A short short story for St George’s Day: Talking to Harald Hardrada

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway 1046-1066

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway 1046-1066

Talking to Harald Hardrada

By coincidence I had served on most of the failed Danish conquests and occasionally set eyes upon the King, if that were permissible. I kept myself to myself and my head down but the thought always gathered and rolled like one hungry, welling sea wave in the mind that we would knock the wretched kingdom down – all too small and all too poxy.

When we didn’t and shifted our gaze to that land to the south-west, all of this dissolved into waves of disappointment for me and an acknowledgement of my over-optimism – not that I would have confessed a mote of this to the sour-faced swordsmen and oarsmen flanking me at intervals.

If they were sour, there was nought but trouble seething all around and in Harald; perhaps I should say he was steeped in bitterness. We clubbed our way across the northern seas in some kind of negative angry defiance, not in a particular mood of hope, and I got the glimpses of himself at various places that didn’t help. Scowling at the mouth of that Tyne river even as we brushed land mass; yelling at no-one in particular and to every frightened one on the cusp of the Humber.

That was when I was on the cusp of desertion and bunked off to go fishing for a few hours, coming back to no-one mouthing condemnation or even going through the routine of an interrogation. We were perpetually moving forward yet huddled together in mental passivity, waiting for something bad to happen without quite knowing whether that would mean battle or something else entirely.

And yet it was the King who, of all of us, at the last sounded most virtuous and graced by hope, even if it were in the minutes creeping down to our being poleaxed. We were within sight of York and I was sent to deliver the latest in a clasp of formal and very tedious messages. For some reason I expected to find him beery, vulgar and callused, but instead he was the model of quietness, so much so I found myself thinking about the mild pallor of late September here  rather than any construct of deference. He read, cogitated, nodded, and then spoke with maximal deliberation.

“What make you of this land, son?”

“One more place to c-conquer, my lord, surely?” A slight tremor on my part because I anticipated what he was going to say and regretted what I’d said in the moment I said it – all in the second.

“Apart from the fact I don’t conquer other places. I can conquer my own country without even having to think about it. But this – pah! Foreign missions. I’m either missing some kind of trick or I’m going soft the wrong side of fifty. What I’d like to do in this land is bring together everything I’ve done in the past. Consolidate it. Just get on horseback for the sake of it. Go rowing not as a break from fighting but instead of fighting full stop. Write the poetry they say I do instead of getting some halfwit scribe to do it for me so as to preserve my reputation.

“No son, it is milder here. The flower buds will crack through the ground earlier every March and they’ll die far later. Not too cold for the Byzantines, a bit warmer for the Russians. I’ll bring those folk of faith over from them places just like I’ve done elsewhere – not because I can, because I think God’ll grow on ‘em here, grow on the natives – in a…fair to middling climate.”

For one moment he was entirely at peace. Then we both heard horse hooves and knew it was something other than a reconnaissance by our own men. He was not shocked at all – even though our men surely would be. At that moment, he was all in emotional transit, transported from cloudy weariness to a venom heightened by the fact he couldn’t foretell whether he had enough to stave off Godwinson and get what he’d supposedly come here for.

"StamfordBridge1066" by Egghead06 - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StamfordBridge1066.JPG#/media/File:StamfordBridge1066.JPG

“We’re just one more lot of fighters here, aren’t we? Yes, I know about William the Bastard knocking on the door down south, I know about the Anglo-Saxons uprooting themselves and then rooting themselves down here as if it were God’s will and it ain’t-  if – we – are – talking – about – the – godless. All coming here for our crown’s worth. All kings turned mercenaries looking for a bucket of gold, all yer fiefdoms under the thumb and a nice bolthole for the winter, or the summer, depending on what you’re trying to get away from.

“But I’ll fly on the waves between Norway and here, son, and keep them all in check. I won’t need to farm out responsibility and rule to my son or any other.”

He spat the words out and rose, now resembling the broad-shouldered warrior who had won acclaim so often rather than the brooding and budding retiree from seconds earlier. For him this land signified hope and some incorruptible beacon of new potential, no matter how the visitor or the native had been shafted, undone or usurped in the past. For my part I pondered on whether such optimism was an eternal conceit and blessing.

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Magnus Carlsen – the most normal guy to be ‘strongest ever’ in any sport?

It hasn’t escaped our attention as chess nuts and Scandifriends that Norway’s Magnus Carlsen has become the highest-rated player in history, this achievement having taken place only a few weeks after his 22nd birthday and without Carlsen having yet claimed the world title (he’ll have a chance later this year).

