I made some kid-size Viking costumes for my talk at the Perth Writers’ Festival. Here’s how.
Few years ago when James and I worked on the early drafts and illustrations of TLV and really started getting into the Viking vibe, it seemed that James was most interested in the Norse myths and legends, whereas I had more a feeling for their history. James started amusing me, and no doubt small children, with his colourful tales of what the Norse gods were really like. The gods in our two Viking books are much more tame and civilized than the historical ones, though as I said before, James’ Fafnir the Dragon is a right piece of work.
While James sharpened his crayons, I headed to Scotland on holiday with my good friend Allen Newton and decided to add on a week staying on the Shetland Islands. The islands are famous for Jarlshoff Viking ruins, a terrific Viking museum, Viking boat races and most of all, the annual Up-Helly-Aa Viking Festival held every January in the capital, Lerwick. I imagined I’d come away fired up with new found Norse passion.
The Up-Helly-Aa festival is actually a year-long event with the locals spending eleven months constructing a full-size Longship, recreating Viking costumes and weapons and growing authentic looking beards.
Then, at the coldest month of the year, they drag the ship though the streets of Lerwick to the local park where they ceremoniously set it alight, dance round the flames with much “merriment” and have a party that lasts for four days. With the amount of “merriment” it is said they put away, I imagine a few more days might be missing from the working week as well.
With January that far north not really being an option (brrrr), Allen and I planned to be in the Shetlands at the end of August so we could see the thousands of puffins that colonise the cliffs near Sumburgh Lighthouse, the southernmost tip of the islands, so we sadly missed the festival by months. Even sadder than that, as far as Allen was concerned, on the day before we arrived, the final puffin flew off south for the winter, according the lighthouse keeper (“you should have been here yesterday”), so we missed them as well. All that way. It was actually a 12-hour overnight ferry crossing in a Force 9 gale.
The redeeming feature in this story is that while we there exploring the islands, the weather wasn’t too bad, in a Northern Hemisphere kind of way. The Shetland Islands are notorious for abysmal weather, with snow, sleet, rain, hail, and hurricane force winds all arriving at the same time, and as the islands are little more than grass-covered, barren rocks sticking out of the remote North Sea, shelter from the weather for the thousands of hardy Shetland ponies that inhabit the place is limited.
The Vikings chopped all the trees down a thousand years ago so little natural shelter is available other than the thousands of ruined stone cottages and dry stone walls.
The locals, too, are famous for their grit and hard living, surviving over the centuries on fishing and collecting peat bog. In recent years, though, with Lerwick being used as a base by North Sea oil rig tenders, the economy has boomed beyond belief, and heated swimming pools, sports centres, wide roads and good schools have become a feature in almost every tiny village.
Until Allen and I went there, I had not met anyone who had visited the Shetlands, but since coming back, I have found that two of my friends have done so in recent years. First was the lovely Amanda Curtin, the extremely polished writer of The Sinkings, a haunting novel set in Albany, and the equally moving and atmospheric, Elemental, published last year, and which is set in Fremantle but starts in the Shetlands, where she did a lot of research.
The other friend is John Cusack, an internationally renowned architect, who has traveled all over the world on building projects, including one in the Shetlands. John was lucky enough to be there on a recent January and took these fabulous photos of the Up-Helly-Aa Festival, and kindly shared them with me. John is also lucky enough to be the partner of the famous, award-winning creator Wendy Binks, mother of Stripy the Emu and owner of the fabulous Stunned Emu galley on the Cappuccino Strip in Fremantle.
And did I come back fired up with a new sense of Norse passion? You bet! The funny thing is that James came back from holiday all fired up as well, except he had been in India. Perhaps it was the influence of the Bollywood pop group, The Bombay Vikings that did it and why the The Last Viking Returns is looking do fabulous? (In an Indian/Viking sort of way?)
In practice for the The Last Viking book launch on June 24th, I just had a few friends around for some mead and pickled herring. And very well brought up Vikings they were too. They took off their helmets and swords, and wiped their Ugg boots before coming in the Longhouse. We then had a few games using the Lewis Chessmen,and eventually threw axes about, because that is a traditional Viking pastime, a bit like overgrown darts, I suppose. Then they all sailed home and onward to glory. It set me wondering, though, do you think we should have axe throwing competitions at the launch? It would be a hell of a lot more interesting than a long-winded speech from me.
My Working with Children card, designed by our government to protect the little darlings we writers and illustrators are talking to in class and at festivals, is okay for illustrators, but writers tend to be, by the nature of their profession, a bunch of half-mad professional liars, and the card is not going to protect your impressionable young minds from the lies of manic children’s book writers, especially this one. And, unfortunately, much against my better judgement, I can feel untruthfulness becoming a habit.
