A book tour in the land of lava and tin houses
If you ever fly to Iceland from Europe, be sure to book yourself into a window seat on the right-hand side of the aeroplane. Your first view of Iceland will be unforgettable.
My first landing at Keflavík airport was in the autumn of 1995. My debut novel, a financial thriller entitled Free To Trade, had been published in January that year to an acclaim which was both satisfying and bewildering. I was lucky: it was the right book at the right time for the publishing world, and the following twelve months exploded in the competing demands of a frenzy of publicity and a contractual requirement to sit down and write a second book. I received invitations from foreign publishers to travel to Australia, the United States, France, Norway, Denmark, Holland. And Iceland.
I was urged by my agent to accept most of these invitations, but I didn’t really have to go to Iceland. Although its population are avid readers, there are only three hundred thousand of them; it’s scarcely an important market in the global scale of things. I knew nothing about the place, but I thought what the hell? It’s only three days.
Peering out of the window, the clouds beneath me shredded to reveal the thick finger of black rock that is the Reykjanes Peninsula at the south-west tip of Iceland, pointing towards me. In the distance, bulges of larger, firmer rock covered in snow, rippled and flexed. A tall plume of smoke, or was it steam, rose upwards from a spot just inland from a small town clinging to the shore.
As the plane descended the rock became rockier, a prairie of stone, gashed and scarred. Browns and yellows and golds emerged from the black, illuminated by an unlikely soft yellow sunshine slinking beneath the clouds prowling out to sea. A single white house sat in a puddle of rich green grass by the shore, where white caps nibbled at its boundaries. A windsock stretched out horizontally.
People, there were no trees. Not a one.
The aircraft touched down on a strip of smooth tarmac several miles long miraculously brushed on to this jagged wilderness. We taxied alongside giant camouflaged golf balls, tennis balls, radio masts and radar dishes, passing two enormous US transport planes. We had arrived at one of NATO’s most important airbases of the Cold War.
I remembered reading a colleague’s country study on Iceland during my days working for an international bank. Mark had pointed out that from the US government’s point of view, supporting Iceland was cheaper than building an aircraft carrier and it was a lot less likely to sink. From Keflavík, American aircraft could patrol the ‘Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap’, searching for the Soviet Navy, keeping it out of the North Atlantic seaways to Europe.
At that time, Iceland’s international airport took up a small corner of the airbase. I went through passport control and stood by the baggage carousel, where I was met by Ólafur, my Icelandic publisher. After a warm greeting a thought occurred to me.
‘How did you get in here?’ I asked. We were, after all, on the air side of the customs barrier.
‘No problem,’ said Ólafur. ‘I’m the consul in Iceland for the Dutch government.’
It was the first inkling of something that was going to become increasingly obvious over the following couple of days. Icelanders never have only one job. It is a matter of pride that their nation should have all the trappings of a fully functioning country: diplomats, civil servants, authors, musicians, poets, artists, dancers, footballers. You name it, the Icelanders want to do it.
But with only three hundred thousand people, there are not enough bodies to fill all these posts full-time, which is why Ólafur doubled up as Dutch consul. In the coming days I met journalists and publishers who played in the national football league and sang in the national opera.
A year later, Ólafur was the hot favourite in the Reykjavík press for the ultimate Saturday job: president of the country. Sadly, he decided not to run.
Once through customs, I met Pétur, Ólafur’s sidekick. Ólafur was the boss: a smooth, sophisticated intellectual in his fifties. Pétur was about my age, that is in his thirties, tall, blond and austere looking, with a biting humour delivered in the most Icelandic deadpan.
Icelanders have a profound sense of irony, which combines dangerously with a rock-like reserve. You can be speaking to one for several minutes, have decided that they are shy and a little simple, before you realize that they have been gently but effectively taking the piss out of you the whole time without you realizing it. Pétur can still do that to me.
The Drive to Reykjavik
Iceland’s international airport is actually forty kilometres outside Reykjavík. The road is a long straight black ribbon pulled taught across a lava field.
After a short distance, we turned off on to a rough track and stopped by a series of a dozen or so wooden racks, about eight feet high, on which were dangling what looked like grey-brown rags. These were cod, salted and left out to dry in the wind and occasional sunshine. The resultant stockfish will keep for months, possibly years, and is a delicacy in Portugal and West Africa. Icelanders have been doing this to fish for centuries.
It was a lonely, bleak spot. I looked out over the sea of stone surrounding me. A lonely mountain, in an almost perfect cone, sprouted up a few kilometres away.
‘You see all those crevasses?’ said Pétur. I looked at the deep gashes on the rolling landscape. ‘It’s the perfect place to hide a body.’
The thriller writer in me appreciated the point. The soft English desk-worker shivered.
Pétur showed me the frozen lava. It seemed ancient, but was in geological terms brand spanking new. It had been spewed out of a volcano only a few thousand years ago.
Then mosses and lichens had grown on it and begun to nibble. They were in brilliant but unlikely colours: bright yellow, lime green, soft orange, glowing brown, a shimmering grey. Eventually the lava crumbles and creates a thin layer of soil to which grasses cling. There were a few clumps of these, already yellow at this time of year.
Later, a little further towards Reykjavík, we passed a fresher lava spew, black as a coal hole, where the lichen was only just beginning to establish itself.
Still no trees.
Next stop was a power station, the source of the plume of steam that I had seen reaching up towards our aeroplane as we had landed. The plant took the hot water bubbling out of the earth and converted it to electricity which coursed along power lines to Reykjavík. The process produced hot water, and someone had recently had the bright idea of creating a large swimming pool in the rock to hold the stuff.
October in Iceland is cold, the air was fresh and a stiff breeze bit my cheeks. Ólafur, Pétur and I were wearing coats, but yards away Icelanders were cavorting in the hot water in swimming trunks. The water there is an unreal shade of bright light blue. The Icelanders' skin was a pale pink.
This, of course, was the ‘Blue Lagoon’, images of which now daub the walls of London Underground stations and bring hordes of tourists flocking to its warmth. I had never heard of it.
We reached Reykjavík. The outskirts of the city reminded me of the outskirts of Warsaw: grey, dull, soulless.
Ólafur and Pétur took me to my hotel in Reykjavík, which was very comfortable, but housed in an unprepossessing block of grey. I had a shower. Ólafur had told me that almost all Reykjavík energy came from the magma bubbling beneath the earth, and I could believe it. I emerged from the shower smelling faintly of sulphur, ready for whatever an evening in Reykjavík held for me.