Iceland

I went to Iceland last year. With 70 kids. I keep thinking about it. Here’s a thing I wrote.

From the distance of a few days, we thought we’d look back at what was, where we were; where we called from in those days of ice and fire. Bear with us, for the nature of these things, thanks to the ragged nature of our collective memory, means a certain amount of crevasse and elision. But, for the record, it went a bit like this…

Day 1
It starts, naturally, with a shower. We gather in groups under grey skies and board the coaches. The laughing and singing starts at the motorway junction; it doesn’t stop for five days.

The airport is, weirdly, a breeze. We’re through, drifting through the shops and salons like wraiths, for what feels like hours. We board the plane and, after the briefest collective dreaming, we’re over the umbral plains of the south, craning for snow, for sustenance…

Our first trip is out onto a peninsula; our first experience the impossible geometry of lava, the enormity of the blue evening under spreading skies. Everything is everything else, rock upon rock, all coated with a green veneer of moss and lichen. Besides this, nothing grows. We’re used to the teeming land: rabbits, birdsong, woodscape, flurries in the leaf litter; here the silence of rock dominates everything.

We learn that the island is still young in geological terms – just 20 million short years, a foundling, a babe in arms – and this peninsula the youngest part of all. At Gunnuhver, you can feel this coming into being; you come to realise the silence above masks the enormity of what lies beneath: the roil of the land, the gouts of steam piercing the fractured surface, outpourings of the disturbances below. It makes a mockery of that which is supposed to be solid. We huddle in the steamscape, the stench of sulphur everywhere.

Later, after a swim under cold black skies, we head back to the hotel. A rumour starts that the northern lights are dancing above us. We sneer, but, slowly, we all tune in and there, there: a curtain of faintly falling dust, a hushed shadow of some other, greater celestial drama. We hold our breath, wanting time to stand still.

Day 2
Today, at Kerið, the collapsed crater of an ancient volcano, we learn that the sun rises late, but rises just enough to light up the earth: the iron red of basalt, the deep blue of trapped water, the sharp refraction of light across the crater’s outer lip. At Gullfoss, we learn that there is more water on the face of the earth than we had previously imagined and that most of it crashes over these falls, into this deep canyon. At Geysir, we learn that all geysers are named after this one – the daddy, the progenitor, the uber-geyser – and that geysir is Icelandic for ‘a good bloke that always gets his round in’ and that a cup of tea in Iceland costs roughly a month’s wages, and hell, it’s Earl sodding Grey.

We also learn that Mrs Brown knows everything there is to know about Icelandic horses (let’s be honest, she knows everything), that they’re smaller than other breeds of horse, but are definitively not ponies and that they can open 5 different types of gate. Something like that. We also find out, watching dense, muscle-bound fish hanging in the river’s breeze at Thingvellir, that Will H knows everything there is to know about Arctic Trout – their breeding habits, the fungus they wear on their broad backs, their habitats. They turn out to be Arctic Char, but we won’t hold that against him.

And, also at Thingvellir, we learn what it’s like to stand between two continents, on land that is no land, made of ice and fire and the blood of the ancients, on land that is belched into being beneath our very feet and which grows at the same rate as our fingernails, on land where the first parliament was created and where democracy was enacted in its purest state since Ancient Greece and where we are humbled at the enormity of what we see, what we are, and what we might become. We give a huge Icelandic roar to the heavens, the fibrous wall of our voices carrying into the murk of lowered sky, to the hills, to the ancient ones, watching from the spaces in-between. On the way home, we sing louder than ever, singing ourselves into being.

Day 3
It all starts to blur into one. We’re behind a waterfall, blinking through rainbows and spray at the spreading land. We’re at the foot of a mighty glacier, a glacier reaching for the sea, but never quite arriving. A glacier shrinking by the year, retreating to its mountain hideaway and the secret pact with the volcano over which it presides. We scale its massive, creaking back, the sun out now, creating tiny rivers in the impossible plurality of ice. We dodge crevasses, stopping to lap at the melting ice, and head for the summit, pausing to hack lumps out of the ice, each imagining our own antagonist. It’s not until we’re on our way back down, decked out in warpaint (OK, volcanic dust) that we notice the baroque nature of what we’re climbing: here, at the ablation area nearest the lagoon, the glacier is at its most operatic: cornice over dome, crenellation over cupola, over frenulum, over canyon, over coulee. And it’s not until we stop that we notice that glaciers talk to themselves – listen to all that chatter, that creaking and moaning, the chuckle of water, the whisper of ice on ice. No wonder the Icelanders believe so strongly in the hidden people.

