Witnessing the Rune Stone

A little over a two and half hours’ drive from Oslo—near the village of Tuddal and under the towering impression of Gausta, Telemark County’s highest peak—there is a rune stone that stands high on a mountain path.

If you are leaving from Oslo, to get there you head west out of Norway’s capital past Bærum and Drammen, in the direction of Kongsberg—a town built first on the back of silver mining and later on munitions. Passing through Kongsberg you next arrive at Notodden. Once a booming industry town, it was part of a hydroelectric network that powered much of this part of Norway. The hydroelectric plant, which sits right on the water, is now part of a UNESCO world heritage site celebrating industry. Notodden is also famous these days for its annual Blues festival. There is also the Blueseum—a museum to the history of blues music that also serves as the main public library for the people of Notodden. From here you begin the swing away from the water and start to head inland.

Past Notodden you reach Heddal, an innocuous looking village with a star attraction: a twelfth-century stavkirke (stave church), a type of square, high wooden church that is unique to Norway.

After the stavkirke in Heddal, you come to Sauland, the administrative heart of Hjartdal kommune, where further on the road you find the long stretched out village of Tuddal. Tuddal’s “centre” has all you would expect of a small rural village in Norway. There’s the local Church of Norway church in its white wood paneling, the local school, a kro—a kind of canteen and inn—a little museum and arts centre, and because we are so close to one of Norway’s most popular mountains, a camping site and small restaurant that operates in the high season.

To get to the rune stone you drive through the village before taking a turn up right onto a steep road that corkscrews in a variety of hairpin bends before finally, thankfully, flattening out. To your left there is a large body of water, Toskjervatn as the locals call it in their nynorsk dialect, or Toskjærvannet as it is in bokmål. About two kilometres along this road on your left-hand side, you will find the Tuddal høyfjellshotell. Built in the nineteenth century and beautifully decorated, this wooden hotel is part of a network of hotels (høyfjell means high mountain) that sprung up in Norway in the 1800s to give people a place while exploring the natural beauty of their country, all a part of the nation building Romanticism and enjoyment of sublime nature that marked this period.

A little beyond this hotel you will come to a group of very old, much less grand buildings on the side of the road. This is the old summer seter,  a series of buildings used in the same way as a shieling, where it was possible, at one time, to get farm fresh milk, cream and cheese from the locals. The real hunt for the rune stone begins here.

Hiking out from this spot, you first go through grassy land that—in the summer at least—is rich in crowberries, blueberries, juniper berries and blueberries. As you move along you come to a birch wood forest. You begin to hear the burbling of a strong stream that comes from a waterfall down from the mountains above you to your right. Crossing over the stream, which runs a reddish colour because of the iron in the rocks, you make a steep ascent that doesn’t take long but is intense. Once you reach this small peak, you start along a series of winding paths through small foothills that are also covered in beds of various berries. Following a well-beaten path you curve around the base of two mountains known collectively as the knees of the much taller Gaustatoppen. As your path snakes round, you come into more open and windy ground. With the knees to your right and slightly behind you, the peak of Gaustatoppen should now be visible nearby. It is here, along this path, that you will find the rune stone, slanted slightly but upright.

***

The first time I hiked up here in search of the rune stone, I walked straight past it. I mistook it for an old milestone marker along the path rather than for what it was: a piece of living history that stretches back around 1000 years.

        Standing upright with the help of other stones at its base, the rune stone is about four or five feet tall. The side facing outwards is covered in dead and living moss, centuries old. It is along the left-hand side of the beautiful piece of stone that you will the runic inscription:

ᛡᛅᛁᛚᛆᛍᚽᛆᚦᚢᚮᛐᛂ

Which has been written up as: Hæila se aþ uote. This means “rock slab/stone be as a witness”. This gnomic phrase immediately begs the question: witness what?

