Forces
James Leavey's Corner
Has Anybody Here Seen Olaf?

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey
There I was just off Piccadilly, chatting with the Arts Club's hall porter when a horde of hungry Vikings stormed in, all eager for roast pork, steamed red cabbage and apple strudel.Followedby coffee.Most of them were over six foot tall, granite-jawed, smoking cigars and speaking hoody-hoody Swedish

It was a difficult moment that sorts the men from the boys.The porter didn't bat an eyelid and patiently ticked names off the guestlist.Even when they were muttering oaths like "By Odin!" You have to admire the aplomb of somone who can face axe-wielding smoker-friendly Norseman in Mayfair.

On the far side of the entrance hall, two grim Vikings with drawn swords were guarding the door to the dining room while it was being prepared for the main invasion at 7.30pm.The horde trampled downstairs to the reception room for beer and schnapps.

One hulking warrior, a 36-year-old Scandinavian chartered accountant called Lars arrived from Carshalton in Surrey wearing a blue business suit.It was snowing outside that Thursday evening in January, and he went downstairs to change.After five minutes he re-appeared in a long brown tunic, grey cloak; a metal helmet on his head with one horn, askew.

"Where did you park your longship""I asked. He looked friendly enough. "We beached on a strand just below Waterloo," Lars replied in a gruff singsong voice."It was a long haul from Gotland."

Who says the Swedes have no sense of humour.

The Berserkers and Vikings Society is the oldest Scandinavian dining club outside Sweden and has about 350 members, all male, including around ten from Denmark and Norway.They have been meeting secretly in London, England, since 1885. Most are from the top echelons of Swedish business, sport, the church, the arts, and royalty, including the present King of Sweden, a rare attendee.

Per Runeland, 53, is the BV's present Jarl, or chieftain.He is the equivalent of Norse of the Year, for three years.While we talked you'd never have believed he was also a distinguished member of the Alliance of European Lawyers with executive offices overlooking St Paul's Cathedral.A grey-haired wig peeked from beneath his double-horned helmet, and his royal blue tunic was almost hidden under a long red cloak while he swirled about, helping to turn the dining room into a Viking drinking hall for the midwinter festivities.

At 7.25pm he and four other committee members were working themselves into a berserker's last-minute frenzy dishing out photocopies ofNordic song sheets and a royal blue paper hat with golden wings at each table setting, next to the ashtrays. The Swedish flag hung on the wall.

The Jarl's place in the centre of the main table by the terrace window was marked with a large drinking horn, mounted on silver."Nobody knows where it comes from but I think it's older than the society," said Runeland, who assured me there would be much talk of oar-running and axe-throwing during the next few hours.

"That's my gavel," he added, pointing to the blood-stained axe that lay beside it.Two places to the right was a small wooden model of one of the longships that had helped the Vikings to plunder much of the known world, 800 years ago.

The BV society meets five times a year in London.Each evening is based on a traditional Swedish festival and attended by between 50-100 members.Many travel in from other parts of the UK, or Europe, for the pleasure of meeting fellow Scandinavians and raising money for charity.

In March there's the Swedish Pea Soup and Pancake dinner.Then the Crayfish Dinner early in September and the Goose Dinner in November. The Day of Santa Lucia, Queen of Light, dinner is on 13 December, when a procession of young Swedish girls in long white dresses bearing lights, one with a crown of candles in her hair, comes in to sing.

While Per and I talked, 23 hapless Swedish serfs arrived and were taken downstairs to join the throng for drinks, canapes and winding-up. For it was also the only evening in the BV's annual calendar that new members, or serfs, are enrolled and liberated as free-born Vikings.

At 7.40pm, they were blindfolded and led through the club's rear garden, accompanied by Vikings bearing lit torches, round shields and swords into a darkened dining room full of howling Norsemen.There were raucous cries of "Shall we make them Vikings or throw them to the dogs".

The joining ceremony has been kept secret for 110 years so I was ushered upstairs to the bar, until it was over.Twenty minutes went by and two squiffy Norsemen in winged helmets wandered into the room.The five members eating in the Arts Club's bistro wisely kept their heads down and eyes averted.

"Can you see Olaf"" asked one warrior, the image of Kirk Douglas from The Vikings, except for the horn-rimmed specs dangling on the end of his nose."Nah," said his compatriot."I tink he must be in der toilet."

When I eventually got back downstairs, 81 Vikings were seated, sodden, smoking, swaying and singing "Trink, trink, Bruderlein..." accompanied by their official cheer leader, Peter Berg, on an upright piano.Their ages ranged from early 20s to mid-70s and some were corporate raiders from the City. They were mostly in dinner suits, but all wore helmets glinting in the candlelight. At least 25 were fully garbed Vikings.

If you can imagine a scene from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal set in London, this was it.The only character missing was Death.I could probably have achieved this state by drinking some of the lethal akvavit punch, waiting to be ladled out.

Each of the five dinners has its own set of drinking songs, and there are lots of obscure rituals that go with them, mostly along the lines of: sing the song, toast the toast ("Skol!"), drink the drink. You then repeat this several times and get drunker as the evening progresses.

Berg is a freelance radio journalist whose Swedish parents moved to England and has been a member since 1958."You start off as a Tral or serf," he explained, wiping the remnants of the first course, Swedish herring salad with boiled potatoes, soured cream and dill, from his tunic.

"You then progress to Viking, the lowest degree of membership. After a few years you get promoted to Berserk.In the old days, the only way to achieve this was to drink gallons of mead and literally go berserk." Berserk was the Viking word for a warrior who worked himself into a frenzy before battle, fighting with insane fury and courage.

After dinner, the Vikings and Berserkers staggered up to the first floor bar for another hour of carousing, cigars and camaraderie.At midnight, as the last stragglers were leaving I cornered the honourary chairman, Charles Florman.He had been Jarl for five golden years. "Why," I asked him, "why do you all do this""

"We just like to preserve a little bit of Swedish tradition, talk Swedish and sing Swedish songs," he said."For us, London has always been a Viking outpost in a faraway Land."

It seemed like a good excuse for a bit of drunken revelry by otherwise conservative Scandinavians on their way to Valhalla.Was there any chance of being invited along for some late night pillage and plunder.

"Yes but we'll have to be quick," said the Lone Warrior. "The last tube goes in ten minutes."

Copyright James Leavey, 1997.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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