Finally, we go to the black beach and stand agog again at the power of water. It’s no wonder that Iceland produces its electricity entirely from green sources: they are surrounded by the sublimity of nature, the awesome forces of the Great Other. Fire and ice, water and wind. But, being Icelanders, they have learned to listen, and have learned to harness this power, forging a fragile pact with the forces of nature. At the beach, we see the dark side of this and learn about sneaker waves. These aren’t waves that want to gatecrash your party or nick your stereo, no, these are waves that want to nick you. We think we’re far enough back, but the sneak is true to its word, and a few get wet. It’s when we see a couple nearly get swept from the basalt cliffs that we realise it’s time to go.

Day 4
Today is about sky and water, water and sky. We scream at mighty Skógafoss waterfall, hiding in rock clefts, hiding in rainbows. We climb to the top and gaze at the tipping point, wondering, wondering at what it would be like to sail over, reborn in water.

The folk museum is an odd highlight. We get a true sense of the kinds of lives Icelanders have lived, how modernisation came so late, and how many lived harsh, rural lives for so long – bypassing the revolutions that gripped continental Europe. This isn’t a glimpse of the age of Kings, the age of industry, so much as a glimpse of the Neolithic alongside something like the Victorian – a style of living that lasted into the late 19th century.

We drive the coast road, the sun fierce through the afternoon haze. Here, under a wall of cliffs, it’s more apparent than ever that we’re driving on what is essentially the bottom of the ocean, the land borrowed from the sea, and that Iceland is a drama of this play between opposites: land and sea, fire and ice, ghost and living, family and ancestors, rock and air. We exist between this play of elements, rumours ourselves, grasping at eternity while trying to make sense of the present, the ground shifting beneath us.

Then, post-lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches, always ham and cheese sandwiches) we walk into the hills. The day blazes about us. We can see from the monumental drama of Eyjafjallajökull in the interior, right out across the flat coastal plains to the sea – knowing that there is no landfall between here and the Antarctic. In terms of the autumnal ochres and pale green of the hills, this might be Scotland, but in Scotland the very land doesn’t seethe and broil, jets of steam rising out of the ground to form layers of cloud about your feet. We climb toward the sun, and there, buried in the hills, we find a stream warm enough to swim in. From a distance, the sound of singing and joyful shrieking is like the music of the spheres.

Day 5
We finish in the Blue Lagoon, pasting ourselves in silica. In our own private dramas, we’re hoping for younger, clearer skin, for a dewrinkling miracle, for a new head of hair; instead, we get ourselves the warmest of baths, held as if in the chambers of the earth’s beating heart. And this will do.

Later, we take off into the shimmering blue. We leave the dense, lavaic planes, the long, barren solitude of the interior, the creaking glaciers, the hidden currents of fire at the island’s dark heart. And, in the long lines of our leaving, we notice the rhythms of our own blood and fire and realise we too have new ground on which to stand, from which to regard ourselves, and, best of all, at the centre of our own soft workings, maybe, just maybe, we know our hearts that little bit better.

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Outstanding

Belched out of school’s hot throat into Spring’s amber dome. Late afternoon. Levitating with tiredness. I haunt the high street awhile, looking for an answer, a line of force. Aimless, I follow the familiar tip of gravity to the river.

Standing under the sign of the mill: ‘1243’ – a dictat from history: no fishing. The river is a bedlam of froth and roil; the land yipping and yawing. I think to take a photo, without really knowing why.

‘It’s not the original sign, you know’.

I turn to take in the voice, accept the presence; the self lazily processing, redrawing the job body consciousness has already mastered. His eyes are the first thing I notice – watery, red-rimmed: the revealing of unexpected flesh.

‘You must be a visitor?’ he says, nodding at my phone.

I stumble an explanation about having been down here before, but for whatever reason had never thought to take a photo. He looks mischievous, like he might not believe me. I tell him I work at the school; tell him it might as well be an island for how often we row back to the mainland, connect ourselves to the community. The kids, ferried in great buses, come as one, and leave as one – they might as well come in balloons. He frowns and I take in his age. 70? His posture suggests less, but those eyes. They fill again.

‘Ah. The school! Are you walking into town?’

We shuffle and talk. He tells me about the town, the old myth of the alder, the fire, the eel house he helped renovate (‘a wreck – like it had been ransacked by the land’), his cottage. He says the school remains something of a mystery – oddly out of bounds, an occulted presence in the edgelands, swelling with bodies and noise seven hours a day and then emptying again: an absence, conspicuous by its silence.

