Footsteps in lava and ice

Following the trail of Auden and MacNeice in the 1930s, two young poets set out on an epic journey. Glyn Maxwell chronicles a new Icelandic saga
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The Independent Culture

Two young poets, WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, decided to escape the drabness and despondency of their homeland and the dangers of their continent and thought hard about a place to visit. They thought so hard that a thought- bubble appeared high over their heads, and they called it Iceland. They got on a trawler at Hull and sailed there, discovering a land that had barely emerged from medieval times, but with its language and literature virtually intact, a land which they loved, celebrated in verse and prose, and would remember always. Thirty years later the surviving one, Auden, returned to an ecstatic welcome. Thirty years after that, members of the crowd who witnessed his return still talked of him with great fondness, as a "white raven" in tatty clothes, beaming at the smartly dressed Icelanders who had come to the harbour to greet him on arrival. He told them that, for him, Iceland was like sunlight on high mountains after sunset: although fallen below the horizon, it still cast light on the world.


Auden and MacNeice themselves cast a beam like that on two equally young poets, who felt that same draw northwards, from new drabnesses and despondency, back into history and the language and the lives of their poetic heroes. Eschewing the delights of the Hull trawler, they opted for the airways. Adopting the principle of Icelandic nomenclature, they became Glyn Jamesson and Simon Petersson. They went with Penguin sagas, BBC tape recorders, empty notebooks and open minds.


They began in the only city, "Smoky Bay" in English, flat, clean, colourful and quite smokeless. The Viking settlers, who chose Reykjavik by casting their chieftain's throne into the sea and settling where it came ashore, named it for the steam they saw issuing from still smouldering volcanic earth. The land between the airport at Keflavik and the city is barren, black and featureless. To the north and east of the city, mountains rise up steadily. One distant peak, Snaefell, is where Jules Verne's explorer Arne Saknusson began his journey to the centre of the Earth.


For a week, the poets enjoyed the neat and lively little capital, home to two-thirds of Iceland's people. Petersson thrust BBC microphones into the faces of inebriated teenagers stumbling out of nightclubs, asking them for their thoughts on Louis MacNeice or, failing that, Bjork. Jamesson discovered that the town planners of modern-day Reykjavik had learned lessons from his own town, Welwyn Garden City, but he searched in vain for a Pizza Hut. He developed instead a taste for guillemot and, above all, puffin. Petersson pointed out that Iceland may be the only country to make quiche out of its national symbol.


First excursion from Reykjavik was 40 miles inland to Thingvellir, ancient seat of the Althing ("the old thing"), arguably the world's first parliament, founded in 930. From a distance, Thingvellir is merely a vast plain with a history. On closer inspection, one can see two cliffs rearing up like glaring armies, between which runs a narrow walkway. These cliffs are said to be retreating from one another at a rate of two centimetres per annum, which one would regard simply as a little geographical difficulty, were it not for the fact that here, in the flesh, are the European and Continental Plates waving a protracted but sincere goodbye. Here is the reason for Iceland's constant tremors and occasional traumas, its volcanoes, quakes and geysers, as well as the symbolic evidence of its unique global position between the continents. The Vikings of the Althing would, after all, be the first Europeans to reach America, though they would also, as Oscar Wilde noted and modern Icelanders proudly chorus, have the sense to leave it as it was.


A succession of extremely light planes and heavy-duty cars took the poets to Akureyri in the far north, a large glittering town by a royal-blue lake, where they had expected neo-Eskimos chipping a living out of the ice. From Akureyri inland to Lake Myvaln (plagued, rather surprisingly, by mosquitoes) and then Krafla, a mountain still smouldering after a tantrum in 1975, which turned its slopes to hot black crust or to stinking blue- yellow sulphur ponds. These ponds are to be found anywhere along that broad scar running south-west to north-east, where the plates meet. They are at their best at Geysir, ancestor of all the little geysers, bubbling idly or blowing out like a whale every 15 minutes, performances whose oddity and regularity reduce human spectators to giggling, until it becomes difficult to tell precisely who is reacting to whom.


(a) Ice. Iceland was thus unappealingly named in order to dissuade its over-population by further hordes from Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland or the Faroes. It is not in the least a region of blizzards and white- out, like Greenland or northern Canada. It has huge glaciers, but so does Switzerland. (Green-land, incidentally, was so named for the opposite reason: so that people would go there instead. This was the world's first act of travel agency.)

(b) Cold. The reason Iceland is inhospitable and harsh as a country is not that it is especially cold - it is warm for where it is - but that it is almost entirely composed of lava, which can be anything from red hot and running after you, to crumbling hot black earth like at Krafla, to thousand-year-old grey muck smeared for miles along a valley. Auden thought it looked like jam. Petersson opted for broken biscuits. Jamesson wasn't hungry. Nothing can grow on lava. A more accurate name for the country would be Stoneland, for much of the interior is nothing else. "The boys are thrilled!" said Nasa scientists when they visited central Iceland in the early 1960s, promptly sending Neil Armstrong and nine others there to study the surface and, no doubt, rehearse their lines.

