James Delingpole

For my family, the Vikings exhibition was about as much fun as being raped and pillaged

But here is why it was worth it anyway

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Have you managed to book tickets to the Viking exhibition at the British Museum yet? If you haven’t, my advice is: don’t bother. I know what the critics have been saying: that it’s an unmissable treat. But it’s only an unmissable treat if you visit under the privileged conditions of a previewing journalist. Go as an ordinary punter on the other hand — as the Delingpole family discovered to their cost last week — and you’ll find it about as much fun as being pillaged, raped and having your ribcage torn open to form a ‘spread eagle’.

Well, maybe not quite that bad. But definitely bad enough to make you want to queue up and demand a refund.

Normally when I go and complain about this sort of thing — which does give me great pleasure, I must say — my kids go into paroxysms of embarrassment and beg me not to do it. On this occasion, however, they too felt the disappointment so keenly that they were actually egging me on.

We had, after all, come all the way up from the sticks for our special day of culture in Town. And having missed the Pompeii one, we were really rather looking forward to catching up with the latest blockbuster. So we arrived bang on time to catch our 3.10 p.m. entry slot. Only to find ourselves — Hwaet! — in a room so rammed with gawpers that it was scarcely possible to move, let alone get within viewing distance of the display cases.

Now I’ve been to must-see blockbuster shows before, of course — at the Royal Academy, at the National Gallery and so on. You accept a certain crowding as part of the deal: the organisers naturally want these events to be seen by as wide an audience as possible — and, probably, if it were more exclusive it would be twice as expensive. This one, though, was mobbed beyond redemption.

All right, so by the time you got to the final room — the one with the vast frame of a long boat, containing, ooh, at least five little bits of original timber — there was a bit more space to breathe, even to examine some of the cases more closely (like the weird ‘killed’ swords which accompanied dead warriors in the afterlife). By then, though, it was already far too late. We’d come seeking Valhalla. But ended up in Hel.

The museum staff when I complained couldn’t have been more sympathetic. They’d been hearing much of this sort of thing, ever since the show opened. Apparently there has been some frightful cock-up with the booking process in which far too many tickets have been allocated to each viewing slot. At least I hope it’s a cock-up. If it was deliberate — if some bean-counting cheese-parer actually decided to let in so many people in the spirit of inclusivity, or revenue-maximisation — then I have to say that even spread-eagling is too good for him.

Still, there was one weird, happy side effect to all this. Boy, who is now an avid Spectator reader, will kill me for saying this (‘Dad, when you put words into my mouth in your articles you always make me sound like such a child!’) but I’m afraid I can’t resist, for I know it will give so many fellow parents pleasure: all that culture you try to inflict on their reluctant early years — it does pay off in the end, you know.

For lo!, guess what totally amazing, indeed almost incredible thing happened after we’d got our refund. Yep — instead of wanting to exit the place immediately for an ice cream, both Boy, 15, and Girl, 13, actually clamoured to see more exhibits.

‘Dad, we’ve got to go and see the Rosetta Stone!’ said Boy. ‘I’m not leaving till we’ve seen the mummies,’ said Girl. But it wasn’t just the obvious stuff that demanded their attention. They even enthused about things no one child normally cares about, such as the Assyrian lions and bas-reliefs. And when we’d done with the mummies (‘Excuse me. My daughter is keen to see a desiccated corpse with its bandages off. Is there one?’ ‘Just over there, sir! And on the floor below we’ve got two heads in jars’), we went in search of Roman coins and Celtic coins, pausing to examine the helmet from Sutton Hoo, and that extraordinarily beautiful glass cup, and some Etruscan jewellery and some Greek helmets and on and on and on…

This isn’t to boast how civilised and incredibly highbrow my brace of teenagers are — because they’re not. Rather, I want to give hope to all those mums and dads (and grandparents) out there who’ve spent this holiday and last holiday and the holiday before that dragging bored, ungrateful, uninterested kids from museum to gallery, wondering whether it was worth the hassle.

It is worth the hassle, just so long as you realise that culturally brainwashing your offspring is a long-term investment. At first — and the same rule applies of course to country walks, which for years you have to refer to using euphemisms like ‘an adventure’ or ‘a sweetie hunt’ — they’ll respond rather as Damien does in The Omen II when he’s taken near a church. But there’ll come a day — and you won’t know where and you won’t know when — when suddenly it clicks and instead of abhorring all those wonders of the ancient world, all those great works of art you’re so keen for them to see, they’ll respond with as much enthusiasm and joy and attention to detail as you do.

So I’d just like to say a heartfelt thanks to the organisers of the Viking exhibition. You messed up big time. But you also gave the Fawn and me one of the most precious afternoons in our life as parents.

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Show comments
  • transponder

    Yes, but you’re the man that thinks seeing a zoo giraffe being slaughtered for no good reason is good entertainment. I mean for god’s sake, James.

