Poetic Postcards from a Cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen
28 June-13 July 2014
North Shields’ Cruise Terminal greets us
Through lines of coaches and taxis,
Cases being hauled by assistants
For passengers or ‘guests’ as they will be,
Courtesy of Fred Olsen and the ‘Black Watch’.
Still misleadingly young, I notice how old the guests are,
White-haired, already possessed of the Arctic look,
Overweight ice-breakers lumbering through floes
Of other guests, entering automatic doors,
Processing in order to be processed.
The human cargo is amenable, easily managed:
Olsen’s efficient staff have shifted millions.
Don’t think that you are the only one or the first
To have ‘cruised’ to the Arctic. You’ll meet the bores,
The Arctic drills that can go through the hardest ice,
With their tales of two hundred previous cruises.
Aye, you’re small fry here, but never mind the rest
Of the guests. Make this your expedition,
Your personal quest to the high latitudes.
Through massive stern doors at the next dock,
As we gather for Emergency Training,
Listen to seven short blasts and one long blast
On the ship’s whistle, and then strangle ourselves,
Chinny-up, on the cords of orange lifejackets.
We know our Assembly Stations, we think.
We’re ready now, and soon we glide
The Severn lifeboat at the station,
The light at the end of the breakwater.
The pilot launch shadows us warily,
Then pulls powerfully alongside,
As the pilot comes down the rope ladder.
The launch leaves us
On course for Kristiansund,
As blue skies give way to grey.
SUNDAY AT SEA
Strange to be at sea on the Sabbath Day,
On the North Sea’s grey expanse,
As a Masefield morning dawns,
Wind Force Seven, thirty-three knots,
Visibility moderate, an occasional oil-rig
Piercing the sky above a dull horizon.
Two Peterhead boats trawl together,
The ‘Budding Rose’ nearer, rolling heavily,
But holding out hope of sunshine.
We gather in the afternoon, a strong congregation,
Collectively keep the faith in creeds and readings,
Sing, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save…’
As the ‘Black Watch’ holds a steady course,
Seventeen point six knots, leaving a wake of feathers,
Gannets of foam playing and plunging through one another.
By evening the wind abates, sunshine breaks through:
The view for Monday is radiant.
There’s no room for kitsch here:
The trolls are under the counter,
Cowering, huddled in a corner,
Justly relegated to insignificance.
This town of islands is life itself,
Past, present, future, each island
Connected by bridges, ferries, tunnels:
Harmonious engineering sings
Unknown to tone-deaf trolls.
The boat-building museum throbs
Comfortably with today’s life:
The forge is lit, the iron melts,
And the hammer clangs it
Tunefully into shape,
Banging out an answer:
Broken parts repaired, replaced,
For a squadron of boats,
Timelessly spanning years.
A yellow-green ferry crosses
The ancient modern route,
Elegantly pure yachts, virginal,
Flanked by wooden, clinker-built,
Reeking gloriously of strong varnish
And linseed oil, ready to sail:
Shops on the quayside offer
Exactly what is needed –
All items maritime ready to hand.
There is no invention here,
Only proud reality,
Glittering in the sunshine,
Reminder of rock-solid endurance
In dark days, when Norway needed
Much more than kitsch.
From Kristiansund we emerge disbelieving
From the banana-plunge of a massive tunnel,
Two hundred metres below the sea.
Now we go through green fields,
Pass colourful wooden houses,
Gaze gasping towards the Atlantic
With its mind-vaulting horizon.
Bridges boomerang skywards over skerries,
Rising, dipping, bending, deceiving the eye
With multiple curves going everywhere
At once, then stopping dead in the sky,
With nothing beyond but salt sea air,
Like a take-off booster on an aircraft-carrier,
Cut off in mid-air, bridges to nowhere:
To hurl cars, buses, articulated lorries,
Between islands, landing on the far edge
Of another bridge, and continuing the journey,
Mary Poppins-like in a Disney-world dream?
They go beyond the range of human vision,
Ferocious gradients, massive climbs, headlong descents,
Coaches grinding gears, lumbering on the lowest,
Jerking as they struggle to conquer this gradient,
Then rolling down brake-engaged to the gentle waves,
So innocent today, as another bridge
Boomerangs back to meet us,
The sea sparklingly subservient
To this multi-curved concrete switchback.
This is engineering at its most determined,
An ultra-colossal feat of collective genius,
Connecting sharpest, barest edges,
Finding footholds on angry rocks,
Within the Atlantic’s grimmest grip.
Let the ocean roar! We’ve done it!
But don’t be fooled again, because
There is wreckage on that far shore,
Nor does Neptune lower his trident
In anyone’s salute: when his rage
Boils over, the King of the Ocean
Nails up a notice to all drivers
With two familiar old words
That haven’t gone away:
KNARR WITH A MOTOR
Vikings would have recognised this bulk-carrier,
Their cargo-boat, transporter of cattle, food, people,
Broad-shouldered, solid-keeled, defiant boat,
Very essence of the Norse themselves.
No fancy figurehead, no more needed than oak,
Bow fixed massively with bolts and rivets,
Rounded stern to match with steering-oar.
