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.

Greenland. Day 14: The Seal.

Early morning. You wander down to the harbour. The sun's shining. The water's a million times more than blue. For a few moments, there's absolute, pin-drop, quiet. A sound grows towards you: a murmur, a moan, a groan, a rhythm, a wave, repeating, plaintive, metallic, lost. You wonder if it's the creak of masts and rope and wood and hooks or the crying of children, an ancient hymn, some melancholic assembly. You shiver.

You watch a JCB heading away from you, a police car heading towards you. There's only room on the bridge for one of them. The police car wins. You turn to the man with the knife. He's standing over a mass of moist, red-black flesh, cutting into it carefully, easily, with all the nonchalance of someone who's done this all our lives. Intestines. Organs. Blood. The whiskers are still there. You watch, fascinated, dispassionate. A woman comes up, begins haggling over part of the once-alive thing. You wonder what part it used to be. You think there should be a smell, but there isn't. You ask the man if you can take photos. He smiles, yes. 

You watch, for an age. Finished, finally, with the show, you wander off, find your eye caught by something down by the water. And there's the skin: perfect, laid out, waiting. A seal. A seal, obviously a seal, smooth and grey and beautiful. And there's its fat layer: white and sickly and dead. 

They say the Greenlanders hunt with respect, the Canadians hunt to exterminate. I don't know. I don't know what I think. But when I get back here, I wonder whether to show anyone the pictures, decide not to, and wonder why. 

 

 

Greenland. Day 13: In Which I Get Slightly Lost.

So I took notice of my own advice and remembered to make sure there was a battery in the camera and that I had gloves. I also had extra layers of clothing, food, drink and the absolute confidence I could manage a stroll round a lake for a few hours and come back tired and self-satisfied. Why would it be any different to Virginia Water? Or the Serpentine? 

What I didn't bank on was that the map shown here isn't quite detailed enough. Or that I might end up climbing up and down rocks, through soaking-wet, mossy, heathery stuff and across deep (up to my knees) snow for a couple of hours, in an increasingly haphazard way, trying to follow the instructions of the local woman who'd told me to 'keep left and look out for paths'... It's incredible really, having grown up in a mountainous region of North London and with my history of Fiennes-like adventuring, but it turns out I'm not exactly a Sherpa. It also turns out I was wrong to think you automatically get a compass on an iPhone. And that having Springsteen's The River (no idea) going through your mind constantly can get really, really annoying. And that, after a while lost in Greenland, you do start wondering how far south polar bears wander. Oh, and that I actually swear out loud, even when there isn't another human being for miles. (Apparently, Greenlandic has no swearwords).

So. I do feel a bit smug. Making it back here as sane as I was when I left was quite an achievement. And I've discovered I know every bloody word of The River

 Qaqortoq, Tasersuaq.

Qaqortoq, Tasersuaq.

Greenland. Day 12: Top Tips

If you're in Greenland, please remember the following:

1) If it's been snowing for hours, it's -327 degrees and you go out, wear gloves.
2) If you want to take photos when you go out without your gloves, remember to make sure the battery's in the camera. 

Thank you.

 Qaqortoq

Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 11: True Love Ways

Nothing to do with Greenland but this came on the radio this morning and reached out to me through the railings of the autotuned playground of dodgy, poppy hip hop and Greenlandic cover versions of Queen songs. I was pulled back to being eleven, to starting secondary school and buying my first-ever LPs for 50p from Pete Morley (who I'm pretty sure ripped me off): Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits and... um... another one...

I'd never really liked this song but the sweet strings and the gorgeous sax and the careworn poignancy of Buddy's voice transported me back to grey old Enfiewd in 1973, to my mum, to Paul, to all we've learned and lost and loved. It's actually rather beautiful. 

 

 

Greenland. Day 10: Disappearance.

