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Knut Haugland: Boyhood Hero

January 5, 2010



Knut Haugland the last surviving member of the six-man crew that sailed on the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, and a leader of the Norwegian resistance who helped carry out one of the most daring acts of sabotage of World War II, died in Oslo on Dec. 25. He was 92. – The New York Times, 4.1.10

I was 9 or 10 years old when I first read Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his attempt to cross the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian islands on a hand-built balsa-wood raft. Heyerdahl wanted to test the practical possibility that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

The book enthralled me. I suspect Kon-Tiki held a special appeal for small boys, who are generally the most wildly romantic of creatures. But I think it was more than the adventure itself which made the book so satisfying. It was also the knowledge that one could, if minded to, build a raft and cross the Pacific without let or hindrance, leaving schoolmasters, parents and annoying relatives cursing and gnashing their teeth ineffectually in your wake.

I read the book many times over as a boy and though I haven’t read it in some 40 years, it’s stayed with me. Not just the story but the idea of escape: just you and some well chosen mates, a supply of good books and some fishing line and hooks.

Of course, the chances of emulating my boyhood heroes grow increasingly small with advancing decrepitude and Time’s winged goddamn chariot hurrying near, but at the back of my mind, there’s still a small boy’s voice saying: if it all becomes too much, you can just fuck off on a raft, free as a dolphin. That’s been Heyerdahl’s gift to me and so I mark with sadness the passing of the last surviving crew member of that epic voyage.

Hail and farewell, Knut Haugland. You provided the stuff that a lifetime’s dreams were made on.

(Heyerdahl’s Oscar-winning documentary film of the expedition can be seen in its entirety HERE.)

  1. January 5, 2010 11:30 AM

    Currently snowed in at home so quite nice to ponder somewhere a bit warmer. Thor Heyerdahl’s adventures caught my imagination too when young – having Swedish relatives made him also seem less remote.

    I can’t swim though so the getting away from it all bit is in my head rather than physical.

  2. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 5, 2010 11:52 AM

    Me and my chum Bob tried to emulate Thor’s voyage on the R. Churn with some old paraffin cans and battens nicked from a building site. The Polynesian Islands remained uninhabited.

  3. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 5, 2010 2:18 PM

    Treading on thin ice there, Al. A certain amount of bad blood between Norwegians and Swedes, I believe. Watch out for red-haired chaps with axes.

  4. January 5, 2010 2:50 PM

    MM Is there? There’s certainly tension between the Swedes and the Danish and the Norwegians and cheaper alcohol ( if you’ve ever sailed to Norway watch them unload the drunk Norwegian passengers when they dock ).

    Wot I meant was that they lived nearer him ( when he was at home that is ) than we did.

  5. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 5, 2010 3:09 PM

    My mistake, Al, I thought you were placing Swedes and Norwegians in more or less the same smorgasbord. My observation was based on a conversation I had with a Swedish chap who told me they regard Norwegians in the same light that the Irish see ( apologies, Jack ) Kerrymen, or English people the natives of Somerset.

  6. mishari permalink*
    January 5, 2010 4:13 PM

    No, you’re quite right, MM. My experience of Sweden and the Swedes confirms this. They regard the Norwegians as their thick cousins. The Norwegians return their disdain in spades and regard the Swedes as soft, effeminate and untrustworthy.

  7. January 5, 2010 4:20 PM

    The joke I heard was “Where do you go for a good night out in Stockholm?” “Copenhagen”.

    Interesting to hear both views. The Danish think the Swedes are drunken oafs because they do sail over to Copenhagen at weekends for the much cheaper beer and less restrictive laws on public drinking.

