A couple of books crossed the table recently, and as often is the case one leads on to the other.
First up was Islands, a grand piece of research by Canadian J Edward Chamberlain. He takes us through time, from Formation to the Origin of Species; and around the globe, from Galapagos to Rockall, Jamaica to St Kilda.
From there he dips into island tales, inevitably touching on Defoe and Stevenson and so much more. A short book, packed with goodies.
Another island beckoned. As my addiction to Saturday night sub-titled drama grows I found myself in Iceland for a few weeks. Unlike the Danish dramas it is particularly difficult to pick up the gist of the Icelandic without those words at the bottom of the screen. But it managed to bring a series of darkness and gloom, long nights and harsh days, to brighten a Scottish winter.
I came across Sarah Moss’ Names For The Sea during the school holidays, urged by Urchins to drop into a bookshop, for them of course. Right from the opening pages I knew I was going to enjoy Sarah’s tales. Planning to move the family to Iceland for a year, and arriving at the same time as the IMF, she packed some essential boxes. From the kitchen came the sort of ingredients that have the drool rising, from pomegranate syrup to sumac, cumin too; and the one box of books allowed left thousands on the shelf. Instantly appealing.
And so to Iceland we go, family of four, children young, for a year. Long summer days; hot pools; long dark winter; unpronounceable names; and an economy in a bit of a crisis.
We learn early on that our guide is a Professor of Creative Writing, raising expectations of the read in store. She is teaching in Iceland for a year, including on travel writing. Higher still. She does not disappoint.
Between taking the job and arriving the crash of Icesave has done untold damage. The purchasing power of a local salary makes much of the little that remains in the shops unaffordable, and immediately the family is on the back foot, whilst trying to integrate and to learn. But they are welcomed, and help is at hand.
The boys pick up the language, as their parents struggle and the locals revert to faultless English. The cycle of the seasons rolls on and light becomes dark; layers added to the clothes. Eventually walking and cycling is impossible and they succumb to driving. It seems that indicators are surplus to requirements on the city free-for-all. The lava roads through the hills bring other challenges.
There are sagas to hear, and knitting to marvel at. And there are elves and hidden-folks which makes me think of a dear friend who would love those tales and pick up those vibes. The local customs are different, from speaking on the out-breath to food; from studying to raising families. The Yule Lads sounds to be my sort of winter festival.
During those post-crash years Iceland suffered, as foreign currency mortgages became unaffordable, and the diet went back to local produce with limited imports within the purchasing power. But from there the country grew, as we find out later.
As the time on the island draws to a close there is another event. Remember The Ash Cloud? Well that keeps people stranded, visitors away, departures delayed. Eventually the family gets back to England, to move house again, from Canterbury to Cornwall. And as the summer tourists flock to the south west a holiday is due, and back they go to Iceland; to old friends and familiar places, to parts unvisited too. The boys lose the language as quickly as they picked it up. But they have purchasing power this time, and prices are affordable.
I think I’d like to spend time in Iceland, and certainly enjoyed reading these well-told tales of the Moss family’s year. Could you do it, if you had the right job opportunity?
So with islands to the fore, and dreams of summer, I’ll sign off with the current ear worm; enjoy The Island: