Friday, July 18, 2003


Conference today on Null Subjects and Parametric Variation at the University of Iceland. I remain surprised at the general inability of academics to give papers which fit within the allotted time. One this morning thought he could get through over 50 examples (in Welsh) and make his case within the 30 minute slot. He would have done better with 5 examples.

50,202 words.


Up to 54,544 words. 15,456 to go. The work is going off in all sorts of unexpected directions. For example I’m convinced that Orkney and Shetland Norn are sufficiently different from Old Norse to be classified as separate languages, and that furthermore they represent an earlier form of Germanic. I’m therefore forced to argue that the Norse settlement of Orkney and Shetland is pre-Viking. Which is just about tenable, though a surprising conclusion. I think I’m going to have a field-day with the word-order of early runic inscriptions, if only to argue that many of the accepted interpretations and translations are impossible. I’m hoping I’m going to get some help from University of Greenland regarding the runic inscriptions in Greenland. Amazingly some 40 runic inscriptions have been found in Greenland, forming a well-defined corpus.

Rain is forecast for Monday, and temperatures of 11 and 12. It would be over-stating matters to say that the weather guy on television smiled, but the sense of relief was evident. Temperatures as high as 16 degrees today and 17 degrees yesterday just cannot be endured, and the weekend is going to be one of suffering for many in Iceland.

Icelanders really are slapping on the sun screen. These temperatures are bothering them.

Iceland Express is much in the news. They have taken Icelandair to the monopolies and mergers commission in Iceland – and won! Icelandair have a near total monolpoly on flights (ie transport) to and from Iceland, and charge the extortionate rates of monopolies. Iceland Express have come along on the London and Copenhagen routes with low prices, and Icelandair have responded by dropping some of their prices below Iceland Express’s level – in effect Icelandair are making a loss on these routes so that they can drive Iceland Express out of business.

The ruling is complex, and it is also Icelandic in its logic. Basically Icelandair are now required to charge prices which are higher than Iceland Express. They do have better times than Iceland Express and Heathrow slots, so maybe they can compete on quality. Maybe. But I guess the champagne is flowing freely at Iceland Express.


My landlord and landlady have gone on holiday and left me in charge of watering the geraniums. By geraniums I mean red pelagoniums, and no more than a couple of stunted specimens. I’ve grown geraniums in Morpeth and got decent results, though nothing to what the Med can produce. The Icelandic specimens are going to flower, but they really need temperatures of 30 degrees or so and must be freezing in Reykjavik. I’ve been asked to water them, and I’m doing as I’m told. But they’re drowning. In the Med geraniums flourish in pots of hot, dry dust. The best thing that could be done for these sopping wet specimens would be to never water them again. Let them dry out completely.

By contrast the arctic lupins in the Icelandic countryside continue to bloom, with great carpets of blue for mile after mile. And hardly anyone in Iceland bothers to grow them in their gardens. They could have the world’s best lupins – but Icelanders seem to think they are a weed.

My landlord and landlady have also asked me to pick up their mail and put it on a table (out of sight of the glass panels in the front-door) – and to be aware that their house is empty and at risk from burglars. But I’m not to be hasty in hitting anyone who comes in, as their neighbour and son and perhaps others might come in.

Today at about five someone indeed came in – and tried to leave after a few minutes. But they had problems with the front door. It must be something to do with Icelandic psyche that doors are wooden, don’t fit properly, and are a pain to open and close. My front door takes a shoulder or a foot to open it. There is a knack to closing it, and I’ve mastered it to the extent that I now manage second or third or fourth time. Never first. The main door to the building clearly has the same sort of problem, and I’ve heard my landlord and landlady slamming it. But whoever visited today really had problems. Serious problems. I reckon it took them 10 minutes to get the door locked behind them. PVC double glazing and doors doesn’t seem to have made it to Iceland.

Thursday, July 17, 2003


Temperatures hit 17 degrees today in Reykjavik, without a cloud in the skies. On the weather programme this evening they had on their best funeral faces. Clearly much suffering will result for Icelanders from enduring temperatures at this level. The highest temperature ever recorded in Reykjavik is just 24 degrees. Inland it was actually higher – 20 degrees on Mossfell. The unique twist to Iceland sunshine is the hours and hours for which it can be sunny. Sunburn and heatstroke can be real risks.

On this my birthday went horse-riding with the Laxnes horse farm. Great. The big event of the ride was just outside the farm gate. Laxnes horses have seen their share of cars, motorbikes and dogs, and are pretty unflappable. But what they haven’t seen before is a kid in an electric wheelchair shooting out of a gateway more or less into the side of them, with the wheelchair making strained mechanical noises over the ruts in the packed earth. He was one of a group of teenagers, all in electric wheelchairs, in a field adjoining the bridleway, and I guess he had decided to have a closer look at the horses. He got an interesting view as all nine of them took fright and were off at a gallop.

