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Northern Exposure: A warm welcome in the midnight sun

WH Auden was wrong: Iceland might be bleak, but its capital offers a generous intimacy. By Mihir Bose
"THERE ARE no trees or trains or architecture, fruits and greens are insufficient for health and culture is limited by lack of wealth." Not perhaps an inspiring description, but I was not going to be dissuaded from my trip to Iceland by Auden and MacNeice's damning of it, penned after their visit in 1937.

Neither was I put off by the old stereotypes of the place - that it was full of cold, blonde, blue-eyed beauty queens who only fell for people like George Best. More disturbing was the fact that, on my last and only other trip to Iceland 12 years ago, there was such a lack of strong beer that, after landing at Keflavik airport, everyone rushed from the plane to the liquor store in the duty-free area and stocked up on alcohol to take with them to the city.

Given the opportunity to visit Reykjavik as a stopover on a transatlantic flight, I was curious to find out how the place had changed. Thankfully, I found that finding strong beer is no longer a problem, but the drive from Keflavik to Reykjavik hadn't changed much. It was an unending spread of flat, rusty-brown lava fields which must surely have been either the practice-ground for Neil Armstrong's footprints, or for a few nuclear explosions. The ground is so barren that even the Icelanders joke about the lack of trees. As we passed what looked like a collection of dwarf Christmas trees, an Icelandic lady next to me said, "Look: our Icelandic forest", and laughed. But the monotony of lava fields suddenly breaks as first mountains, then Reykjavik, emerge.

The capital has moved a long way from the 1930s, when WH Auden bitched that it was "Lutheran, drab and remote". Auden spent a miserable week in Reykjavik, getting drunk and wondering if the would-be English band leader he was accompanying was really a gigolo. I spent a couple of hours in the centre, and was struck by a capital city which has none of the arrogance that capitals usually exude. Reykjavik has the unexpectedly pleasant feel of being no more than a rather intimate village - the kind of village where, in the midst of commerce, you suddenly encounter generosity.

Unable to find a single English-language book on Iceland in Reykjavik's main bookshop, I was about to leave when the lady at the counter stopped me. She pressed on me a copy of a catalogue in English, listing every book available in Iceland, and waved aside my attempts to pay for it. And, as I walked away from a bookshop without paying, quite legitimately, it struck me as more the sort of gesture you might see in a remote village, its inhabitants touched by the presence of curious visitors, rather than the capital of a country.

The city's crowds gathered that night around Austarstraeti for their annual celebration of liberation from Danish rule. Underneath a marquee, in front of the main bus stop, a band played, and young men and women poured out of Reykjavik's bars to form a huge, pulsing throng in the roads leading up to and beyond the harbour. I had gone there fearing trouble. The night before, there had been another huge, open-air Independence Eve party, and an Icelandic woman had said with some shock that there had been a riot with crowds attacking the police station.

Tonight, though, it was almost anaesthetically calm. Long after midnight I walked back to my hotel in wonderful sunshine. Auden had found the night-long broad daylight depressing, and it certainly can be unsettling; getting up in the morning I did not know whether dawn had just broken or I had slept all through the day to dinner. Yet, unusually, the poet seemed to have missed the magic. There is something special about the translucent summer light with its perpetual, mellow, sunshine, always promising dawn at midnight or dusk at daybreak.