Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Yesterday we gathered together a few sacks of winter clothing – heavy sweaters, thick trousers, waterproof gear, that sort of thing – and stuffed a donation into an envelope.  There’s a van leaving Liverpool this weekend, bound for Greece, driven by volunteers from Mersey Aid. That heavy sweater I no longer wear because the climate change winters here are always warm may end up on the back of someone like me – a teacher from Homs, or a medic from Damascus. So little we can do as individuals.

Today the Guardian website features a comprehensive and deeply worrying overview of the refugee crisis. In Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe, Guardian journalists report on the deepening humanitarian crisis that is unfolding along the refugee trail from the war-torn Middle East as winter sets in – from the Greek island of Lesbos to the Macedonian border and beyond. Continue reading “Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe”

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

During the last few days a poem has been cropping up frequently in Facebook posts.  Written by the young British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire, Home speaks with the utmost clarity of the reasons why the many, many thousands now risking their lives on the Mediterranean, tramping through the Balkans, or along inhospitable roads in Hungary leave their homes: Continue reading “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, where her father was a physicist and philosopher, and her mother an Arabic translator. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. She is also an opera director, and still lives in Berlin. Erpenbeck’s grandparents both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. They are figures which suggest that there is much that is drawn from her own family’s history in these two books.

End of Days cover

The central character in The End of Days is a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five alternate lives, each separated by an intermezzo, Erpenbeck imagines the different courses the woman’s life might have taken, and how the impact of those different lives might have had on others around her. It’s a bit like one of those old silent films in which the pratfallen clown rises up to live another day.

The scope is ambitious: from the provincial borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend, meaning: ‘It isn’t over until the end of all days.’

The protagonist seems to have died in the first sentence:

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.

The child being  buried is an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, wife, and old woman her daughter might have become:

She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.

After the child’s death, certain events unfold: the baby’s goy father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in what might have been: the possibilities foreclosed by, but seemingly coexisting with, the child’s death. The other night I watched an Horizon documentary about the concept of multiverses: Erpenbeck’s story has that sort of flavour. Each of the intermezzos which punctuate the narrative enable Erpenbeck to shift gear and imagine how things might turned out differently in one of these parallel universes.

It’s certainly a clever way for Erpenbeck to extend the lifetime of her protagonist from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an old people’s home in 1990s Berlin. Her heroine meets death several times: as a fragile infant sickening in a freezing winter to a fall downstairs that kills an eminent Communist writer in 1960s East Berlin. Each time she dodges death, enabling the writer to refashion her history: each sidestepped fate opens the door to another kind of destiny.

Each intermezzo and subsequent ‘book’ introduces a new twist. What if, for example, the teenage protagonist is heartbroken by being rejected in love and induces a virtual stranger to kill her in a suicide pact? But what if that doesn’t happen and instead she becomes a writer and a Communist who settles in Moscow with her husband? What if doesn’t die in the Stalinist purges and labour camps but goes on to be a celebrated writer who wins the Goethe Prize?

Well, I’m always ready for a novel that embraces the sweep of Europe’s 20th century, and I don’t mind a good helping of modernist allusion. But, I have to say that I found this one uneven and ultimately unconvincing (the section set in the Soviet Union, in which Erpenbeck’s leaden prose aims to emulate the doublespeak of Stalinism is a particular slog).

Although there are many effective passages, overall I found Erpenbeck’s prose mannered with its deliberate distancing in which names are rarely used and identities muddied with characters often identified only in terms of their relation to others (‘daughter of’, ‘mother of’, ‘son of’, etc).

And then there’s the question of what it all meant – all these alternative lives? The cruelty of fate? The randomness with which a person’s life can intersect with history? This might be unfair, but at the end I felt it was like the great-grandmother in the story who sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, ‘and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.’

At the end of the novel, after her heroine has endured death four times and lived through Europe’s 20th century turmoil in four cities, Erpenbeck finally grants her a name as she introduces us to the frail nonagenarian Frau Hoffmann in a Viennese nursing home. Her son Sasha, travels to Vienna where he enters an antiques store to buy his mother a present. Unwittingly, as he browses, he handles the very same edition of the Complete Works of Goethe that once belonged to his mother. He takes a fancy to them, but decides not to buy them.