        There are several theories as to what the rune stone was erected as a witness to. One local history recounts the story of a beautiful local woman who died up there in the unforgiving open ground while waiting on her lover whom she had arranged to meet in this spot. A more prosaic explanation of the rune stone’s job is to stand as a witness to a boundary between one area and another. Although the boundary has shifted somewhat over a thousand years, it is believed that this was its original function: to set, literally, in stone an agreement about where one area of land ended and another began.

        It’s hard not to think that both explanations have equal weight. Perhaps both are true. Standing up here in the pass, it is difficult not to imagine it as a perfect meeting spot for two lovers seeking some privacy—especially if it was a secret love. This spot is the backdrop that gives rise to ballads. If we accept the more prosaic version, that it is simply a boundary marker then it is still remarkable that it was marked in this way. A stone carved with a phrase that was both specific and nebulous, inviting questions.

***

        One thing you will notice when examining the runic inscription is that the runes are very nearly faded. They now form a part of a palimpsest of text on this rock. A palimpsest that bears witness not just to the death of a lover left waiting, nor of a settled dispute over land boundaries. Instead, it speaks to the human desire to say I too was here: I lived once and stood on this spot, looking at the same view as you who came before me and those of you yet to come after me.

        This rune stone is no museum piece. Therein lies its power. There are few monuments that are a thousand years old that we get to experience beyond temperature-controlled glass, not as part of an exhibit, nor with accompanying text. Understanding them requires seeing them in their place. Standing in front of the rune stone here below the knees of Gaustatoppen is to stand in front of human history. It forces us to imagine and to ask questions. Who put this here? What kind of lives did they lead? We have some answers of course, in the inscription, in the location. There are also other questions to be asked.

This is because this rune stone is covered in graffiti. Not graffiti as we now know and understand the term, but a different kind of graffiti from the 18th and 19th Centuries. As you read along the rune stone making out the fading lines of the runic inscription, it is the initials or the years carved into the stone, sometimes right over a line from the original runes that strike you.

My first reaction to this was a kind of horror at the desecration of this historic artefact. Yet, the more I thought on it the more I understood the impulse, of these people from 1776 and 1800, and other years since, to make their own mark on this rune stone. It is an intensely human need to show that we were here.

        The rune stone, which, based on the kind of runic alphabet it uses, dates most likely from some time in the 9th or 10th Century has stood in the same spot since a person or group of people decided to lift it from the ground, place it in its spot, and etch into it “rock slab be as a witness”. It has been witnessing ever since. It has witnessed more than a thousand cycles of the seasons. People and animals have crossed its path hundreds and thousands of times. They have died but it remains. Their lives, if ever remembered, now forgotten. The rune stone goes on witnessing.

        Standing next to the rune stone, contemplating it, running my fingers along the outline traces of the original runes you begin to understand something: that the boundary the rune stone really marks is the one between life and death. Between the short span of our mortality in the face of its near-permanence. This is the lesson of history: we are here for a short time, much has gone before us and something will surely follow after us. It is our job to witness this, to be aware that we will pass on one day, but this rune stone will likely still stand, here along the mountain pass, witnessing the next cycle of seasons, and all that comes with it, after us.
Notes: My main sources for the apparent meanings of the runestone and it’s gnomic inscription are the Aberdeen Skaldic Project, and Ivar T. Dahl’s Glimt av Tuddal før i Verden (1998) and Magnus Olsen’s Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer. 2 : V. Buskerud fylke ; VI. Vestfold fylke ; VII. Telemark fylke (1951). The latter especially was indispensable.

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From Cork to Christiania: A Postcard

Yesterday in Oslo, myself and herself took a look at the Salgshallen brukthandel (literally the used shop) on Storgata. A veritable Aladdin’s cave of old records, postcards, stamps and books – too many to work through in a single sitting – I quickly made use of the system laid out by the shops owner to take a look at the things that interested me most: chiefly, postcards related to sport and postcards related to places I knew. Rifling through the stacks, I came across several from Prague, and also a handful from Dublin and Cork. The Cork ones were two views of King’s Street (now, of course, MacCurtain Street), the view from Donovan’s Bridge, better known as the Shaky Bridge, and one which showed the opulent houses of Sunday’s Well, including the well-known pink house that runs along the river bank.

