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Book Review: True North

Published: The Scotsman (Critique) 02 Aug 2008


WHEN BRITS TRAVEL ABROAD IT’S usually in a southerly direction, for obvious reasons: why leave these foggy, soggy islands and go somewhere even colder and darker when the Med is only hours away? This one-dimensional migration pattern is reflected in the travel writing we produce. While an army of itinerant scribes churns out countless books and articles on Italy, France and Spain, precious few turn their attention north, to the European countries that lie on or around the Arctic Circle. It’s one of the great blindspots of our collective imagination; as if we’d rather not be reminded that London is actually closer to Oslo than it is to Rome.

Thank goodness, then, for people like Gavin Francis, who are prepared not only to visit our northerly neighbours, but write about them in a way that shows how much of their history is our history too.

Like a true Brit, he didn’t appreciate the appeal of the north while living in Britain – it was only once he started working as a doctor in a “stinking hospital ward” in Africa that he began to feel the need for cold, clean, open spaces. And if that sounds like the set-up for some hippyish “one man’s spiritual journey” -type travelogue, don’t be alarmed: Francis, a true man of science, is largely concerned with specifics. In each of the places he visits – Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Lapland – he allows himself to be guided by the great explorers who pioneered travel to these regions; his own experiences only serve to frame this greater narrative.

The resulting book is like a great web of interconnecting sagas, which links the voyages of the Greek explorer Pytheas in the fourth century BC to the seventh century exploits of the Irish monk St Brendan in the Faroes and Iceland, and the Vikings’ subsequent colonisation of Iceland and Greenland. As he swings east to Svalbard, Francis touches on a chapter of British history – our rivalry with the Dutch and Danes for trade routes and whaling grounds in the 16th and 17th centuries – that, while fascinating, is probably never taught in this country’s classrooms.

Finally, in Lapland, he reaches the 20th century, conjuring up a vision of a strange, marginal twilight zone that, although technically part of Europe, only felt the occasional aftershock from the events that shook the rest of the continent to its foundations.

Running throughout the book, inevitably perhaps, is the spectre of climate change. In Lerwick, Francis finds the local council planning to raise the defences of the harbour to protect against rising sea levels; in Iceland he visits Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest ice-cap, which is shrinking at terrifying speed; and in Tromsø, in northern Norway, he meets locals who worry that, if the Gulf Stream diverts, as some scientists predict, their town will literally “freeze to death”.

In this rapidly warming world, the countries to our north are like canaries in the proverbial mine: we should pay them more attention, not just because of our shared history, but also our shared future.

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