This craft is not kitsch: she hauled two horses
From Iceland, using natural horse-power
From mighty tree-mast and square sail,
Today, though, we cheat badly, make pretence,
Cross the channel by motor power:
What would the Vikings say to that?
Would they recognise anything of themselves
In diesel engine and churning propeller?
This motorised Viking ‘knarr’ rejoices
Regardless in her contemporary propulsion,
Accepts it magnificently,
Powers into an explosion of sunshine:
Diamonds sparkle in the water,
Jewels appear in her wake,
Nature’s gem-box opens to honour
One of her own, as she surges across
To collect another cargo, not horses
But tourists, heaving creaking arthritic legs
Lurchingly over her mighty gunwales,
Struggling to position belly-heavy
Ponderous bodies on varnished thwarts,
For transportation to Haholmen.
She’s a stallion of the seas, this one,
A work of traditional art,
A real boat for real warriors:
Not a Tupperware yacht
For plastic millionaires.
MV ‘LOFOTEN’ (built Oslo, 1964)
That curving stern at Kristiansund’s far quay
Catches my eye. Can it be…? Must be…
Carefully round, without thrusters.
Elegant form emerges, shapely,
Stepped sheer forward, with crane resting,
Flowing lozenge funnel set well aft.
Lady ‘Lofoten’ defies time and tide,
Celebrates fifty years of service,
Continues stern-turn soberly,
Guided by Bridge wheel,
Deft use of engine control:
Goes ahead, comes round,
Then pushing frothily forward.
Engine set to Full Ahead,
Stern wake swells, surges,
She leans hard a-starboard,
Eases off, and glides past,
Unhurried, leisurely, quiet,
All in her own good time,
No need to burst a gasket.
Captain, casually dressed,
Relaxes on the wing.
Fortune’s tide is full today:
I gaze until I feel my eyes
Are welded into her plates,
While a fast ferry, speedily
Bluntly, squatly, surges inward,
Her bow-wave cutting hard
Into my sea of sentiment.
This old lady needs no sympathy:
She’s still going strong, carrying
Greater understandings, an era
When Masters knew currents,
Accords with wind and waves,
The radar of the searching eye –
Fifty years young,
Mountain formations re-form constantly
In the twinkling of an eye: no sooner
Do you see one shape than it transmutes
Into another in Norway’s mix-and-match:
Sawn-off stacks become pyramids,
Horns lunge suddenly from plain headlands,
Smooth-sided valleys develop sharp outcrops.
Nature’s bakery was at full stretch here:
Waves of folded strata, sliced at the end,
Were cooked in her high-pressure oven,
Becoming swiss-rolls with lava fillings,
Sweet-looking Battenberg cakes,
Scones and pancakes, solid as rock.
And here’s a doughnut, with a hole in the centre,
As if some mighty missile went straight through:
Tradition says it was once a hat, used to stop
Thor’s ferocious bolt, when pursuing a maiden.
The reality relates to icing: it wasn’t wise to have
A soft spot in those harsh frozen millennia,
When razor-sharp bulldozers came over land,
A million horse-power in each engine:
They could find a weakness easily,
Push their hydraulic probes right through.
They did so here, and gave tourists
A legend for all life-times, plus
A chance to think of polo-mints
And afternoon doughnuts on silver plates,
Click their cameras, and grab a new boast –
‘We have seen the holey mountain!’
Mystical mountains like Torghatten
Give us something fresh to chew on,
Turn a tour into a pilgrimage,
Help us to chill out spiritually,
See through to the other side.
In Holandsfjord lives a survivor from the Ice Age,
Covering 140 square miles with its frozen stomach,
Clawing its way through the mountains,
Chewing its geological enemies, grinding them down,
Levelling their rugged surfaces with its crushing sandpaper,
Its primitive machinery driven by relentless force,
Gravity engine, riding on well-iced ball-bearings.
Its snout can be seen, and curdled white tongue
Thrusting through its teeth to lick the fjord,
But its reach is shortening, decreasing, leaving
Stratified slopes of dry rock to tell the tale
Of its increasing thirst, its dehydration,
Its retreat up the mountain. A century ago
It owned the whole glaciated valley,
Gouged out by its razor-sharp chisels:
Only its moraine was terminal then.
What does it think of the ‘Black Watch’,
As we come to take a look, and to lament
Its steady diminution? I was expecting it
To throw an iceberg straight at us,
To hurl its blazing anger in flaming
Cruise-missiles, and justly sink our ship.
Instead, it leaves us to our guilt-trip,
To fry in our own warm emotions,
To stew in a hot Arctic conscience,
To consider our sins of emission,
To make amends for our pyrotechnics,
As it dreams of another Ice Age
When its mighty tongue will dredge
The bottom of Holandsfjord
And Hell freezes over.
They are everywhere here – little, large, sharp, blunt,
Fast, slow, deliberate, determined, old, new,
Some with funnels, some with stove-pipes,
Some with one hull, some with two,
Appearing between islands, round headlands,
Midgets below mountains, diminutive,
Easily dismissed by pompous posers
On the decks of haughty cruise-liners,
But vital, indispensable, arteries of coastal heart,
No harbour complete without a terminal:
See, overlooked by the towering Seven Sisters,
One sits quietly with a raised bow-visor,
Taking travellers, vehicles, food, drink,
Essentials, across channel and fjord.
