Wednesday, 24 June 2020


ARCTIC REFLECTIONS

Poetic Postcards from a Cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen

28 June-13 July 2014
 
 
 

DEPARTURE

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.

 
DFDS ferry, ‘King Seaways’, loads


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

Clear of the dock, past the Fish Market,

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.

 

29.6.2014



 


 

KRISTIANSUND

 

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

Overarching notes,

Unknown to tone-deaf trolls.

 



The boat-building museum throbs

Comfortably with today’s life:

The forge is lit, the iron melts,

Malleable metal is on the anvil,

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,

As bashed hopper-barges pass

Elegantly pure yachts, virginal,

Flanked by wooden, clinker-built,

Deep-planked masterpieces,

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,

Transcending time.

 

The grey-granite church stands high,

Glittering in the sunshine,

Reminder of rock-solid endurance

In dark days, when Norway needed

Much more than kitsch.

 






 




ATLANTIC ROAD

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:

 


Could these cut-offs be catapults


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?

 

Don’t be fooled by those twisting structures:

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:

ROAD CLOSED.

 




 

KNARR WITH A  MOTOR

 

Vikings would have recognised this bulk-carrier,

Their cargo-boat, transporter of cattle, food, people,

Plain-lined, planks deep and strong, thick-set,

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,

Presently furled on the yard with hefty rigging.

 

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…

Yes!  She’s backing out slowly, inching

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,

Single screw pulling powerfully,

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,

Needed only rudder and screw,

Harmonious intuitions,

Accords with wind and waves,

The radar of the searching eye –

 

Fifty years young,

Queen ‘Lofoten’

Sails on.

 

 


TORGHATTEN

 

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.

 

 

SVARTISEN GLACIER

 

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.

 
 

FERRIES


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,

Sending pulses round rocks, throbbing waves of life,

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

In Assynt.

 

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,

Cameras clicking.

Reluctantly I climb the leaden steps,

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

That notebook.

 

 

(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,

Standing sharply,

The very Pole

Of nature’s compass,

Pointing,

Pointing,

Point-

Ing.




 

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.

 
 




SAMI SEQUENCE

 

(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

To wash it off.

 

(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

Bottoms.

 
 





NY-ALESUND


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

And low-coloured wooden houses.

 

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,

Measuring contamination

In air and cloud and sea.

 

Political presences matter here:

Two grotesque white stone lions

Guard the ‘Yellow River Station’ –

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,

Polar-bear-deterrent rifle

Bouncing on her plump backside:

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.

 

It’s all about holding focus here,

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,

With precision-guided dive-bombing. 

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

The old, monumental coal-train,

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.


 

 

 

POLAR ONOMASTICS

(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,

Gas-fuelled plunderers,

Truck-driven explorers,

Oil-lust-crazy tycoons,

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.

 

 

LONGYEARBYEN

 

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?

 

TROMSO

 

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.

 

 

VIKING HOUSE

(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.

 

 

‘FUNCHAL’

 

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.

 

 

LOFOTEN ISLANDS

 

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,

Iron-hard sustenance

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.

 

 

MIST

 

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.

 

 

ALESUND

 

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.

 

 

RETURN

 

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

 

BEAR BEHIND!

 

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!

 

NORTH CAPER

 

The North Cape sells glacier mints,

Arctic rolls with snow in their tints,

Magnificent trolls

And Eskimo dolls –

But no polar-bears or sharp flints!

 

 

TAPIOCA

 

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!

 

NOTES

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.

 

 

LEAVING TROMSO

(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

 

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.

 

LAST NIGHT

 

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.

 

12.7.2014

 

 

CRUISE FEVER

 

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.

 

 

 




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