On holiday; which releases me, I feel, from the duty of commenting on the farcical political events I’m reading about from Britain and America. We’re presently on a train climbing through high snowfields (in July!) in Norway. Donald, Theresa, Boris, Nigel and the rest seem so blessedly far away.
This blog isn’t supposed to be a travelogue, so I won’t bore anyone with extended impressions of the country. In brief: Trondheim was wonderful, the cathedral in particular – a Romanesque/Gothic gem, this far north. And we managed to see the valley – Verdal – where my man Laing lived, but which suffered a terrible landslide in the 1890s, killing 116 people and probably destroying his farm. He described the valley as more beautiful than anything in Scotland; but he was a utilitarian, and I guess liked it because it’s wide and flat and so eminently cultivable.
Oslo has turned itself into a modern-looking capital city since I was here last, when it had appeared rather provincial. Ibsen’s flat shows what it used to be like. The opera house is a fantastic piece of modern architecture, and a new city library is going up – so the Norwegians are still keeping faith with books. But then they’ve always been a literary people. It must be the dark winter nights.
(OK: the less said about the prices the better – £10 for a half glass of wine! Also the food: mostly rather tasteless fish, apart from some whale meat, which was horrible. But that serves me right, I suppose, for eating an endangered species. Kajsa thinks I’m being hard on the fish. It was better when they served it – surprisingly often, outside England – in an egg batter, with chips.)
We’re on our way by rail to Bergen now, for Grieg. (Our holidays are always cultural. Or, if you like, pretentious.) I would have liked to look up Svendson and Halvorsen too – they wrote the romantic symphonies that Grieg never got round to – but they don’t seem to be so celebrated.
In between the culture, the landscape is as spectacular as its reputation. It’s why the philistine Brits have always preferred Norway to Sweden, as I gathered from my study of British travelogues years ago. It must go back to the Romantics. It conjures up a picture I got from Mary Wollstonecraft’s account of her visit to Norway in the 1810s, where, among the mountains and in a personal emotional turmoil, she describes herself baring her breasts to the elements… I can’t get that image out of my mind. (Not that I particularly want to.)
But for a more sober account of the Norwegian nation, Samuel Laing’s Journal of a Residence in Norway (1840-ish), a reproduction of which is still available, remarkably, through Amazon, is worth looking up. I’m thinking of writing another piece on Laing when I get back, now I’ve seen his Norwegian valley, and – years ago – visited the house in Orkney where he was born. It does sometimes help a historian or biographer to have experienced a subject’s geographical environment. But don’t rely on the Journal as a guidebook to present-day Norway. I don’t imagine the MacDonald’s in Verdal was there 180 years ago.