  8. InvisibleJack permalink
    January 5, 2010 5:22 PM

    No offence taken, MM. Being physically and intellectually superior to the rest of Ireland, us Kerry persons look upon our fellow compatriots from the other counties with abject pity and total compassion. If only the Scandinavians could follow our lead. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I must beat the bejaysus out of my neighbour…

    Jack Brae

  9. InvisibleJack permalink
    January 5, 2010 5:29 PM

    I read the Gaurdian obituary of Knut Haughland a few days ago with the same schoolboy nostalgia expressed by many here. As a young fella I’d make lollystick rafts in the summer and send snails across the local pond in reenactments of the Kon-Tiki voyage. The snails were brave and stolid sailors, and we were cruel and heartless boys.

    Jack Brae

  10. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 5, 2010 6:36 PM

    So who are the Norwegians of the Gulf States?

  11. mishari permalink*
    January 5, 2010 6:50 PM

    The Qataris…and the Saudis. Actually, Qatar has become quite an enlightened place (for a Gulf emirate). The Saudis are still hicks and nasty with it.

  12. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 5, 2010 10:45 PM

    I’ve noticed that the Saudis are not your favourite people. That passion for acquisition does sit strangely with their ruggedly fundamentalist beliefs. Scotchmen in thobes.

  13. mishari permalink*
    January 5, 2010 10:49 PM

    To know them is to loathe them. In fact, they are the most detested of all Arabs by other Arabs. The tribesmen are fine, but the urban Saudis are a horror show.

  14. hic8ubique permalink
    January 6, 2010 1:29 AM

    There are certain distinguishing racial markers.
    A Norwegian will be carrying the axe.
    A Swede will be consulting his GPS.

    No really, speaking of adventures, I especially enjoyed
    Sverre Anker Ousdal in The Last Place on Earth.

  15. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 6, 2010 10:32 AM

    Sorry if I was being casually racist there, Hic. From the fury of the Norsemen ( and women, of course ) may the good Lord protect us. To my knowledge I have never met a Norwegian. Swedes and Danes are plentiful here on the Island during the spring and summer since many of them come here to language schools, god knows why since most of them speak far better English than the natives.

    What distinguishes the tribesman from the urban Saudi? The temptation in the UK would be to see it the other way round, rural types ignorant lowbrows with narrow-minded views, townies enlightened metrosexuals with liberal outlooks. With exceptions, of course.

    Must be 4 inches of snow here, and still coming down. It’s the Isle of White! As John Major’s office once spelled it in replying to a letter.

  16. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 10:53 AM

    MM, there has always been a very marked dividing line between the ‘townies’ and the nomadic tribesmen. I always have to laugh when I see Islam described as ‘a desert faith’. In fact, it’s nothing of the sort.

    It was a religion born in a city and propagated by urban dwellers. The bedouin have always taken religion with a large grain of salt, partly because it’s the product of soft, contemptible town-dwellers.

    The blasphemous and irreverent nature of the bedouin tribes has always been a sore point with the authorities.

    The great Victorian traveller and Arabist Charles M. Doughty, in his magisterial Travels In Arabia Deserta, recorded a conversation with a bedouin sheik that went something like:

    Doughty: And how do you regard the afterlife? What will transpire when you die?

    Bedouin Sheik: We shall ride up to God. If he uses us hospitably then we shall stay, if not, then we shall re-mount and ride away.

  17. January 6, 2010 11:27 AM

    Mishari when we worked briefly in Oman in 2000 the people I met there also had disdain for the Saudis ( and also the UAE-ers ) mainly as the Omanis prided themselves on being the most liberal of the Gulf countries and thought the others were too repressive but also I think through an inferiority complex because the rich came down from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and visibly flung their cash around.

  18. January 6, 2010 11:36 AM

    MM re:the Slavic mastery of English. When we worked in Russia our translator asked me one day about when he should best use “yonder” in a sentence.

    I was reduced to incomprehensible grunting by this question. ” I don’t fucking know” or somesuch was the best I could manage in reply.

    Sorry for all the country-dropping – I’ve been snowed in for 2 days so obviously getting away is playing heavily on my mind.

  19. January 6, 2010 11:42 AM

    Do I mean Nordic instead of Slavic? I probably mean both.