When you go away from the people you love, they worry you may not come back - and you worry about them worrying. When you go away, you worry they might forget you, go off you, finally realise all your flaws and eccentricities and doubts are too much to take - and you worry your worries are worrying them. We sit forever on that wobbly, pointy fence that separates desire from denial, craving from avoidance, here from not-here, seeing from not seeing. Being on two different fences on different continents makes keeping our balance so much harder.

The Norsemen left Scandinavia, spent four hundred years in Greenland and then, towards the end of the 14th century, vanished. The general view, apparently, is this was the result of a combination of a sort of globalisation (the shift in trade to Africa deprived the Norse of a European market for walrus ivory) and of climate change (the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia increased sea ice and storms). One of those things would have been a huge challenge: both together were, ultimately, disastrous.

What human beings started, nature finished. The last known evidence of Norse people in Greenland is in the records of the wedding of Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson in Hvalsey (just down the road from here) in September, 1408. After that, Europeans no longer saw the Norsemen of Greenland: they just disappeared. People at 'home' in Scandinavia essentially forgot about them and finally set out to convert them to Christianity a couple of hundred years later. When the missionaries got to Greenland, they had to make do with converting the Inuit instead.

This afternoon I went to Kalaallit Nunaanni Katersugaasiviit, the Qaqortoq museum. I found myself a bit disquieted by the beautiful carvings, the strange dolls, the sadness and pride of what remains of the Inuit community, the kindness and openness of the guide. From nowhere, the King Creosote song came to mind. I realised I'd never bothered looking at, hearing, tasting, feeling fully before this kind of place, these kinds of histories and cultures, this magic, these shamans, I'd never met the gaze of the hunters of seals or of the prices we all paid and continue to pay for survival.

And whenever I did look before, I'd quickly turn away from what it all said about our evanescence, our inevitable disappearance. I'll turn away again, of course - how else can any of us get through? - but in the meantime, it makes me happy to report that Sigrid and Thorstein made it to Iceland from Greenland and stayed together. And it makes me happy that, as I walked into the shop across the road from the museum, the old, weather-worn, shopkeeper looked up, smiled and offered me a silver ring 'for your woman'.

What human beings started, nature finished. The last known evidence of Norse people in Greenland is in the records of the wedding of Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson in Hvalsey (just down the road from here) in September, 1408. After that, Europeans no longer saw the Norsemen of Greenland: they just disappeared. People at 'home' in Scandinavia essentially forgot about them and finally set out to convert them to Christianity a couple of hundred years later. When the missionaries got to Greenland, they had to make do with converting the Inuit instead. 

This afternoon I went to Kalaallit Nunaanni Katersugaasiviitthe Qaqortoq museum. I found myself a bit disquieted by the beautiful carvings, the strange dolls, the sadness and pride of what remains of the Inuit community, the kindness and openness of the guide. From nowhere, the King Creosote song came to mind. I realised I'd never bothered looking at, hearing, tasting, feeling fully before this kind of place, these kinds of histories and cultures, this magic, these shamans, I'd never met the gaze of the hunters of seals or of the prices we all paid and continue to pay for survival.

When I had looked, I'd quickly turned away, I realised, from what it all said about our evanescence, my inevitable disappearance. I'll turn away again, of course - how else do we get through? - but in the meantime, it makes me happy that Sigrid and Thorstein made it to Iceland from Greenland and stayed together. And it makes me happy that, as I walked into the shop across the road, the old, weather-worn, shopkeeper looked up, smiled and offered me a silver ring 'for your woman'.


 

 Kalaallit Nunaanni Katersugaasiviit, Qaqortoq Museum.

Kalaallit Nunaanni Katersugaasiviit, Qaqortoq Museum.

Greenland. Day 9: Wrestling.

