The story so far: Whilst on a coach tour of Iceland I arrived at the spot where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America divide and I started on a short walk. Then:
1997 September: Saturday
Having shifted slightly away from the group in order to take photographs from the brow of the western cliffs, I wandered back and tagged along at the rear of the coach party. After ten minutes it suddenly dawned that I was following the wrong coach party – not a single face looked familiar, and when a completely different guide turned round and started his description of the Alping, I knew I had blundered.
Turning back, I spotted two Japanese men walking back to our original car park – I recognised them as definitely from my coach. I ran quickly down the hill and joined them. It turned out that they too were lost – we stood staring at each other in bewilderment.
After a sortie to a further car park about half a mile away that turned out to be empty, I returned. The Japanese suggested joining forces and we set off to climb to a yet another car park towards our left. Nothing there either – a coach driver pointed out some figures on a crag about a mile away. “That’s where you should be.”
Swearing under my breath, I led the others off along the hillside. The younger Japanese panted:
“They’ll think we’ve fallen between the tectonic plates.”
The older one started to lag behind. I was the fastest so I pushed ahead – we had to find the bloody coach somehow.
It was a long climb and I had lost interest in geology by the time I reached the new car park. Again, no coach. I turned to two Americans standing by a Range Rover and asked if they had seen it. Gazing round the bare plateau, they shook their heads.
How the hell could you lose a bus and sixty passengers in this moonscape? I stood on the rocky peak of the cliff and stared out at the view – there was no sign of life at all. It struck me that this was just like the film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. However, losing three Australian schoolgirls was one thing; losing an entire coach-load of anoraked and bobble-hatted Mittel Europeans quite another.
The Japanese caught up and I suggested to them that we might have to hitchhike back to Reykjavik. Consternation – I don’t think that this was on their itinerary at all.
Then, way below us, I spotted a red coach nosing its way along the plain. It had to be ours; the slow deliberation of the driving suggested that it was searching. The younger Japanese started to run down the path. I called him back. There was no point trying to chase the thing; it was better to stay put and let it come to us. The coach slowly wound its way along the road like a distant toy. Then it disappeared behind a mountain. It was like watching a film while being a player at the same time.
Suddenly our tour guide emerged from the hill path, red faced and sweating from having just run up the side of the European tectonic plate. The Japanese clustered round him like excited school kids finding teacher. We were saved!
It crossed my mind, that, as we had made the tour well over an hour late, back on the coach we were going to be about as popular as Karl Marx at the Conservative Party Conference. And so it proved.
We climbed aboard to a chorus of multi-lingual boos, cat calls, and shouts of “The drinks are on you tonight”. (Not at those prices, they weren’t). The Japanese huddled in my wake. I squeezed back in beside the huge German who gave an indignant rumble. Staring resolutely out of the window, I ignored it all.
As we returned westwards, the guide pointed out a rocky highland wilderness that had been the area where outlaws had been banished right up until the early 1900s. From the looks of my companions, the Japanese and I would be joining them if they had the chance.
As we disembarked in Reykjavik, the elder Japanese approached me.
“We wish to take a photograph of you.”
Well, I might have blown it in Europe, Scandinavia, and Britain, but it seemed I had formed a new alliance with Osaka.
Back at the hotel in the evening, I sat in the lounge and smoked a cigarette. There was an echoing cavernous loneliness to this place – no ghosts. I checked the menu – dinner here would cost at least £60. Even the half pint of Becks lager had cost me £6. Finally driven by hunger, I tackled the receptionist. After negotiation, I worked out a deal which allowed me to have a club sandwich as long as I ate it out of sight in my bedroom: a victory of sorts.
Upstairs, I flicked on the TV – until 1996, no television was allowed here on Thursday nights. Odd? The first programme was an Icelandic soap opera. The main feature that distinguished it from the rest of worldwide soaps was the clothing. Whereas in Australia for instance the actresses would be wearing bikinis or skimpy halter-tops, here they were wearing thick sweaters. They made up for this restraint by an inordinate amount of leg show. At times most of the screen was taken up by lolling thigh.
This was followed by the film ‘The Alamo’ dubbed into Icelandic; John Wayne sounded like a boy soprano with an attitude problem.
Finally, I watched a Belgian mime artist. Even as a child, I have always loathed mime. Despite such renowned stars as Marcel Marceau, my reaction has always been: ‘No, mate, there isn’t a pane of glass there. Both you and I know perfectly well that you can walk through it whenever you want. So stop pratting about’.
With the TV turned off, I could hear the wind whistling around the building; a thin howl punctuated by the smart crack of flagpole ropes. After the recent pleasant weather, I felt I was getting a glimpse of what Iceland was really like.
1997 September: Sunday
Next morning, I checked my money – it was running damned tight. I had about £80 left: no problem in the UK, but in Iceland I was not sure if it was enough. Down in the foyer, I paid for last night’s sandwich (£11) and had a coffee (£4). Down to £65 already!
After a line rehearsal in the afternoon, I stood on the main road waiting for a bus. Taking advantage of the fact that no one else was in sight, I sang the Welsh hymn ‘Cwm Rhondda’ at full volume to open up the vocal chords. The wind instantly whipped the sound away.
Gerry nodded a welcome at the Dubliner and led me to the upstairs bar to prepare the show. An immediate problem arose. There were no light switches at all; we had to screw each bulb into its socket individually to turn them on or off. Gerry: “This is one of the oldest buildings in Reykjavik”. It made a theatre lighting system impossible. We decided to leave just two bulbs working near the stage.
“Sure, that should be enough”.
At 8pm, I went downstairs to the bar. A large florid man was sitting on a stool at the counter. He glanced across and announced accusingly:
“You were the man who held up the coach yesterday.”
Oh dear, Reykjavik really was a small town – I’d thought I’d shaken off the lynch mob. He added that he had been unable to get cheap accommodation at the Salvation Army Hostel because of the delay. I apologised again and offered him a pint, (while mentally calculating the cost – I was now down to £42). The drink warmed the relationship and he became friendlier, confiding that he came from Luxembourg.
Then a bulky American from the Nato Air Base came across.
“I’m coming to your show. I don’t know nuttin’ about this Wilde guy so I guess it’ll be educational.”
The show itself suffered from one great flaw – nobody could see a bloody thing, including me. As I walked out on to the already gloomy set, both bulbs flickered and went out. Fumbling through the darkness, I managed to light the stage candle, which gave the proceedings an almost medieval aura. Gritting my teeth I plunged on. There were about 35 in the audience; not bad, considering there had been no advertising. The other problem was that, as the bar was L-shaped, they were split into two halves. This had the disconcerting effect that on one joke, half the room laughed while the other half didn’t, and on the next, vice versa. I gradually built up a combined response as the play continued.
Then, in the murk, I accidentally knocked over the stage wine glass. I was able to assume enough nonchalance to casually refill it without causing embarrassed titters in the audience. However, I then knocked my cigarette to the floor as well. Instead of simply taking another one, I bent down and scrabbled around for it – not exactly in the spirit of the elegant Oscar. I reached the end without further prop cock-ups and, to my great surprise, got a really good reaction, even being called back for a second curtain call.
Returning downstairs, I mingled with the audience. An Icelandic actor introduced himself and said:
“That was a really interesting idea. Doing the show by candlelight. You British are so adventurous with new theatrical concepts.”
By 1am, a group at the next table were singing the Negro spiritual ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. (I recalled a comedian saying how odd it was that this song should have become the anthem of English rugby. “You wouldn’t get black stevedores on a New Orleans levee singing The Eton Boating Song”.) They followed it with some Icelandic folksongs. By now fairly awash, I attempted to sing along to the choruses. This was turning into a very good night.
Another American from the Air Base came up and shook my hand. I assumed it was because of the show until he added: “My deepest condolences over the Princess”. (Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash three weeks earlier.) It was nice of him, but I had to admit that I only ever met her when we used to go ferreting together. He looked puzzled.
By 2am, the party had moved upstairs, in case any passing cop took exception to this extension of the ‘Reykjavik weekend’ booze-up into the normally abstemious Sunday night. Up in the darkened bar there was a truly anarchic feeling to the night – the lock-in, the songs, the craic. Yes, the Icelanders were very akin to the Irish.
By 3 30am, common sense elbowed its way in – the airport bus was leaving at 5am from my hotel. With great reluctance, I bade farewell to the crowd. As I shook hands with Gerry, he slipped across a 5000 Icelandic krona note. What with the £160 made on the door, (and with about£50 worth of free lager tonight), I had not only survived the prices here, but was clearly ahead. I gave him my heartfelt thanks – he’d been ace.
Having picked up a taxi back to the hotel, by 4 30am I was packed and waiting in the foyer. The porter emerged from the kitchen carrying a cup of coffee. He smiled as he handed it over: “It’s free.” What had come over them? Generosity? Conscience?
The coach arrived at 5am, having circled the city hotels collecting people for the London flight. As I boarded, the first person I saw was my acquaintance from Luxembourg. His face dropped in mock horror:
“If you are navigating, we will probably end up in Oslo!”
One story stayed with me concerning flights over Iceland. Shortly after my trip there, one of its numerous volcanoes erupted spewing out an enormous cloud of ash that completely wrecked the possibility of any northern transatlantic flights. This inevitably caused passenger chaos back at London’s Heathrow. After the airport’s loudspeakers had announced the cancellation of one flight due to this formidable natural phenomenon, one lady had bustled through to the information desk and demanded:
“This doesn’t apply to business class, surely?”