Oliver Cross: Joining oligarchs, travellers and Vikings in that London

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The West End of London is a good place to see oligarchs and enormous cars because it’s generally only oligarchs with enormous cars who don’t notice the capital’s congestion charge or recognise the insensitivity of flashing your wealth when many people are struggling.

So I was pleased to see, at the weekend, a group of at least a dozen Irish Travellers driving their ponies and carts through the streets around Leicester Square, presumably in celebration of St Patrick’s day - which, as a tribute to Arthur Guinness, patron saint of stout ale, now lasts for at least a week.

Presumably the congestion-charge wardens couldn’t work out which rules the Travellers were breaking, not having been given specific instructions on coping with engine-less two-wheeled vehicles which weren’t bicycles. This meant that open-topped cars as big as bungalows, their owners’ eyeballs popping with impatience, had to be kept waiting while the Travellers trotted past as if they owned the place…a rare victory for the Leprechauns against the global giants.

Generally, though, the very rich who are buying up London aren’t getting it all their own way. Me and my partner Lynne, staying in Bloomsbury on a theatre weekend in London, found quirky shops, cheap restaurants, friendly, normal-looking people, exciting street food and much to do for free, including noticing how theatrical – how like a stage set – the houses of Parliament are. No wonder MPs can’t seem to resist acting up.

The British Museum is also free and since I’ve just become a class warrior – the best thing to be, as the obituary writers discovered last week, although they didn’t seem keen on Bob Crow and Tony Benn when they were alive – I found it satisfying that the great exhibits housed in London museums are open to all. Many of them, admittedly, were plundered from occupied territories under the British empire, but they have become our national, democratic treasures; the rich can buy most things, but not these.

There is, though, a charge to enter the British Museum’s new exhibition on the Vikings, which is well justified by the value of the exhibits – the Vikings, being seafarers, favoured portable wealth in the form of intricately-wrought, extravagant gold and silver jewellery and were the first kings of bling. I’ve been told all my life that we shouldn’t regard the Vikings simply as fierce sea-raiders with a lust for plunder, but the exhibition shows that, during the relatively short Viking age (roughly 800-1050 AD) they were, well, fierce sea-raiders with a lust for plunder. They didn’t wear horned helmets but they did do a fair amount of slaughtering and plundering, particularly of silverware from early Christian churches.

On the positive side, they were astonishingly well-travelled, going deep into Russia, north Africa and north America - the Vale of York hoard of silver and gold, uncovered near Harrogate in 2007, includes items collected from Afghanistan.

They were great traders (including, unfortunately for their modern image, slave-traders) and wonderful ship-builders, creating light, shallow-draught vessels which could be navigated along rivers and pulled ashore anywhere.

The star exhibit at the exhibition is the largest Viking warship ever discovered. Much of the wood has rotted away but the remaining timbers have been incorporated into a steel reconstruction showing the ship’s shape and size (37m, or 120ft, long). It’s a very frightening sight, but the most alarming exhibit is a heap of 55 headless skeletons found in a mass grave on the south coast of England – evidently the remains of young Vikings on a raiding party which went wrong.

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