You know, she says, I am afraid that everything will be lost – that the trace will be lost.

What trace? her son asks.

I don’t know any more: from where or to where?

The scene in the nursing home that follows is masterful, as the son sits by  his dying mother contemplating the journey into – where? what? – upon she is about to embark:

Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different world than the one he lives in.

This moment seems to echo the epigraph from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz with which Erpenbeck prefaced the novel, which itself echoed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film concerned with the workings of memory, Last Year at Marienbad:

We left here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now – where will be going now?

What follows, in the closing passage of The End of Days, is the best piece of writing in the whole book:

In this land to which his mother is crossing over, no longer able to understand anything she once understood, she will no longer need any words, this much he understands. For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim-that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now-and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowed within the earth: the springs, the roots, and the dead; the cry of the cuckoo of to one side would be just as real as the stones crunching beneath the sole of his shoe, as the coolness of the evening and the light falling through the leaves to the ground before him, as his hand that he is using to stroke his mother’s back, feeling her bones beneath her thin, old skin, bones that will soon be laid bare-briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it would feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being – a middle-aged man, with a wife, two children, a profession-because he still has some time ahead of him, time during which he can look up something he doesn’t know in an encyclopedia or ask one of his colleagues, this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it arrived. He’ll be prevented from seeing this other world with the eyes of his mother for a good earthly time, by the absence of the most crucial thing: the going away.

In a Guardian profile of Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Oltermann made this interesting observation about this scene, noting an aspect of the book that had completely passed me by:

While The End of Days starts out as a portrait of a personality, it is, by the end, also a book about something much bigger: the disappearance of the faiths that help us to make sense of death. When the woman dies as a baby, her Jewish parents cover the mirrors, open the windows and sit with their silent grief for seven days. Even in socialist East Germany there are still rituals: the guards dip their flags in tribute at her state funeral, there is an elevated cushion presenting her medals. But when she dies for the final time, her son can only react to her death with despair: “As his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”

Erpenbeck Visitation cover

Earlier, in the Spring, I had read Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation, published in English in 2011. The central character of that book was a house, one which had witnessed, in microcosm, the complicated history of East Germany in the previous hundred years – and even beyond, through geological time.

From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. The elliptical narrative traces the lives those who live in the house which is throughout a sort of silent observer of the waves of human activity in the 20th century that lap at its gates.

In an interview with Quarterly Conversation, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the house actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg, a summerhouse that belonged to her grandparents, where she spent holidays for eight weeks every year:

It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.

The book features a mosaic of characters (as in The End of Days, few are given names) who all have connections to the property. Their stories are told in a dreamy, ethereal style, interwoven with glimpses of the seasonal labours of estate gardener:

After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time.

Although her prose is generally distancing, Erpenbeck embeds vivid descriptions of terrible events. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’, she takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the neighbours of the architect who owns the estate and he is a complicit bystander. The fate of the grandparents in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence:

Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before.

Later, the architect is also forced to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war East German authorities. Closing up the house,

He buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt.

This is the sort of book I expected that I would really appreciate. But, in all honesty, it left me unmoved: an exercise in style, it seemed to me, rather than a real engagement with its characters or the events that affect them.

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Poppies 2

In the last couple of weeks a surprising sight has materialised in the middle of Liverpool: a field of poppies, swathes of red flowers densely massed against a background of green.  It’s a stunning sight, but also one that is, in this glorious summer overshadowed by the storm clouds of war in eastern Europe and the Middle East, inescapably symbolic.

How did this poppy meadow, on derelict land below the Anglican cathedral, get here?  Earlier this year, members of Liverpool’s Chinese community sowed native poppy and cornflower seeds on vacant land stretching from the Cathedral towards the Chinese Arch. The act was part of a project linking local business and community groups with partners in China. The land was sown with locally grown wildflower seed from Landlife, the local environmental organisation that fifteen years ago established the National Wildflower Centre located near to the Liverpool end of the M62.

