Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Give me a Viking funeral"

The Sagas of the Icelanders is a 780-page brick of a book, a selection of the best sagas from the newly translated and spangly complete collection. It's a lovely edition, printed on thick paper cut like crinkly chips.

The sagas are fascinating, a collection of histories and adventures about the earliest settlers of Iceland, from about 800 to 1100 AD, and written down a couple of hundred years later (so roughly contemporary with Chaucer). They're a rich and vivid window onto the culture I'd previously read about in my chum Jonathan Clements' Brief History of the Vikings.

The sagas tell of the lives of particularly noteworthy individuals and their families. They explain why different families left Norway and Denmark, how places in Iceland were named and how the land was divided up and fought over. Characters appear in more than one saga, so the stories build up a rich and cross-referenced history packed with detail.

As the Vikings trade with, explore and raid other countries, we get glimpses of Denmark, England, Finland, Ireland, North America, Norway and Scotland – and their kings – as well as meeting characters from Rome and Russia. There are all sorts of morsels to be gleaned from this, such as on language:
"King Ethelred, the song of Edgar, was ruling England at that time. He was a good ruler, and was spending that winter in London. In those days, the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark, but there was a change of language when William the Bastard conquered England. Since William was of French descent [though, er, also a Norman or Norseman], the French language was used in England from then on.”

Katrina C Attwood (trans.), 'The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue' in The Sagas of the Icelanders, p. 572.

Or there's the insights into contemporary fashion, for example the kjafal, worn in Scotland by both men and women:
"which had a hood at the top but no arms, and was opens at the sides and fastened between the legs with a button and loop; they wore nothing else.”

Keneva Kunz (trans.), 'Eirik the Red's Saga', in ibid., p. 667.

We also learn about romance. There are plenty of loving relationships and a fair few nagging wives. And then there's this telling detail about a lover who knows her business:
“She welcomed him warmly and offered to search his hair for lice.”

Keneva Kunz (trans), 'The Saga of the People of Laxarddal',p. 342.

While the sagas spare none of the explicit details when it comes to violence, they're coy about the rude stuff. Gisli falls out with his wife, whose gossiping can only lead to trouble. He's so appalled by her, he won't let her in his bed. But she's not taking no for an answer as she climbs in beside him:
"She soon made clear what she wanted to do, and they had not been lying together for too long before they made up as if nothing had happened.”

Martin S Regal (trans), 'Gisli Sursson's Saga', p. 511.

Generally the sagas tell us two things: what people were like and what they fought over.

Egil Skallagrimsson, star of his own saga and a cameo in several others, is tall, bald and generally bad news. He continually causes trouble, saying the wrong thing or killing the wrong people, leaving his mates to sort out the mess. On no account should Egil ever be allowed near booze.
"Egil ... stood up and walked across the floor to where Armod was sitting, seized him by the shoulders and thrust him up against a wall-post. Then Egil spewed a torrent of vomit that gushed all over Armod's face, filling his eyes and nostrils and mouth and pouring down his beard and chest. Armod was close to choking, and when he managed to let out his breath, a jet of vomit gushed out with it. All Armod's men who were there said that Egil had done a base and despicable deed by not going outside when he needed to vomit, but had made a spectacle of himself in the drinking-room instead.

Egil said, 'Don't blame me for following the master of the house's example. He's spewing his guts up just as much as I am.'

Then Egil went over to his place, sat down and asked for a drink.”

Bernard Scudder (trans) 'Egil's Saga' in ibid., p.139.

A page later, for no other reason than to add injury to insult, Egil kills Armod. But that's apparently okay because a) Egil is a big guy who's good at fighting and b) he has a line in sarcastic poetry. The saga continues in broadly the same vein until, in his 80s, Egil manages to start one last scrap before he dies.

There are plenty of other mischievous, selfish and unlikely characters. 'The Saga of the People of Laxardal' is full of strong women, but it's Freydis in 'Eirek the Red's Saga' that most strikes a chord. She's pregnant when some Native Americans / Injuns attack, but berates the other Vikings for running off. Then she spots a dead man:
"His sword lay beside him, and this she snatched up and prepared to defend herself with it, as the natives approached her. Freeing one of her breasts from her shift, she smacked the sword with it. This frightened the natives, who turned and ran back to their boats and rowed away.”

Keneva Kunz (trans), 'Eirek the Red's Saga' in ibid., p. 671.

These are savage and pagan times, full of dark magic and dreams that predict the future. That said, the Vikings don't behave any different after they convert to Christianity. In fact, they are made to convert with nothing short of brute force:
"King Olaf sent his own royal cleric, a man named Thangbrand, to Iceland ... He preached the Christian faith with both fair words and dire punishments. Thangbrand killed two men who most opposed his teachings.”

Keneva Kunz (trans), 'The Saga of the People of Laxarddal', p. 352.

