Friday, 30 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - CLIMBING PREIKESTOLEN


It’s the weekend, so we need an absolutely MASSIVE rock.

If you have been with us from the start, you will know that Norwegian-Rock-Based-Sea-Gazing is one of the most popular pastimes and I suspect may become a national sport before too long. At first, unless you are Norwegian, you might wonder ‘what’s with the rocks?’ But if you have seen, heard of, or stood upon Preikestolen, you will see the wisdom of it all.

A short trip from Stavanger there perches one of the most extraordinary rocks in the world. Preikestolen is a huge flat-topped lump of granite which hangs over the side of Lysefjorden, a full six hundred metres above the sparkling water below. The name means ‘Pulpit Rock’, apparently because from the fjord below the overhanging rock resembles a pulpit. However, from way down on the water, the thing is so high up one needs binoculars to get the idea. If anyone was going to preach from that particular pulpit, it would have to be Odin himself since a human looks no more than a miniscule speck when standing on that thing.

This mighty rock is one of the great sights of Norway. Climbers, walkers, and tourists in general can reach the top of Preikestolen without much difficulty....it’s a decent day trip, perhaps a two hour hike from the car park to the top, an undulating walk which involves everything from flattish bits to almost vertical boulder-climbing in parts. It’s estimated that each year over 100,000 people venture up here, and we have managed with everything from 3 year olds to 79 year olds. If you’re ever found yourself in this part of Norway and you didn’t climb Preikestolen, you’d kick yourself.

I love the fact the Norwegians have not shied away from allowing people to go up there. It is astonishingly dangerous, if you don’t pay attention. The authorities could have written a notice saying ‘Closed’. Or, they could have put a railing around the edge, endless off-putting warning notices, or, horror of horrors, allowed the once-talked-of cable-car to bring people up there to take their happy-snappies before descending again. If any of this had come about, the richness of conquering Preikestolen would be completely lost. The place must defy every Health and Safety rule in the book, but in doing so, it teaches us more about the world than any set of rules could ever do.

The flat top is the size of a football field, but with the added adrenaline-loaded thrill of a killer drop off the front end. The whole experience of standing up there is made even more edgy by the vast, menacing crack that has formed right across the rock’s surface, parallel with the cliff edge. Our geological friends heartily remark that one day this crack will widen and the rock will drop off completely, causing a huge tidal wave in the fjord below. While this may well occur eventually, we are told it won’t be for several hundred years or so. Probably. I’m clinging to the legend that goes with the crack...it is said that if seven brothers marry seven sisters in Lysefjorden, the rock will then split and fall. Don’t do it, guys.

We are fortunate in that none of us suffer from vertigo. However, an irrational fear of heights is quite different from the logical fear of falling off something that is very high up. If you fall off Preikestolen, that’s it, and sadly, it has happened many times in the past. None-the-less, in the warmer months, the place is hoaching with visitors, many of whom dangle their legs off the side while nonchalantly eating a prawn sandwich as though they were in the works canteen.

Frankly, I feel that’s a bit too casual. It’s the sort of place where it’s not cool to be cool. To look over the edge of Preikestolen is one of life’s great experiences, a place where, for once, the word ‘awesome’ has genuine meaning and perfect application. It’s as though nature itself was giving us a lesson, which is perhaps the real reason it is named Pulpit Rock. Both horrifying and life-affirming at the same time, to look over that rock edge is a potent reminder of how small, vulnerable and insignificant we human beings are in the great scheme of things.

Oh, and the view is, needless to say, world-class.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - PARKING THE CAR


Just for the record, the picture for today is taken from a Norwegian supermarket car park.

Last week, the extremely famous British Broadcasting Corporation enlivened their news bulletin with an ‘and finally’ that only amused half of the listening population. As you will know, an ‘and finally’ is a short, cute, punchy little number situated at the end of a news bulletin to keep the listener amused, awake and ready to tune in next time for a further witticism. .

‘In China,’ said the male news-reader, ‘car park designers have been planning extra-wide spaces for female drivers, the reason being that it is thought women have less spatial awareness than men.’ WHAT? Oh, ha, ha, ha-dee-ha. I couldn’t believe my ears. Firstly, it’s not funny, secondly it’s not true, and thirdly, I’ve seen those spaces before and it wasn’t China that first came up with the idea.

I was recently in a Norwegian underground car park seeking a space when I saw a nice big one. I swept into it and read a notice attached to the wall in front of my windscreen. ‘Kvinner Parkering’, it said.

Those of you in the North East of Scotland fortunate enough to have a grasp of Doric will immediately understand that this means ‘Women’s Parking.’ I sat there, perplexed. Just what in the world was the logic behind that? I stepped out of the vehicle and conducted a quick survey. It seemed that the ‘Kvinner Parkering’ spaces were considerably wider than the surrounding spaces. How rude! Did they think we girls were rubbish parkers, or just fat?

Then I felt a pang of alarm...maybe I was meant to be pregnant to park in that space. Oh really...that was a parking conversation I’d rather not have..... I’d just have to risk it. I walked off with a flurry of parking memories sweeping across my mind. I recalled, years ago, while on that road to motherhood, being the size of a house and unable to revolve my hefty frame around with my normal athleticism to its usual degree while in the driver’s seat...that had been in a narrow one-way street in Aberdeen where I had been obliged to park on a daily basis. I managed, perfectly well, what was the problem?

However, since that day in the underground car park, I have been making a note of the thinness of Norwegian parking spaces. They often appear to be less than generous, if not verging on the miserly. The driver is required, at times, to be remarkably adept, gymnastic even, when it comes to exiting the vehicle while in one of these spaces.

If I can possibly help it, I usually try to avoid multi-storey car parks. Can’t stand them, but needs must. I was in town and I needed to park. Remembering that some obliging person had thoughtfully removed the folding canoe off the top of my car, I thought I would risk the multi-storey. I drove in, grabbed a ticket at the barrier and gingerly proceeded up various ramps looking for a nice space. There weren’t many. I drove on and on and joined the queue of hopefuls as we circled the various levels in our quest for a slot.

‘Ah ha!’ I cried at last. ‘A space. That’ll fit the bill.’ But unfortunately, it barely fitted the car. We have a perfectly ordinary-sized car that enables our family plus two guests to travel in relative comfort. That’s it. It’s nothing to write home about.

I glanced into the rear-view mirror to see how many cars were lined up behind me. Seven. All of them urgently seeking their own space and revving to get on with it. I reckoned it would be rude to hold them up by reversing into my space, so I went in nose first, only to find that I didn’t fit. I’d have to do several manoeuvres in and out, back and forth. Visions of docking the QE11 sprang to mind. The man in the car immediately behind me was staring at me, stony faced and glazed over. My palms were sweating. I felt like a trapped animal on display. Come on...I had the whole of the female population to defend here...just park the flaming car.

Suddenly, I was mid-angle into my space when the car’s gear-box succumbed to overwhelming flatulence and let out an almighty, gut-wrenching fart. The noise ricocheted around the car park, echoing like thunder through concrete ramps and alley-ways. It was hideous. I went puce, and wrestled with my gear stick, only to produce more stomach-churning, scraping, squelchy noises from my poor, windbag of an engine. I mouthed in an exaggerated fashion into the mirror in the hope the guy behind could lip-read....‘Sorry...you should have seen what I had for breakfast....plays havoc with your insides.’ I don’t think he got it.

Eventually, because I am a woman and therefore undeterred by a challenge, I managed to conquer the space, and I left the vehicle, my head held high, as though everything was perfectly normal. But I’m telling you...that was a teeny weeny space. Tiny. The thing is...if you are a male driver, and you think Norwegian parking spaces are abnormally thin, I absolutely bet you’re not ever going to admit it.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - DISCOVERING AMERICA

It’s more or less drummed into us.
‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue’
Well, tweak my troll. It turns out he wasn’t the first one to do so. Everyone who lives in Norway knows full well it was the Norwegians who discovered America. Long before Christopher Columbus was even a gleam in his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s eye, Leiv Eiriksson, who was descended from a family from the Rogaland area of Southern Norway (the bit I’m still sitting in), sailed away from Greenland in the direction of some unknown place.
Leiv’s father , Erik the Red, was a bit of an adventurer himself and has been referred to as the father of Norwegian exploration. Erik was alarmingly keen on slaughter and had been banished from Norway to Iceland for murder (which seems to me to be ‘going some’ in those Viking days). However, he promptly murdered some more people in Iceland too, and found himself shunned by society once again. He sailed off in a huff and discovered a big lump of ice which happened to be an island. He reckoned this might make an excellent place for his new home, but he’d need a few folk to join him (they’d have to be really keen to move, me thinks). So, with embellishment worthy of a dodgy estate-agent, he named his icy new home Greenland.
The business of discovering new countries had been well-established by the time Leiv grew up in Greenland. He heard a tale of Bjarni Herjulfsson who had been trying to sail from Iceland to Greenland in the year 986 when he became spectacularly lost. A saga tells of Bjarni being the first European to see the American continent. Quite why he didn’t bother setting foot on it is not recorded. But at least he remembered to tell his mates back home.It was a strange tale that stuck in Leiv’s young mind.
‘Leiv’, my boy’, said his Dad, Erik the Red, one day. ‘I do wish you had a bit of ambition, a bit of drive. Honestly, you young people nowadays...you just sit about, lapping up the luxuries your hard-working parents have provided, no need to stir yourself from the comfort of your reindeer skin, stuffing your face with dried fish crisps and staring at the wall. It’s enough to drive me to mead. What do I have to do to get you off your bony backside, put your helmet on, act like a proper Viking and explore? Discovery is the family business, you know. And we’ll all be going to the dogs if you don’t move it and discover somewhere half decent.’
Leiv sighed a teenaged sigh. ‘Oh, it’s ok for you, what with your very own Greenland. Why do I have to be born into this dumb family that has to go around finding new stuff? Life sucks. It’s just SO unfair.’ He sloped off and, checking his Dad wasn’t looking, borrowed Bjarni’s boat.
Leiv had finally stirred himself in AD 1000 and, low and behold, found the American continent. Not bad for a day’s work. As a result, there were temporary Norse settlements in ‘Vinland’, the Northern point of Newfoundland. Despite several other Norwegian-based Vikings crossing The Pond, no permanent settlement was established, possibly due to attacks from fearsome Native Americans.
Whatever the reason, if the Norwegian PR machine had been a little more efficient at the time, Christopher Columbus would not have gone down in history as having stolen the show. But between them, Erik and Liev had started a trend....Norway was to produce some of the most epic explorers of all time.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - AXEL'S AMERICAN SOUND

