Monday, 29 November 2010

Of differentials and viscous couplings

Much of the past week has seen me kitted out in the fine orange overalls I mentioned in my last post, with grease streaked across my forehead and under my fingernails, and all kinds of pungent Land Rover innards oil in my hair. I must thank everyone at Nene Overland in Peterborough first of all for their endless patience and good-humoured explanations as to what sumps, prop shafts, cylinder heads, gaskets, differentials, intake manifolds, planetary gearings, universal joints, drum brakes  are ... and how they all work together to comprise the Land Rover Defender. It's another world under the bonnet and beneath the chassis, and a fascinating one.

More than once, while watching painstakingly fine work being carried out on unwell engines in the garage at Nene, a parallel with medical surgery occurred to me: at different times, a mechanic must be a general surgeon, a brain surgeon, an orthopaedic surgeon, and sometimes a cosmetic one. I was amazed by how long it can take to replace a starter solenoid (this in itself sounds like some kind of nasal problem that requires antibiotics) in a Range Rover. In Grettis saga, Grettir Ásmundarson, another famous medieval Icelandic saga outlaw, utters the proverb "Verðr þat, er varir ... ok svá hitt, er eigi varir" ("The foreseeable happens ... as well as that which is not expected"). Proverbial words to this effect are also found in the anonymous Old Norse poem Sólarljóð ('The Poem [ljóð] of the Sun [sól]'. The first syllable (sol-) in the name of the vehicle part solenoid is the initial element of the Greek word solen ('pipe, channel') rather than the Latin sol, which means 'sun'. Sun shine on a snowy day? ... at least as far as starter solenoids are concerned, this is one thing that I will not have to worry about failing -- expectedly or unexpectedly -- in my 1990 3500 cc V8 petrol Embulance, since she does not have one, thank goodness.  

Although I did not order it in, the genuine arctic weather that has descended on Britain in recent days could not have come at a better time for me: I got even more out of learning how to handle a Defender 110 off-road today under the instruction of the ProTrax team at Rockingham Castle than I had hoped I would. I will not be going off-road in Iceland as this is banned on account of the fragility of the natural environment there. But many of the saga-sites I intend to reach will not be easily accessible and the unsurfaced roads and tracks will present certain challenges, especially given the size and weight of the Embulance, so much of what I was taught will prove to be extremely useful. After a day of tackling steep and icy rutted tracks in and out of an old quarry, my faithful old 999cc VW Polo felt like a toy car driving back home along the A14. Driving in the snow isn't a game, though...  

Monday, 22 November 2010

Emergency first aid and the death of Gísli Súrsson

I learnt an enormous amount on the two-day St John Ambulance course I attended over the weekend, most of which I hope I never have to put into practice. All very good to know, though some of the material was less relevant to survival in Iceland. As in Ireland, there are no snakes over there so I won´t have to deal with venomous serpent bites. In the notes I took on dealing with dog bites, I idly jotted down 'polar bears?'...but while a number of these beasts have drifted over to Iceland on icebergs in recent years, they´ve been rounded up practically before they were given the opportunity to open their jaws. I paid careful attention to recognising the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite and to how to treat these conditions; shouldn´t think that heatstroke will be a particular problem. 

My thoughts turned to the sagas when the course instructor, talking about how to treat puncture-wounds to the abdomen, advised us not to attempt to poke intestines back in if they´ve slipped out. They´re like sausages, apparently, and if one tries to stuff them back inside, they'll just pop out again... One of the most famous medieval Icelandic outlaw-heroes, Gísli Súrsson, clearly had the right idea here as far as emergency gut treatment is concerned (Old Norse-Icelandic, followed by my loose translation). Amazing what the sagas can teach you.

Nú sœkja þeir Eyjólfr at fast ok frændr hans; þeir sá, at þar lá við sœmð þeira ok virðing. Leggja þeir þá til hans með spjótum, svá at út falla iðrin, en hann sveipar at sér iðrunum ok skyrtunni ok bindr at fyrir neðan með reipinu.

"Now Eyjólfr and his men attack Gísli hard; they saw that their honour and reputation depended on this. They thrust at Gísli with their spears so that his guts spill out, but Gísli gathers his intestines and shirt to him and binds them fast underneath with a rope."

The sagas have less to say about the inner workings of modern road vehicles: my intensive first-hand crash-course in Landy mechanics starts on Wednesday. Details to follow -- and perhaps an action shot of me wielding a spanner in my ultra-stylish padded orange overalls.

Illustration of Gísli Súrsson by C. E. St John Mildmay, in The Story of Gisli the Outlaw, trans. Sir G. W. Dasent (Edinburgh, 1866). Disclaimer: I am not sure how widespread the jaunty style of hat Gísli is sporting here actually was in 10th-century Iceland.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Logistics and life skills...

Amongst the logistical things I'm working through before my departure -- the acquiring of necessary equipment, booking of ferry tickets, organising of insurance -- the saga-steads pilgrimage is providing me with the opportunity to pick up various skills that I've long wanted to have a working knowledge of.

Car maintenance, for one. I don't want to break down miles from anywhere in a howling gale without a clue as to what to look for upon opening the ambulance bonnet (hood, for those who are reading in the United States...). So I'll be spending a couple of days next week shadowing the guys at Nene Overland, in Peterborough. I'm deep in Hillier's Fundamentals of Motor Vehicle Technology at the moment (in between editing verses for the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages Project). It's like learning an entirely new language -- always exciting -- but I'm hoping too that when it comes to the crunch, cable ties will solve practically all of the mechanical problems I might encounter.

I've had promises of a fishing lesson from friends in College -- the Emmanuel College swimming pool is to be the venue for this learning experience. And this weekend, I'm off on a two-day St John's Ambulance activity first aid course which will cover how to deal with "conditions caused by the extremes of temperature, low blood sugar and casualty management". I hope that's of some comfort to those who have slight concerns about my solo survival!

Ex-ASNC alumnus and professional photographer Jimmy Appleton is giving me some landscape photography and camera tips tomorrow. And the University Press and Communications Office are preparing an official press release that will come out soon. If learning how to communicate my research interests to the press isn't an important life skill at a time when the arts and humanities are under such a serious threat, then I don't know what is.  

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Iceland in pictures

In lieu of having first-hand descriptions of the saga-sites to post right now (not too much longer to wait though!), I thought people might be interested in a few photos I have taken in Iceland on previous occasions.

Some of these are better than others; those that aren't so technically accomplished I have included because they capture something of the atmosphere of a place at the time I was there... the formal art of photography is something I am trying to teach myself, so tips are very welcome. 

Those who are knowledgeable about such things might wish to know that the camera I have been using is an Olympus u 840. 

Hope some of these pictures transport you away from wherever you are for a few seconds, at least... 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

General excitement and some short comments about the sagas

I've been quite overwhelmed by the positive responses to this blog and my project that I've had from people all over the world so far. It makes it all even more exciting and I'm very grateful for the suggestions that people have sent me, and to all those who have forwarded the blog details to others or posted it on various sites. Thank you!! More details re. the logistical preparations for the adventure and the outfitting of the Ambulance will be posted soon...

In the meantime, I thought people might be interested in reading some very brief general comments about the 30-odd sagas I will be reading and writing about as I travel around Iceland next's a hard thing to convey a sense of these remarkable narratives in only a few sentences but I hope it gives those who haven't come across the sagas before a rough idea about them. I include some suggestions for further reading/information at the bottom of the post, for those who are actively interested in finding out more about the sagas.

As I mention in my project outline (archived at, the medieval Icelandic family sagas or Íslendingasögur  (literally, "Sagas of Icelanders") were written down for the most part in the 13th century in Iceland, and describe the lives of the first few generations of settlers in Iceland in the late 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. None of the sagas' "authors" are known and their anonymity is central to understanding the circumstances that surrounded their composition, as well as the relative freedom with which subsequent scribes hand-copied and transmitted the texts, from the medieval period right up until the early 20th century.
Egill Skalla-Grímsson
(from a 17th-century manuscript)
The sagas present a great number of highly individual and memorable characters. Some sagas are biographical and sketch out the lives of famous Icelandic figures such as the difficult and provocative Egill Skalla-Grímsson (Egils saga Skallagrímssonar), or the outlaw-poets Grettir Ásmundarson (Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar) and Gísli Súrsson (Gísla saga Súrssonar). Others, such as Eyrbyggja saga, Laxdæla saga, and Njáls saga, have a wider focus and follow the development of bloody feuds that unfold in different districts.
Much of the narrative material about specific characters and events that was worked into these written, literary compositions must have been passed down orally prior to the writing of the sagas, from one generation to the next. Stylistically, the sagas are striking for the way that their narrative perspective gives the impression of being very objective: events are reported soberly and tersely without overt authorial comment, characters do not reveal their inner thoughts or emotions, and dialogue is reported without narratorial comment or analysis. These stylistic features have led some modern commentators to refer to the sagas as the forerunners of the prose novel, many centuries before the 18th-century rise of this genre of literature...but herein lies a vexed question as to whether the sagas are history, or literature, or something in between -- not a question I will take up further here, for the moment anyway!  

Sources for further information:

Iceland will be the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011; much of interest about Icelandic literature, art, and culture (both medieval and modern) can be found on the official website:
A new and comprehensive introduction to the medieval Icelandic sagas by Margaret Clunies Ross (Professor of English Language and Early English Literature at the University of Sydney, Australia) has just been published by Cambridge University Press. My photo on the front cover!:
Online translations (and texts in Old Norse-Icelandic) of some of the more popular of the Íslendingasögur can be found here:
English translations of a number of sagas, and some shorter stories (þættir) are printed in this compendium, edited by Robert Kellogg, and with a Preface by Jane Smiley, published by Penguin: