Bicycles, Beserkers and Royals: In Search of Denmark

I had wanted to go to Denmark for many years, planning to ride my bicycle up through my ancestral home of Greater Frisia – from the north of the Netherlands, through the Schleswig region of Germany and then into Jutland in Denmark. Why Denmark? I had an image of a small, wise and tolerant country with tall, blond and bearded people (and that was only the women). It was the land of Canute of the waves, Hamlet in Helsingør and kings who are named Christian and Frederick in succession – at least until the inbreeding forced them to bypass the next male in line and crown a queen. I wanted to cycle through its many islands, stay in ancient villages and visit the fabled Copenhagen, or København – the traders’ harbour.

Boots and Bicycles

Finally I arrived, not by bicycle but by plane, on the long haul from Singapore. As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was almost overrun by a swarm of bicycles. They came at me in an endless, orderly stream, hundreds upon hundreds without a break. After a week of waiting, I finally found a break and shot through the gap to the city.

Soon enough I too was on a bicycle. In Australia I had become accustomed to being the only cyclist on a road, watchful of the cars that had no idea how to deal with a two-wheeled vehicle in the vicinity. In Copenhagen it is a different game altogether. Forget the cars, since all drivers are also cyclists and those drivers actually give way, endlessly patient, to the more vulnerable road users. No, I had to get used to bicycles all around me, a perpetual peloton. Bicycles behind, in front, some new but most clapped out (to discourage theft), with riders dressed in jeans, suits, skirts, and coats. None of the lycra-clad road warriors here; no impression that cyclists were a weird sub-culture with their own rituals, for every one in Denmark rides a bicycle, or a ‘cycel’ as they call them.

What did I enjoy most about cycling in Denmark? Was it the long rides through the countryside with cycle routes, destinations and distances clearly marked? Was it the idea that a holiday involved spending a couple of weeks cycling? Was it the way all roads were designed with bicycles in mind and that everywhere you went you could find room to park a bike? Yes, of course.

But cycling has a far deeper appeal – its eroticism. Long thighs descending in to high-heeled boots, the slow rhythm of those thighs, the position of the foot on the pedal with the heel hanging over the edge, the push on the foot-brake and the hop down with one foot at a stop – that is the eroticism of bicycles and Copenhagen. One element of bicycle riders in that city is unique in comparison to the many places in the world where I have ridden my bicycle. It is the combination of high-heeled boots, flowing hair, pants and jackets on many of the city’s riders.

They don’t bend over the handlebars of a road or mountain bike; they don’t feel it necessary to be decked out in fluorescent lycra, and they certainly don’t feel the need to race any other cyclist in sight. No, they sit upright and ride in a slow rhythm on a heavy bike designed to withstand salt, rain, snow and the long, cold winters. One after another, in tens, hundreds and thousands, they ride past, boots and long thighs moving up, down and around in synchronised rhythm.

How did bicycles become so common? Did the Vikings ride down to their long boats before setting out on a journey of exploration and pillage? Is it a constitutional right? Not quite, since the comprehensive networks one finds today were actually a response to the oil shock of the 1970s. When a world addicted to that cheap energy source derived from the fossils of our evolutionary ancestors first realised that oil was limited, some countries – Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany among them – decided that alternative transport networks were a good idea. To be sure, bikes were common enough before the 1970s, since they had resisted to some extent the push for American-style suburban development after the Second World War. But they didn’t have all of those facilities – safe road lanes, traffic light treatments, parking, and long distance routes – that are so much part of the cities and countryside today. So governments like that of Denmark set about constructing all the features riders take for granted today. Americans laughed at these quaint little European countries. Australians followed suit, assuming that cars, freeways and suburbs were the way of the future. The British did their usual thing and turned their barbarian noses up at the Continentals. Now they are the ones desperately looking to places like Denmark for alternative models of city living and transport.

Blankets and Beserkers

I didn’t spend my whole time riding in Denmark, for I began to notice some more curious items, especially the blankets in cafes, beserkers in the army, and in-bred royals.

