The Trail of the Viking Finger by John Bean
I was amazed when John Bean, the veteran British nationalist, came out with an excellent novel a couple of years ago at the grand old age of 87. This even put Grandma Moses in the shade for late starts, and was a sign of hope to all those of us who continually defer our dreams. I was even more amazed that the novel, “Blood in the Square,” based on Bean’s own experiences in British nationalism in the 1960s, read so well.
Rather than a novice, Bean was clearly an accomplished fiction writer and had little to learn. I remember entertaining the hope that there would be a few follow ups — and now, at an even grander age, there is! But rather than retread the familiar subject matter from the first novel — the multifaceted world of British nationalism — Bean has had a rush of ambition and attempted something not only radically new but also sweeping in its scope.
This is the historical novel, The Trail of the Viking Finger, which stands as a testament to the indigenous British people and stretches across ten centuries, from the immediate aftermath of the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings in 1066, and the dawning of the Norman epoch, to the early twentieth century, where the novel seems to end a little abruptly.
Tying it all together is the genetic trail of the Byrne family, made manifest by the medical condition specified in the title — the Viking finger. This is more scientifically known as Dupuytren’s contracture, a form of palmar fibromatosis, in which the fingers bend in increasingly towards the palm and can no longer be extended. The fact that this is a condition that the author himself suffers from, makes it clear that the novel is partly a fictitious reimagining and invocation of his own lineage and identity. As Bean writes in the Preface:
I was inspired to write this historical novel as a result of preparing my own family tree, which I managed to trace back to a Brian Beane born at Saxton in Elmet — near York — around 1570. Nearly all locations, many Christian or forenames and occupations that are given in this novel are those of my family over the generations.
As some readers may realize, this choice of format was heavily influenced by the multi-generational novels of Edward Rutherford, whose first novel Sarum (1987), I remember reading with interest many years ago. But while typical paperback editions of Sarum have upwards of 1300 pages, Bean’s saga is limited to a relatively short 228 pages. This means he takes a narrower focus. Rather than interweaving the destinies of several families, as Rutherford does, Bean focuses more sharply on his chosen line, the Byrnes, descended from a Danish Viking, Bjorn the Red, reluctantly stranded in England following the chaotic events of 1066.
But even with just one lineage to concentrate on, 228 pages is still rather scanty, meaning that Bean is sometimes forced to rush things and leave chronological gaps for us to fill in with a few clues. The novel therefore breaks into the stories of several disparate individuals, loosely tied together by certain occasionally recurring genetic traits and characteristics — the Viking finger, red or reddish hair, and a “berserker” tendency towards violence (a legacy of his Indo-European ancestors) that by turns is both useful and harmful in different generations.
Most of history, as Charlie Watts, the drummer of the Rolling Stones famously observed of rock ‘n’ roll, is mainly just hanging around. So it is that much of what Bean describes is the slow and steady work to gradually improve one’s situation — and that of one’s family — by hard labour, diligent businesses, marrying correctly, or improving farmland and other assets. This is then punctuated by more dramatic and dangerous episodes that reward some of the higher qualities in us.
For me, and I suspect for most readers, these are the parts that stand out. They may also get you thinking about the struggles, challenges, tragedies, and triumphs that your own ancestors may have faced. The story starts with plenty of suspense and danger. In Chapter 2, which presents the tale of the family’s founder, Bjorne the Red, there is even an encounter with a group of mounted Normans. This doesn’t end well for either party, but especially the Normans:
Because of the need to hide their weapons the six Danes had no spears or shields. They did have swords, shorter than normal but just as sharp, as well as knives and axes. They had just reached the middle of the sodden field when they saw four mounted Normans come round the curve of the track. They each had lances and shields, which they raised in attack mode on seeing the Vikings. Bjorne stopped dead in his tracks and still without moving he stared at the on-coming horsemen muttering to himself and reddening in the face and neck. The Normans were about to meet a Viking Berserker. (25–26)
This chapter also contains a lot of interesting information about early medieval York, where the surviving Danes finally resign themselves to settling in Britain, instead of trying to return home.
In Chapter Four Bean includes an account of Edward Longshank’s invasion of Scotland, with an account of the attack on the Scottish city of Berwick, in which the embodiment of the Byrne line, Walter Byrne, reluctantly participates. With a sweetheart waiting for him at home, he tries to hang back, but gets caught up in events. Luckily, his latent berserker qualities kick in and help him to survive:
Two Yorkshire men who had trained with him were on each side of him as they got over the wall. Both were speared with pikes through the chest and fell to the ground vomiting blood with their last breath. More men came over the wall and took their place. Walter felt a violent rage possess him and he imagined that he was not really in the midst of the action but hovering above it. Putting his full strength behind his action he swung his sword at the neck of the first pikeman and took his head off. (53)
Ending up wounded, he is forced to make his way home, so we see no more of what turned out to be a brutal and epic struggle between Scotland and England. I got the impression here that Bean turned his literary back on the opportunities for dramatic events this war presented due to an underlying distaste for such intense conflicts among the indigenous peoples of Britain, possibly informed by the present-day realization that collectively we are under threat as never before.
An earlier part of this chapter also briefly mentions another group that has intermittently played an important role in Britain’s story, namely the Jews.
York is of course the site of the most well-known massacre of the Jews in Britain, which occurred in 1190, when about 150 Jews died through violence or self harm. Bean treats the matter sympathetically, echoing the regret he expresses in his other books — his autobiography Many Shades of Black and previous novel Blood in the Square — for the conflicts between Jews and Gentiles and their wider consequences and repercussions:
Partly because of what appeared to be the strangeness of Jewish ways and partly because of some cases of clipping silver coins in money advanced in loans, the mob rose up and 150 Jews took refuge in the Royal castle, as they were officially supposed to be protected by the king. Reginald Ragner was one of the few citizens who protested at this persecution, but few other businesses followed his example as it could mean permanent damage to their own trade. Most of the local gentry did nothing because they had borrowed heavily from the Jews. (p. 43)
Another part of the novel that stood out for me was the tale of Richard Byrne, a cavalier cavalryman in the army of King Charles I in the struggle against the parliamentary forces. This, of course, was the period just before the Jews were let back into England, but there was already enough diversity and disagreement as revealed by religious and cultural differences between Englishmen, differences that often split families apart and which fuelled the complex political and military conflict of the Civil War.
Such divisions have some of the flavour of our own day. Every British or White nationalist is keenly aware of how divergent their opinions can be from those of near relatives, and the problems this can create. In the case of Richard Byrne, his wife has become enamoured of Puritanism while he has been absent campaigning for King Charles. Finally she deserts him and emigrates to America.
Richard is left on the “wrong side of history” by the defeat of the Royalist cause. Much of the rest of this chapter deals with how he picks himself up and rebuilds his life. Again the message is to endure, organize, work hard, and wait for a change of luck, which partly comes in the guise of an affectionate “wench.”
A key break in the story occurs in 1784, when the latest Byrnes — William and Matilda, brother and sister — leave their native Yorkshire, and relocate to the new industrial metropolis of Newcastle, further north. Walking all the way, danger looms in the various inns and deserted roadways; and Matilda is forced to disguise herself as a boy. But when the crisis comes, she is more than equal to it:
Then some light appeared on the scene as two of the men from below came up the ladder. When they surveyed the scene they burst out laughing. Matilda had bit halfway through the nose of her would-be rapist and was sitting on his chest and punching him. He had no breeches on, nor drawers. The horseman with the lamp held it over him saying, ‘He couldn’t do much with that little winkle, my dear! Perhaps you’ve killed his ardour. (p. 128)
Reaching Newcastle, the young siblings enter a world where new industries, technologies, and opportunities open up for their talents. It is from this point onwards that real social mobility sets in, with subsequent generations using their carefully honed wits and survival instincts to take advantage of new business opportunities.
Overall, some parts of the book feel a little rushed, but it is nevertheless a fascinating meditation on what it means to be British. The meta-point Bean makes throughout is that we are very much the direct result of our history, landscape, and interaction with each other, something that definitely cannot be said for the incomers brought into Britain by multiculturalism and globalism with no roots in Britain. But history never stops. The implicit question then, is will the Viking finger and the fighting spirit it betokens prevail. I for one believe it will.