And Now For Something Completely Different
Iceland is a bit odd, says the one-time Python Terry Jones. That's why he can't stop going back to the home of geysers, pagans - and sheds
Sunday 25 July 2004
Look! I'm biased - OK? I love Iceland. Though mind you - it's an odd place. I feel drawn to Reykjavik by some indefinable magic string ... always bringing me back. Though why should I feel so attached to a small town of sheds?
Actually only about half the buildings of Reykjavik look like corrugated iron sheds. But then maybe that's yet another reason why the place strikes such a chord with me. I love sheds.
Sheds are a good scale for us human beings. As soon as we start living in anything bigger and become householders we have a tendency to become pompous. And the Icelanders whom I know and love are anything but pompous.
My best friend Hilmar isn't pompous and he's the Chief Druid of Iceland. Well that's not quite true; he's actually the Allsherjargodi, which roughly translates as "High Chieftain", although I am assured that this is not what it is at all. Not much of a translation in fact. But I always think of him as Chief Druid. Iceland is one of the few places where paganism is still officially recognised, and Hilmar is empowered by the state to conduct marriages, burials and christenings ... well more like paganings, I suppose.
Hilmar is also one of Iceland's top film composers. That's how we met, back in 1990 at the European Film Awards, when he won the title of European Film Composer of the Year. We've been best friends ever since. In 1992 I came to Iceland to celebrate my 50th birthday, and the last time I was here was to be best man at Hilmar's wedding - which was of course a pagan ceremony (complete with ram's horn) held in the forest.
Well here I am on my third trip. I am officially recording a voiceover for an animated film. But really it's an excuse to see Hilmar, and to expose myself once again to the dark magic of Iceland.
The sun is shining as we drive from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik. The trip must be one of the oddest airport-to-town-centre journeys in the world: 40km of moonscape designed by the crazed art director of some 1950s science fiction film. Actually the look of this whole south-western peninsula of Iceland was created by some cataclysmic volcanic eruption long before the 1950s. A vast flood of red-hot lava calcified before it reached the sea - you can still see where the bubbles of magma froze at the very moment that they burst. It is an alien landscape waiting to be shaken by the heavy tread of Godzilla.
At Alftanes, we turn off to find Hilmar's new home by the sea. The front door is, naturally, unlocked. I don't think anything is locked up in Iceland - except the trolls and hobgoblins. From the garden we get spectacular views of the pyramid mountain, Keilir, and the glacier, Snaefellsjokull, where Jules Verne began his Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
It's bare and beautiful here - especially in the sunshine - but I notice that some of the trees are tethered to the ground with ropes - it's a guess that winds get pretty strong in the winter. Or else the trees get up and walk. Either is possible in Iceland. It's an odd place.
When we lift the lid of the children's sand-pit we find the sand is jet black. That's because they've taken the sand from the beaches, which in Iceland are black, not yellow. It's what you'd expect really. And there's a standing stone in the garden ... except that it's lying on its side. "I've always wanted a garden with a standing stone in it," Hilmar muses. It's not an ambition you often hear voiced at the Camberwell Gardeners' Guild. But the old Norse gods hover around Hilmar like they do around the whole landscape of which he and his music are part. And magic tinkles in the cool Icelandic air.
Hilmar's beautiful wife, Ragna, greets us. She is a celebrated novelist in Iceland - which isn't really surprising. In Iceland almost everyone is successfully engaged in one form of art or another. Nor is it the least bit remarkable that Ragna is beautiful. Pretty well all Icelandic women are beautiful. It's just something you learn to put up with. In my hotel, for example, I have to get used to being served breakfast by Julie Christie, while Julia Roberts comes to make up my bed and Uma Thurman is serving in the bar.
Did I mention that Iceland is a pretty odd place? It gets odder. For example Reykjavik is the only capital city I know where the city centre is an airport. Honestly! Well all right, the main shopping street is several hundred steps away from the terminal buildings and the Town Hall is not used as the control tower - though it could be. The airport, which now handles only domestic flights, was established by the Allies during the Second World War, and the city has grown up around it. But when the lease on the current down-town site runs out in 2017, it's a fair bet that the planes and runways will vanish into thin air and be replaced by all those town-centre amenities that really belong here, to join the signs banning tractors on working days and the one that announces the home of "The Hand-Knitting Association of Iceland".