  20. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 11:45 AM

    Actually, Al, the Omanis, who are a proud people with a strong sense of their own historical identity and who possessed a far-flung empire (encompassing parts of Indonesia and Iran and all of Zanzibar) long before there was a Saudi Arabia, disdain the urban Saudis for much the same reason that I (and most other Arabs) do: they are uncouth, ill-mannered, brutishly (and baselessly) arrogant, boorish, vulgar and tight-fisted. This last is enough to make them an abomination to most Arabs.

    Urban Saudis are detested from Morocco to Hong Kong and it really has nothing to do with an inferiority complex. It’s still fair to say that, as a rule, the Arabs set a great deal less store by wealth than those in the West tend to.

    It has everything to do with the sheer odiousness of vast numbers of urban Saudis.

  21. January 6, 2010 12:01 PM

    That’s interesting to read. With all the OTT developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi we have the impression that flashing the wealth is as popular if not more so than over here.

    I suppose if you are a richer country the display of opulence is going to be comparatively greater.

  22. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 12:04 PM

    I think, Al, that as far as Dubai goes, it’s less about flashing the cash than attempting to establish oneself as more than a mere backwater full of pampered hankie-heads.

    “We’re the new Hong Kong.” Erm…not really.

  23. January 6, 2010 12:51 PM

    It didn’t work with Canary wharf so I guess the idea was to build something 5 times the size to get noticed …. given the size of the new skyscraper in Dubai is it that opened recently you can probably see it from Hong Kong.

  24. pinkroom permalink
    January 6, 2010 3:39 PM

    I actually saw Kon-Tiki in Oslo about 10 years back… and I did feel a strange childish stirring… those few logs or whatever were responsible for so many dreams including of course that whole 50s cult for all things Polynesian… green ladies, cocktails in pineapples… those mental @exotica @ albums now worth a fortune. Cool.

    It’s part of a fab museum where they also have all the Amundsen stuff and this rather amazing egg shaped wooden trawler thing that they used to explore the North-West passage… instead of getting stuck in ice it just sort of popped out. Dead clever.

    Hard bastards those Norwegians as I discovered when I tried to sneak into a stave church without paying the ridiculous entrance fee. Three huge and outraged Lutheran ministers in long black coats straight out of hammer horror, literally ran me out of town.

  25. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 4:13 PM

    True, PR..and let’s not forget the Trader Vic’s phenomenon. Dunno if they’re still in business but there are (or were) Trader Vic’s in NYC, London and God knows where else. The last time I was in one was in London, the one in the basement of the London Hilton.

    The whole thing was camp plus. The decor and lighting that screamed ‘Cheese’, the absurdly elaborate drinks with silly names (The Zombie, etc) that all tasted the same and last but certainly least, the little paper umbrellas plonked into your drink. Did Trader Vic’s start that?

    And speaking of drinks, I went to Waitrose earlier and despite the weather, observed my time-honoured ritual: after finishing with the shopping, I bought a bottle of drink and sat down to indulge in my favourite pastime–eavesdropping. I’m a great believer in ritual, as opposed to the toxic drivel of religion.

    I’d got something new (to me): Kopparberg Swedish pear cider. It is, I can now tell you, absolutely delicious. Anyway, I sat down on one of the benches just outside the store, opened the bottle with my teeth (an act that marks me as a hopeless degenerate, according to Inez), lit a Ducado and allowed my ears to flap.

    Holy cow–I can hear you saying–what kind of man sits outside Waitrose drinking cider and smoking cheap Spanish ciggies in a goddamn blizzard?

    This kind of man, buddy.

    There were a couple of ladies seated next to me chatting and smoking when a uniformed copper wandered by. He hailed them and asked one of the women:

    “So, did you ever get your coat back?”

    To which, she replied:

    “No. In fact, I was just going to ring your lot up and ask how the investigation was going.”

    Whereupon they all burst into merry laughter.

    It reminded me of that scene in The Big Lebowski where Lebowski goes to collect his recovered stolen car from the police impound lot. Noticing that his briefcase is missing from the car, he asks the cop if there are any leads. The cop cracks up laughing and does a little shtick: “Leads? Oh, yeah…we’ve assigned a team of detectives around the clock etc etc…”

    It’s still snowing.

  26. January 6, 2010 5:04 PM

    Related by completely different story. Did you read that article about German bureaucracy in the concentration camps ? it was in the Guardian a few years back. Apparently there was a whole branch of the civil service spending time making sure that those Jews who lost luggage whilst being shipped over to Treblinka or Dacchau or wherever got their stuff back.

    There was a particularly bizarre story from one woman who’d been moved from one camp to another eventually receiving her suitcase that had also been forwarded from canp to camp.

    You wonder if that branch of the civil service had any idea what was going on. Of course they must have done but it beggars belief.

  27. freep permalink
    January 6, 2010 5:34 PM

    One of my obsessions, al, is with the capacity for the clerks of old to record in minute detail the occurences of everyday life. In the first jobs I had when I left school (long before computing and databases) I was trained by elderly pipesmoking gentlemen, and ladies with dark lipstick and seamed stockings, how to write in copperplate and how to add columns of figures without error. The clerks at the camps were of the same stock. Scrupulous, neat to the point of lunacy, and maddeningly accurate. I am not sure if it is an elderly prejudice that such skills and virtues have been lost. Probably not. But it curdles my mind to recall that such clerkly precision and uprightness served the Nazi regime just as it served my first employer, the Metropolitan Water Board (Revenue Dept). Pen ledgers, indelible ink, triplicate carbon copies …
    My poetic model for the Responsible Clerk was ever the Registrar of Births, Deaths, Cataclysms and Cocktails. Which was why I wrote the following to shock myself. It might have appeared here before, I forget:

    The Registrar Climbs a Cedar

    I am the Assistant Registrar
    I have abused certificates.
    I have climbed this tall tree
    To hide from justice.

    My name is Mrs Hopkinson.
    I record the names that make existence.

    They have written,
    If you are base, penalties will be harsh.
    They say you cannot invent people
    To fabricate a person is beyond mercy
    To fabricate a name is bold iniquity
    To fabricate a word may not be forgiven.
    But I say I love to invent people.
    Penalties for harshness are base
    I have written.

    I record the names that make existence.
    My name is Mrs Hopkinson

    Without me is no justice.
    I am safe in this tall tree.
    Names are just poetry.
    I am the Assistant Registrar.

  28. January 6, 2010 6:43 PM

    freep by sheer coincidence I am currently immersing myself in Gogol’s worlds of civil servants where all the details you mention flourish to one degree of pointlessness or other. Your poem sits very nicely in that world.

  29. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 9:13 PM

    Lovely poem, freep…

    Reading The Overcoat, Al?

    On the subject of the Holocaust, have you read Béla Zsolt’s roman à clef Nine Suitcases? If not, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here are some reviews.

  30. January 6, 2010 9:39 PM

    Just re-read Diary of a Madman. The Nose( long time favourites )and am 3 pages into the Overcoat. Thought I’d read The Overcoat but it doesn’t seem as familiar as those other 2.

    Don’t know Bela Zsolt – was thinking about Daniil Kharms as my next read. Do you know his stuff?

    btw BBC$ is showing a film about making an Egyptian wooden barge even as I type this.

  31. January 6, 2010 9:40 PM

    BBC$ that’s helpful isn’t it. BBC FOUR

  32. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 9:54 PM

    I’m ashamed to say, Al, I only vaguely knew the name Daniil Kharms but knew absolutely nothing about him. Thanks for the tip.

    As a teenager, Diary of A Madman was my favourite Gogol, followed by Dead Souls and The Nose. But I think perhaps The Overcoat is the one that best dissects the nightmare/fog of relentless bureaucracy. A great writer.