I’m pleased to report that I reigned in my steed pretty promptly. I choose to take this as evidence that I’m getting the hang of the riding lark. Suspicious minds could think that in fact my horse didn’t really want to do anything as energetic as galloping, and was all too happy to be reigned in.

At Laxnes my car attracted its share of attention. An Icelander reclining on the Laxnes veranda and presumably with a beer too many inside him pronounced “It’s amazing! It is not possible to drive such a car in Iceland!” A group of Icelanders present reckoned they had never before seen a right-hand drive in Iceland. And they thought it would be impossible for them to drive on the left.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Miscellaneous witterings today. I seem to have got stuck with the book at around 53,000 words, hence the sudden interest in anything other than book writing.

In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue

I’m pretty sure I was actually taught at school that Columbus was the first European to discover America. Which is a neat example of how wrong information can be perpetuated. In a quiz I bet the majority of Brits would say that Columbus was the guy who discovered America. There was a cruise ship in Reykjavik harbour yesterday called Christopher Columbus, and you name ships or anything else after the guy who did something first.

Yet the discovery of America by Leif Eirikson around a thousand years ago has been widely accepted since at least the 1880s. There is no possible justification for anyone alive today having been taught the myth of Columbus as the discoverer of America.

Norse archaeological remains in America are more numerous than generally perceived. The one big site is the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the north tip of Newfoundland. Leaving aside Greenland (which is of course America) there have also been verified finds on Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island and the north of Labrador – typically finds as thrilling as the odd ship’s rivet, but nonetheless authenticated Norse remains. And given the immensity and desolation of these territories there is every reason to expect more finds.

Norse settlement of the North American continent does not seem to have been a great success – it appears that the native Americans attacked any who tried to settle. But it is now realised that this did not stop the Greenlanders making coastal forays to America for wood and other goodies – the colony couldn’t survive without this. Trade with Europe was subject to a monopoly that restricted it to (usually) one ship a year. Of necessity there were voyages to North America from Greenland every summer as long as that colony survived.

The fate of the Greenland colony is something of a mystery. It seems to have come to an end by 1500, though perhaps not long before – it was certainly around in 1448. There is a long twilight from the end of the Greenland Commonwealth in 1261 to the extinction of the colony. Ideas that the population inter-married with the Inuit are not supported by archaeology or genetics. Archaeology suggests that the colony was pretty much starving in the fifteenth century, probably because a new wave of Inuit settlers had appeared who out-competed the Norse communities for resources. One idea is that they simply starved. In Iceland however the idea that is most popular is that the Greenlanders – never more than perhaps 4,000 – simply migrated to Iceland. Plague in Iceland meant that at the end of the fifteenth century there was vacant land in Iceland – newcomers could be accommodated, and as they were linguistically and culturally the same as the Icelanders would easily be assimilated.

Old Maps of Iceland

This is an exhibition at the moment at the Culture House.

Some of the early cartography of Iceland is surprisingly good. For example the Kaerius map of 1598 and the Hondius of 1607 are roughly equivalent in quality to maps by these cartographers for Britain. However cartography doesn’t seem to have moved with the times, and maps from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are dire.

Modern maps of Iceland are okay but don’t sparkle. The scale for the whole country in maps which can be bought in shops is 1:250,000 (compare OS green series at 1:25,000); often there is a lack of clarity as to precisely where a named item is; they are not up to date – particularly noticeable in the context of the programme of asphalting former gravel roads, which is not reflected by the maps. All in all the mapping could be regarded as adequate rather than good.

Monday, July 14, 2003


In the last few days have checked out a few more of Reykjavik’s many museums.

The Einar Jonsson sculpture museum is within the former home and garden of the sculptor, dating from the 1920s. His art presents a rather tortured mix of Christianianity and Nordic myth – the sort of thing that in Germany in the 1930s was taken over as a Nazi art style – not that any official information in Reykjavik suggests this. Also on the sculpture theme is the Asmundur Sveinsson museum, with abstract work in concrete, much of it huge. Rodin he is not! In their way these are both remarkable museums. Yet I have the impression that Einar and Asmundur have their own museums because they are Icelanders, not because of the quality of their work.

