Saturday, 19 April 2008

What’s Guernésiais for ‘God bless England’?

So when I was, y’know, knee high to a grasshopper and family holidays were STRICTY a case of going to a desolate tin shack in Pembrokeshire, there seemed to be so little scope of going to an actual foreign country that the Isle Of White and, in particular, the Channel Islands exuded a certain El Dorado-like quality – exotic and isolated, yes, but surely their boundless mysteries were tangible, obtainable? Basically like all children, I was an idiot, and obviously now I am now a man of the world I scoff at such thoughts. I scoff heartily. Especially the ones about the Isle Of White, as I went there a couple of years ago and it were rubbish, like.

But anyway, my erstwhile housemate Jon Macrae got married last weekend, and thus after four years of mocking him from being from Guernsey, I ended up there myself. It’s not hard to trump the superannuated charms of the Isle Of White (which fossils do you prefer? The ones you dig up from the beaches or the ones wandering around in the streets), but Guernsey is far from rubbish, it’s very charming. Of course living in a charming place does weird things to your head, and Jon was ever a man possessed of somewhat rightwing attitudes. I’m fairly sure I now know why: despite the fact they spoke Guernésiais (a version of French) until the 19th century, nowadays Guernsey is basically 1950s England. Seriously, beyond a general lingering fondness for Maggie Thatcher, there’s almost no evidence of the last six decades having occurred. There are idyllic meadows, content townsfolk who say ‘hello’ when you pass, lolloping hordes of obese, docile rabbits, and St Martins, the hamlet or whatever that I stayed in, was so epically quaint that I couldn’t actually work out whether or not I was in the centre. There are apparently a couple of dozen Latvians on the island, which has upset people no end. There is no NHS. The cars only have four or five digit number plates. They have £1 notes. There is almost no street lighting. The main road is the one with the pavement. I didn’t see a single non-white person. The fact two of the hymns in the service – I Vow To Thee My Country and Jerusalem – were misty eyed peons not to Guernsey but England wasn’t so much an irony lost on people as one so glaringly patent there’s no point commenting on it. Oh, and my dress sense was apparently so garish by local standards that in the course of an afternoon wander into St Peter Port, the main town, I scored myself four beeps of car horns and, weirdly, a thumbs up off a pair of 12 year olds.
Anyways, it’s a bit like stepping into a sort of idealised version of England’s past, it made me fervently grateful that I grew up in ugly, cosmopolitan old Birmingham, and I’m actually surprised Jon didn’t actually turn out even stranger. But that’s just me, and it really is very nice; my hotel was the type of discreetly classy establishment that leaves me feeling like a fraud (I got a good online deal, y’see), but it was only a couple of minutes walk down to some lovely, wildflower-strewn cliffs, the sea was a perfect greeny blue, the weather was nice, I was a happy boy. I topped off my general outlandishness by sitting on a bench atop a cliff reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, thus potentially scaling a brave new height of pretentiousness.

Church weddings always kind of freak me out (well the two I’ve been to), I suppose because they’re these highly ritualised affairs that inevitably make you feel kind of hypocritical as a non practicing Christian. I mean, singing a hymn about how great God or England or England and God are... it’s just not what I’d come out with in real life. And I definitely wouldn’t sing about them. Except perhaps in the righteous arena of the karaoke bar. And I’m not saying I object to the principal of it all, it’s just that it’s a bit weird that the whole thing is kind of this performance designed to add gravitas to what is essentially a short legal ceremony in the backroom that none of us even get to see. I mean, it’s great for the priest and stuff, but Jon’s not a religious man (well, not a churchgoer), and I do kind of think that church weddings for non religious people are just a way of covering up the fact that the actual legal marriage process is kind of boring. Like, if the legalese required, I dunno, a trapezing bear or something then maybe less people would bother draping their day in religious ritual. Obviously a massive flaw with that argument is that plenty of practising types believe in God in some way shape or form, and even if they’re not regular churchgoers they want some sort of spiritual dimension to the wedding. Also two even if they’re vehement atheists (well, probably not if they’re vehement atheists), marriage is supposed to be lifelong love commitment, etcetera etcetera, and people want the chance to stand up in front of their nearest and dearest and be all in love. I suppose it’s just that I feel like I’m being a bad friend by singing a hymn about how much of a dude God is and not meaning it, like I’m going to jinx the love. Also, while fundamentally very moving, the bit where Jon said he would honour Alicia with his body was a bit, erm, well, I dunno, it could maybe have been a splash more street?

I know, I know, I’m a monster. Hey ho.

