Reading Brian Groom's Northerners: A History from the Ice Age to the Present Day
(HarperCollins, 2022) recently reminded me how often English-language writers think of 'north' being only the north of England. As Charles Clarke's perceptive review of the book in Literary Review
puts it: 'blast furnaces, black pudding, and Bede'. The view in and from Scotland is very different.
The 'north' is Scotland (mainland and islands); but very much also Denmark, Sweden and Norway, along with Iceland and the Faroes. Throw in Finland, take account of trading and cultural exchanges between them going back centuries, think of religious pilgrimages and conversions, and the toing and froing of political and military power, and we have a rich tapestry of historical knowledge and identity often ignored by the mainstream.
This is no crude assertion of nationalism, nor is it distorting the facts: historical and archaeological evidence is plain to see and easy to find if you care to look for it. Superficial though it sounds, a Scandinavian cruise can reveal more about this than we often imagine. Looking below the surface, and beyond it, is the way to go. Beyond the trolls and the Moomins, ABBA, the Dale sweaters and reproductions of Munch's The Scream
(Norway's Mona Lisa
Even so, stereotypical impressions – the well-toned blonde people, the healthy gravlax smorgasbord, crossing the street only on the signal, the legendary oil wealth, babies born with skis on the feet, Sweden's acceptance of immigrants and Henning Mankell's cautions about it, Danish hygge (one bar in Ålborg was 'Hyggevin') – persist. All to be enjoyed and celebrated, while at the same time knowing what they are and how deep culturally they really go. Like haggis and the skirl of the pipes, it's not for nothing that they exist.
Norway lived under Sweden and Denmark for many years (one caption in a museum said 'everything Norwegian is Danish'). It became independent in 1905. Like any young country, it was proud of its past and keen to celebrate its rich cultural heritage. It has to live with its stereotypes and with aspects of its history that appear dubious to modern politically-correct commentators, such as our friends the Vikings. Now cleverly and correctly reinstated as a creative and inventive people (their navigational skills, their wood carvings, their metal work alone attests to this), the intelligent traveller needs to look beyond the hirsute representatives in Viking reconstructions to see glimpses of real history and real historical pride.
Guides may encourage us to roar as we dash an aquavit to the ground and cringe as a man with an axe jumps out from an alley, but it's all good fun – but also think beyond it. Easy to do this in the amazing Fram Museum: it contains the actual ship Nansen used to explore polar regions, and displays a wealth of historical and anthropological information about the Far North. Like Amundsen, Nansen was the ultimate hero, justly celebrated (without the ambiguity of Nobel, whose prizes come with dynamite) in Scandinavia and beyond. New – and old – nations need their heroes: as a ship-board speaker said, if you're looking for heroes, look no further than Winston Churchill and the Queen. We all do it.
A visit to the splendid newly-opened National Museum of Art in Oslo will convince any sceptic of the rich heritage of Norway in particular and the Scandinavian countries more generally. With artefacts on one floor and paintings on another, impeccable captions (Norwegian and English) and signage, sensitive lighting in every gallery, sparkling clean toilets and the priciest shop in the known universe, the museum is a perfect testament to Scandinavian design, sense of historical identity and cultural achievement. The Munch collection proves there's more to the man than The Scream
– the interiority of his nudes, the isolation of his subjects is a haunting blend of Edward Hopper and Schopenhauer. More Munch in a separate museum in Oslo too.
Acknowledging Dutch and French influence, the collection breaks free with its wonderful range of indigenous landscape art (Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley, Johannes Flintoe and others), formal and domestic furniture and glassware, and variety of national costume (the bunad) with its distinctive local patterns on bodices and jackets. Strong connections between fine art and tourism are clear in many displays, and we know how the fjords, fells and fosses (waterfalls) drew many British and other visitors to Norway all the way back as the late 18th century. Sometimes trolls dress up in bunads and, by the time you find out, it's too late.
And they still come for the fjords ('Norway is a very tall country, isn't it,' I heard it said) and still like to ponder whether those rocks over there come to life as trolls at twilight. No self-respecting dad with kids of three or four would be allowed to miss taking photos of little Hans or Gretel standing beside a colossal troll on guard outside the gift shop.
Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark are countries that simply keep on giving. There are the royals of course, like the Danish royals with their palace at Drottingholm with its period theatre where baroques like Vivaldi can be performed to an audience dressed to kill – so open and democratic that they ride around on bikes, look so like an ideal Nordic family, and truly symbolise that social inclusive model everyone associates with Scandinavia – socially democratic, open-minded, responsible (tax can be over 50% but think what you get for it), suspicious of 'tall tulips' (people who get above themselves), prosperous, and at the top of the international happiness league.
They all speak English except for those that don't, so that essential visit to the local apotheke for constipation medicine or anti-bug-bite sticks is perfectly easy for the traditionally monoglot Brit (don't forget to take a number). And then there is Maersk – that prince among container and supply-chain companies, not quite as big as the Chinese Costco or as picturesque as Evergreen but right up there. With enough kroner to fund the construction of the fjord-side Opera House (best view from a harbour cruise), Maersk comes across as a world player with a conscience.
The Stavanger Oil Museum, too, is well worth a visit: meticulously made models of rigs and oil vessels, science-for-the-family demonstrations of where oil comes from and how it's processed, and how the Norwegian oil fund, carefully husbanded and licensed over the years, has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world.
For the thoughtful Brit, recalling the years of the blessed Margaret Thatcher and the debates of yesteryear about Scotland's oil (now unexpectedly resuscitated with the Ukrainian war), what post-Brexit Britain (come on, let's get real: post-Brexit England) could have done with it is one huge unanswered question. Oil towns seem to promise little, though Stavanger's residual old town with its wooden houses is great for a stroll.
Many tourists like to regard themselves as travellers: intelligently responding to what they see, interpreting it wisely and integrating it imaginatively into their view of the world. Too limited a perspective constrains how we respond to that of 'mere' tourist, to the state of passive TV viewer or lotus-eater. Yet the 'real world' hovers on the edge of the brightest holiday.
A detour to Gdansk in Poland came as a jolt to many in the cruise party we were with – we all remember Lech Walesa of course (and he still lives there), but a day-tour to Malbork Castle alerted us to how close it is to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This is a potential trigger-point for Russian aggression, since Kaliningrad (once Kőnigsberg) (a) needs access to Russia through Lithuania and (b) currently inhibits Poland from open Baltic access (Poland is busily constructing a new canal for themselves, to be opened on the anniversary of Russian's invasion of Ukraine).
Guides show a coy mixture of fear and bravado as we toured the castle, now clearly a major local source of summer employment for students. Even castles don't exist to be picturesque or local revenue streams – they always hint at former fear and violence, for all their architectural ingenuity. A Russian missile would demolish Malbork Castle in five seconds.
This was, after all, originally advertised as a 'Baltic Cruise', but then, for reasons no-one needs explaining, St Petersburg (and Finland and Estonia, being too near Russian waters) was taken off. Apparently, 10% of US clients for one cruise ship postponed or cancelled their trip, saying it was 'St Petersburg or nothing'. It really is a great pity when cruise holidays get rearranged because of trivial things like wars. Then again, holiday-makers to the Greek islands tell us that immigrants washed up on shore rather spoilt the view of the beach.
And so – as the preacher famously says – finally to the Nordic restart itself. Being of a certain age and aspiring, like all good people, to remain as young as possible for as long as possible, we were inveigled into trying some of the many Nordic spa and health treatments available on the ship. Holidays are inevitably complex things – the itinerary, the flights, the excursions, the currencies, the insurance, and now the cancelled flights, overcrowded airports, lost luggage (yes, ours too), the erratic transfers, unmasked crowds on the plane – but spa treatments go into a kind of linguistic stratosphere.
My wife was the main (cautious but generally willing) guinea-pig. The Nordic restart was all about feeling refueled (like a car out of petrol, a toothbrush on low batteries). It was an invigorating full-body exfoliation, a tension-relieving back-of-body massage and stimulating scalp ritual. For what they called a nominal fee in dollars, one could also get a hydra-facial that enhanced skin health using hydra-derma-abrasion techniques and hyaluronic acid to resurface, hydrate and plump the face and neck, leaving one lifted and glowing.
The Arctic detox and scrub sounded promising, although the lymphatic drainage cupping massage did sound rather intrusive. Even so, both of us emerged – after several treatments – younger and more handsome and evenly balanced mood-wise than before. Even the bill presented just before disembarking left us perfectly calm. How could it have been otherwise?
We had had a wonderful cruise, been exposed to a magnificent array of cultural and culinary experiences, thoughtfully interacted with the awe-inspiring scenery and artefacts of Scandinavia, and been rejuvenated by legendary spa treatments. What else could anyone possible call it apart from a true Nordic restart? Now to deal with the laundry and the bills, the weeds and the shopping, and write about it all before it vanishes into Amnesia (a place I seem to visit rather a lot these days – I don't believe it's in Scandinavia, but will have to look it up).
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland