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Nathaniel Handy
I was told by a cheeky Swedish girl, "We were the ones that came and raped you!".

Picture for yourself a modern day Viking.
What do you see? Endless foaming ales swilling down stubbly necks, rough grown men marauding topless through the northern regions Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast, is but a stones throw from the Geordies of Newcastle. When sitting ensconced in Swedish cable TV recently I saw one of the many Danish adverts that appear on it, and an extraordinary thing hit me. If you released your mind from the knowledge that this voiceover was spoken by a Dane and allowed your mind to think it was listening to a very broad Geordie accent, too broad for me to understand, the match was uncanny. It was the same voice. A piece of linguistic archaeology buried in cable television.

This is something I found bizarre whilst living in Sweden. Modern Sweden has become crowded with theme park re-enactments of a Viking past. From Gotland to Gothenburg every year the pride of being a Viking race is celebrated. I was told by a cheeky Swedish girl, "We were the ones that came and raped you!".

This very line brought me to a thought. The English always hear about the Vikings as a foreign band of barbarians to be feared and who came ravaging our coastal towns long ago. The Swede is encouraged to think of an albeit very bloodthirsty but nonetheless glorious past of warrior heroes. And yet...if Vikings left Scandinavia and came raping and pillaging, and settling, in Britain, then surely the modern Swede is the quiet farmer who stayed at home and the Geordie is the descendent of warring Vikings and some pretty frightened Anglo-Saxon peasants. And so we arrive at today.

In modern day Sweden, a Sweden with a keen acknowledgement of its Viking past, I found a view of Britain that was ironic. Like most of the world the Swede described the south-eastern England that has become the external image of the U.K. The Queen, the red buses, the black cabs, the polite but restrained suited gentlemen and the loud and light Home Counties accent that stands out so strongly from American, the most commonly heard English.

But the Swedish also spoke often of another Briton, quite apart from his Home Counties British brother. One they view as far less the sort wanted or encouraged in the new Europe. This one drank too much, too often - a social crime in Sweden today - and cavorted loudly and lewdly. He leered at soft porn in tabloids, was sexually promiscuous - frowned upon far more in Sweden than Britain whatever the old cliches might claim to the contrary - and was prone to end in a brawl before the night was out.

Here the Swedes find themselves in a new arena. They are fond of the careful, courteous British stereotype that prevails on one hand, keen to embrace them as European partners, but shake their heads in moral disgust at the Briton on the other. Yet it is this very British stereotype that appears to most keenly resemble a Viking if ever there was one. It seems that as much as the Swede wishes to banter about the glories of a Viking past, no trace remains in the order of modern Scandinavia, and they would rather it remained in the theme park the world over. The Briton in the Swedish mind's eye has perhaps a little too much of the Viking in him.

© Nathaniel Handy 2001

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