April 30, 2013

At War with the Vikings

There’s something to be said for running away from one’s problems. Specifically, the following text.

In times of personal crisis, the prospect of getting away from absolutely everything is highly attractive. I like to believe there’s something positive to be gained from packing up and absconding to some far away place, not permanently, but for what you’d call a lost weekend or similar expression of self-indulgence. At minimum, this is the act of clearing one’s head, but ideally it’d also bring some clarity of purpose or contentment. By escaping all the factors and circumstances that define a life and diving into total randomness, one might discover meaning, even wisdom, in the chaos.

My lost weekend was just a Thursday. Immediately following a break-up and a number of work opportunities all simultaneously and meaningfully cratering, I decided to get away from London for a while. The next day, before dawn, I boarded a train for the city of York, some 200 miles north.

All I really knew about York is that it was ruled by Vikings in the Middle Ages. During this period, the city we now know was called the Kingdom of Jorvik. As you’d expect, a big part of the city’s tourism is Viking stuff. Vikings! What could be better? The uncomplicated psyche and fundamental home truths of primal Viking life might be the perfect thing to cut through my specifically modern problems.

For tourists, one of York’s biggest draws is the Jorvik Viking Centre, which boasts a thorough and vivid recreation of a village straight out of Viking times. “Come face to face with a Viking,” it is promised. Visitors access this medieval village via time car, named of course for its time-travelling properties.

I head for the Jorvik Viking Centre in the late morning. It’s when I, as a lone adult male, get in line behind an entire classroom of French schoolchildren, that I start to think this might be weird.

Once the thirty children have all been processed, I buy a ticket in the lobby. “Just one?” asks the woman behind the counter. I confirm this is the case.

Before we arrive at the Viking village itself, there’s a room downstairs that serves as a waystation between the timelines. In this dimly lit chamber, there are a lot of placards and LCD displays detailing the history of the Viking presence in York. Under our feet, a glass floor reveals human bones and Viking trinkets, all discovered by an archaeological dig in the last century, strewn through the dirt. The French children and their chaperones meander around the room in small groups, cross-checking the information on the walls with worksheets of Viking-related homework.

There’s some Viking Centre staff down here too, all clothed in period Viking garb. I assume that this is the official staff uniform but perhaps it’s an amazing coincidence. In the stairwell, two Vikings flirt lightly. Another Viking wanders the floor. “Oh, feel free to ask me any questions,” he announces vaguely to his dispersed audience. Ask a Viking – what an opportunity! I note that nobody seems interested in taking him up on his offer. In fairness, the only questions I can think to ask him – “Do you ever feel like you’re just drifting?” “Have you ever been in love?” “Viking, are you ever lonely?” – would not be appropriate in this academic setting.

A few words about the time car. It’s less of a car, I can see now, than a big motorised seat attached to a ceiling track. Not exactly the DeLorean. The time car is parked in a corner, where it departs this waystation and enters a time tunnel. Admittance to the time car is governed by another Viking. I make my way over to him, accidentally cutting in line before two small French girls. (“Cut in front of me in the time car queue like one of your French girls,” it is often remarked.)

“Just you, sir?” asks the Viking – like a viking would ever call somebody sir.


“Enter the time car.” He doesn’t say this.

To my disappointment, the time car will be ferrying me through the entirety of the village, rather than just dropping me off discreetly from a block or two away. It runs on a rail on a programmed course at a leisurely pace. My first Viking sighting on this tour through time is two Viking kids playing in the mud, and at first I’m shocked that this operation has roped in child actors. But as I draw closer I realise that they aren’t real people in Viking suits, but automatons.

From there, I proceed down a receiving line of animatronic Viking characters, each introduced in the very proper English tones of my time car audio guide. I meet Sigurd the antler worker, Unni the woodworker, a couple of fishermen, a blacksmith and some assholes arguing about what to have for dinner (Some things never change, notes my narrator wryly). As I ride past, they speak a sentence in Old Norse and jerk around a little bit, affecting the motions of their purported trades. This goes on for about ten minutes. The whole experience, I am told, is supposedly enhanced through the addition of realistic and unsanitary Viking odours, but actually the gift shop I visit afterwards smelled worse by a significant and nauseating margin.

Before the ride ends, there’s a hell of a denouement in store. We come to one last Viking, squatting in an open-air medieval toilet and straining audibly to take a dump. Unsuccessfully, I might add. Rounding him in the time car, I hear him groan and grunt and fart a little bit. Then the ride is over, and an elderly woman in the middle of her knitting helps me to disembark the time car. I leave the Viking Centre quickly.

That’s pretty much the whole story. Having left home despondent and in search of some kind of personal illumination or epiphany, what I get – sometimes, all you ever get – is a robot Viking taking a shit. And I never quite stop thinking about this toilet-bound Viking, this poor guy. Consider what defines his existence. He was built to try and do one thing – one very particular, disgusting thing – yet no matter how hard he tries, he is, by cruel design, incapable of ever achieving that goal. His life is Lucy Van Pelt pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. He is trapped forever on the cusp of almost there. So he squats in the corner, in an Ouroboros prison of unfulfillment, a textbook failure for generations of children to laugh about when they pass by, and whenever they might think of him.

No comments: