton

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The next blog will be posted shortly

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Musical Recommendation of the Week:
Midsummer Night Blues - Waldeck
[don't stop listening before it passes the minute mark]

Friday, 8 January 2010


As a single parent I’ve always traveled abroad with both of my children or neither, except for one occasion, when I took my daughter to a wedding in New York. My son had just turned 17, so I felt I had to grab at a last chance before he travels completely independently from his darling mama.

Leaving Storm to attend wall-to-wall festivals back at home, I took Atticus to Norway, land of the Vikings, moose and free love. All Atticus really wanted was to also go to NY, but he took it in his stride when I broke it to him that the letters ORWA were crammed between his dream initials. My Norwegian encompass ‘sykehus’ [hospital] ‘drittsakk’ [shitbag] and the slightly ruder sounding ‘fersken’ [peach]. It’s a great language that is possible to vaguely crack when seen written down - if think logically, get a bit lateral (fersken: furry skin) and think yourself into a kind of imaginary Dark Ages English. For example, ‘pier’ is ‘utstikker’ because it stikks ut into the water. ‘Smertefri’ is ‘painless’ because pain can make your eyes ‘smerte’, but with no pain, you are fri of that aforementioned smerte. A ‘cousin’ is ‘sØsterbarn’ because it’s the bairn of your sister. ‘Grossist’ is not the most revolting, but wholesaler and a ‘hairdresser is frisØr –although it implies a halo of bubble curls every time.

Armed with this stunted but useful vocabulary, we flew to Oslo where we were so smitten by the architecture of the airport it was all we could do not to camp out in the Arrivals Hall for the rest of time. After one last go on the motion-sensor escalators that move only when approached, we boarded a train for Vinstra in the Gudbrandsdalen valley, (although I was sorely tempted to chuck this itinerary in favour of heading to the fantastically named Skaggerak). Our plan is to wind our way north and finish by joining the Sami for their annual marking of the reindeer herds. We race north past dense pine forests, lakes, more pine, rocky outcrops, pine again, fast moving rivers, pretty farms and further pine. ‘These trees are beginning to freak me out’ muttered Atticus in a rare moment away from his headmusic.

We pass the village of Tretten, which translates as Thirteen: the number of people there who survived the plague. It was the arrival of the Black Death in 1349 that stopped the Viking Age in its tracks. Having founded Dublin, sacked Paris and reached America five hundred years before Columbus, Norwegian society collapsed into abject poverty when over half the population perished. The repercussions lasted many hundreds of years: Denmark and later, Sweden ruled over them and Norway only achieved independence once more in 1905, almost six hundred years after the arrival flea-born catastrophe. The population today is still only 4 million and the fact that nobles were reduced to scratching a living alongside their labourers laid the foundations of their classless society and somewhere along the line the Norsemen made the transition from ferocious colonisers to liberal peaceniks.

Some way beyond the back of beyond, we arrive in Vinstra. Although we have been on the train for hours, we haven’t really got at all far in this country whose length is equal to the distance between Paris and Athens. As we step off the train into an empty station Atticus says, ‘This isn’t a holiday; this is just weird.’ He has a point.
[Atticus pictured left, Plutarch in pocket, resorting to narcaleptic fugue & quite ignoring the lovely wild flower bank behind him]
The summer in Norway is incredibly short, but most Norwegians seem to have left for the sunshine of the Mediterranean. Poor Atticus , he had been expecting to be beating off Scandinavian beauties with
a flywhisk. He cheers up a little when our Vinstra host, Mikkel Dubloug arrives and ushers us to a stretch-Volvo with blacked out windows (an unusual model of car for the pimp daddy look). As we belt along, Dubloug points out the occasional royal palace-cum-hunting lodge; they look no different from the surrounding farms.
The Dobloug family farm is the same has the cache of being the birthplace of Per Gynt, Norway’s national semi-fictional folk hero immortalised in an Ibsen play. (While on his deathbed, Ibsen’s nurse assured a visitor that he was a little better, to which Ibsen sputtered, "On the contrary" and died.) The house is small, but truly lovely.
If you have ever been to New England and wondered why the hell old England doesn’t have clapboard houses and red oxide barns, its because architecturally, New England is, more accurately, New Norway. The only difference is that in old Norway, the buildings have turfed roofs out of which sprout shaggy mops of wild grasses and flowers.

Over dinner Mikkel spoke of how much the Norwegians hate the Swedes for the hundreds of years they treated them as backwoods hicks, going to great lengths to give examples of their patronizing snootiness. It is late, so seizing a momentary pause in the conversation; we make our excuses and retire. It is one in the morning, but outside it is still a soft grey twilight. Unable to sleep, we settle down to watch Heroes of Telemark on my computer. (If you’ve never seen it, it is the heroic story of six Norwegian resistance fighters under German occupation, who blew up the Telemark hydroelectricity plant, thus thwarting the Nazis’ dastardly plan to develop nuclear bombs, and all without firing a shot. Incidentally, Knut Haugland, one of Telemark heroes died this Christmas Day aged 92. Having twice been awarded Norway’s highest medal,
he was later a member of the Kon Tiki expedition; all-round groovy fucker.) At the point when Richard Harris’s character snaps at Kirk Douglas’s playboy scientist for fending off mines with a boathook, Atticus hits the stop button, saying, ‘I can’t bear it when people get a hard time for doing the right thing’

After breakfast Mikkel takes us on a tour that follows the mighty Gudebrand River – turquoise from meltwater. A normal river for Norway, but that is bigger than our Thames. Asked what we want to see, I say ‘anything cultural’ but soon realise we are in the hands of a foodie. Our whole day is spent hurtling to different meals.
Arriving in the town of Lom ‘for the bread’, we escape further eating, by heading for the local church [pictured]. ‘I cannot believe I’ve agreed to walk round a church,’ groans Atticus, but once inside, the wooden interior is so lovely, he says, ‘This would be a really lovely place to get married.’ Then he remembers himself and adds, ‘If ever I come back; which I won’t.’

On the long drive back to Per Gynt I battle to steer the conversation away from food lest Mikkel is tempted into further gourmet diversions.
We talk of trolls. We’re not talking Noddy and Big Ears here, this is Norse mythology: trolls were terrifying. Representing everything greedy, cruel, selfish and stupid in man, they were grotesque, huge and ogreish, often with trees growing from their heads – as if the very landscape could suddenly rise up and kill you. Medium-sized trolls merely harmed rather than killed, and the little ones called the Tusser and Nisser trolls
could even be quite helpful - but were extremely easy to offend and were prone to sour milk and stop hens laying.

Next day we drive to into a remote valley to meet a couple living ‘a Viking life’ - with particular emphasis on Viking…food. Their house is high up a boulder-strewn hill; their furniture is rough-hewn logs draped in sheepskins, the room lit by many tallow lights. The husband, a dead ringer for Harry Potter’s Mr Weasley (but Mr Weasley dressed in leather trousers and a large medallion over his buttoned shirt) describes at length the Viking ways. His English is good, but his accent is extremely hard to understand, but eventually we grasp that ‘peek, lark and eon’ are pike, larch and iron. He shows round his beautiful garden planted with only plants that the Viking s used herbs his then shows us handmade drums and the many knives he has fashioned from eon he has forged. This is a great man to know after the collapse of civilisation as we know it, but until then, quietly bonkers. In a converted barn on the Viking compound, the curtain is about to come up on a play by ‘Denmark’s Molière’, but Atticus pinches me really quite hard when they suggest we attend. I lie that we are faint with hunger, so they sit us down and serve us thick broth they call ‘beauty soup’. I’m relieved that Atticus is distracted by his Plutarch as the wife describes it as ‘elk shank boiled for so very long.’ Mr Weasley serenades us on a homemade alpenhorn as we leave; he tears the arse out of Stranger On The Shore. We weep with even stranger pleasure.

On the way back to Vinstra, we pass the village of Hell; it has one house – that’s not even a hamlet in Hades. Driving like a Michael Schumacher on crack, Mikkel takes us over the
mountain where Captain Scott spent the winter acclimatizing himself to Antarctic conditions the year before his doomed attempt on the South Pole in 1911.
It is bleakly stunning.
Tree trunks draped in witchy, black moss, the ground carpeted with so much ash-grey lichen that from a distance it looks torched. Norwegians are fiercely proud of the great Amundsen. A Norwegian winning such a famous race and raising the first flag on the South pole gave them a sense of lasting national pride coming as it did, just six years after their long-awaited independence.

Heading north again, we take another long train journey to RØros through endless forests and the occasional seemingly unpeopled village. We read that RØros is ‘a former copper mining town’. Gloom settles in, only relieved for Atticus when a classic blonde beauty boards our carriage. She gets off at the next stop and gloom seeps back. What relief then when RØros, turns out to be enchanting: like steeping into the pages of Hard Times, if written by Lars Dickens. The brightly painted wooden houses, from the smartest to the lowliest, [Atticus right, pictured outside the lowliest] are beautifully preserved; even the slagheaps are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The mining company, that once owned the town, built a vast church for their workforce, in which there are far more company motifs than illustrations of the Lord - lest worshippers forget who was in ultimate charge.

