I explore the ring of iron keys, learning the marks of age, tracing the edges softened by use. The heavy locking mechanism strains, groaning metal and the creaking of swollen wood signals our arrival. Against the odds, we are now the legal guardians of a house (c.1850) and a small but beautiful pocket of Nordic forest and former meadow.
I've travelled a long way from my home-town, a place the locals affectionately call Oil City: a sunken island encased in the mud of the Thames Estuary, walled in by a perimeter of high concrete flood defences. Today it's an awkward shard of land scarred by unemployment and a history of class prejudice, all of which plays out among the backdrop of the abandoned artefacts and dying embers of a petrochemical industry.
This is a town that neo-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair once described as “Draining East London's wound”, as it hungrily sucked up the underworld ooze of crime and retiring gangsters from the big smoke city. It's a terminally below sea-level settlement, dominated by a flat and treeless horizon of slowly moving container ships, monolithic oil silos and needle-like towers spewing flame. These are the monuments to industrial revolution; the altars at which we sacrifice our bodies to the North Sea Gods of Oil and Coast.
The modern black'ning Church (W.Blake).
If the landscapes of my past and present share common ground, it's surely buried in their histories of battle, invasion and bloodied Empire. Histories of guns and swords and cannons and great ships, their sails rejoicing in the flood of Death (W.Blake).
Now I'm rooted among the aged wood and stone of Sweden, close to one of the ancient shifting borders between this land and Denmark. A territory stained with the legacy of conflict and execution. Here I'm reminded of a reoccurring ghost sighting from my home-town:
“Many night fishermen have reported seeing a tall, burly Viking standing on the mudflats at The Point, on the far eastern side of the island. It is believed that he was left behind by his fleet and waited for his ship to return; only to drown in the rising tide.”
(HAUNTED ESSEX, Carmel King)
“[A] Viking who stalks the saltings, a lonely relic of the Danes who invaded the Essex coast more than a thousand years ago. He must be a striking figure to encounter, standing six feet tall, with long moustaches and beard, wearing a leather jerkin and a winged helmet on his head, his long sword hanging from his belt.”
(GHOSTS OF ESSEX, Betty Puttick)
And indeed a great battle was fought here around 893AD, when the Saxon army defeated a Viking incursion of some 200 ships. The burned structures of which were uncovered, alongside human remains, during the construction of the railway to London.
Accompanying this are the tales of The Wild Hunt riding over the local Hillsides and Downs, above the blasted ruins of the once powerful 13th Century castle that stood there. Now a crumbling knuckle of masonry supported by the steel frame of Heritage restoration. Clinging perilously to history, it's a ghostly remnant of a once imposing fortification. A visual artefact corrupting the rolling woodlands.
During a Summer long since faded into memory, I personally recorded the following story from a local woman I met walking among those castle ruins:
“She explained that she had once glimpsed the ghostly procession of The Wild Hunt, advancing across the Estuary and up over the marshes, leaving not a trace behind it. She told me The Hunt was at least thirty horses strong, with hounds accompanying and great birds in flight trailing behind, and that they rode so hard that they kicked up sparks of light across the sky. She could not tell me who rode at the head of The Hunt, for she had thrown herself almost immediately to the ground when she saw them coming! Diving down into the tall Spring grasses, where she remained until the last echoes of howling and trumpeting had passed!”
Though she could not name him, the leader of The Wild Hunt is traditionally understood to be Odin, and here in Sweden there exist many ancient tales of that old wanderer and seer. The following originates from a small parish not far from where I write this now:
“At the farm of Kraaktorp in Asa parish in Småland are the remains of a wall, where Odin's stable and manger are said to have stood. In this parish more than a hundred years ago, there was excavated a grave mound where Odin was said to be buried, and which, on that account, after the introduction of Christianity, was called Hell's-mound. There was then found a vault, on opening which a strange fire, like a flash of lightning, burst out, and a stone coffin and lamp were dug up there. Of a priest named Per Dagson, who lived at Trojenborg or Höns-hytte Skans, the story goes that he ploughed up a part of the rampart, by which a number of human bones were brought to light. When the rye sown there shot up, Odin came riding from the hills every night, so huge that he towered above all the farm-buildings, spear in hand, and kept watch outside the front entrance, preventing any one from going out or in the whole night. This happened every night until the rye was cut. The priest took indeed two crops off the field, but allowed it to fall back again, on account of the great trouble that Odin caused him.”
(SCANDINAVIAN FOLK-LORE: ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE TRADITIONAL BELIEFS OF THE NORTHERN PEOPLES)
These are only some of the transmissions from the folklore spectrum that surge through my memory — perhaps unconsciously influencing my movements. I like to imagine those transmissions as a kind of retro-causal surge. That those phosphorous spectres hanging over the Estuary, drenching its territories, somehow led me to settle here in Sweden.
The tale of the Viking longing to return home feels more like a strange premonition this way — a tale draped in a hauntology of oil and blood. Here my unwavering and uncanny fascination with these regions is interpreted as a future memory, seeping back into my present in a retro-causal loop. Influencing my interests and actions. Trapping me in a paradox where it becomes impossible to escape my coming to this country, to this forest, using pencil on paper maps to trace ley-lines across the Baltic, joining them up with ancient grave fields and rune stones in this glacial land. To immerse myself in the merging of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian folk tales, and the similarities they share in the melting pot of a diverse, still somehow living history.
My past, and my present, were always haunted by my own future then. Linear chronological flow has collapses entirely — an invocation of Deep Time unintentionally performed.
It's all just another shadowy ritual, on the edges of a life.