- Last Places: A Journey to the North by Lawrence Millman
Sphere, 256 pp, £5.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 349 10225 2
In ancient times, the civilised peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East contemplated with curiosity and usually with horror what lay to the north – or rather, what they assumed on the basis of rumour, myth and theory lay to the north. For a Greek or an Arab, most of Europe north of the Alps seemed uninhabitable by normal human beings. As late as the late Middle Ages, the Arab scholar Quazwini was eloquent about what he had heard of winter in Rum (probably eastern Europe): ‘Winter in Rum is an affliction, a punishment and a plague; during it the air becomes condensed and the ground petrified; it makes faces to fade, eyes to weep, noses to run and change colour; it causes the skin to crack and kills many beasts. Its earth is like flashing bottles, its air like stinging wasps; its night rids the dog of his whimpering, the lion of his roar, the birds of their twittering and the water of its murmur, and the biting cold makes people long for the fires of Hell.’
Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992
If the account of Lawrence Millman’s Last Places given by Chauncey Loomis (LRB, 23 July) is faithful to the book then both author and reviewer appear to be publicising at least one very misleading stereotype. I’m acquainted only with one of the places referred to, Shetland – ‘the Shetlands’ is a solecism – and the portrayal there is a gross caricature. Far from being an isolated community on the continent’s edge, the island’s inhabitants are as cosmopolitan and mobile as any in Europe, and were so long before the oil boom, thanks to the tradition of most of their young men spending time as merchant seamen. Walls is not a village but a township of scattered houses and does not possess any streets. The Norn language died out in Foula in the early 18th century and inhabitants capable of reciting, without understanding, some of its poetry haven’t been around since the beginning of this one. One suspects that the people Mill-man quotes were, when interrogated by him, engaging in the traditional pastime of taking the piss out of verbosely curious strangers. There’s even a specific dialect word for the practice: it’s called ‘skjymping’.
Vol. 14 No. 17 · 10 September 1992
Having spent the last month in Reykjavfk, I have only just caught up with Chauncey Loomis’s review of Lawrence Millman’s Last Places (LRB, 23 July). It is not clear whether it is Loomis or Millman who writes of the ‘migratory eastward route of those cranky, restless people the Norse, from Norway to the Shetlands to the Faeroes, then to Iceland, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland’, but I recommend he consult a map. The innocence of the Newfoundlander who thought the Pope lived in Ottawa seems to have been catching.