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Steaming into History - 'The Long Coast'

My fascination with Norway’s coastal and local shipping services dates back to the days when I was a regular passenger on P. & A. Campbell’s magnificent 'Balmoral' (still in service, by the way) in the early 1970s, on the Bristol Channel. Several other frequenters of 'Balmoral' and her illustrious predecessors had recently travelled on the Bergen to Kirkenes Hurtigrute, and they advised me to do so 'before it was too late'. And at that time, with the early postwar motorships approaching the end of their economically-useful lives and the level of service subsidisation rising astronomically, there was every reason to believe that the Norwegian Government would call it a day and either truncate the service or abandon it altogether. School holidays were spent earning cash for fares. My understanding parents chipped in with a bit of financial support. With the fuel surcharges that were being imposed after Yom Kippur during the winter of 1973/4, when the scarcity value of fuel oil dawned upon the countries of the Middle East, I was eternally grateful for that!

A-Levels finished, over a three-week period in July and August 1974 I realised my ambition. In some In some respects I was only just in time, before the march of modernisation swept away much of the character of Norway’s unique public transport system. A North Sea crossing from Newcastle to Kristiansand and Oslo on board Fred. Olsen’s lovely but anachronistic 'Braemar' – a futuristic-looking early 1950s motorship built too late for the dying era when most of the few people who owned cars holidayed abroad without them. A leisurely full-day rail-cruise from Oslo to Bergen over Hardangervidda, the snow-clad ‘roof of Norway’. An invitation to travel in the driver’s cab of the elderly electric train which trundled along the now-closed branch line from Voss to Granvin. Bilberry-picking on a sunny morning on the slopes of Fløyen, while savouring from on high the panorama over Vågen, Byfjorden and Askøy.

Then up the long coast to Kirkenes and back as far as Honningsvåg on board Bergenske’s 'Polarlys', travelling second class and surviving on provisions bought ashore in supermarkets – Norway was so expensive following the devaluation of the pound! At Honningsvåg a change of ship, to Nordenfjeldske’s 'Harald Jarl' for an unforgettable voyage through the chilly mists of Østhavet to Bjørnøya and the Svalbard archipelago. A scramble up the glacier behind the coal mining town of Longyearbyen - and wet feet while fording the torrent at its base on the long trek back to the quay. To Ny Ålesund – the world’s northernmost settlement, complete with football pitch and abandoned railway. North again to Magdalenefjorden of the cliffed blue glaciers and onwards to reach the polar pack ice somewhere in the region of 80º N. Southbound, from Tromsø the ship operating to an express, limited-stop Hurtigrute schedule to Bergen, the nights getting rapidly longer.

Full board was obligatory on the Svalbard Hurtigrute – a sumptuous buffet breakfast, a buffet lunch under which the table positively groaned, and a three-course evening meal, with second, third and even fourth helpings of each course. It was all good healthy fare, and we ate like horses. What an international bunch we were on that trip – there was even a Russian family on board! And finally, from Bergen to Newcastle on board Bergenske’s crack turbine steamer 'Leda', withdrawn only a few weeks after I travelled on her, a victim of the rising cost of oil fuel and the fact that the poor old girl was lo-lo (load-on, load-off) rather than ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off - for road vehicles and cargo). She ended up at Stavanger as an accommodation ship for oil rig workers.

I returned to Norway the following year, armed with an Inter Rail ticket and a Youth Hostel guide, and with every intention of trying to get a summer job on one of the Hurtigrute ships. But back in 1975 Norway had not opened the floodgates for immigrant workers, and instead of travelling up and down Riksvei Nº. 1 I spent four weeks gaining an intimate knowledge of the Scandinavian rail network, including such gems as the Flekkefjord, Granvin, Fagernes, Rødberg and Namsos branches, which are no longer with us. To round off the trip, I caught the bus from Rovaniemi in Finland to Karasjok, and thence to an unseasonably wintry Hammerfest. There I caught Vesteraalske’s 'Finnmarken' for the run south to Florø, which like the rest of southern Norway was basking in a near-Mediterranean climate. I find it a sobering thought that this motorship, which is exactly the same age as I am, is now a high and dry ‘plinthed’ exhibit at the Hurtigrute museum in Stokmarknes. I wish they had chosen a rather more attractive vessel to represent the history of the service – 'Vesterålen' of 1950, maybe? Perhaps someone will think of doing something similar with my remains when I am considered to be past my shelf life . . . though like poor old 'Finnmarken' I doubt whether I am a particularly attractive or representative member of my species.

