All the Cultural Bases

Ian Sansom

  • Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell
    Faber, 160 pp, £7.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 571 17539 2

This is tricky. First the facts. In 1936 W.H. Auden persuaded Faber and Faber to commission a travel book about Iceland. He spent three months in the country, part of the time travelling with his friend Louis MacNeice and a group of schoolboys and a teacher from Bryanston School. Auden and MacNeice collaborated in the writing of the book, which was published in 1937 as Letters from Iceland. It contained not only Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, but also a number of other putative letters (to Richard Crossman and William Coldstream, for instance), MacNeice’s ‘Eclogue from Iceland’, the famously camp prose-piece ‘Hetty to Nancy’, and the joint-authored ‘Last Will and Testament’. According to Auden, MacNeice wrote about eighty of the 240 pages (the review in the TLS compared MacNeice’s contributions to ‘desolate pools unmoved beside a volcano five times in eruption’). As well as the poems and prose pieces the book includes 52 black and white photographs, all taken by Auden, appendices containing pie-charts and graphs, and a fine, coloured folding map. There is an extensive bibliography and one chapter is entirely devoted to an anthology of excerpts from other books about Iceland. The pages of the volume are thick, white unwater-marked wove paper and the whole thing – as eloquently described by Bloomfield and Mendelson, in their Auden Bibliography – is

bound in brilliant yellowish green (130) cloth lettered down the spine: ‘[in red] LETTERS FROM ICELAND [in bluish grey] W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’. Across the foot of the spine in bluish grey: ‘FABER’. All edges trimmed, top edge stained light grey. White dust jacket with a halftone photograph and printed in red and black.

My own copy of the book, purchased second-hand two years ago, once belonged to a certain B. Mellor, who apparently bought the book in Blackwells, Oxford, in October 1937, price nine shillings. All in all, my Letters from Iceland is a sturdy and well-made object of considerable literary and historical interest, which has sustained numerous readings and spillages, while remaining in excellent condition.

Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell visited Iceland in 1994, to retrace the steps of Auden and MacNeice. They made a recording of the trip for a five-part BBC radio series, Second Draft from Sagaland, first broadcast on Radio 3 in 1995, and Faber have now published Moon Country, their book about the journey. The title comes from a phrase in a line from Letters from Iceland, in MacNeice’s poem ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’ (‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country’). Moon Country contains poems, bits and pieces of reportage, a three-act verse-play by Maxwell, ‘Harald and the Lonely Hearts’, a long, untitled prose piece about his childhood by Armitage, extracts from an interview with Iceland’s President, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and some reminiscences about Auden by the Icelandic poet Matthías Johannessen. It is published in paperback and contains 14 black and white photographs, no maps, no diagrams and no reading list. My own copy of the book is dog-eared and dirty after a few read-throughs, and the spine has virtually disintegrated.

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