People could live on this coast without liners,
But not without the connectors of communities.
These unassuming boats do not ask for recognition,
But they speak of value, shouting through their plates
That coasts and islands matter, that they must live.
Suddenly, between us and the Seven Sisters,
A high-speed ‘Ambulanse’ roars past at forty knots:
Life in these islands is precious.
MOMENTS MUSICAL IN NORWAY
As we glide past the twins of Stac Pollaidh,
Cul Beag, Cul More, Suilven and Quinaig,
I think of Norman McCaig’s moment musical
Here in Norway the mountains are a choir,
Basses, baritones, tenors, sopranos,
Mezzo-sopranos and a range of altos.
Their shapes sing unaccompanied as we pass,
Listening to their movements, watching
Their undulating harmonies,
Their gentle unisons, audible to the eye,
Visibly enjoying their eternal hymn
To their Creator,
Composer of their melody,
Who wrote their score
In the geological sky.
Their conductor is invisible,
But she too is one of their number.
They sing powerfully outwards,
Upwards, downwards, appealing
To mere humans like us,
A transient audience of observers,
Whose ground-level music
Is only an ephemeral whisper,
Unnoticed by them.
Norway’s moments musical
Are one deathless sequence
Of loftiest notes.
NORTH CAPE SEQUENCE
(1) NORTHERN CAPERS
This bare northern plateau is beautiful –
Sheer cliffs, deep colours of cold ocean,
Ceaseless banks of mist generating
Swift-moving films of shadow,
Peaceful lochs of ice-melt
In dark moors, a grey cap of cloud
Hiding the Cape’s embarrassment
From the celestial bodies.
Barrenness has a precious fecundity,
Streaks of brilliant white
With pink flowers ruby-studding
Brown, wind-baked, frozen terrain.
I feel at peace out there, resting
My weight on the biting wind,
Looking at the globe that marks
The northern extremity
Of mainland Europe.
Tourists whirl round that globe,
Dancing with delight,
Stiffly but regally take the salute
Of the nations, as I remember
That only the finest come here:
It’s not a place for Sammies.
We passed them down the road,
Stuck in their polar history.
I trudge towards the other Centre,
With its ugly profitability,
Seeing nothing but the barrenness
Of bleak consumerism.
I fight angry tidal surges, write notes
For a poem about ‘Our vile colonial
Desires to exploit localities, people
And history, drilling through the soft
Tissues of fantasy,
Without ever making contact
With real rock, fooling ourselves
With postcards and trolls,
While we pollute the environment
With acres of concrete and glass.’
Thank goodness I brought
(2) CAVE OF LIGHTS
Are you sitting comfortably?
I mean, Really comfortably?
If so, we’ll play the video down here
Below ground where you can be deluded
Into this fabulous experience
Of the four seasons at the North Cape.
Remember, this is kidology, not geology
Or meteorology, so it’s not too taxing,
And we can do it in just six minutes.
You won’t be bored, as you can move
To another display after that.
So here we go. We’ll take it away
With stage lights and sound effects.
First the Sami, bless them, come along
With their ancient reindeer, crossing the screen.
The old ways are nice, aren’t they?
Then there’s a long summer of never-ending sunshine,
When they can all graze and gaze.
Autumn suddenly arrives, creates ruffles,
But, don’t worry, we’ll soon be at winter
With shipwrecks, roaring waves
And crashing storms. Oh, my head!
Poor souls, we feel sorry for them all.
Let’s get away from here fastest,
And be grateful for electronics.
(3) NORTH CAPE HORN
This is defiance at its finest!
A slab of vertical rock stood
Pointedly against the glaciers,
As they crunched the Cape into shape.
It said, ‘No, you don’t’, and the message
Was heard across centuries
By mist and rain,
By wind and waves,
By birds and animals.
Those ancient hunter-gatherers
Of the Finnmark tundra
Heard it too, coming to worship
This enduring eminence.
For them it was divine,
A steadfast god,
Regardless of inertia.
It remains obdurate,
Nose-up to erosion,
The very Pole
Of nature’s compass,
Some day soon, though,
It will be sawn off its foundation,
Set in glass in the Visitor Centre,
Along with the King of Siam:
Coach-conveyed worshippers of Gaia
Will bow down before it,
Affirming its enduring connections
With Mother Earth.
(1) SAMI SOUVENIRS
We are allowed ten minutes to meet the natives,
But ninety to meet the counterfeit kitsch at the Cape:
We see the ‘lavvo’ and the bare tent frame,
Specially erected for the tourists.
A Sami herdsman in high-edged cap
Stands beside his docile reindeer,
While I pose in deep discomfort
For a misleading photograph.
I look at his rugged cheek-bones
That have endured the onslaught
Of razor-sharp ice, and now confront
The glacier stares of tourists like me:
The reindeer, with bald patches and furry antlers,
Nibbles moss from a dry wooden box.
I find no peace here. It’s torture:
Am I visitor or a voyeur,
Peeping into a disintegrating privacy,
Or am I damning the Sami
To cultural reflexes
Of the ghastly imperial Cape?
Or am I in truth a traitor
Of the Sami, knowing that
This is not the whole truth,
But playing the game?
