‘The first time I came to England was in 1950. I had very little money, and they were supposed only to let me stay three days, so I would have enough money to get home. But the man at customs said “I will give you two weeks. To get home, hitchhike to Newcastle and a boat will probably take you if you do a little work”. That was the English, from my very first experience. Nothing is a problem for them. They are not worried.’
When old people, particularly foreign ones, talk about the English, I often wonder if their memories are rose-tinted, or whether the nation they remember really was so utterly different to the one with which I am familiar.
The man I sat next to on the evening train to Trondheim must have been in at least his mid seventies. He looked quite frail, with paper skin, one red eye and hands stiff and warped like old tree branches, strangely appropriate since during his working life he had been a forester. But looks were misleading, and he was on his way back from a week in the mountains. His pack, an old canvas effort on a frame, looked nearly as big as mine.
He was warm and open, and we swapped stories for the couple of hours that our paths went the same way. He had a little signature gesture that accompanied his laugh, a bit like the way a great aunt of mine used to shrug her shoulders when she chuckled, except that in his case when something especially pleased him he made a short swipe in front of his face, closing his gnarled fist, sort of as if he might be catching a tennis ball. He was deaf in one ear, the result of using chainsaws before ear defenders were in common use, so began his pleasantries in Norwegian for a bit before he realised I was replying in English. This also meant that my own part in the conversation had to be rather more concise than normal, but for once this suited me just fine.
His stories sparkled, full of detail and enthusiasm, and he spoke quietly, occasionally mixing in words of Spanish – the result of a few years on and off in Latin America, coupled with an incomplete schooling in English. It was banned in his school, and this lack of perfection in his language bothered him. In his old age he was a writer, and his articles in English had to be edited before they could be published. He was delighted to find that I had been in South America too.
‘Was it dangerous when you were there?’ I asked him. ‘Peru was safe when I spent some time there, but once or twice people talked about the trouble with the terrorists years before.’ He thought for a moment.
‘Nicaragua was very dangerous. There was a war on with the Americans, but I was born a few years before 1940, so war is… nothing new. You just make sure not to think about it. It is easier to do if you have a job to do. The big danger for us was the mines. At the forestry school where I taught, two students were killed by mines.’
I didn’t ask him about the war, but later on he brought it up.
‘One thing I remember about the war – a good thing, because I never talk of the bad – was the radio. My father was an electrician, and I was maybe 12, with my brother two years younger than me. At my father’s electrical company they had a radio electrician. Radios were banned of course, and you were shot if you used one, but the Germans, they had one to listen to Oslo. They brought it for repairs, and in the shop, the radio man said to my father, “these boys have never heard English before”. So one man stood outside the door to keep watch, and we went into the back room, and he changed the wires and tuned it to London.’ He smiled a wide, nostalgic smile. ‘It was… just wonderful. I still remember it clearly today. We listened for ten minutes – we didn’t understand it of course, but it was England out there somewhere. We could never tell anyone what we had heard until after the war.’
His flattering memory of the English went yet further. About a year after his first trip, he’d come back to Britain, short on cash once more, and got a lift over with a truck driver going from Bergen to London. When they got to London, the man invited him back to have supper and stay the night with him and the missus in East London somewhere.
‘They had a bad time in this part of London. As we drove through to his home, every third or fourth house was being rebuilt, and there were many ruins still.’
‘That’s the part of London where the Olympics will be in 2012. I was reading that during the building they keep finding old unexploded bombs down there, even today.’
He laughed and did his swiping thing. ‘They have not reported this in the Norwegian news!’ Then he was quiet for a moment.
‘The one thing that this man, this truck driver said, that I did not like: “We got them back in Hamburg”.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Hamburg was much worse, with phosphorous, and the English had very good civil organizations to cope – the Germans had only soldiers, and they were all away. They had a very bad time. I went to Hamburg in a car, and I was asleep. I woke up as we were going through it, and it was just ruins. Even in the late forties. “We got them back in Hamburg…” This I did not like at all.’
