A beautiful day among the ruins of the abbey of Saint Edmond, the original patron Saint of England.
When I was small my grandma used to tell me ‘we are Danes.’
I was brought up on the opposite side of that wild expanse, the west side of the North Sea in eastern England. A thousand years ago much of the language, even culture in my part of the world was Danish, Viking, and it was called the Danelaw.
And there are still archaic words of old Norse in use today in our rapidly disappearing dialect. So maybe we are, in some ways, still Danes.
Perhaps that’s why, when I began to read this ARC, I immediately felt at home. Although Jutland’s west coast from Skagen to the German border is north and west facing, opposite to our own, the author’s loose, short sentenced yet lucid impressionistic streams of consciousness took me not only across the divide of the North Sea, but also into the past, my own childhood often spent at the windswept seaside and walking wrapped up in barren marshland where the sky towers above you.
In the flat lands of eastern England there is indeed a psychology at play, much like the writer explains; the quietude does not disguise or distract you from the demons inside like a city does. Here you are more with yourself, and it can be difficult, even depressing, particularly in the winter.
She says ‘Our brown calves are wet with cuckoo spit’, fairly typical of her language which is immediate and sensory, creating a timelessness where past and present merge together, much like the schism of land and sea. She says, throughout the book, that we are defined by schism and I think I know what she means. A country is defined by its border; our selves from one another. A home has its boundary, which is both porous and selective.
In this book the elements are like beings, sometimes friends, but always needing to be respected; the waves like mythological Valkyries: the Norse gods, like Odin, remain in the collective memory of Scandinavians – and isn’t Odin rather ‘Christ-like’, hanging from that ash tree, the Yggdrasil, even if he put himself up there? Yes, our ‘civilisation is a snapshot’; we try to understand, perhaps make a mark and then we are gone.
Like my own coastline, Jutland is bedecked with massive wind turbine farms, which to my eye, have become a blot on the seascape as well as the land. Clean energy is to be encouraged, naturally, but these structures which she describes as white trees with circular branches, only have a limited lifespan. Once defunct they will cause a massive landfill problem – and the wind doesn’t always blow either.
But I particularly like the way she talks of the past in the present tense in many places, so fitting for this every changing, yet eternal landscape, which has had so many shipwrecks (the Iron Coast) and natural disasters through storms.
I loved her tour of the churches too with the artist, the maker of sketches for this book. My own part of the world is noted for its churches too, but in a different way. And I was not aware that the Reformation in Denmark was slower to whitewash church frescoes than in England and Holland, all very fascinating.
I like the way she describes paths in the landscape as being like memories, connections in the brain, synapses perhaps, testimony to human interaction with the environment and shaping it organically.
Her descriptions of the Wadden Sea, the island life, the bird life, are all beautiful too. I very much relate to the area here being a haven for wading birds, pretty much like my own part of the world.
But ultimately it is Skagen, the very northern tip of Denmark where North Sea meets Baltic, the spiritual pinnacle of the Danish and Scandinavian experience. The schism of seas, between land and sea, our selves from one another: life and death.
Like many, I have only visited Copenhagen when in Denmark, but this great city is in no way representative of Denmark any more than London is of England.
One day, perhaps sooner than I envisage, I wish to visit Denmark again, Jutland in particular, and take that trip from Skagen to Esbjerg and beyond towards the Frisian islands. I think I owe it to myself. Thank you Dorthe Nors for enlightening me – I have never felt more like a Dane.
Copyright Francis 2022
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