FROM THE VERY first moment I rose nervously to stand on my own two feet, solely to show my father my chubby little legs were capable of tottering across the living room carpet and into the safe haven of my mother’s beckoning arms a couple of steps away, I began planning the long journey to Hammerfest in the far north of Norway. Then again, it might’ve happened a bit later than that.
Back in those days, Hammerfest was most famous for being the northernmost town in the world. However, so few people appeared to have heard of it, it might have just as easily been the name of a secret religious order. From the quizzical looks I received on mentioning the family connection, I soon learned advertising its very existence was equivalent to having ‘twerp’ tattooed in large letters across my forehead. Even now there aren’t so many who know where Hammerfest is. Or what it is. Apart from those who live there. And even they can forget after a few heavy nights on the akvavit. Far too many Americans think it’s a group of violent, white supremacist, skinheads intent on ruling the world with a large hammer.
In the childish vision of Hammerfest that grew in my mind, it was the last stop before the North Pole, where fellows of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society had their headquarters. A magical paradise where the sun never dipped below the horizon all summer long, and where winter was one, seemingly endless, snowy night. The longest of all nights, during which Santa Claus and his gnomes toiled merrily away making Christmas toys in his workshop for all the little children of the world. Hovering on the northermost edge of tierra firma, and illuminated by moving curtains of mystical Northern Lights, it possessed all the appearance of belonging to another galaxy.
Whatever it was in my boyhood, Hammerfest will always remain the town my errant grandfather was born. Errant simply because Mormor, my Norwegian grandmother, had nothing good to say about him after their divorce in the 1920s.
My mother was rather more circumspect about her father. Making quite sure we would never to forget the Norwegian side to our heritage, she also told us of the small part he played in her life.
Meanwhile, as a counter balance, our Norwegian relatives did their best to shield my three sisters and I from any negative influence mere knowledge of our grandfather’s existence might exert upon our upbringing. But they also were keen for us to know of our more wholesome Nordic roots.
Apart from the brown paper parcel we received each Christmas from Mormor and Auntie Gerd, Great Uncle Lorentz would send us a calendar book filled with beautiful photos from all over Norway. It was through hours spent poring over those photos I learned to love my mother’s homeland.
Mostly black and white, they depicted skiers skimming down the slopes of Jotunheim at Easter, and farmers’ wives in headscarves milking cows in June. There were rows and rows of fishing smacks tied up against quays on the Lofoten Islands in November. I grew particular fond of the pretty, young woman leaning out of her window to watch a heavy downpour splashing the cobbled lanes of Bergen one spring. Resemblng an exotic Laotian wood temple, more than a Lutheran place of worship, the famous stave church at Borgund, showered by autumn leaves, was one October’s offering. The September photo of a poor Sami family posing miserably outside a Lavu pitched on the tundra in Finnmark, as the harsh winter approached, tugged at my heart strings. And how I longed to play among the children dancing round the backstreets of Tønsberg, Norway’s ancient Viking capital, that comprised November’s offering. I would swiftly turn the page showing Gustav Vigeland’s erotic sculptures of naked figures in Vigeland Park, should my mother pass by with her feather duster, just in case she might think I was developing a keen interest female nudity, which I was. That’s the reason I returned for longer lingers, once she left the room. Whatever the month, with my sisters, or on my own, I loved perusing the photos in the calendars, always able to imagine myself in the places depicted.
From those calendars I learned Galdhøpiggen was Norway’s highest mountain, and Sognefjord was not only Norway’s longest fjord, but the second longest fjord in the world. Though my classmates didn’t seem too impressed with these facts, it made me feel proud to be half-Norwegian, and I wanted to see all of the sites pictured in the calendar for real. But most of all, I wanted to see Hammerfest. For that’s where my grandfather, Anton Remi Planting, had spent his childhood.
Half a century later, Monday 26th of June 2000, I am finally off to Hammerfest by way of Tromsø. Having left my cousin’s house in Tveita, Oslo, I arrive at Gardemoen departure lounge. A doubletake confirms rock legend, Robert Plant, and his entourage are also going to Tromsø on the same flight. Last time I saw him in the flesh he was fronting Led Zeppelin at Nottingham’s Boat Club on April 6th 1969, less than three months after the band had released their very first album and were poised to take the world by storm. Or I may once have seen him in a New Kings Road drinking den with Johnny Bindon, Princess Margaret’s favourite thug. That would’ve been back in the mid-1970s, a period I have some trouble recalling.