The poppies have flourished in recent weeks, and after catching sight of them from the bus, the other evening I walked down and captured these shots on my phone’s camera .

Poppies 4 Poppies 3

Red poppies: symbol of hope and good fortune in China

It was a glorious evening (a group of us, old friends from university days, sat outside Camp and Furnace savouring the warmth as darkness fell); so why, as this lovely summer stretches on, have I felt a vague sense of foreboding?

Clearly, the feeling was reinforced by the sight of those poppies with their inescapable associations (at least for the British). But, more than that, I couldn’t get out of my mind – as terrible news emerged from Gaza and eastern Ukraine – the feeling that we might be living through a re-run of another glorious summer, exactly one hundred years ago.  This is Paul Fussell writing about the summer of 1914 in The Great War and Modern Memory:

Although some memories of the benign last summer before the war can be discounted as standard romantic retrospection turned even rosier by egregious contrast with what followed, all agree that the prewar summer was the most idyllic for many years.  It was warm and sunny, eminently pastoral.  One lolled outside on a folding canvas chaise, or swam, or walked in the countryside.  One read outdoors, went on picnics, had tea served from a white wicker table under the trees.  You could leave your books out on the table all night without fear of rain.  Siegfried Sassoon was busy fox hunting and playing serious county cricket.  Robert Graves went climbing in the Welsh mountains.  Edmund Blunden took country walks near Oxford, read Classics and English, and refined his pastoral diction.  Wilfred Owen was teaching English to the boys of a French family living near Bordeaux.  David Jones was studying illustration at Camberwell Art School. And for those like Strachey who preferred the pleasures of the West End, there were splendid evening parties, as well as a superb season for concerts, theatre, and the Russian ballet.

For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol ofor anything innocently but irrevocably lost. […] Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation.  It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

Never such innocence again. It appears that I’m not the only one sensing the parallel.  In yesterday’s Guardian, Larry Elliott explained why he thinks the crisis following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine  will not escalate into a full-scale economic war.  Europe’s energy requirements and economies are too intertwined with Russia:

The European Union will talk tough but fall shy of imposing wide-ranging financial and trade sanctions as punishment for the Kremlin’s alleged role in the attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet. Meanwhile, hopes that Putin is putting pressure on the separatists in Ukraine boosted share prices.

And yet. Elliott, too recalls the idyllic summer of 1914, when a little local difficulty in Serbia seemed just a tiny cloud on the distant horizon:

Events of a century ago show that the optimism of markets is not always to be trusted. It was only in the last week of July 1914 – once Austria-Hungary had delivered its ultimatum to Serbia – that bourses woke up to the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo had the potential to lead to a war involving all the great European powers. Up until then, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as merely a local affair and nothing to worry about.

Still, life goes on, the weather is glorious, so we head off to the beach.

Beach 1 Beach 2Beach 4

‘Hot town, summer in the city’: we head for the beach at Formby

The thing about poppies is, they will grow anywhere.

Poppies 1

Europe is ill

Europe is ill

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen’s Front National party came first in France

The European election results reveal clearly that Europe is ill (to borrow the title of an essay by Perry Anderson in the current London Review of Books).  The symptoms of this illness are obvious – but what are its causes?  One prescient diagnosis can be found in Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, published as long ago as 1998. At the conclusion of his history of Europe in the 20th century, in which he had shown how shallow were the roots put down by democracy in European soil, he wrote this:

The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism, and Europe as a whole now faces the task which western Europe has confronted since the 1930s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two. The inter-war depression revealed that democracy might not survive a major crisis of capitalism, and in fact democracy’s eventual triumph over communism would have been unimaginable without the reworked social contract which followed the Second World War. The ending of full employment and the onset of welfare retrenchment make this achievement harder than ever to sustain, especially in societies characterized by ageing populations. The globalization of financial markets makes it increasingly difficult for nation-states to preserve autonomy of action, yet markets – as a series of panics and crashes demonstrates – generate their own irrationalities and social tensions. The globalization of labour, too, challenges prevailing definitions of national citizenship, culture and tradition. Whether Europe can chart a course between the individualism of American capitalism and the authoritarianism of East Asia, preserving its own blend of social solidarity and political freedom, remains to be seen. But the end of the Cold War means that there is no longer an opponent against whom democrats can define what they stand for in pursuit of this goal. The old political signposts have been uprooted, leaving most people without a clear sense of direction.