Anyway, everything went well, reception was basically dandy... best man’s speech involved copious jokes at the expense of the island’s Latvian population, which I thought was a bit awful, though I suppose somewhat ameliorated by the fact an obscure bailiwick having a grudge against an obscure Baltic state is pretty funny. Later on I sort of semi-started to confront him about it, but, erm, he clearly wasn’t up for a row and having a go at the best man/setting oneself up as a righteous champion of Eastern European feelings at what is supposed to be the happiest day of your friend’s life is kind of rude, so I just weakly changed tack after about 30 seconds. Go me.
I got chatting to the (English) wedding photographer, who was telling me she occasionally got taken for a Latvian because of her red hair, that not being part of the Guernsey gene pool. In fact the gene pool in Guernsey sounds fascinating – she was telling me that her fiancé often jokes(?) that the best thing to ever happen to the island was the German occupation, as it added some fresh blood, so to speak. He’s from Guernsey, so it’s okay for him to say that, au naturalle. She also asked me to plug her services on my blog. I don’t have the web address here, but I may add it later. After all, you never know when you might need to get married on a random British island. Anyway, good times, basically, I naturally ended up righteously drunk, not least because of my really wise decision to hoover up the remains of everyone else’s dessert wine. I don’t believe I’ve ever got pissed on dessert wine before, but I didn’t half have weird dreams – basically I was on the Palatine hill, interviewing a bunch of vampires about their new musical adaptation of an episode of Futurama. Interpret that, motherfucker.

On a final note, the wedding cake was entirely comprised of muffins. This is a very good idea, all take note, please.

Oh yeah, and Alicia Macrae (as she is now known) seems very nice indeed, happiness, fertility etcetera upon them both.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The Swedes make amends, the Norwegians make a killing, we make an escape

So I've been back in the UK since Sunday night, essentially making this blog a complete farce. But whatever, and in any case I'm, not trying to make it seem like our second week was less eventful than the first, but, um, well it kind if wasn't, so one blog should sink this bee-atch...

Anyway, we lefrt the Arctic, we went back to Helsinki, and it was much the same as we'd left it save for a dusting of snow. We faffed around fairly effectively until the evening ferry back to Stockholm - me wandering around parks and continuing my mission to take pictures of waterfowl you can quite easily find in the UK, Mark sitting in a cafe and drinking pineapple juice. Good times.

There are several good reasons why the ferry back to Stockholm was less raucous than the one over. One, that would have probably killed us, or at least killed young Mark; two, you can't PLAN something like that; three we were probably less generally excitable, being both knackered and somewhat ferry hardened.

As a matter of courtesy we still packed away a crate of 24 beers between us, but without the hard spirits and crazy party vibes, it didn't appear to have the same impact as before. Or perhaps we were so used to being drunk by that stage we just didn't really notice. It was okay though - we amused ourselves by sitting in one of the ferry bars and watching an enthusiastic but not especially, y'know, good covers duo from New Jersey; I obviously wasn't completely sober, as when they asked for requests I did slur out 'anything from the 21st century', something they had the good grace to ignore. In any case, they apparently see Bruce Springsteen down their local DIY store, which basically makes them demi-gods at the least.

In fact we clearly were pissed, as we somehow ended the night sitting in the ferry's near-deserted club, hanging out with a group that consisted of a wealthy Mongolian who was an indefatigable bordering on heroic womaniser - yet was so cheerily crap at it you had to love him - a 17-year-old goth sailor, some utter gonk who wanted me to box with him for reasons I can't remember and was probably never given, and a 15-year-old. Who was perfectly normal, except she'd been born in 1992, which slightly weirded me out. I slunk off to bed around 2am, and slumbered undisturbed by blue dawns.

We really liked Gothenburg, which is kind of why there's kind of not a lot to say about it without sounding like an estate agent or whatever. To give the brief pitch, it's not exactly a dainty-looking town, but its got a lot of 19th century (I think. I dunno) brick buildings so well kept that probably look cuter now than was intended when they were built, very Dickensian. The fact that for much of the time we were there it was snowing in total Frank Capra stylee - big, floaty flakes that settled beautifully without being discernably cold or wet - didn't exactly hurt matters. Add to that a young, friendly population, and a really nice hostel in a really nice neighbourhood that reminded me more of something you'd find in a North American town than anywhere else we'd been to in Scandinavia and you've got somwhere that, well, nice. So nice that on the first night we didn't even bother going out in it. We sat in the hostel and watched The Simpsons. It's a social satire about yellow people. Pretty good. We did, however, go out the next night and got fairly twatted in a series of likable bars, culminating in our sitting in a rock pub with some locals, all of us ranting about how much we hated Stockholm. In fact Tobias aside I don't think we met anybody on the trip with a good word to say about the place, which spurred us on to going along with our kneejerk dislike of it and altering our plans so as to not spend our last night there. Thus based on approximately 12 hours experience, I would like to say Stockholm is the worst place in Scandinavia and should be bombed or exiled or thrown into the bear pit or something.