Blankets? In cafés? For some reason or other I find the whole ‘café culture’ a bit of a wank. Trendy, wealthily alternative, chardonnay socialist – all these and more are what I think when I hear the word ‘café’. But the blankets were something else. One day in Copenhagen I was walking past a café and I saw a man sitting outside with a blanket over his legs. Is he sick? I wondered. Maybe he’s recuperating from an illness and getting some fresh air. And then, when I looked inside the café I noticed a chair piled up with blankets. Once alerted, I saw pile after pile, on chair after chair, in café after café. ‘What are those for?’ I asked. My companion, Henrik, said, ‘Weeell, when outdoor dining becomes popular in a place where the weather really isn’t suited for it, you’ve got to provide something so the customers don’t freeze to death’. It makes about as much sense as outdoor heaters in the cafés in Melbourne.

The blankets were the beginning of my insight into a strange little country. It took on a whole new depth with the beserkers. Over a couple of drinks one night, my fellow lush, a lecturer in religion from the university no less, told me that a good number of Danish soldiers believe in the Norse gods. ‘It would be remarkable if there was one’, said Lars, ‘but studies have shown that there are quite a few’. At one level it makes perfect sense, since the Norse gods were in many ways gods of war. Odin, chief of the Aesir (the newcomers who overcame the older Vanir) was not only god of wisdom and poetry, but also of war, sacrifice and death – his spear would never miss. Perhaps the most well-known is Thor; the god of thunder and war, he was the son of Odin and favourite of the common man. And then there was Tyr who lost his right hand to the fenris wolf, Ullr, whose specialty was archery and hunting, and Vali, who was into vengeance.

No surprise that the male gods were the red-blooded ones, swinging axes, wielding swords and hurling spears. What about the warriors on earth who worshipped them? The ideal for such a fighter was to take on the spirit of Odin – whose name means ‘frenzy’ – and become a ‘beserker’: decked out in coats of bear and wolf skin, beserkers went into a trancelike fury on the battle field, and hacked to pieces anything in their path.

Good old Snorri Sturluson, that chronicler of the fading old ways, describes beserkers as fighting ‘without armour, they were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields and were as strong as bears or wild wolves, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves’. Violent, angry, drunk most of the time, eating strange substances, given to weird rituals, bands of beserkers were often used as shock troops in battle since they struck fear into the enemy and had little regard for their own lives. They would have been nice to have on your side but probably wouldn’t make the best housemate.

Beserkers went straight to Valhalla if slain in battle – as did anyone who came to a bloody end. Escorted by beautiful blonde Valkyries, they would spend the day splattering their mates in heavenly combat, with all their cleft limbs and split skulls restored at the end of the day. And then they hit the grog, feasting, carousing and recounting the day’s adventures. Sounds like my neighbours.

The scary thing is that some Danish soldiers see themselves heirs of this tradition. I’m not sure if they wear bear or wolf skins, but they call on Odin for inspiration, Thor for strength and wade into battle looking forward to Valhalla should they cop a bullet or bomb. These days they fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. So who said the fanatics were all with the Taliban?

The Real Royal Family?

By now I was burrowing deeper into the contradictions of Denmark. Here is a small country with a minority language that often feels much more important than it really is. It has an extraordinarily highly developed welfare state, strong unions, very high taxes and yet it is one of the top economic performers in the world today (putting the lie to neo-liberal policies). As for religion, it is one of the most secular countries on the planet, with very low church attendance, and yet few Danes wish to abolish the Danish (Lutheran) Church, which is the only established religion in the country, is funded through taxes and has a minister in the government appointed to deal with the Church.

The same applies to the royal family. Danes make endless jokes about their dykish queen, her effeminate husband Prince Henrik (a French noble with a liking for wine and his castle in France), their philandering if somewhat ugly sons, Frederick and Joachim, and their collective leadership in the national pastime of smoking. And Danes are amazed at how badly Princess Mary speaks Danish. In fact, as an Australian in Denmark, I seem to trigger comments about Mary’s Australian origins (along with observations about Crocodile Dundee and perhaps Steve Irwin). Yet most Danes are reluctant to consider abolishing the royal family in what is, they claim, the oldest kingdom in the world.