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

We’d try and tell you that there are some parallels but there’s nothing that clearly fits the bill. Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Tal both claimed the world championship via a decisive title match before they had turned 24, but Kasparov was still some way off his peak at that point and Tal would reign for only a year at the top (although he may have reached an individual peak in terms of performance when he jointly won the Montreal ‘Tournament of Stars’ with Anatoly Karpov in 1979, some 18 years after he ceded the title).

Tal - champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

Tal – champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

The most plausible precedent is (perhaps inevitably) the most feted and notorious player in the history of the game, Bobby Fischer. Like Carlsen, he managed his ‘strongest player ever’ rating as a non-champion (the much-accepted Elo rating system used to calculate the strength of a player put Fischer at a record high of 2785 prior to his defeat of Boris Spassky in their 1972 world championship match).

But. And but. Carlsen, unlike Fischer still isn’t champion. Most people expect him to claim the crown this year by winning the relevant candidates’ tournament and ending the six-year tenure of reigning world champion Vishy Anand, but the fact he has been determined ‘best ever’ by mathematically-based projection rather than by virtue of title clearly won and held for x number of years enhances the notion that he has scaled a not quite tangible, still vaguely virtual, Everest. Should he emerge as champ this year, he will have to hold the title until he is 50 if he is to equal the record of the second world champion, Emanuel Lasker (who in fairness belongs in the same ballpark, if not at the same base, as Fischer, Carlsen and Kasparov, nearly 100 years after he ceded the title).

Emanuel Lasker - 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Emanuel Lasker – 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Thus Carlsen – for the time being at least – does not have the gong of a champ to go with the aura of one, making him appear slightly more human. But this got us thinking about how the other world champions and greats of the game do have an aura that makes them seem rather other-worldly and removed from the fray of mortals (whilst practicing what many would call a rather esoteric discipline as it is). To wield a broad brush, the official undisputed world champions and the other plausible contender for ‘best player ever’, Paul Morphy, can be sketched thus:

Morphy offered the bizarre dichotomy of looking dainty and vaguely Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque whilst playing chess like a cold-blooded killer. He retired from chess at the age of 21 and became a rather sad figure, a social recluse in his home city of New Orleans and a man whose best (only?) way of externalising properly was through chess but who for whatever reason could not return to the game. Kasparov and Fischer were similarly ruthless as chess players, but their respective personal case histories are clearly not those of mild-mannered laymen: in Kasparov’s case we see a man with very fierce political ambitions away from the chessboard, in Fischer’s case we see a man ultimately haunted by undue and ugly suspicions about the powers that others yield.

The first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, and Lasker after him, also embody an odd strand of cerebral pugilism. Steinitz reminds us of a smaller version of the late English wrestler Giant Haystacks (whose utterance that wrestling was the only activity that enabled him to express his emotions without being arrested has disconcerting echoes of Fischer’s conscious enjoyment, expressed in this interview, about the moment his opponent’s ego cracks). Lasker, a doctor of maths and a German Jewish polymath, spent more or less his whole career embracing the philosophical-type-away-from-the-board/street-fighter-on-it conundrum (although in relative terms he was as cultured and worldly as someone like Fischer was paranoid and self-destructive).

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities unknown

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities undetermined

Certainly many champs either genuinely are academics (mathematician and computer science professor Max Euwe and engineering doctor Mikhail Botvinnik also fall in this category), pretend to be academics (Alexander Alekhine never completed his law doctorate but, being a ‘notorious trimmer’, to quote the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Chess, didn’t mind taking a few liberties and adding a ‘Dr’ prefix), or look like high-flying academics. Vasily Smyslov and Anand both remind us of cool, detached economics lecturers. Tigran Petrosian, Vladimir Kramnik and Karpov remind us of economics head librarians (the kind who would charge you £4000 on an overdue book without blinking).

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn't cross him

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn’t cross him

Tal spent much of his life looking like a scatty professor, living like the last bohemian standing and playing the most idiosyncratically brilliant games ever produced by one individual; his first wife’s comment in this interview that she sometimes thought Tal flew in from another planet to play chess sits well with what we would call his ‘benevolent witchdoctor’ ambience. At the other end of the spectrum, the chess of Jose Raoul Capablanca is so crystalline and logical that he earned himself the sobriquet of ‘The Chess Machine’.