I was just doing my Doris Day thing at the bus stop. Oh, it is so very easy to embarrass one’s off-spring first thing in the morning...the temptation is way too strong. I was in full Doris mode, and blasting out her version of ‘The Street Where You Live’....quite the best arrangement of that gorgeous song I know, and a good number for getting stuck into the full toe-tapping, hip-swinging, shoe-shuffling joy of a slickly-executed boogie. And it wasn’t just the Doris bits...I did the whole brass section too, with all the ‘Doo-bee-doo-waaaah’s and everything. It was excellent, though I say it myself. That kinda thing wakes a girl up in the morning.

Anyway, Doris, as I hinted, was blessed with one of the best arrangements of ‘The Street Where You Live’, concocted by a guy who happens to be one of my favourite Norwegian Americans. For he it was who helped to manufacture what I will be bold enough to call the ‘American Sound’.

Now I know you’ll say, but what about Copland, Gershwin, Berstein and Sondheim for starters? Absolutely, and of course.....those guys and several others delivered the Full Shalonga. However, there were a few people who were slightly less ‘weel-kent’ but highly significant in the development of that ‘American Sound’. My favourite, and Doris’s arranger for this song, rejoices in the name of Axel Stordahl.

You will realise that anyone named Axel Stordahl has to be Norwegian (it means Mr Big Valley, for those seeking linguistic illumination). Axel was born in 1913 in Staten Island, New York, the son of Norwegian immigrants. He learnt the trumpet and by the 1920’s he was playing in bands. He soon became a band leader, arranger and composer and realized this was where his true talent lay. He was the first guy to listen to the voice and tone of an individual singer, and arrange the song around that voice. His pioneering approach helped to bring about the shift away from the Big Band sound of the 30s to the popular music of the post-war period. He arranged songs for the voices he liked.... Doris Day of course, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Dinah Shore. But it was his work with Frank Sinatra that was most significant....he helped to define Sinatra’s style, interpretation and execution of the music he performed. Is it possible to think of that ‘American Sound’ without Frank Sinatra? I think not.

In leaving Norway for America, Axel’s parents were part of a long tradition. There are now over 4.5 million Americans of Norwegian descent, as many if not more of them than there are Norwegians still in Norway. This was a mass migration that started in 1825 on a sloop called the ‘Restauration’, sometimes known as the ‘Norwegian Mayflower’. The sloop left from the little harbour just 500 metres from where I’m sitting right now. 52 souls sailed across the Atlantic for 3 months before arriving in New York with 53. Little Annie had been born mid-Atlantic...she was known for the rest of her life as ‘Slooper-Annie’.

It was the start of a long connection between Norway and the United States that has remained important. Initially, people left as a result of religious persecution, but soon the primary reasons were economic. Between 1825 and 1925 over 800,000 Norwegians emigrated to North America, a third of the entire Norwegian population. Over time the majority settled in the Upper Mid West, particularly Minnesota where one can still hear a strong Norwegian inflection in the local accent. With the exception of Ireland, no other single country contributed more to the population of the USA.

I could have picked any number of Norwegian descendants who contributed greatly to what we now think of as American culture....what about Marilyn Monroe, I hear you cry. Well, it’s hard to pick just one, but wherever we come from, whoever we are, wherever we end up, home is after-all, ‘The Street Where You Live’, so the Mighty Axel’s been on my mind.

Monday, 26 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORWEGIAN THING - DELICIOUS DAHL GENES

I’ve been thinking about genes, particularly Norwegian genes. A miniscule knowledge of Viking history is all one needs to realise that a great many of us Scots have a good dollop of Norwegian genes floating about inside us. As do many of the Irish, the Welsh, the English, the Americans and the Canadians.

But before we go way back in time, and before we head across The Pond, I need to mention one particular family that left Norway in order to settle in the UK. Their contribution, and particularly the contribution of one of their family members, is almost legendary.

If you have a teenaged boy in your house and you are in the habit of watching the extremely famous British Broadcasting Corporation, you will know that Tuesday nights offer half an hour of essential viewing. For it is then that ‘The Delicious Miss Dahl’ is broadcast across the UK, before being beamed elsewhere.

‘The Delicious Miss Dahl’ is apparently the perfect vision of womanhood, according to the teenaged youth I happen to have handy. If ever the ideal female graced the television screen, it is apparently Sophie Dahl, the grand-daughter of the man who, to my mind, is The Delicious Mr Dahl, Roald for short. Sophie is reputed to be rather keen on food, and thus it has been arranged for her to present a cookery programme. So of course, being a curious parent, I was obliged to tune in too, just to check things out.

I did so on the first night of the series, and was confronted with the most Norwegian of Norwegian faces. Funny how this had never struck me before but.... wow....those Norwegian genes came shining through the screen like nothing on earth. Miss Dahl may have lived in England all her life, but she could not look more Norwegian if she put on a bunad (national dress) and started doling out lutefisk. I watched in astonishment as the camera enjoyed her perfection from as many different angles as the kitchen would permit. Even I could quite understand what the teenaged youth was going on about.

I retired to my library and fetched down a book by The Delicious Mr Dahl, one that I knew he had dedicated to a different Sofie, his own Mum. Like everyone else, I’ve been a fan of Mr Dahl from the minute he started to have his books published (some of us are as old as that) but it has only been since living in Norway that I read his two autobiographical books, ‘Boy’ and ‘Going Solo.’

‘Boy’ tells the story of the young Roald, born to Norwegian parents in Wales. He was brought up in England, and spent every summer holiday in Norway where he fished, swam, mucked about in boats, ate ice-cream and wore strange Norwegian sandals, (the ones the ‘BFG’ was to be seen wearing in later years).

The next bit of Roald’s life is written about in ‘Going Solo’, quite the most gripping book I’ve come across for a while. There he was, a young man of 18 working for the Shell Oil Company in Africa, when WW11 broke out and he found himself training to be an RAF pilot with 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. Once trained, he survived a horrific plane crash. He recovered from this and was immediately sent to Greece to fly Hurricanes. As he arrived in Greece he was told that his plane was number 15 of the fleet of 15 Hurricanes. Those, along with 5 Blenheims, represented the entire RAF war machine in Greece at that moment. The Germans, meanwhile, had hundreds of fighters and hundreds of bombers. It was less than ideal. It was a fiasco.

His stories of these days in Greece would make anyone’s hair stand on end. In particular, the description of the Battle of Athens, when, despite being outnumbered ten to one, Dahl and his fellow pilots flew sortie after sortie, ignoring the danger, taking astonishing risks, and braving appalling odds. I can’t possibly tell the story here....Dahl is, after all, the World’s Number One Story-Teller and it’s his story, so you have to read the book. All I can say is, the circumstances and the strength of courage those pilots showed is mind-blowing. The chances of a pilot surviving those battles was slim as slim, so we are extraordinarily fortunate that Dahl lived to tell the tale, in between all his other stories.

In later life, Dahl had a reputation for being rather a fierce man, impatient and often difficult to be around. But I also know he was a dedicated family man, a man who adored children and simply wanted to amuse them. Of course he was bad-tempered from time to time....he was busy. He had a terrific number of books to write, and he had a desperate desire to do them well. He would disappear into the garden and vanish into his yellow-doored-hut, his hytte, where he would sit in his favourite chair, his writing board across his knees, and create some of the best children’s fiction the world has ever known. He may have been grumpy from time to time, but his legacy is one of humour, adventure, style and above all, fun.

‘The Delicious Miss Dahl’ has been hammered by the critics. I do hope Sophie has inherited her grandfather’s courage to go on, despite everything. Clearly these critics don’t have children who have laughed and laughed at Roald Dahl’s books, and are now smouldering quietly at the sight of Dahl’s delicious Norwegian-looking grand-daughter. What do critics know?

If, incidentally, you have a favourite Roald Dahl book, tell me what it is....I haven't read them all yet.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - DRINK TO GET SKINT

The TA returned home from a 15 hour monster of a day at the coal face, or whatever they call it when you’re drilling a big hole underneath the North Sea.

‘Anything I can do to help? To ease the pain? To lighten the burden? Anything you want?’ I enquired in an attempt at showing wifely concern. He looked at me in a daze, as though having to consider the myriad of temptations on offer was a decision too far.

‘Fancy going down the pub?’ he eventually said.

This, for me at least, is a rare event in Norway, for reasons that will become clear. But it is a great treat, so soon we were wandering through the darkness to our local, where the TA slumped into a chair while I bought the drinks. I purchased one large beer and one glass of wine, nothing else, not even a malformed peanut.