To me it seems that Mary’s main function is to bring some desperately needed outside genes into the royal family, which has had some unfortunate outcomes of its inbreeding. Take Ingolf, or Prince Knud as he is also known, who should have been king instead of the current queen, Margrethe. Until recently the law stated that only the next male in line could take the throne (it was changed only in 2009). However, when it became clear that Margrethe was to be the only child of the previous king and queen (Frederick IX and Ingrid) and that the next male in line was her uncle, the obviously incapable and embarrassing Ingolf, an exception was made at the last minute allow Margrethe to take the throne instead of Ingolf. She was crowned in 1972. Intrigued, I tried to find pictures of Ingolf on the royal family websites. Strangely, they are difficult to find, for, somewhat sadly, he shows all the signs of inbreeding. When royal events stake place, the cameras quickly move from Ingolf to a panoramic shot, or perhaps the flower arrangement. And you will struggle to find out that Ingolf actually lives on a handsome pension, a compensation for not being made king as was his right by law and tradition. To avoid another Ingolf, Mary was found at the other end of the globe.

Of course, the royal family is the one on show to the world, without real power in a constitutional monarchy. But there is another royal family with real power, even more power (at least economically) than the government which rules the Folketing, or Parliament. I mean A. P. Møller-Mærsk, the shipping company – or Mærsk as it is popularly known. Legend has it – at least as it told to new recruits and old hands in the company – that at the turn of the 20th century Peter Mærsk-Møller went around Denmark, cap in hand and knocking on doors, asking each person he met for 1 kroner so that he could buy a ship. Now, a century later, Mærsk is the biggest shipping company in the world. As you would expect, the truth is a good deal more gritty and hard-nosed than this romantic legend of its origins.

From Montreal to Moree, Copenhagen to Cootamundra, you will find the light blue containers with the telltale star and ‘Mærsk Sealand’ printed on its side (Sealand or Sjæland is the island on which Copenhagen is located). The reach of the containers is a symbol of Mærsk’s economic reach: 130 offices throughout the world, 120000 employees, shipping freight, air freight, ferries, salvage, towage, shipbuilding, oil and gas drilling, supermarkets, department stores, plastics production, and even part ownership in Denmark’s largest bank – at least these are the ones officially listed. In a small country of five million people, that is no small achievement. It seems as though everywhere you turn in Denmark, Mærsk is there: withdraw money from the bank, buy groceries, put them in a plastic bag, fill up a car with petrol, catch a ferry, buy something imported, send a parcel, or buy a pair of jeans at a department store – chances are, Mærsk will be involved in some way. Economically, Mærsk is one of the dominating features of Danish life.

No wonder the royal family likes to be seen in the company of the head of Mærsk. Indeed, the founder’s grandson, Mærsk McKinney Møller, is still kicking. As I write he is 97 and still one of the managing owners of the company, although he handed over his role as CEO at the tender age of 80 (he remained chairman of the Odense shipyards until he was 93). Royals, politicians and business heavy-weights like to be seen in his company as well as those of other Mærsk power-brokers.

Perhaps the best symbol of this axis of power is the new opera house, built as a gift to the city by Mr Møller. Angular and ugly, it was constructed over 2001-4 on the harbour in a direct and visible line from Amalienborg, the royal palace. The connecting axis is Frederiksgade, linking the Marble Church (Marmorkirken), the palace and, directly across the harbour, the opera house. Stand at one end and you can clearly see the palace across the harbour; stand at the other end and you look to the real locus of power. In a telling moment, the tax-free, USD$442 million opera house was opened on 1 October, 2004, by the then prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Queen Margrethe, and of course the nonagenarian and real king of Denmark, Mærsk McKinney Møller.

Yet Mærsk does not always have things its own way. Some time ago, Frank Aaen, one of the leading figures in Enhedslisten, the Red-Green Alliance on the far left of Danish politics, bought shares in Mærsk. The reason: he wanted to be able to go to the annual general meeting of shareholders, stand up amongst the expensive business suits in his scruffy clothes, raise sharp questions about company policy, use his inside knowledge about the workings of Mærsk to criticise it in the press, and break the careful control of public relations maintained by the company. That he has now done for many years, much to annoyance of the Maersk rank and file, and much to the delight of other Danes who recount his exploits with great pleasure.

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