Reykjavik actually means a lot to Icelanders. Even the name means something. When the first settlers came across this natural harbour with its broad plain overlooked by ancient mountains, they saw smoke rising from two hot springs, and so they called the place "Smokey Bay". Nowadays the smokiest place around is nearer to Keflavik. It's known as the Blue Lagoon, and everyone tells you that you should go there. And so you should.
Mark you, it's a bit odd. Like everything in Iceland. Did I mention that? When you arrive at what is the premier tourist resort in the country, you find yourself confronted by a huge industrial plant - apparently pumping pollution into the atmosphere. Here you are invited to take off your clothes and swim.
However if you can overcome your initial disorientation, it's well worth the effort. The clear blue waters of the lagoon are hot even in the depths of winter. If you fancy luxuriating in a vast pool of piping hot natural mineral water, while surrounded by ice and snow, this is the place for you. Not to be missed.
Actually, the "industrial plant" is a geo-thermal power station, harnessing the natural gases and hot water from what must be the geologically fascinating substrata of Iceland. The net result is that the entire city of Reykjavik has cheap central heating and hot water laid on by the subterranean gods of old. It's all old, old magic. Enchantment and the ancient ways don't just hover in the air. They lie deep in the soul of Iceland and they well up from the ground. The water, however, is also a bit odd - as you might expect. As soon as you turn on the bathroom tap, its sulphurous subterranean origins jump out at you like the genie from Aladdin's lamp. The odour of bad eggs ... or maybe just extremely eggy eggs ... permeates any act of ablution.
Reykjavik also means a lot to Icelanders because it's where half of them live. The entire island is about the size of England and Wales and yet it's lived in by about the same number of people who live in Brighton. The population of Reykjavik is 140,000 - which puts it on an equal footing with Slough.
Iceland is a family home. Everyone here is related within six generations, so Hilmar tells me. And here's another odd thing about Iceland. There aren't any surnames. Instead the Icelanders still recognise each other by patronyms - that is they are simply known as their father's son or daughter. Hilmar's father was also called Hilmar, so Hilmar is known as Hilmar Hilmarsson, as will his son. But my dad's name was Alick so, under the Icelandic system, I would be known as Terry Alicksson. If I'd been a girl I'd be Terry Alicksdottir or Dilysdottir.
Now all this has a very odd effect. On the one hand, you could say that there is no concept of "the family name" - no Smiths or Joneses - but on the other hand the system generates a quite obsessive interest in genealogy. Hilmar tells me that once you tell an old person who you are the son of, they will immediately reel off all your relatives and how closely related you and they are. There is even a map which shows where every Icelander comes from. Gunnar, who is directing the animated film I've come to do the voice for and who hasn't spoken up till now, says sadly over the lunchtime coffees that he is descended from a Scottish king. But then "all Icelanders are descended from royalty," says Hilmar, as if it were a curse laid upon them by the gods of old. They trace their origins back to the first settlers: Egill Skallagrimur and an Irish princess by the name of Melkorka.
Melkorled was one of the beautiful women abducted from the British Isles by the Viking day-trippers. To her captors she pretended to be deaf, but secretly she spoke Gaelic to her son, and when he grew up and finally travelled across the whale-road to the land of his ancestors, the Irish recognised him by his courtly speech and bearing.
The general lack of over-crowding on this island has other odd consequences. It means, for example, that the main national newspaper contains a huge number of obituaries. "No one is so unimportant in Iceland that they don't deserve an obituary in the newspaper," Hilmar explains. It also meant that everyone you meet is somebody. Which, to my way of thinking, is how it ought to be.
It may be that Iceland - for all that its capital city is half-sheds - is the most civilised place on the planet. Except, of course, for the trolls and hobgoblins. But for now, at least, they are all safely locked away ...
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