Yearning for Polar Seas

James Hamilton-Paterson

  • The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna
    Viking, 334 pp, £16.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 670 91395 2
  • The Idea of North by Peter Davidson
    Reaktion, 271 pp, £16.95, January 2005, ISBN 1 86189 230 6

My father was born in China and no doubt I caught from him his own boyhood tingle at the idea of ships and their Empire routes, especially long ocean voyages by P&O liner. Excitement, homesickness, the magic of the word ‘Orient’: to a child growing up in South-East England in the 1940s and 1950s, such elements blended early into a near-poetry of longing for a vertical sun. By the time I was ten I had devoured shelves of adventure books set in the mysterious East. They were full of the clichés of the Raj: flying fish, lascar seamen, coolies, amahs, syces, green-eyed idols and fiendish poisons leached from tropical plants unknown to European science. At 11 I embarked on my first love affair, falling hopelessly for Kim. Never have I yearned so much to inhabit someone else’s skin as I did Kim’s. Even now, past sixty, I can catch him flitting through some dappled interior and feel again an urge to be up and lurking in hot bazaars, fluent in many languages, chewing betel nut with street vendors and taking tea with governors. At some moment in my first decade my inner compass was irretrievably set. Like Auden, who was never not thinking of Iceland, I have never not faced the Orient.

Joanna Kavenna’s inner compass also seems to have been set early, but hers pointed north. Even as a child in Suffolk she loved the cold: ‘Winters were never cold enough, even when the snows fell and blocked the roads.’ I, too, can still be thrilled by the reflected light of overnight snow blanching the bedroom ceiling in the morning, the new hush and the sharp, faintly sooty smell. But these are sensory pleasures vaguely coloured with nostalgia. They don’t engage my imagination. Even as a child, though I read about polar explorers and enjoyed the mise-en-scène of polar bears, white-outs, ice floes and the rest, the word ‘north’ exercised over me little of the magic it has for so many others, including Kavenna and Peter Davidson.

‘The Idea of North’ was the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s phrase and the title of a radio documentary he made. ‘I have an enormous compulsion to look upon the polar seas,’ he wrote to a friend in 1965, ‘and I find that this is growing apace each year, so that I really must get it out of my system somehow.’ Although the North was a perpetual hulking presence in Canada’s unconscious, it was scarcely fashionable at the time. The Inuit were still known indiscriminately as Eskimos, and it would be decades before they were given their own territory to administer. But a northward urge has always been detectable in Canadian history and a facile parallel has often been drawn with the westward urge of settlers in the United States. But this is to obscure a fundamental difference. As the historian R.A.J. Phillips observed in Canada’s North: ‘The ferment that led explorers to the Canadian frontier did not begin in the 15th-century courts of Lisbon and Madrid, or in the counting-houses of London and Bristol. It started much earlier, in Scandinavia.’ Half a millennium earlier, actually, when Erik the Red and his Vikings landed in Greenland and from there began to settle Newfoundland. Northern Europe’s connections with Northern America were well established centuries before Columbus was born. Glenn Gould was intensely aware of his mother’s Highland Scottish ancestry; and Florence Greig used to claim distant kinship with Edvard Grieg, based on the fact that both families were descended from the MacGregors.

Gould’s interest in the North was deeply involved with his own sense of apartness. Despite his yearning to see polar seas, he perhaps wisely never pursued the quest into Arctic regions, as so many others had done, tracing an imaginary path towards truth and insight. Instead, he travelled halfway up Hudson Bay on the Muskeg Express and recorded passengers talking about the North. The resulting programme was an extraordinary feat of tape-editing and soundtrack-laying, orchestrated as though it were a score, the voices weaving in and out of audibility in a contrapuntal fashion against the ground bass of the train’s wheels. It was first broadcast in 1967 and when I heard it I was electrified by its originality, by the achievement of making a documentary about a vast region without a single National Geographic banality concerning square miles, population figures or the value of timber and fur exports. The programme was the first of a projected trilogy; the second was to be about Newfoundland. Gould went there in 1968, fully aware of its Viking history, ‘in search of characters for a documentary, the subject of which was by no means clear to me’. As one of his biographers, Otto Friedrich, comments, the subject was perfectly clear: Gould was simply fascinated by the idea of isolation and solitude, perhaps the major part of the North’s allure for artists.