Also on the museum trail is the Culture House. At the moment this houses the Arni Magnusson manuscript collection while the Arni Magnusson institute is being refurbished. Also a very informative exhibit on the settlement of Iceland and Greenland. I rather think I will be back …


I’ve never met anyone who has visited Greenland, and I know next to nothing about it. There is a tiny exhibit on Greenland just opened in Reykjavik, with the view of boosting tourism to Greenland. The Culture House Viking Exhibit additionally includes information on the settlement of Greenland. Some facts include the following:

- The name of the country is not Greenland, but Kalaallit Nunaat. The indigenous people are called Inuit (Eskimo now being considered a very rude name).
- Greenland is huge – more than 1200 miles north to south. Virtually the whole is an ice cap.
- The population is tiny – just over 50,000. 88% Inuit and 12% Danish.
- Greenland is a part of the kingdom of Denmark, and benefits from all the services of any other Danish county. However it has home rule, and therefore its own regional government and flag.
- There are no roads. All transport is by boat, plane, helicopter or dog sled.
- Summer temperatures are 5 to 20 centigrade in the settled areas. That’s not cold! Winter temperatures are decidedly chilly.
- The national language is West Greenlandic. Examples include:
Inuugujoq – hello
Qaqugu qimusseq aallartarpa? – what time does the dogsled leave?
Tuluttoorsinnaasoqarpa? – does anyone here speak English?
Numbers only go up to 12 (after which is simply many).
In East Greenland (which I might visit) West Greenlandic is not understood – there the language is East Greenlandic Inuit. Apparently there is an EGI to French vocabulary list published some years ago, but this is the sole source of information about the language.
- The Inuit entered Greenland from Ellesmere Island, and established settlements first on the north coast, then the east and last the west coast. They arrived only shortly before the Icelanders.
- Icelanders settled West Greenland and established a flourishing colony, which like Iceland was a Commonwealth. There are numerous archaeological remains, as the climate has tended to preserve them by putting them in a natural deep freeze.
- Greenland has a University in Nuuk, with around 100 students. I must find out if they have a research interest in the Viking settlement of Greenland. They certainly have physical remains on the doorstep, and a surprising number of runic inscriptions.
- Greenland is the only territory ever to leave the EU, so I hope we’re looking to learn from Greenland how departure can be managed.
- Greenland is looking for just a few, high-spending tourists. Many come by cruise ship, or fly from Iceland on short tours. Greenland also receives expeditions of varying degrees of adventurousness. The story is that in all cases tourists are turned upside down on arrival and shaken to ensure that they are parted from the largest possible quantities of cash.

Sunday, July 13, 2003


To the Blue Lagoon. Getting to be a habit ...


Went to the Hveragerthi geothermal area the day.

I rather think I need at least two glasses of Claret to get my tongue around Hveragerthi. It’s rather over the hills from Reykjavik - Icelandic style. Basically there is a mountain in the way, so the road goes straight up and straight down. Somehow it put me in mind of the Scottish folk song O’er the Hills to Ardentinny, or some such unmemorable place name. O’er the Hills to Hveragerthi.

The geothermal area in the valley above Hveragerthi seems not to attract the tourists, though the whole landscape smokes. Nothing seems to be signed. I parked my car on a wide patch on a sidetrack, so there was space for someone to pass in the unlikely event that anyone should come by, and had a good look at the map. As far as I could see I was pretty much on top of the geysir, but I couldn’t see any sign of it.

And then it went off. I was no more than six feet from the spout, and the car was covered in boiling water. It pounded on the roof and the windscreen. Good job the sun-roof wasn’t open. When the steam gave some visibility I drove to a rather more sensible parking place....

The spout of the geysir is a little hole maybe six inches in diameter. It sends water up to perhaps forty feet, and it is super hot. There’s no pool around it, just a flat rock pavement which looks for all the world like a passing place on the dirt track. The water seeps awy through cracks in the rocks. I had as good as parked on top of a geysir.

The photograph is after I moved the car.

Possible a shower of boiling water - and hotter than boiling water - is the cause of subsequent car problems.


When you are dependent on your car and far from home you become very conscious of every little quirk or change in behaviour. You know you’ve finally flipped when you give your car a name. Horses have names, but cars? This name owes its origin to a Dane on the jetty at Lerwick after the whole world’s attention had been drawn to my car - he suggested Sleipnir - in Icelandic mythology the perfect white horse, with eight legs no less.

Today’s oddity was the windscreen wiper - singular.

Mercedes clearly believe that the quality of a car is inversely proportional to the number of windscreen wipers it has. Most cars have rear windscreen wipers - not the Mercedes C class, on the basis that a properly angled rear windscreen doesn’t need one (and they are right). Many cars have wipers on the headlights (and don’t they look daft). And just about all cars have two front windscreen wipers - but not the Mercedes C class. Rather there is one lonely windscreen wiper which manages to clear a roughly rectangular area on the front windscreen. Just trying to think about the subtle contours of the shape of the front windscreen for a single wiper to sweep this sort of shape gives me a headache. But it works, and works brilliantly.

