An airlock, rune mastery & the meaning of life

The Swedish train was impressive.

We’d flown into Stockholm from Manchester – after another early taxi thanks to untimely rail strikes – with carry-on luggage only, for a (slightly) cheaper ticket.

In no time at all we were standing, somewhat awed, on the railway station platform.

As the escalator bore us deep below ground, the cosy ambience of Scandi wood and lighting gave way to Metropolis-like grimness. Steel treads underfoot. Industrial-scale lighting above. Behind it, roughly-hewn rock with a dark grey coating.

It felt as if we were descending to an underworld, where the fires had been smoking.

The station was eerily empty. The mellowness on the platform offset by the bleakness stretching into the tunnels.

The train had several two-tier carriages, a new experience for me, so on we got… and did I struggle?

My intuitive (ha) grasp of Swedish was unable to cope with an instruction to wave my hand in the right place to open the interior doors. But eventually we made it – upstairs – to our seats.

Just over twenty minutes later we pulled into Uppsala station and a short walk took us to our wonderful hotel.

The ‘moderate’ (less expensive than ‘standard’) room wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. The bedroom and bathroom were mighty small – but we’d been warned. And it was quiet and warmly minimalist in black, white and bamboo.

But, there was no rest for the newly-arrived. And off we set for the university.

Yes, it was a holiday. But the Prof was also on a mission.

A precious plastic bag in his backpack, we toiled up the hill towards his goal. Both of us. I met his colleagues last time and we’d stressed this was both holiday and work.

And I was nosy, of course.

We passed the Cathedral and then, dotted around the university park – wow! Standing stones with clearly marked runes.

“Mule had this stone erected in memory of Svarthövde, his brother. Åsmund, Ingjald, Mule and … they had this stone erected in memory of Svarthövde at Soderby”
The inscription is carved by Rune Master Åsmund in the 11th century AD

11th century AD
“…had this stone erected for Önd’s (?) soul. He was dead in white clothes in Denmark. Öpir saw to the runes.”
White clothes may be the baptismal robes worn by a convert for the ceremony and for a week afterwards – poor old Önd may have been baptised on his deathbed.

11th century AD
“Täng and Gunnar had this stone erected in memory of Väder their brother”
The caption on the sign with this rune stone says the ‘triquetra in the middle is interpreted as a symbol of the trinity’. Hmmm…

11th century AD “Forkun and Brune had the memorial made in memory of Igulfast, their father” The inscription is cut by the rune master Öpir

We wanted to gawp and ponder at the rune masters’ works, but time was not on our side.

On we went, finally arriving outside the building where the ‘ancient DNA’ lab lives.

The lab is in this complex of buildings

Walking through stone-floored, warmly-lit corridors, our host, Matthias, pointed out the laboratory’s airlock.

‘Can I look?’ I asked, cheekily.

He opened the door to a white world. Gowns like deflated humans hung off the walls. The windows into the lab were opaque.

An air lock. I’d love to hear it work. I think I’m harking back to 2001 A Space Odyssey 😉

I asked what the lab itself was like, but Matthias hadn’t been inside.

He’s human. And we are all contaminants.

I find that quite appropriate, these days. But, set that aside. Back to the visit.

I felt as if I’d stepped, mistakenly, into an episode of a television drama. Something Scandi-noir.

I tried to be unobtrusive. Watching, listening.

Matthias and the Prof represented the males of the species, but the three vocal experts were women.

All dressed in dark shades, mostly black.

All good looking in that expert-TV–female-scientist kind of way.

All supremely articulate, utterly professional – and charming.

Perhaps it was a production – I just didn’t know it? 😉

Anyway, these fascinating women (and Matthias) discussed the new samples the Prof had brought and the stuff they’d been working on for the last year.

I sat and marvelled.

Extraordinary scientists, extraordinary science. Unravelling the secrets of ancient DNA.

Modern day rune master and mistresses?

But there are more than just the scientific aspects to their work.

The results of DNA studies can alter a people’s perceptions of its role in a nation state, for example.

What happens if the ones who believe they’re indigenous aren’t after all? If the ones who are derided and marginalised are the real ‘owners’ of the ‘native’ epithet?