    Do read Zsolt. His story is quite horrifying/astonishing. Whenever I’m feeling dissatisfied or thwarted, I just think of Zsolt and realise how fortunate I am (it used to be Prometheus but he’s like, so old hat, dude).

  33. January 6, 2010 10:25 PM

    Here’s some Kharms:

    I’ve got a collection of his stories, and it’s enjoyable; but I’m tending to space them out because they’re all a bit the same.

    Mish: Since we’re on the subject, what’s the Arab attitude to the Turks? Reading history books, you get the feeling that they hate them with an undying hatred.

  34. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 11:29 PM

    Thanks for the link, obooki. I might have known you’d read Kharms, although I sometimes suspect you of making up writers. I mean, how would I know? Some of them return no google results.

    If you have been naughty, XB and I have a project on the back-burner (soon to move to the front burner) that might interest you.

    XB got the ball rolling with his fascinating retailing of the career of one Jibbs McAllister.

    We thought it would be fun to set up a blog devoted to neglected characters from history–artists, musicians, writers, poets: whatever. The only qualification is that they must be totally obscure. If anyone has ever heard of them, they’re disqualified. This goes out to everyone, of course. I’ll provide a link to the blog (which XB has already set up) presently.

    Books I took away with me:

    Rosebud by David Thomson–an idiosyncratic biography of Orson Welles. A terrific read, especially for a Welles fan.

    Tree Of Smoke by Denis Johnson: a Vietnam novel to contend with The Things They Carried and If I Should Die In A Combat Zone. A fantastic book….

    The Shadow Of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński: A memoir of Kapuściński’s life in Africa. Wonderful stuff…

    The Age of Gold by H. W. Brands: A history of the California gold rush. Recommended.

    The Darien Disaster by John Prebble: A history of Scotland’s brief and tragic colonial experiment in Central America. An eye-opener…

    As to the Turks…it’s complicated and although the old emnity isn’t there anymore (in my judgement) the Arabs saw the Turks through the lens of an occupied people. That invariably colours ones view. Ask a Palestinian…or a Frenchman in 1942.

  35. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 6, 2010 11:45 PM

    Until recently I had assumed that Dubai floated on a sea of oil and those grandiose building projects were an expression of wealth. Quite comical to discover that it has all been financed with the credit card ( unless it all goes to pieces and destroys the world financial system, which wouldn’t be funny).

    You should look out for Nigel Rees’ book Eavesdroppings. Some of the stuff in it is pretty good, like the two women overheard talking about an old chap who had both his legs amputated. ‘Oooh, both of them?’ says one ‘Yes,’ says the other, ‘The same two as Douglas Bader.’ Or, after the nude wrestling scene in Women In Love, the lady who whispered loudly to her companion, ‘That’s a lovely carpet.’

  36. mishari permalink*
    January 6, 2010 11:53 PM

    Thanks, MM. I must get that book. “The same two as Douglas Bader” and “That’s a lovely carpet” are wonderful…

  37. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:11 AM

    Those were from memory, but I’m sure I’ve got a copy somewhere. I’ll send it to you if I can find it.

  38. mishari permalink*
    January 7, 2010 12:26 AM

    Thanks but too late, I’ve already ordered it from Mammalzone…the postage cost more than the book.

  39. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:35 AM

    Fucking hell, just got down from the attic covered in cobwebs, book in hand…

  40. January 7, 2010 12:44 AM

    Hmm, sounds an interesting project. – Of course, there’s always someone on the internet who’s heard of whoever it was that you think’s obscure.

    I read The Shadow of the Sun recently too, and second Mishari’s recommendation. Fascinating book. – I’m now reading Imperium, Kapuściński’s foray into the southern states of the Russian Empire (Georgia, Armenia, the Stans).

  41. mishari permalink*
    January 7, 2010 12:57 AM

    Sorry, MM. Mind you, the exercise was doubtless badly needed. Remember, if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working…

    I liked Imperium very much.

