Days 5-6: Camping in Aarhus!

Wow, so yeah, from Copenhagen I went to AARHUS! (That’s oar-hoose.) And although there are a few more things I’d like to say about Copenhagen (and the hospitality of my friend the catblogger), I want most of all to talk about CAMPING IN AARHUS!

There seem to be two campsites here. One is the one that all the official tourist literature points you, and which seems to come up in all the Google searches. It’s inland, by a motorway. The other is DCU-Camping Blommehaven, which I only found out about because a friend-of-a-friend from Aarhus pointed me that way. And despite sounding like a Pennsylvanian college basketball team, it’s GREAT! It’s by the sea, in a wood with many tall deciduous trees, which also contains a deer-park and a Viking museum. (All good woods should have some.) There’s this little beach, and around it they’ve carved out this semicircle of clear, terraced ground in the wood for camping on. (And there’s a sauna too! I haven’t been there yet, but I’m looking forward to it.)

So on Day 5 I came into Aarhus on the bus, and went to meet an ex-student who co-runs Risskov Bike Hospital. He refuses to take rent for a bike; I try to insist; ‘Actually, we’re at our best when we’re doing things for free’. That philosophy degree he’s doing here must be getting to him! But I’m grateful. Some of the Leeds grads were already in town so I hung out with them, and the two most environmentally friendly ones (they got the bus here from Leeds) pointed me to the campsite (where one of them’s staying for the conference). The saddle on the bike’s a bit high, so getting on board requires a run and a jump or, if you’ve got a big rucksack on your back and another one in the front basket, a slightly embarrassing process of levering your body into the saddle with your thigh. Sigh. We’ve all been there.

And so I pitch my tent on this hillside, facing East out to sea, with the waves lapping on the little beach a minute’s walk from the tent. I go and sit on a rock in the water while I wait for the grads to get back. The sunlight fades from the water, and the moon comes up, nearly full and paving the sea with flickering yellow light. What a brilliant spot.

And I woke up the next day in the tent-heat, and saw that it was hot and sunny, and lurched down to the beach, out along the jetty, and into the sea. Not a bad way to start a Sunday. And I sat on the beach almost ALL DAY, it was a whole real DAY OFF!

In the evening, me and the camping grads walked back into town to register for the conference. It was great to see old friends; and we had this tour of medieval Aarhus. Rather like my famous tour of medieval Leeds, it almost entirely involved buildings which are no longer standing, but also like my famous tour of medieval Leeds, it was really good. I hung out with my friends Pictures Girl and „Shrek“ des isländischen Mittelalters, and then me and Environmentally Freidnly Grad walked back through the woods. Clouds drifted in front of the moon, and sometimes you could only just see the path, but the wood smelt great. Quite though: not a sound. Brilliant walk though.

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I’m afraid the most blogtastic thing about my Copenhagen trip is probably the title… Just to spoil all the fun for those of you who thought I might have been on a voyage to recover my buried priate treasure, or an expedition, capitalising on my possession of an intrepid-looking Indiana Jones hat, to unearth a legendary and cursèd jewel, the Black Diamond is actually the building which houses what is effectively Denmark’s national library.

Still, I did not approach it without trepidation: committed readers may remember the frosty reception I won back in 2009. And even though it’s not a cursèd pirate jewel, it is impressive. A spacy seafront edifice, it’s kind of a bit like Harpa, the new Icelandic concert hall (see here, §4, for a review), but the Black Diamond looks clean rather than over-engineered; classy rather than crass. On the inside, where the British Library does bricks and angles and white paint, the Black Diamond does curves and concrete. It’s proper impressive, but kind of forbidding. Or, you know, just go to Google Images for ‘copenhagen black diamond’. See what I mean?

The first and last time I went there, it was to look at some manuscripts of Sigurgarðs saga frækna (ah, that estimable classic of Icelandic fiction… actually, I’m about to post a working paper of the translation that me and my friends Steven and Haukur have done, so if you do want to read it look out for a later blogpost…). This time my expedition was to examine manuscripts of the no less estimable Jarlmanns saga og Hermanns (no, no-one else has heard of it either, but I’m translating that one too!). Fortunately, I was met on my arrival in special collections not by the terrifying woman (who lurked ominously a short distance away) but by the nice man. I ask, in bad Moomin-Swedish, if it suits him to speak English.

It’s a sort of complicated situation:

1. All Continental Scandinavian languages are supposed to be mutually intelligible.
2. However, part of the settlement of the Kalmar Union of 1397, whereby the Danish crown basically took over the whole of Scandinavia, was that Danish had to give up all its vowels to Norwegian and all its consonants to Swedish. In the event, the Swedes and the Norwegians figured they had enough of these already, so they gave them all to Finnish; but Danish was still left with nothing but inarticulate slurring, and a few bits and pieces it was able to borrow from German. In fact, many of my conversations in Denmark have been uncannily similar to this well-known Norwegian sketch:

Though to be fair, so have many of my conversations elsewhere too…
3. I have a slightly psychotic aversion to speaking to foreigners in my own language.
4. However, it doesn’t entirely help if your core Skandinavisk competence extends largely to one-on-one conversations with sympathetic speakers of (a) Finnish Swedish, which is kind of to Swedish as Geordie is to English, and (b) Icelandic, which is kind of to Swedish as Old Frisian is to English.

‘But you speak Swedish!’ says the nice man.
‘Well, yes, but only bad Moomin Swedish.’
‘Well, of course we could speak English, but you can always speak Swedish to me.’
I contemplate pointing out that my Swedish may be the least of our communication problems, but instead accept the offer, and sure enough the nice man launches into the kind of Danish that he normally reserves for idiots, naughty children and politicians; and like figures looming through a fading mist, the consonants start coming into view, and with the helpful visual aid of a library card application form and a manuscript request slip, he becomes magically lucid. ‘Would you prefer a six-month card or a five-year card? We could give you a six-month one, but, you know, if you think you might be coming back, we should probably give you a five-year one.’ And they don’t even require me to present (as at the British Library) a gas bill!

Unfortunately, their card-making machine is broken; the nice man explains this in an apologetic tone of regret and surprise, but since it was broken when I visted in 2009, I suspect that their card machine has in fact never worked and these application forms are merely an elaborate charade. Still, they let me look at my manuscripts, and I slaved away transcribing stuff; I scooted over to the Arnamagnæan Collection at the university too for more of the same (they’re more easy-going: ‘Are your hands clean? Okay then’); and otherwise sat in the stylish nineteenth-century bit of the Royal Library, tucked behind the Black Diamond, and worried away at my paper for the International Saga Conference, starting on Day 6.

Hopefully I’ll post some more general musings about Copenhagen soon. And about Aarhus, where the saga conference is! The campsite here is great, and so is the weather! But right now, I’d better go and congregate with conferenceers.

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Day 1 (July 31st): the most special person on the train!

It was good to be heading across Europe again. All my usual topoi were there: watching French farms drift past; that feeling of freedom of exchange as we zipped across borders and the languages I was hearing shifted gradually around me; and the unfamiliar feeling of the good service you get on international trains. The Eurostar was delayed (someone on the line near Dagenham) and I had a tight change in Brussels. One of the guards comes onto the intercom: ‘We have informed all services of your onward connections’. Don’t hear that on Eastcoast… I ask her what the Cologne train will be doing. ‘They’re going to hold the train for you.’ Yes, that’s how special I am! ‘We do as much as we can—because we can’t do any more’ adds the dashing-looking Dutchman poised to open the doors so that me (and, admittedly, about twenty-five other people) can scoot across to the Cologne train. He fumbles momentarily, as the appreciation of the young lady next to me prompts him to further elaboration. ‘You know, we can’t do any more because of the, er, restrictions…’
‘Of physics?’ I suggest, trying to be helpful.
‘Oh yes, we do physics too.’

me in my spacepod

me in my SPACEPOD!

But I really WAS the most special person on the Cologne train because I had the FRONT SEAT! Like, the VERY FRONT ONE! I was looking for my carriage and thinking, blimey, this is a long way… and it was what at that moment I thought of as the LAST carriage, but it was actually the FIRST one! I got on, right, and I was looking for seat 11, and I was, like, at the wrong end of the carriage, and I got to the right end and I still hadn’t found number 11. But there was this pair of glass slidy doors leading into a SPACE POD with just a few seats and ‘quiet area’ written on the front in German. And I was, like, that can’t be for me, it must be for first-class passengers or astronauts, because it looked so scifi. So I asked this guard who was standing by the door and he showed me in because it actually WAS FOR ME! And the guard wasn’t the guard at all, he was the TRAIN DRIVER! It might sound like seat 11 can’t be the front seat of the train, but it is, because the driver is so important that seat numbers 1-10 are all assigned to his seat.

I was already really excited to be in the FRONT SEAT, but it got better. The driver’s cabin was separated from my space pod by this spacy opaque white glass. But at some point, right, the driver presses some button, or maybe just used his Jedi mind-powers, and suddenly the wall becomes TRANSPARENT, and I COULD SEE OUT THE FRONT OF THE TRAIN! Hyperdiligent readers of the 2012 blog will be aware that I really like underground trains where you can see out the front. But this was a PROPER TRAIN, going REALLY FAST. It was really spacy!



It did turn out that I had to share my space-pod with a couple of other people in less special rows, but it also turned out that one of them was taking the train from Leeds to Kuala Lumpur, and, to be honest, at that point I decided that she might actually have been a more special passenger than me, even if she wasn’t in the front seat. She’s making some arty blog thing about the trip and had me record a poem for her. If I ever find out the URL I’ll link to it… We hung out while we changed in Cologne (look! I finally get a picture of me with the cathedral that inspired me to start the 2009 travelblogue). Then I got in the part of the sleeper that would go on to Denmark, and she got on the part that would be sent to Minsk. I chatted to my cabin-neighbours for a bit–Swedish architect moving home after working in the Netherlands, a Syrian-Finnish gent in the midst of moving from Malmö to Birmingham; the inevitable interrail students (this time from France) and a German lass going on holiday. Trains are good for meeting people. Then I slept, and Europe rolled by.

Cologne cathedral

Cologne cathedral!

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Alaric’s travelblogue 2012!

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to bother with the travelblogue this year. The part of this year’s travels I’m doing on my own (and travelling on your own is the kind of travel most conducive to travelbloging) is a trip I’ve done a few times now: Leeds to Denmark. Not that I’m getting bored of it! But you might be.

But it’s been so cool being back on the train that I had to write about it. But before I start blogging about the actual journeying, I should add that there’s an element of suspense to this trip.

When your friends and family all think you’re a nutter for crossing Europe overland already, it’s exasperating that so much as booking a train journey that crosses a few European borders is about a MILLION times more hassle than booking a flight to cover the same ground. I mean, they could at least make that bit easy, right? (To be fair though, all credit to Deutsche Bahn, who do their best to make up for the uselessness of everyone else in the EU.)

Booking bus travel might be even worse though! I won’t linger on how the National Express website will only tell you there’s no space left on a bus after you’ve chosen it and typed in all your credit card details. (‘Yes, quite a few people mention that’, says the woman on the helpline.) For my greatest ire falls to EUROLINES.FR!

So, right, I pay good money for a bus ticket from Paris to Madrid via Eurolines. I get my booking number, but the crucial pdf ticket doesn’t open, and the confirmation email does not arrive. (No, not to the spam folder either.) The money does leave my account, however. So I give it a couple of days and use the website’s contact form to ask for my ticket. Another few days go by, with no reply. So I phone them up. The number on the website doesn’t work. I hunt around and find another number, which does. The gentleman at the end of the phone tells me another number to call. I’m pretty rubbish at numbers in French, so I get him to give the number in English to be on the safe side. I call the number. It plays the opening bars of ‘no woman no cry’ and a soothing voice explains that the number is no longer in use. It tells me a new number at altogether unsoothing speed, before maliciously adding ‘merci pour votre comprehension’, and ringing off.

Not to be deterred, I revise my knowledge of French numbers and call the number again SIX TIMES until I think I’ve worked out the new number. I call it. It DOESN’T WORK.

Well, to be fair, I am really rubbish at numbers in French. I call the number that does work once more. A helpful woman takes my phone number and says they’ll call me back… That was getting on for a week ago.

So who knows what will happen when I arrive in Paris? Read the travelblogue for the full white-knuckle experience!

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Camping in London: in which Alaric gets out of the ivory tower for a change

Another of those long, long blog posts. Sorry world! You don’t have to read it, but I really wanted to write it out.

I like camping. I even think of the municipal campsite in Helsinki as a home-from-home; my first ever commute to my first ever full time job started from my tent. So if I could choose a form of protest, camping would be a natural winner. And when people pitched outside the Stock Exchange, I felt they had to be onto something.

In case you were already wondering, this particular protest isn’t against capitalism. One of the irritating aspects of media coverage of the occupation is that they keep calling it anti-capitalist: a one-word way to kick the whole business into touch. Some of the folks are anti-capitalist, and good on them. Someone has to be. But the really consistent point is that it’s a protest at thirty years of surging inequality—in British society and in the world. Or to put it positively, it’s a shout from citizens to government that we want greater equality, and if someone deigns to offer it, we’ll vote for it.

Obviously for the US, not UK, but it's a great image. For Britain cf.

Not that I’m willing to give up my job to make this point—and of course I shouldn’t have to be: political protest shouldn’t be open only to the unemployed or destitute. I certainly wanted to do more than moaning to my friends in the pub; and I wanted to discover more than I can by reading the (nonetheless worthwhile) Occupied Times of London. I saw the explosion of debate and innovation which the 2008 financial crash unleashed in Iceland, but thought, as Britain started to pull out of that recession, that beyond admitting to ourselves that the state can’t run on borrowed money forever, we’d wasted a good crisis; I didn’t want to waste it again. And I didn’t want to just stand in lecture-halls telling my students how the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman opens with a biting indictment of the City of London, and over-worldly churchmen at St Paul’s, before launching into a witty but intense exploration of the corrupting power of money—as if none of this was going on right there, right now.

So, as early on Friday as I could and much later than I hoped, I finished work and got the train to London.

Passing through St Paul’s

Occupy London has some great and informative websites but none seemed to say what you should actually do to participate. Which I suppose is appropriately anarchistic, but not being very anarchistic by character I was a bit worried about whether I’d find any space in a suitably occupied area. The occupation outside the Stock Exchange—and coincidentally but more infamously St Paul’s Cathedral—seemed likely to be full, but still like the obvious starting point. I trudged up from the Underground and found, hugging the cathedral in the dark, rows of dome-tents packed in between the tea tent, a soup-kitchen looking tent, a big space fenced off for fire-access, a meditation tent, a book tent; and people thronging the pavement: commuters heading home, beardy middle-aged gents perusing the books, foreign tourists trying to find their way, a priest; even a few studenty dreadlocky looking types, the kind of people I once imagined university would be full of before I actually went to one and discovered that having a pony-tail was considered radical.