‘170 kroner’ said the barmaid.

I went all John McEnroe. ‘Du kan IKKE be serious.’ She just stared back at me as though I was deranged.

I tried Sean Connery. ‘Shurely shome mishtake!’ But of course it was useless. I knew all along, in my heart of hearts, she was perfectly capable of adding up the cost of two drinks, and she had done so accurately. I’m just not, as I say, used to going to the pub in this country.

Having emptied my wallet completely, I skulked back to our little table, feeling depressed. I didn’t dare mention the cost to the already stressed-out TA. I sat there doing a wee calculation. So if one large beer costs 95 kroner, using the more-or-less current exchange rate of 8.8, that beer costs £10.90. One large beer in a pub here is 0.6 of a litre, whereas a British pint is the equivalent of 0.45 litres. Standard beers here are 0.4 litres.

Then, despite feeling enfeebled by the massive sums I was computing through my brain, I tackled the wine calculation. My small glass of wine was 75 kroner, which would be about £8.50. Blimey...I’d better make sure I relish every sip with hither-to unrivalled fervour.

No wonder I hardly ever go to the pub over here. The cost can ruin the enjoyment. To start with, alcohol is highly taxed. But in addition to that, in order to persuade ‘undesirables’ from coming into the pubs in the first place, the drinking establishments are apt to increase the cost even further. They vie with each other to ensure they don’t have low enough prices to tempt any riff-raff. The ‘undesirable’ elements then go down to the supermarket to buy a few cans of beer (spirits are only sold in a specialist, government controlled shop, where, by-the-by, whisky is £50 a bottle). Provided they arrive before 8pm (because no beer can be sold there after that hour)they will be required to pay about £3.50 for each can....none of your ‘six-pack-two-for-one-weekend-special-offers’ here.

Now in the UK, as we approach an election and everyone is madly discussing the problems of our society, the complex and serious issues surrounding alcohol are evident, even if they are not top of the agenda. The recession has been hitting pubs very hard, so landlords have been struggling, if not closing down completely. They have often tried to survive by driving down prices, hosting ‘Happy Hours’ and other such wheezes to persuade the public, whom we shall call Mr UK Tax Payer in this instance, to keep on boozing.

Meanwhile, the question of how to tackle anti-social behaviour is a serious one. Our city centres can be horrific at times, particularly at weekends or after football matches when the streets are strewn with drinkers who have indulged in ‘several too many’. It is not only disgusting, noisy, and terrifying ....it costs of the police and health services a packet.... an ever-mounting cost which is ultimately shouldered by Mr UK Tax Payer.

To a Scot, Norway’s strict attitude to booze seems positively draconian. But it is clear that price has a very real effect on the amount consumed and the after-effects with which society must cope. Of course there are hardened alcoholics here, but the consumption of alcohol per head of population is far smaller than in the UK. As I sat in Norway drinking a glass of tap water and watched the UK Chancellor Alistair Darling’s recent attempt to increase the levy on cider, (from which the Government has now back-tracked,) it seemed an almost laughably limp attempt at tackling a serious and growing problem. I’d hate cider-makers to go belly-up, so it appeared rather cruel, if not arbitrary, that they were picked upon. But the problem is not going to go away unless someone comes up with a solution.

Naturally nobody wants to see anyone going out of business in the UK...we would all wish publicans, brewers and distillers well despite the ravages of the recession. However, it is worth pointing out that the immense price of alcohol in Norway undoubtedly affects behaviour.

And I can prove that. Several times now I have seen the most well-behaved of Norwegians undergoing a marked psychological change as soon as they step onto an aircraft to go abroad....whatever time of day they start their holiday, you can bet your last kroner they’ll be blotto within minutes of boarding the plane.

Friday, 23 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - DRIVING ROUNDABOUTS

Now, I’m approaching this with caution. You simply cannot imagine the number of conversations I have had in this country about roundabouts. The conversations divide into three distinct categories, all of which get people hot under the collar in moments.

1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe roundabouts are more-or-less new to Americans, so they are quite amazed when they first encounter one. However, they tackle them with aplomb, and very quickly catch on to the rules of how to get round the things. But then the confusion starts because everything they learnt to do at a roundabout is not adhered to by other roundabout users. What the cotton-pickin’ heck is goin’ on, they all holler.

2. Winking. Now I know most people call this ‘indicating’ when in a car, but I wink. Being a Brit, I wink a great deal...always at every junction, and absolutely ALWAYS at a roundabout. You have to...it says so in the Highway Code. I am programmed to wink. It’s in my genes. I think it is not only useful but polite...other people need to know where you are intending to go.

So, I was STARTLED the first time I drove around a roundabout in Norway winking madly, and nobody winked back. Not even the slightest little flash. There was I, winking and flashing, and twinkling away like a gaudy Christmas decoration, and everyone else on there wasn’t even showing the slightest tweak of a side-light. I felt like an absolute show-off, intent upon attracting attention, when all I wanted was to turn right. I went puce with embarrassment. How on earth was I meant to know which way everyone was going? Was I meant to be psychic? Was I meant to be able to guess? Was there some other secret sign that would show which way people were intending to go that nobody had yet mentioned? Perhaps I was meant to catch the eye of every driver and try to guess in which direction his gaze lay, but what with the weather and the light, this method didn’t seem terribly satisfactory. Someone once told me that drivers are, after all, meant to wink at a Norwegian roundabout...it’s just that they often don’t, so I have become quite an accomplished roundabout-directional-guesser. It’s a special sort of Norwegian art form. It's enormously tempting, when someone sails onto the roundabout without winking to yell, 'Hey, Buster...give us a clue? Are you driving that thing or just sitting in it while it goes forward?' I've struggled to prevent myself from doing this.

What’s more, I am now completely used to driving like this, to the point that when our indicators flaked out on the car, nobody was worried. In Scotland I would never have dared leave the house without them, but here, it was the norm to forget to wink. I might try it at home, just to see how many drivers I can get to blast me on their horns...I guarantee it will be every driver on that roundabout because lack of winking is something that makes Brits jump up and down in apoplectic rage. Dare me? Just once?

3. What has been going on at that Telly-tubby Roundabout? Ever since we have lived in Norway, a huge roundabout on the way into Stavanger has been the subject of one of the most long-term road projects I have ever witnessed. It is an eternal scene of dug-up tarmac, temporary lanes and cones. It has been named the Telly-tubby roundabout by a number of BBC viewers as it looks like something out of that particular children’s programme...it is round (obviously...duh) with slopes that would be quite nice to roll down if you didn’t land in the traffic. It has an overhead cycle/walkway and a variety of interesting, artistic, technical and somewhat diverting features. To everyone’s surprise, it does not, despite being a cross-road to several metropolii, including Bergen and Kristiansand, have any more lanes than it had when the project first started out. If anyone would like to explain the logic of this, I’m all ears.

I must add that we Brits have similar road-works frustrations on a daily basis to the point that the digging-up of roads is verging on becoming an election issue...but then again, there are so many irritations that this is fairly low down the list of idiotic and enormous frustrations the UK population is currently facing.

But to return to roundabouts for a moment, I have noticed even within Scotland there are regional variations in roundabout behaviour. If I drove round a Glasgow roundabout at the speed with which I am meant to attack an Aberdeen one (at least according to local custom) I would attract no end of tooting and rude gesturing. In Glasgow, one is almost expected to smile and wave in a friendly manner to everyone else on there, unless of course you are dumb enough not to wink, and then a fight starts.

I guess the moral of all this is that a roundabout should be approached with caution in every city and nation, at least until you have sussed out exactly what is expected of you by the locals.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - ULL, ULL, ULL

Those of us not born Norwegian tend to think of this country as a land of snow and ice and cold. We just can't help it...that's the general impression. So some people are a wee bitty feart when they are told to come here....just how cold is it going to be? And how do people manage to keep warm? So, naturally enough, when I first arrived, I innocently asked a Norwegian how the Norwegians survive the cold.

‘Ull, ull, ull,’ she said flatly. I quickly thumbed through the dictionary, pages flapping in the freezing wind. 

‘Ah, wool, wool, wool,’ I cried.

She began to elaborate. ‘Woollen socks,vital. Woollen underwear, essential. Woollen jumper,of course.  Woollen gloves, naturally. Woollen hat, at all times. You will need all of these. Go and buy them immediately.’ I’ve been obeying her ever since.

Now, in an attempt at clarity, let me be just point out, for the sake of our American and Canadian friends, when I say ‘jumper’ I mean ‘sweater’....this curious British term for an everyday garment has already caused no end of confusion amongst the international community here, so I apologize for my pedantry in pointing this out.

So in trying to keep warm, it is no wonder the Norwegians are accomplished knitters. They have a big need for good, warm, woollen clothing. They are particularly fussy about socks....only pure wool socks are any use to anyone contemplating a stroll, ski or climb, the point being that even if the wool becomes wet, it will still keep your tootsies toastie.

This Norwegian practical approach to the wearing of weather-appropriate clothing has quite an effect on one’s wardrobe. I am shocked to discover I no longer own a single stiletto. Gone and my silks and satins, my feathers and frills and fripperies. In their place I have a monstrous heap of fleece, denim, gortex and wool. And you should SEE the jumpers.

I’m sure there is many a Christmas card sporting cheery families round a piano gleefully singing carols, each person decked out in a knitted jumper sprinkled with snow-flakes and prancing reindeer. We could do that. We could take that shot and send that card. It was almost irresistible last year, but I WILLED myself not to succumb. We have so many of those jumpers now, we could easily stage a Yule-tide musical.

But they are enchanting, you see. I challenge anyone to come back from this country without a fabulous Norwegian jumper which will last them for years and years.

As with many things round here, the Vikings started it. When at home, Mr Viking did what Mrs Viking said...she was the one who held the keys of the house, generally ran the place, and did the knitting. It took SO LONG to create a garment from scratch, having had to her your own sheep first, shear it, card the wool, spin it, dye it and then knit it, that clothes were extremely valuable. So from then on, a decent knitted jumper has held the status of a family heirloom, the best ones being handed down through generations.

However, it wasn’t just the jumpers themselves that were handed down. With much of the population living a fairly isolated life, cut off from each other by natural boundaries, the traditions and crafts of rural communities determined what is ‘Norwegian design’ more than anything else. The long winter months meant people had time for a variety of home-based industries, decorating their interiors, making furniture, and creating beautiful clothes. Skills, forms and patterns were handed down from one generation to another, and this love of handicrafts is very much a living tradition even today. Fortunately for me, various companies now design and manufacture Norwegian jumpers, so thank heavens I don’t have to knit my own...I just buy them. The designs are still evolving, but it is true to say there is a particular look to a Norwegian jumper.

One does have to be a SLIGHTLY careful. You can over-do it as far as the prancing reindeer are concerned, and I don’t want to end up looking like that Christmas card. So I’m wondering just how much I will be wearing these things back home in Scotland. But they are so warm, and so decorative, and so well-made, I’m never going to get rid of them. I’m hooked.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - KNITTING


If you were to create an opera, there are certain subjects that lend themselves easily to the art form. Those two old chestnuts, Love and Death, tend to rule the roost, but every-so-often something wildly original comes along to surprise us all. So when my very excellent friend announced he was producing and directing an opera about knitting, I dropped a stitch.

‘Knitting?’ I asked. ‘Are you sure? Do you even know what knitting is? I can’t remember ever seeing you knit.’

‘One does not have to have lived through the experience one’s self in order to create an opera on the subject,’ he replied, rather tartly, I thought. ‘Puccini felt no need to become Japanese, Beethoven was never a prisoner, Gilbert and Sullivan were not compelled to become pirates.’ I bowed to his superior knowledge on how to create an opera, and waited for the reviews.

Well, not only was the opera a terrific success, but it went on tour....from Britain to Norway. And the link was?.... knitting and fishing.

It turns out, where there is fishing there is also knitting. The two are not mutually exclusive, and there is, of course, knitting where there is no fishing. Surprise, surprise, where there are sheep there is wool and hence, there is knitting. But knitting went particularly well with fishing because being on a boat was a cold, cold business...one needed wool to keep warm. In Scotland, I know the two were even more closely entwined for a rather sombre reason. Different fishing communities invented different knitting patterns, and so if a fisherman were ever lost at sea, his body might be identified at a later date by the knitting pattern on his sweater.

Knitting was always an important skill in both countries in the past. Fishwives were able to knit as they went about their daily business, without even looking, ball of wool in their pocket, their hands always busy ....I’ve tried that while watching the news on telly and all I got was a big fankle.

Nowadays in Scotland, knitting is becoming trendy again, having gone through several decades of being for grannies. Nowadays, one can spot cool chicks on the Clockwork Orange (Glasgow’s underground system) knitting all sorts of gear....clothes, toys, bags, decorations. I once spotted someone with an entire basket of vegetables, all of them hand-knitted using a very straight-forward plain/pearl pattern....quite the thing.

However, I suspect the Norwegians are ahead of us in the knitting game in that it seems to be more common here. While I struggle away with my idiotic selection of needles, I never seem to produce anything that any sensible person might wish to wear. The TA is at a loss as to why I continue to knit, but I think it’s something to do with that old, engrained Presbyterian work ethic....I can’t just sit around and not be doing something. The trouble is, everything I make looks slightly mad, as though intended for some kind of avant-garde art installation. Every garment is extremely large and voluminous, fit only for a giant with a beer-gut. I have to PAY people to wear my creations.

By way of contrast, several Norwegian people I know of a similar vintage to myself are absolute knitting champs. They knock up a pair of two-toned, ribbed socks in the twinkling of an eye, they do nightmarish projects like individually-fingered gloves with intricate, four- colour patterns, they take their knitting to important meetings and manage to concentrate on major decisions while adding fluted edges and complex button-holes to any number of garments. They even knit on the bus...I mean really, you have to be enormously confident to get away with that kind of showing off.

I suspect they all learnt to knit very early on. Back in that ‘Barnehage’, otherwise known as a Kindergarten, they had several years, up until the age of about six, to perfect all kinds of skills, knitting being just one of them. So nowadays, when young Norwegians tell me they can’t knit, I think they are fibbing out of politeness, so as not to wound me.

Anyway, my friend’s knitting opera turned out to be a magnificent success in the UK, and was soon touring a variety of Norwegian coastal towns to rapturous reception. It would appear that if you want an opera to be successful, make sure it concerns something to which your audience can relate strongly.

Happy knitting.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - WE CAN CAN

The seemingly dull act of opening a can of sardines will never be the same again. It is a task that’s now infused with deep and significant meaning. Which is surprising, I know. It’s not as though a can of sardines is anything to do with glamour. It’s not even expensive. It’s the sort of store cupboard stand-by that hangs around for ages until we forget to organise dinner.

But that was long ago. Now, a can of sardines induces a powerful wave of nostalgia, a kind of fishy longing, a bending of one’s mind towards the sea. You’d be amazed at what a simple biddy-little can of sardines could do to a person once they have lived on the Norwegian coast.

Everyone knows that for a place to thrive, one needs a few tricks up one’s sleeve, a good idea that brings growth and prosperity. Stavanger's periods of growth and prosperity all seem to last about fifty years, with nasty slumps in between. Firstly, there was approximately fifty great years of herring, followed by about fifty years of shipping. After the shipping industry had taken a dive, people were wondering ‘what’s next’ when someone heard about a French bloke who’d decided to put a sardine in a tin.

‘Good plan!’ thought the Norwegians. ‘We can can.’ By 1865 a can of ‘brisling in oil’ was the thrilling, glitzy highlight at an exhibition in Bergen, and by the turn of the century, Norwegian canning of sardines, and other products, was all the rage. By 1900 the herring were no longer plentiful, but from time to time there was a bunch of other stuff in the sea, particularly little toatie-wee toots called sprats, conveniently small for packing into tins. The sky was the limit, and there followed fifty years of super-successful canning.

By the mid 1920s there were almost 200 canning factories in Norway, with at least 60 of them in Stavanger. Over half of the city’s population worked in the canning industry, a larger proportion than work in the oil industry today. Women and children were employed in the factories, and during the height of the season, whole families would work around the clock. They were super fast, and could pack a tin of sardines in 5-6 seconds. Artists designed labels for specific countries and climates, and soon the industry had refined its marketing skills to such an extent that Norwegian sardines were exported around the globe. It was said that if you lined up all the tins of sardines produced in Stavanger in one year, they would stretch right up the Norwegian coast-line, which, as we know, is the longest in Europe. That’s an insane number of tins.

There was a hiccup at one point when a legal case tried to prevent Norway from calling this product ‘sardines’...after all, the raw ingredient didn’t come from Sardinia. Norway was forced to use the term ‘brisling’ although ‘sardine’ was still permitted for exports to America and some parts of the British Empire, (presumably they reckoned these customers would have no idea where Sardinia might be, so the name was of no consequence).

There is no doubt a tinned sardine is a wonderful thing, good for the constitution and ready for any occasion at the drop of a Sou’wester. The great Roald Amundsen himself, realising how useful a tin of sardines could be, took a supply away to help him conquer the South Pole. He packed them into his suitcase in 1910, but forgot to eat them so they returned to Norway unopened. The tin was finally cracked open by some white-coated boffin in a lab in 2005, who declared the contents to be perfectly delicious and tucked into a hearty 95 year old lunch.

By the 1950s canning was in decline. The invention of the freezer rather put the brakes on things, and eventually there were only a few factories operating in the city. Nowadays the canning industry has departed Norwegian shores completely and headed towards Eastern Europe instead.

I was once told ‘there is nothing a Norwegian hasn’t done to a fish’. My mind boggled at the time, a sudden riot of lurid images involving sea-creatures racing through my head, the details of which I will spare you. But having spent hours on end in this country catching, gutting, smoking, poaching, frying, baking, eating, photographing, throwing, drying, drawing, predicting the weather and decorating the house with fish, I couldn’t agree more.

Monday, 19 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING- THE SMELL OF FISH


The sense of smell is apparently closely and curiously linked to one’s memory. When we’re talking fish, it may well not be everyone’s favourite idea of how to achieve a sense of nostalgia, but it doesn’t half take you back. The niff and the whiff of fish are linked to so many coastal towns, and Stavanger is no exception. So from now on, whenever I open a jar of pickled herring for a standard Norwegian lunch, as I did today, I will think of Stavanger. Some would describe this as ‘dead fish on cardboard’, but there’s more to this fish than meets the nose.

When children in Stavanger complained of the continual smell of fish around town, they were quickly reminded that ‘the smell of fish is the smell of money.’ If it hadn’t been for fish, the city would never have come about. For hundreds of years, the naturally deep harbour in the centre of Stavanger had provided a meagre living for the small community that grew around it. Once the Domkirke, the Cathedral, was established, the place was set to grow, but it was not necessarily going to flourish. Like everywhere else, the town was dependent upon circumstance and fortune. There were good times and bad, but over the centuries, it was fish that remained critical to the town’s economy.