Now today it rained. Sometimes steady rain, sometimes drizzle, and sometimes torrential. So the wiper got a lot of work.

Then suddenly it was juddering over the windscreen. Then coming to a virtual stop halfway through a stroke. Then juddering some more.

If the garage had have been open I would have gone straight in and got them to sort it. But it wasn’t so I didn’t. Rather limped 30 miles home in steady rain trying to flick the wiper just once every 10 seconds or so. Actually it’s amazing what you can see through a very wet windscreen.

So back to base. I can’t actually see what is wrong with the wiper - which makes me feel it is something with the sweep mechanism rather than the wiper itself. As I experiment with it I find it doesn’t quite get stuck fast on the windscreen, but comes little short.

Then there’s the idea from Dad. Put a squirt of washing up liquid on the screen.

This one can’t possibly work.

But it does.

So if you see a white Mercedes any where in Iceland with bubbles blowing off the windscreen you will know its me.

South Pole.jpg


Perhaps it’s an attitude of mind. Iceland has a reputation for being one of the most expensive places on the planet. Yet perhaps not deserved.

Most tourists have the expensive version of Iceland. Icelandair stings most for over £1000 to get here, while a vaguely decent hotel is over £100 a night (excluding breakfast). Excursions soon add up - basically £30 to £70, with the lower figure tending to be for half-day tours. Public busses outside Reykjavik are expensive, while car hire rates are prohibitive. Evening meals realistically start at £25 a head without alcohol - and a bottle of wine in most restaurants is £50 or more. Alcohol can only be bought in off-licenses (Iceland was until recently dry) and while a bottle of wine can be found for £8 a more realistic budget is £15-£50.

Yet it is possible to find Iceland manageable. Petrol is a tad cheaper than Britain (okay, our petrol prices are extortion anyway). Very many remarkable tourist sites have no entrance fee. Lots of things are free, from coffee at many garages to copious information from tourist offices to daily newspaper (in Icelandic of course). Supermarket prices are two to three times those of Britain, though quality of everything is the best, and it is possible to buy small quantities of most things and avoid waste.

Iceland even has some things that are cheaper than Britain. Horse-riding works out about £12 an hour, which has to be a bargain. And I’ve just bought a quarter of a melon for 30p - grown in Iceland in geothermally heated greenhouses, and in surplus at the moment. I’ve seen tomatoes as cheap as 80p a dozen (shame I’m not too keen on them!) again because there is a surplus. Hot water for washing and central heating is effectively free.

Lunches can be modestly priced - I can get a sandwich and a coffee at the library for around £3.50, and a Christian café in central Reykjavik offers soup, bread and coffee for £4.00. Or one could go to a café that would charge this or more for a cup of coffee …

For people who live here, property prices are a fraction of British prices, and presumably rents as well. Furniture is more expensive than Britain, but not that much more. Second-hand cars are perhaps twice British prices, maybe more - which must be quite an issue in a country where a car is essential.

I can’t get a handle on salaries. The idea of Iceland as a class-free nation has probably gone. There are some very wealthy people here. There are a lot of people comfortably off. I’ve seen no evidence of poor people, or run-down housing.

Iceland is the world’s seventh wealthiest country. By the time Gulf States with their poorly distributed and soon-to-run-out oil wealth are taken out of the equation, Iceland is very close to the top of the league. Its natural resources are fish and hot water and precious little else. That Iceland should be so affluent with so few resources I can attribute only to such factors as virtually no crime, no defence budget, and good government.


Something of a required topic this far north.

The television has a long slot every evening given over to a weather forecast. They describe in minute detail the weather that Iceland has experienced, predict the weather for the following day, and then the next five days. There is never a hint of a smile from the weather guy, and the tone sounds mighty serious. And as far as I can see the forecasts are just about always wrong.

I suppose this far north weather is something of an inevitable topic. It is just not reasonable to expect temperatures here to be anything other than jolly cold … but they are. This place is north of Siberia, north of Baffin Bay, miles north of Labrador; Reykjavik is north even of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. Yet all because of the miracle of the gulf stream Iceland is warm … well, relatively.

Daytime temperatures are in the region of 10-15 degrees centigrade, and it doesn’t fall off much at night. It rains a lot. There has been some wind, a lot of overcast weather, and some bright sunshine. And the weather changes every two minutes.

Light 24 hours a day is quite something. Even now, 12th July, there is no night in Reykjavik. While it is of course below the Circle, the never-ending light (and never-ending dark in winter) makes Iceland in effect an arctic nation.

As the year moves on the arctic flies are suddenly appearing. I’ld like to see other people using them before I get mine out of the packet, but out in the countryside a face net is soon going to be essential - certainly in places like Myvatn.

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