I stayed indoors and got some work done today, slowly plucking out a few hundred more words to put towards a couple of short stories and doing some tinkering with the next chapbook. I learned stuff about Delacroix, including how much he was influenced by English painters. I realised I can't tell parody from the real thing in The Spectator. I had some redfish. I managed to rescue clothes that had been imprisoned by the washing-machine for the last 24 hours. I watched the second half of the strange, unsettling Wedding Of Palo (and I now know how to skin and eviscerate a seal). I had a banana.  I thought, did and felt several things I'm not going to tell you about. And now I'm lying in bed with Evelyn Waugh.  

 
 Qaqortoq, Greenland.

Qaqortoq, Greenland.

Greenland. Day 8: Buster Bloodvessel Comes To The Rescue.

A difficult, yearning, missing, moaning, spinning sort of day. For the first time this end of the world felt harsh and indifferent. And then I turned the radio on and someone was doing a cover version of Lip Up Fatty in heavily-accented English. Everything softened again.

 Qaqortoq

Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 7: Mist

According to Gretel Ehrlich, the Greenlandic word 'sila' means weather. It also means consciousness. I sat here this evening listening to Nive Nielsen and watching the mist creep arthritically up the hill, edging from the harbour and from the mountains and the waterfalls until slowly, slowly, I could see nothing outside at all. All was white, hiding, hidden. Moments before this just-living ghost shut us all, finally, inside, I watched a bunch of kids clamber up and over boulders and slippery, snow-covered grass, throwing a pink frisbee to each other, play-fighting, all the while wordless, thoughtless, effervescent. 

I had a foggy, pixelated chat on FaceTime then and we talked about distance and separation, about mortality, about the absurdity of writing and writer's block and about the point of it all. Is there any real difference, we wondered, between life and death, between weather and consciousness, between the material and the spiritual, between you and me? And surely the mist and the mountains and music and love and lust and laughter and art are - have to be  - the point of it all? Consciousness, it seemed, is inseparable from nature, just as each simultaneously dissolves and sprinkles glitter and meaning on the other.

At the end of the call I felt bright, clear, conscious. I looked outside and darkness had fallen. 

 Qaqortoq

Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 6. The Mystery Of The Flying Book.

I was reading this book yesterday - an oddly-textured, brave, involving and melancholic glimpse at Greenland and the strange, bloody, joyous myths of Inuit culture. I left it on the table outside, went out for a walk, came back an hour later and the book was gone. I searched and searched, decided the only possible explanations were it had been taken by vultures (are there vultures in Greenland?) or that someone had stolen it. About an hour later I noticed it was twenty yards down the hill, open. At the exact same page I'd left it. There was no wind yesterday, not even a breeze.

(Thanks to Mitch for this: https://youtu.be/pNwvzlo1ePA)

Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 5: When Alignments Are Ergative.

Greenlandic, of course, is a polysynthetic language that allows the creation of long words by stringing together roots and suffixes. And, as we all know, its morphosyntactic alignment is ergative.

Today I have mostly been listening to people speak. I listened to a local man giving an interview about ballet on the radio in English, the interviewer using Danish. Down at the harbour, I listened to a mum shout in Greenlandic at a little boy who was going too near the water. Neither of them seemed to be fully aware of the ergativeness of her morphosyntactic alignment. I listened then as three posh English girls came out of a bar arguing about the advisability of eating onions before a date.  And as I dozed just now in the calm sun of the town square, the flurry of words became a forest of sounds and I could've been at the mart in Skibbereen or St Mark's Square in Venice: for a few minutes, it was hard to distinguish Danish from Greenlandic from Irish from Italian.

Sometimes I find myself fiercely resisting the inexorable disappearance of my native London English. But here, now, I know it doesn't matter at all - we limit ourselves by our clinging to what was in language rather than what we might become in language.

On the way back from the square, I took this photo of a street sign. It made me happy. 

 

#Greenland #Greenlandpioneer #Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 2: Qaqortoq.