Christianity seems to co-opt many of the pagan traditions. The Vikings give gifts at winter festivals – men are judged not on what they own but what they give away. Then there are their naming ceremonies:
"vatni ausinn: Even before the arrival of Christianity, the Scandinavians practised a naming ceremony clearly similar to that involved in the modern-day 'christening'. It is mentioned in eddic poems such as Rigspula (The Chant of Rig), st. 21, and Havamal (The Sayings of the High One), st. 158. The action of sprinkling a child with water and naming it meant that the child was initiated into society. After this ceremony, a child could not be taken out to die of exposure (a common practice in pagan times).”

Glossary, p. 756.

The things these people fight over seem very familiar, too – they might have come from the plots of Charles Dickens. There's various examples of people getting snitty because their neighbours graze animals on their land. There's the fighting over inheritance, there's the perceived slights between families and friends, there's a long whispering campaign against a chap called Thorolf (there are quite a few in the book) by relations of his wife's first husband who feel they're entitled to part of his lands.

In fact, there's a lot on inheritance – money owed to children, but also the importance of good family and people knowing who your parents are. The implication is that there's virtue in blood. It's something that crops up in 19th Century novels, too. If this belief in the importance of blood has been long-ingrained by culture for 1,000 years, it might explain why it's been so difficult to get past.

Anyway, the chief difference from Dickens is the way these things get dealt with. On a few occasions, one neighbour murders the slaves of another, or sneaks in to the neighbour's house at night to do away with the neighbour. In a particularly grisly example, two 10 year-old children try to fight their fathers' battle and end up killing each other. Murder in Dickens is a Big Plot Thing, here it's an everyday occurrence.

But these things are also long remembered. Sons and grandsons seek revenge for slights visited on dead ancestors. The courts – or allthings – attempt settlements of disputes, but it's an odd process. On page 450, Hrafnkel is prevented from hearing the case made against him by a crowd outside the court. But he's a villain, so that's okay.

Often we're told that someone acted honourably or wisely when all he's done is butcher his enemies or bribed the judges. Honour is a major theme of the stories – and often a catalyst for things going wrong. For all the greed, ambition, sulking and stupidity on display, it's often long-standing oaths that get people in trouble.

The sagas struggle to draw moral lessons from these savage times, and – as with Beowulf – there are odd inconsistencies. Gisli, for example, finds himself ambushed by 12 men who've been wound up by his wife's rumours. He fights bravely:
“Then, when it was least expected, Gisli turned around and ran from the ridge up on the crag known as Einhamer. There, he faced them and defended himself.”

Martin S Regal (trans), 'Gisli Sursson's Saga', p. 554.

But a page later, the odds are too much against him and he dies. The saga adds its own note on his heroism, and despite what we've just been told about him running back to a better position, tells us:
“They say that he never once retreated.”

Ibid., p. 555.

In short, the sagas are full of rich adventure, vivid characters and telling details. But I can't help feeling they confirm the cliché of the Vikings as brutish, pillaging thugs. As a kid, a description of the Viking way of life struck me as downright cowardly. There's little in the sagas to convince me I was wrong.
"If the enemy was more powerful than you, you went away. If he could be defeated, you killed, imprisoned or enslaved. You were unswayed by pity or mercy.”

Gerry Davis, “Prologue: The Creation of the Cybermen” in Doctor Who and the Cybermen (1974), p. 3.

Friday, August 27, 2010

An appeal

Have spent a lot of this last month researching bits and bobs, and have the following appeal to publishers and editors:
  • All works of non-fiction should have an index
  • Footnotes not endnotes
    (Some subs explain wearily that footnotes are fiddlier when laying out pages, though most DTP packages make them dead easy. Footnotes are also much easier for proofing, too, and make it much more obvious when a citation isn't needed.)
  • Search the text for "I believe" and "seems to me" - which generally indicate opinion masquerading as fact or a sudden lack of evidence
Thank you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Face to face

I am mostly spending this week interviewing people with connections to Doctor Who old and new, which is fun. I've also been interviewed about my first Doctor Who audio play, The Coup (available for free from those nice people at Big Finish). Issue 5 of the fanzine The Finished Product looks at the UNIT mini-series and talks to people far nobler, wiser and handsomer than me, too.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Floored again

Those images you have been yearning to see...

Bathroom with new lino
Hallway with new carpet
The cat has inspected every last detail but remains undecided on the whole business. But the new carpets should make it easier to clean up after him - he is quite industrious at shedding hair everywhere. We await his first vomit with interest.

While the Men were here fitting everything, I wrote a new spec comic strip which I'm kind of pleased with. Am now off to buy a chicken for tonight's tea. But who is our mystery guest?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Floored plan

Since my last post, I've finished the first draft of the script and await notes from the Wise Folk.

Of even less interest, I have painted bits of the flat. Today, as well as the usual job applications and pitching every which way, I rollered a second coat of paint in the hall and landing, and ripped up the carpets. New carpets - and lino in the bathroom - tomorrow.

I am knackered. This my showbiz life.

Bathroom prior to lino
Landing prior to new carpet

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Moving and doing things

Busy, busy, busy with a spec script that needs finishing, sorting out the flat to put it up for sale and scrabbling around for paid work. But a few bits and bobs of interest.