The postcard is dated 27th May 1905, and was addressed to Nicoline Bjørnstad who lived at No.9 Inkognito Terrasse in Christiania (now Oslo). The building at No. 9 Inkognito Terrasse, a beautiful redbrick villa is now home to a Christian mission.

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No.9 Inkognito Terrasse as it looked in 1910. Photo: Oslo Museum.

The note on the card is written on the front, with just the address across the back as you can see in the scans below.

The postcard itself is part of the “Emerald Series, Printed in Ireland”. A little disappointingly, the actual stamp has been removed – presumably by some avid philatelist before it ended up in the brukthandel, and their use for it had evaporated. Oddly enough, the card says on the back that it is “For INLAND Postage only”, although clearly is was perfectly possible to use it abroad as well.

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The front of the card contains a message from what looks like someone signing off as Dr. Emil, but it is difficult to say for certain. The handwriting is not very clear on the card, but seems to suggest that they will stay in Cork for a long time. It also mentions Falmouth in England where perhaps they were going next on a steamer. Whoever wrote the card, and whoever Nicoline Bjørnstad was, they were not resident at Inkognito Terrasse 9 for many more years. The 1910 Census for Norway shows Adolph Wendel, originally from Iceland, living there with his Christiania-born wife, Esther.

Intriguingly there are a great many photographs of the interior of Inkognito Terrasse 9, on the Oslo Museum website with some showing people inside them. The photos are dated to ca. 1910, so they are most likely members of the Wendel family and not the two people in the postcard exchange. These photos offer an extraordinary glimpse inside the building in its pomp showing tea parties, music playing, and plenty more life and activity:

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Norway’s Nasjonalgalleriet

One of the first things I learned when I arrived two months ago in Norway was that the Nasjonalgalleriet was free on Thursdays. Finally, I got to go this past Thursday, and it is a place which I can see myself visiting many times over the coming years.

When you walk in and place your bag and coat in a locker, you walk up a simple stairs but are met immediately with the sight of not alone a famous painting but a painting which depicts a famous scene: Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson voyaging to America c.1000 CE. The painting was completed in 1893, and must surely reflect something not just of the story of Norwegian discovery in the viking age, nor the country’s history of migration to America, but also the impending desire for independence from Sweden, which would come about in 1905.

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Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson’s discovery of America in c.1000 CE.

As you turn up these stairs, either left of right of the Krohg painting you begin your jounrey through the highlights of the Norwegian national collection. Currently what’s on display ranges from antiquity to 1950, and so as you make your way through each room you come a little closer to the present, and encounter most of the major movements in European art along the way. The experience can be something of an overwhelming one. For the first time in my life, I decided to take notes as I walked through the rooms – partially to slow my pace down but also so that I could remember which artists struck me most and so that I could actually go back and eventually find out a little more about some of those who interested me especially.

In the early rooms we have some examples of classical antiquity which are not entirely interesting – unsurprisingly much better examples of this kind of thing can be found elsewhere. Some of the christian art from Novgorod in Russia in the third room you enter is perhaps the most interesting of the first half of the exhibition.

There are old masters of the Baroque and Dutch schools to be found but what I was most interested in going to the Nasjonalgalleriet for was the Norwegian artists, whose work comes into prominence from about the mid-way point in the journey through the rooms.Rooms 9-12 give an excellent show case of Norwegian (and Danish – Denmark and Norway didn’t split until 1814) Romantic landscape painting including the work of Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley (a Norwegian whose grandfather came from Hull), and Peder Balke, to name just a few.

NOR Stetind i tåke, ENG Stetind in Fog
Peder Balke’s eerie looking Stetind i tåke (Stetind in fog).

Among my favourite works as I passed through the gallery was Tidemand’s Low Church Devotion, which shows lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching to poor farmers in the hearth-room of a family home.

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Adolph Tidemand’s depiction of Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching.

From here we get a stronger impression of new movements in art which include works by Cezanne, Rodin, Gaugin and of course, Norway’s most famous artist – Edward Munch. The Scream, his most famous painting, is housed in the 19th room of the gallery.

Some realist painting is represented in the works of not just Krohg,but especially Erik Werenskiold. Krohg’s Braiding Hair is a good example of this genre in Norway, as is Werenskiold’s A Pauper’s Burial. I also enjoyed the energy of the painting of Halfdan Egedius, especially spil og dans (play and dance).

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Werenskiold’s En Bondebegravelse (Pauper’s Burial).

In the 22nd room the standout painting for me was Per Krohg’s Cabaret from 1913-1914. The second to last room is the one which contains the work of Picasso, includng GuitarGuitar and Glass, and Poor Couple in Cafe. 

In all, the gallery is a tour-de-force and requires probably two visits, at least. Certainly, by the time I had seen the main exhibit my energy to go see the exhibition about the influence of Japanese art on Norway was non-existent. It gives me a good excuse to go back, and if you are ever in Oslo, make sure to make this gallery a part of your trip! You won’t be disappointed.

Per Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen

As you walk up through Oslo city centre along Karl Johans gate, the street opens out into a big wide boulevard. On your left will be Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, and the boulevard stretches all the way up the hill to the King’s Palace, taking in the National Theatre, and the magnificent Law Faculty of the University of Oslo.

In the most central part of the city, which is busy with tourists and locals, there are many public statues but one kept catching my eye, and it’s Per Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen, Man with Bicycle.

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I passed it a few times, bookmarking it in my mind to take the time to examine when I had a chance. I took the time to do so yesterday. Per Ung was a sculptor who was educated in his craft in part by Per Palle Storm, the man who’s work adorns Oslo’s Rådhuset which I wrote about before.

In fact, the style of Ung’s Mannen med Sykkelen  struck me as being so similar to the Rådhuset figures that Storm did, that I actually took notice of it mistakenly in the belief that it was more of Storm’s work.

One of the captivating things about Mannen med Sykkelen is that the figure has a certain insouciance about him, a confidence in his cycling abilities. I wondered before examining closely who it represented.

For the figure the sculpture represents, despite the name, is not just an everyman plucked from Ung’s imagination. In fact, the figure standing proudly next to his bike is Gunnar Sønsteby. Sønsteby, nicknamed “Kjakan”, or “the chin”, was a Norwegian resistance fighter during the Second World War. He was also codenamed No. 24 and took part in a wide range of resistance activities throughout the course of the war, spending time in Sweden and the UK. He is Norway’s most decorated citizen, and he died in 2012.

Ung’s sculpture of him with his bike was originally installed at Solis Plass when it was unveiled in 2007. However, after some 17th May celebrations got out of hand and the front wheel of the bike was stolen (and later put back), the sculpture was moved to its more discrete current location along Karl Johans gate, near to Spikersuppa among the trees.

 

The Guestbook

I recently took a hike up to Paradiskollen near Harestua with two friends. It was – to me – an unseasonably hot September evening. We left from Jeremy’s house at around 5.30pm and began our ascent through the forest nearby up towards the peak. The peak is 670m, or 2,198 feet. We started out at a good pace but I was disadvantaged by the fact that, in preparation for the sun going down and the cold to come in, I wore heavy pants with a t-shirt.  I brought a superfluous jacket. Jeremy and Marcus, both here much longer than me, sensibly wore shorts. In no time at all, I sweating buckets. Fortunately, Jeremy had sensibly packed a big litre bottle of water for us and I was the chief beneficiary. As we climbed, we spotted huge thickets of blueberries all along the path, mostly unpicked, and very ripe. After reaching maybe a third of the way up, we decided to take a breather, and went foraging through the scrub. A welcome break and we were, after picking great big handfuls of blueberries, ready to carry on. There was a deep red haze in the air that dispersed the sunshine, caused we thought by the trees sweating in the late September sun.