In the late 18th century, the town’s folk were particularly undernourished and struggling for survival. Disease was rife and a grinding poverty left people with little hope. But towards the turn of the century, a mysterious happening took place. For some unknown reason, the herring arrived in the North Sea, great shoals of flickering silver, to be known forever more as ‘God’s Gift’.

Like the coastal towns and villages of Scotland and the North East of England, the herring, the Silver Darlings, as the Scots called them, offered a real chance of prosperity. Apart from the fishermen, there was work for the town’s folk in gutting, preparing and barrelling the fish. A considerable trade grew out of it, and soon Stavanger had a sizeable fleet of boats trading herring to the Baltic, bringing back linen, corn and other products. In Stavanger, the harbour could be jammed with the number of boats involved. As trade spread, larger ships were built, links extended further and further afield, people grew rich, wealthy merchants built large houses and the city thrived.

But just as mysterious as their arrival, the herring began to disappear in the latter part of the 19th century. The shipping industry had flourished as a result of trade being widened, but soon this was also in danger. Bankruptcies occurred amongst the merchants and poverty took a grip on the city once more.

The parallels with many of our Scottish fishing communities are strong. Even today, after the military, fishing remains the most dangerous of all professions. Apart from the risks to life and limb in going to sea, the economics of it could be highly variable. Such uncertainty has always formed bonds between fishing communities, despite at times competing for the same fish from the same sea. Fishing communities are always at the mercy of politics, economics, technology, fish stocks, and above all, the hazards posed by nature.

I have to divert slightly here and mention one particular fishing community in Scotland that stands out as a place where circumstance contrived to create Scotland’s worst fishing disaster. The town of Eyemouth on the Berwickshire coast was entirely reliant on fishing. The old 19th century photographs of the day’s catch being unloaded in Eyemouth, of the townsfolk gutting and packing fish into barrels, a harbour packed solid with fishing boats, are extraordinarily similar to the photographs of people doing just the same in Stavanger. But in October 1881 a hurricane caused 189 men from the Eyemouth fleet to drown. Unfortunate circumstances had led the Eyemouth men to take a risk. One in three of the adult male population were lost at sea, a horrific tragedy which devastated the small community at the time and is still strongly felt today. It’s a story that has moved me ever since my friend Peter Aitchison, a descendant of the families involved, first told me the details. He tells the story with immense dignity and accuracy and I have no qualms in pointing you towards his book on the subject, ‘Black Friday’. Once I’d read it here in Stavanger, surrounded by fishing boats and able to smell fish somewhere nearby, the ‘silver darlings’ had a new meaning.

As volcanic ash continues to disrupt our airspace, it is odd to reflect on how fragile nature can make us feel...whether it is an ash cloud, an unexplained wave of herring, the depletion of stocks, or a dangerous storm, you can’t help wondering ‘what next?’

In Stavanger’s case, the herring disappeared, but after a few years, the city struck gold once more, and the smell of fish remained ‘the smell of money’.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - PRESERVING FISH


As I was saying before I was diverted by whale, I wobbled home on my bike with a big block of frozen fish. I staggered into the kitchen and slung it down on the table where it sat steaming in the sunlight.

The fridge stared at me as though to say, ‘what now?....I’m not having that thing in here, you know.’ Apparently I was going to have to spend the afternoon dividing frozen fish into sensibly-sized portions and lugging it all into the freezer down in the basement.

I tried to open the box. This was a job for the professionals. I found my boiler suit, hard-hat and industrial gloves, hoiked my toolbox into the kitchen and set to work. I managed to open the box with a stanley-knife, and prize off the lid with a chisel. The fish was welded together with ice in a great white rectangular block. I launched an attack using the hammer and chisel, but achieved nothing but a shower of ice particles. I found a saw and began sawing through the block, but it hurt my arm. I donned a pair of safety glasses and revved up my battery-operated power-drill.

The drrrr drrrr drrrr brought a small child running into the room.

‘Wow,’ they yelled. ‘That’s the biggest ice lolly I’ve ever seen.’

Before I could reply, the child had attempted an enthusiastic lick of the giant ice-lolly, whereupon their tongue became instantly stuck fast. There were two loud yells, one from the child, and then one from me as I realised what had just happened. The child was imprisoned, by tongue, to the block, their hands waving around in panic, a pair of anxious eyes rolling up towards me in a desperate plea for help.

After several to-ings and fro-ings with hot water, we had successfully separated the tongue from the ice with minimum levels of pain. Order was restored and I decided to wait until the warmth of the sun had achieved more than I was able to, despite the wonders of my tool box. I stared blankly at the frozen block and contemplated the wonders of freezers. What a form of preservation that was? And considering how vital fish had always been to the Norwegian diet, what in the name of cod had people done before freezers?

Living in a cold climate with a harsh winter, the ability to preserve food has literally meant the difference between life and death. I ran through the various fishy options in my brain. There was Maud and her salted fish, there was the ‘stock-fish’, cod which is preserved through being dried in the salty wind in Lofoten(see photo above), and there is the ability to marinate, smoke or pickle.

Then there are two peculiarly Norwegian fishy treatments that must be mentioned.

1. Lutefisk....dried cod, left to soak for a few days in running water (often a burn or stream). Meanwhile, birch ash is boiled in water, cooled and strained. The fish soaks in this mixture (known as birch lye although it is actually potassium carbonate). A wee dicht back in the stream to wash off the lye, and it’s ready to be cooked. I am unable to comprehend the fearsome reputation of this dish, apart from the fact that it can look like grey jelly. I am happy to report, thanks to my excellent friends and their culinary expertise, Lutefisk is delicious.

2. Rakefisk....fermented fish, first recorded in Norway in 1348. Along the coast, people would ferment herring, while inland, trout, char and common white fish were used. There is a story about Rakefisk the details of which are often said of Lutefisk, but I sense the myth is muddled. Long ago, a Norwegian wife was so fed up with her greedy and debauched husband she decided to do away with him using a fish. Having caught her weapon, she doused it in caustic soda and buried it in the garden. A few weeks later, she recovered it, cooked it, and served it up on an attractive dish with an artfully arranged garnish on the top. The husband showed up for dinner, took a hearty bite, and leapt off his wooden bench in ecstasy at the brilliance of his wife’s ingenious cuisine. He lived to tell the tale and a new delicacy was born.

And then there is canning. But that’s a long story for another time.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - SELECTING FISH

The fish van showed up. Ah, excellent, I thought, I’ll get a box for the freezer. Handy for all those fishy meals my kids will refuse to eat.

I cycled down to the harbour to catch Mr Fish Man and as I gazed at a wall of frozen boxes, I wondered out loud what might be nice.

‘Where are you from?’ inquired Mr Fish Man, sizing me up and down to see if I was in any way Norwegian.

‘Scotland.’

‘Well you’ll want this.’ He climbed into the fan and extracted a heavy, very cold fish box. ‘You Scottish people don’t like salted fish, so this one’s for you.’

I didn’t argue. He obviously knew more about me than I did, so I produced the required spondoolies and strapped the box onto my bike. It weighed a tonne so the ride home was hilariously precarious, reminiscent of something out of a Charlie Chaplin film.

As I cycled, I thought hard about salted fish. I was reminded of a meeting I once had with a Norwegian girl back home. Maud was a big, strong, blonde, tough, electrical engineer, a Viking with a raft of mermaid-like hair that tumbled down her back to the base of her spine, a noble brow and a palm-crushing handshake. I imagine Boadicea was exactly like this...she looked as though she’d just stepped out of a chariot having lashed her horses to smithereens as she charged into battle. You just wouldn’t mess with Maud. She worked for an oil company and was running a mind-bendingly complex operation off-shore, the basics of which eluded me within a few seconds of her starting to describe them. She spoke impeccable English, but it was the electrical engineering part that I had to pretend to understand.

Maud had grown up in the very far north of Norway, a place too remote and icy for anyone south of the Arctic Circle to have heard of before. She told me about her childhood up there in the 1960s when things in the Arctic Circle were, to say the least, basic. It didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but maybe I’m just choosy. She was telling me all this between mouthfuls of eye-wateringly hot curry, Scotland’s ‘other’ national dish, chicken tikka masala. As I nursed my damaged right hand beneath the table, I asked her what she had eaten as a kid in the Arctic.

Her no nonsense answer was swift, precise and matter-o-fact.

‘Salt and fish. Only salt and fish. There was nothing else.’

‘Golly,’ I said, suitably impressed. Suddenly Maud seemed even tougher than Boadicea.

‘Maybe whale,’ she added. ‘Sometimes.’

You just don’t argue with Norwegians about whale, especially when they are bigger than you. The whole concept of eating whale is a step too far for us Brits, and it’s very hard to comprehend why such a foodstuff could still be available here. The issue produces actual, visible rage and red-faced fury amongst visitors to the country. I have tried, on behalf of my host country, to explain it to tourists as they stand in the fish market at the harbour and innocently point at a piece of whale meat asking what it might be. The official line put out to tourists is that the available whale-meat is the surplus produce from the whales used for scientific research...appetising eh? The tourists stand there, open-mouthed, staring at anyone who says this as though they are some kind of crazed maniac.