That leaves us with one undisputed champ we haven’t yet profiled. The man who probably found being champion a burden from the moment he took the title. The man who many people inclined towards simplistic arguments claim ‘never recovered’ from losing his title – but also the man whose happiest moment may well have been marrying, third time lucky in this respect, and moving from the USSR to the West, a few years after he had indeed ceded his crown. The man who earned his living playing chess and who found ways to be healthily detached from it. The man who always looked as if he would be happier with a glass of wine or a game of tennis in his later years but who still stayed in the world’s top ten until his late forties.

Whether you feel Boris Spassky is indeed, as this Guardian article termed him, ‘the most gentlemanly and, whisper it, sane of chess players’ might hang on whether you can reconcile some bizarrely uncharacteristic utterances from a few years ago with the fact that he does possess an easy charm and is not averse to the good things in life.

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

But given that Magnus Carlsen reminds us every bit of a chilled-out big kid or young adult wearing a hooded top and baggy pants, shooting basketball hoops in a very nicely-tended Oslo municipal leisure area and then breaking off to let his mum know via his iPhone that he will slouch back in time for tea, we proffer a hypothesis (with tongue not totally in cheek and with some corroboration from the man himself) that Carlsen is the most emotionally-balanced, laid-back ‘all time number one but not yet champ’ in any sporting discipline, although Switzerland’s Roger Federer has managed something similar in tennis whilst winning every title going (the Olympic singles excepted).

Is it too much to suggest that it is more than coincidence that at least twice in this post-Cold War, 21st-century era of sport that affluent and relatively stable (but not superpower, or indeed G7) countries have had a very prominent look-in at the sporting table of superlatives in this respect? Has there been a new dawn where countries not synonymous with aggressive ambition and a hugely successful sporting heritage can produce one-offs that go the whole whole hog in a way they didn’t before?

(Whilst remaining balanced and normal?)

PS In all fairness to Max Euwe, Bobby Fischer himself reportedly claimed of the Dutchman: ‘There’s something wrong with that man. He’s too normal.’ It is difficult to think of a more upright and dignified world champion, that is for sure. Like Spassky and Carlsen, he certainly had a life beyond chess. It is Euwe’s incredibly zealous, workaholic nature throughout his life, including being a tireless globetrotting president of the FIDE world chess federation well into his late seventies, that sets him apart from a bon vivant such as Spassky (and as we said, there is no inalienable metric for defining normal). Which side of the coin Carlsen will fall on remains to be seen..

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

PPS, April 11th 2013. It has given us no pleasure to become aware after writing this article about the traumas that Boris Spassky and his family have recently suffered. This is not a fate we would wish on anyone – particularly given the dignified way Spassky reacted to his 1972 defeat by Fischer and the ensuing hostility from the Soviet authorities. It seems like a cruel twist of fate when Spassky, despite not being the strongest or most continuously focused player in history, has always reacted so well as a player and as a human being in the face of adversity (his victory as deposed world champ in the super-strong 1973 USSR championship being a case in point). We did write this article in good (and, if we say so, rather impish) humour at the time in an attempt to compare the psychological make-up of the champs but we are acutely aware of how important it is to be discreet and discerning. Therefore we wish Boris and his close family and friends all the best at this extremely difficult time.

Arve Henriksen: a new Scandi music maestro to learn about

A thousand thanks to my long-time work colleague Bob Stone for alerting me to this piece in The Guardian newspaper in the UK about the Norwegian jazz-experimental trumpeter Arve Henriksen. I delight in finding out about gifted and artistically mould-breaking Scandi musicians, almost to the extent that it becomes a ‘collecting’ hobby redolent of philately or numismatics, but I suppose that’s what (at least) half of being a muso is all about. I have a good deal of empathy with my friend who heard Frank Zappa properly for the first time, liked it and went out and bought more or less every available Zappa album he could (and there’s a compendious musical zoo of Zappa to choose from).

Even so, I don’t need to be a completist collector at this point in order to appreciate an initial sip in the form of this Henriksen offering, Sorrow And Its Opposite. The trumpet that sounds so much like the Japanese flute is apparently a common motif of Henriksen’s work, and it’s certainly in evidence here, but what extraordinary tonal effects and strata emerge otherwise. Particularly evocative is the way that one recording seems to have been basically superimposed upon another at one point without creating anything aurally jarring (in fact it creates the exact antithesis of this. Awful Atonality We Don’t Hear And Its Opposite?) Not to mention the way around 2:40 that sound melts into silence, before, out of silence, sound is unobtrusively forged to new effect without the overall continuity of the piece being sullied.