Finally, the info tent—but before I could get any info, a lass asked if she could interview me for some media project, which seemed to be part of Catch-22. Why was I here? Inequality, and the need for a socially and environmentally sustainable economy—and Piers Plowman of course. Did I have a message for the bankers? I thought about it, dimly aware that this was the wrong question but not sure why, and said no, but that the point of coming down was to talk about the problems and start finding the right questions as well as the right answers. A little crowd had gathered and afterwards a Spanish-sounding gent asked me to spell the name of the poem so he could look it up later.

Overall, I didn’t get a great vibe at the Stock Exchange site. Someone helpfully suggested there might be a space for a tent, but as I picked my way through the darkness asking for directions, the kids seemed sort of offhand or distant. My prospective neighbour muttered away, mostly to himself, apart for a moment of lucidity to ask for a light. The folks in the info-tent were great, but harassed and hard-pressed. Eventually a guy who was clearly totally well-meaning took me partway to Finsbury Square and gave me some directions which were about as helpful as Piers Plowman, V, lines 556–629 (if you haven’t read them, don’t worry: they won’t help). Realising I’m just about to find myself back where I started, I ask a passer-by who turns out later to be a lawyer on secondment to RBS if she knows where Finsbury Square is. ‘I do—I’m going that way actually.’ Then a thought strikes her and she looks at me suspiciously. ‘You’re not going to the protest are you?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Ah well, you won’t like me then: I’m a capitalist’.
And so my slightly maniacal frustration with the ‘anti-capitalism’ label starts; and, as I chat to this girl, so does my realisation that the media’s banker-bashing is just as much a part of the problem. I met a lot of friendly, interesting, defensive, exasperated financial sector workers this weekend.

Finsbury Square

Info tent on Sunday evening

But eventually Finsbury Square turns out to be pretty nearby, and there on the corner is this info desk, manned by a clutch of tea-drinking over-30s looking types. One’s about my age, but has had a much harder life; she read Wilkinson and Picket’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Penguin, 2009) and hasn’t looked back; she’s been at the occupation for a few weeks. Another’s an Oxfordshire grandmother type: a bit of a cut-glass accent and an air of girl-guide fortitude, her trousers tucked into her hiking socks; arrived on Wednesday, popping home on Saturday to see to some bits and pieces. And a gent with snazzy glasses and a bike helmet that he never removes shows me to a lass from ‘housing’ who finds me a little corner that’s just been vacated. Two Hungarian gents in the kitchen tent serve me up some still-almost-warm curry, and I go back to the info tent to find out what I can do.

Turns out the washing up’s been done; everyone’s excited because a new occupation has just started a hundred yards or so down the road, in an empty building owned by the Swiss bank UBS, now rechristened the Bank of Ideas; so Finsbury Square is quiet; and I’m invited to sit at the info desk. ‘But I don’t have any info’, I think, before recalling that this has seldom stopped me in the past. I suppose I stayed on the desk from about eight till one, talking to other occupiers, saying good evening to passers by, and sometimes getting to have proper conversations with them.

That set the tone for much of my weekend really. I liked being on the info tent so I mostly stuck at it. I met a lot of folks, and talked with people from a broader range of backgrounds than I have in years—maybe ever, in such a small space of time. Sometimes people who just want to bend your ear, whether about the ills of the world or about why they despise your protest. But often they were really serious discussions with people who, in their different ways, were really informed. On Friday I shared the desk for a while with a nice lad from Huddersfield (there are a lot of people from Yorkshire) who’s trained as a motorbike mechanic but been out of work for eighteen months. Later I shared it with an eighteen-year-old on her third stint of homelessness, whose fiance is in prison till 2013, up from St Paul’s for a rest; she was friendly, sober but inarticulate, and busy practising her new-found skill of making ash-trays from beer cans. It tells you a lot about me that I found it easier to talk to a passing Chinese guy despite his creaky English: university-educated, sharp suited. We talk for twenty minutes about education’s role in social mobility; nepotism; and the rule of law. I even had more in common with three noisy, drunk, affable British-Italian looking lads who stopped to try and convince me to have a shouting match sometime after midnight. The one I talked to most was a BA-educated hard drugs dealer with a diamond stud in one ear who had a clear idea of what capitalism is and was doing pretty well out of it. Meanwhile, some guys who look like they’ve come from an Indian restaurant turn up with a couple of buckets of left-over curry and a big bag of chopped up baguette; I guess I owed my Sunday-morning croissant to a similar source.

If Finsbury Square was a natural feature, you’d call it a frost hollow. A shaft of sunlight from between the buildings on the west side slants briefly across the site for an hour or so on Sunday: the condensation on your tent from one night is still there the next. But Saturday sees a guy turning up to donate a huge load of waterproof foam sheets to put under the tents. Lots of people pass through the site, some having fun—peaceably enough—and maybe half helping with one thing or another; the tents aren’t all full all the time, but clearly see plenty of use. The people who seem to be there nearly all the time look a bit frazzled: good people who’ve been working really hard in difficult conditions for at least a month now; I was worried about them. Some are studying or working at the same time as occupying; some are looking for part-time jobs in the area. But the place strikes me as well kept. I did a litter-pick on Sunday morning and had to work hard to find anything really: a few tissues, some bottle-tops, quite a few plastic tie-bindings. A path made of woodchips, half paid for by the occupiers, half provided by Islington Borough Council, keeps the thoroughfare of the site from getting muddy. When my sister came over on Saturday evening, I felt proud as I showed her round.

The Bank of Ideas

Saturday and Sunday the occupation was busy because, coincidentally, people from nineteen or so of Britain and Ireland’s thirty-odd occupations had come down for a conference at—as it eventuated—the Bank of Ideas. At first I was a bit disappointed that I was spending so much time on the desk, when I could have been going to lectures and seminars, either at St Paul’s or at the Bank. But I did make it along to a few, along with a friend from Leeds University who was also in London that weekend, and they were at worst good and at best really impressive.

My favourite was a discussion with Nick Shaxson, author of a book that’s been on my meaning-to-read list for a while: Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (Bodley Head, 2011). There were 150–200 people there. A really good speaker, with really interesting things to say. By some measures half of world trade—clean and dirty—passes through tax havens. That’s trillions of dollars lost to citizens; and to some extent lost to the productive economy generally. It makes the people of Greece look like model taxpayers. Rather than co-ordinating efforts to recover these losses, governments mostly (quietly) compete to offer companies loopholes and havens; though the USA has at the same time taken some stands (inter alia against UBS). I struggle to imagine that the economic benefits of providing loopholes and havens overall outweigh the losses to the taxpayer. Indeed, Shaxson sketched an argument that the now familiar concept of the ‘curse of oil’—the power of a single natural resource to unbalance enonomies and to corrupt states, such that citizens would have been better off without having the natural resource at all—can be applied to the financial sector too.

Shaxson’s exposition of how hard it would be to change the tax haven system is telling: everyone’s doing it. Any high-street shop you walk into’s doing it. Probably a good many charities are doing it. Probably my pension fund is doing it. We’re wandering in this maze as much as the vilified bankers.

I very much doubt any management gurus have read this far, but I suspect they could learn a lot about facilitating discussions from the Occupy movement. I saw these hand-signals for the first time on videos from St Paul’s, and have now used them too. Rather than having a chair faced with a sea of raised hands, and discussions interrupted by applause or booing, participants communicate with the facilitator and each other through simple but effective hand-signals. Effectively, you can have verbal and visual dialogues going on at the same time. I can’t imagine my colleagues going for this, but department meetings wouldn’t half run better if we did…

Who do you exclude?

An intense discussion throughout my visit was about the difficulties caused by homeless folks and criminals converging on the occupations. It was high on the list for the occupations conference, and I learned a lot from their discussion. My impression is that young women tend not to sleep at the Finsbury site, because they’re worried it’s unsafe.

The Finsbury site doesn’t actually have many really homeless folks. There are signs up saying ‘No alcohol, no drugs’—a decision born of experience, and of course not strictly adhered to; but useful leverage if people get unruly. As I talk to the drug-dealer and his friends, a sweet and well-meaning, but alcoholic and incoherent occupier lurches over to find out what the noise is about and almost causes trouble himself. ‘I see where you’re coming from’, says the drug-dealer to me as we carry on discussing the economy, ‘but he’s hardly a good advertisement for you is he?’ I take his point; but at the same time, what sort of campaign to reduce inequality would exclude the homeless—themselves a product, Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain informs me, of Thatcher’s government—especially at a time of rising foreclosures?

Outside the Stock Exchange, these issues are writ large. A better known site, it’s attracted more down-and-out folk; and as I said, I felt less comfortable there than at Finsbury Square. The City and some of the canons of St Paul’s complain that they’re denting revenue at the cathedral. Protesters struggle to help them, and worry that they’re bringing the movement into disrepute.

But at the same time, down-and-out folk are exactly the sort of people that any serious Christian should be trying to attract to a cathedral. And their presence at the occupation isn’t creating a problem: it’s merely making it visible—to Londoners, tourists, and cameramen. In its way, that’s an important achievement of the occupation. And, for some of these people at least, St Paul’s or Finsbury Square is suddenly a place where they can find a supportive community. The Glasgow occupation turn out to have a similar problem, and asked Glasgow City Council to help them direct people to treatment. Not our problem, say the Council, lying through their teeth. A visit to the Council by a couple of protesters with a video camera swiftly rectifies the situation. You can try to move down-and-outs off camera, or you can try to help them. At the smaller occupations, people don’t really have any choice other than to send them away; but at the bigger ones, helping is possible.

On Saturday, a guy with ‘legal observer’ on his orange dayglow vest sweeps in on his bike with copies of the case for eviction served at the Stock Exchange site. One of the protesters leafs through it shaking his head. ‘We’ve really got to tighten up our act’, he says. I see his point, but don’t think he should be too hard on himself. Check out the photos from the document at the Daily Mail report. My kitchen looks worse, and I’m going through a phase of housepride. If that’s the worst the Daily Mail can manage…

What did I learn, and did I do any good?

Although you wouldn’t know it from the rambling above, this is really what I wanted to sort out by writing this. But it’s still the least thought-out part of the post!

I was hopeful about the Occupy movement when I went down to London, but also apprehensive. But I came away thinking that it’s a really positive thing—so far at least. I stretched myself as a person as well as having some really good intellectual discussions; in a startlingly brief time I felt like part of a intense—if transient and fragile—community. It was way more stimulating than any academic conference I’ve been to for years. You should go and talk to people at Finsbury Square. It’s public space! Use it. And catch a lecture, seminar or discussion at the Bank of Ideas. I’m definitely going back.

The Occupy movement, to my mind, has already done a lot of good. In Britain it has—coincidentally but productively—forced the Church of England to take a public stance on the causes and consequences of the financial crisis. And for those of us who want to be like Jesus, it’s pretty clear what he would do. Took some of the churchmen a while to work it out, but hopefully that is in itself progress.

The occupations have also given representation in the media to a large number of voters—and non-voters—who are not willing to return to business as usual. Of course it’s attracted bad press as well as good press, but that’s a free(ish) society for you. And despite the diversity of views on offer, there’s a coherent message that these people want to reduce the inequality which has been growing throughout my lifetime. This media presence is at least to a small degree helping to alter the parameters of the public and political debate. Politicians are more likely to consider how to reach out to these voters; and the voters themselves, finding their concerns articulated, are less likely to roll over and die.

And the emergent banner of greater equality is giving some shape to other activities too. I’m not particularly comfortable striking on November 30th to defend pensions. I can see my union has good points in its pension dispute, and, recognising that people are better off in unions than out of them, I’ll dutifully forego a day’s pay to strike on this point. But I don’t have an upbringing in which striking is seen as a good or noble thing; it’s easy for strikes merely to look self-interested; and I have spent my adult life waiting for a politician finally to bite the bullet on dealing with a diminishing workforce paying the pensions of people who might spend a third of their lives in retirement. But an overall need for greater equality: I can really get behind that.

And so could almost everyone I had a proper conversation with, standing on the corner of Finsbury Square. Obviously a self-selecting crowd. Still, some people were pretty negative:

  • You’re lucky: Britain’s a democracy. So stop complaining. (Well, of course we’re lucky. But there’s no point having a right to protest if you never use it…)
  • You’ve made your point. Now give me my park back. (I sympathise with this one: obviously it’s a bit ironic if a park effectively becomes the private property of some campers. But then the three local ladies from some Islington photographic club who came round to take photos seemed to be enjoying the local colour, so maybe it’s swings and roundabouts.)
  • I agree with what you’re saying, but there’s no point trying. (Sigh. The most common so far. But things have sometimes changed for the better in the past, so maybe they can again. One of the big concerns in Piers Plowman are salesmen selling underweight or low-quality food products—it reminds you how lucky we are to have a well regulated retail sector, in which you know a kilo of apples is a kilo, and can expect to prosecute people for giving you food poisoning and find the rule of law upheld. Now we just need to extend those principles to finance…)
  • ɡeʔəfʌkɪnʤɔb wæŋːəː (Usually shouted from the window of a passing taxi.)

But of the thirty or forty passers-by I had proper conversations with, sceptical, abusive or supportive, almost all agreed that they wanted a society where the poor are richer and the rich are poorer than in ours: RBS lawyer, financiers, drug-dealers, Chinese guy, homeless guy, middle class couple emerging from dance performance, puzzled tourists. The one exception was a Scottish financier with an I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps story who was, like, why should I help anyone else when no-one helped me? Sigh. Probably says it all.

Of course, the question follows of how you achieve that equality. I’m all for the state getting out from debt—though it might have to be patient about it. I came away convinced (for now) that many—at least—of the current cuts at the bottom of society will wind up costing us more as we deal with the health and social problems they create, the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance being a case in point; that in the long term there’s massive scope for tightening up on tax avoidance by companies and the rich (and that if companies choose to go elsewhere I’ll be glad to see the back of them). Regulation of property speculation, with a tax on unoccupied buildings, sounds like a good plan; the 1980s wizardry of financing growth in consumption through credit rather than growth in productivity was, by contrast, a bad plan. The Tories are right to put good teachers at the forefront of education reform, and could conceivably be right to direct money from universities to do it… All this, and seven times more. Much of the list from the Finsbury Square ‘alternatives’ board shown here seems pretty sensible; even the wacky-sounding bitcoin has been taken seriously enough for (admittedly sceptical) Economist coverage. And much of what is sensible is perhaps even politically achievable.