And how is the academic world of scientific research affected by the way the system works today?

This team has a major grant from the Swedish government – and the luxury of being able to choose how to spend it.

They take pride in leaving no stone unturned, even if it takes a long, long time. In DNA (no doubt I will get this not-quite-right)  this means looking at short bits of the codes that switch on aspects of our human lives – even bits that we don’t recognise because they aren’t similar to our DNA today.

Now, if you compare ancient specimens with just the variants we have today, you certainly get results, you see variations, you see similarities. You get results quickly and papers in the big journals.

And papers mean prizes, folks. Yes, be ruthless, beat your fellows to the post and money will flow in.

But. Take a lot longer, investigate further – and you find codes of human life that are new, that haven’t been seen before. That can’t be compared or seen as variants.

So, do you choose the lab at the famous university across the pond, get your results super-fast and your paper in Science before the others? Or take your time? Discover new and exciting things – or not (the other side of the research coin)?

Well, I know which lab I’d choose. Not just for the science. They’re lovely people too – which is great news for the Prof. I’m glad he’s working with this bunch.

But, fascinating though they are (and tasty though my spicy rooibos tea is) the time comes when we must leave them to their work.

And we head back down the hill.

This time, remembering my wanderings from the last trip, I take us a different route – and we end up in the graveyard.

Where a new grave is being dug.

I draw the line at photographing gravediggers at work, so here is a picture of the tools we saw in this and other cemeteries we saw as well as in an exhibition about … death and burial

Yes, human life as we know it ends with death. Even if DNA survives.

But we’re always looking for more, aren’t we?

The runes, chinks of light shining on an older world’s attempts to explain our existence.

The lab, discovering what makes our bodies and our minds do what they do.

The graveyard, a reminder it all ends this way.

Well, there’s more death to come – with Vikings, churches, mounds and graves.

Till then,






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Trips off my tongue

I’ll soon be writing up the first of what may be several pieces about our recent trip to Sweden, but, in the meantime, hope you’ll enjoy these appetisers, fresh from my little pink notebook.


1 At Hambergsfisk – a tiny, fabulous fish restaurant in Uppsala


Warm, ozone waves of salty scents waft.

Pearl-fleshed, toothsome lobster, a lascivious comma, curls on the plate

A tiny, white apostrophe of a jug brims with liquid-sunshine butter

Toast, a crisp triangular slash, attempts to fend off greedy fingers from the plump claw beneath –

but fails.

And this,  to a different tempo, so take a little lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser 😉

2 At Hotel Clarion Gillet, Uppsala

Breakfast heaven

Compost-brown bread, a thick, tough-crusted slab, sponge-like innards springy as perfect turf

Slick of oily mustard sauce, speckled with dill, delicate as needles from a fairy-fashioned Christmas tree

And in between, a glistening fold of juicy salmon, early-rosehip pink

With scents of Scandi forest,

birch-bark-fire burning in the distance,

smoke blown in on a soft, salt breeze

Unnecessary extra

A tall jug stands, spout dripping pink, creamy nectar

Shot glasses await its smooth fulfilment

While a bowl of glistening, berries, dark and richly sour, entices.

Into a half measure of sweet, unctuous pinkiness


a sharp dollop of blackly-purple berries.

Two gulps – and it’s gone.

The holiday begins




How’s this for laid back at breakfast time?

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On loneliness and ear-worms

Where do ear-worms live, do you suppose? An ear-worm farm? Fed on the wasted energy of YouTubers?

Wherever it came from, it’s been about about three weeks since a big, fat, Gilbert O’Sullivan ear worm crawled into my internal sound system. It’s been monopolising the turntable ever since.

If you don’t know Gilbert O’Sullivan (understandable), this is how his official website modestly describes him:

“… the superstar who topped the UK and US single charts in the 70s with songs of endearing tunefulness, unabashed sentiment and existentialist musings.”

I actually rather liked his first hit, ‘Nothing rhymed’:

“Nothing good, nothing bad, nothing ventured
Nothing gained, nothing still-born or lost
Nothing further than proof, nothing wilder than youth
Nothing older than time, nothing sweeter than wine…”

but the worm that’s been wriggling round my aural canals wasn’t that one. It was a desperately sad song, ‘Alone again, naturally’.