That was written in 1998 – a decade before the crash and the ensuing era of austerity that we are now living through, years in which national governments and European Union institutions have colluded in pouring billions of taxpayers money into bailing out the banks whilst imposing punitive measures on Europe’s citizens.  It’s hardly surprising that the 2014 European election results should therefore reflect disillusionment with and hostility towards Europe’s political elites and the non-elected executors of policy in the European Commission.

Nearly two decades ago in Dark Continent, Mark Mazower observed:

Democracy suits Europeans today partly because it is associated with the triumph of capitalism and partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives. Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics. It is for this reason that we find both high levels of support for democracy in cross-national opinion polls and high rates of political apathy. In contemporary Europe democracy allows racist parties of the Right to coexist with more active protection of human rights than ever before.

In 2014, I think we can safely say that most voters do not now associate democracy ‘with the triumph of capitalism’.  Austerity, the punitive conditions imposed on those least able to bear them, and the growing gulf between the super-rich and the poor have put paid to that. In his essay for the LRB, Perry Anderson dug deeper to identify three symptoms of Europe’s illness – the ‘degenerative drift of democracy across the continent’, a ‘pervasive corruption of the political class’ and the fallout from the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008.

He is scathing about what used to be referred to as the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union:

The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.

But, Anderson argues, the Union is not simply an excrescence on member states that are otherwise healthy enough:

At national level, virtually everywhere, executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease; parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.

With this voter alienation has come ‘a pervasive corruption of the political class’ (a topic, he notes, on which political scientists, always eager to discuss the democratic deficit of the Union, are strangely silent).

There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of persons or parties from illegal sources – or legal ones – against the promise, explicit or tacit, of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as during or before it.

If you wanted to assemble a picture of all this, you could start, Anderson asserts:

With Helmut Kohl, ruler of Germany for sixteen years, who amassed some two million Deutschmarks in slush funds from illegal donors whose names, once he was exposed, he refused to reveal for fear of the favours they had received coming to light. Across the Rhine, Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest, once his immunity came to an end. Neither suffered any penalty. These were the two most powerful politicians of their time in Europe. A glance at the scene since then is enough to dispel any illusion that they were unusual.

And he goes on to provide chapter and verse of other instances of high-level corruption among European politicians, citing Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, French Socialist minister for the budget,Jérôme Cahuzac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister who now heads the IMF, Irish taioseach Bertie Ahern – and many more.

But, argues Anderson, corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order:

It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?

Beyond the fallout from neoliberalism, there is its impact as a socio-economic system:

That the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008 was the outcome of decades of financial deregulation and credit expansion, even its architects now more or less admit. […] In the EU … this general crisis was overdetermined by … the distortions created by a single currency imposed on widely differing national economies, driving the most vulnerable of these to the edge of bankruptcy once the overall crisis struck. The remedy for them? At the insistence of Berlin and Brussels …cutting back public expenditure, [and imposing] a fiscal compact setting a uniform limit of 3 per cent to any deficit as a constitutional provision, effectively enshrining a wall-eyed economic fixation as a basic principle … on a par with freedom of expression, equality before the law, habeas corpus, division of powers and the rest.

As someone who found something truly inspiring in the way that, soon after the end of the Second World War, France and Germany overcame their historical enmities to begin the process of European integration, today’s election results not only sadden me, but also make me fearful for what the future may hold in store.  The way forward seems unclear.  Can the institutions of such a huge entity as the European Union be made truly transparent and democratic? Or should we accept that real democracy lies closer to home – not just at national level, but devolved to region or locality?  In fact, one of the founding principles of European integration, embedded in the treaties, is ‘subsidiarity’ – the idea that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen, that the Union should only take action where it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

Back in 1998, Mark Mazower concluded his Dark Continent with these words:

If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves and if they can accept a more modest place in the world, they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past.

