Lukas De Vos, the Man who came in from the Cold!

‘Land ! Land !’ is the title of a new book by VRT journalist Lukas De Vos. To learn more about this work flandersnews went to talk to the author.

It’s an intriguing title, Lukas. Especially the subtitle - “Foaming Waves and Anchoring Places in the North Atlantic Triangle” - suggests something quite mysterious.

Lukas De Vos (pictured here with Dirk Draulans): You guessed, no doubt, that the title itself is a reference to the famous passage in Xenophon’s Anabasis: “Thalatta ! Thalatta! The Sea! The Sea!, when the 10,000 finally arrived at the coastline after the tragic outcome of the battle for the king’s crown between Cyrus en Artaxerxes in Persia. The escape back home. My approach reverses this evolution: the climate was so harsh and the conditions so demanding, that people from the Northern regions were forced to explore the barren seas and the endless oceans to discover new ways of developing their cultural heritage. Northern people were more than just warriors; they were also the harbingers of a new civilisation, opposed to the strictly hierarchical systems that Rome and Athens introduced in our countries. If you just look at their social structure, their gender equality, their inheritance, their Saxon laws, their concept of mortal gods, all that offers a valid alternative to what Church and Feudalism imposed on our societies. Granted, violence was excessive, but so were their customs, and their need to survive in extreme situations. They were forced to compete with heavy seas and the always imminent danger of death; they were forced to expand their views, if they wanted to survive. And so they colonised and destroyed complete landscapes, from Iceland and Greenland to Scotland and Ireland, from the Flemish abbeys to the North of France. They rounded Gibraltar, invaded Sicily, but also large parts of Russia, sailing down the Volga. That contribution to Western culture, as we know it today, is simply fascinating, through the ages, through the winding roads of history.

So you mixed up history and culture, religion and economy? Is there any logical line to discover throughout this fairly impressive work of 350 pages?

Lukas De Vos: Indeed, there is, even more than one. The most tangible is the geographical line. I start with extremely acute problems of the near future: the Northern Passage. In view of the warming-up effect of the earth, and the economic consequences, it’s logical that I looked at the territorial divides around the North Pole – which should be renewed by 2014 - competition is building up, Russia used a submarine to claim the pole with its flag on the bottom of the ocean.

Canada is regularly holding navy manoeuvres in the area. Denmark would like to see its rights confirmed, and so on. I drew, by and large, a triangle from Labrador via Greenland and the North Pole to Nova Zembla, coming down via Scandinavia and the Baltics to the Hanseatic towns in Germany and the Low Countries, to end up with France’s contribution to the world’s exploration and Gibraltar, where modern power structures were decidedly laid down by Nelson and the lost gold of the Sussex. It gave me the opportunity to describe in several sketches, to weave a tapestry of seemingly isolated battles, cultural clashes, and impressive figures into a picture of civilization, which is best seen from a certain distance. My ambition was not to rewrite history, but to adjust it.

In his introduction to your book, Dirk Draulans refers to striking key concepts in your text: blood, booze, and beaches.

Lukas De Vos: And quite rightly so. These are basic concepts. Violence, excesses and exploration. That’s what it’s all about. Unfortunately so. But there is a straight line to be drawn from the murder of the first Inuits to the pillaging and destruction of Bomarsund on the Åland islands, even if there is a gap of eight centuries. And heroic elements always carry with them some hilarious, if not stunning substance.

Take the colonisation of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), and the ousting of the Basque whalers. Look at the later division between Norse and Russian exploitation companies. Tragic though it is, the testimony of Flemish explorer Paul de Roy, who witnessed the crash of a Tupolev with 140 Russian miners, is adamant. The consequence of the disaster was the end of Grumant village. It goed hand in hand with his persecution by Norse authorities who considered him to be a spy – who’s walking all by his own across the barren lowlands infested with ice bears, if you have no other purpose than to collect material for your paintings? Not that violence was the second nature of explorers. It was rather drinking and fighting. In one of my footnotes I recall the burial of a Viking chieftain in Tatarstan. The secretary of the envoy of Bagdad’s emir was deeply impressed by the quantity those Vikings could drink in the three days the burial lasted. And state that “many of them even died, the cup of wine still clenched in their hands”. Finally, beaches form the virtual turning point of a voyage; they hold promises and a new future, like Hrafna Flóki experienced in Iceland or Erik the Red in Greenland.

But does it all come down to a culturally enriched history of political and economic developments in het fringe regions of Western Europe?

Lukas De Vos: Yes, indeed. My ambition was to make a readable history, not buried in footnotes or bibliography, but always related (as far as possible) to personal travels, experiences and acquaintances. Mark you, it is a serious history, in spite of it being fragmented and hopping from one major event to lesser known items (from Laestadius in Lapland to Lapérouse, from the Isle of Wight to the Swedes in Estonia, from the Dutch-English wars with De Ruyter to hellish storms around the Shetlands). I deliberately included writers like Redmond O’Hanlon and Claude van de Berge; I used historic newspapers and old sagas. They’re all inalienable building stones of our shared memory, our conception of power relations, our views of today’s European legacy and contribution to the worlds’ evolution. But again, I did not want to be overambitious either. I deliberately refer to an almost forgotten, but extraordinary writer of short stories, the famous journalist Guy Gilpatric. If I could match only the lower layers of his burlesque but touching stories of failure, excess and tragedy, I’d be satisfied to the core. Land ! Land! is partly autobiographical, but more than anything else, a tribute to human folly, endeavour and sympathy for the common weakness that incite us to act beyond our capacities. That is the real way history is being made.