Arve Henriksen: exquisite experimental expeditionary

Arve Henriksen: exquisite experimental expeditionary

We’re delighted to see that Henriksen has had the chance to play with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame and taken the opportunity in the process to disconcert his audiences with what the article terms ‘unhinged screaming and some clattering drum work’. Just as Stevie Wonder’s ongoing claim to be the maestro of intelligent modern soul music is cemented by the elegant, spiritually nourishing drumwork of his early 1970s offerings, so anyone really looking to make big advances within the metier of experimental music must be prepared to rip up the textbook and do things the listener doesn’t expect of them instrumentally and tonally even when they’re familiar with what the artist has done before.

And it lends credence to the notion that among the supergroup fraternity of rock stars, John Paul Jones might be the goodest, cerebralest and laidbackest egg of them all..

(We’re aware we’ve got a whole trove of Led Zeppelin-related Scandi stuff to mine here in our own good time – but in the meantime thanks to our good friend I’d Rather Be In Iceland for scratching the surface.)

He played on Custard Pie and The Lemon Song - but he is A Very Good Egg

John Paul Jones: he played on Custard Pie, Tangerine and The Lemon Song – but he is A Very Good Egg

The sky’s the unlimited – great Oslo pics from NZ photographer

Further to recent posts, we’re only too happy to publicise the great Scandi-inspired blogging efforts of others – especially when they contain visual images of true resplendence.

Geoff Watt’s modesty (‘another Kiwi lost in London’) belies his photographic talent, and these pictures from the Opera House in Oslo have made us happy in spite of or because of the fact we haven’t been in Norway in three years and we feel we’re missing out on a lot. These images helped us get just that little fjord-inch closer.

Just check out the cloudy sky on these images. It really does seem interminable and helps partly cement our hypothesis that in the Nordic countries, nature is often so dominant that humans just seem incidental to proceedings. Only partly, however; the buildings and people in the various shots do conjure up a salient mood of defiance.

Otherwise that is one great cathedral of a sky – as if another almighty unaccounted-for part of space has negotiated its way into the earth’s atmosphere. No wonder we started thinking of a defining image from the Star Wars franchise – that of Cloud City (below). But for the fact this is a very real earth landscape that’s very genuinely photographed. Respect.

Photos don't get better than this. Oh, actually they do

Photos don’t get better than this. Oh, actually they do

Norway a year on: permanent memorials, permanent solidarity

We thought it was only right to use the blog to offer some practical resources for those in the international community who feel deeply and permanently affected by the terrorist attacks on Norway this time last year. We feel that in the circumstances, it is important to try and forge discreet but meaningful acts of solidarity and support that have a lasting legacy. We can only hope we are doing our best through the following suggestions (and hope that a similar international response will be made to the traumatic events in Colorado over the last 24 hours):

It is still possible to make donations to the Utøya fund run via Norway’s Youth Workers’ League (Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking in Norwegian). As many of you will know, it was the Youth Workers’ League that was running a summer camp on the island of Utøya this time last year when a truly terrible chain of events unfolded; we can only praise the league for its sterling response over the last year.

Norway Youth Workers' League: at the heart of the Utøya fund

Norway Youth Workers’ League: at the heart of the Utøya fund

The fund is being used to restore facilities damaged during the devastating attacks on the island, with a reported 35 million Norwegian kronor donated as of May this year. If you click on the Utøya link on the main AUF page, it takes you through to this page (with an option to translate into English in the top left corner). From there you can click ‘Gi online’ (donate online) under the heading ‘Kredittkort’ (credit card) and make a donation on this page (again, with various language options available). We wish the AUF all the best in their endeavours and are confident this will serve as a truly appropriate memorial fund.

Otherwise, we would like to draw attention to the ongoing work of the Norwegian Refugee Council (Flyktninghjelpen), a non-governmental organisation providing vital support and assistance to refugees and displaced persons worldwide. This organisation is providing a vital response to humanitarian crises including the ongoing drought in East Africa  – with its ongoing operations in Lebanon surely gaining even greater urgency as full-on civil war and the uprooting of communities in neighbouring Syria becomes a growing reality.

We are aware that the NRC’s work is internationally-based and had existed for several years prior to the events of July 2011; however, we feel those those very events were completely unrepresentative of all the internationalist work Norway has historically done in the interests of peace, freedom and democracy. As such, we feel that a donation to the NRC would count as a gesture of solidarity for Norway whilst helping those who have been victimised through no fault of their own across the globe.

