Dinner, elves and Björk
Last week, I told you how I visited Iceland on a book tour in 1995. I had dinner the first evening with my publishers Ólafur, Pétur and three of their colleagues.
On the way, I spotted my first tree! It was, squat, no more than ten feet high, its naked, twisted branches shivering in the front garden of a small house. The house itself seemed to be constructed of white-painted corrugated iron with a red-painted iron roof. Indeed the hill in the centre of Reykjavík seemed to be covered in these brightly painted toy metal houses, gleaming in the evening sunshine. It was all rather jolly.
We went to a crowded restaurant and ate delicious fish. By this time, I was becoming used to dinners with publishers. Publishers are by and large well-read, friendly, interesting people. The talk often revolves around books, new and old, and people. Despite the bad press they sometimes get, people in book marketing love books as much as editors do.
The person in charge of marketing my book was Helga, a lively blonde woman. She asked me whether I had heard of the hidden people.
‘No,’ I said, puzzled. ‘Who are they?’ I wondered if they were some especially hard-to-reach target market.
‘They are all around us, here in Iceland,’ she said.
‘OK,’ I said, looking around. ‘Can I see them?’
‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘They are hidden people. You can’t see them.’
‘I see,’ I said. A lie in so many ways. ‘So how do you know they exist?’
Helga went on to explain that some people could in fact see these hidden people at least occasionally, people like her grandmother who had had a number of dealings with them. They were similar to elves. They lived in rocks all over Iceland, and occasionally imparted their wisdom to the more conventional human inhabitants.
I checked the others around the table. They were listening seriously. I detected a hint of amusement in one of Helga’s sales colleagues.
‘Do you believe in these hidden people?’ I asked Helga.
‘Absolutely. Ólafur is an expert on them.’
I checked the sophisticated publisher who smiled benignly.
‘Pétur?’ I said. While Helga seemed a little touchy-feely, I thought I could rely on Pétur for some healthy cynicism. ‘Do you believe in these elves?’
‘Of course I do,’ he said, his face granite. I searched for a twinkle, but his blue eyes were dead serious.
I had absolutely no idea. It occurred to me that the entire Icelandic publishing industry might be crazy. Or were they just having me on?
That’s the kind of feeling I have often experienced in Iceland
The conversation shifted, as it often does in Iceland, to the small size of the population and how as a result everyone knows everyone else. Icelanders claim that in a country of only a couple of hundred thousand people everyone is bound to know everyone else. This is patently not true. The population is similar to the London borough of Barnet, yet most people in Barnet don’t know each other. I don’t even know most of the people in the block of flats in which I live.
Yet Icelanders do seem to know each other, and if they don’t, there is only one degree of separation: they will know someone who knows someone. This is partly because Icelandic extended families are seriously large – a generation back, eight or nine children was not uncommon, which soon leads to dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins. But it’s mostly because Icelanders are furious networkers. If they happen to meet a stranger, the first five minutes of conversation is spent triangulating whom they know in common.
There really were very few famous Icelanders in the 1990s. In fact there was just one: the singer, Björk. Ólafur was pointing out how even the most famous Icelanders were down to earth, how a postman would address the president by her first name – the president was a woman at that time – and how you might come across a celebrity acting like a normal person in a bar.
‘Like Björk,’ said Helga. ‘Have you heard of Björk, the singer?’
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘Well, she is sitting just over there. Right behind you.’
I wasn’t going to be made a fool of twice in one evening. I glanced at Pétur, who almost smiled, and refused to turn around.
But when we left the restaurant, I glanced back at the noisy group in the corner behind me, in the middle of which was a small woman with short black hair and very pale high cheekbones, laughing.
Thinking of Iceland – in Germany
A couple of years later, I went on a book tour to Germany. It was here I learned that despite British rumours to the contrary, Germans do actually have a sense of humour. At any rate, they laughed at me several times, and they were set off into hysterics by a small Swedish lady named Maj Sjöwall, who read to them something about the police surrounding a dog. I was leaving the event when one of my fellow authors, a German crime novelist, mentioned she had once visited Iceland.
‘So have I,’ I said. ‘It’s a seriously weird country.’
‘But wouldn’t it be a great place to set a novel?’
‘Why don’t you write one?’ she asked.
‘I write financial thrillers,’ I said. ‘I don’t see how I could possibly write one of those set in Iceland. The country is too small; their banks are tiny. I doubt there is any financial crime there.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is.’
And I thought no more about the country for ten years.
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Photo credit: Mihai-Bogdan Lazar