A yarn

In my dream, I was looking for help in a computer: trying to translate a poem from Basque into Urdu. This, I should mention, was not something I had ever previously attempted.

I was in a flat, full of my old things. It is a place I have returned to sometimes in dreams: one of several I visit while asleep, each quite specific in layout, furnishings, and address, and non-existent only in the real world. This one has high ceilings, tall windows, and gets plenty of sun; it is in a factory district. It bothers me I have not been paying rent, and must owe a lot of money by now: more than I could possibly pay. And as I seldom visit, my possessions must be insecure. I suppose this makes it an anxiety dream.

The computer is seriously out-of-date; by dream reasoning I conclude that the search function is pre-Internet and useless. Then I remember an old Basque dictionary, in a pine sideboard within this flat. I go digging for it, and find it on a bottom shelf, beside some tattered storybooks. These seem to be in various Occitan languages: Catalan, Provençal, Gascon, whatever. They are illuminated codices! How could I have forgotten that I owned them? I must pay the rent or they’ll be lost!

A duffle bag is stuffed behind the books. It contains old sweaters, boots, a radio, toys from my childhood, notebooks, discarded drawings and maps — all things I’ve been looking for!

And what’s this? A tabby cat, lost decades ago: alive and purring. She’s been feeding off what’s left of a barbecued chicken, in a plastic bag.

Waking, I try to capture the dream, and transcribe it into conscious memory. I know that some of these things once existed, others could not have. I did once own a Basque dictionary. I never owned such codices. The cat had a name, Meggins. The chicken reminded me of a carcass the landlord in a rooming house once abandoned in the back of a fridge. …

But I have left out the yarn. It was among the objects in the duffle bag: a spool of ancient yarn, very soft and silky, and of a distinctive colour: snow ivory with streaks of mottled brown and grey. It had unravelled, was entangled with everything else. It was when I pulled it, the rest came out. Somehow I knew it was spun from arctic hare. And that it came from somewhere.


The archaeologist, Patricia Sutherland, found such yarn some years ago, in a museum at Ottawa. It was from a box of curiosities a Catholic priest had collected on Baffin Island. It had struck him as odd, too: for the Inuit hunters use twisted sinews for cordage; yarn was a recent import. But this was no recent site; it was Dorset age, when neither spinners nor weavers were conceivable. The fragments were from Tanfield Valley, a sheltered cove at the southern extreme of Baffin, by the entrance to Hudson Strait. Carbon dating took the samples back to pre-Columbian times. How puzzling.

Until Professor Sutherland came along. This battle-axe, of a kind I much admire, remembered similar yarn from the ruins of a twelfth-century Viking farmstead in West Greenland. She leapt to a conclusion soon supported by other objects in the museum’s own collections, from several sites in Canada’s eastern Arctic. These included whetstones with tiny specks of copper and bronze, and wood fragments with iron rust from square nail holes. Other items long overlooked, now shouted through the lens of her microscope.

Funding comes from somewhere, and after some digging through the frigid muck at remote Tanfield Valley, what have we? A rather un-Eskimo stone wall: forty feet of unmistakably Viking masonry.

As a boy I was enchanted by the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows, near St Anthony on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. Through the early ’sixties the archaeologists fought over what they were; until it became dead obvious that Helge Instad and company had uncovered the remains of a sizable Viking settlement from 1000 AD. All these years had passed without the discovery of another. Now more villages are coming into view.

Later, much later, Basque whalers came this way. Their sunken galleons and long boats have been recovered here and there, and onshore, the iron trypots in which they rendered blubber. But that was a little after Columbus.

For now we glimpse a trading history, between the lost Norse settlements of Greenland, and the native peoples in the western reaches of Helluland (Baffin), Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). Once again, ancient chroniclers are proved exactly right, after scholars had convicted them of “myth” and “fantasy.” All of this fits, too, with the climate history, through that “mediaeval warming” the global warmalarmists want us to forget, when these places were much less arctic than they are today. And a picture emerges of the West Vikings, as traders, more than raiders.

All of it retrieved as in a dream, along a string of yarn.