Lucy Caldwell: Falling in love with Iceland


I spent the weekend in Reykjavik, and took my dad with me as my research assistant. At least, that's what I told him. He reckons he was really there to pick up the tab: a bottle of house wine can be upwards of £30, and even a humble postage stamp costs five times what you'd pay back home.

You don't get many tourists in Iceland in January - they come in the summer, for the endless light. But Iceland is eerily, hauntingly beautiful at this time of year. The twilight lasts for hours, and for much of the time, because the sun is beneath the horizon, things cast no shadow. After a day or so, my thoughts seemed to take on some of the liquid clarity of the air and light: I had an epiphany about a play I've been struggling with, and felt the sudden, irresistible tugging of a new short story.

But the main reason I went to Iceland was not for my own work, but to follow in the footsteps of another Ulster-born writer, the poet Louis MacNeice, whose centenary is this year. In 1936 he and W H Auden spent the summer travelling around Iceland studying the old sagas, and - wealthy patron forthcoming - I'd love to do the same. The poets' collected scribblings were published by Faber as Letters From Iceland, which I took as my guidebook. In it, the duo are in high spirits, dashing off verse-letters to Lord Byron and eclogues to friends back home, alongside the escapades of an imaginary group of schoolgirls trekking across the uninhabited glaciers on horseback. In an early chapter, they quote a Viking named Ketil Flatnose, saying, "To that place of fish may I never come in my old age," and the wonderfully-named Ebenezer Henderson Esquire, an intrepid Victorian gentleman-traveller, who remarks sniffily that Iceland is "totally devoid of every source of intellectual gratification". But I fell in love with the place, and with the people, and with the idea of the young poets' adventures.

My tour guide suggested that my (and MacNeice's) immediate affinity with Iceland might be due to the fact that three-quarters of Icelandic women have largely Northern Irish DNA: when the Vikings invaded, they took the prettiest girls back home with them. I was insufferably smug at this revelation - until, alas, Dad pointed out that, by that logic, my antecedents must've been the ugly ones who were left behind.

Even amid the volcanoes and geysers and geothermal lagoons we found time to scribble some postcards to friends and family. I may be planning to update the 70-year-old travel guide, but "e-mails" - or indeed "text messages" - "from Iceland" don't quite have the same ring. Due to the prohibitive postal costs, however, they'll have to be hand-delivered.

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