In another of those spooky coincidences that happen to me all the time, I learn Plant has new band, Priory of Brion. They are about to embark on the Northern Norway leg of a tour. Brion, I ask you. I mean, who calls a band a name like that? If he wanted to call the band something really stupid he could’ve chose Monastery of Mervin, or Hermitage of Harry. Even better than either, Friary of Tuck. But it had to be Priory of Brion. Still, they are playing in Tromsø. I might try to lig a ticket.
From some research I did into my mother’s maiden name Planting a few years ago, I learned both Plant and Planting might have connections with the Plantagenet line of royals. Not quite the sort of connection that would make Robert – or me – the rightful heir to the English throne, but we could both be descendants of royal bastards. I don’t suppose I’m the first person to see myself as a descendant of a right royal bastard.
As we disembark I determine to tell Robert about our distant family connections, and of the paranormal coincidence of the phonetic similarity between Brion and Bryan, I feel rather uncomfortable with. I want to try to convince him he is probably making a huge mistake calling his band such a silly name. I have my reasons. Though it’s over thirty years since the film was first released, people still expect me to burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter when they quip “Life of Brian” on hearing my name. I might have to consider suicide if Priory of Brion acheive international fame. I want to see if he attaches some sort of some otherworld significance to choosing such a moronic name for the group. Or it was just down to some medication he was on?
But, for the moment, I’m far more interested in the coincidence of us, being on the very same plane on the very same day. It’s fast taking on some sort of astral plane significance of its own. We may have crossed over into a parallel dimension where my name might actually be spelled Brion. What’s behind the fickle hand of fate throwing the two of together like this? There must be a reason. And I wouldn’t mind exchanging information about hairdos and shanpoos, while we’re at it, as nearly all my hair has fallen out, while his seems looks just the same as it did at Nottingham Boat Club that April night thirty-one years previously. Maybe it has something to do with my conditioner. I could ask him what brand he uses. And just in case we haven’t crossed over into a parallel dimension, I also want to emphasise again how daft I think the name of his band is. I’m even prepared to put a small sum towards having the posters reprinted if that would help change his mind on the issue. Abbey of Archibald anyone?
But he doesn’t seem interested in any of the important things I want to say. I can’t even get started on all the psycho, black magic, mumbo-jumbo, baloney he used to be into, when Jimmy Page and he used to go wandering off in the woods in the Black Country at toadstool picking time. And believe you me, I’m not really interested in that sort of guff at all.
I don’t even get the chance to explain my fascinating theory about us being very distant cousins. All he seems to want to do is get his hand luggage out of the overhead locker. Probably thinks I’m trying to get my sticky paws on his hair shampoo. Well, I can tell you, Mr rock bleedin’ legend Plant, as as far as I’m concerned, the family distance between grew quite a lot wider that day.
As he and his entourage are ferried off to some luxury, five star hotel to chuck tellies out of the windows into swimming pools, I make my way on foot up to the ironically named vandrerhjem, wanderer’s home in English. Ironic because it seems to be mostly inhabited by people with drink problems, who ain’t wandering anywhere in a hurry. Unless stumbling down to the nearest beer outlet counts as wandering in this part of the world. When they’re not ‘wandering’ about their rooms they spend their time smoking stinky, old rollups round the vandrerhjem entrance. Tired and sweaty, I locate the men’s showers by the stench of urine and hordes of flies hanging around, before dumping myself down on a mattress with an unhygenically suspicious stain halfway down.
Next morning, I wake to the realisation, I have come to the northern edge of the world in search of paradise and ended up in a stink hole. My task to try to knock out a revised version of At the End of Tobago Street – a novel I wrote some years previously – into some sort of shape for the film director, and publisher, Franc Roddam, seems impossible. To be honest, though I have been on nodding acquaintance with Franc since long before he achieved success, I haven’t the slightest idea what he wants me to do. Perhaps I should’ve asked before setting out. So I mess around on my laptop moving chapters from here to there and back again, to make it seem I’ve done something useful, then head into town for a few beers.
Surrounded by beautiful views of mountains on all sides, capped with snow even in late June, Tromsø is a relatively small town situated on an island with almost 70,000 inhabitants and a brewery. Its brightly-painted, pretty, wooden houses are a pleasure to the eye and some of the best preserved in Norway.