See also

Vikings on the Wirral

Vikings on the Wirral

Recently I went along to an exhibition at the Liverpool Nordic Centre of paintings by three local artists, exhibiting together as part of the Independent Biennial under the title Sea Scapes – Land Shapes.  What drew me particularly was that one of the artists whose work was on display was a former work colleague, local writer and poet Sylvia Hikins. Recently her paintings have been inspired by the wild and mountainous landscapes of Norway and Iceland.

Sylvia became fascinated by culture and terrain of these Nordic lands after learning about their connections with the Wirral peninsula through the Viking settlement of the peninsula in the 10th century. She has travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Iceland, including a flight over the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, resulting in film, photographs and paintings that capture the harshness and beauty of those lands. In 2011, she mounted a solo exhibition in Reykjavik.

Part of her fascination is the tangible link with once Viking Wirral where Old Norse was once spoken: the same language spoken today in Iceland. Her paintings capture the cold, empty landscape which she describes this as ‘huge, wild expanses of ice and fire, mountain and sea’. In oil on canvas, the paintings which include ‘Gathering Storm’ (below) depict, in shades of blue, grey and white, an unforgiving landscape.

It was the first time I had set foot in the Nordic Centre, formerly known as the Swedish Seamen’s Church or Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka (named after a 17th century King of Sweden) – though I had long admired the elegant and energetic red brick building from outside.  It’s a beautiful, light infused building with a high vaulted ceiling and blue painted pews, dominated by the octagonal tower with its pyramidal roof. It is one of only four octagonal church buildings in the UK,  and one of about 30 in Sweden. It was the first Swedish church built overseas, built to meet the pastoral needs of Scandinavian seamen and the growing number of emigrants on their way to North America. It was erected in 1883, at at ime when the number of transient Scandinavian people in the Liverpool area was growing.  By the early 1880s, the annual number of Scandinavian emigrants passing through Liverpool had reached 50,000.

The commission to design and build the church was given to a young architect, William Douglas Caroe, who went on to be a major representative of the closing phase of the Gothic revival in Britain.  He created a unique building, which contains many Scandinavian features, including stepped gables and a concave sided lead covered spire over the entrance.

Today there are still regular acts of worship at the Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka, but the building is now owned and managed by the Liverpool International Nordic Community, and, apart from religious services, provides community events and language courses for citizens and descendants of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and their fellow Nordic nations, Finland and Iceland – reflecting the continuing presence of a strong Nordic community in Liverpool.  The story of the fight to save the building is told in this Seven Streets blog post.

While I admired the church interior and studied the paintings, activities were going on all around me – a language class (I know people who have learned Norwegian here), a music group setting up, and refreshments being served.  But my eye was caught by a small library of books on Nordic topics, including a couple devoted to Merseyside’s Viking connections.  I was aware that there was a connection – in place names, for instance, and as the likely location of the battle of Brunanburh  in 937, when Saxon forces of Wessex and Mercia united to defeat combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland.  But flicking through these books, I realised there was a lot more to learn, and so I ordered the books from my local library.

It’s a fascinating story, different in many ways from the pattern of Scandinavian settlement in eastern and north-eastern England, areas that were pretty much exclusively settled by Danish Vikings. I should say, by the way, that another reason for my interest in the Vikings had been as a result of watching Neil Oliver’s recent BBC TV series Vikings, in which (unless I wasn’t paying attention) he didn’t properly explain why these people from different parts of Scandinavia were all called Vikings.

A lengthy discussion of the etymology of the term at Wikipedia makes clear that it does not refer to any particular people or culture, but instead indicates an activity and those who participated in it – the explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates from different parts of Scandinavia who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.  The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase ‘to go viking’ implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas.  In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 9th century and is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian.

One of the highlights of Neil Oliver’s series was his visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo to see the truly beautiful Oseberg ship (above) discovered in a large burial mound from 834 AD.  Elegant this ship might have been, but it was frail and designed only for coastal journeys, not the great ocean-going voyages that the Vikings embarked upon, voyages that took them to the Shetlands, and down the western sea ways to the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

The Vikings who landed on the Wirral actually came from Ireland.  The first to come were Norsemen driven out of Ireland, later joined by fellow Scandinavians from the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scotland and the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In 902 AD a group of Vikings expelled by the Irish from their settlement of Dublin, pleaded with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercian English (and daughter of Alfred the Great), for permission to land and settle peacefully in the peninsula.  Granted rights, the settlers established themselves throughout the peninsula.