Issue #18 of free magazine Vortex (PDF, 7.02Mb) includes a thing by me on the mini-series Graceless, which includes some notes on the kind of things to worry about when writing an audio play:
"You need distinctive settings with the characters moving and doing things, to disguise the fact it’s all made by actors standing in little recording booths. You try to keep the scenes to no more than three pages (partly because it helps the pace, partly because you can’t fit more than three pages on the stands in the booths). You try to make every scene end with things having changed for each of the characters, while keeping their immediate desires and fears clear to the listener. You worry about names and technobabble that might trip up the actors, and how simply and vividly you’re making everything..."

Me, "In The Studio - Graceless", in Vortex #18 (August 2010), p. 4.

The same issue of Vortex also boasts new interviews with the Fifth and Eighth Doctors. You can also catch up with past issues at

For more on writing audio plays, see m'colleague Jonny Morris on the writing of his new Doctor Who play, Cobwebs.

Graceless itself will be out in November, and I'm thrilled to be going out to ChicagoTARDIS to help flog it. Was there two years ago and had a lovely time.

Also, my Doctor Who play The Guardian of the Solar System is now out and generally seems to be going down okay. Nicholas (Nwhyte) liked the "fantastic image of elderly prisoners forced to maintain a gigantic clock", though felt,
"It doesn't all make perfect sense, and the three stories will probably confuse listeners who know nothing of The Daleks' Master Plan. But I enjoyed it."
EG Wolverson is a lot more positive, calling it,
"a delectable fusion of staggering concepts, fan service most foul, and agonisingly heart-rending drama – a combination that most listeners will find impossible to resist."
And also now live is the BBC's Hand on History website, linked to the season of programmes about the Normans. I researched and wrote a small chunk of the clicky map that helps you find Norman day trips on your doorstep.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Farley Mount

Farley Mount, 1 August 2010
Spent the weekend at the parents' and on Sunday morning my mum took me to Farley Mount. I've not been there since my early teens, but once it was a regular haunt. My brothers and I would climb the trees, chase the dog and lose frisbees. That might not be of any interest to you, but it's still a weirdly cool place.

Farley Mount, 1 August 2010
I also remember the Ordnance Survey trigpoint pillar being the Master's TARDIS, landed in front of the Dark Tower. I vividly remember scrabbling up the side of that pillar to be king of the castle and to annoy my younger brother. I remember reaching up to the top of the pillar, which is now not much higher than my waist.

Ordnance Survey marker at Farley Mount
The place did seem strangely smaller than I remembered and the short walk from the car park had once been an epic trek. But also I'd forgotten - or never noticed - that it was in an enclosed area, so a safe place for kids to gambol about. Mum also pointed out something I'd always been too short to see. On a clear day you can look out across the fields and spy the Isle of Wight. (I didn't take a photo of that, sorry.)

Farley Mount
We let the other visitors leave before clambering up the short slope to the thing itself. They've cut down the trees that I used to climb in, but the graffiti was as I remembered.

Farley Mount
It's a weird structure, perched up on a hill and can be seen for miles. I really want to walk the 24-mile Clarendon Way sometime, the ancient road connecting the Roman towns of Winchester and Old Sarum. (The Normans rebuilt the town of Sarum, then found the Roman earthworks too small for their needs so moved to a new site - New Sarum, or Salisbury.) Hoping to do that this autumn.

But what, you're asking, is this weird monument for?

Sign at Farley Mount

Monday, August 02, 2010

Books finished, July 2010

Books finished in July 2010
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me isn't exactly one of Roald Dahl's best, and confusingly the "Me" of the title is not the small boy who narrates the story. It's a fun enough story about an all-animal window-cleaning service helping a small boy to fulfill his dream of running a sweet-shop, but it's not nearly as funny or thrilling as Dahl's other stuff.

The Sagas of the Icelanders is a fantastic best-of, produced alongside a sumptuous translation of the whole damn lot of histories set between about 800 and 1100 AD and written down a couple of hundred years later. It's reveals a fascinating, rich and bonkers world, full of richly drawn characters and eye-popping events, and deserves a post all of it's own. I realise that, on past form, that means I'll never get round to it. But I mean to.

Burton on Burton is a series of interviews with the director from his early work as a scribbler for Disney up to his (then forthcoming) Ed Wood. Burton tends to shrug his shoulders in response to the questions - his influences, his methods, his love of people wearing stripes. He's amiable enough but there's no great insight into his brain. The book is also from a time when Burton's career was generally in the ascendant, and I wonder if his perspectives have changed as a result of some projects not entirely wooing an audience. A nice enough but not exactly essential read.

I attended the launch for Admiral Togo, written by my chum Jonathan Clements. It's a fascinating account of the man who commanded the fleet in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 which was so integral to my History A-level and was, until the Japanese sided with the Nazis, a celebrity all round the world. Clements is good on conflicting sources and context, and has a nice eye for detail and the absurd. For example:
"Barbed wire had been employed against cattle for several decades, but it was at Port Arthur [in the siege in 1904] that it was first recorded in a military application."

Jonathan Clements, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, p. 174.