I digress. University occupied the next six years - a degree in Geography and a doctorate in Transport Studies, and with Maggie Thatcher’s university spending cuts programme giving research officers the chop right, left and centre, unemployment beckoned after that. Unemployment, while in those days converting one into a social pariah, can be an incredibly useful state of being. Before long I found I was busier than I had ever been while pursuing academic titles – teaching myself to read Norwegian for translation purposes, acquiring shipping company histories and a host of other publications, and putting down on paper, in English, the history from A to Z of coastal shipping services in Norway. Within a year the bug had well and truly bitten, and I was doing the same – simultaneously (and long before the politically correct term ‘multi-tasking’ had been invented) – for the host of companies which had provided services to the fjords in the Bergen area. The astronomical cost of copyright fees for museum archive photographs, coupled with the poor quality of many of the latter, prompted me to put pen to paper in another way altogether, and I suddenly discovered that not only could I draw scale profiles of ships – I could sketch them as well. You can incorporate far more detail into a sketch than you can find in an out of focus or ageing photo!

Four years on the manuscripts were mounting up, and in those pre-digital, pre-Lulu days there arose the thorny question of finding a publisher. By then I had also written a few articles for the shipping journal 'Sea Breezes', and had some idea of where to look and whom to ask in what is, after all, a very specialised field with a minuscule market when it comes to potential readers. It so happened that Robert Gardiner of Conway Maritime Press had just made a round trip on the Hurtigrute; his imagination had been fired, too, and a useful working relationship was established. Provided I could reduce the 400-plus pages of typewritten manuscript to a more manageable 80,000 words. I did so - reluctantly. 'Coastal Express – The Ferry to the Top of the World' saw light of day in summer 1987, by which time I had left southwest England, my home for 26 years since we moved from Manchester in 1961, for northwest Spain (wetter and a shade warmer than either Lancashire or Somerset, but very congenial indeed, and after twenty-two years I still have no regrets). Conway took considerably more persuading to risk publishing a history of local shipping in the Bergen district, but 'Steamers of the Fjords' duly emerged two years later.

In retrospect, I reckon that I was jolly lucky to get both manuscripts into print when I did. Since the 1980s, the publishing field has become ever more competitive, and even novelists are having a hard time of it. It seems that unless you are a ‘celebrity’ or a journalist, no editor of fiction wants to know you. Being an editor and ghost writer myself, I spend a good deal of my time ‘editing’ both my own work and that of others, partly in order to fit text length to magazine, page and ‘box’ length. Moreover, since most of what I do not write myself is put together by people in the world of transport technology whose first language is not English, full rewriting of texts, rather than tweaking and fine-tuning, is frequently required as well. When I have to deal with a press release written by somebody whose mother tongue is English, but who seems incapable of expressing him- or herself in it on paper, I howl (and not with laughter, either). Such howling is occurring ever more frequently, intriguing the local wolf population. Things will go from bad to worse before they get better. It is reassuring to know that when they reach rock bottom there is only one way to go – upwards. When will we reach rock bottom, though?

Digressing again. Life is one long digression, methinks, and that is what makes it such fun. One of the problems with both 'Coastal Express' and 'Steamers of the Fjords' was that they had suffered from relatively little exposure in Norway – a country where practically all the indigenous population can (or could?) read and write English fluently. To my knowledge, 'Coastal Express' was never made available for sale on the Hurtigrute ships (what a wonderful captive market that would have been, and some of the new vessels even have libraries . . .). A contact in Bergen wrote to me in the early 1990s to inform me that a bookshop there was literally crying out for copies of 'Steamers of the Fjords' to sell – after all, it was (and as far as I am aware still is) the only single-volume work in any language covering the entire history of Bergen’s local seaborne public transport network, with an illustrated fleet list of over 400 vessels!

Twenty years on, the constraints of paper publishing would appear to have been overcome, though one wonders sometimes what the shelf life of digital files is likely to be, and how the images on them might deteriorate over time. The advent of Broadband means that large quantities of information can be downloaded speedily (but not chez moi until some benevolent telecommunications company in Spain takes pity on rural areas and offers a very economical package for this luxury, to free me forever from the tyrrany of the dial-up telephone line and its astronomical fixed charges). In this deep, steep-sided valley mobile phone users have to stand outdoors to communicate, while using Broadband is a problem in houses with very thick walls . . .

