Travel: On the Richter scale of urban angst, Gotland scores a neat zero
Sunday 28 June 1998
And everybody in town is miraculously wealthy. Nobody blanches at paying pounds 4 for a beer. This tiresome phenomenon whereby the small countries of Europe enjoy the world's highest standards of living is a bit of a puzzler. If it's not Holland, it'll be Denmark, and if it's not Switzerland, it'll be Sweden. But has anyone ever seen a Swede sweat? It's as though they've hitched themselves onto German pay-packets by some economic sleight-of- hand. The fact that they are not actually working but eating lobster and wearing blazers seems to go unnoticed by the world's financiers as their populations are so small.
Anyway, all this cleanliness and prosperity is actually quite a turn- up for the books because Gotland means "land of the Goths". And you thought that the Goths were a crowd of bearded psychopaths in tanned leather trousers, did you not? A people who wantonly raped and pillaged their way across the hitherto civilised Roman world? In fact, after the Vandals and the Philistines (neither of whom, by the way, were vandals or philistines) it is hard to think of anyone with a less distinguished reputation.
Which just goes to show what a raw deal some people get from history. The Romans may have been Christian-killers and pederasts, but then they had the control of half the world to worry about. The Goths couldn't control half a forest without squabbling to the death among themselves. And yet Gotland was what the Goths left behind. Over here, "medieval" does not have the disparaging overtones that it has in middle-class English. Last night, I dined in a themed medieval restaurant, for example, cutting my wild boar with a dagger on a wooden bench under a sooty ceiling, waited upon by a wench in a long apron.
Primitive? Hardly. In Visby museum I have seen picture-stones covered in beautiful geometric designs; I have seen kaleidoscopic whirls representing the sun; runic inscriptions, drawings of ladies in long dresses and helmeted vikings in longboats with square sails. Oh yes, the Vikings - they were the other people to whom Gotland remains permanently indebted for their contribution to civilisation. The original good burgers, they filled Visby with warehouses and Gotland with splendid medieval churches, all the way back in the 11th and 12th centuries. No doubt they cared for their families, as well.
So when are the British going to make their peace with the maligned Goths and Vikings? Is a millennium insufficient time for the bad memories to fade? Will the sight of stolen English money - coins bearing the head of Ethelred the Unready in a museum in Visby - still be an irritant for another thousand years?
To judge by popular culture, possibly not. English children always instinctively prefer Vikings to, say, Ancient Roman republicans. In northern England, the Vikings have even got their Viking Centre at York. Signs of a long- overdue rapprochement with our Scandinavian cousins? At this rate, the good news may reach the Home Counties within a couple of centuries.
The trouble starts when we go to school and get told that the Vikings are not a serious object for study. It's envy, isn't it. Impoverished British teachers, still bitter about the handing over of all that Danegeld, yearn for the mythical security of the Roman Empire, while the descendants of Goths and Vikings laugh all the way to Gotland's banks. What history doesn't teach us.
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