Some historians have drawn evidence of this settlement from Irish annals and Welsh texts that speak of a Viking named Ingimind leading a party of Norsemen, first to Anglesey, and then, being driven from that place, to the Wirral.  Though these stories are heavily embroidered, the broad outline of the narrative is confirmed by the Norse place names found especially in the northern half of the Wirral – and, most convincingly, by recent DNA evidence.

Though the first Viking settlers on the Wirral came from Ireland, they were part of the great exodus of people out of Norway that seems to have followed the unification of Norway from 880 AD by Harald Harfagre: families forced to leave because they were opponents of Harfagre, or because land became scarce as Harfagre settled his own supporters in the narrow coastal strip.  These were the people who headed westwards, settling in the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland.From there, some headed further west to Greenland and North America, while others headed south to the islands and lands bordering the Irish Sea.

The Mersey Vikings were not only raiders and traders, but also farmers, fishermen, and moneyers with their own representative assembly place or thing. Not all were pagans: though there is some evidence of pagan burial mounds, they were also Christians who built churches.  In the  14th-Century some were still naming their children the traditional Viking way, with name suffixes such as  –doghter ‘daughter of’ and  –sson ‘son of’, as in Iceland today.

It’s the Scandinavian origins of so many Wirral placenames which reveals the extent of Viking settlement along the peninsula, but especially in the northern half.  There is Birkenhead – from birki-hofud, meaning ‘headland growing with birches’; Frankby – from Frankisbyr or Frakki’s village; Irby – from Ira-byr, meaning sttlement of the Irish; Ness and Neston from nes, meaning promintary; Storeton – from Stor-tun, the great farmstead, the same element found in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, ‘the Great Assembly’; Thurstaston – from Thorsteinns-tun, meaning ‘Thorstein’s farmstead’; Tranmere – from Trani-meir, meaning ‘crane’s sandbank’.  West Kirby derives from Old Norse Vestri-Kirkjubyr, meaning ‘the village west of the church’.  Kirkby, on the other side of the Mersey, has the same derivation.

Viking placenames on the Wirral

Two place names are the most evocative: Meols and Thingwall.  Meols (from meir, ‘sandbank’), was the Viking seaport and shares its name with a place name of identical origin in Iceland (Melar).  Judith Jesch, writing in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, say:

Finds of coins and metalwork from Meols dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries show regular trading contacts with the rest of England, the Irish Sea and beyond.  While Chester was an official port and mint for the (English) kingdom of Mercia, Meols seems to have operated as a trading centre for the politically separate Norse enclave on the peninsula, serving its own local Anglo-Scandinavian community. It has even been suggested a that a mint, producing ‘Viking-style’ imitations of official English coins, operated there in the 1010s and early 1020’s.

The Viking settlement was most probably on the sandbank that gave it its name: a promontory that later disappeared under the waves as the coastline altered.  But in the 19th century, a succession of low tides exposed the remains of the settlement as well as a an ancient forest.  It was then that the major finds of coins and metalwork to which Jesch refers were found by local people searching the beach.  Many of these artefacts can now be seen in Liverpool’s World Museum – such as the axehead, shield boss and bent spear head below.

Thingwall was the site of the Viking assembly field or thing, the centre of Viking administration and decision-making.  Thingwall is a place name that can be found throughout the former Viking areas of the British Isles, as well as in Scandinavia (such as Iceland’s Thingwall, below).

On the other side of the Mersey there’s a Liverpool suburb named Thingwall, and there are additional sites at Whitby, on Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Man (where the local assembly still bears the name Tynwald).  Things were usually situated in safe and secure locations: Wirral’s Thingwall (celebrated below by proud locals) was situated right at the centre of the network of Viking villages on the Wirral.