Early in 2006 I decided to unearth my original, long 'Coastal Express' manuscript, rewrite it, bring it up to date using internet sources, and publish it first as a website and then with Lulu. The information needs to be available in English - and most of today’s Hurtigrute ships have internet connections and their own e-mail addresses!

Scouring the worldwide web, I find that the history of Norway’s domestic shipping services has been sadly neglected. For every dozen websites on railways, there is perhaps one on shipping, even on British topics. Shipping enthusiasts are very thin on the ground compared with their railway bretheren. Perhaps the most comprehensive Hurtigrute history site is a very comprehensive German one, but like most works dealing with the service it starts the story in 1893, with only brief reference to what came before, since the 1820s. And that is a great pity. As is the fact that scant attention is given to the history of other coastal services after 1893! Bergen’s local steamers (and Norwegian local shipping companies in general) score even fewer hits on Google, a fact which prompted me to digitalise 'Steamers of the Fjords', profiles, maps, sketches and all, and type out a huge file of timetables. The book version (text only) is available from Lulu; the Google website version was messed up by some sort of bug in the Google system, which resulted in strange sequences of numbers, letters and symbols appearing in the text. I may try and complete it one day!

Another project, quickly realised, was the creation of a website version of the article I wrote on the history of the Stavanger to Bergen Nattrute steamer service (1892 to 1974), first published in Sea Breezes in June and July 1986. This is also available (like the other two histories, tect only) from Lulu.

Only a couple of months after embarking upon the task of typing up and updating the 'Coastal Express' manuscript, an idea which had been lurking in the corners of my mind for some time suddenly sprang to the fore and caused all work on this project to grind to a halt for the best part of a year.

Why not write a novel based on the Hurtigrute? I asked myself.

As far as I am aware, the only work of fiction whose action takes place on the service is Georges Simenon’s 'Le Passager du Polarlys', a whodunnit (for once not featuring Maigret) published in 1932 and based not on the Hurtigrute itself but on the 'kombinerte' service operated by Bergenske and Nordenfjeldske between Hamburg and northern Norway using older, often ex-Hurtigrute steamers. There is no record of the 1912-built 'Polarlys' ever having been employed on this!

Finding a title – 'The Long Coast' – came as easily as researching and writing the story, which for an agreeable six months or so took me back in time to the northern Spain of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the romances, travels and aventures of two families, one Anglo-Norwegian and the other pure Norwegian, running shipping agencies in adjacent offices in the Asturian port of Gijón. Naturally, I could scarcely ignore the fact that in 2006 Spain was commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The conflict in my home province and its dramatic conclusion during September and October 1937 has received scant attention outside Spain, while most English language novels with Civil War action tend to focus on other parts of the country (Madrid and the Ebro valley seem to be the most popular). World War Two and Norway for many British readers will inevitably mean the failed attempt to halt the German occupation during the spring of 1940. Some of the action in 'The Long Coast' does take place at that time, but the culmination of the story centres upon Vidkun Quisling’s despicable persecution of teachers in early 1942.

Now how does all that relate to the Hurtigrute?

The real starting point for this leviathan saga was a chat I had with a couple of the editors of Spain’s fourth-oldest newspaper, ‘El Comercio de Gijón’, towards the end of 2005. Early in the twentieth century, so I was told, it was no understatement that it was easier to travel from Gijón to London (by sea) than it was from Gijón to Madrid (by train). Gijón, and in particular the ‘garden suburb’ of Somio, had a large and active expatriate population, drawn from all over Europe and beyond. These were people involved in industry and commerce, not seeking Spain solely for sun, sea, sand and sex (though Gijón’s Playa de San Lorenzo offered at least three of these delights and no doubt the fourth could also be discovered lurking in back street establishments). In genteel Somio there was even a cricket team, and a version of this game is still played there today.

As in 'A Mine Called Wagner, A Maid Called Minerva', I interwove my characters’ actions with ample chunks of local history, both in the Spain of the 1930s and wartime Norway, as seen through the eyes of Gilbert Hansen, the son of a Pacific Steam Navigation Company employee who was posted to Gijón in 1908 to open up an agency there. And this was a marvellous and irrepeatable opportunity to write the life history from 1927 to 1974 of a fictional Norwegian coastal steamer and of the equally fictional Bergen-based company which owned her.

  • Page Updated Feb 2, 2009
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