(c) Gloomy Blond People. There is no universally accepted answer to the question of Who the Icelanders Were, but most of the natives encountered by the poets had a pretty good idea of who they wanted to have been. Not the Norwegians - whom they generally regard as humourless and bolshy (there's another big fist-fight on the horizon, and one poet we met described the sound of Norwegian as "a drunken baby trying to talk Swedish") - but the Irish, whom they regard as the reason for everything from their love of saga to their sense of humour to their surprisingly high number of ginger-haired people. Jamesson, one such person, had expected to stand out, but was instead welcomed as a lost Celtic cousin. The logic of Irish descent is simply that the Norwegian Vikings had Irish slaves, the "West men", who give their names to the Westmann Isles, south of the mainland.

Icelanders like the Danes, though, because 21 years after granting them independence in 1944, Copenhagen returned to them the manuscripts of their beloved sagas. Cheering crowds lined the streets of Reykjavik, waving Icelandic and Danish flags, as the cortge passed by. (Great Britain, please note: what a simple and painless way to make friends in the world.)

Not so very blond then, and not so gloomy either. The gloomiest people the poets met were the Prison Service - that is, two fellows in an office furrowing their brows over Iceland's crime figures (100 prisoners out of a nation of 250,000), and a novelist who spoke mournfully about his works of desolation and loneliness. We discovered the next day that this man had just won the Nordic world's equivalent of the Booker Prize, and this was his night of celebration. The Prize is known as the Optimist Award.


Drinking. The Icelanders could drink for Earth in the Galactic Games. Not, however, during the week. Those seen drunk during the week are regarded as alcoholics. Those seen sober at the weekend are regarded as hallucinations. One of the stranger sights in modern Europe is the many thousand-strong crowd of Icelandic youth that throngs central Reykjavik in the small hours of Saturday morning. They are all drunk, some are a bit rough. They bash each other in a bit, they don't do much damage, they go home. One day somebody will have the idea of asking them all back to his or her flat for a coffee, and a great tradition will be gone forever.


The land might be a wonder and a terror to an Icelander, but it's not much of a friend. The sea on the other hand means everything. He had to defeat it in order to live. Because the fight was hard, the reverence is great, but it's a farmer's respect, grounded in necessity. He will catch whales if he has to, he will not compromise on his fishing grounds. Our country tries to forget that a couple of trawlers saw off the Royal Navy, but then there is no fair contest between arrogance and survival. An Englishman's green issue is an Icelander's way of life, and though prosperity has come to this island, it came lately. Dire poverty is within living memory. The Icelander sees only the thinnest veneer of humankind spread out on a rock like a picnic tablecloth. For this reason, men spend half their lives at sea, hauling tons of haddock aboard in gale force winds and towering storms. Jamesson and Petersson "went along to see for themselves".


Petersson remembers only lying in a darkened room being severely ill, while outside he heard the Icelandic sailors joking and playing cards in the galley. The two phrases he recognised were "Englander" and "ha ha ha." Jamesson spent most of the voyage stuck in the cabin with a grinning helmsman whose only phrase of English was "White Hart Lane!" When the other sailors offered lunch to the green-faced Jamesson, he offered up yesterday's dinner by way of loose translation. In a Force Eight gale and lashing rains, the crew of the Gullborg brought in three tons of haddock over nine hours. Jamesson, roping himself to the mast like Billy Budd, tried to describe this for radio listeners. Petersson saw so little of the voyage that at the end of it he innocently asked Jamesson if the crew managed to catch anything.

As the poets were tottering ashore, a grizzled mariner beckoned them back for one last pearl of seafaring wisdom: "Do you know, are there tickets still for Pink Floyd in London?"


Dry land was a Westmann Isle, with its one town Heimaey, half-buried in ash in 1973. The eruption redesigned Heimaey's harbour, so it's a much better shape now. Treat Nature with respect, it does you the odd favour. Another of the Westmann Isles is Surtsey, born in 1963, the same year as Petersson. It erupted from the seabed and cooled down into one big slab of science project. Only our white-coated brethren are allowed to set foot on the place, to study how life develops. (Answer: Man turns up with a microscope and a clipboard.) Now a flower is said to be growing on Surtsey. It is to be hoped all poets will show restraint.


Last port of call was the hamlet of Breithavik, on the north-west peninsula, the westernmost point of Europe. The poets, faced with 48 hours there, a day's drive and 27 fjords from Reykjavik, without money, drink or any decent jokes left, discovered a warm sandy cove. Petersson wrote "Yorkshire" in metre-high letters. Jamesson drew a shape of Britain and stood in Hertfordshire. They watched the sun go down on their time in Iceland. Having seen their first End of the Earth, they left at dawn, sharpish.

! `Second Draft from Sagaland', a five-part radio series chronicling Glyn Maxwell's journey to Iceland, will be broadcast this week on Radio 3, starting at 9.30pm tomorrow. TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: Icelandair (071-388 5599) is the only airline to fly direct from London to Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik. An Apex return flight costs £297 until the end of March, £306 during April/May, and £319 during June/July/ August (all prices subject to an £18 airport tax). The Icelandair offices are also agents for the Iceland Tourist Board and can supply brochures and information. GETTING AROUND: Hire a car from £24-£58 per day, depending on the season; weekly rental from £168-£385. Book through the Tourist Board. FURTHER INFORMATION: Icelandair/Iceland Tourist Board (071-388 5599/071-388 7550).