VIKING £16.99 (330pp). £15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
REAKTION £16.99 (271pp). £15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Here in the usually temperate clime of Britain, some of us yearn for the warm south, but some hone in as inexorably as a compass needle to the idea of north. Is this division in imaginations down to our island's long history of mongrel genes, or chance inclination? Whatever its cause, the north-seekers have produced a cornucopia of exploratory and literary high endeavours, from William Scoresby's Account of the Arctic Regions and John Buchan's Sickheart River, to Auden and MacNeice's Letters from Iceland and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - which has an early chapter actually called "The Idea of North".
Joanna Kavenna and Peter Davidson are the latest in this long line of writers. Both identify a dualism in attitudes to the north. It is a place of purity and goodness, a source of potential treasures and wealth, but also the home of darkness and evil. However, their approaches could not be more different.
Kavenna's The Ice Museum is a traveller's tale that focuses on those who thought that they had found the distant place of dreams christened Thule by the earliest writers about the north. The first explorer who claimed to have landed there was Pytheas, a fourth-century BC Greek who sailed six days north of Scotland and found a land where there were no days in midwinter and the sea thickened into solidity.
Was he in Shetland or Iceland? Greenland or Svalbad? Driven by a deep-rooted obsession with ice and empty spaces, cold fjords and "the shanks of ancient mountains", Kavenna takes trains and boats and planes, to say nothing of four-by-fours and helicopter, to reach every possible Thule. She tows us with a tempting diet of romantic legend, leavened with clear-eyed criticism of the blight of modern tourism, even at these far ends of the earth, and the threat of global warming.
She imagines the original might of the craggy Viking fortress of Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands, makes fun of such earnest Victorian travellers to Iceland as Richard Burton, William Morris and the doughty Mrs Alec Tweedie, shudders at the fanatic fantasies of racial purity of the proto-Nazi Thule Society between the wars, talks to Sami folk at the North Cape and robotic US servicemen at the Greenland airbase of Thule.
Entranced but disillusioned, she finds a resolution of sorts to her quest in Svalbad. Thule was "a piece of storytelling about the far north. It expressed the ambivalence of the human relationship to nature... the desire for space, the appreciation of grandeur and beauty" and "the perilous balance between survival and exploration." She concludes that "the question was how far we wanted to go, how much we wanted to transform these ancient tracts of ice".
Peter Davidson's The Idea of North is cerebral rather than physical. Although he occasionally laces up his walking boots to tramp Britain's northern hills and cities, for the most part he looks north in the mind. "Everyone carries their own idea of north in them," he believes, and proves his thesis by setting out a stall laden with seductive references: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", Auden's early writings, Nabokov's Pale Fire, Caspar David Friedrich's romantic oils of ice-laced shipwrecks, the painter Reinhard Behrens's eerie tales of Naboland, the Norwegian director Knut Jensen's films, Simon Armitage's All Points North.
North is relative, not just polar: we read of how the Japanese, the Chinese and the Canadians see their country's northlands.
Besides being a discriminating critic, Davidson has an arrestingly personal voice. In the latter half of the book, "Topographies", he puts a fresh gloss on the northern parts of Britain and their cities. Sheffield is seen "in the shifting, broken-clouded light of the beginning of summer, with the smell of privet strong in the steep streets".
Keighley's mansion museum is "the apotheosis of the idea of north identified with Victorian painters... vast plutocratic houses on the slopes, with mills in the valleys below". We visit the "secretive landscape" of the Forest of Bowland; "gleaming cobbles and granite cart-tracks" in Preston; the northern lights in Cromarty: "still, blue dusk, sky and water alive with colour and the first intimation of autumn in the evening".
The Idea of North is one of those books that have you making a long list of references you want to follow - not least for good reproductions of the fine pictures that pepper its pages in forlorn monochrome. If I were only Mrs Thames or Mrs Hudson, I would grab the rights and reissue it in full colour as an inspirational coffee-table book, food for the mind and eye alike.
Christina Hardyment's life of Sir Thomas Malory appears this autumn from HarperCollins
|Buy any book reviewed on this site at
Independent Books Direct
- postage and packing are free in the UK