Still Red.

When you grew old, when the glory faded

and the hope dissolved,

she’d come round once a year

and wrap us back together,

painting stories of petalled blood

that fluttered from the sky, settled on mud,

gentling like your son's first smile,

cooling pain with a kiss, easing you into sleep.

 

And you, the cocky kid who lied about his age,

so proud and hopeful and bold,

you lied to me too, years before,

told me I was wrong about Spurs,

then shied away, man-wary always

of her dark fears, and of your shame

when they'd tried to make her their own,

when they'd tried to take her from us.

 

I didn't mind, not really: her wry, wise warmth

watched over us each time we met

on Sundays of scarlet, quiet and mist

and, after you'd gone, she’d reappear

and I’d ask her to sit, tell me

about death and your friends,

tell me about the stench of Greek sand

and the French rain and the trenches.

 

And she stayed near me as I grew,

ghosting over Whitehall and Thiepval

and she's held us all - alone, in millions -

been feted then despised, rendered mute

at Goose Green and Basra and Helmand,

hated and burned and bled

as they lied and used her to play

their games till I, too, wanted her dead.

 

Today I saw the hateful green banners,

the taunts and threats tightening

as they divided us from each other,

frightening as they took our voice from us

and I stood, as wood-in-vice, transfixed,

wishing you were here,

dreaming you in fields and streets,

needing to know she still loves you.

 

And I’m with her right now mate,

in a world that’s doing it all again,

and as Autumn chills of loss and change

shadow my tired, strange town

I can hear her voice, her creaking dignity

spanning stone, copse, day, night

and yes, I can touch her pale cheek: sure now -

I think - that what she really wants is peace.

Greenland. Day 28: The Last.

It's only when the little plane on the map shows you leaving Greenland behind, heading out over the Atlantic towards Iceland, that you feel the first sense of loss. You think back - inevitably, predictably, wryly - over your time there, to slips on the ice, to unimaginable, ferocious grandeur, to sheer, sharp blues and whites, to mountain panic, to the red of the seal's organs, to the flowers left for the man who crashed a stolen car, to the lovers who married in 1408, to the musk ox burger, to the elusive Thai restaurant, to the awful music, to the kids waking their teachers at 5am. You think back and you realise you fell in love with it, just a little, just enough to feel protective towards it, warm towards it, kind towards it, just enough to want to spend time with it again. And you realise that's because it offers no escape. 

There's no escape from dark and light and day and night in Greenland. There's no escape from the earth and the sun and the sky, from the real and the unforgiving. 

There's no escape from our collective past. There's no escape from the recognition that we've all run a long, long way from what made us, from what gave us life and will take life away. There's no escape from beauty and mundanity and everything in between.

There's no escape from culture and belief and language, from our ancestors' ancestors, from spirit, from our need to create stories that can explain, charm, defend, lash out, foretell, embed. 

There's no escape. And you realise then there's no escape from the desire and the love and the choices you've left behind either: and you're glad. Because Greenland won't let you avoid. Reflection is everything, everywhere. The place shines a light on you, one that lets you see yourself - a little - without noise or shadow. And that's why you need to love it, just a little. 

Greenland. Day 27: Ice Ice Baby.

Small icebergs have started appearing. I'm not sure anyone else can see them. They wait there, smug, owning the water, gathering strength even as they fade. There's a sweet, turquoise light around their base, the reflection of their underside, of their hidden depths. My eyes keep jumping from one too-white shard to the other. There were only four a minute ago, surely?  Well there are five now...

One is curved, smooth, the shape of an old man's cap. A second swirls and twists like an angry serpent. A third is jagged, harsh, spiky, dental. Another - it reminds me of the Queen's profile on stamps - has (I'm sure) been edging its way towards me. And one - there's always one - just ignores me, stays indefinable, hiding behind the others, biding its time. 

The too-early air jabs my ears. I'm leaving tomorrow. A huge raven sits and screams from the top of a lamppost. A child laughs. I turn to go inside again and there's a crack, a split, a shuddering behind me. 

There are six now. 

Greenland. Day 26: More Hvalsø

“All things look good from far away and it is man's eternally persistent, childlike faith in the reality of that illusion that has made him the triumphant, restless being he is.” 

             Rockwell Kent

    Greenland. Day 25: Hvalsø

    Four of us are going to Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson's wedding. The man who brought us here has gone. The island is grave-still. The church is small but the people here are happy, special. They're people forgotten, disappeared, lost. Today they don't care. The mountains were here before us. The mountains have witnessed a million weddings. Why now? Why do you want to come here now? We want, I think, to resurrect Sigrid and Thorstein.

    The church was built on a graveyard: it's partially collapsed as a result. There's a barn over there, a byre, houses. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the boasts of the men, the keen whispers of the women. If you look closely enough, you can see the pride on Bjorn's and on Olaf's face. Pick up that cup: there's plenty of ale and mead. There are breads, a stew. Stick the plate on your lap. The meat is seal, beef, mutton. Dance if you want. Swim.

    Huginn and Muminn are watching the ceremonies from up there. Thought and Memory. They'll let Odin know what we're up to. And they'll follow us back to the town.  

     

    Greenland. Day 24: Why.

    'I don't want petty self-expression. I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.'

                          Rockwell Kent

     

    Greenland. Day 23: Unnecessary Plastic Objects.

    Nothing much to say today. Except I just discovered - and have quickly become obsessed with - Rockwell Kent, whose wild trips to Greenland produced something very rare and very rich. And I heard this beautifully nostalgic song...