    Have you read Kapuściński’s books about Iran and Ethiopia, obooki? The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (about Haile Selassi) and Shah of Shahs. Highly recommended.

  42. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:17 AM

    Luckily the journey to the attic was entirely in my imagination. Can I also recommend, if I haven’t already, the FHM ( yes, I know ) book called Out Of The Mouths Of Babes, a collection of bon mots from the readers’ wives and girlfriends sent in to the magazine. Disgustingly sexist I am aware, but nevertheless bloody funny. Some of them have a weird kind of logic worthy of Lewis Carroll.

    ‘Told by a casualty nurse that they’d had to remove a bottle from a guy’s back passage, my naive mother-in-law asked, “How did he swallow that then?”‘

    ‘Out shopping with my girlfriend, we bought a copy of The Big Issue. The vendor told us it was his last one. “You can go home now,” my girl informed him helpfully.’

    -18C in Manchester last night. I hope Al survived.

  43. mishari permalink*
    January 7, 2010 11:20 AM

    As an afterthought, I can also highly recommend a beer I picked up yesterday and drank with last night’s dinner (boeuf bourguignon). Banana Bread Beer, brewed by Wells&Young’s of Bedford (5.2%). It was outstanding.

    At the risk of sounding like one of those wine-twerps (Jilly Something? Oz Somethingelse?) with their ‘redolent of turnips, pencil-shavings and Mahatma Ghandi’s dhoti with just a hint of mustard gas’ waffle, the beer was almost chewy, with a lovely, faint banana-ry finish and clean palate. Highly recommended.

    I shouldn’t worry about, Al, MM…he has his Giant Diseased Electric Euro Pig to keep him warm. We should all be so lucky…

  44. MeltonMowbray permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:27 PM

    Never heard of it. Sounds vile. One drink I’m not going to recommend is Isle of Wight Scrumpy. For the delectation of our German visitor we had a week of English dishes, roast beef ‘n’ Yorkshire pudding, fish pie, kedgeree etc. Spotting a flagon of IoW cider I picked it up to accompany the fish. The stuff is absolutely foul, a medley of bleach, nitric acid and dogg piss. Elderberry liqueur is also one to avoid.

  45. mishari permalink*
    January 7, 2010 2:50 PM

    Here I am trying to enlighten you, you dogged hick, and maybe even wean you off your Meths filtered through an old sock and such-lke rustic delights…ah, never mind…get back to your Patel’s Olde Bristol Cooking Sherry. I hope you choke on it.

  46. January 7, 2010 3:38 PM

    Caught the tram back from Manchester this afternoon. I’m standing on the platform – it’s a beautiful sunny day, the snow looks gorgeous in the sunlight, there’s no wind so everything is silent and slightly muffled. An announcement comes on the tannoy ” Due to adverse weather conditions the service may be delayed by up to 40 minutes”.

    Some of the Isle of Wight scrumpy might have helped last night. Mainly to fill in the gaps under the doors. Our guttering ( a phrase I thought I’d never see myself writing )has a collection of the most beautiful 1 metre long ice stalactites hanging from it. Real purdy.

  47. January 7, 2010 7:15 PM

    I have indeed read those two Kapuścińskis you mention – though a long time ago and mostly forgotten now. I have also read (fairly recently) his book about Angola – Another Day of Life. Another good read.

  48. mishari permalink*
    January 7, 2010 10:57 PM

    He added that children could often make more sense of poetry if it was read out loud. “The ear is the best reader,” he said, citing the poet Robert Frost.

    “We need to accept (a poem’s) meaning has as much to do with the noise it makes as it does with the words as they appear on the page,” he added. —Andrew Motion in The Indy, today

    Oh, dear…I find myself nodding in agreement with Andrew Motion. This is very unsettling.

  49. Captain Ned permalink
    January 8, 2010 12:40 AM

    I expect I agree with Andrew Motion on a lot of things; I’m sure he’s an intelligent, reasonable man. He’s just not much cop as a poet, that’s all.

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