Thursday, October 20, 2016

A very special day . . .

Stanley - Thursday

As I wrote in my blog last week, I have just been in beautiful Norway, both along the coast and in Bergen.  The timing of the trip was important because I wanted to be in Bergen for a party on October 15 to celebrate the 74th birthday of a man known around the world.  A famous man.

I definitely didn’t want to miss this grand affair.

I have never been to a birthday party quite like it – a party that included a tour of homes where the gentleman in question had lived, and places he had frequented.  

Part of the crowd on the walk

Birthday boy's route to his office

In the evening, over a hundred people crowded into the bar of the Scandic Strand hotel in the old section of the town, including four who had travelled from London just for the occasion.  We listened to tributes to the man (in Norwegian) and, when the talking was over, the local brewery popped the top of a new beer named for the birthday boy.

Some of the London visitors (Susan Cooper, Mike Linane, Liz Cooper and local) enjoying the sun.  Bergen has rain on average over 19 rainy days per month.

Master of ceremonies and owner of the bar, Hans Bru, introducing the speakers

(I have to admit I had a few most enjoyable bottles – a medium beer, soft on the palate.  Then I heard that at one of the previous birthdays an aquavit had been created in his name also. I had to taste that too.  Delicious and quite mild.) 

The brewer pours the first bottle of Varg Veum beer

So, who was the man we were honouring, and what made the whole affair so special?

Well, part of the appeal was that the man doesn’t exist.  He’s a figment of the imagination.  How could one resist the opportunity to join a hundred real people celebrating in all seriousness the birthday of someone who is just an idea?

To be fair, to all intents and purposes, he does exist in these and other people’s minds.  Including mine.  After all, there is a life-size statue of him outside the hotel and, just along the passage from the bar, is his office, clearly marked PRIVATETTERFORSKER (Private Investigator).  I knocked on the door, but he must have been out, although he may have been there since some people say he is too shy to open the door and welcome visitors.

The person I am writing about is VARG VEUM, the protagonist of mystery writer, Gunnar Staalesen’s long-running series set in Bergen.  How cool is that?  That a character in a book is celebrated with beers and aquavit in his name; that people celebrate his birthday; that there is a statue of him for all to see.  And that he has an office in the Scandic Strand hotel.  What’s more, a corner of the bar has his name and contains tributes to him.

The Varg Veum corner of the bar

Gunnar Staalesen talks about his creation, Varg Veum (in background)

London hangers-on, Neil Davies and Mike Linane, trying to look like Varg

So who is this man, Varg's creator, Gunnar Staalesen?

He is truly one of the fathers of Norwegian (and Scandinavian) crime writing.  His first Varg Veum mystery, Goat to Honey, was written in 1977, and his twenty-first, Big Sister, has just been released in Norwegian. 

The books that have been translated into English are, in chronological order (year of publication in parentheses):

Yours Until Death, (1993)
At Night All Wolves Are Grey, (1986)
The Writing on the Wall, (2002)
The Consorts of Death, (2009)
Cold Hearts, (2013)
Where Roses Never Die, (2015), Orenda Books

In addition, there are 12 Varg Veum film adaptations and two Varg Veum short-story anthologies.

I'm not going to give you a biography of Varg because that would spoil the pleasure of finding out through his books.

Lest you think that Gunnar is only a writer of private-eye mysteries, he has also written The Bergen Trilogy, which is a three-volume saga set in twentieth-century Bergen, children and young-adult books, plays, and five graphic novels.

And he still has time to take people around his city and celebrate his protagonist’s birthday.  And as we walked, it was apparent everyone knew who he was.  "You know everyone in a small town," Gunnar commented.  A small town of 250,000 people.

In fact he is so well known, that he is on Bergen's Walk of Fame, next to Sir Paul McCartney's plaque.  When I asked him what the significance was that the plaques were directly in front of Bergen's last operating bordello, he just smiled.

In addition to the delight of being at this unique birthday party, there was a huge bonus for me on the visit.  Gunnar introduced me to Jo Gerstad, a man who knows everything about Bergen, including my family history.  Jo even showed me the house where my great great grandfather lived, and he gave me a history of the family, written in 1904, by one of my great great aunts.  What a treasure.

The street, Skoken, on which my ancestors once lived
So, happy birthday, Varg, and happy birthday also to Gunnar Staalesen, who celebrated his birthday yesterday.  

Thank you both for this wonderful occasion.


  1. I actually agree with EvKa! But even more, to have found such a treasure trove of info on you own roots had to be particularly thrilling.