For instance, I told a group of Year 8s at Bunbury Catholic College yesterday that the Viking wench in the picture was my girlfriend. (What’s a wench? – you try explaining it after you’ve said it!) It was obviously a joke, as what girlfriend would go about dressed like that these days? Okay, no need to answer Frane’ … but a huge percentage of the kids instantly believed me. It wasn’t until Kathy Hogan, the librarian sitting down the back, burst out laughing that the kids began to doubt me.
My other slip-up was at All Saints Festival where, in the chapel, for God’s sake, I announced that being a writer is fabulous because you get to invent worlds, cities, towns and people and you get to command them and push them about to your will. You play with their lives. It is just like being God, I said. Well, it hasn’t rained in Perth in six months, but at that exact instant, outside, a huge peal of thunder sounded. Gulp! One more crack from me and it might have started hailing Marys.
And I was probably right to be a little wary considering God is probably not too keen on me and James at present, in view of an earlier draft of The Last Viking, where I had Knut, the hero, announce to his grandmother and the local vicar, based on the Vicar of Dibley, that he was no longer going attend Sunday School, instead he is going to become a Pagan and a follower of the Norse Gods; Thor, Odin, Hemrod and the rest.
Luckily, Cate Sutherland, our editor at Fremantle Press, more sensibly thought better of that sequence and slashed it, not really wanting to set up a conflict between Pagans and Christians in a book for young children, and where the Pagans win out, what’s more. But then that is what first, second, third and twenty-third drafts (and editors) are for. To iron out the stupidity that half-mad, manic, professional liars think are good ideas at the time.
A Visit to Ireland, Favourite Holiday Resort of the Vikings.
The Vikings, or Ostmen as they called themselves, ruled Dublin for almost three centuries, though they were defeated and expelled by the Irish High King Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The last Norse King of Dublin, Hasculf Thorgillsson, tried recapture the city with a Scottish / Norse army, but the reconquest failed and Thorgillsson was killed.
Evidence of the Viking rule lasted a long time, especially the Thingmote, a huge mound near Dublin Castle. It was the site where the Norsemen assembled and made their laws and held courts, though it was flattened years later in 1685. Viking Dublin also had a large slave market where slaves or Thralls, as they called them, were sold by the Norse and the Irish chiefs.
I have decided that as soon as I retire, or The Last Viking becomes an overwhelming, out-of-control bestseller, whichever comes first, I am out of here and off to Viking Ireland to live. Last time I visited I came across a castle-like fortress that I fancy. It is a derelict Church of the Knights Templar dating from 1187 and sits on the edge of small cliff overlooking the Irish Sea. Although it needs a little work; it has no doors, windows, running water, electricity, kitchen, bathroom, toilet, floorboards or roof, and unfortunately, there are a large bunch of dead folks buried in the front lawn, it does have plenty of character and would just suit me as a bolthole from the madding crowd. (You can tell I had just been to visit Thomas Hardy’s house.) I can just imagine myself on up on the battlements of my private castle-ette spitting in ze general direction and pouring boiling oil down on any children’s book critics who come to visit … and firing arrows of scorn at them.
And speaking of arrows, while we were in St Davids in Southern Wales, Jan and I both had plenty of practice at a medieval fair with original yew longbows, as you would have found at Agincourt or Crecy, or any Robin Hood movie, so if any nobles, knights, peasants or librarians attack my castle in their multitudes, we could rain down on their number arrows from a great height, causing great anguish and misery and a gnashing of teeth.
In 1976 in York, England, builders excavating ground for the foundations of a new shopping centre at Coppergate came to a sudden stop when they found they had uncovered the remains of a 1000 year old Viking settlement known as Jorvik. It soon turned out to be the site of one of the significant discoveries of modern archaeology. Thousands of artefacts were unearthed, including the Coppergate Viking helmet, as well as actual timbers and skeletons that had been preserved beneath the mud. Over the next five years archaeologists from York Archaeological Trust uncovered many more houses, workshops and backyards untouched for all that time.
In rare circumstances of compromise, the developers and archaeologist worked together and were able to rebuild much of the settlement, as well as construct the fabulous Jorvik Viking Centre on the very site where the excavations had taken place, beneath the Coppergate Shopping Centre. It really is an amazing experience travelling back through time in bumper cars through the recreated Viking streets populated with life-like models, smoke and sounds and the smells of cooking, tanning and dunnies. The centre had become a huge success with millions of people and line upon line of school children coming to experience their own little taste of Viking life.