I’d been thinking about being alone, about loneliness. It began with an article about a blue whale.

The blue whale in question has been heard, but never been seen or found. It may not even be a blue whale.

But its ‘song’ bears more of a resemblance to that of other blues (appropriate) than any other whales.

The song of the enigmatic creature, though, has a different sound frequency from others of its kind. Which brought it to the attention of William Watkins, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, in 1989.

I ‘listened’ to a genuine recording online. It was the sound of silence. To hear it, apparently, you have to use a good sound system and quality earphones. I used neither.

Exasperated scientists and hopeful, lonely dreamers have embraced different versions of this whale’s tale.

The dreamers find solace, or companionship, in what they see as a sad, loveless, loner, prowling the wide Pacific. Its song, so the myth goes, isn’t heard by other whales. It has no mate.

You can imagine the scientists groaning. Other whales, they say, can hear it, even if to them it’s just a weirdo with a bigger, deeper sounding tuba. And no-one knows if it’s mated or not.

It’s hard to write about the whale without endowing it with human qualities and emotions. But here’s what I’ve gleaned: it’s known to exist (or to have existed). It has not (so far) been found.

It’s unusual among its kind.

It’s a male.

And it swims the Pacific Ocean all alone. (Well, sort of – I mean, the ocean isn’t empty, is it?)

A learned article about the whale appeared in 2004,  since when people have been writing its imagined tale, filming its imagined sadness, empathising with its imagined pain.

But, just because the whale is in water doesn’t mean he’s alone. Or lonely. And if the singing feels good, does it matter if no-whale responds?

For much of this year I’ve been alone. Occasionally I’ve been lonely. But mostly just alone.

There’s a big, big difference.

I know how lonely feels.

When we lived in a busy street, full of people I knew, I was lonelier than I can ever remember being.

Now, I live in a quiet house at the end of a cul de sac surrounded by trees. I know only our immediate neighbours to the right and the ones beyond them. Unless I go out I don’t even see strangers – in cars or vans – turning around or parking.

Yet, mostly, I don’t feel lonely.

I’m sure there’s a long reason why, but the short reason is that I want to be alone, I want to have room for my head to fill with ideas – or to empty of ideas when they’re fledged and ready to fly.

I want the freedom.

But that’s not to say I don’t need or like people’s company. I do.

A writer-friend, trying to help me with motivation, asked if I was part of a community. At the time I couldn’t answer her. But since then I’ve realised that you – yes, you, dear reader – are a big part of my ‘community’. You who read – and even, sometimes (ahem), comment.

And one day we may meet. Only last week I shared my special place and went for a walk with a locally-based blogger I’d never before met in ‘real’ life.

From time to time, I get together with others living the same kind of free, yet questing life I seem to lead. Freelancers or homeworkers, we label ourselves.

It’s a regular event, a ‘Jelly’ (stupid name) where we’re supposed to ‘co-work’. And last week we met in a new location. My co-‘workers’ and I did nothing except talk, laugh, drink tea and coffee – and look at stuff.

Something about the new venue made it happen.

We were together and not alone, but if we’d been working, we’d have been alone and yet together.

We are born alone, die alone, breathe alone… we are inevitably separate entities. But being alone per se is not a bad thing.

Loneliness, though, is becoming the scourge of westernised nations, in this age of surround-sound noise and fury.

Eyes fixated on screens, earphones silencing the outer world.

Electric gates keeping high-fenced gardens safe from prying eyes.

Official CCTV’s electronic gaze scanning us, to keep the public safe.

Though the watching lens can also be sinister, a furtive, very private eye.

Humans begin to avoid others, for safety, out of fear, just because …

Drive the child to school, don’t let it ride on a bus. Who knows what she or he might catch.

Shop in the smart shops, don’t mix with the hoi poloi.

I’d better end this here, because this leads straight to a real rant about wilful isolation – and I’m exceeding my word limit.

I’ll leave you with some wriggling, chubby worms from the You Tube ear-worm farm.

On the theme of loneliness. So often about unrequited love.

Isn’t it always, one way or another?

Here you go. Hankies at the ready for Gilbert and Gerry.


Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments