Neil Oliver: Vikings, Cheltenham Literature Festival, Sunday, October 7.
TAKING to the stage with an abundance of fresh wit and charisma, Neil Oliver took his audience on an epic journey into the past, with a spirit of adventure so akin to the Vikings he had researched.
After A History of Ancient Britain at last year's Cheltenham Literature Festival, Mr Oliver returned once again on Sunday to take us this time to the lands and "empire" of these fierce Norse warriors.
Well-known for his role as a presenter on BBC2's Coast, his first major foray into presenting historical documentaries came with The Face of Britain in 2006 and, like the Vikings in their conquests of new lands, his career has being going from strength to strength ever since.
Having already filled the Town Hall, I became immediately aware of his appeal: his Scottish charm instantly draws everyone in; every eye is watching him with anticipation, as he uses the entire stage space with confidence and effortless composure. But more importantly I could tell how much he really loves the subject matter. He modestly assured us that he is not an academic, "merely an archaeologist", but what I see is someone of solid scholarly qualities, yet who also holds a magic value: he relates to his audience.
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"I wanted to make it personal" he informed us, "And I must tell a story about how it relates to me rather than from an entirely objective point of view."
From his initial childhood interest in Norse Mythology as a result of Marvel's Thor comics, something which I confess I can relate to as a result of Kenneth Branagh's 2011 film, he most significantly realised his "right" to research the old Scandinavians with a discovery that his hometown of Stirling, according to legend, had faced a Viking attack.
And just as he has learned about the "sheer global reach of the Vikings", he then took all of us with him as he recounted his epic adventures and discoveries from Sweden, all the way to Russia and the Middle East.
He has slept in a recreated Bronze Age dwelling in Denmark and he also had an "extraordinary experience" in Iceland, where he experienced the not-so-appealing cuisine of the Vikings. He has tried Rotten Basking Shark; supposedly an important source of nutrition for the Vikings, but which he comically informed us was like consuming "rancid pork fat" which tasted "like a French kiss with the living dead".
It is absolutely no wonder that his audience filled the Cheltenham Town Hall. I certainly hope he returns to Cheltenham again in the near future, so long as the past does not grab him first. I look forward in earnest to reading more in his new book.
By Hebe Hamilton.