True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, by Gavin Francis
This is an old-fashioned travel book of the linear variety. Roaming the northern fringes of Europe with a tent and a nose for a story, Scottish doctor Gavin Francis looks beyond the icebergs and the stunted willow seeking ‘a back country of the imagination where myth and reality intertwined’. Beginning at Unst, the northernmost of the Shetlands, Francis sets out to ‘follow a route that Europeans had taken towards what they once saw as the very limits of the world’. Heading by ferry to the Faroes, he continues to Iceland, Greenland, the snowy hinterland of Scandinavian Finnmark, and finally Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago that includes Spitzbergen.
The format is simple: a well-whipped blend of history and travelogue. For his central theme, Francis homes in on the role northernmost Europe has played as the focus for human voyages and dreams, and as such, True North is a journey through time as much as space. Taking an impressionistic, as opposed to comprehensive, approach, the author marches through the chronology, picking off the choicest vignettes to create a panorama of Arctic Europe from about 1000 to 1500, with interludes from later centuries. Along the way he pauses to dilate on — among other topics — the tricks of translating the eight-line drottkvaett stanza of the sagas; the 15th-century slave trade in Icelandic children (most of the poor buggers ended up in and around Bristol, Hull and Lynn); the migrations of the Saami; and the origins of the half-man, half-spirit qivitoqs who lurks on the top of Greenlandic mountains.
A vibrant cast of walk-on parts includes Herodotus, the Czech playwright, Karel Capek, who took refuge in Lapland in the 1930s, and Fridtjof Nansen, the polar explorer’s polar explorer. ‘In his character’, Francis writes of the titan, ‘was concentrated all the hunger of mankind to push out beyond the horizons of the known world . . . Nansen represented for me the archetype of so many men I had followed in my journey.’ Deploying a combination of restraint and descriptive flair, Francis conjures the massed tents and booths of Thingvellir as thousands gathered in its volcanic amphitheatre for the debates of the medieval Icelandic parliament, the contemporary Russian coalmining settlement of Barentsburg on Svalbard, a resolutely Soviet Arctic outpost frosted with ice and black dust, and, everywhere, the brooding presence of the Vikings. Much of this ground was covered by Joanna Kavenna in her 2005 book The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule; but Francis has made it his own, and anyway the Arctic has infiltrated the zeitgeist now.
Throughout, Francis quotes judiciously from Anglo-Saxon chronicles and other primary sources, marshalling his academic material with authority. The prose has a strong visual component. A rocky outcrop is ‘a cubist tangle of basalt’, ice is ‘sprinkled over the ocean like chalk over a mirror’, and an ice cap has a ‘sucrose purity’. Francis also has a firm control of narrative drive and a pleasant, easy way of recounting myth and history. ‘A long time ago’, he writes in the Shetlands, ‘when the earth was flat and the sun was a blazing chariot in the sky, the first literate explorers of the north were the Phoenicians.’
In Iceland, a Danish woman confides, ‘I like it here in the North. I feel truer here somehow’, and one senses it is the same for Francis. The dream is his, too. A deep empathy with the land and its history runs like a golden thread through every chapter of True North. Perhaps it is this affection that stops the author short of confronting the human landscape of the contemporary Arctic, a reality he fleetingly acknowledges as ‘guns, trucks, pornography and alcohol’. And why not leave it out? It’s a hellish story.
The book is hobbled — though not fatally — by an accretion of inconsequential personal encounters. The trouble with travelling (one of the many) is that for swathes of time nothing happens of any interest whatsoever: it’s just one damn boring day after another. Francis has not yet learnt the perils of inflicting this on the reader. It is as if he is afraid to leave anything out, and after the tedium of yet another evening meeting uninteresting locals in a Reykjavík night club or Greenlandic bar, the reader returns with relief to the textual problems of Old Norse.
This is an intelligent and interesting debut from a writer who will do well when he recognises the unfailing loyalty of the travel writer’s wastebasket.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 6, 2008