There are of course, still some Scots around who were a part of the Scottish whaling fleet. A job on a whaling ship was one of the toughest imaginable, and the tales those guys have to tell would make Boudicea’s hair stand on end. But, it was quite a while ago. If I feel brave enough, I will have to come back to the issue of the Norwegian whaling industry at a later date. It is a long and complicated history, but it remains the one issue that other nationalities can’t fathom. Except the Japanese.

My conversation with Maud did leave a considerable impression. Of course I was shocked, but I could at least see why eating whale was still contemplated here. If salt and fish were the norm, then whale would be a luxurious alternative, option number three on the relatively limited Arctic menu. In the 1960s, even the 70s and 80s, the choice of food on offer in Norway was nothing like we had in the UK, and while retailers are continually introducing new products, there is still far, far, far less choice than we have in the UK.

It’s funny how Mr Fish Man didn’t even mention whale to me. I know he had it in that van. I guess no matter how hard I try, I’m just never going to look Norsk.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - NON-URBAN URBANITES

Is there any such thing as an urban Norwegian? If there is, they are a very rare species indeed.

A surprising 80% of the Norwegian population are classed as city-dwellers, people for whom the bustle of a city is all around them day and night. Such folk are adept at being city-slickers, looking chic, making the most of public transport, perfecting three-point turns into minute parking spaces, knowing the best places to shop, eat and keep themselves entertained.

But somehow they seem very different from the city-slickers of our British cities. They may well live in an apartment several floors above ground-level, but they are not cut off from the land, from nature, from seasonal changes. They all seem to know how to fish, how to row a boat, how to ‘brew up’ in the wild, how to ski, hike, climb and swim. Even if I lived in a flat in the heart of Oslo, it would be perfectly possible to come home from work, sling my brief case onto my Ikea sofa, lose the heels, grab the ski boots, pick up my skis and set off through the snow from my own front door. I could head up the hill behind my home and enjoy a pleasant evening on the piste.

Two Norwegian friends decided we should visit the extremely long and very high Ski-Jump at Hollenkollen, offering as it does an ideal view of the city of Oslo. The experience made me realise why Norwegians can never be serious urbanites.

While we drove up the hill towards the jump, we passed several Norwegians enjoying a typical evening of painfully steep uphill-running, some of them clearly carrying rocks in their ruck-sacks for added pleasure. As we arrived at the hilltop, we waited for them to have a little rest. PAH...as if. Did they sit down on a bench for a moment to draw breath? Please. They threw their rock-filled luggage down and immediately fell to the ground to start a series of frenzied press-ups. ‘Now that’s just showing off, buddy,’ I yelled at one of them from inside the car. He just stood up, shrugged, and set off jogging up the zillions of steps to the top of the jump itself.

We toiled up there laboriously and emerged, breathless wrecks, at the top to admire the view. All I could see was a mass of trees with one or two roof-tops sticking up between them, and a glittering fjord beyond.

‘Are you absolutely sure this is Oslo?’ I asked one of my Norwegian companions.

He rolled his pale blue eyes heavenwards in despair. ‘Well, duh. Have you noticed yourself leaving the city since you arrived yesterday? Of course it’s Oslo.’

‘Oh yeah...s’pose so,’ I said doubtfully. ‘I’ve just never seen a city that looked so like a forest.’

It turns out ‘Oslo’ in Old Norse means ‘the fields of the Gods’. With a population of just 500,000, geographically-speaking it is the largest city in Europe....it goes on for miles. Unlike other cities, space is at far less of a premium than elsewhere. Norway has the lowest population density in Europe after Iceland. No wonder they are all outdoor fitness-freaks....even if they try to be urban, climate and topography won’t allow it. Sitting at the head of the Oslofjord there is a lovely sea view for the bulk of the population. Then there’s the Nordmarka (north woods) to the north of the city which provide a ‘green belt’ for hikers and skiers. With such easy access to both sea and mountains, Oslo represents one of the most liveable cities I’ve ever seen.

Of course Scotland’s four main cities are all by the sea, and all of them have countryside and mountains within reach. But it is far more of an effort to get there, so it is not every city-dweller that can afford to enjoy the countryside. Unless you have your own transport, or you make a point of belonging to some organisation that involves you in outdoor pursuits, it costs money to get out.

You can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can’t take the Glaswegian out of the girl. Therefore, I know there is a gaping chasm in Scotland between those who have access to the landscape, and those who do not. I’ve met inner-city children who have literally never been beyond the city boundary, who have never seen animals on farms or in the wild, never climbed a tree, hiked up a mountain, swum in a burn or the sea, or run across a moor. Often their parents are the same. The result is a disconnection from the natural world which is almost heart-breaking.

I know there are continual efforts to try to change things, so I remain hopeful. We may well have less land-area per head of population, but at least we have great landscapes, wonderful mountains, glorious seascapes, beautiful lochs and rivers, extraordinary flora and fauna. For the sake of our health and well-being, and for the good of the landscape itself, we just need to get better at sharing it.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - TALKING BOATS

It’s that time of year. The sun doth shine, the wind doth blow, and suddenly legions of Norwegians are out there polishing, scrubbing, sanding, painting and generally sprucing up. Not themselves....we’re talking boats. I blinked and the season jumped from ‘ski’ to ‘boat’. My internal clock needs a moment or two to adjust.

What with the Vikings and all, this place is of course rather famous as a sea-going nation. We Scots may not have had Vikings, but thank goodness we can hold our own on the water whether as fishermen, ship-builders, naval or merchant seamen, and even Olympic medal-winning sailors. So, in the spirit of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’, it’s time to yank the sails out from under the stairs and hose them down like a pro.

I’ve come to the conclusion if you don’t get into a boat every-so-often in Norway, you will feel like a snowball in the desert. With the longest coastline in Europe, and water everywhere, even in the interior of Norway, boats are as common as cars. The smaller ones are currently being towed from people’s drives towards the water, while the bigger ones are wandering down to the reception of their Boat Hotel and coughing up for the very large bill they have built up during their winter stay.

Others boats stoically sat in the sea throughout, tied up to the quay, oblivious to snow and ice. One brave couple decided to pick the snowiest winter in years to LIVE on their boat...they tied up at the harbour, decorated their home with twinkling lights and flags, and got on with keeping themselves warm. Boy, they must be glad to see the sun. Even in the city centre, people are hard at work scraping grime off their beloved crafts ready for the first trip of the summer out into the fjord. Yup, it’s fair to say Norwegians are very, very keen on their boats.

I am of course talking about the leisure end of things here. These boats are not required for ferrying, fishing, transporting, supplying rigs, policing or any other such purposes....those boats never stop. No, I’m talking about boats that exist for sheer, unadulterated pleasure. On my morning walk alone, I pass over a hundred such boats. I’m convinced there must be at least one boat for every family in Norway, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more.

The variety is infinite. At one end of the scale there’s the glitzy jet-set end of things, the ‘gin-palace’ brigade who lust after the boating equivalent of the Ferrari, just for the hell of it. You’d be amazed at the sheer number them. These swanky vehicles represent millions of billions of Norwegian kroner, or dollars or rubles, as they sit bobbing about at the various harbours around town. The best of them was one I happened to notice last summer....a huge silver monster owned by some oligarch or other, someone who had smooched up the fjord into town so he (and it must have been a ‘he’) could spy on us all through smoked-glass windows while closing some shady deal on his mobile phone. We had a jolly old ogle and gave the resident oligarch a friendly wave, but he was having none of it.

What could be nicer than to entertain while out at sea, to whet your guests’ taste buds with fresh prawns and champagne while your gin-palace bounces across the foam? The world of boats intoxicates with images of the high-life, super-success and diamond-encrusted glamour. But you don’t need to be rich to enjoy a boat...here they are for everyone. Seriously, imagine my surprise while shopping in the Co-op to find sitting amidst the tins of sardines and piles of loo roll a selection of cleats, jammers, blocks and spinlocks to rival any ship’s chandler. Even I could see boats are for the masses here. Some folk take it all very seriously, while for others, it’s just the very fact they OWN a boat that is enough....one Norwegian I know of simply bought his boat so he can sit on it to read the paper in peace at the harbour every weekend, beer in one hand, prawn sandwich in the other, the perfect way to ‘slappe av’.

It’s all very ‘Ooh La La’ but I’m afraid I’m too simple a gal at heart for all that glam stuff. I prefer to feel the wind in my sails, the tug on the tiller, the nipping pain of grazed palms from clinging onto jib-sheets in a force 6. Seems to me, if the elements are there, why not use them? It’s as if skiing down a hill were not enough, so I should attach an engine to my ankles...it just seems unnecessary. Engines are for windless, becalmed moments when one is forced to burn some fuel to get home in time for your meatballs.

Whatever your poison, you should be able to find the right sort of boat for yourself. From the biggest, most luxurious monstrosities to the teeniest wee saucer, there is a boat for everyone and every occasion. And I’ve noticed, where there is water, no Norwegian will feel happy to sit BY it...he has to sit ON it. Must be in the constitution or something.

Monday, 12 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - HEROES OF TELEMARK AGAIN

PART TWO

And so we continue.

The plateau, the Hardangervidda, is 3,500 square miles of bleak wilderness, and over 3000 feet above sea level. The combination of snow and fierce winds can result in it being one of the harshest places on the planet, an unforgiving monster. For the Germans, Hardangervidda was a kind of frozen hell, and they avoided it during the occupation, only venturing into the edge of it. They would not expect anyone to consider approaching the Vemock plant outside the town of Rjukan on skis from the plateau. Due to their upbringing, it seems fair to say only Norwegians might have even thought of such a plan, never mind dare to carry it out.