We'd been drinking so heavily on the trip that I'd kind of started to wonder whether or not I was really capable of getting properly, properly drunk. Turns out I most certainly was, and after more or less falling asleep in the bar I meandered the five or so kilometres back to the hostel in so unsystematic a fashioon it's wonder I didn't end up in some outlying village. I stopped to buy a panini and, for whatever reason, steal a Toblerone. I don't like Toblerone, I didn't want a Toblerone, and I felt fairly dirty about the whole thing the next day... I think in my head it was some sort of revenge on Scandinavia for being expensive. Hmm. Gothenberg wasn't even that pricey. I'm just a monster. Anyway, I fed it to Mark the next morning, it briefly stopped him moaning about how the hostel check out time was just some martinet fabrication of mine, designed to deny him sleep.

Anyway, it's a lovely town, you should go there. That is all.

Oslo, Oslo, Oslo... I think it's an okay place. But here's the thing: it's a really very ordinary looking city - I'm thinking Birmingham, Manchester - but it's freakishly, almost pyrotechnically expensive. I know this blog is essentially a series of uninspired variations on the theme 'Scandinavia is right pricey, like', but in Oslo it's actually so extreme it actually almost goes beyond being a negative and sort of becomes like a weird special effect - £10 for a sandwich? £6 to get the bus? Why not? It made for quite the talking point, and you got used to it but I mean... yeah... in other respects it was the most unremarkable city on the trip and it was charging £10 for a gosh darned sandwich. Surely there's something against that in the Geneva convention, market economics be damned.

But as I said, after a while you just accepted you were poor and used the cost as a talking point, no worries. However, we maybe felt a bit grumpy on the first night, something compounded by our bewildering hostel. It was a Hosteling International, and one thing I'd kind of forgotten is that they can sometimes be these big sterile things full of old people and, y'know, rules. Basically what I'm getting at is that alcohol was forbidden from the premises. Which was bad. Certainly the trip had sloughed some of its more, uh, Dionysian qualities since kick off, but the pre-consumption of store-bought alcohol (still almost £2 for a can of beer) was kind of necessary if one were to have a night on the Oslo tiles, and the hostel was doing its damndest to stop us. Maybe you're not supposed to drink if you're poor. Or at all. Which is possible - we never once saw any shops selling liquor or wine, and beer-selling hours are subject to some pretty draconian restrictions. Anyway they don't tell you at check in that you can't drink at the hostel, and signs forbidding you are discreetly tucked away, the net result being we bought a six pack, came back with it and got told off. What was worse was that once we realised the problem we simply went and drank outside with the smokers (cancer sticks being similarly verboten) and were ticked off by some supercilious twat with a beard. Given we just ended up drinking the cans in our room it wasn't a big deal, but I think it's messed up that drinking is treated as the worse habit.

Then again the Norwegians have some fairly odd taboos, it would seem. On the second morning we were having breakfast with our two roomies, a couple of okay New Yorkers. Three of us were wearing beanies... however only I had the pleasure of being sat next to a middle aged woman who was absolutely horrified at the fact I was wearing a hat at breakfast. I explained that my hair was really greasy and that I wouldn't wear headgear to dinner or whatever, but she remained aghast, saying it was 'making a noise' to do something as crazy as that, a point she wouldn't let go. At all. For ages. While I was trying to eat. Zack, one of the Americans, actually cracked and doffed his cloth to try and shut her up. Lukowski, however, don't take his hat off for nobody, and after several rounds of me assuring her I wasn't an anarchist and her not believing me, she then started accusing the British of being backward and violent compared to the Norwegians, and mockingly asked me if I was coping alright not having sausages and bacon for breakfast. Several possible comebacks occurred, but I really couldn't bothered and just mumbled something about how I prefer bran flakes. Unexpectedly she then complimented me on how polite I was and then mercifully departed.

Anyway, Norwegians: potentially a bit repressed, is what I'm saying.

So tourism. Was mixed. We went to see the National Gallery, home to Munch's The Scream and sundry other works by Norwegians of note, which was pretty good, though that said if I ever have to see another oil of a fjord/glacier/mountain range by moonlight it'll be too soon (I'm looking at you in particular, JC Dahl). Mark offered an interesting bit of art criticism by spitting a bit of cereal onto the exposed surface of Joachim Frich's no doubt priceless 1850 work Romsdalshorn, where it doubtless still lingers. It was probably an accident.

Inevitably we paid a visit to what was billed as possibly Oslo's cheapest pub. It was called Stargate, had horrible decor, stank powerfully of urine, and was more or less exclusively populated by very dangerous, very desperate men. But it was slightly less than £4 a pint, so...

