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Monday, November 2, 2009

Gentlemen Danes

The "Gentlemen Danes" of Reading were commemorated last week - Danish officers who were kept as paroled prisoners of war in the town, during the seven years that Denmark and Britain were enemies (1807-1814). Here's a link to the local news story.

I missed the event itself, but went along to a chatty friendly reception the night before, with guests from Denmark and the organizer, local historian John Nixon. I was there because the subject of my second biography, Jørgen Jørgensen (or Jorgen Jorgenson, as he anglicized it) was a Gentleman Dane. It was a long story - he captained a ship for Denmark, was taken prisoner by the Brits, skipped his parole, then led an anti-Danish revolution in Iceland which eventually landed him back in British imprisonment again. He was paroled to Reading, where he spent his time:

- writing a book about Denmark
- writing a book about Iceland
- writing a book about Tahiti
- getting into brawls in the local tavern
- chuckling over obscene graffiti on the toilet walls of his inn. ("I laughed above an hour at them.")

Poor Jørgensen though - his fellow Danes in Reading thought him a traitor, because of the Iceland episode, and they gave him a very hard time.

And poor Denmark! It had never wanted to enter the war at all. It sided with Napoleon only after Britain bombarded Copenhagen civilians with incendiary rockets over three nights in 1807. The casualties and destruction were terrible; eventually the Danish government surrendered its entire naval fleet just to make the bombing stop. They then declared war - but the loss of neutrality (and of the fleet!) was fatal for its maritime economy, and it took the country decades to recover. The British action was condemned as an atrocity, but it is long forgotten here now. (Not forgotten in Denmark.)

It was fun for me to relive the Jørgensen story again - the book came out 4 years ago and I have been embroiled in 16th century France with Montaigne ever since, so the Napoleonic stories had faded to the back of my mind.

It was even stranger to relive being in Reading. I lived there as a teenager for 2 years, and this was my first time back.

It was a funny period of my life. I was supposed to be at the exceptionally godawful school I was enrolled at. Instead, as often as I could, I played truant and went to work at a West Indian reggae shop in town, which sold clothes, jewellery, records and a huge range of hash-pipes and bongs. From the back of the shop came wafts of Peter Tosh, Dillinger and the Ethiopians - for the ears - together with marijuanic aromas for the nostrils. I loved it. I would love to know what happened to Shine, who ran it, and to Moses, who was my boyfriend for a while, and to all the other droopy-eyelidded ones who floated in and out.

I strolled around town for a while before the reception, but couldn't quite locate where the shop had been. (Someone told me later it was probably Harris Arcade.) Reading has become a giant shopping mall, just like all other English towns of its size - but it still bears the ghost outline of its former geography, superimposed on its 21st century self like a wavering, faint, badly-projected image.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an interesting occasion - another hidden episode of British history. And as for your misspent youth it's a wonder you didn't join JJ in RG...