It was the Cold War that he spoke about more. A war which, when you were born in the 80s, and read about it without having experienced it, doesn’t seem much like a war.
‘The Cold War was very bad for the people in the North. Always we have been very close to the Russians, then suddenly we could not be. You go to Kirkenes today and it is full of Russians, and in the 1930s and before it was the same, then for 50 years there were no Russians. There have always been many Russians in the North – and in the South, for trade. They live close. Borders are nothing. There were partisans, Norwegians who helped the Russians in the war. Then afterwards they couldn’t get jobs because everybody said they were communist. They weren’t communist – they were trying to free Norway. All this is forgotten now. People do not tell this history. Ten years ago, our king made an apology in public to these people. He said they had been treated wrongly by Norway.’
He paused. I had been writing in my notebook when he sat down a half hour or so before, and he seemed suddenly to have recalled this.
‘If there is work you were doing then you must not let me stop you.’
‘Oh no, I much prefer talking.’ When you are on your own, conversation becomes a pleasure to be seized when you have it. He nodded, pleased, and continued.
‘You must understand, I don’t like communism. I don’t mean at all that the Russians were right. But the Cold War was very bad for Norwegians. Worse for Russians. When I was young I spoke to an old man once – an old Russian man – and he told me that Russia was as bad under the Tsar as it was under Stalin. They all had such hopes in the revolution, but it just went back to the same place. My friend lives in Moscow. He says now many people have nothing, and a few have everything’. He smiled, ‘I think they need another revolution.’
My friend’s travels went beyond postwar Europe. As mentioned before, he’d spent a lot of time in South America, and before that in India. He asked if I’d ever been to Africa, and I said I never had, but very much wanted to some day. Amazingly, as he crept towards 80, he was idly wondering if he could find any company which would send him there. He had always wanted to go.
‘Of course, I had children, and if at any time my wife had said no, I would never have gone away so much for work. You can only live this way if both people agree.’ It turned out his wife was almost as widely-travelled as he was, though oddly they did not go away together. He liked mountains and forests, and she liked cities and antiquity, so they simply went on their own trips when they wanted to, and told each other about them back home. She had just returned from Istanbul.
‘When I was in India, a lot of people took their wives with them.’ He tapped his head harder than was strictly necessary. ‘Loco! What would they do? They could not work. Not even in the house, if they wanted to. All they could do was sit.’ He laughed and did his swipe again. ‘Why would I want a wife who was happy just to sit?’
‘So how much of a year would you be away? How many months of the year?’
‘Oh, only maybe two or three. That’s not bad. Just think of sailors. In my whole school class of 28 I am one of only two who did not go away to sea at some point in their life. I think this travel is in our blood. We have the blood of tramps. I think maybe the English have it as well. The English and the Norwegians are a little alike. We just have more space.’
‘Ah but you use it as well.’
‘You don’t use the country in England? Not even the young people?’
‘It’s mostly older people, and it’s not so easy to use the space there. All the land is owned by someone, so you can’t go wherever you like or camp wild. We do sometimes, but only in the mountains, and it’s still against the law. Here you can camp almost anywhere.’ I told him about when Christian and I walked the Coast to Coast, and the marked lack of youth to be found in the half-empty youth hostels along the way, to the point where several on the route have closed because no-one wants to go on cheap holidays to the countryside any more. Writing this up from my notes, I have noticed the odd role reversal in the old man with his youthful optimism talking to the young one with his jaded misanthropy.
‘You should bring your brother here!’ He announced. ‘You can walk where you like, take any route and camp under some tree at the end of the day. We have rules here too, but less. They are mostly about harming nature, and if you think, you are ok.’ He made a line with his hand about four feet off the floor. ‘Just to think, if you break the branch from a tree this tall, you have changed the way it will be for 150 years maybe. Things are fragile.’
He returned to the subject not long before we shook hands and went our separate ways in Trondheim.
‘Perhaps the problem is that young people like to be comfortable too much. But travel is not big meals and warm beds and perfect things. The travel itself is the most important thing. It is just to travel.’