In 1998 I went to Newfoundland myself. Outside the harbour of St John’s I admired the sad procession of eroded bergs streaming past (it was late June), but once I had satisfied this naive touristic urge there was a disaster to confront. The closure of the Grand Banks cod fishery was slowly overwhelming this large island. Newfoundland’s waters had been exploited by Spanish, Portuguese and Cornish fishermen since at least the 16th century. Theirs was a hugely profitable industry that supplied the whole of Catholic Europe with salt cod and made many fortunes long before the Cape Codders arrived to join in the plunder of this seemingly inexhaustible natural resource. It was a reminder that the northward urge had always linked hard-nosed enterprise with exploration, and the cod and furs and sealskins that poured southwards over centuries provided more than enough incentive for further voyages of discovery.

Newfoundland showed all the consequences of an industry’s collapse: depression, anxiety, emigration. The older folk in isolated outports were clinging on in the hope that the cod would return. They had few other options. Their children could leave, but fishing was their only skill, handed down from their ancestors who had arrived mostly from 18th-century Britain to exploit these dangerous but fertile waters. Presumably, such will be the fate of the Inuit people who are currently helping to service and expand the oil and gas fields of Alaska’s North Slope and Barrow Arch. Before very long these, too, will be exhausted and the Inuit will be left to confront the smirched wilderness of their homeland having lost their old survival skills.

I thought of the Beothuks, the now extinct native tribe of Newfoundland, as I crossed its squall-swept interior of lakes and bogs and forest. The scene appeared desolate only at first sight: looking more closely I could see the tracks of birds and small animals such as voles, not to mention a generous variety of midges. Such landscapes can appear bleak and lifeless to an urban visitor, but there is abundant life even beneath snow. Barry Lopez, in his 1986 book Arctic Dreams, makes clear that, far from being a sterile desert of ice and snow, the Arctic remains a dynamic habitat for a few well-adapted species.

Perhaps unfairly, I reread Arctic Dreams before reading Davidson and Kavenna so as to get my bearings again. I say ‘unfairly’ because neither author aims to do anything as broad as Lopez, whose book combined an awareness of the region’s history with a naturalist’s knowledge of its ecology. Kavenna pursues the myth of Thule, and Davidson the imaginative allure the North has for artists and writers. Neither mentions Lopez and, good as their books are, neither leaves behind such an imaginative and informed impression of one of the planet’s grandest landscapes.

Kavenna takes as her point of departure the epigraph Fridtjof Nansen used in Farthest North, his account of his journey aboard Fram towards the North Pole. He chose a quotation from Seneca’s Medea: ‘A time will come in later years when the ocean will unloose the bands of things, when the immeasurable earth will lie open, when seafarers will discover new countries, and Thule will no longer be the extreme point among the islands.’ Kavenna quotes other passages from the play’s Chorus that foreshadow Candide’s sentiments about the superior happiness of stay-at-homes. It is an effective way to start a book about the pursuit of historical Thule as it moved slowly northwards. To Seneca’s Roman contemporaries, Thule was northern Britain. To Tacitus a little later it was probably in Shetland. Still later it hovered in Scandinavia before turning into a synecdoche standing for pretty much anything north of the Arctic Circle (itself an imaginary boundary arbitrarily drawn). It was always a product of the mythology that comes of wishful thinking, on the one hand, and a lack of accurate navigation, on the other. In this respect Thule was similar to the imaginary islands in the Atlantic that took five hundred years to fade away. Kavenna visits Thule’s principal former sites: Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland and Svalbard, producing a series of lively essays on each and on much else besides.

Among the best chapters are those on Iceland, which by the 19th century had turned into an exotic northern Arcadia for intrepid British travellers. Richard Burton, William Morris, Anthony Trollope, Mrs Alec Tweedie and Sabine Baring-Gould all trooped to the land of pumice and geysers. Most were ravished by the spectacle but all eventually had to come to terms with Iceland as a real country, struggling and dirt-poor, not any sort of Arcadia. This gap between what tourists are looking for and the actuality of geology was well illustrated as Kavenna’s book went to press when another Arcadia, the ‘tropical paradise’ of pre-tsunami Thailand, was suddenly revealed to be tectonically unstable. Kavenna is discreetly sharp about her fellow tourists in Iceland and the fantasy quest for stillness and solitude that involves roaring around in jeeps.