I loathe sophisticated conspiracies,
Reinvention of humans and animals,
Supremacy that kills lifestyles
By substituting a lovable image
For the grim reality.
I cannot get away from ‘civilisation’
Simply by standing smilingly
Beside a Sami and his reindeer.
His blood is on my hands,
And I cannot find enough snow
(2) REINDEER LOVE
They stood together, the Sami herdsman
And his devoted reindeer, in their rituals,
As the haughty tourists came to view
The Noble Savage with distinctive dress,
And strange northern customs.
I could feel the distant look in the herdsman’s eyes,
A skewered agony red-hot in my intestines,
As I and the rest of them came off
The stream of glassy coaches.
The reindeer felt the pain too,
And looked upwards into the face
Of his Sami friend. A human hand
Descended, and tickled the deer’s long chin:
‘It won’t be long now until I take you
To fresh water, to drink pure streams,
And not this filthy flow.’
The unspoken words cracked
Like rifle-shots in my ears,
And the gazing bullets struck
My two-faced brain.
That meeting of eyes,
That deep and real affection:
That language that has no need
Of words, only of looks that present
Harsh realisms in another realm,
And lovingly explode sentiment:
They leave their mark indelibly.
I cannot dress my own wounds,
And no doctor on this earth
Can provide a pain-killer.
(3) SAMI SHOP(Honningsvag)
Unobtrusive, plain, with no plate-glass windows,
Nothing fancy, built of wooden planks, with a rough door.
You could easily miss this self-denying cultural centre
With no swank, no self-promotion.
Forgive me, God, but I had to be told that it existed,
A pot of gold with no electronic rainbow.
Plain, yes, but the goods were the richest simplicities,
Made by the sharp-boned hands of Sami women,
With high-cheeked smiles on their faces,
The colours of a thousand rainbows
In their radiant dresses.
We need no language to understand
That our hearts are united,
Or that we, Sami and Gael,
Share the aboriginal stigma.
Pull off our wrappings
Of civilised mendacity
If you like – that’s our cross -
But, whatever our faults,
Whatever our compromises,
You will not find
‘Made in Taiwan’
Stamped on our bare
Magnificent mountains, Three Crowns,
Provide a glacier-laced backdrop
Glittering in the Arctic sunshine
As we pull towards a coastal fringe
Of drab tanks, cement-coloured sheds,
High-chimney power-houses, grey stores
What a place of paradox!
Pollution and its perception
Hold this town together,
While tour-passengers walk on dusty roads,
Gravel crunching under hundreds of feet,
Eyes and noses desperate to penetrate
This high-powered shanty-town of science,
Academia on stilts.
The toxicity of the Arctic ‘sink’
Keeps the inmates out of trouble
Behind well-locked gates and metal doors,
Up there on Zeppelin Mount
And down in these research stations,
In air and cloud and sea.
Political presences matter here:
Two grotesque white stone lions
To scare the polar-bears?
But where’s Yellow River?
And there are nine others:
Korea’s and India’s shacks
Display pompous name-boards.
Arctic foxes live under the huts.
As my feet grind grey gravel,
A buxom wench runs past
With a husky on a lead,
A human robot rides his bicycle
Down the path, holding
The mooring-line of a red blimp,
Towing it and paying it out.
He’s sniffing the upper ether,
Oblivious to ‘Black Watch’.
He has his own watch.
With a hint of devotional madness,
A research penitentiary for those suffering
From Iceberger’s Syndrome,
Strong on pollution-measurement,
But low on community life,
Colder than glaciers.
The terns have the same disease,
But focus their research on tourists,
Excellent, sensible birds!
Roald Amundsen’s edifice
Is now restored, brown-boarded,
Where he shacked up before
Heading over the Pole in the ‘Norge’:
The mooring-gantry still stands,
A mutely meaningful memorial to
Airborne obsession and achievement.
I pay my respects at the shop,
Surprisingly troll-free –
No need of them here! –
But stowed out with visitors,
A long queue at the check-out:
I go to the light-green Post Office,
Where tall Captain Jozo,
Lightly disguised in jeans,
Engages the small post-mistress,
Weighted with large official cap.
I walk back to the quay, observing
That pulled black gold to the wharf
From the now-defunct mines
Of the industrial past,
Generators of the pollution
Currently being measured.
The pure-white ‘Black Watch’
Fleetingly adorns this grim colony,
Her Olsen funnel towering above
Ny-Alesund’s dutiful dullness,
Emitting a transparent vapour.
(For Sara Wheeler, author of ‘The Magnetic North’)
Place-names of the Pole reveal
Our truest, deepest intentions,
As we explore the domains
Of polar-bear and whale and walrus:
We want the world to know
That they belong to us,
So we plaster the glaciers
And the icy terrain
With our great names.
Svalbard stinks of rank ambition,
Pompous imperial nomenclature:
‘Albert I Land’, ‘Haakon VII Land’,
‘James I Land’, ‘Dickson Land’.
We were here, and it’s ours:
Get the message OK?
Until the next tsunami
Of imperialists arrives,
Subtler in their methods,
With government accords,
Agreements, cash, highways,
Sell-outs for the natives
Minus mineral rights,
Long, long pipelines,
Spelling new names, Exxon,
BP and GazProm.
Hello again! We’re back!
Thought that was it, did you?
North-West and North-East Passages
This time, with humungous icebreakers,
Crashing through joyfully!
Hand over a bottom-slice
Of this despised goldmine,
You useless Eskimo sourdoughs!
Our titanium flag already
Secures the sea’s bottom.
Don’t you know?
We’re getting desperate
In this modern, melt-enabled,
Smashing Gold Rush.
Who cares for Inuit
Or Eskimo or Sami?
Or for polar-bear
Or Arctic fox?
We’ll buy, kill, steal
Our way to what we want,
Do the job properly
This time round,
Trash the whole place.
‘Polar-bear Land’ did you say?
‘Arctic Fox Land’?
‘Inuit Land’ and ‘Sami Land’?
Sorry, I can’t find them on the map,
And my edition is bang up-to-date.
Let’s not bother with names now.
Anyway, that’s old nonsense.
Just grab the stuff.
MAGDALENE FJORD, SPITSBERGEN
Sharp mountains draped in snow, capped with mist and cloud,
Appear on the near horizon, razor-edged peaks.
Soon we enter the Sublime’s inmost sanctuary
In brightest sunshine, emeralds and diamonds
Sparkling on deepest, smoothest blue,
Glaciers glinting between slopes,
Brilliant white defying dark rocks and brown tundra.
The ‘Black Watch’ crawls, stops, holds position,
While we gaze in awe, drink mulled wine, have a cake,
Stewardesses looking after our bodily appetites.
Such mundane concerns divert my energy, as I struggle
To comprehend dazzlingly incomprehensible majesty.
This is the realm of walruses, whales and polar-bears,
A glorious but terrifying solitude, with two huts by the shore,
Edging a graveyard for one hundred British whalers.
History is frozen in stiff bodies below those jagged stones,
With a cairn standing guard over their magnificent mortality.
Even death seems noble and beautiful in this mortuary.
This is the ultimate ice-spangled memento of fragility.
A yacht lies at anchor, while the ‘Polaris I’ chugs into life,
Beginning the day’s in-depth research, seeking specimens.
My camera is soon exhausted, my mind and my body drained,
My faculties stunned by Sublimity, while I retreat to marvel
At the nonchalance of three swimmers trying their back-stroke
In the warm waters of the ship’s beguiling pool.
Our morning greeting is a broad bay, a heavenly haven,
With the ‘Expedition’ and the ‘Artania’ there before us,
And several small vessels manoeuvring fretfully,
Moving clear as we pull alongside the quay.
Self-styled memorial to Chicago’s Longyear,
But paradoxically plain, it denies ostentation,
Wears an air of transience, a defiant transit-camp,
Studded with wooden gantries, some still supporting
Cables and buckets formerly filled with coal,
Hewn from its straight-stratified metamorphic rock:
A miner’s statue, workmanlike,
Confronts us in the main street,
Close to a stuffed polar-bear.
The hangar-like buildings are standard,
Brown wooden houses, dull against dark tundra,
Rent with stripes of brilliant white.
Residue of winter’s transformative glory.
Snow-mobiles lie stranded, parked in rough lines,
Gasping for snow’s animating power
To remove the lock-down of this bleak summer.
This is not a town for old people: only the younger
Dare to live here, alongside sparkling museums
Of ice-cool vivacity, bright, tourist-baited shops,
Hotels and restaurants, perched above grey pipes.
A colourful Lutheran church enhances
A long dark plateau, while a massive glacier
Steams angrily in clouds and white mist
Above roofs and chimneys at the northern end,
Glowering at the untidy shacks by the harbour,
Where cruise-ships anchor on top of huts,
Hold everything in place, lest all fly off
In polar power-blasts of wind, snow and ice.
Energy defines this Arctic camp,
Defiant in its enduring transience.
Its intellectual edges ice-sharp.
AIRSHIP MUSEUM, LONGYEARBYEN
Wellman, Nansen, Amundsen, Nobile –
Names from the Heroic Age of Polar Conquest –
Are all still alive here, their driving obsessions
Eternalised in books, articles, models, artefacts,
From the seas to the skies, defiant, undaunted:
Amundsen knew no bounds, sailed ‘Fram’
To the South Pole, flew ‘Norge’ over the North,
That bipolar man, conqueror of physical extremes,
But overwhelmed by his own polarities,
Deeply secretive, showman, desperate
Supremo on skis, downwards, upwards, onwards,
Norway or nothing, but the searing competition
That finished Scott consumed his own glacial mind,
Bursting in fiery words, exploding friends and foes:
Ambition’s brutal furnace, flames from Hell
In the middle of ice-fields, volcanic
Crevasses of controversy boiling
Until that final flight of valediction
To find Nobile and lose himself.
Nor was he alone: the litany recites
Those other names – Cook, Peary,
Wellman, Nansen, Nobile –
Compulsive explorers, madmen:
The list is long and lethal.
Why am I so much at home,
So happy to discover comrades,
In this deathless museum
Of ruthless achievers?
From moist mist and blasting siren on the Barents Sea,
We sail into sunshine, green-clad valleys and snow-topped mountains,
Gliding calmly in the soft morning air, porpoises leaping around the ship,
Cutting the limpid emerald surface with their rippling fins.
