Sunday, July 10, 2011

The day I met a Knight of St John

Many years ago my good wife was au pair to the families of a pair of sisters, whose mother was one of those ladies often described as 'indomitable'. The kind on whom the British Empire was built. I had the privilege of meeting her once but could happily have done with more. She died at the age of 92 and on Friday we were at a thanksgiving mass for her life.

Born in Kenya, she apparently had this recent exchange with a Kenyan immigration official:

"How long are you staying in Kenya?"

"I don’t know."

"Have you visited Kenya before?"


"How long did you stay then?"

"Sixty years."

Anecdotes about her life included finding a gun lying around in the house of one of the suspects in the White Mischief murder. "Don't ask," she was advised, so she didn't, and quietly put it back.

A lovely service with some good tunes: 'How great thou art', 'I, the Lord of sea and sky' (a surprisingly modern choice) and, um, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'd quite like that last one at my own funeral, but for me the only version worth having is performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the vicar might have something to say about that.

Anyway. I was moved by the service and also by something else even closer to my heart. There’s a biblical passage where we're enjoined not to take the seat of honour at a gathering, because someone more important may turn up and we’ll be hideously embarrassed to have to go and sit somewhere else. Instead, says Jesus, sit at the back so that you can be guided up to a more important position by the host.

Which is exactly what happened to us. All prepared to sit quietly at the back, one of the grandsons that Beloved had looked after as a small boy firmly guided us further up the church, assuring us (well, her) that we're family. That was just the start of an afternoon that made me feel truly privileged, because men and women she hadn't seen for decades were falling on her and hugging her and thanking her for coming, and I realised how much she had touched their lives way back when, and now I have the blessing of being married to her.

And the Knight of St John? He was actually the priest conducting the service. I noticed this strange cross a bit like the Blue Max bobbing at his throat as the service went on, but as he probably wasn't a German WWI fighter ace I had no idea what it could be. Afterwards we shook hands, and I asked, and he told me. Cor, knock me down with a feather.

The Reverend Father knows, let's say, how to work a room. Voice trembling with emotion – he was an old friend of the departed – he told during his homily how, on the day she died, he had been driving in the country, and stopped for a sandwich, and a little robin alighted upon his arm, whereupon he fed the small creature a few crumbs and it flew off again. "I don't know what you think of that," he finished.

Later the oldest grandson privately told us exactly what he thought: "I think you’re a f&^%ing liar, Father!" But he said it with a big smile, and grandmother would have had a good laugh.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The fundamental things apply to rock carvings and Earthsea

The west coast of Sweden is flat, fertile farmland, except where it isn’t. Where it isn’t is because of rocks – large, red-grey protrusions, dropped and worn smooth by ice thousands of years ago and jutting out of the soil. At the bottom end of the scale are the ones the size of a small car or maybe a house – they can be landscaped around. At the top end are the ones tens of metres high and the size of a city block. These are more accurately known as geography and there’s no landscaping here – they are the landscape and you just go around them.

At one point, the flat farmland disappears below sea level but the rocks remain. At this point you now have an archipelago.

Fjällbacka is a town on the west coast, overlooked by the 75m high Vetteberget. I decided that if I weren’t already married, this is where I would have proposed. We were there at about 5pm in the afternoon, which is nowhere near sunset at that latitude but still the sun is low enough to sparkle on the water and the black dots of the islands stretch as far away towards the horizon as you can see. If you’ve never read Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels, now would be a very good time to start.

It was also a favourite haunt of Ingrid Bergman and they remember her fondly.

We also took a boat out to Väderöarna, largest of the islands and Sweden’s most westerly inhabited possession. Now I was not only thinking of Earthsea but also of I, Claudius, as the fate of several characters at one point or another is to be exiled to a small barren rock in the Mediterranean – the worse your downfall, the smaller and more barren the rock. If Sweden went in for that kind of thing, this place would be littered with exiles. So inevitably I got to thinking up plots and, do you know, I might actually write a story – now there’s a thing.

But there’s things to see inland too. What actually brought us to the area in the first place were the rock carvings of Tamunshede – a late Bronze Age, World Heritage phenomenon. 3000 years ago someone worked out another use for those rocky surfaces – you can carve on them. (Rather, chip away at them to a depth of between 0.5-1cm.) There are four main locations all within a couple of miles, all on south- or east-facing stones, and all on stones where the water continues to run down for a while even when it’s stopped raining. They have been coloured in by present day experts so they can actually be seen – they are so faint as to be invisible in their natural form.

Of course, we only have modern day interpretations to go on, but …

A lot of the time, men are attacking each other with axes.

At one point they are distinctly on a boat as they do so. Were they having sea battles back then?

From the design, the boats are clearly ancestors of the Viking longships, though experts say boats that size couldn’t have been built back then. Therefore, these boats have a symbolic, religious meaning – maybe a way of voyaging to the afterlife. Well, maybe – but even so, were the longships eventually built that size because someone realised that in principle there was no reason they couldn’t be?

And if the boats are symbolic, why are guys still fighting on them?

All the bows found from that time are longbows but these are quite distinctly short, like those used by Asian horsemen. Was there contact? No reason why not. All you have to do is keep going east (or from the horsemen’s point of view, west).

You can’t help but notice just how male the men are – for some reason the women are identified by long hair rather than anything, um, organic. To the right sort of mind it gives rise to all kinds of humour – no, change that, I mean one particular kind of humour. I may have thought up a few jokes but I won’t share them and I didn’t buy the book.

And (we learned) the reason horsemeat isn’t generally eaten in Sweden is because eating horsemeat was seen as a pagan practice and therefore discouraged by the early church. So religion has its uses.