Wander with me. Wonder with me. It's not cold at all; the sun's shining and sparkling the ocean with light. The snow on the ground still isn't sure whether to come or go. It's quiet - quiet like those old Surrey days when the weather stopped us all driving and we leapt back into a Victorian peace. An old man shuffles past, mumbling, chewing. There are Lego houses, shambolic houses, neat and colourful houses. The mountains watch. A woman up there is doing yoga on her terrace. Breathe. A bunch of teenage boys are jumping up and down on the roof of a dilapidated shack: I want to warn them. The fishing boats are moored, waiting. Kids in hi-vis jackets are being shepherded across a road that hasn't seen a car for an hour. Breathe. The supermarket is called Pisiffik. There are no planes. In the old square, the old men smoke and stare. Let's sit down here and have a cup of coffee. All the time in the world. Just breathe. 

OK. Let's head back now. And wonder: is that pram just a pram?



#Greenland #Greenlandpioneer #Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 1 (B): Davisstrædet.

The view of sea and mountain from the helicopter yesterday was awe-inspiring, breathtaking, other-worldly, astonishingly beautiful. Everything becomes cliched, inadequate and soulless in response. Slivers of ice floated like sharp-white boats in the bluer-than-blue water. The harsh, jagged mountains spread out towards heaven, engulfing, disinterested, eternal, hypnotic, ferocious, bigger than imagination, harder than God, animalistic, not even bothering to mock our human insignificance or shy away from our warming, destructive power. 

I've never seen anything remotely like it. It didn't make me want to cry like the Taj Mahal did, or the Cliffs of Moher, or Edward Thomas' summer hill in Steep, or morning mist over the Thames, or the view from the Montparnasse Tower, or the time Arsenal beat us 5-0 at White Hart Lane... it just made me stop. Stop thinking, stop feeling, stop it all. I broke the spell and took this picture on my phone through the helicopter window. And then stopped again. 

Until we landed in Qaqortoq. 

#Greenland #Greenlandpioneer #Qaqortoq

Greenland. Day 1 (A): The Flight From Copenhagen.

You know that moment when you look at the little plastic tray of airline food and you've no idea what it is? And then you eat it and you still don't know what it is? I think this blog might be a bit like that. 

Imagine Van Morrison singing Tupelo Honey to you as you read this - he's singing it to me as I write it:

 

Anyway. Greenland. They say to expect beauty. They say to expect cold - cold more savage than a libertarian's heart. I'm never prepared for either beauty or cold, yet both bite me frequently, even in London: they shouldn't be a problem...

Hmm. I think I may be 'in search of something chance would never bring'. Yeah, I just surprised myself by reading Edward Thomas, despite the rawness of emotions of loss and sadness connected to his stuff at the moment. I give my imaginary God thanks for the friend who helped confirm my love for old ET. And - yes, yes - I need, as He pointed out, to trust myself more. 

So. I have excitement and I have hope and I have fear and I have a sensible warm jacket and a kind of agitated acceptance. I have one pair of trousers for a whole month, due to an organisational malfunction caused by free wine and desire. At the airport I was tempted to buy a jaunty hat. I have no idea why. 

I'm leaving behind, of course, love and loss and guilt. I'm bringing love and loss and guilt with me. She's worried I'll disappear. In the sudden switchings-off of the adult light I worry that - given time and space - she may see me too clearly. There, you see? That's what I want from The Ungreenland: I want to learn to celebrate my visibility. I want to let the doubts and self-stabbings fade into the ice and stay in blurred childhood where they belong. I want to hug the truth. She sees me already and it's good. Something sweeter and deeper than love.

Full stop. Four hours before we land. The Shetland Islands are 36,000 feet below. The oughtism (I stole that) is disappearing. I'm hurting with greed for those first moments. 

Heart's cameras at the ready? They'll be round to collect the plastic tray soon. 

 

Did you know Greenland sharks have been known to live to more than 500 years old? 



PS As we drifted out of the clouds just now and the island came into view - vast and white and broken and whole - every single passenger craned his or her neck to kiss a piece of its slow wonder. 

 

#Greenland #Greenlandpioneer #Qaqortoq