We sweep under a bridge, past the end of an airport runway,
Where aircraft take off to the hills, or descend from their peaks:
Fast ferries and fishing-boats appear ahead,
Crossing our course until we turn through half a circle
Into the welcoming arms of Tromso quayside.
This island city, sparkling in sunlight, radiates
The essence of Norway, with its richly varied fleet,
Catamarans, X-bowed car-ferries, standard twin-funnel ships,
Endlessly busy, bustling hither and yon, and ice-white church
Of stepped gables on the far side, catching our eye.
In summer’s blazing heat, we climb to the top of the town,
Look back at spires, masts and wooden cathedrals.
We salute Hurtigruten’s office, with its effortless kindness,
Its generous acceptance of a ferry-addicted visitor,
Gazing at eight glorious models, marvelling at such neatness.
This city is a compact cornucopia of supernatural surprises.
We meet an angel unawares at the door of Tromso’s oldest church,
And soon we are inside, sharing faith and gladly giving thanks
For the beauty of the earth, for the light that shines in darkness:
‘Jesus Werdens Lys’.
MV ‘POLSTJERNA’ (1949-82), TROMSO
This seal-slaughtering vessel has been shown mercy
Which neither she nor Halfdan Jakobsen deserved:
Now preserved, she keeps the stench of grim mortality
In each of her rugged planks, fighting the Arctic seas,
As she plunged her sharp knife into soft pups,
Perched innocently on ice-floes, expecting kindness.
They were no match for this brutal, death-dealing murderer
And her dirty work, staining sparkling ice with black blood.
She reeks of rough encounters, her hunters deep, dark and dangerous
As icebergs, their natural violence concealed but dimly.
Up there in the crow’s nest, high above her glass protection,
The Captain shouted orders, read the weather, directed the hunt
As men shot with rifles or leapt with deadly blades from floe to floe,
Leaving bloody footsteps on blue ice, hauling back carcasses.
Sails could be hoisted to aid the Crossley diesel as it roared,
Screw threshing freezing sea as the engineer sweated.
The cook made delicious meals of seal flesh in the galley
Beside the engine, powering the men through lethal swells.
Daughter of Amundsen’s ‘Fram’, ‘Polstjerna’ was a brave ship,
With over thirty years of faultless service, massive cargoes
Of three thousand dead seals in her hold until the final cargo.
Now she is embalmed in glass, and we can see every inch
Of her perfectly-preserved corpse, glorious in death.
How beautiful she looks, how innocent, as she lies there!
TROLLFJORD, LOFOTEN ISLANDS
The Sublime lives here too, in a palace
Carved miraculously by Nature’s sculptors,
The Great Glacier Design Company,
Specialising in rugged finishes,
Creating great walls of rock,
Doors that are so narrow
That the ‘Black Watch’ must watch her sides,
And crawl into the throne-room slowly, humbly,
Acknowledging that she is nothing
In the grand scheme of fjords.
Walls are clad in greens and browns and yellows,
A kaleidoscope of natural tints, changing with the ship
As she turns on her axis, slowly, gradually, until she faces
That entrance, leaves a hydro-electric station astern,
A house, and a yacht moored alongside a jetty.
A slim, glittering waterfall tumbles past us off the port side.
Waters are dark green, light green, emerald, turquoise,
And countless other shades unknown to me.
Ship’s tender, mere minnow below sky-blowing cliffs,
With yellow top, cuts through the aqueous splendour,
Leaving a glorious multi-hued fan-tail wake,
As cameramen attempt to capture part of paradise.
This palace too is selective in its guests,
Permitting only trolls to gain admittance
In the past, but it has gone up-market
Since the dark days of superstition.
Secular nature-worship is booming:
So now it is pleased to welcome tourists,
The sophisticated trolls of our time.
(Borg, Vestvagoy, Lofoten Islands)
An eagle-eyed farmer saw glass shards,
As his Massey-Ferguson ploughed ancient soil,
Found history sparkling in the gashed earth,
A seed of reconstruction revealing itself
To the coulter of a clear-minded tiller.
This was revelation in finest form,
Fragments of a great past: a Chieftain’s hall
Resounded to family friendship,
Feasting frolics and far-fought feuds.
House replaced house, each leaving its mark,
Preserving vividly to the present
The blueprint of this mighty chamber.
A mountain stood across the valley,
Embracing ritual and power.
A resurrection followed; a new house
Rose from the traces of the old,
And life of a sort returned:
A long hall, filled with energy
For carving images, making bows,
Drying skins, storing klippfish,
As in the old days, we suppose,
Before the Chief sailed his sea-stallion
To Iceland, land of opportunity:
In that New World, he built another hall,
Ploughed a fresh furrow, planting himself
Where his seed still blossoms
In richer, less contested soil.
Little did he and his lady realise
That their old house would revive
In a ghostly remaking,
Bringing wealthy tourists to see
The magnificent remnants
Which they wisely forsook –
And never saw.
She comes into view through the hot day’s sea-mist,
Unmistakably the ‘Funchal’, with her fine funnel,
Gracious curves, slender lines and elevating sheer –
A sublime ship in a sublime setting,
Built when elegance mattered, when cruises were small
And beautiful, not intended for belly-heavy consumers
Of food and kitsch, who can’t tell the difference
Between Teneriffe and Tiree, and don’t care either.