An advanced party of four set out first, landing by parachute at the edge of the plateau in October 1942. They were to act as a guiding party for the unit of British commandos who would be sent in by glider to blow up the plant. After six exhausting days of skiing, they found an old farm where they could eat their first proper meal. In a lucky twist, they also found a toboggan which one of them recognised as his own, having lost it as a boy....it turned out to be a vital asset to their journey.

Over the next few weeks they advanced towards the plant, enduring unimaginable cold, hunger and exhaustion, but unable to seek sanctuary amongst the scattered population...despite some of the men having grown up nearby, they were certain they would be flushed out by ‘quislings’, the term for those Norwegians who had sided with the Germans after occupation.

Having reached the area, all they could do was wait for ‘Operation Freshman’, the glider-borne attack. The plan was for thirty-four British Royal Engineers of the 1st Airborne Division plus the four-man crew of the two gliders to fight their way into the plant, attack, and escape on foot towards Sweden. One November night, the four Norwegians waited for the gliders, but to no avail. Tragically, both planes had set off from Wick in Scotland only to crash due to bad weather. Those who had survived the crash were captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo. They were beaten, half-strangled and died a slow and painful death having had air injected into their bloodstreams. After the War, three men were charged with murder by the War Crimes Commission for this incident, two sentenced to death and one given a life sentence.

Meanwhile, the four Norwegians in the Hardangervidda, depressed by the failure of ‘Operation Freshman’, could do nothing but wait for further instruction. Soon it came. Within days, they heard that another attack was to be launched the week before Christmas. A party of Norwegians from the training unit in Scotland would be dropped on the plateau. The initial four were reaching starvation point, having run out of rations. With the Germans having discovered a possible raid on the plant, the four men had to live by their wits to avoid search parties. Moving from one isolated, abandoned hut to the next, they looked for dried fish in the walls of each building in a frenzied search for sustenance. How such desperate men managed not to fight amongst themselves, never mind remain civil in such confined, difficult and dangerous circumstances is anyone’s guess.

The winter was proving to be one of the worst in living memory, and they were now very weak with infection, cold and hunger. But on 23rd December, one of the party, Jens Poullson, spotted a heard of reindeer at the start of the migration season. Despite weeks of starvation, he managed to ski out of their temporary hut, stalk and kill a reindeer. He laughed and wept as he rushed towards the beast he had shot, and in the spirit of the northern hunters, he sat in the snow and drank its warm blood. His strength thus restored, he chopped up the carcass, and took it back to the others, thus saving their lives. They spent Christmas consuming every part of the animal apart from the hooves, the fur and the testicles, particularly relishing the eyelids. But the most significant boost to their systems was the half-chewed moss they found in the stomach, which provided much-needed Vitamin C and carbohydrate.

Due to appalling weather, it was several more weeks before the second party of six could be dropped. When this was finally achieved, and the new-comers found the original four, they were shocked at their almost unrecognisable state....starving, gaunt, almost wild, they barely looked human.

Finally, at the end of February, the raid was carried out, a textbook example of detailed planning and expert execution. The heavy water canisters were destroyed. The plant, an important asset for Norway, remained almost intact, and the saboteurs all escaped. Once again their fortitude was required as they retreated across the Hardangervidda, through life-threatening storms, dodging German search-parties and possible ‘quislings’.

Despite attempts to restart the project, the German effort to produce an atomic weapon had been foiled, thanks to the bravery of these men, their fitness of skis, the ‘good’ Norwegian people who helped them, and the reindeer. Their strength, their skiing power, their understanding of the wilderness, and their survival skills were crucial. It was felt that only Norwegians could have carried out such an operation in such circumstances.

But the most humbling aspect to the whole story is that they had all displayed huge mental and physical powers, risking their lives for months without any idea of why their mission was so important. Hitler wanted to bomb London with an atomic bomb. Such an idea was beyond anyone’s ken at the time, and the saboteurs had no real understanding of it all until after the War was over.

Historians love to kick around with ‘what if’ questions, but in this case, the ‘what if’ is too horrible to contemplate. The story of the Heroes of Telemark remains one of the most outstanding stories of modern warfare, and the modesty with which these men lead the rest of their long lives is a great testament to their character. It’s also no exaggeration to say it’s typically Norwegian.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - HEROES OF TELEMARK

PART ONE

Unless you already know this story, you will think it unlikely that skiing could save the world. You already know I am a bit of a ski nut, so maybe you think I’m pushing it a bit, over-egging the  pudding, super-gilding the lily. Allow me to tell the tale, and then you can judge.

As I mentioned before, many of the efforts of the Norwegian resistance that took place during the German occupation were remarkable, but perhaps the most famous is the story of the Heroes of Telemark. Hollywood had a bash at telling the story in 1965, and came up with a film that was authentic in some ways, but failed to portray the true nature of the endurance and courage of those involved. (Kirk Douglas did a good job at looking suitably rugged and Norsk, but as a whole, the picture didn’t quite cut the mustard.)

So when I read Ray Mears’s book on the subject, which had been very carefully researched by a team of dedicated experts, I was astounded to discover just what had taken place. It’s a story that every Norwegian school child is aware of, and I hope that continues to be the case. I will attempt to summarize, but really, you need to read the book.

Hitler knew that ‘heavy water’ could offer the key to defeating the Allies. Heavy water was the necessary ingredient for an atomic bomb, and the Germans well understood the technology required to use it. The only heavy water on earth at the time lay within the Norsk Hydro Plant at Vemock, outside the town of Rjukan in the Telemark region (heavy water was being manufactured as a bi-product for fertilizers). The Allies realised the plant must be attacked before the Germans could produce a bomb with which to destroy London and perhaps other British cities. The problem was, how to carry out an attack?

Vemock was situated on a cliff above a steep-sided gorge. It was also at the edge of the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest high plateau, infamous for its ferocious weather and inhospitable terrain. One single road led into the plant, a narrow entrance with a bridge that spanned part of the gorge, so it was thought the only way to reach the target was by air. A dam lay at the head of the valley, and a plan was proposed to bomb it, thus flooding the valley. But too many innocent Norwegians civilians could die this way, so the air attack option was rejected.

The only alternative was to launch a raid which involved infiltrating the plant itself, a highly risky operation and one that was considered a suicide mission as withdrawal in the circumstances would be almost impossible. Such a raid was inconceivable to the Germans, who felt the plant was all but impenetrable.

Despite the odds, a group was selected for the raid. These guys were seriously tough young Norwegians, ardent patriots who had already risked their lives to escape occupied Norway to Britain. They were recruited into the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, the world’s first secret army, set up shortly after the outbreak of war to disrupt Germany’s efforts though guerrilla tactics and sabotage.

Already practised in the art of outdoor survival, their training took place in the hostile conditions of the Cairngorms and other parts of Scotland. There they honed their skills, keeping their skiing muscles well-tuned, perfecting the art of silent killing, and learning how to use explosives. Several of them were already champion skiers, they were all adept at dealing with snow and cold, and with their knowledge of the Telemark area, they were the only men who could have carried out such a daring and risky exercise.

In 1941 the idea of a bomb being able to destroy a whole city was seen as pure science-fiction....the general public would never have believed such a thing was possible. The fact that these men did not know the true significance to their mission, nor that Churchill or Roosevelt were both anxiously awaiting news of the plant’s destruction, merely illustrates how brave and committed to the cause they all were.

Oh, oh...I’ve used up my words quota for the day, and I can’t tell the whole story in a one go. You’ll have to tune in for part two next time. But having set the scene, I hope you’ll be flexing your muscles and wrapping up in your thermals...the next bit gets very cold and ludicrously uncomfortable.

Friday, 9 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - THE SHETLAND BUS

Maybe it’s just because I’m a mind-blowingly dull person, but it’s impossible to live on this coast and not think about history. Today, as the gentle waves lapped around my wellies, the sun blinded me and the chill north wind ruined my expensive hairstyle, I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like for those German soldiers sitting in a concrete shelter keeping watch for five whole years. And from these shores, not only did Vikings set sail, but the first immigrants to America left from here too. If only these rocks, which after all are a good 400 million years old, could speak they'd have many a tale to tell. One of the best involves Scotland...or more precisely, Shetland.

As Norwegians mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the German occupation, the history of the Norwegian Resistance in WWII is also brought to mind. It is a history full of incredible tales of extreme courage and great acts of humanity but there is one story that was said to have had a particularly significant psychological effect on the Norwegian population. The history of the ‘Shetland Bus’ stands out as a key factor in the fight against oppression. It was said that during the War every Norwegian throughout the country was well aware of the Shetland Bus as something that represented a means of escape, a tangible means of practical support and a vital sense of hope.

For most of the occupation, by some miracle, a group of small Norwegian boats managed to maintain a route between occupied Norway and Shetland. Crewed by Norwegian refugees, often with a fishing background, their mission was to land undercover agents, supply the resistance movement with weapons for sabotage actions, and to bring Norwegian refugees to Scotland. The boats were small, and the missions highly dangerous. In an effort to remain inconspicuous and avoid gunfire, it was necessary to set out under the cover of darkness, and often in difficult and unlikely conditions.

The North Sea in winter can be one of the most treacherous seas in the world. Unlike the Vikings, who had ploughed these waters 1000 years before, as these were secret missions the Shetland Bus had to wait for positively dreadful conditions before they could set sail. The journeys were a testament to the skills of the Norwegian seamen who operated these boats, risking hurricanes, fog and worse as they did so.

