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The iceman cometh

Bjarni is a born-again Viking who propels children back intothe past using a few well-chosen battle chants and theodd axehead. Elaine Saunders saw him in action.

Ever wondered how the Vikings cleaned their bottoms after they'd been to the toilet? Maybe you haven't given it much thought - but you can bet a school hall full of under-10s will want to know, and withas many distasteful details as possible. Bjarni, blacksmith andwarrior, is the man to give them the answer.

Bjarni (alias Ivor Wilcox) is a Viking warrior with the Longship Trading Company - a performing outfit which tours the country with a show for school children.

A former dustman who has always loved Anglo-Saxon history, and also a member of The Dark Ages Society, Ivor Wilcox formed the company 12 years ago. He and his "sister" Astrid (Sharon Crick) travel with a cart laden with goods - jewellery, weapons, household items - to schools and museums to demonstrate exactly how the objects were used and to bring Viking history to life.

Bjarni is mesmerising. One moment a dominant and raucous martinet, another a cuddly comic, he can lead hordes of youngsters in ear-splitting battle chants. "What do we want? Blood! Whose blood? Saxon!" But the next moment he can achieve an instant hush, with a single "Quiet!" Through games and role-play, he and Astrid show what life was like in a Viking settlement. There were domestic duties, community matters to attend - social control and justice - and, inevitably, fights with Saxons.

At Tanners Wood primary school, in Hertfordshire, 85 children aged 7-9, dressed in home-made Viking costumes, were entranced by the display. Bjarni managed to capture and maintain their attention throughout the school day, a feat which impressed teacher Irene Fields. He was "absolutely brilliant", she said.

"Some of these children have really severe emotional or behavioural problems, it's difficult to get them to sit still or concentrate on anything. But today they're joining in and becoming a part of it just as much as the others."

Bjarni invites audience participation in a big way. Children re-enact accusations of theft and murder, taking the roles of suspect and accuser, and the subsequent trials by oath, ordeal and combat (he invites them to choose which punishment to inflict on the guilty party, and of course they always shout loudest for the most gruesome). Through these games, he encourages them to think about about the reality of life in this society, one which excludes women from any public participation in village affairs, and where justice is heavily weighted to favour the rich.

A boy is chosen to undergo trial by ordeal and he enthusiastically throws himsef into the role, holding a red-hot iron bar heated by the village blacksmith.

Bjarni raises intriguing questions: if the blacksmith was your friend, would he have made sure the iron was very hot or let it cool? What if you were a stranger? Have you heard the phrases "caught red-handed" or "prisoner: approach the bar?" Slipping back into villainous mode, he picks out a small girl to be his opponent in trial by combat. Nicknaming her "Shorty" with a evil sneer, he tells her that when they fight he is going to cut her head off. (Enthusiastic cheer from the audience.) Then he asks; how many of us think that a fight between him and Shorty would be a fair way of deciding guilt or innocence? (He is six foot and, to put it politely, generously proportioned.) As her classmates make up their minds, Shorty is clear about the answer. "No, it wouldn't," she says firmly. "Because you're fatter than me." The teachers (and Bjarni) collapse with laughter; the children do not quite see the joke, but laugh anyway, because they love to see his outrage.

Under the most stern of warnings that any fooling around will lead to instant dismissal from the hall, the children are allowed to handle the things he has brought with him, and swords, shields and axes are passed between them. This, for many of the children, is the high point of the day. They can try on the helmets and finger the blade of the swords. The chain mail is unbelievably heavy, the leather jerkin smellsof sweat ("Sniff the armpits;that's the best bit", he tells them) and covered in what he claimsare bloodstains. They are enthralled, treating the objects with awe and respect.

Irene Fields, who has arranged the visit, is delighted with the results. The decision to have it in the middle of the term has, she says, turned out very well; they have already done a lot of preparatory work on Vikings, such as where they came from and why they were such successful invaders, the raid on Lindisfarne, runes, etc. Now she can pick up on what has particularly interested the children today, and use it as the basis for the remainder of the term's work.

She rates the show as "excellent value for money". "It's really impressive," she says, "andmuch cheaper than going toa museum."

Oh, and by the way, the answer to that intriguing question is: they just used their hands.

Any history book which tells you otherwise, according to Bjarni, is fibbing.

The Longship Trading Company 342 Albion Street, Kingswinford, WestMidlands DY6 0JR. Tel: 01384 292237. E-mail: longship@longshiptrading. Details of programme available. Website: www.longshiptrading.freeserve.

Education officer: Rosemary Wilcox.

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