Of course, for me all this needs to play out against a backdrop of an increasingly sustainable economy—which means working out how to increase equality, and at least preserve wellbeing, while reducing consumption. Both working that out and convincing people to implement it is a much taller order—perhaps impossibly so—but it’s no doubt a matter for another post. For now, I’m glad some people have made a big, visible push in the right direction.

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Day 60, September 23rd… and the week that followed: drottinn blessi heimilið!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 252/252

Wow, and then I went back to Leeds! I left Victoria on Day 58; arrived in Leeds on Day 59; and by Day 60 I’d unrolled my sleeping bag in my new home. The travel was over! And so, by rights, is the travelblogue. But if travel was over, term was starting, and so it’s taken me till now to finish the story—and there’s still a little series of epiblogues to come, about trees, and more bunting, and of course finally working out the carbon emissions.

The trip

Bus to the airport ($2.50 for 45 minutes! Genius!); plane to Seattle; another one to Amsterdam (interesting pharmaceutical researcher next to me to talk to); yet another one to Leeds (further self-abasement about that itinerary to come in the carbon cost post); and finally the bus into town. The best bit was discovering the inspired presence of an exhibition at Schiphol by the Rijksmuseum. What a fantastic thing to do. There you are, between flights, and rather than just being, like, ‘BUY fabulously tax-free, yet mysteriously incredibly expensive smelly water!!’ (which seems, now I think about it, to cover a multitude of airport sins), they’re, like, ‘Or would you prefer to see an attractive selection of original Dutch masters, helpfully selected from one of the greatest art museums in the world? For free.’

Still, I was glad to get out of Schiphol and back to Leeds, extricating myself from the inevitable encounter on the plane:

— Oh, hi!
— Er, hey ho! I’m Alaric.
— Yeah, we met on the way out!
— Oh, I’m sorry, I’m a bit jet-lagged, er…
— You know, on the way over from Leeds!
— Um, actually I came from Canada.
— What? You know, when we came over from Leeds yesterday.
— Oh, no, I’m sorry, I was in Canada yesterday.
— What, really? You didn’t come over on the plane yesterday? I met this guy — and he looked just like you. Are you sure you weren’t on the plane yesterday?
— I’m afraid not. He wasn’t an IT guy was he?
— That’s right! Are you sure it wasn’t you?

Starting Liking Leeds

So I’ve had this project for a year or so, right, to Start Liking Leeds. Obviously the job’s great (give or take the odd hundred million going walkabout in the University budget), but the city? It’s not Reykjavík; and it’s certainly not Helsinki! But I decided I should stop moaning about it (erm, haven’t got very far with that then!) and start doing something about it. Buy a place, invest in the community a bit more, make an effort to uncover the light which (they tell me) Leeds hides under a bushel.

It turns out that coming back to Britain from Canada is a lot easier than coming back from Scandinavia. Coming back from Scandinavia, I’m always, like, oh no. Britain’s so rubbish. But although, you know, Canada’s great and everything, at least it’s not in a whole different league. We both have Tories, and we both vote for them, using ridiculous first-past-the-post systems to do so. Toronto’s still a Victorian industrial town. The good people of Ontario still speak English. Meanwhile, the neighbours, technically ruled by the same Queen but rumbunctiously separatist, still speak French. So riding the bus into Leeds, rather than looking around thinking ‘this is RUBBISH’, I was merely, like, ha ha, this is like Canada but a bit lamer.

And when the bus went over the hill after Kirkstall, where the flash tall buildings down in the city centre flicker into view, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Partly because after the Loop in Chicago they seem so pathetically small; but also because after Chicago I now know in my bones how pathetic it is that they’re trying to look like the Loop at all.

Leeds city centre high-rises

the dream

It’s a double-wammy: like middle class British people who try to be like aristocrats. You laugh at them both for the fact that they fail, and for the fact that they’re deluded enough to want to try. And I laughed and I was, like, oh Leeds, you’re such a loser, I might even be starting to like you.
derelict building with estate agent logo reading 'reality'

does what it says on the tin

Which, despite all my ex-pat-whose-heart-never-quite-came-home posturing, I guess is quite a British thing to think.


And yeah, sometime on Day 50, after a full nine months’ faffing with trying to get a mortgage, I became a homeowner! Only I was, er, in Canada at the time. But by the end of Day 60, I’d made it to Greenhouse, just in time to get my keys before the office shut. The salesman looks at me, sweltering beneath my rucksacks, and says ‘You’re moving in today? Normally people get the keys and then sort the rest out later…’



the lounge

the lounge! In the foreground, sofa and bed.

And so far I really like it. Just in case I haven’t bent your ear about it before, it’s an ecotastically renovated building. Admittedly it does look a bit like a starship that just landed in Beeston (NB, before you make any foolish comments, that real starships are square, because in space, there is no friction). But before it looked like a starship, it was an eyesore, so, you know, could be worse. I’ll spare you the rest of the spiel: details here and here. It’s not quite as socially radical as LILAC, but I’m still impressed. If I’m going to sell my right arm to a bank, it might as well be to exert my market forces in a direction I’m committed to. (I had to take the any-bank-I-could-get option, but hopefully in due course I’ll be able to switch mortgage to a nice environmentally friendly bank.)

Yeah, so I move in on Day 60, and that day I see on Facebook that this ex-student who now lives in Liverpool is going to be reading at some arty happening type thing here in Leeds, so I’m like, I’ll go! And it turns out to be not 300 yards from my own door, at the BasementArtsProject. Turns out this couple from Beeston decided to turn their basement into a gallery/arty happening place. Winner! And I arrive, and I just shuffle in through the back door and get offered some home-made cake, and I’m like, I have neighbours! They’re cool!

I’m talking to one of my noble basement hosts and her face lights up: oh, so you’re local? Well, sort of. I just moved here yesterday—to Greenhouse. Her face clouds over. I understand that. I mean, it’s potentially this shiny regeneration project, but at the same time, it’s also slap in a district none of whose other residents could afford to live there. And it does, partly by inheritance from its previous incarnation and partly by just needing to be a secure building, have this fortress-like look about it. But I tried to make a good impression and she was very nice, and I came away feeling I’d made a good start. The art was quite fun too! They’ve got another event on tomorrow, so I’ll go along for that too.

On Tuesday, I put in my first appearance at Green Drinks, which I’d have been going to for years if I’d known about it. Some of the LILAC people put me onto it. It’s this monthly pub meet for greenly inclined folks. I was sort of expecting long-haired twenty-something djembe players, whereas it was mostly middle-aged entrepreneurs in suits. Fair enough though. Suddenly I find out about all these small businesses trying to be ecotastic in Leeds. I find out loads of cool random facts, and meet more small business folks than I’ve ever met in my life. Interesting. I’ll be going again.

paintings by Alaric


And today was Greenhouse’s first birthday, and the developers, not being the cut-and-run type, had this sort of Greenhouse equivalent of a village fete. I met more small business folks (some of them again, some of them working in the office space in the building), and my MP; agreed to go to the Beeston in Bloom AGM on Monday (!); and made these paintings! My first decorations in the flat! And I met this guy here who’s, like, you like Icelandic? Have you heard of Sigur Rós? There’s some guys having a Sigur Rós night on the sixth floor this evening. And they were! We sat and watched the Icelandic rockumentary Heima. Although my trip really ended a week ago, it was cool to find myself watching this film all shot in Iceland, here in my new place, with my new neighbours. It gives a pleasing envelope pattern to the travelblogue (epiblogues notwithstanding).

And for those who don’t already know, heima is Icelandic for ‘at home’.

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Day 56, September 19th, revisited: Bjarni Harðarson, Sigurðar saga fóts: Íslensk riddarasaga (Selfoss: Sæmundur, 2010)

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 252/252

So since I’ve been giving this day-by-day account of how many pages I’ve turned in Bjarni Harðarson’s satire about Iceland’s financial crash Sigurðar saga fóts, and indeed have in consequence made this blog one of the top hits for Google searches on the book, I feel I ought to actually write something about it! This is basically the blogpost-of-the-lecture, and the lecture itself will in due course go up here. And I’ve actually written such a vast post I’m almost certain no-one will read it, but there, I wanted to get these ideas down before teaching starts and they all evaporate. Having put all this work in reading this damn novel, I now ought to see about writing an article about it sometime, and I figure a blogpost would be a good first step. Of course, if you do find yourself grinding your way through any of this post, I’d well appreciate any views you want to express on it, especially as I (a) have probably made some mistakes; and (b) know very little either about modern Icelandic literature or about the financial crisis!

Cover of Bjarni Harðarson's Sigurðar saga fótsThe actual reasons for me talking about this book are described right back at the beginning of the blog—basically that Victoria wanted me to have a modern Icelandictastic lecture and Bjarni’s book was topical and relevant to something I actually do know about, the medieval romance Sigurðar saga fóts from which Bjarni’s novel takes its name, and which I was involved in translating about the same time the novel came out. But as is usually the case, I have succeeded in persuading myself with my own rationalisations of the merit of studying this work…

Why should we care about financial crisis novels from Iceland?

It wasn’t self-evident to me that indeed we should care about this stuff when I started thinking about it. I think the relevance of Iceland to the world is quite easy to argue: Iceland’s a case-study in how the world financial crisis happened. Getting a grip on the Icelandic story is a way to get a grip on the whole big mess. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Icelanders may have a better chance than any of us of reshaping their state, democracy and economy in creative and inspiring ways. It’s a such a tiny place: democracy has a chance of working differently there; changes can happen quicker; it has especial potential for sustainable energy and so a sustainable economy. A pointer to the place’s potential is the crisis-inspired Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, aiming to make Iceland an international haven for freedom of speech and transparency of business and governance. Whether you see this Wikileaks-inspired development as another Icelandic example of things-not-to-do, or as a step towards a juster world order, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

But why art? There have after all been lots of documentaries about the financial crisis—both Iceland’s and, as was emphasised to me by Portuguese Documentary Guy back on Day 15, other people’s—and hopefully there will be a lot more. There’s also been a slew of autobiographies by Icelandic bankers; government reports; and so on. (And I’ve hardly begun to look at all these; I saw Future of Hope but it was, alas, as twee as the title suggests.) Maybe it’s too early for novellists, musicians and movie-makers to weigh in?

But working on Bjarni’s novel made me realise that actually art is potentially a really important way to engage people in what are potentially hopelessly abstruse debates about bank regulation; the nature of the economy; and the relationship between states, governments, citizens and business. I don’t want to see a good crisis wasted, and as the Eurozone crisis hurtles on, there’s clearly plenty more of it for us to not waste. Somehow, we all need to be able to develop a stance on how the world should look after the second Great Depression, and push for it. Art can perhaps bring more of us into the debate.

And art can perhaps bring different perspectives into play too: it needn’t just be about making economics digestible. It can explore possible futures, and possible pasts, which are worth thinking about but which are inappropriate to documentaries or government reports. I suspect that there’s still a bit of a dearth of material at this level, but below I’ll try and suggest some interesting perspectives which Bjarni’s novel brings into view.

But I hadn’t even noticed there was any financial crisis art!

Yeah, nor had I clocked any outside Iceland till I started poking around—a lot of friends helped me out in response to a Facebook post. And some of their suggestions were very creative too, but so far, my trawl of art which directly and specifically responds to the financial crisis is still pretty thin: non-Icelandic leaders are David Hare’s commissioned play The Power of Yes (this and another couple discussed here); Justin Cartwright’s novel Other People’s Money (discussed with some others here); and a few songs (like Chris Wood’s ‘The Grand Correction‘ and—how could I forget?—Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Dirtee Cash‘). And of course some originally unconnected works took on a new meaning with the crash, most prominently Sarah Prebble’s musical Enron. All these are British, as probably are the majority of my friends; but David Cole’s little rant suggests that this isn’t entirely an accident of sampling (and cf. Dorian Lynskey on music).

I’ve come across stuff in Iceland, however, without even looking. Obviously the crisis has been a bigger issue there than anywhere else so far, so that makes sense. But it must also reflect Iceland’s enormous per-capita cultural production (if you publish enough books, one is bound to be about the crash…) and the ability of this small art-for-art’s-sake market to respond quickly to external circumstances.

Reykjavík’s city theatre, the Borgarleikhúsið, has been pretty active, most famously in holding a non-stop six-day reading of the 2,000-page government report on the crash. They subsequently performed Enron, as translated by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, as a commentary on the crisis: the trailer looks pretty cool: I’m sorry I missed it when I was in Iceland last year.

Then, I’m in this bookshop, right, and pick up this kids’ book Bókasafn Ömmu Huldar (Granny Huld’s Library) thinking it’ll be good for learning Icelandic, and it’s about a dystopian future where banks abduct parents; and I’m in a record shop and I pick up the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band’s Helvítis fokking funk (doesn’t really need translating) thinking I haven’t heard enough brass lately, and it’s a concept album about the crash. There’s Bjartmar og bergrisarnir’s Skrýtin veröld too.

So I bumped into more financial crisistastic art just by hanging about in Iceland than by making a moderate effort to hunt it out on Britain. And if Iceland’s the place that’s producing this kind of stuff, maybe that’s where we need to look to consume it.

Bjarni’s novel and the medieval saga: from heroine-trade to the heroin trade

Bjarni’s blurb calls his novel an endurgerð (‘remake’) of the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts (along with emphasising its inspirations in the song ‘Furstinn’ (‘the prince’) by Megas, which I won’t talk about here because I haven’t got hold of it yet!). Actually, the novel’s not really a remake of the saga, in the sense of taking its characters and plot and presenting them in new words. The saga mostly provides names and some points of comparison to a story which is basically the real-life story of Icelandic banking privatisation, deregulation, and implosion. None of the characters seems to be precisely transposed from reality, but it’s clear that the eponymous hero Sigurður fótur Bjarnhéðinsson is mostly modelled on Björgólfur Thor Björgölfsson, Iceland’s first billionaire, and the son of Björgólfur Guðmundsson (Bjarnhéðinn kaupahéðinn Jónsson in Bjarni’s novel). Björgólfur is best known in Britain as the one-time owner and chairman of West Ham United; but between them the father and son also became the owners of the privatised bank Landsbanki (Bjarni’s Stóri Þjóðbankinn). (It’s a bit uncanny: I didn’t clock this stuff until I was well into the novel, and when I saw pictures of these two I was, like, yep, that’s just how they looked in my head!)