At lunch, in a local hotel, we eat python-like sausages and sit next to a table of eight people, eating their pythons in silence. Finns we are told. Our hostess whispers ‘They say nothing, unless they’ve had plenty of drink, then they go crazy and next day are too ashamed to speak. And so it goes on. Silent. Crazy, silent again. It’s incredible when you think Finland’s biggest export is Nokia, with the slogan “connecting people.”' And she settles down with her python.

For small example see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEHPkbOt504

From RØros we head across the border to Sweden.
‘Is there anyone in?’ we call.
No answer is an answer; the Swedes were not at home either.

We stayed at Fjällnäs, a former royal hunting lodge with a stuffed bear in the hall. I made tentative enquiries if the Swedes hate the Norwegians, but it doesn’t seem to be reciprocal. It never is with colonisers.
The main difference I noticed in our short trip there was between the two countries was one of taste. The Swedes decorate their homes in a modern slightly Ikea style, while the Norwegians are more traditional & timeless. If there were interior décor Olympics Norway would trounce Sweden every time. The food at Fjällnäs was delicious: moose steaks, gravadlax, cloudberry soufflés, but night after night it was just me and Atticus and his imaginary friend Tony in a room that could seat further ninety-eight [see photo]. One evening another couple arrive in the hotel - just for dinner - and we are so desperate for company we sit down at the next-door table and force them talk to us.

On the day we are meant to get up at dawn to see the Sami herders branding their reindeer, it is rained off. It rains steadily all day, so we go to the local town where the good burghers are in a state of shock because there had been a spate of burglaries; unheard of events.
We visit the local museum - better than it sounds and here we meet a Mrs Tiggywinkle creature who relates many notable facts about logjams and candlemaking. She also feeds us waffles, tells us about the local bear – bjorn - population and the history of Fjällnäs, how it was built for royal visits from southern castles – or borgs.
It was impossible not to conclude that Bjorn Borg is called Bear Castle in his native tongue.

The next day our reindeer date is postponed again & then finally cancelled.

These hardy nomads can cope with any amount of snow, but summer rain is playing havoc with their plans, and ours. We decide to hike into the hills where the country’s last wild herd of musk-ox live. Majestic, prehistoric and very, very woolly, they butch out winter by standing still; semi-conscious. They weren’t about - carousing in St.Tropez I shouldn't wonder - instead these were thousands of tiny flowers and about 40 billion mosquitoes and midges.
Nature plays a cruel joke on Scandinavians: a tiny summer where everything blooms ravishingly, but the air a dense pointillism of biting insects.
No wonder everyone heads south.

My advice to anyone going Scandinavia for the summer is pack a beekeeper’s outfit & leave teenage sons sweetly snoozing in their beds until you can afford to get them to Manhattan.
Recommended viewing:

The above essay was what actually happened when I was sent by Tatler to write a piece about Scandinavia as a secret summer holiday destination for their September issue. I delivered the piece on time but in the meantime the Travel editor went on maternity leave and the main editor, Geordie Greig left to edit The Standard, to be replaced by Catherine Ostler, known to all as Tiny Tears for her habit of pulling the croc. The piece then got heavily rewritten & held over until December because they found some snowy pictures they liked and wanted to use them to illustrate the article. Argument proved futile. Travel journalism for a glossy is hardly 'hard news', but what integrity the piece had with regard to truthfully reporting an experience pretty much went down the tubes. Not only have I never stood on the edge of a fjord swearing that I 'can feel the raw energy of the earth coursing' through my boots, I was sent nowhere near the fjords & I veer away from metaphysical moments accessed through the medium of my footwear.
By strange chance while the December issue was on the newsstands, I found myself at a the same supper party as the pyknician Tiny Tears. I hadn't met her before and I didn’t really meet her there either; she didn’t say hello. In fact, not only did she not say, hello, she sat across the table making it ostentatiously clear that she was discussing me with two other guests. This schoolyard stuff carried on until I was moved to lean across the table and said as politely as possible, ‘Stop being so fucking RUDE.
The above version of the trip has been comprehensively re-edited so as not to duplicate the words in my Tatler article, but it is what actually happened...in the summer....

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Musical Recommendation of the Week
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher - Jackie Wilson

Happy New Year Everybody!

After a 2 month blog holiday, it is set to return. Thank you to all those people who bothered to write & cajole me back into action. I got a bit burnt out doing it weekly & so from now on, the will be fortnightly, most probably.
I plan to post on Friday, once children's terms are out of the way, but will email the usual suspects when it's out.
In the meantime, I offer the latest Musical Recommendation of the Week as a forerunner
See above.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Musical Recommendation of the Week:
Who's Going To My Soul? - Gnarls Barkley