Afterwards we went to see the Oslofjord. I think maybe the Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy got me unreasonably excited about fjords, but, um, yeah, I suppose I was hoping for a little more pizzazz. Again, I'm really not moaning, I'm just saying it's kind of an average city. And of course plenty of cities don't have fjords at all, the poor bastards

We actually located quite a cool rock pub in the evening, not ball-breakingly expensive either, and it was quite fun to observe the Oslo goth legions. Goth is probably wrong, it's more about the black metal, but it's quite interesting to compare them to the UK model - our bunch are kind of cliquey, but Oslo seems to have such a high number that the hairdye and make-up brigade hang out freely and amiably with the quote unquote normals. It's interesting, we actually went back there on our second night and got talking to a trio of local laydeez - I ended up talking to the one of them about music for quite a long time, and it's fascinating, she was a chic-ishly dress type, quite into her MOR-ish indie - Kaiser Chiefs, Oasis and the like - but she'd also been to Download last year and chattily enthuses about a quite bloodcurdling array of black metal bands. I do firmly believe the whole black metal thing is further proof of the fact all Norwegians are basically repressed psychopaths (well, mostly - if you've got the time to be really fucking disturbed by an account of the famous killing that happened on the scene some years back but the absolute nutterbutter wot did the murdering then go here:, but that aside I think it's actually quite nice a society can be so accepting of such an extreme music form, not patronising it or humouring it, just unfussily integrating it. Though that said we could have done without the attentions of a guy who claimed his name was Hawkon. He appeared to genuinely believe he was a character in World Of Warcraft, which made for quite stilted conversation if you don't.

When we got in after our first night at the bar, we found the New Yorkers had changed rooms. They'd left an explanatory note, but we didn't really need one. We had a new roommate. He had the devil's own BO (it was actually soupy) and his snore sounded like a saw cutting through bone. It wasn't nice, but it was late and we just had to put up with it. He left around seven; his stench followed him earky afternoon type time. It could have been a lot worse for our US comrades - the previous night I'd offered a passionate argument as to why we shouldn't be paying for public transport and how the Norwegians were probably so monied and law abiding there probably weren't even any inspectors on their trams. I did firmly believe this, but for whatever reason I told Mark I thought we should buy travel cards the next morning, and thank christ we did - on the first tram we got the next day three very burly inspectors hauled a guy who hadn't paid his fare away bodily. From the look of desperation on his face as they pleaded with him, I would say they were probably going to rip his limbs off and make him eat them. At a guess.

Anyhoo, our last full day there was bitterly cold and wet, and we went to see a Viking museum that was okay but a bit brief considering it was selling a book called something like When It Comes To Vikings, Oslo Is, Like, Totally The Shit. Mark was frozen and not a little dispirited, so just stayed in a cafe to read. I didn't blame him, but I glad I made possibly my best decision in Norway and went to check out Vigeland Park. I know absolutely nothing about Gustav Vigeland. I'm too lazy to even Wikipedia him. But what do know is he was a sick sick sick puppy, and presumably some sort of genius. Vigeland Park is filled, I mean properly crowded with his massive sculptures of humans. They're ugly, man, humanity reduced to a grotesque rabble, cold, selfish and demanding. And in the centre there's this obelisk... it's like, totally fucking Mordor, a massive, massive column of twisted, ugly bodies, reaching towards the skies like a flue from the netherworld. It's an unbelievably impressive sight, pitilessly evocative and unrelentingly bleak (I'd left my gloves at the hostel and my hands were frozen raw, but it actually added to the ambience). It would never in a million years be allowed in the UK: Anthony Gormley looks like Rolf Harris next to this guy, I think if anything of the like was tried the tabloid witch hunt would be brutal. But I loved it, and I loved the fact the people of Oslo presumably loved it. I mean, I grumble about the Norwegians being uptight fruitloops (and that is a problem), but it's like I was saying earlier about the goths and the normals hanging out, this society had a remarkable toleration for the grotesque, the ugly and disturbing... it doesn't have to be romanticised into some sort of wanky outsider fantasy, and I think that's a wonderful and very healthy thing.

And on that note I'll wind up.

If you have enjoyed these wafflings and would yourself like to be featured in some one day, I kind of have a plan, which is to see some of the rest of Norway (on the basis of photographic evidence much prettier than Oslo), then get the five day long ferry from Bergen to Iceland... and when I say five days, you're deposited on the Faroe Islands (which look pretty cool) for a couple of them, it's not all being on a boat. But I think it would be interesting. An adventure. And indeed if you get a ferry over from Newcastle, it could be a sensationally environmentally friendly one, and it's good to feel smug about these things. So if you're interested (and let's face it, if you're reading this still you must be at least a bit interested) then let me know. Though that said, me and Powell do have plans to do a tour of Mexican border towns. Which is sort of a joke. But not really.

Hmm, somebody allegedly called Jum asked me to add this... knows what exciting realm of the imagination it will open, eh?