In the story, Bjarnhéðinn kaupahéðinn is a two-bit alcoholic entrepreneur who by an ostensibly luck-of-the-drunk series of chances comes during the 1970s and 1980s to own a small business founded on a little chain of florists. (Though we get a hint of the secrets of his success early on, when we see a property deal between him and a friend: ‘allir voru í ábryrð fyrir alla’, ‘everything was standing as surety for everything else’, p. 36.) After a long period of unemployment, Sigurður fótur is brought into his dad’s business as a partner, whereupon he glances at the books and realises the whole thing is a total financial disaster—and is now as much on his plate as his father’s. So when he gets called in by the bank, he’s expecting the worst—but finds himself instead being convinced to take part in a bit of business chicanery (I have to admit that I’m hazy about the details of this at the moment) involving an inflated share-purchase by the Nord brothers (whoever they are: I’m sure it’s obvious if you’re an Icelander!). Sigurður and his dad find that they’re rich, and an all too predictable series of over-leveraged purchases follows, bringing them, amongst other things, the chairmanship of the Stóri Þjóðbankinn, which Bjarnhéðinn holds and, after Bjarnhéðinn’s death, Sigurður; and ultimately the Icelandic financial crash.

The main point of reference to the medieval saga comes, as Jón Daníelsson has discussed in his blog post on the novel, in the counterpoint the saga provides to the idea of Icelandic financiers as útrásarvíkingar (‘raiding Vikings’). English-speakers often use Viking to mean ‘medieval Scandinavian dude’, but (Old) Icelandic víkingur really means ‘pirate’. For most of the twentieth century, Icelanders hadn’t thought of themselves as being descended from Vikings as such: the key idea for them was that their ancestors were settlers (landnámsmenn). But at some point in the boom, they started talking about these Icelandic financiers as útrásarvíkingar. Here’s Ólafur-Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland’s president, giving Icelandtastic tips on ‘How to Succeed in Modern Business: Lessons from the Icelandic Voyage’ at the Walbrook Club in London in 2005:

Eighth on my list is the heritage of discovery and exploration, fostered by the medieval Viking sagas that have been told and retold to every Icelandic child. This is a tradition that gives honour to those who venture into unknown lands, who dare to journey to foreign fields, interpreting modern business ventures as an extension of the Viking spirit, applauding the successful entrepreneurs as heirs of this proud tradition.

A comparison which in 2005 looked big and clever in 2008 looked hubristic at best, comic at worst. The handy thing about the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts for Bjarni is that it transposes the world of Viking activity described with stark and sober effectiveness in thirteenth-century sagas about Icelanders into a cartoonish, colourful setting inspired medieval European romance, prompting a reassessment of those suddenly incongruous Viking values.

I’m really in two minds about whether the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts was intended as a parody of traditional martial, masculine values. It’s a very short, rather disjointed text, where characterisation and motivation are mostly pretty sketchy. The significance of a singularly prosaic prophetic dream proves beyond the grasp of Sigurður, giving rise to a plodding exposition by the dreamer. One way to rescue the saga from being seen as just a lame text is to argue that it’s a parody: that all this baldness is part of the joke; that Sigurður is being ruthlessly presented as an idiot. But if it was a parody I’d hope for more of a display of, well, wit. The saga lacks the dry wit, control of suspense, or deftness of characterisation and motivation of one of the seminal Icelandic romance-sagas, Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar (available in translation by Hermann Pálsson); it lacks the verve of Jarlmanns saga og Hermanns or even the looser but enthusiastic Sigurgarðs saga frækna (both of which I’m currently involved in translating). When the saga was reprinted in 1968 for a general audience in the Sunday paper Sunnudagsblað, it was presented as light-hearted entertainment, set off by the quip that Sigurður fótur would perhaps make a good addition to the Icelandic team at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and a rather nice illustration which focuses emphatically on monogamous affection. Maybe it’s a satire that’s just too straight-faced for me to twig; but maybe it really is just an over-compressed, going-through-the-motions action movie type text.

Illustration for Sigurðar saga fóts from Sunnudagsblaðið

‘Sigurðar saga fóts’, Tíminn, Sunnudagsblað (26 May 1968), 390–393, 406, accessed from <;.

But either way, it works for Bjarni to play off the saga. The saga’s plot is—as usual in medieval romance—about unmarried aristocratic men trying to get themselves suitable wives, who are, however, treated by their men more or less as chattels; in fact Sigurðar saga fóts is one of the bluntest stories of this kind in medieval Iceland. Indeed, if I remember Daniel Sävborg’s Sagan om kärleken: Erotik, känslor och berättarkonst i norrön litteratur right, it’s only saga in the genre where the girl actually explicitly expresses her ‘love’ (ást) for her intended husband, a gentleman by name of Ásmundur King of the Huns—but Ásmundur nonetheless hands her over to her other wooer, Sigurður fótur, in what appears to be a gesture of blokeish solidarity. Bjarni’s novel opens with a quotation from the saga in which Sigurður announces he will fight anyone for his intended bride, and he nods to this plot element in his own story: Sigurður and his best friend Ásmundur Jamil Neró (his odd name is explianed by him being half-Palestinian) compete for the same girl, and Jamil goes to prison for Sigurður when Sigurður gets busted for some low-key drugs trading in his youth, but they stay mates.*. The marginality of wives, girlfriends and children to much of the lives of the male protagonists in Bjarni’s novel recalls the saga and is no doubt in itself a comment on the oft-discussed lack of any female presence in the business culture of the Icelandic bubble. Insofar as there are voices of reason in the novel, they are women’s. But Bjarni’s point seems to be a more general one: that these útrásarvíkingar are fundamentally selfish in their quests for personal gain. Like other Icelandic romance heroes, Sigurður fótur cuts swathes through undifferentiated cannon-fodder in battle; it’s almost a requirement of the bombastic Icelandic romance genre that whole armies perish on the altar of the bridal quest.

At the end of the medieval Sigurðar saga, Ásmundur has travelled to Ireland to win Elína, the daughter of the King of Ireland, as his bride. But the king has instead offered Ásmundur battle, won, and imprisoned him. Prompted by the aforementioned prosaic prophetic dream and associated advice of his wife Signý, Sigurður fótur sails off to rescue his friend, and defeats the Irish king.

Eftir það spyr Ásmundur, hversu að Sigurður ætlar að skipa við Hrólf konung, en Sigurður konungur svarar svo:
‘Líf Hrólfs konungs og Elína dóttir hans, Írland allt og Valland er nú í þínu valdi og vilja og allt það, að mér ber til, og mun eg aldri geta launað þér, eftir því sem þú værir maklegur, þína velgerninga við mig.’
Ásmundur þakkaði honum öll sín orð og þar allir út í frá. ‘En þess vil eg spyrja Hrólf konung,’ segir Ásmundur, ‘hvort hann vill nú gifta mér Elínu dóttur sína.’
Hrólfur konungur svarar þá: ‘Það vil eg að vísu og vinna það til lífs mér.’
Þarf eigi hér langt um að hafa, að það verður ráðum ráðið, að Ásmundur fær Elínu, og er þegar að brullaupi snúið. Og að veizlunni afliðinni sigldu konungarnir burt, Sigurður og Ásmundur. Leysti Hrólfur konungur út mund dóttur sinnar sæmilega í gulli og dýrgripum. Skildu þeir nú með vináttu.

After that, Ásmundr asked how Sigurðr intended to deal with King Hrólfr, and King Sigurðr replied: ‘The life of King Hrólfr and Elína his daughter, all Ireland, and France, are now in your power and at your disposal …’
Ásmundr thanked him for all his words, as did everyone else; ‘and I want to ask King Hrólfr this’, said Ásmundr, ‘whether he wishes to marry his daughter Elína to me now.’
Then King Hrólfr replied, ‘I most certainly want that and will do so in order to win my life.’
It’s not necessary to make a long tale of this: it was decided that Ásmundr would marry Elína, and the wedding was immediately prepared … King Hrólfr paid his own daughter’s bride-price in a noble fashion, with gold and precious things. They parted now with friendship.

Trust me—this can be read as straight-down-the-line heroic action in medieval popular romance. But it can also be read, as Bjarni implies, as a couple of gangsters politely extorting what they want out of a bound and beaten old man. A particularly closely related theme which underlies much of the plotting and motivation of Bjarni’s novel, although it only surfaces a few times, is the drugs trade (in which, as I’ve mentioned, Sigurður dabbles in a small-time way in his youth before getting busted). Not long after his unexpected transformation into a successful entrepreneur, Sigurður gets sent off to Turkmenistan to negotiate a business deal with the half-Russian, half-German Kex Wragadjip. Sigurður is trying to work out—as he often is in the novel—how the proposed venture can possibly be expected to make money:

— Ekki orð, svaraði Kex á sinni hörðu norðurþýsku. Þið haldið að við eigum ekki neitt, séum ekki neitt og getum ekki neitt. En ég skal segja þér hvað við höfum, vinur. Við höfum blómin í Afganistan og ekki orð, ekki orð.

‘Not a word’, replied Kex in his hard north-German. ‘You people think that we own nothing, are nothing and can be nothing. But I will tell you what we have, my friend. We have flowers in Afghanistan, but not a word, not a word.’

Finally, here’s something Sigurður understands: a real product, for a hungry and proven market. He snaps up the deal. At one level, we should surely read this as part of Sigurður’s descent into villainy—an example of his immoral desire to expand his riches just like the racketeering heroes of the medieval Sigurðar saga, who care about the wellbeing of neither the women they pass between them nor the peasants they scythe through to win them. Bjarni offers the drugs trade—the bête noir of Western society—as a counterpoint to the short-selling, mis-selling, derivatives and other chicanery at the top of the financial system, which have proved equally immoral and destructive but have not, as yet, produced much by way of prosecutions or even solutions. Nor is this episode—or even the subsequent lurid murder of Sigurður’s Icelandic contact in Turkmenistan, which results in his arrival back at the Icelandic office in the form of seventy kilos of dogfood, a wallet, and a haldful of fillings—entirely unparalleled in real life: it was the Baltic drinks company’s operation in Russia which somewhat startlingly secured the fortunes of Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson. Working in the beverage industry in Russia is, I’m told, already circumstantial evidence of involvement with the mafia; and it does appear that the Björgólfar indeed lost a director to assassination. (The most respectable source I have for this is this Guardian article, but I must see if any of my Russian friends will help me follow this up in Russian-language papers.) Writing satire allows Bjarni to explore this perfectly plausible criminal dimension of the Icelandic financial crisis in ways which government reports and autobiographies cannot.

So Bjarni is able to use the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts as a reference point when satirising the acquisitive activities of the útrásarvíkingar. To take this a bit further—developing a point made to me after the lecture I gave—reconceptualising the útrásarvíkingur through the wacky world of romance also challenges the myth of Icelandic national solidarity which medieval texts about Iceland’s medieval settlers have traditioanlly been used to construct. Bjarni’s novel emphasises how, when the Icelandic banking sector is privatised, power-brokers and strident vox pops insist that these Icelandic assets shouldn’t fall into foreign hands—batting aside a bid by the Kaupfélagsstrákarnir (‘Co-op boys’) to bring in some ‘erlendan banka’ (‘foreign bank’, p. 144). People insist that the banks should be handed to strákarnir okkar (‘our boys’—a phrase not used in Iceland of the army, because they don’t have one, but of the next best thing: the Icelandic football team). Þorvaldur Gylfason, in his 2009 Beck lecture, points out what a disaster that was, contrasting Iceland with Estonia, which when the Soviet Union fell recognised the lack of local expertise in banking and let foreign banks take the sector on—and of course Estonia is doing better at the moment economically than anywhere else in the EU. Rather than seeing the state and state institutions as the mechanism for Iceland’s collective wellbeing, people in Iceland, Bjarni tells us, had the idea that privatised banks would still be working for the common good of Icelandic citizens as long as they were owned by Icelanders: fellow settlers; fellow representatives of the spirit of Icelandic independence—independence not so much from one another as from foreign rule. But Bjarni instead identifies these Icelandic financiers with fantastic foreign aristocrats, romping around Europe without a care for anyone else. Maybe Bjarni wishes to take apart the myth of Icelandic solidarity, suggesting that we’re all just individuals on the make; or maybe he wants to preserve that narrative, but banish these bankers from this Icelandic commonwealth. Either way, the idea that things can be privatised but still somehow remain the assets of a nation is destabilised.

This reminds me too how easy it is for me as a medievalist to get caught up in Icelandic national narratives: these romance-sagas have traditionally been seen as foreign rubbish, and I spent a chunk of each of my Beck lectures arguing that we should see them instead as lively, interesting, dynamic engagements of the medieval Icelandic community with European culture. Which I’m sure is basically right, but it’s easy to assume, as I have, that the romances do somehow represent ‘the Icelandic community’—or at least, in the Middle Ages, the posh end of it. But maybe I should be thinking of medieval romances composed in Icelandic as narratives of individuals on the make rather than explorations of any kind of national identity.


As I say, so far that’s covered with much less concision more or less the same ground as Jón Daníelsson. Beyond all this, though, what caught my eye was the prominent role of class in Bjarni’s book. I’m not sure how far this is inspired by Björgólfur Thor Björgölfsson himself—not at all as far as I’ve noticed, but I haven’t done much reading about him yet. In the Iceland I’m familiar with, discourses about class are commonplace. Iceland doesn’t look much like a Nordic welfare state—I mean, it has amazing healthcare and stuff, but my friends complain that political power has stayed in the hands of a small group of quasi-aristocratic families for, like, ever; and of course I know Iceland as a profoundly capitalist place. These complaints are already there in Halldór Laxness’s Nobel-prize winning Atómstöðin from 1947 (whose critiques of Icelandic politics and economy I find uncannily relevant to today); and they’re there, say, in the movie Mávahlátur, set about the same time but made in 2001 (adapted from a book which I haven’t seen). That said, conventional wisdom seems to have it that Icelanders in the second half of the twentieth century also wanted to think of their society as classless and egalitarian. So maybe Bjarni’s pushing a relatively new line here—I’m not sure.

The medieval Sigurðar saga fóts blithely explains the epithet of its hero thus: ‘hann var svá snarr ok fóthvatr, at hann hljóp eigi seinna né lægra í lopt upp ok á bak aftr á ðrum fœti en hinir frœknustu menn á báðum fótum framlangt’—a slightly baffling statement which seems to mean something like ‘he was so quick and nimble-footed that he neither leapt up more slowly nor lower into the air, landing backwards on only one foot, than the most valiant people on both feet forwards’. The statement is a take-off of a similar but marginally more sober characteristic of Gunnar Hámundarson in the famous Njáls saga, and suspiciously has no subsequent relevance to the plot. (Again, plain duff writing, or slightly maladroit satire?) But the epithet in Bjarni’s novel takes on quite different proportions. As the old-fashioned Danish spelling suggests (the Icelandic spelling would be Þór), Björgólfur Thor Björgölfsson takes his middle name from his great-grandfather Thor Jensen (1863–1947), a Danish merchant and the richest man in Iceland of his time. Meanwhile, Sigurður fótur’s epithet is officially Sigurður Frits: his great-grandfather is Langa-Fritz, a great herring-merchant whose descendants, the Fiddarnir, ‘voru komnir af frönskum konsúl, næstum eins fínir of Thorsararnir’ (‘were descended from a French consul, almost as noble as the Thor Jensen’s descendants’, p. 11). So far, this makes Sigurður a straightforward parody of Björgólfur.