Right underneath many a German nose, these operations offered a means of freedom from occupied Norway, as well as proving that small resources could offer great benefits in the fight against oppression. The supplies brought into the fjords of Norway through these missions were essential to the resistance and an immense boost to morale.

While some Norwegians found a lasting sanctuary in Scotland, there were also many young Scottish women who married these visitors and still live in Norway to this day as a result. It was a time when the links between Scotland and Norway were at their most urgent, and many of those links are still in evidence today.

To relate the individual acts of bravery, of success and loss, and of the characters involved would take too long, and I cannot do justice to it all here. But for anyone seriously interested in this whole episode, I would urge you to find David Howarth’s book ‘The Shetland Bus’, where the details are fully explained in a careful and modest manner. Howarth was a British naval officer who had helped to set up and run the Shetland base for these operations. When he wrote a book on the subject, it was inevitably rejected by London publishers, but was finally published in 1951 and has gone on to several reprints since. A film of the story was made in 1991 which a Norwegian poll voted as ‘the best Norwegian film ever made’. While I’m sure there are many who would argue with that, the story remains as powerful as ever, and all the more so for being fact and not fiction.

Throughout the war Norway had been key to Germany’s military plans. Hitler was worried about an Allied invasion and so the defensive positions all along the coast were extremely strong....on a map nowadays, they look staggeringly impenetrable and one can only marvel at the might of the German war machine. At one point, there were over 430,000 German troops in Norway, some of whom launched attacks on the convoy routes in the North Atlantic.

Norwegians were not treated with the same degree of brutality as the people of some other occupied nations, but the long years of political repression and violence were unlike anything the country had seen before. By the end of the war, 2000 members of the resistance movement had lost their lives, while over 30,000 were imprisoned.

On a calm day nowadays, it all seems unbelievably remote. But the effect of occupation on a nation runs very deep. Anything that could help to boost morale as well as provide practical support was enormously significant, and this remains the case. The importance and success of the Shetland Bus was a factor in Norway becoming a founding member of NATO in 1949.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - REMEMBERING 1940

As I sit here gazing at the glassy-calm sea, knowing that Scotland lies somewhere beyond the horizon, the view is as peaceful as could be. It is almost impossible to imagine such a place could ever have been otherwise. But right here, on the Norwegian coast seven decades ago, there would have been a line of young German soldiers stationed at their gun-emplacements and look-out posts, keeping watch for us, their enemy. If the concrete debris they left behind were ever removed, you might never believe what history tells us.

Exactly 70 years ago, on 9th April 1940, a scattering of little dots was spotted in the sky above Sola Airport near Stavanger. Ever so slowly the dots grew larger as they floated gently towards the ground. It was one of several shocks Norway was to face that day, and one of the biggest shocks in the nation’s history.

The little dots turned out to be German troops sent to capture the airfield, the start of the German Occupation of Norway. Within minutes, two infantry battalions had landed along with regimental staff. Once onto terra firma, they gathered up their equipment and started marching the 15 kilometres or so into Stavanger itself. They secured the city’s port, thus ensuring the safe arrival of reinforcements, heavy weapons and supplies being delivered by German ships that had been lurking offshore.

The subjugation of Norway had not originally been part of Hitler’s plans for taking over Europe. However, Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the Kreigsmarine, believed that securing Norway’s ports would strengthen Germany’s operational basis against its main enemy, the British Royal Navy. He mentioned his thoughts to Hitler.

Raeder was encouraged by the man who has given his name to the dictionary, Vidkun Quisling. (A ‘quisling’ is defined as ‘one who aids the enemy’.) Following a coup, former Norwegian Foreign Minister Quisling had proclaimed himself Prime Minister and Hitler had decided to support him. Quisling and his Norwegian Fascist Party had requested support from the German army in an attempt at a peaceful occupation. While this came to nothing, on his visit to Berlin in December 1939 Quisling had met Raeder and had mentioned the Norwegian Government’s intention not to resist any Allied landings. Three days later, Hitler had ordered that the plans to seize Norway be examined.

Not only did Hitler think a British occupation of Norwegian ports would be disastrous, but he was concerned about shipments of Swedish iron ore sailing out of the northerly town of Narvik, shipments that were essential to the Nazi war machine. If the Allies occupied Narvik, these shipments would cease. Operation Weserubung was set in motion, which came to represent the first joint air-land-sea campaign in the history of warfare.

Thus on 9th April 1940 German naval units, infantry divisions and Luftwaffe squadrons began their invasion of both Denmark and Norway. Denmark capitulated that morning. Not so Norway. In addition to occupying Stavanger, the German forces secured Oslo, and the ports of Kristiansand, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik.

The Germans had every reason to be satisfied with their attack on Norway, having met with little resistance. They could now enjoy superior fire power of automatic weapons, tanks, and artillery easily capable of smashing any resistance. Despite this German superiority, having been forced to take sides, Norway had already decided to back Great Britain. Now Norway must place her faith in the Allies, who had promised to come to the rescue.

There followed five long years of occupation, during which many heroic acts of resistance were carried out by Norwegians. It was a terrifying time, and I’ve been told it is not possible to explain the feeling induced by enemy occupation unless one has experienced it. It does not do justice to some of these stories to include them too briefly, so I will come back to them. But the tales I have heard are remarkable, of ordinary families who had to put up with enemy troops taking over their property, stomping through their houses in their big boots, living in people’s homes, often alongside the owners, destroying anything that could be conceived as being helpful to the resistance, and all with the threat of being shot if you stepped out of line.

As a nation which had only won true independence a few decades earlier after centuries of Danish and then Swedish domination, this German occupation was a bitter pill, not to mention a terrifying one. Scotland and Britain as a whole played a significant part in the resistance, and the stories are still being told today of how our two nations worked together. But it was a unique period which left an indelible mark upon the Norwegian nation. It is no surprise that Norway is now well-known as a nation that continues to play an important role in the pursuit of world peace.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - NOT JUST FOR TOFFS

I jumped into the front seat of a taxi, having slung my skis into the back with a sporty flourish.

‘Howdy,’ I said to the driver. ‘Great weather for skiing. You been out there ripping up the piste? Showing the snow some action? Proving what you're made of ?’

‘Nah,’ he said drearily. ‘I don’t like the mountains. Don’t bother going skiing.’

I nearly choked on my liquorice chewing gum. ‘WHAAAT? Are you nuts? Are you not Norwegian or something?’

‘Sure I’m Norwegian. I just hate skiing. I don’t like being up in the mountains.’

Well knock me down with a snowflake....I was amazed. I’d never met this particular brand of Norwegian before. Where had he come from? ‘Don’t you get lonely down here at sea level, when the whole of the rest of the country has gone skiing? How do you pass the time? Fishing? Knitting? What flicks your switch?’

‘Look, Lady,’ he said, sounding a little peeved. ‘It’s not mandatory. Even if you’re Norwegian you are allowed to NOT like skiing.’

I looked at his feet under the steering column. Sure enough, no skis. ‘I guess so,’ I said, with some doubt.

You might think all this talk of skiing is rather snotty. But I suppose I’m used to assuming that everyone here skis. Back in the UK the image of skiing is relentlessly middle-class, so purely for the ‘Hurray Henry’s of this world. Jocasta, Persephone, Sophie, Sophie, Caroline and Sophie are renowned for their chalet-girl skills, training which used to be seen as useful in terms of preparing them for the marriage market. It was always hoped they might meet some suitable banking type, relaxing from his frightfully important job in the City by enjoying frolics and fun up a mountain.

It was all very specific, down to the actual list of requirements one should import to France or wherever in an effort to sook up to one’s chalet girl. If you arrived at your chalet and presented her with a pot of marmite and Hello magazine, you got much better cakes, apart from anything else. I expect these consumer goods are available in ski resorts these days....I’m rather out of touch as I haven’t bothered with an Alp for a while. And I suppose the credit crunch has meant the City boys have rather lost their sheen in the eyes of prospective mothers-in-law.

But I have always felt rather aggrieved that skiing should be labelled with this 'toff' image. As a kid, skiing in Scotland was about as far away from Hurrah Henrydom as going down the bingo. It involved sleeping on village hall floors in painfully thin sleeping bags, or staying in caravans full of condensation and dripping clothes. I remember having to hang up my wet pound notes on a piece of string by the electric fire to dry them for the next day. It was cold, soggy, and uncomfortable. And without cakes. Ah, but how we laughed. It was a proper way to understand a mountain in winter.

I suppose the new image is inevitable due to the immense cost that skiing now involves. If you go abroad to ski, there is no denying you have to fork out big time. But if you are prepared to attempt Scottish skiing, then all power to your elbow, and indeed your other limbs.....sometimes, it can be great. Indeed this year, provided the roads were open, it was grand. Not everyone in Scotland is prepared to give it a go.

I love the fact that here in Norway, skiing is universal. It is assumed that when there is snow, everyone will go skiing after school or work each day. Skis are one of the few items that appear to be cheaper in Norway than elsewhere, particularly for children. If you don’t ski, you could end up feeling like Johnny No Mates. It’s a bit like being brought up in a place like Aviemore...it is assumed everyone will ski.

The cost of going abroad to ski is certainly prohibitive, but in the UK I do rather tire of people being put off and thinking it is not for them. It’s the same with opera...apparently that has an elitist image, and yet the tickets are often far cheaper than tickets to a football match or a rock concert. I wonder how many people are put off both skiing and opera because they fear the cost is too much to ‘suck-it-and-see’.

There’s something magic about skiing....I could swear it's good for both your physical and mental well-being. But, as the taxi driver proved, it’s a matter of taste.