                                  Rockwell and Frances Kent. 

                                  Rockwell and Frances Kent. 

                       Rockwell Kent               Greenland Courtship

                       Rockwell Kent
                  Greenland Courtship

    Greenland. Day 22: Escape.

    It's four a.m. and already bright outside. You went to sleep around midnight - it was only just dark then. You groggily drift into consciousness. You look at the Guardian app, at Facebook, wish you hadn't done either. You start to hear drumming. And shouting. And chanting. And the blowing of horns. You realise you've finally lost it: this is the quietest place in the world, it's half four, there's no way that noise is real. You have visions - shudders - of city madness, of Manchester sirens, Belfast marches, London demonstrations. You drag yourself up, look outside. The noise is coming from across the river: a cluster of white, ghostly shapes, clapping, laughing. You decide you have to find out what's happening, still doubting your reality.

    It takes a few minutes to get out and by that time there's no sight or sound of the white ghosts. You head down to the now-familiar harbour. When you get there, you can hear drums from up on the hill. It starts to rain. You spot a bunch of giggling, gobbing, joshing, pushing kids standing/sitting/running/playing ball/looking tough up by the Rockhouse, the red guitar on its roof and its dodgy Elvis mannequin looking knackered, wet, hungover. You ask the kids what's happening. 'High School finished.' You think back, you realise you have no memory at all of your own last day at school but you feel an abrupt shove of sadness. You wait with the kids. More people join you. All wait together, quiet in that Greenland way. They're all smoking and you really fancy one.

    After about half an hour, by now soaked to the skin, you hear and then see the scattered, fragmented, joyous march approaching. The kids are wearing overalls to protect their clothes from the paint and other stuff they're throwing at each other. A couple of them are pushing oil drums along the road. A resigned middle-aged man is bringing up the rear. You say hello. He's a teacher. You walk with him up, up the hill. He says the tradition is that on this day the kids get up early and go to teachers' houses and wake them up. He doesn't seem completely happy about this, but he asks you about Brexit and smiles his disdain for the French and the Germans and seems to cheer up. You share a quick joke with one of the kids, who speaks perfect English. You wonder again why you have no memory of your own last day at school. You wish them luck and you wonder where they'll be, who they'll be, in thirty, forty years time. You envy them this morning, you envy them their years. You hope the ones who need to stay on this wild island stay here and those who need to leave are able to leave. You tread gingerly down the slippery wooden staircase then, down to the main road. You head home and go back to bed, just as the sun comes out.

    Greenland. Day 21: Missing.

    You read bits and pieces. You have blurry conversations about it on FaceTime. You want to watch video reports and you don't want to watch any. You see a mum pleading with the universe for the safe return of her daughter. You think back to taking your own kids to gigs, waiting around in the foyer for them, and picture their buzzing, bright-eyed emergence from the hall. 

    Qaqortoq

    Qaqortoq

    Greenland. Day 20: Manchester.

    Rasmussen: 'What do you think of the way men live?'
    Shaman: 'They live brokenly, mingling all things together; weakly, because they cannot do one thing at a time.'

    ***

    "He didn't know how he should feel about anything or anyone and wondered if there might be a remedy. To which I could only reply, 'More living.'"

     

    (Gretel Ehrlich: This Cold Heaven)

    Greenland. Day 18: Words.

    A day in which I woke to silence, to weird, tense mists over the lake, realised yet again how lucky I am to be a father, enjoyed (brutally) killing off a character in one of my stories, and read about magical Inuit formulas to bring the ice back (no ice=no hunting=no food), formulas which involved words - some meaningless, some with meaning - words taken from people's dreams, words passed down from generation to generation. (These serratit must only be used in the early morning. The hood of the shaman's anorak has to be up. He has to put his fourth finger in his mouth until he gags, forcing the magic words to come out...)

    I went for a walk. I thought about religion and my/our constant search for certainty, for control, for something to replace God (if I'm going to find whatever-it-is here, it'll be down by the sea). I listened to the Velvet Underground. And then I stumbled across this. The misty magic of words. 

    Greenland. Day 17: Whether.

    Put your coat on, that big, sensible, all-weather one you got in Sports Direct in Wood Green. Great value place. You just have to swallow your principles, be nice to the zero-hours people, buy your stuff and run. There's a metaphor there, somewhere. Anyway: put your coat on and walk with me down to the harbour. Feel the rain on your cheeks. Or sleet - it might be sleet? It's knife-sharp and grave-cold, whatever it is. Lets stand here for a bit. That dog wandering past seems a little scared, doesn't it? Let's look out for a while at the perfect blues of the fjord, the shining whites of the boats, the bustling browns of the trawler. Those men are always there, smoking, sitting, watching. Can you feel the gentle waves of loss and hope? Can you feel the chills of more-days-behind-than-ahead, the warmths of memory? Can you hear the bustling spirits of all the shamans, all the fishermen, all the crooks, all the fathers, all the girlfriends, all the dreamers, all the deals and seals and madnesses of the Norseman and the Dane and the Inuit? Can you taste the too-long nights and too-long days? It's not just me, is it?

    Do you know that song, Our Town? Beautiful. The older you get, I think, the more you search for home. And the further away you are, the more you recognise and start to love the good town that isn't your town. 

    Let's go back? The rain/sleet's stopped now. The sun's prodding the clouds. We can go back and just watch it for a while.