    • balance_and_reason

      It may be educational….don’t be so bloody squeemish.

      • transponder

        The word you seek isn’t ‘squeemish’, whatever that is: it’s ‘humane’.

  • dado_trunking

    A call for all those no good at what they do to be sacked?

  • justejudexultionis

    I thought the hourly live child sacrifice at the start of the exhibition was in very poor taste.

    • transponder

      You’re right: it should have been virgin girls in hemp and what nature gave them. Preferably with realistic screams and lifelike blood issuing from convincing arrows.

  • post_x_it

    You didn’t take them to see the Lewis Chessmen?

  • rosebery

    I dislike ‘visitor attractions’ immensely, especially when these cost money to ‘enjoy’. Free yourself and don’t believe the hype.

    • Owen_Morgan

      What on earth are you even attempting to say?

  • Owen_Morgan

    Do me a favour, Delingpole. I know a thing or two about coins and you couldn’t tell an ancient coin from something your cat left lying around. The access to the Viking exhibition is better than that to any previous British Museum exhibition (I think you are old enough to remember the Tutankhamen one, in 1972, when everyone queued for hours to get in, but still experienced a scrum and struggled to see anything). The new BM gallery is far better than that one and the viewing experience is correspondingly superior. I generally like your writing, but you don’t half scribble drivel, every now and again.

    • Terry Field

      Indeed; look at the drivel on climate change.

  • balance_and_reason

    Actually I agree entirely withe the writer…I went at 12 on a sunday in my slot and we waited 15 minutes just inside the door to pass the first two cases….absolutely solid. Waaaay too many people sold tickets. Capitalism at its best ; we were so shagged out we needed to have a large very expensive lunch upstairs afterwards.

    • transponder

      Yes, but we’ve already established that you have no brain, so who cares?

  • Terry Field

    I look to the vikings with more kind regard than I do the modern, milksop, weak, frightened, consuming, abusing, sexually confused gutless office-worker tribe full of politically correct soggy thinking. The men who are women in their hearts; the women who are men with tits.
    I bit of direct blood and guts – vital, race-progressing, good stuff.

    • Viking Constructor Ship

      Then you’ll be a bit shocked to find that cross-dressing gender benders are the stock in trade of early medieval Norse myth, and that there are multiple contemporary sources which make it clear they were well known for shagging their male hostages silly (which it turns out is what you expect from men’s men who are left to their own devices without their mothers, wives, girlfriends and daughters watching over them, all over the ancient, medieval and modern world). Party lines weren’t quite so well maintained in those days as you imagine. Nor, I suspect, these days. So continue to dream of real men if you choose, but don’t dwell on them *too* long or you’ll end up like ’em.

      • Terry Field

        Please give a single precise reference supporting your buggery-filled world view. One is enough. I will go directly to it.
        I look forward to your reply as do we all.
        Your summation is in fact imagined codswallop. Homosexuality was no the point of my or anyone else’s note here, but you are obviously utterly obsessed with buggery. Poor you. Pathetic you.

        • Viking Constructor Ship

          Ha! The demand for references. Love it. Just read *some* of the corpus of eddic or skaldic poetry, the sagas, and everything else on which our knowledge of the vikings and their descendants depends. Odin and Loki are particularly interesting. There are plenty of scholarly articles and books about myth in Norse society, all of which refer to the weird stuff to do with gender and sexual activity. This is not some weird niche of scholarship: it runs so deeply through the primary evidence that you can’t avoid it, unless you don’t actually really want to look at evidence. For non-Norse texts, Irish Life of St Findan is a commonly cited source, which seems to reflect a general awareness of the sort of thing that was liable to happen to male hostages on board ship. Look it up. There’s masses of decent accounts of this stuff, and it’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with stuff that would make your toes curl. If you want the modern reflex, google will give you accounts of what has gone on in conflicts from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to Sudan to Bosnia. Me? I’m not into buggery. But I’m also not into the way in which people dream about vikings as ‘real men’, rather than looking into what they were really like. The few men who actually went a-viking were real men in much the same way that Islamic terrorists are real men (and they shared some of the same cultural predilections). Not much fun unless you’re on their team. Better off without these slave-taking, man-raping, thieving bastards. But they are absolutely fascinating, and I’ve spent literally years reading about them.

          • Terry Field

            Thank you. A very worthwhile response. I shall look into it further.

  • Viking Constructor Ship

    Delingpole you ignoramus: it’s not a ‘Spread Eagle’ — it’s a Blood Eagle. And since you’ve got a degree from Oxford and you’re at least semi-literate (and a journalist to boot), you should already have noticed that the idea that the vikings engaged in this particular atrocity has in any case been utterly refuted. Look up the articles by Roberta Frank. The whole thing is based on a misreading of some genuine viking age poetry by some confused writers from several hundred years later. It was a salacious late medieval invention.