We are aware that there have been some technical glitches with the NRC’s website, meaning that online donations are not that easy to make at the moment. The NRC is itself aware of the problem; however, you can make a donation via a banking transfer in the interim (details given here).

We continue to welcome and actively champion the suggestion made last year by renowned British children’s author Michael Morpurgo that Britain should offer to plant a tree on the island of Utøya – both in recognition of the tree given to the UK by Norway every Christmas and displayed in Trafalgar Square, and as a lasting, (literally) rooted act of solidarity and friendship. We call upon UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague to actively countenance the idea – and would be delighted if any readers in the international community feel it’s worth asking their own respective countries if it’s not time to make a similar gesture.

               Michael Morpurgo

Norway’s annual gift to the UK – the Christmas spruce in Trafalgar Square

Otherwise we re-iterate our belief that music plays an invaluable role in helping to heal human wounds. Here is some footage of violinist Alexander Rybak playing a composition by legendary Norwegian fiddler Sven Nyhus as part of a memorial event in Oslo city centre days after the attacks. For us, the work of Nyhus is a remarkable musical discovery that we have made in the last 48 hours and we are wondering where he has been all our lives. Proof that surprising and immediate joy can help to salve wounds caused by totally unexpected trauma and sorrow.

               Sven Nyhus Quartet

Thinking of our brothers and sisters in Norway this weekend. Peace be with them.

Norway July 2011: A poem

A poem for Norway a year after the terrorist attacks on Oslo and Utøya:

Norway July 2011

Before this, we, the world, were on the outside.
Amid blue sky artifice we, the world, afforded
And then deployed pettiness as a luxury,
Confident that the windfall of civilisation
And being able to calm down in time
Would kick in just in time,
Safe like a raincoat, treasured like coconuts
That we hoarded, equating unseen with carapace.
We were on the outside, but saw all these ills
As external to ourselves, seething in lands
Both far-off and typecast.
We saw the book’s cover,
And judged (from experience).

Now? All terror is completely within and
All those gone are blameless. Completely.
Those proved wrong are broken, broken,
Unable to salvage life from innocence.
The unknowing young still with us awaken
All feeling, all fear, every piece of awe;
The jigsaw gains clarity, we crave new protection.

And yet this is where everything democratic
Sprouts up for appraisal – or just out of defiance.
Tender like snowdrops, rooted like Norse pine,
All freedoms and fairnesses again evoke children
And vases not fragile as long as they over-run
With love for water, daisies for small hopes
That suddenly circle, and join up, softly.

All we have is that childish hope.
That childish hope is all that’s obligatory.

Copyright Aidan McGee 2012

Oslofjorden from the Bygdøy Peninsula, August 2009. Photo: EE Pridgeon

Oslofjorden from the Bygdøy Peninsula, Oslo, August 2009. Photo: EE Pridgeon

See here for a more immediate and highly impactual verse response by Danish poet Pia Tafdrup, made available in this instance via the blog of a poetry publishing outlet we can’t praise highly enough – Bloodaxe.

Scandi Words and Phrases of Beauty, Part 4 – hello to Norwegian readers and their meadows

Vi ønsker å si hei til våre potensielle lesere i Norge. Vi beklager at vi ikke har skrevet så mye om Norge og norske ting nylig og vi håper at dere alle kan tilgi oss. Vårt skriftlig norsk er ikke perfekt – men vi håper at vi kan bruke ord for å beskrive hvor vakker ordet ‘gressmark’ er 🙂

In other words, we’d like to apologise to our potential readers in Norway for not having written about them and their country so much in this teething period for the blog. We hope that they can forgive us and that we can use whatever words we have to hand (and our far from flawless Norwegian) to extol the word ‘gressmark’ – as in meadow, pasture, grassland.

A very Norwegian gressmark

A very Norwegian gressmark

Of course ‘eng’ might just as easily do the trick. And yes, you’d probably make yourself understood with ‘gräsmark’ in Swedish. But that ever-so-slight-vital flattening of the accent in the Norwegian helps conjure up images of lush, gressy (a cross between grass and cress?) green fields – particularly apposite as spring is now here in the Northern Hemisphere. The inherent poetry of words is a subtle thing. We very much like it on this occasion – just as we like the soft rounding of the rs in karse (Norwegian for cress). It makes us think of round cressy petals inside crust-free sandwiches. Or indeed crust-free open-top sandwiches. That’s a very enticing vernal Nordic thought.

The green green karse of home

The green green karse of home