Some way north of the Arctic Circle, it’s got a lot of ‘northernmost’ this, and ‘northernmost’ that to boast about. Along with its huge student population attending the northernmost university in the world, up until very recently, it used to be home to the northernmost brewery in the world. And then someone else went and built one a bit further north. In 2000 Nordkapp Mikrobryggeri took the title by starting up in Nordkapp. You can’t get much further north than that. But the citizens of Tromsø are still trying to pretend it hasn’t really happened. They tell me a micro brewery doesn’t count at all. To their minds it’s like claiming your granny is CEO of global clothing corporation just because she knits a few mittens while watching telly.
Later in the evening, I see Robert Plant with his entourage in town. About seven of them. Plant stands in their centre lecturing them about the midnight sun, and how its red rays burst down the main street on the strike of twelve, filling it with their red redness. Or something like that. Most seem bored, as though it’s the sort of thing they have to suffer all the time. He appears to have got a lot fatter since leaving the plane. Perhaps he’s been tucking into jumbo, whalesteak, burgers swilled down by litre bottles of Mack Øl. No way am I going to tell him about our potentially shared royal antecedents now I know he might eat whalemeat. Well, though I can’t be certain, he does look as though he could’ve swallowed a fair proportion of a baby whale. Or maybe a couple. Another thing the people of Tromsø could boast about is how they are able mow their lawns in broad daylight at midnight. Half the town seemed to be at it, as made my way back to the hostel. It really is like living in a parallel dimension.
With a healthy arts scene, the town has also been in the forefront of techno music. It is home to Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland, who played as the duo Röyksopp who have acheived international fame.
As most of the students have returned home for the long summer break, the edge of the place has been taken off a bit. If it ever had any. Down by the quays, an attractive black prostitute approaches me to offer her services. The unexpectedness of it, as we are north of the Arctic Circle, takes me by surprise. It shouldn’t have; Norway has a sizeable immigrant and refugee population. Having fled war persecution and poverty, most live in Oslo. Tromsø is a busy port, it’s only natural for prostitutes to see it as an attractive opportunity for business. Not only do cruise ships taking tourists along the fjords make regular calls, but Norway still has large reserves of gas and oil. Added to that, the surrounding seas are still a source of much cod, attracting fishing fleets during winter. After Murmansk, in neighbouring Russia, Tromsø is the second largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle. I chat with the prostitute for a few minutes to discover she is from Nigeria.
Next morning, I’m waiting near the vandrehjem for a bus to take me to the town museum when one of the only other hostel residents approaches me. He’s the only one, who doesn’t appear to want to dart into the shadows whenever I appear. With the look of someone who does rather more wandering than just down to the nearest supermarket for a few cans of beer, he introduces himself as Jörg. A thin, bearded German he looks considerably younger than his forty-four years. Telling me he is in Tromsø for the Midnight Sun Marathon, Jörg has been running marathons for fifteen years. The Sunday run will be his last. I tell him won’t be there to watch him, as I’m off to search out my family in Hammerfest. He shrugs. He doesn’t do it for the applause; it’s a personal challenge he is finally becoming weary of.
Tromsø museum is quite small, consisting mostly of natural history and geological displays. My notice is taken by the section on Sami culture. It shows how a Sami lavu or tipi is constructed. And it’s pretty much as I imagined it would be in the novel Pedersen’s Last Dream that I’m desperately trying to get finished. There is also a display on ‘Joiking’, the mystical Sami chants, or songs.
Back from the museum I’m outside the hostel when Jörg returns from a run. We chat for a while before he asks if I’d like to meet up for a beer in town later. He says he’ll call by my room at eight.
True to German form the knock comes on the dot. We walk down the hill into town. Strolling around a for a while, we finally settle for a bar called Kaos, where Euro 2000 is being shown. Portugal versus France in a semi-final. I want Portugal to win. Jörg doen’t seem to have any interest in the match at all, and keeps distracting me with his incessant chatter. He quietens down for the second half. At full time the score even at 1-1. Portugal loses when Zidane scores a penalty in extra time. Despite having given the contrary impression, Jörg is obviously far more interested in marathons than football. We have another beer then head back up the hill to the vandrerhjem.
Once there, we take our goodbyes of each other. Early next morning I will be on my way to as far north as you can get in Europe. I will mount the bus to Hammerfest after more than half a century of waiting. My extended Norwegian family don’t know I’m coming. I don’t even know their addresses or telephone numbers. My grandparents divorced some time in the 1920s, leaving my grandmother to bring up her family of three girls and one boy alone. The family has had virtually no contact ever since. I will see the hometown of my wayward grandfather, at last.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming Planting roots in Hammefest – Part Two →