We climbed further and further up and eventually, assisted partially by ropes towards the end, we reached the peak. At the peak, I saw something left by the Den Norske Turistforening, which I really liked. There was a metal dial explaining what you could see around from the peak. The view was very impressive indeed. It was I think the highest I had ever yet climbed, and I was glad to have made it, more or less in one piece, to the top of this since I knew that soon I would be walking up Gaustatoppen, which comes in at something like the 1800m mark, more than double this. I have been told, and I hope, that Gaustatoppen – the highest peak in Telemark – has a gentler incline. I’ll need it, I thought, as I stood atop Paradiskollen. As well as the metal disk, with a guide to the views, in the shaft holding up the disk there was a metal box inside of which was a guestbook for us to sign.

I think this is a wonderful idea, and caps off the sense of achievement that comes with getting to the top of any peak, however big or small. Guest books are a big thing here in Norway. It is common that people keep as guestbook at their hytte (cabin). Den Norske Turistforening at their various turhytter, for those who want to go on long hikes and have a place to stay to break up their journeys overnight, also have guestbooks. It is also common in museums and similar such places. Guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity. Always fascinated by them, I never pass up the opportunity to add my name to one.

I’ve signed guestbooks at museums, art galleries, hotels, castles and now, I can say, on top of a mountain. While guestbooks appeal to my sense of posterity, they are usually a reminder of finitude. After all, once you scribble your name into a guestbook, unless you come back to the same place with great regularity, you’ll never see your entry ever again. Your name will be one more name among the hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people to have signed them. Unless they are digitized and some future relative of mine, yet unimagined and unimaginable in their lives to me, scours online archives in search of references to me – whatever relation I might be to them. The chances that anyone connected to me – living or yet to live – will encounter those marks I’ve made in those guestbooks is slim enough. Pen’s mark lives on, but not the mouth that sang.[i]

This set me to thinking as to the purpose of guestbooks. To record guests of course. One who is entertained at the house or table of another. From Heorot’s hall to a mountaintop in Harestua. The word guestbook was first used in 1849, in Graham’s Magazine,  a magazine that was at one time a rival to Harper’s and was edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The term visitor’s book appearing three years before in 1846 in Punch. He plunged into the mysteries of the guestbook, a sentence in the February edition of Graham’s ran. And we’ve been plunging in ever since.

Today we often think of guestbooks as something you sign at the end of a museum exhibition. One person has colourfully described such means of public expression through the private medium of handwriting thus:

Some signatures have the literary quality of a drunken phone call, while others contain eloquence worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. These institutionally sanctioned rants—these drive-by shootings—these political haiku—are special exhibits themselves…[i]

Outside of museums and exhibits, I associate a guestbook mostly with hotels. Not just any hotel. Hotels that were once country piles – expensive, but not showy – hotels with a certain regard for their own place – however minor or major – in history are the ones with guestbooks. Such guestbooks usually have an off-white or creamy paper, gold leaf about the edge of the pages, with a soft red real or faux leather cover.

I have never yet had the privilege to be the first to sign an empty guestbook. In a way, I’m glad of this. The guestbook after all is a physical, bound, lined, manifestation of the love people have for an exhibit, a hotel, or their friends and their cabin. What could be more unloved than a hotel with an empty or a near empty guest book? What says decline more than huge gaps between the dates between one entry and the next?

Only very rarely have I signed a guestbook at the end of its life, when there is just a page or two remaining. I have signed most somewhere in their middle age. There is a fullness to them – there are plenty of pages filled already, with guests who’ve come from far and wide and there are plenty of pages as yet unfilled, waiting for fresh marks and remarks.

Presented with a guestbook, I catch myself glancing immediately at the names just above where I will mark my entry. A neighbourly relationship is forming. Who will be my neighbours on this page, I wonder. I am interested first in rifling back through three or four of the closest pages, to find places I recognize. Occasionally, I hope to glance a look at someone who hails from the same place I do. My tastes widen then, and I search for those from the unusual or unexpected parts of the world. Then I look at names – seeking out the rare, the unusual. I marvel at the handwriting: the chicken scrawls, the cutesy and the cartoonish, the perfect cursive of those taught to write in close proximity to the teacher’s cane.

Some people leave a lot of themselves behind on the page. Full addresses, the number of their houses, postcodes and all. Some are more cryptic, a street or a town name, sometimes the country alone. Full names, initials, degrees, titles. Some leave little messages – congratulations on the wonderful exhibit, what wonderful hosts & how helpful the hotel staff were. Some draw smiley faces. Some use the guestbook as a chance to play, or to chide. Some write the date over and over again in their own hand, others following convention with a simple perfunctory “. Some add the time. Many of course leave nothing, unrecorded in the guestbooks. Their visit logged, if it all, only in their own memory banks.

We pressure the paper and make our mark with ink in the hope that pen’s mark lives on, but for me, the pleasures is the plunging in. Connecting ourselves with others, even those we don’t and will never know. Writing in a guestbook is at once all about saying I was here, I lived, visited this place once, saw this exhibit, but it is also strangely anonymous as an act. You somehow know no one is ever likely to read what you’ve written and yet you hope. After a few days, a few weeks, to say nothing of the passing of years, your entry will be beyond the onward march of the guestbook pages. Guestbooks work as a kind of intermittent census of yourself. A record of your movements for others. Take pleasure in the plunge as often as you can.

 

[i] Morris, Bonnie J., “The Frightening Invitation of a Guestbook”, Curator: The Museum Journal, Volume 54, Issue 3, July 2011, pp. 243–252.

[ii] Trevor Joyce, “Rome’s Wreck”, XXXII, in Selected Poems, 1967-2014, Bristol: Shearsman Books, p. 58.

Oslo Rådhuset

Since moving to Norway, each time I am in Oslo I am captivated by the extraordinary two-towered city hall, Oslo’s Rådhus. Today, while in the city centre, I finally went and took some photos of the Rådhus, to share.

The current city hall is of course far from the first. There were apparently several different town halls within Christiania (as Oslo was known from 1624-1924). The old town, hall now marked with a blue plaque, is at 7 Rådhusgata and shares a corner with Dronningens gate. It was town hall from 1641-1733, and is today the home of Den Norsk Forfattersforening (the Norwegian Authors’ Union).

The present city hall was designed by Arnstein Arneborg and Magnus Poulsson. Arneborg, as well as designing the Oslo city hall, also designed the interior of the UN Security Council in New York and the Viking Skipshuset on Bygdøy, which houses the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune viking ships. The idea for a new city hall on the waterfront at Pipervika came from Hieronymus Heyerdahl, and Arneborg and Poulsson’s functionalist design won the competition in 1918. However, it would take a long time before the Rådhus was completed. The foundation stone was laid in September of 1931, but the real work would not begin on the building until February 1933. Writing in 1948, Karen Larsen, in A History of Norway, noted that “the idea of functionalism was, of course, as old in Norway as her oldest log hut, but in its modern application this principle meant a break with all old forms, as every detail that had no utilitarian purpose was sloughed off… before long it was demonstrated, however, that the new materials, such as concrete, steel, and glass, lent themselves especially to large-scale buildings of substantial durability and real beauty.” These two qualities sum up neatly what is so powerful about Oslo’s Rådhus.

The building of the city hall from the waterfront necessitated the knocking of many older buildings, which were to be replaced by new office buildings surrounding the city hall which apparently went some way in financing the project. The second world war put a stop to the building but it was resumed after the war and finally was officially opened on 15 May 1950, to coincide with the city’s 900th anniversary.

Additions were made to the steps that ran down to the seafront in 1960 when several sculptures by Per Palle Storm were added, showing a variety of workers.

Another of Storm’s additions in the garden near the city hall was of a man drinking from a fountain, as you can see below.

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On the side away from the seafront at Fridtjof Nansen’s plass, there are also wooden carvings in large panels which take their inspiration from the Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson, including these two which show the Norns watering Yggdrasil – the tree of life in Norse mythology – and Embla (Elm), who along with Ask (Ash) was one of two tress given life by the Norse gods and who were the first people. These panels are the work of Dagfin Werenskiold:

There is also at present a metal sculpture which in honour Fridtjof Nansen, an arctic explorer and leader of the team that first crossed Greenland’s interior in 1888:

Oslo’s Rådhus is a functionalist building which thanks to additions speaks of Norway’s social democratic practices and its penchant for adventure and myth. It is an extraordinary piece of architecture and should be on any visitor’s list.

 

In defense of the Rose of Tralee poem

The Rose of Tralee was on this week, and caused not a little stir for a number of good and bad reasons. Two of the main causes were the commendable efforts of the Sydney Rose to raise an issue that is fundamental to women in Ireland: the need to have a referndum on (and hopefully see the repeal of) the 8th amendment to our constitution. There was also the ill-judged and utterly failed attempt by Fathers for Justice to hijack the event briefly. The competition, like almost all beauty contests of one shade or another, ismore or less completely out of whack with contemporary progress views of what it means to be a woman, and to be valued as one. There are people (chiefly women) who are far more qualified to offer their take on the Rose of Tralee as something that enforces gender stereotyping. Which it definitely does. Why else would it have been caricatured twenty years ago in Fr. Ted as The Lovely Girls Competition? But that’s not what I want to write about in this post.

Rather, I want to offer a very brief defense of the poem as party piece in the competition. First and foremost, it needs to be said that I can rarely recall a poem I heard recited at the Rose of Tralee contest over the years that could be by any objective measure of the form be considered good. Most poems would be filed under what is known as doggerel. But that’s okay because, while the poems were rarely up to much,  I heard plenty of good recitations of bad poems. The take-away for me is this: I heard poems. On a show that was such a part of Ireland’s own bizarre culture of packaged Irishness for the diaspora that is watched by hundreds of thousands, presumably millions, of people annually for more than 60 years, I heard poetry. I can think of few places where one did not have to go and actively seek the poetry that might be found on the airwaves of RTE – on obscure radio and tv programmes. Or at state funerals. Poetry as part of the competition surely has some role in normalising the hearing of it. Sure, I wish the standard of poetry was better. And while many will no doubt object that no poetry is better than too much bad poetry for you, I’m not so sure.

As talents go, reciting a poorly crafted poem is no better or worse than doing a “hip hop dance” – surely that should be breakdancing, and that Rose the other night was not breakdancing – or rapping. After all poetry and rap are cousins. And as for making a breakfast roll… If getting rid of poetry is an attempt to make this contest seem more in touch with the yoof, well then, the contest hardly grasps its main demographic – i.e. the one that doesn’t hate tweet it live or watch it with dollops of irony. Basically, getting rid of the poem as part piece probably doesn’t do anything to speed up the show, nor make it more attractive.  Modernity would be more of what the Sydney Rose offered, not less poems with an abab rhyme.

 

Visiting Kutná Hora: How to be a tourist?

This weekend was a long weekend in the Czech Republic for May Day. And so, with Friday off, myself and herself went to the town of Kutná Hora, one of the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the the Czech Republic. What we saw there was breathtaking – from the gothic splendour of St. Barbara’s Cathedral to the famous Sedlec Ossuary, with the bones of over 40,000 people who sought burial on the site, decorating the interior of the chapel. But we both left Kutná Hora a little uneasy: the historic town centre is preserved but was ghostly thanks not just to bank holiday, but also because the majority of the towns inhabitants live on the the edge of the town, in a series of high rise flats that run all the way from the historic town centre to the far edge where the Sedlec Ossuary can be found, and attracts over 200,000 visitors per year. A ghoulish place is Kutná Hora, but the spectres that haunt are not just those of the skulls in the ossuary, but the realities of making your town a tourist town – those hulking high rise flats also haunt. Continue reading “Visiting Kutná Hora: How to be a tourist?”