She’s not a monstrous, bluff-bowed, multi-tiered cattle-truck,
A pontoon carrying a load of prefabricated luxury shacks,
With a supermarket trolley-handle sticking out of her backside,
Or an ugly pair of red lips and two ignorant eyes on her bow:
Nor is she a float for thousands of bleating sheep,
Going to be fleeced on the global cruise market.
No, she’s ‘class’, the ‘Funchal’,
And her presence enhances the landscape,
As she glides below mighty mountains,
Puffs out light streamers of black smoke,
Docks neatly at Leknes, completely at peace,
Breathing the spirit of Sublime majesty.
The name is a Sami photograph
Of land shaped like a wolf’s foot,
Where grandeur bursts ruggedly skywards.
Soaring cloud-piercing pinnacles
Bring rain upon the fertile earth,
Sun-bathed in emeralds today,
Fields of flourishing fecundity
Now covered in ‘trolls’ eggs’,
White and well packed.
The seas are productive too,
Great harvests of cod
Causing klippfish to rattle
As they dry in the breeze,
For an enduring people.
Fishing-boats idle colourfully
At Ballstad at season’s end,
Slipped above the tide for repair,
While a young boy fondles
The engine of his fast sea-stallion,
Readying for future challenges.
Off Leknes, the ‘Black Watch’ lies white,
Anchored in the sun-drenched channel,
Sending inquisitive visitors here by tender,
While the ‘Funchal’ slumbers at the quay
In the shade of mighty mountains,
Before she wakens again
To the deep’s incessant call.
SUN AND SEA AT MIDNIGHT
At midnight the Norwegian sun
Plays with the horizon,
Enjoys plenty of latitude,
Confusing travellers, whose minds
Are set on setting suns.
It descends slowly, red and orange light
Spilling over ripples and wake
As the ship sails onwards,
Until it alights on a dark headland,
Silhouette sharpening softly,
Rays arraying themselves
In ever-deepening shades.
Suddenly it disappears, then edges along again,
Having travelled sideways, arcing
Between two islands, throwing a long
Laser beam towards the handrail
From its dazzling torch.
Its final flourish is to paint the sea
Pink with endless ruffles,
Rolling, curving, pirouetting,
Dancing in ever-changing strobes,
A gentle midnight performance.
It gradually dawns upon me
That this sun is not set in its ways,
As it rises from nightlessness,
Having skimmed earth’s oceans
With a ‘Good Morning’ kiss.
We steer southwards in glorious sunshine,
When suddenly in early afternoon
Mist rolls in, cold and clammy,
And the ship becomes an enclosed world,
Travelling onwards without mountains,
Towns or landmarks of clear, unsullied days.
Cold breeze dissolves warm air,
Makes it drip in miniature globules.
How inconsiderate! We expected better!
This must be reported to Reception,
As it has spoilt the cruise for us.
We expect the very best, and we are entitled
To something more. In fact, we will not
Travel with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines again,
As the company failed to anticipate
The inconvenience that this has caused.
We want perfection, nothing less,
And 29 degrees C in the Arctic Circle
Was not good enough. We are anxious now,
As we approach the seven-island city
Of Alesund and the last day of the cruise.
Of course, we ourselves are experts
At controlling life’s mysteries.
Mist in the early sunshine gives way gradually
To slow sunshine, glorious radiance by mid-day.
‘Trollfjord’ graces the berth astern,
Waits for passengers for Geiranger Fjord,
Passes close as she pulls away.
I board 62 North’s catamaran for Hjorund Fjord,
Leaving in a 30-knot wake of boiling brine.
Shipyards, repair yards, fish factories
Line the edges of endless islands,
As we swirl past, slowing at narrow channels.
Green-clad mountains, jagged-topped,
Adorn the fjord’s sides, show bald patches,
Winter avalanches’ decapitating power.
Ferries fill the channel, nose-to-nose midstream,
As ‘Trollfjord’ emerges from mist-draped
Towering headland, fast launches speed by,
Vehicles of the seas, holding communities together.
Above a village with a new school, a red helicopter
Lifts concrete for a hydro-electric hill-top line
To energise Bergen. The currents are powerful here,
Sparking with dynamic action and creative energy.
HJORUND FJORD GUIDE
She was Norway on that shining fjord,
Strong in form, but stronger still in pride,
Every word a song of sensible praise
To her high-headed, deeply-cloven country.
Ships, boats, shipyards, factories
Custom-built into her commentary,
Oil revenues, schools, hospitals and ferries:
The new, the yet-to-be and the past, woven
Into her tweed of well-chosen words,
Apt anecdotes and warm humour.
She was clad in the forests and foliage
Of Hjorund Fjord, her home built upon
A high vantage-point above its waters,
Norway’s flag watching its many moods,
Storms, avalanches, rock-splitting sunshine,
Triumphs and tragedies in fields and hills.
She stood there gripping the microphone
In her ruggedly independent hand,
Imparting the mighty spirit of Norway
Unforgettably to us.
We return in grey skies, a smirr of rain,
A ship with fairy lights at anchor in soft mist,
Crawl past flashing beacon on the breakwater,
Into a world of British drabness, with follies,
Starboard buoys brightening the dark water,
Oily-calm harbour, statues and flat roofs,
Cranes, decaying docks, auto-carriers, bulkers,
‘Donald Duckling’ looming black over all.
