POP / On The Road: Blonde erudition

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The Independent Online
I get into Reykjavik at 3.30am, just as it's getting dark. At 3.45am it starts getting light again. That's the kind of wild, nutty place that Reykjavik is. It's the eve of the biggest bank holiday weekend of the year, it's wet, it's 55F, and most young Icelanders are being rained on at festivals. In Iceland, summers are so wet that you go to festivals equipped as a condom, rather than with one.

There are 14 recording studios in Reykjavik but only three liquor stores. These stores are closed from Friday evening to Tuesday morning. A sort of numb disbelief settles upon this touring poet. 'Don't worry Martin,' says Dora, my host. 'We'll sort something out.' Bibulous locals stock up well in advance.

My first performance is in a large disco. In the washroom, prior to my performance, I'm accosted by a 6ft 5in, crop-haired bouncer. He shakes my hand and says: 'I'm really looking forward to your set. I'm a big poetry fan.' Relieved and incredulous I reply, 'Yes you are.'

There are about 260,000 Icelanders, descended from Norwegian, Hebridean and Irish Vikings who arrived some 1,000 years ago. They clearly didn't let anybody ugly on to the longships: people here are enviably tall, clean-limbed and good- looking. They also buy more books and records per capita than any other nation on earth and are intimidatingly well-educated. They formed the world's first parliament, or Althing, in AD920 and haven't looked back since.

Two days later I see the modern parliament house in Reykjavik. An imposingly small building, it has less apparent security than an allotment shed. Anyone with the airfare and a small family selection-box of Brock's fireworks could cause a major international incident here. But nobody hates the Icelanders. The only people who ever went to war with them were us. And we lost.

The biggest band to come out of Iceland were Stuthmenn. In the Eighties they walked on water. A handy thing to do in Iceland. They toured China and Japan with Wham in 1984 and sold an awful lot of records. Compared to Stuthmenn, the Sugarcubes were punk outsiders who fared much better abroad. In spite of this, pictures of Bjork ('a nice kid,' says Dora, who's known her since she was nine) are everywhere.

My poetry performances go down well. In general, the Icelanders' command of English is slightly better than our own. Not only do audiences understand the humorous poems, but they laugh at the joke I stole which ends, 'No. You're doing that. I'm setting fire to the shed.'

Crime is so low in Iceland that a stabbing made second item on the TV news. A young man at a meat factory had accidentally stabbed himself with a fileting knife while working. I'm also struck by how clean and energy efficient this country is. All hot water comes from naturally heated volcanic sources and electricity from hydro-generators.

On my penultimate night here, myself and three Icelandic poets, Sjon, Linda and Elisabet perform in relay at four of Reykjavik's busiest pub / cafes. The Poetry Pub Crawl goes down a storm and Linda asks me about England. 'When they hear the word 'Poetry' in England,' I reply. 'They generally reach for their dictionaries.'

By 3am on Friday, Young Iceland has decided that it's absolutely mad and it just doesn't care what it does. The whole square below my hotel window has, in Viz- speak, gone completely hatstand. Hundreds of young people are roaring, trousers-down drunk. One chap, trying to weave out of the square on a bicycle, successfully falls off headfirst into a bush. In spite of the noise level, however, there's no outright vandalism or serious fighting. This is apparently an average Friday night in Reykjavik, even if the roar from the square below sounds like a poll-tax riot. 'They're just having one hell of a party,' says my companion Jakob Magnusson. Appropriately enough, the last sign I read before leaving Keflavik airport on Sunday is above an appeal box. It says: 'Leave Your Tree In Iceland.'

(Photograph omitted)