However, Sigurður fótur~Frits’s relationship to this aristocratic ancestor is not a tidy one. One of Langa-Fritz’s sons, Fritz L. Fritz, takes advantage of his mentally handicapped housemaid while on a fishing holiday in the countryside, and the daughter whom he sires but does not acknowlegde becomes Sigurður’s mother. She insists on passing on Fritz’s aristocractic name to her son (though to her fury, the spelling gets Icelandicised to Frits). Sigurður Frits actually grows up in a salt-of-the earth working class environment. One day he asks his beloved great-uncle and namesake, the blacksmith Sigurður stál (‘Sigurður steel’), about his name, and his great-uncle replies (p. 56)

Hvaða vitleysa, þú hefur aldrei heitið Frits. Ekki hér í þessari smiðju. Þú heitir bara Sigurður F., já eff eins og í … í fótur. Þú ert líka svo fótstór og varst strax fótstór. […] Já og veistu hverjir voru þeir fótstóru í þessu landi til forna? […] Það voru þrælarnir sem voru fótstórir af öllu mýralabbinu og þeir voru líka einu heiðarlegu mennirnir sem hingað komu. Hitt voru bara þrjótar og illmenni.

What rubbish, you’ve never been called Frits. Not here in this smithy. You’re just called Sigurður F., yeah, f as in … as in foot. Your feet are so big, and grew big from the day you were born. […] Yeah, and do you know who had big feet in this country in the olden days? […] It was slaves who had big feet, because of all that walking in the marshes, and they were also the only honest men who came here. The rest were just villains and scoundrels.

So Sigurður fótur grows up a blacksmith’s grandson, the heir to the honest slaves, the unsung heroes of Iceland’s settlement. Faced with inheriting the financial disaster of his father’s business ventures, he finds comfort driving the forklift truck on the shop floor, moving stock about: it feels like he’s at least getting something done. Even as his business successes grow, he goes to meetings in a leather jacket and jeans. But as Sigurður fótur grows richer, and is enthusiastically accepted by the Fiddarnir as one of their own, the image of Sigurður Frits is increasingly thrust upon him, as media commentators and advisors both take control of his outer image, and hollow out his self-image. The work Sigurður does likewise loses all meaning, and he often finds himself wishing for the old fashioned capitalism which involves actual stuff. As he says to his mother near the end of the novel: ‘það eru ekki peningar sem við ráðum yfir […] það eru peningarnir sem ráða yfir okkur, mamma mín’ (‘it’s not money which we control […] it’s the money that controls us, mum’, p. 218).

In a parallel to the question of whether the medieval Sigurðar saga is a parody, there are multiple possibilities for how far we should laugh at Sigurður fótur. Jón Daníelsson’s write-up makes the saga sound pretty side-splitting. My own experience was much more dour, in part I’m sure because I read the Icelandic so painstakingly and miss so much of the allusion and verbal wit. (And in part because I found some of Bjarni’s little speeches on the nature of capitalism ill-poised—again, maybe because I had to read them so slowly.) But I don’t think that necessarily invalidates my reading; like how the people who cringe to the point of weeping at The Office are as entitled to their experience as those of us who laugh out loud at David Brent. But either way, what interests me about class tension in Bjarni’s novel is how it relates to Molly Flatt’s criticism of British plays about the crisis:

there is something a little suspect about how good these plays make us feel. Money and Enron are both fantastic shows, spectacular and chilling. Booing at their pantomime-villain bankers and traders feels great, but that’s mainly because they allow us to point fingers and condemn the bad guys in a way that we singularly failed to do at the time. Although there were a few perfunctory attempts in each show to remind us that we, the great public, are the ones who facilitated the high-level deceptions – with our failure to question unsustainable returns and our willing collusion in a too-good-to-be-true system as long as it gave us three bedrooms and an en-suite – none of them really hit home. Instead, we got to revel in our own humility and restraint compared to the mad maths geniuses whose hubris dragged us all down.

As Flatt points out, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get the rest of us closer to fixing the mess. Both in the sense that it doesn’t apportion all the blame corretly, but also that it leaves us with the sense that we can’t do anything about it: if we had nothing to do with it all in the first place, then how can we take a stake in it now? What the novel Sigurðar saga fóts does is take us into the world of a banker and, in my experience of the novel, force us to sympathise with him—even if we’re also laughing at him. The idea that Iceland’s boom was all just a dream—a time of happy make-believe—has been quite widespread in Icelandic discourse on the subject. Bjarni uses this idea right through the novel, right from what sounds like a prophetic dream by the four-year-old Sigurður fótur in which he’s attacked by an ugly red bird (no, I don’t know what it represents… But maybe I’m being as dim as his namesake in the medieval saga)—but for Sigurður, he’s in a nightmare, not a dream: a meaningless world where he finds himself participating in illogical processes but can’t seem to get away. When Sigurður sees and seizes the chance to balance his already crazy debts with some ‘flowers in Afghanistan’, I can’t help sympathising, and—for all that I disapprove of wrecking lives through the heroin trade—I wonder how upstanding I’d be in the same circumstances (cf. this recent BBC report). In turn, towards the end of the novel, fundamentally trapped by the fact that at the bottom of the whole pile of financial chicanery is some real debt to some real Russian drugs-barons, Sigurður’s insistence on participating in the madness, to the extent that he becomes part of the mechanism which forces other people to stay in the game, becomes easier to comprehend.

After the lecture, I was asked where the concept of risk fits in to all this—quite rightly. (I was also asked where government fits in, and it is there in Bjarni’s book, but I haven’t got my head around that yet!) One of the audience made the clever suggestion that viking activity in the classical sagas may be like being a gangster, but it does involve up-front-and-personal life-and-limb risk (and risk assessment)—implicitly both nobler and more rational than the algorithms-and-weather-forecasts kind of risk that the utrásarvíkingar were messing about with. And the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts offers a cartoonish world of wish fulfilment in which kings effectively have no responsibilities (they just sail around winning brides—they never do any actual governing) and can sustain implausible wounds through the happy combination of their own superhuman might, the ready availability of doctors and magic healing potions, and, in the last resort, the inexorable genre requirement of the happy ending. But Bjarni’s Sigurðar saga fóts inverts that happy risklessness: there is indeed no sense of risk for the characters in the novel, not because the Sigurður or his best friend think that everything’s going fine, but because they know from all too early on that everything is beyond hope. Since there’s no way out, all they can do is stay in the game as long as they can, and hope that they can make a clean getaway when everything goes to pieces. In the case of Sigurður’s best friend Jamil, this seems to reflect a basic fatalism developed during or even before his time in prison—screw the system or it will screw you I suppose; for Sigurður fótur, however, it’s perhaps more that his life is progressively drained of any agency until it’s all just so meaningless that the small surviving part of him that’s really Sigurður fótur—as opposed to Sigurður Frits—is just left passively waiting for the nightmare to end. As the financial crash finally unfolds, we find Sigurður and his best friend Jamil in front of the TV (p. 238):

— Það er sokkið.
— Þegiðu og drekktu.
— Slökktu á sjónvarpinu.
— Djöfullinn að hann pabbi þinn skuli missa af þessu. Sá hefði skemmt sér.
— Þegiðu og drekktu.

‘It’s sunk.’
‘Shut up and drink!’
‘Switch off the telly.’
‘Like your Dad would’ve bloody missed this! He’d have had fun.’
‘Shut up and drink.’

Bjarni invites us, even if through satire, into the bankers’ shoes; he invites us to mock them but also, I find, to pity them. Maybe he’s just aiming for the ity of contempt, but I find the pity of sympathy too—and the message therefore that the crazy financial system needed (or needs) to be undone for their own wellbeing.

But Bjarni does more than that. Although they only appear round the edges, normal people—by which I non-politicians, non-bankers—and their entrapment by the system also appear. Sigurður’s mother can see the emptiness of her son’s work, and his unhappiness, and largely views Iceland’s bubble with contempt; but ultimately realises that she still can’t just detach herself from it. It was her idea for Sigurður to take a share in his father’s business, and she winds up being whisked off to Spain at the end of the novel. But the participation of normal people is really encapsulated when Sigurður finds himself shuffled into a marriage of convenience with Ella Nord, a relative of the Nord brothers who originally bought the shares in Bjarnhéðinn and Sigurður’s company. Sigurður is handsome, a self-made man but also an aristocrat, and as the voices of the media within the novel don’t hesitate to tell us, it’s the marriage of the century. Meanwhile, however, he’s recently started sleeping with an overweight and heavy-drinking cleaner from his workplace, Vala Maríudóttir. Not wanting to miss the marriage of the century, Vala gets Sigurður to let her attend by getting her onto the casual staff roster.

Utanríkisráðherra hafði flutt hjartnæma ræðu þar sem hann líkti Sigurði fót við víkinga fornaldar, kallaði hann útrásarvíking hins nýja tíma. Næst á eftir ætlaði veislustjóri að gefa forstjóra eins olíufélaganna orðið en þá heyrðist slegið fruntalega í glas og við borðsenda brúðhjónanna stóð Vala Maríudóttir með svarta svuntu.
— Kæru þið, kæri Sigurður og þið öll. Fyrir hönd, — segir maður ekki þannig? — jú, fyrir hönd eða önd okkar starfsfólksins, okkar hinna óbreyttu á gólfinu hjá köllunum okkar, Sigurði fót og Bjarnhéðni kaupahéðni, já okkur finnst þetta gegt og okkur stelpunum finnst hann Sigurður eiginlega miklu flottari en víkingur, okkur finnst hann vera riddari, hann er í raun og veru riddarinn okkar á hvíta hestinum og nú þegar hann er að gifta sig þá fmnst okkur eins og við séum allar að giftast honum og kannski erum við það bara, svo þú skalt passa þig, Ella mín, því við erum allar skotnar í honum og hann veit það. Hann Sigurður minn.

The foreign minister had given a moving speech in which he likened Sigurður fótur to the ancient Vikings, calling him a modern-day Viking raider. Next, the master of ceremonies had planned to give the word to the CEO of one of the oil companies but then an impertinent tapping on a glass was heard, and at the end of the bridal couple’s table stood Vala Maríudóttir in her black apron.
‘Ladies and gentlemen—Sigurður, and everyone. On behalf of [lit. for the hand of]—doesn’t one say it that way? Yes, for the hand, or the spirit, of us employees, us other, simple folk on the floor by our men, Sigurður fótur and Bjarnhéðinn kaupahéðinn … Sigurður seems to us girls much greater than a Viking: for us he is a knight, he is well and truly our knight on a white horse, and now, when he is getting married, it feels for us like we are all marrying him, and actually maybe we are—so you should watch out, Ella dear, because we’ve all fallen for him and he knows it, my Sigurður.’

After a silence in which the M.C. wishes the floor would open and swallow him, rapturous applause breaks out. This is the key moment in Bjarni’s renarration of Sigurður from útrásarvíkingur to riddari viðskiptalífsins (‘knight of the business world’). For Vala, of course, part of the point of this speech is to express her claim to Sigurður (which in practice she sustains until some time after the crash and their espace from Iceland). (Is there scope for reading hönd og önd as being about marriage and love? I’ll have to check sometime.) But it also functions to make Sigurður an everyman: an example of working-class wish-fulfilment made good. Vala expresses how Icelandic society as a whole bought into the dream. And certainly writing from a British perspective, scant months after the most recent royal wedding, the scene is close to the bone. I’ve talked about the possibility that we should read the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts as a parody, but, though Vala, Bjarni emphasises how liable people are to swallow such texts whole, taking the wish-fulfilment without thinking through the violence which is their real stock in trade. I’m interested in this on the one hand because it respresents ways in which the medieval Sigurðar saga fóts went from being a text apparently by and for the elite of Icelandic society to, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, circulating mainly among the poorest in Icelandic society. But I’m also interested in it because it makes us all a part of the financial crisis. The trick is to work out how that gives us all agency in doing something about it. That would start with not getting fooled again, and not getting fooled again would involve taking a hard look not just at the details of financial regulation, but what it is that might have made Sigurður fótur a happy man, and how we can structure our lives towards that, rather than some empty vision of knights of capitalism.


If this was a proper article, I’d have to write some conclusions here. Maybe I even will come back and add some later. But for now, I’m just relieved that it’s a blog post, and I’m at liberty to stop when I want! Fortunately for you, you were at liberty to stop when you wanted too, so you probably didn’t get this far. But like I say, if you did, then comments are welcome!

* Though I wonder if Ásmundur takes a kind of self-destructive revenge later in the novel by driving his friend ever further into financial peril; I’ve got to reread it to decide about that.

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Days 51–58, September 14th–21st: libraries, ego-trips and elves

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (STILL working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 252/252

Victoria! The furthest from home I have ever been! (Or intend to be for a good while to come.)

I’ve been kept pretty occupied here by the groovy denizens of the University of Victoria, meaning that I haven’t kept up with blogging at all well. So this is a monster post, of bits of thoughts from the capital of British Columbia.

Library tourism

Ahh, the university library. I haven’t done work in a library since back in Iceland! It was nice to visit the Dictionary of Old English of course, and I could have cadged my way into spending more time in Toronto’s Robarts Library, except that pretty much everything I needed this summer was on the web, so the effort seemed undue. Which is basically a good thing. I won’t weep for the end of the hard copy book, which seems to be approaching more swiftly by the day.

But I do like libraries. Lots of people I know prefer to borrow books and take them home or to their offices (if they have one) to work there. Whereas I like to go to libraries, get online, and get working. I like that air of quiet, shared industry that libraries have. UVic’s is a pretty 1960s kind of building, but good of its kind: reasonably airy, perfectly navigable, enough plug sockets. UVic has some annual some teaching award, right—looks like they award two staff every year—and they put photos of all the winners up the staircases in a kind of teaching hall of fame. Admittedly these awards are fundamentally just a sop for the fact that the higher education sector has for eight hundred years failed to develop any sensible ways of assessing quality of teaching and rewarding it systematically. And I’m not quite sure how I’d feel about the hall of fame if I were in it—or for that matter if I thought I should be in it but wasn’t! But it certainly gave a good impression to the visitor.

In fact, the UVic campus has a good vibe generally. I wasn’t quite sold on the UofT’s. Part of my thing about expecting the new world to look new was that I expected its universities to look basically like 1960s universities in the UK—York or Stirling say. UofT, on the contrary, looks like someone’s taken the ‘Nineteenth Century to the Present’ Cambridge University architectural assortment box, found a few football pitches, and shaken the box out onto them. (And, this being Canada, they then made sure all the buildings were at right angles to each other.) Which, you know, is fair enough, I mean, why shouldn’t they have nineteenth-century buildings? And some are very nice, and there was lots to be impressed about about the place generally; but it definitely felt a bit peculiar. And, you know, if you choose to remind me of Cambridge you have to pick your way quite carefully because there’s a 67% chance you’ll accidentally step into a startlingly unabated pool of RAGE. But UVic had an attractive coherence; it does look like York or Stirling, but like how they’d have looked if they were done by a humanist rather than a brutalist. It feels unpretentious but not unprepossessing; functional but not functionary; plenty of trees.

Being on the ego trip

I’ve done this ‘visiting speaker’ thing a few times now, in one context or another—though never so long or so far from home! People are always so embarrassingly nice to you! You get treated like royalty, only without the burden of knowing that you’re an unelected sponger-cum-prisoner-of-circumstance. Albeit with the concomitant worry that the people who chose you might at some point realise their mistake, and the game will be up. One way or another, though, so far it’s always gone okay, and people have been fabulously polite and welcoming and generous—and Victoria has been a pre-eminent example of the form.

Not that you’ll trust me to tell the truth, of course, because they paid me to go to Canada and back! Woo! This aspect of UVic’s generosity was facilitated by the late Margaret and Richard Beck, who on their deaths left their house to the University to endow an Icelandic lecture series—by which time, it turned out, it was worth a small fortune. Good move! Funny how philanthropists are generally at their best when they’re dead; but then I guess that’s how orðstír works.

So yeah, the Becks put me up in this proper flash hotel, Laurel Point Inn. Slightly confusingly, the booking email they sent me said, at the bottom, ‘Inn at Laurel Point is proudly smoke free and British Columbia’s first Carbon Neutral hotel’, but when I hunted for information on their website, there was no information about carbon neutrality at all. Clearly not that proud then! So I asked about this at the desk, expecting the standard look of confusion followed by a domino-fall of different staff members with no idea what I was talking about. Like that time that I commended someone at Brill for the statement on their website saying that authors could make their Brill publications available online free-access, at which point everyone there was, like, what, do we say that?! Arrrgh! And took it down. But the lass at the desk gave a very articulate account of how the hotel’s kind of old so they couldn’t do very much to make it ecotastic so mostly just paid for offsetting. As diligent readers will know I think offsetting is basically (and in some cases definitely) a rip-off. But at the same time, I was kind of impressed with the answer I got; and in a back-to-front sort of way, I sort of feel that the hotel’s silence on the website might hint at their underlying sincerity with the enterprise. A bit confusing that one. Anyway, I quite liked the place.

apple pie

Apple pie. And metal sausage-dog.

And I had lots of free lunches and dinners, including one cooked by one of my hosts, with, like, actual home-made apple pie and everything! I’ve been in North America a long time without getting stuck in to this famed local confection (erm, though I guess it’s less famed in Canada than the USA, but still). It was great! And people gave me free books. And I got to talk to some of these infamous Vestur-Íslendingar, (descendants of) Icelanders who, like Richard Beck himself, emigrated west. That was really interesting. And the people who were charged to look after me all did amazing jobs. And I met lots of interesting people at UVic generally, including three people I had met before, but only one of whom I actually remembered on first sight :-/ (Sorry forgotten people! You were very nice about it! And it was very nice to meet you, er, again.)


Whenever, over the last nine months or so, I’ve mentioned to anyone—in Britain, Iceland, or Canada—that I was going to Victoria, they’ve gone weak at the knees and have been, like, ‘Oh, Victoria’s LOVELY! You’re so lucky to be going! You’ll love it there!’

A few, with what to my ears sounds like a sting in the tail, add ‘It’s JUST like England!’

Undeniably, on my first evening there, I saw this guy standing on the pavement videoing something with his digital camera, and I look round to see what the source of excitement is and it’s… a bus. After a moment, it dawned on me that the point was that it was a double-decker. I was interested enough in this guy’s interest in the bus that I was tempted to video him videoing it… But didn’t. I guess they are quite British.

And, yeah, one of the people who’d I’d met before but forgotten was trying to convince me that the reason why downtown Victoria is so sleepy is that the town is basically like Leeds (not realising that this wasn’t going to be much of a selling point to yours truly): it’s more a bunch of little towns or villages, each with their own shops and stuff, that have got stuck together.

But Victoria doesn’t look much like Leeds really. It looks like the sort of place that was never touched by smog. The old coastal suburbs really do look like English suburbs, but Platonic ideal suburbs, the suburbs of which all English suburbs are but a shadow on the wall.

You couldn’t deny for a moment that it’s a really nice place. It has sea; it has islands; it has friendly bus-drivers; it has cool trees (more in the trees post); it has the best book-shop interior I can remember seeing; it has Canadians. But I felt like I couldn’t find the pulse of the place, while getting the sense that the was a pulse there somewhere waiting to be found. Curious spot.

Munro's bookshop, Government Street

Munro's bookshop, Government Street

Mind you, by the time I left Victoria, I’d bumped into three of my various audience members in town, who were all really friendly. I like it when you move to a place and get to the point where you start bumping into people you know by accident: looks in Victoria like it happens pretty quickly!


And I gave these three lectures of course, all kind of about medieval Icelandic romance, one through the medium of Low German language-contact, one through the medium of elves, and one through the medium, of course, of Bjarni Harðarson’s Sigurðar saga fóts. Each, it must be said, was rather heavily indebted in its way to Bike Guy: thanks! In the unlikely event that you want to know more about these, they’re all going to turn up online eventually at the Beck site. I think what was most interesting for me about the whole process were the kinds of questions I got after the elves paper. A nice diverse audience, from medieval academics to random members of the public. Some of the questions were very helpful, but not much different qualitatively from what I’m used to back in Europe, either in universities or in public lectures. What was quite startling to me was the audience’s enthusiasm for recounting friends’ and relatives’ own encounters with elves and similar characters. You get a bit of that when you give papers in Europe, but not much. I think there must be these interlinked factors of Canadians both having access to stories like that, and then being willing to bring them up in a public forum. Of course, maybe Europeans have as much access to narratives like these, but wouldn’t express them in an academic context (maybe I get stories of elf-encounters in Europe more after the questions are over, when people come up to you to say what was in their mind afterwards). But at the same time you could imagine how Canadians’ greater willingness to talk about the stuff is, in turn, the reason why they have access to the stories.

Of course, it’s totally anecdotal evidence. But I’m intrigued. Maybe it’s to do with the search for an identity based on ancestors’ ethnicity; maybe it’s to do with the greater religiosity of North Americans generally—if you believe in God, why not believe in elves?—but I’m not sure whether Canadians as a nation are more like the northern states of the USA or more like north-west Europe in that respect; maybe it’s just to do with these Pacific Coast hippies. It looks they’re quite theologically sophisticated up here.

Sign at Church of Our Lord: WELL YOU DID ASK FOR A SIGN --GOD

A sign!

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Day 56, September 19th: yay!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 252/252


Now I’ve finished that I might even actually get to blogging about this Victoria place…

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Days 49–51, September 12th–14th: Vancouver

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (STILL working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 223/252

Whew, and then I was in Vancouver! The pacific coast! Behind on my travelblogue but (NB) catching up on Sigurðar saga fóts. Yay! Blimey, I’ve made my first continental crossing! Out here in the West, you sometimes smell a plant that reminds me of the smell of fennel tea. I wonder if it’s fennel? Yeah, and it’s in British Columbia! The land of carbon taxation. Woo!

Vancouver seemed a bit of a blur. Partly it was just the mist. But being on holiday turns out to be tiring, and I guess I’m getting a bit travel-worn. Still, I liked the grey sky. And, like, cities can get cool points for various things—good public transport (especially underground systems where you can see out the front of the train), seats of national government, a well-stocked university library, groovy languages, whatever. But let’s face it, most of the cool points a city is ever going to score come inevitably from three key environmental factors:

  • Does it have the sea?
  • Does it have islands?
  • Does it have mountains?

Broadly, cities get 12 points for one of these, 20 points for two, and 24 points for three. Not many get 24. Edinburgh gives it a good shot; so does Helsinki. London and Toronto kind of crawl in to the lower rankings by making optimistic claims for tidal rivers and large lakes respectively. Leeds does not. Reykjavík struggles a bit with those last four points, but does very well. But Vancouver definitely gets the full 24. Shame I was too spaced out to say anything really intelligent about its success!

Though it did also have HUGE piles of YELLOW!

Big pile of yellow, Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver didn’t seem as bikey as Toronto, but I did cycle round much of the downtown’s coast on a nicely done cycle path. The sort which sometimes has a nice simple hey, here’s a park by the sea, let’s put a cycle path along the edge sort of vibe. (Some really great trees in the park by the way, it was like being on ENDOR! Except that I was on a normal bike, not a speederbike. But more about that in my trees post when I do it.) But sometimes the cycle path had more like a, hmm, tricky, now there’s a big road in the way sort of vibe. The impressive thing being that in Britain people go ‘I dunno, I guess that now we’ve got to the point where cyclists might actually need it, we’ll abruptly give up on the cycle lane, put up a bafflingly uninformative signpost, and see how many get squashed’. But Vancouver actually did sensible, helpful, creative things with its cycle path. So well done Vancouver!

I get the idea that Vancouver likes to think of itself as these amazingly eco-friendly place. It wasn’t massively apparent as I biked round (the people on bikes all seemed to be tourists like me), but hey, I wasn’t there long. Mind you, I did meet the best bus-driver in the world! Me and my companions had asked a bike-hirer-outer about buses and she was, like, oh, get on the bus, the driver will tell you where to go. And if I was able to raise just one eyebrow at a time, I would have considered that an ideal moment. Helpful bus-drivers? You’ve been cycling too long, miss. Though to be fair, bus drivers here in North America have been pretty cool so far. I did have a very slow conversation with a totally useless one in Buffalo, but then with another one who was nice and moderately helpful; there was the democratic coach-driver on the way to Chicago of course, you can’t say he didn’t have character. And the coach-driver from Edmonton to Calgary. We’ve been driving about five minutes and then he stops at this bus stop, and switches off the engine and stands up and says ‘Until yesterday, I’d have made this announcement on the microphone. But as of today, in Alberta, it’s illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving, or even on a microphone’. And I’m, like, oh God, what rant am I about to sit through from this denizen of the land of tar sands? But then he smiles and chipperly-and-politely continues, ‘Which, given the number of accidents caused by people talking on their cellphones while driving, I think is quite sensible. Now, you’ll find a restroom towards the back of the vehicle…’

But the Vancouver bus-driver was GREAT! I had to compost this ticket we’d bought in the supermarket, right, and was trying to work out how to use the machine and he was, like, bouncing up and down in his seat and he was, like, GO ON! Yeah, that’s it! No, not that way round! YEAH!! THAT WAY! WOO! Go on, push it in! Like that! YEAH! THERE YOU GO! WOO! And he really was helpful about where to get off and where to go and everything. That’s my kind of bus-driver. Extra public transport points for Vancouver!

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Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (3)

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 212/252

Oh yeah! I forgot to say!


I was in Banff, right, standing on a corner waiting for my motley companions to emerge from the offy, when along the road walks this MOUNTIE! With, like, a HAT and everything! Well, no horse, and no deaf white wolfdog, but still, he was totally a mountie, and he didn’t even look hot even though it was roasting. And he gets halfway across the zebra crossing, right, and looks down at the car that he’s walking in front of, and stops. Not abruptly, like, but politely and firmly. And then, straight-backed, hands behind his back, he bends from the waist down to the car window and politely-but-firmly explains that here in the province of Alberta, it’s obligatory to do up your seat belt in the car.

The driver mutters something sheepishly and, struck by an evident awe of this representative of rightwise thinking, hastily belts in.

‘That’s all right, sir’, says the mountie firmly, and straightens up. ‘Have a good day now.’ And he walks on across the zebra crossing, nods firmly-but-politely as he passes me (also struck with awe), and on down the street.


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Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (2)

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 212/252

So I had this colleague, right, who was, like, maybe some of our lectures would be less boring if we did them as debates. You know, who would you rather save from a burning building, Geoffrey Chaucer or Marie de France, that kind of thing. Which I thought was a great idea (except that I always lost). Then this colleague left, right, but the debates remained, only now my sparring partner is someone who’s always, like, well, really we should save everyone from burning buildings and they all have their own individual merits and worth. I mean, I know she’s right, yeah, but at the same time, that’s not the point of a debate…

So which would win in a fight, Iceland or the Canadian Rockies? Bearing in mind that the only acceptable evidence in this debate is my own eyewitness reporting. In the case of Iceland, most of the coast, particularly the south coast and the Eastfjords, but not the Westfjords; in the case of the Rockies, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Camloops. In both cases often with people who like to appreciate the natural world from inside cars, pausing to get out for specific natural wonders; but also with sporadic proper hiking.


So the rockies kind of win hands down: bright sunshine or moonlight for ten days solid. During the day, temperatures were higher than I’ve ever seen in Iceland; and when did Iceand ever go ten days without a cloud passing?! But then… I kind of started to miss clouds. And drizzle. I’ve been quite glad of both since coming West to the Pacific coast. And there’s something about the breezy freshness of the North Atlantic air that I started to miss… And if it weren’t for all that rain in Iceland, you wouldn’t see so many rainbows. Or those fleeting moments when the sun comes out and you’re like, now I remember what hope is! Iceland, I have been so spoiled by my good weather-fortune in the Rockies that I miss you and your weather.