A skulking sunrise splashes light between clouds,
But we see no pinnacles of ice here,
No red, green, blue or yellow houses,
No small quays throbbing with life.
An occasional fishing-boat potters past.
The idyll is over, the good weather gone,
As the rain teams down. North Shields
Stretches out a wet hand to welcome us home
To Northumbrian Quay, but our minds
Are sparkling with memories.
WRY AND DRY REFLECTIONS
A tourist with a generous mind
Decided to be very kind,
And feed a small cub
With mash from a tub,
And then spotted a big bear behind!
He naturally gave it a kick,
Then whacked it hard with a stick,
But the big bear behind
Was not quite so kind,
And the tourist disappeared at a lick!
The North Cape sells glacier mints,
Arctic rolls with snow in their tints,
And Eskimo dolls –
But no polar-bears or sharp flints!
Take me home to Tapioca –
That’s the food of which I dream:
I see it on the far horizon,
Raising gentle clouds of steam!
In the schools the pots are boiling,
Making music with their lids:
The glue will soon be due for serving –
That’s the way to stick the kids!
When we ate it as our puddings,
We licked our lips, and wanted more:
Then the teacher was rewarded –
All her pupils did was snore!
Still I see the lovely ‘frog-spawn’
In our plates in gloopy lumps,
And the vision makes my taste-buds
Yearn for treats to cure my dumps.
On the ‘Black Watch’, you can have it
As a special dish tonight!
You can’t kill the Tapioca –
It’s still alive, and gives delight!
Composed on 4 July 2014. We were astonished to see a very splendid Tapioca ‘sweet’ one evening in the Garden Café of the ‘Black Watch’. Now, for reasons mildly mentioned in the above poem, I am not wildly enthusiastic about such a dessert, but Rachel took it, and it was apparently very good. The Executive Chef, Siggi Weich, was no doubt responsible for this splendid idea. Here’s to the incomparable Siggi and his Tapioca Special. Never did I expect to see that.
(The ship’s orchestra was playing lustily, with singing and dancing at the stern, as the ‘Black Watch’ left Tromso in glorious weather. I could hear ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘Leaving Lismore’ in my head – and I composed this doggerel song for some future Paul McCartney and Wings!)
Ocean is sparkling,
Skies are deep blue,
Mountains are snow-capped
With green and brown hue:
The band is now playing
As we pull through
The fjord out of Tromso –
How quickly time flew!
City of harbours,
Churches and spires,
Bridges that cover
The island’s two kyles:
Ships lie there safely,
Moored to strong piles –
Haven of seafarers,
Travelling long miles.
It gives you a welcome
That’s friendly and true,
Pulling you to it,
Even though you are new:
Now in the evening,
We give praise that is due,
As the ship powers onwards,
And Tromso fades from our view.
Containers come, containers go
Across the great world’s seas,
With names like Maersk and Cosco,
And a thousand M S Cs.
Their colours show the ocean’s power
As they lose their former shine:
We see them bricked up like a wall
On ship and shore, in line.
Containers rule our little lives,
As we fill them with our gear,
But we don’t know what others have,
And theirs we greatly fear.
We hide our lives within their sides,
And only we can tell
What ours contain, but even then
We don’t always know it well.
On life’s drab ships containers sail,
From port to port they go:
They’re lifted, lowered, thrown about,
Until that final stow.
The suit-cases stand in the corridors,
So the end of the cruise is in sight:
Now all we can do is to capture
The best of the very last night.
As we lie in our bunks we’ll be dreaming
About the Arctic blazing in sun,
The mercury rising for ever,
Where ice is the usual run.
Magdalene’s fine fjord with its mountains,
Its glaciers and blue-toned ice,
Its whales and its porpoises leaping,
And disappearing again in a trice.
Trollfjord enclosed in a fortress
Of massive brown walls all around,
The mighty ‘Black Watch’ barely fitting
When the eye of the entrance is found.
Torghatten with the non-fattening centre,
A north polo well iced in hard rock,
Much sweeter than what you would purchase
Of Brighton’s or Blackpool’s old stock.
Finnsnes and Rorvik with bridges
Crossing waters of turbulent sounds,
The ‘Black Watch’ gliding beneath them,
With no channel decreed out of bounds.
Hurtigruten’s great ferries appearing
As dwarves under arches of rock,
Sea transport of all shapes and sizes,
Containers contained in each dock.
But above all else we are grateful
For the ‘Black Watch’s’ watch of us all –
This splendid white lady of cruising,
Whose kindness we will always recall.
I must go down to Olsen again,
To Olsen’s ship and the sky,
And all I ask is a warm bunk,
And a signal for the WiFi.
I must go down to ‘Black Watch’ again
To L’Oreal and perfumes to buy,
To the Neptune Lounge and Braemar Room,
And snooze as the world goes by.
I must go off for a cruise again,
For the call of a luxury ride
Is a strong call and a clear call,
With pampering on the side.
I must look out of the window again,
As angular oil-rigs flare high,
Spreading smuts on the sea’s face,
And a toxic cloud on the sky.