But it wasn’t just the Wirral that the Viking settlers occupied.  Soon large numbers of Scandinavian settlers arrived across the Mersey, establishing themselves in villages and farmsteads throughout present-day Merseyside and then along the coastal plain up to the Ribble estuary.  There is a significant 1945 essay by Frederick Wainwright, The Scandinavians in West Lancashire, (reproduced in one of the books I’ve been reading, Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding) which suggests that the Norsemen settled mainly on the low-lying, marshy coastlands which the native English eschewed in favour of higher ground.  ‘The distribution of place names’, Wainwright writes, ‘therefore suggests that the Norse settlement was characterized not by dispossession but by a willingness to accept the less attractive districts which had been neglected by the English’.

Merseyside and West Lancashire place names with definite Scandinavian origins

In 2004, an enthusiast with a metal detector discovered a hoard of Viking treasure that had been buried around 905 AD at Huxley, just outside Chester. The hoard (below) is a collection of 22 silver objects, consisting of one small cast ingot and 21 bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably for ease of burial. Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work.

In 2002 a survey was launched looking for evidence for Norse descendants in Wirral and West Lancashire, since the place name and other evidence suggested this area was once populated by Scandinavian settlers. The team sampled the DNA of male volunteers from old families in Wirral and West Lancashire who trace their male line back before 1700.  In this way the researchers could bypass the large population influx since Medieval times.  30% of the men surveyed in West Lancashire and 50% of the men surveyed in Wirral had their top DNA match in Scandinavia.

Tony Tottey from Moreton Wirral had top DNA matches with men in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and, interestingly, is the nephew of the late Gordon Tottey of West Kirkby featured in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in 1971, The last of the Wirral Vikings.  You can read more about the survey on the University of Nottingham’s project website.

In his short series, Neil Oliver didn’t touch on the Viking settlement on Merseyside.  But there was one story that he told that was a revelation to me: the one about King Cnut attempting to turn back the waves.

Cnut succeeded as king of Denmark in 1015, after just over a century of Viking settlement on Merseyside and in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. A year later his forces invaded England; a passage from Emma’s Encomium quoted on Wikipedia, provides a picture of Cnut’s fleet:

[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

By October 1016 Cnut was firmly in control of England and was to rule England for almost twenty years. The protection he lent against Viking raiders – with many of them under his command – restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. The resources he commanded in England helped him to establish control of the majority of Scandinavia too.negotiated settlement made peace, dividing the kingdom between them.

I recall being taught at primary school the story of how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes as one that demonstrated overweening pride.  But, as Neil Oliver pointed out in a portrait of a wise ruler who had tremendous influence and authority across Europe, the story has an opposite meaning.  Failing to halt the waves, he king said: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.  The story reveals Cnut’s kingship skills: a demonstration of his piety and allegiance to the Christian church and a rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.

Oliver presented Cnut as  an early adopter of European monetary standardisation, minting coins that were accepted right across Europe, fuelling trade and prosperity. Oliver argued that Cnut was drawn to England in the first place because, for several hundred years since Offa’s reform of the coinage, there had been a well-organized monetary system in England, unlike in Scandinavia.

Silver penny of Cnut, minted in Bath

Cnut took over the Anglo-Saxon system of coinage, minting coins like the one above which shows him wearing a typical helmet of the type worn by Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the eleventh century. Contrary to the popular myth about Viking helmets, they had no horns.

Returning to the Wirral: for several years stories have circulated about the discovery of a Viking longship under a car park at Meols.  It’s a story that is rejected by Liverpool Museum here, but in 2013, the largest ever reconstruction of a Viking longship will sail across the North Sea to the Wirral.  Work to construct the 114 foot boat has been under way in Haugesund, Norway for the last 18 months.  The vessel is due to be launched in June and will embark on its maiden voyage in summer 2013.  The project – coordinated by Wirral’s Viking expert, Stephen Harding – aims to consolidate the growing links between Wirral and Scandinavia.


The books I read before writing this post were:

  • Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding
  • Wirral and its Viking Heritage by Judith Jesch
  • Viking DNA by Stephen Harding, Mark Jobling and Turi King

See also