No explorer has ever set off without preconceptions of what he will find. All versions of Thule here come heavily freighted with expectations. Imaginary lands dissipate slowly, but leave their myths behind. Auden and MacNeice went to Iceland in the 1930s full of their Victorian predecessors’ accounts but overheard a German remark: ‘Für uns Island ist das Land.’ Kavenna has a good chapter on the Munich-based Thule Society, which imagined an Icelandic Thule as the lost Aryan homeland. She describes the society’s promotion of the occult claptrap of runes and northern racial purity that fed so comfortably into Nazi ideology. It was Thule’s final mythic role. Its last objective reality is as a US base on the coast of Greenland to which Kavenna makes a bleak trip at the end of her book. A Cold War relic, Thule Air Base survives in a scaled-down way, on perpetual standby in the new War on Terror: about as limp a pretext for a military base inside the Arctic Circle as one could imagine. Indeed, Kavenna might have said that this ultimate incarnation of Thule is as firmly illusory as all the others: a tenuous community waiting to do battle with an abstract noun. The base was built on the site of an Inuit village and burial ground (it isn’t clear why: there is hardly a shortage of space in Greenland), requiring the deportation of the people to a custom-built township miles up the coast. The Inuit wish to return, and a stand-off continues. Meanwhile, the boredom is so intense on-base that a good fancy-dress costume is described by a serviceman as being worth its weight in gold. This gem is well noted; most of Kavenna’s observations in Greenland point to the depression of its inhabitants, Americans and Inuit alike, in a barren wilderness. Lopez, however, visited similar bases in Alaska – in his case non-military installations such as oil drilling sites – and was able to reveal the life and lore that survive. He also has a very beautiful description of the Arctic phenomenon of fata Morgana, the apparent mirage of distant mountain ramparts that is an illusion rather than a reflection of terrain beyond the horizon. Kavenna might have mentioned this as the probable origin of many delusory Thules; it may even underpin the Flat Earthers’ conviction that a great ice barrier forms the rim of the disc on which we all live. In any case, her own internal compass is evidently appeased by snow, ice and wintry desolation. But in her prose I miss the intense affection that Lopez distils from his decades living in the Far North, his knowledge that desolate never means lifeless.

Peter Davidson is very much concerned with Glenn Gould’s version of the North, with its appeal to solitary artists and the aesthetic pleasure (as well as the pity and terror) its landscape inspires. The book’s first part is something of a grab-bag of historical facts and literary references that seems to follow no particular path. Davidson quotes from two conflicting traditions: in one the North is seen as a place of darkness and the seat of evil; in the other as the Hyperborean realm of felicity. In the central section the book begins to take shape, addressing subjects such as the congruence of ice and glass and figures such as Auden and Eric Ravilious. Davidson is sensitive to the feel of the brief northern summer, and links it to the underlying concern with mortality evident in pictures and films. He also links upper-class Britons’ northern-inspired ‘elite paganism’ with the Victorians’ obsession with ghost stories. Are ghosts peculiarly northern? I’m always encountering them in South-East Asia.

Davidson comes into his own in the book’s final section, ‘Topographies’, which deals with northern landscapes in Scandinavia, Japan and China, Canada and Britain (his one gigantic omission is Russia). The nearer he gets to the North of England and Scotland the more deeply felt his writing becomes. His examination of Northern poets such as David Morley, Simon Armitage and Sean O’Brien is marvellously sensitive to their regionalism and to the bitter undertow of history and class politics in some of their work.

I have a grouse about both these books: neither has an index. Also, when reading Davidson I occasionally felt a familiar tetchy protest coming on. It’s all very well, all these poets and painters, but what about music? Sibelius gets a brief mention by virtue of having unwittingly loaned the end of his Fifth Symphony to Gould’s ‘Idea of North’; but what of Grieg and Nielsen, and what of the Russians, of Tchaikovsky and his First Symphony, Winter Daydreams? Some of these composers’ works, not least Grieg’s piano pieces and songs, are imbued with winter light and brief summers.

In one sense Thule was never more than somebody else’s Timbuktu or even Atlantis: more a repository than a place on the map. Like any legendary place, it depended for survival on remaining undiscovered. As Seneca foresaw, when there was no part of the planet left unexplored, Thule would vanish. What Seneca did not foresee was global warming, which could put paid to the polar icecap within the next half-century, thus literally removing Thule’s last foundations.