Iceland: 1
Rockies: 0


It appears to be the done thing to come to North America and go, wow, everything’s so big! The cars, the plates, the people, everything! Mostly I haven’t noticed this very much, particularly over in Toronto; though Cheektowaga and Calgary and Camloops all did look sort of over-spacious, and obviously there were the monstrosities of central Chicago. But the Rockies: they’re totally big! They do make Iceland’s mountains look kind of dinky. In fact, even just the surface area of the Canadian Rockies makes Iceland look dinky. On the other hand, Vatnajökull looks upon the Columbia Icefield and laughs. On the other other hand, poking around at the edge of a glacier, which is all I’ve really done in either place, feels much the same. You’d have to put in some serious effort to appreciate Vatnajökull as a vaster place than Columbia Icefield. Hmm, except that Skaftafellsjökull made cool, scary rumbly noises and left these beautiful stones in the morain that looked like normal stones until you accidentally touched them and, their internal cohesion long since destroyed under the pressure of the ice, they disintegrated into a thousand pieces. Spacy! I’m torn. The rockies are more impressive, Iceland is more homely, in its drizzly way. I guess if you’ve been following the blog so far you’ll have a guess which I’m likely to prefer…

Iceland: 2
Rockies: 0


Transparently meaningful place-names! Both Iceland and the Rockies have these, but in Iceland, you more or less expect them. Akrafjall, the mountain of the fields; Eyjafjöll, the mountains of the islands; Vestmannaeyjar, the islands of the Hebrideans. It’s cool. But in Britain, English-language mountain names were mostly last transparent in the seventh century. Well, there’s Snowdon, the first element’s still transparent, fair enough. But it was really cool to be moving through this landscape where the names are fully alive: the Big Beehive. Because it looks like a big beehive. Emerald Lake. Which is the same colour as an emerald. PYRAMID MOUNTAIN! Because it looks like a PYRAMID! Okay, so some of these names are more inventive than others, and who knows what arrays of older names have been steamrollered off the maps. But I was still, like, wow, this is how the English landscape must have felt back in the day. I guess both places should score equally on transparenly meaningful place-names, but like I say, you expect it in Iceland. In the Rockies it was new!

Iceland: 2
Rockies: 1


The Rockies have trees! Trees are cool. They’re so cool that I’m going to do a whole separate post about trees, with pictures. The Rockies have cool trees. Iceland just has some scrubby birch. In the hot weather I’d be walking through these pine forests in the Rockies and I’d smell the smell of pine and be like, hey, that’s the smell of pine! Like, in real life, not someone trying to make their toilet smell funny. But after a while, it’s, like, yeah, sun, pine, pine, sun, more pine, I mean, it’s not birch is it? It’s sort of hot-and-resinous, not cool-and-breezy. You wouldn’t beat yourself with pine in the sauna, would you? It’s not the Reykjavík smell. And, you know, with pine there wouldn’t be any ruska. And although I really respected these pine forests in their own way, you don’t half have to walk a long way before you finally get over the treeline and can actually get a view. No problem with that in Iceland. The trees in the Rockies have their place, but they don’t win!

Iceland: 3
Rockies: 1

The Northern Lights!

Wow, the Northern lights! I sort of once glimpsed these, vaguely white, from a train window north of Tampere, but you couldn’t see much. And later in life I realised that I had actually seen them in Ireland in 1996. My uncle came into the caravan one evening and was, like, there’s something funny in the sky outside. So we go out, and there’s this funny white band stretching hazily across the night sky, and we wondered if it might be a cloud, or maybe smoke, but none of these identifications seemed to fit. We couldn’t work out what to do with it, so my uncle christened it a moonbow and that was that.

Then I was living in Iceland in 2010, right, and I was just walking back from the pub in the small hours through Reykjavík, and I was, like, what’s that up in the sky? I wonder if it’s a funny shaped cloud? Or maybe smoke? And I stare at it, right, and then it starts to move and get green bits on it, and I’m, like, it was a MOONBOW!! And now it’s the Northern Lights! And then it had RED BITS on it too! It was totally amazing, all the more so for being unexpected, I was just blown away, there next to Reykjavík airport, squinting through the streetlights without a soul around.

I didn’t seen the northern lights as much as I’d have liked while I lived in Reykjavík because Mávahlíð is too far into town. Needed to be by the sea really. Still, I did get to show them to an ex-student one time: that was cool too. Made me feel like I’d finally given the guy something that you could call an education.

Then, right, me and my travelling companions were playing Dutch Blitz, this card game brought to us by the Pennsylvanian member of our rabble, and it’s quite fast-moving, right, so it can be a bit loud. And the lady who ran the B&B we were in was a bit of a stern sort of character. On arrival we were given, in oral and written form, a long list of things we weren’t allowed to do (cook onions, let any children in our party play in the garden, that sort of thing). And I’d just won, for like the only time ever, this game and shouted BLITZ! (Which is what you do to win, only you have to have got rid of your cards too, otherwise it would be too easy.) And there’s this knock at the door. And we’re all, like, oh no, now we’re going to be in trouble :-/ So I answer the door, and it’s the landlady saying ‘Do you want to come and see the Northern Lights?’ Woo! So out we go, and there they are, turning from a moonbow into northern lights and back again. And we got the pajama’d early-sleepers in this motley collection of travellers out of bed and then drove to Pyramid Island to watch them in the proper dark. And, you know, they came and went pretty quickly, but still, it was cool seeing the Northern Lights in company.

I think it has to be a point each way on Northern Lighteration.

Iceland: 4
Rockies: 2


Wow, so Iceland and the Rockies are both seriously Geological Places. Like, the kinds of places where uplift and erosion are laid bare for human appreciation; where you get glaciers and glacial rivers, and U-shaped valleys and V-shaped valleys, and hanging valleys and stuff. So it’s a close call, and I guess geology points count disproportionately to ultimate victory. The Rockies are totally prototypically mountainous. I mean, you look at an Icelandic mountain and there’s no doubt that it’s a mountain. But you look at a Canadian mountain and you’re like, it is MOUNTAIN! So much so that the very word MOUNTAIN starts to look weird because you’ve stared at it too long. And that thing about fractals–how a mountain is made up of rocks that look like mountains, which are made up of stones which look like mountains, which are made up of, er, stone-molecules that look like mountains… or something… the Rockies are totally like that! Maybe that’s why they’re called the rocky mountains. Icelandic mountains don’t really look rocky the way that the Rockies do. I guess lava isn’t so obviously fractal a mountain-building material. It just lacks frac.

So this kind of comes down to a sedimentary-or-igneous debate. I was cadging a field trip with some vulcanologists in Iceland one time and looked down at this meandering river and innocently asked something like, wow, why’s that river meandering like that? And they turned and stared at me with, if not contempt, then at least blank amazement that I should so much as ask so lame a question. And then said ‘That’s the kind of thing a sedimentologist would ask’. Ever since then I’ve felt this welling sympathy for sedimentologists, the underdogs of Icelandic geology, the people who work on slow-but-sure accretion, little-by-little erosion, rather than pyrotechnics. Maybe it’s because I’m a philologist… So, yeah, the Rockies are very sedimentary. In, like, amazing ways. Everywhere you go you can see the grain of the rock, sometimes at alarmingly non-horizontal angles. It might be a little stone you’ve picked up, or it might be a whole chain of mountains that you’re looking at through the thin air from the alpine pastures of Pyramid Mountain. It’s the fractals thing again, how the peak of a mountain crumbles away just like an upended bit of slate, only one’s small and near, and one’s big and far away.

And the Rockies have FOSSILS! They have AMAZING FOSSILS! Of PLANTS and SOFT-BODIED SEA-CREATURES! Iceland hardly has any fossils. Igneous rocks aren’t very conducive to fossils.

But… the Rockies are kind of brown and light grey, whereas Icelandic mountain for the most part is BLACK. At first it’s a bit disorientating, but mountains—and beaches—do look good in black. It, er, sets off the grey of the sky. Does being near the sea count as an unfair advantage? Fjords are cooler than valleys, but maybe that should be discounted for the purposes of this competition. But still, that shade of brown reminds me of my irritatingly brown manuscripts.

Arrrgh, so difficult. I think if the Rockies were both as big as they are AND black then everyone there would just curl up and weep in terror. There’s something cosy about the brownness, even as, I grudgingly suppose, there’s something cosy about those crappy old Icelandic manuscripts. I think the Rockies win on geology.

Iceland: 4
Rockies: 4

Arse, now I need to do a tiebreaker.

Trolls or Sasquatch?

Trolls obviously!!

Iceland: 5
Rockies: 4

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Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (1)

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 212/252

If, before my trip, you’d asked me to do a quick word-association for ‘North America’, it would have been topped by things like ‘Bush administration’, ‘Sarah Palin’, ‘Jesusland’, and ‘1% of the population currently in prison‘, pulling out of the stall at the last minute with glimmers of hope like ‘Obamacare’. Once I’d got all that off my chest, I’d probably have wandered through the names of various bands I like, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. Probably somewhere down about number 40 I’d have got to ‘Oh yes, there’s Canada too. Sounds like a nice place, shame about the tar sands. And the Queen.’ (Though oddly, even I feel more tolerant of her from over here. I guess putting a few thousand miles of ocean between us helps; as perhaps does the fact that on the money over here she dispenses with the crown.) Maybe around 100 I’d have thought of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, more or less next to the NRA, but also, to be fair, near the upbeat bit in Bowling for Columbine where Michael Moore explains that although Canadians have as many guns as Americans, they choose to shoot elk with them rather than each other. And somewhere below all the toing and froing of federal politics and pop culture, I’d finally have washed up at about 150 with ‘Sounds like they have some good scenery too’.

Really—despite my enthusiasm from camping and stuff, I have just never given much thought to what North America’s natural beauty might amount to, beyond an in-principle recognition that it has some, and ability to name the Grand Canyon and Jellystone Park. But seeing paintings by the likes of Lawren Harris in the AGO a month or so ago started to get me excited about what Canada might look like. And when, after meeting my motley collection of holiday companions in Calgary, I began my road trip through the Rockies, I started to be, like, WOW, this looks like how mountains look in PICTURES!

But then it properly hit me on the morning of Day 41, when me and the Goon (one of the motley companions) went for a morning run (!) in Banff. (It was his idea, not mine.) Banff is a touristy sort of place, but there’s no denying the amazingness of the surroundings; and although my whole trip in the Rockies has been sunny, the morning air was cold and clear; you could imagine for a moment that autumn might be coming. We didn’t really have any idea where we were going, but after running around lots of streets named after rodents (mouse avenue, marmot street, squirrel street, you get the idea), suddenly we’re running on this track beside the Bow River, broad and fast-flowing, and on either side you can just see these forested mountains rising up, and much more forcibly than at any moment on the trip so far, I suddenly and unexpectedly get that sensation of BLIMEY, I’M IN AMERICA!

I don’t think of myself as being much into Westerns; I have had the (in Old Norse circles almost proverbial) experience where a Generation X Old Norse lecturer says, don’t worry kids, it’s easy to understand sagas: they’re just like Westerns. *Looks expectantly at sea of faces, which return only vacant stares.* You know, like how there’s feuds and stuff? Or how the goodies wear white hats and the baddies wear black hats? *Students gaze blankly for a moment, and then all eyes fall to their desks and they frantically start taking notes.* Oh, er, you see, you know how in sagas, if someone’s going to kill someone else, they put on a black cloak? *Glimmers of recognition.* Well, Westerns are sort of like that. And you know how in sagas, the story’s all about settling a new land? And you get these powerful women in a male-dominated frontier society? *Scratching of pens gives way to nods of recognition.* You get them in Westerns too, you see. You should probably, er, watch some. They’re, er, a lot like sagas.

But even so, I kind of now realise that my childhood was pretty saturated with America’s great outdoors. I remember watching Westerns when they were used as TV schedule filler in school holidays, back before I was old enough really to understand plots; and bad TV versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on Saturday mornings before my parents were awake; and a time—more or less put out of my mind until the memory was jogged—when I’d be as likely to play at being a cowboy (making the Goon be an Indian) as being Robin Hood (and the Goon, on a good day, Will Scarlet; or on a bad day Guy of Gisbourne). I think I disapproved of Huckleberry Finn, but of course couldn’t help admiring him; and I guess somewhere deep down in the carbon-counting thirty-something, lodged like Daisy Bell in HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the role-model of this lad living in a barrel by some broad, fast-flowing American river, his only worthwhile possession a knife that his father gave him.

* * *

Edit: oh yeah, I just remembered! Champion the Wonder Horse! I’d forgotten all about that. Classic early ’80s, early Saturday viewing…

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Day 45, September 8th: the best French words for animals

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it though…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252

Canadian national parks turn out to be great places to pick up French vocab. Alas, I haven’t actually spoken any French here beyond the odd ‘merci’ or ‘pardon’—my own fault for not going over to Quebec of course—but government signage is a great opportunity for bilingual fun. I’ve been making an effort to learn all sorts of words, but the animal words are the best. Here’s my top five!

5. Striding in with top etymology points is l’ours-grizzli ‘grizzly bear’. I like it when Latin words do not get too badly mangled in French, and ours < ursus is a nice example. I also always enjoy English loanwords in French, and I especially like it when French loan-words in English get reborrowed back into French. Thus Old French gris ‘grey’ (itself possibly a Germanic loan-word) > Old French/Middle English grisel ‘greyish, roan’ > early modern English grizzly ‘greyish, flecked with grey’ > modern French ours-grizzli ‘gizzly bear’.

4. The low-brow but irresistable spermophile ‘ground squirrel’. Okay, I know it really means ‘nut-lover’, but it’s not like that helps…

3. An old faithful, but one whose wacky charm is guaranteed to go undimmed either by familiarity or the passage of time: oiseau ‘bird’. ‘Michel, ne derange pas les oiseaux!’ shouts a Quebecoise mother, losing all hope of gravitas at the final hurdle. How could Mr. Oizo have chosen any other name?

2. Back to Canada-specific names for number two: le mouflon! ‘Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep’. What a genius word: a woollier, wifflier version of the more familiar mouton. How did I not know about this before?! And even better: although the signage round here translates mouflon as ‘mountain sheep’, it has been loaned into English! Yes, it is indeed possible to say, par exemple, ‘Excuse me, my good sir, I appear to have lost my mouflons. And I don’t know where to find them. Would you be so good as to advise me as to how I might best expedite their return?’ Mesdames et messieurs, les mouflons!

1. But stealing the show for all-round Canadian-French spaciness: Le WAPITI! Or ‘elk’. ‘Pardonnez-moi, monseiur: est-qu’il y a un WAPITI ici?’ ‘Mais oui, mon ami, les WAPITIS sont là-bas!’ ‘Alors! C’est un WAPITI! Merci beaucoup, monsieur!’ ‘C’est rien. J’aime bien les WAPITIS aussi!’

And just in case this has whetted your appetite for more Canadian French, I feel beholden to link to a bit of Têtes à claques. Admittedly I haven’t actually seen this while I’ve been here in Canada, knowing it instead from citizens of the Fifth Republic, who seem to derive as much amusement from the Quebequois accent as from the actual content. But it’s worth it whether or not you speak any French, if only for the experience…

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Day 42, September 6th: bunting!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it though…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252



I have lots to post about here in the Canadian Rockies, but haven’t had a chance to get it all together yet. So this is just a shoutout to Emmhub and her famous passion for bunting, on which subject she has a most enlightening blogpost here. The pictures are from the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.

Bunting detail!

Bunting in detail!

* * *

PS. If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted about my carbon emissions on the train yet, it’s because I can’t find information on this anywhere! This despite Viarail writing ‘A green choice / Un choix vert’ in big letters on the sides of their trains. Viarail offer such useless factoids as ‘While the transportation industry was responible [sic] for more than 26% of greenhouse gas emissions produced in Canada in 2005, VIA was responsible for only 0.03%’; the Canadian government tell me what they want it to be; Transport Canada give tantalisingly almost-useful figures. I’ll email Viarail. Meanwhile, Amtrak have sent me a holding reply and have since been very quiet. This stuff isn’t rocket science, guys…

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Days 36–39, August 30th–September 2nd: Alaric’s favourite ever train journey!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working out the figure to Edmonton)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252 (eek!)

Toronto to Edmonton! My favourite ever train ride!

Alaric's train route

The train route!

I actually had to leave the train just when the landscape started getting interesting, so it wasn’t really the views that made it my favourite ride. Though they were still cool: when I woke up on Day 37, I could almost have woken up in Finland. Everything was forests and lakes. Only the forests and lakes were a little bit more fairy-taley than in Finland; and the occasional cabins by the lakes a little bit less. Then it seemed more to be forests and marshes. When I woke up on Day 38, we were coming into Winnipeg; and after that you got these prairies with huge fields and huger skies; and when I stretched my legs in Saskatoon that night, there were lots of stars, and the first properly cool air I’ve felt since leaving Iceland.

But really the great thing about the ride is that it was like finding myself in an Agatha Christie novel. (Or, at least, since I’ve never read any, a TV adaptation of one.) The rolling stock’s newer, but the dynamic is the same: a train ride that lasts for days; people you get to know bit by bit as you find yourself sitting next to them or sharing tables in the restaurant car; and a sort of general setup that to me is straight out of the 1930s. The train’s, like, fifteen coaches long or something, but the economy class bit is just four or so, including a restaurant and a kind of hanging out coach, and on my ride there were lots of empty seats, so it doesn’t take long at least to be on nodding terms with everyone. (Or, for that matter, to start guessing which one is the world-famous detective, and who’s going to get bumped off first.) And in Britain, you get conductors, right; but here you have guards. I mean, they don’t call them that (in fact, when I overhear them on their walkie-talkies, they call them ‘revenue personnel’). But they don’t check your ticket: they wake you up when it’s your stop; or let you into the guard’s van (there’s a guard’s van!) if you need to get something from your luggage (which probably takes the form of four capacious trunks); or they say ‘All aboard!’ when the train’s finished taking on water and it’s time to leave the forest hamlet where you’ve been stretching your legs. I found myself saying things like, ‘I’ll just ask the guard’; and the Canadians looked at me funny because they say, I dunno, ‘the train guy’ or whatever; but I did a double-take too because the last time I talked about a guard on a train was in about 1934.

Train! In Foleyet. Population: 216. Schools: 2 (one English, one French).

And the guards all have proper Canadian accents. Not the Amercian kind, but the sort of deep, placid-but-chipper, polite-but-nonchalant-but-firm way of talking that makes you know you’re in safe hands. And it’s not just for passengers, they talk to each other that way too. My seat is near the guard’s seat in my coach, so you hear the chat on their walkie-talkies, as they complain chipperly-but-firmly up and down this fifteen-carriage monster about the freight trains holding them up, or try to work out why the power’s gone down, or haggle over who gets dinner when. And when they’re chatting to each other, you hear them slew from English into French and back again, which is fun.

I wasn’t planning to eat in the restaurant car, but decided it was too good an opportunity to meet people to miss. And it’s not a bad deal. AND I ate a PICKEREL! Now that’s a word I haven’t used since, like, the SEVENTEETH century! Well, that’s not true of course, because the Pickerel was (and I can only imagine remains) Magdalene College’s local pub, but I didn’t know anyone else was still using the word. So yeah, had to have one of those. Not that anyone has yet been able satisfactorily to explain to me what it is. (Possible synonymys include jackfish and wall-eyed fish, but that hasn’t got me very far.) To the best of my understanding, the pickerel remains some kind of seventeenth-century pike.

And yeah, spending three days on a train without much to look at, I’ve got a lot of work done, but also met a lot of interesting people. Top scorers are probably:

  • The bile-filled old couple sitting in front of me from Winnipeg, who pause from sniping at each other only for the husband to sulk and for the wife to complain loudly to the air, asking why we’re going so slowly/why the train is whistling so often/why the lights have gone off. I am reduced maliciously to pretending I think she really wants answers and providing them in my best helpful-but-firm-but-chipper voice.
  • The affable Winnipeg student coming back from visiting her folks in New Brunswick, who commiserated me in the boarding queue about the weird and/or drunk Canadian-Welsh guy who talked at me for half an hour in Toronto station. Her charm is tempered by an insistence on repeating everything I say back to me in a bad English accent, making the first half of the journey feel like being locked in an echo chamber with Austin Powers.
  • The Afghan lady in the seat behind me: born 1969, married 1982, emigrates to Pakistan 1990, emigrates to Canada 1997, doesn’t get on with her husband’s new wife and so is moving, heavy-hearted, to Vancouver. The Winnipeg student is good at talking to her, and we learn a few words of Farsi.
  • The Polish-Canadian schoolteacher across the dinner table; she’s on her way from her summer holiday to a course in Winnipeg, before term starts and she climbs aboard some five-seat-aircraft to go back out towards the Arctic Circle, to her school on a reservation. Nuff said!

And then it turns out that if you’re a musician, you can get a free ticket if you promise to play three gigs for each leg of your journey! Two axemen join us at Winnipeg. They seriously do not sing loud enough to be playing on a moving train: I should send them to Helsinki to attend the Johnny Badapple school of busking. But they were good folks and the gig was fun. Twenty-odd random travellers squashed together in a room in the hanging-out coach listening to songs about love and polar bears.

It’s been a long time since I was on a night-train quiet enough that I’ve had two seats to myself. The passenger-load here isn’t going to do my carbon footprint any favours, but it’s good to curl up across two seats, and go to sleep feeling the continent rolling by beneath me.

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Day 36, August 30th: bye internet! Hello train!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252

Dear Internet,

I’m getting on a train now to head west! Viarail say they won’t let you come with me. (Unless I go to Montreal, but alas! Montreal is in the wrong direction.) I will be gone for some days. And when I get to the west, I don’t know if you will be there either. Or, at least, if the people there will let me see you without paying. Well, at least until I get to Victoria. I have every reason to think that in Victoria the people are lovely, liberal, carbon-taxing types who will no doubt be glad to let me hang out with you. But many days lie between me and the Pacific coast.

I’ll write again as soon as I can and I’m sure I’ll have lots of amazing adventures to tell you about. I’ll miss you!

I’ll miss Toronto too. I’d be more lyrical about it, but I’m in a hurry because the train’s leaving soon. But here, at least, is a quick testimony to the good things about Toronto (and it’s also a sort of shoutout to the Leeds Old Norse reading group—hey dudes!)



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Day 35, August 29th: so, farewell then Jack Layton

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 175/252

Who the hell is Jack Layton?! demands my commensal over breakfast one morning.

I contemplate my spoon of porridge. Partly trying to decide whether I really recognise the name, or whether I merely once had a student called Jack. Partly just hoping that maybe the porridge will tell me. It is, after all, the king of foods.

My commensal peers at the laptop. Oh, he’s a Canadian politician. Well then.

Poor Jack Layton. Poor Canada. But, my Canadian friends, be assured, I now know all about who he is!

(Click to enlarge.)

Jack Leyton memorials (1)

Jack Leyton memorials (2)

Jack Leyton memorials (3)

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Days 31–34, August 24th–28th: stemmas of sagas, and happy birthday World Wide Web!

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 174/252

So you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much the last few days. That’s because I locked myself in the Goon’s flat and have been working lots! Mostly this has been the usual stuff, like supervising and marking and trying to keep Leeds Studies in English under control.

Page from AM 524 4toBUT, at last, I also have something to show for my labours! Seriously diligent readers will recall that back in the 2009 travelblogue I was talking about drawing family trees of the manuscripts of medieval Icelandic sagas so that you can find about about who was copying what off whom, and why. I made optimistic posts like this one, and weary but still somehow optimistic posts like this one. I may even have said ‘It’ll be over by Christmas’.

Well, two years later I’ve FINALLY finished the first of what will no doubt be a long trickle of draft articles about these bloody manuscript family trees. WOO! Click here for a working paper of

Making Stemmas with Small Samples: Testing the Stemma of Konráðs saga keisarasonar, and New Media Approaches to Publishing Stemmas

Stemma of Konráðs saga keisarasonar

Erm, but obviously only if you’re one of the three people in the world who actually have an interest in the family trees of Icelandic saga manuscripts.

* * *

The thing is, right, a century ago, if you really wanted to share your ideas with the world, you had to find someone with enough capital and know-how to print your ideas and distribute them to libraries and bookshops around the globe. It wasn’t an ideal way of moving ideas around, but it was better than just talking to your mates in the pub, and it was better than having to get out your quill every time you wanted to communicate beyond shouting distance. And if someone was going to put in all that capital and know-how to put you in print, you had to make sure your ideas were pretty highly polished first.

Distribution of Konráðs saga manuscripts in north-west IcelandTwenty years ago this month, the World Wide Web came online to reinvent that process. These days, if I really want to share my ideas with the world, the last thing I want to do is go to a publisher: I can do the job quicker and better by putting my work online, free access. Not that you’d know from the way most humanities scholars still work. But, besides the convenience of being able to link to my work from my blog, or Facebook, or, or wherever, I can also be assured that Google and the like will do their jobs, ferrying my ideas to the people who want to read them—people who didn’t even know they wanted to read them, people who I never knew existed.

Publishers, once the very trade winds of thought, ironically these days mostly exist to limit the circulation of ideas.* Although they’re starting to wake up to the twenty-first century, the usual attitude is still that it’s only by making ideas a limited good that they can turn a profit on them. But here in the technological backwater that is humanities research, publishers have another function too. Having a bit of publisher capital behind you is still seen as an irreplaceable imprimateur of quality: to new ideas, a publisher can add a veneer of old school style, a touch of class, a Low-Countries name that still echoes the intellectual ferment of the Reformation, or the pleasingly nineteenth-century whiff of printed paper and dusty shelves. In the humanities, our libraries can’t afford the books that we ourselves publish, but we keep publishing them anyway.

Die Gedanken sind frei!So here’s the halfway house that me and others like me have reached. We finish a decent draft of a paper and put it online for the real intellectual activity to take place—the criticisms, the suggestions, the discussions. Then, once that’s all done and dusted, we polish it up and get that olde worlde publisher stamp put on it so that it can rest quietly in a library, hallowed by the esteem of the establishment, and so that we can put it on our applications for promotion.

This particular working paper is actually kind of all about how ideas used to circulate, and about what you can do with online publication. Unfortunately, it’s a very boring paper, so it’s not much of a tribute to the vision of Tim Berners-Lee. But it’s something! And if you do have anything by way of criticisms or suggestions, do please let me know! In the comments below or by email.

*I should admit that, having inherited the Leeds Studies in English enterprise, I have myself found that I am a publisher, a link in the shackles of this very system. But, on the plus side, all Leeds Studies in English articles up to 2009 are now online, free access. With book reviews and early numbers of Leeds Texts and Monographs to follow. Woo! I haven’t made any grand announcements yet because we’ve still got some technological problems. But still, it’s progress.

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Day 30, August 23rd: Niagara Falls

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos
Sigurðar saga fóts: 172/252

So I was glad to be back on the train! Rather than returning to the mall in Cheektowaga, I decided to get the bus into Buffalo, and then on to Niagara Falls, and pick up the train there. (Did anyone else think that was spelt Niagra? Does anyone actually say all the as?) Everyone (apart, to be fair, from the Dutchman), has been, like, dude, you’ve got to see Niagara Falls! It’s a wonder of the world! And since it was on the way, I thought I would.

Alas, Niagara Falls is a case study in taking a wonder of the world and making it emphatically non-wondrous. Starting by dwarfing it with silly high-rise hotels and casinos. The fact that in the 1960s they stopped the waterfall for a while so that they could improve its tourism potential didn’t add to my awe either. I get that lots of people want to go there and you (a) have to put them somewhere and (b) stop rocks falling on their heads, but let’s face it, my list of places that have inspired greater wonder is very long indeed, and probably starts within three miles of my front door on Burley Road.

But it was an interesting ride. The trip into Buffalo was made of miles of these old clapboard houses: pretty, but weathered at best, derelict at worst, with a boarded-up church in every style of ecclesiastical architecture you can think of scattered among them. Thrupp and Brown scores were low. But people were friendly, and in the middle of Buffalo a helpful, interesting lady set me on the right bus and gave me a running commentary on her way to one of those casinos. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed being reminded that, actually, my variety of English isn’t the only one around here where mall has no –ll at the end, and floor has no –r. They’re not the kinds of US varieties you usually hear in the UK, but it turns out there are some American accents that I respond to as warmly as some Americans seem to respond to mine.

And actually crossing the Niagara river, which the bus did a couple of times, was cool! It’s a very big river… And I was spared the two and a half hours sitting on the train at the border by just ambling over the bridge from the USA to Canada for myself.

To get to the station in Niagara Falls, I had to walk a mile or two downstream to the ‘downtown’. I’m glad I did. Suddenly it’s just you and the river, and the odd passing car, and you get to appreciate the gorge a bit. And the town itself, away from the casinos and Elvis impersonators, was this dusty, quiet, sunny street that reminded me a bit of old towns in Scandinavia. About a third of the shops seemed to be vacant, but outside the ones that were open you’d get the shopkeepers standing outside taking in the sun, waiting to see if anyone was going to walk by I suppose. They were chatty, and the milkshake-shop-keeper told me about how he didn’t mind that so many of the places were closed up because most of them used to be brothels anyway. ‘You won’t need to eat anything else for a while’, he explained as he told me how much cream there was in the milkshake. ‘Damn it, I’ve made too much. Well, I guess I’ll just have to take the hit. Drink some of that and then I’ll pour the rest in.’ And this sort of art-and-other-junk shop had three big boxes of big peaches outside. ‘The best peaches in town! Picked today!’ said the sign. ‘I’d like one of the best peaches in town, please’, I said, and the lady came and helped me choose the best one, and gave me a free one too. And I’m pretty sure it was the best peach in town.

‘I love your accent’, says the old Scottish woman at the station cafe. I’m, like, ‘You’ve been here too long. No-one in Scotland would ever say that’. Turns out she’s been here fifty years; even then I found it a bit hard to credit. Still, she was very nice too. ‘I’d like a big cup of tea please.’ ‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have proper tea here, only Lipton’s. I’ll just put the kettle on. Aye, ye’ll need two teabags in that. There you go.’

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