‘That’s pretty much exactly how I feel’. I tell him I’m still learning the process of disgorging it all at the end of the day – mastering that task of emptying myself enough so I don’t rage and boil at night.
‘It’s no way to dream.’

The river is brick-banked where it meets the uncertain reaches of the town. Toddlers shriek at ducks, throw entire slices of bread; brooms of wisteria hover above the doors of homes and small businesses: saddleries, a brewery, a solicitors. We join the pavement and I hear a squeezed history: school in Surrey; Cambridge, with Dudley Moore up the hall (‘his room was never, ah, empty shall we say? He liked a party.’); training as a fighter pilot, cut short by asthma and glaucoma; IBM, selling computers (‘computers the size of that house there, for simple calculations’). He tells me he was at Cambridge in the early 50s; he’s 82. The shock of age.

‘I’m on my own now, but that’s OK. 8 years.’

I find myself asking, before I can check myself, ‘is it – OK, I mean?’

‘Well, not really. It’s too quiet.’ He stops and sighs.
‘I don’t have any complaints. But, you know.’

It’s not regret exactly, it’s something larger. The enormous inexpressibility of a life lived and no longer shared. He looks along the wide high street and I steal another look at his eyes. Language may fail us when we need it most, but, like it or not, we have our mute vessels, these expressive bodies with their lustres of freighted silence. He huffs back who knows what, and he tells me about his cottage again. Tells me the door is always open.

‘Give me a knock. I’ll show you the town.’

I can’t gather my intentions, can’t press the words into the right shapes. I want to take a knot of respectful silence and pass that over – an amulet, a talisman. We settle for something simple and shake hands.

‘Mike’, he says.

The sun has fallen beneath the roofline and the shadows are cold. As I walk back into the memory heat of the school grounds I notice the towering oaks, raw against the paling day. The rooks are nesting high this year, the rooks are nesting high.

Little Gidding

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

I was near the A1, close enough to feel its drag, the traffic undertow. I was returning from a flying visit to the wilds of Oakham and Rutland Water, departing the warm belly of a friend’s new country house. I’d managed to get myself lost, maybe expectantly. I knew I was in the vicinity of Little Gidding, one of TS Eliot’s high Anglican bolt holes, one of the places he’d knelt before forces he couldn’t comprehend, forces he seemed determined to surrender to. He’d gone there in 1936, pulled in by different undertows: the magnetism of accreted faith, the allure of a tiny monkish community surviving the ravages of the centuries; hiding place of the fallen king – Charles, going underground after the defeat at Naseby in 1646. Little Gidding was the perfect fit for his timeless present, his need for a kind of messianic time – always present, always everywhere, always just out of reach. It affected Eliot enough for him to use the community’s name for the final part of the Four Quartets, the epic four-part poem published in 1943. Like all of his places, in print and in the mind, it becomes elevated, mythic – unreachable; you only gesture toward them, looking for traces. I stopped to check a map. ‘The Giddings’. It was in touching distance – more plant fibre than road, coming to a stop in a white expanse. A dead end. I swung the car.

Roaring summer. Wheat fields, barley fields, bright with gold. Cloud banks cast cold shadows. The land is parched; particles of exhaled dust drift on rising thermals; the fabric of the air vibrates in overlapping layers. The wet winter seems long ago – a watery echo in the margins of memory. On through scattered villages, unpeopled. Unverged roads flow directly into wheat fields. Occasionally there is a green break in the field pattern, topped with hovering purple. Stopping later it’s quickly clear these are borage fields, grown for their rich omega oils, each field with its own travelling colony of bees housed in neat boxy blue hives. Then a sign: Steeple Gidding; 200 yards beyond that, a small waymarker, and a pull to the left: Little Gidding.

It comes to this: the old Ferrar manor house, bone white in the sun; a car park. Through the trees is the church – weathered oolite limestone and grubby red brick. By now I’m on borrowed time, feeling the tug of my own undertow: family and the sub-molecular gravitational pull of home. I pitch across grass to the entrance, passing inside for the briefest of visitations. Dust roils in caught air, disturbed by new motion. The eye passes from nave to chancel, not much more than 30 feet in total. Beyond the chancel the smallest of private prayer rooms, austere and cool. The floor is uneven. I imagine centuries of knelt prayers, offered to the great invisibility beyond. I have nothing to add; instead I turn and leave, back out into the golden expanse of country, the middle of England, the middle of nowhere.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

 

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding