Monday, 16 April 2012

Into the Arctic

We crossed into the Arctic circle yesterday morning, (marked by a silver globe on a rock, pictured below, left) and some of us later underwent the ceremony of having ice cubes and cold water ladled down the back of neck inside our jumper by King Neptune (seen above, left) to mark the occasion. The boat was packed yesterday (Sunday April 15) with day trippers making the journey between the Lofoten Islands and Bodo, using the jacuzzis and running up and down the stairs. This morning (Monday April 16) the ship appears semi-deserted, a handful of passengers at breakfast as we steam on northwards towards the North Cape. Monsieur Poirot, my dinner companion, went ashore at Bodo and returned to report that it reminded him of East Germany, not in a good way. After my initial enthusiasm for the uncomplicated mix of passengers, I am having second thoughts. The passengers and crew are entirely white northern Europeans, and most of us are elderly; a sort of Bognor/Bad Regis nursing home on the waves. Most of us seem to be taking our 'holiday' terribly seriously: jostling grim-faced to take pictures of landmarks and - on my return, in good time, from the walkabout at Trondheim I was actually pushed aside as I neared the ship's entrance by a fellow-passenger charging behind me up the gang-plank to get back on board. I thought the only explanation for his otherwise inexplicable action was that he must have a pressing need to get to the loo. But no, once he had shown his plastic cabin card (that doubles as a charge card on board) he lingered to chat to a woman in the hallway. Anyway, these passing thoughts aside: it is a beautiful calm sunny day again, and the sun is shining hot through the glass as I sit typing by the window on Deck 4 with a mug of coffee beside me. There is a satisfaction that we, the fare-paying holidaymakers, are making a contribution to this essential seaborne delivery/ferry service; we make frequent short stops at small ports all the way along our route. According to a girl in the excursions office, Hurtigruten is a private company subsidised by the state. Employment as a permanent member of staff is considered an achievement. She is on a temporary two-year contract, and she pointed at her male companion saying that he has recently been confirmed as a permanent employee. They work 30 days on and 30 days off, and every other Christmas. Overall, including in the Norwegian tabloids that are on sale in the little shop/cafe hangs the spectre of last summer's mass murderer who went berserk(a good old Norwegian word) first in Oslo then on an island where Norwegian young socialist party members were holding their summer camp. The papers are running articles, inviting readers to examine their consciences with regard to the aspirations of the accused , who has been declared sane and fit to stand trial. I have managed to get to the end of Dorothy Sayer's Five Red Herrings, which must be the most tedious unthrilling 'thriller' ever written. Much of it is written, for the apparent amusement of the (assumed middle class English) reader in 'Scotch' dialect, there are horrifyingly routine assumptions about class and nationality, even a dash of anti-semitism, as sent up definitively by Alan Bennett in his magisterial Forty Years On as the 'snobbery with violence' genre exemplified by John Buchan. My personal interest in this is that I believe these attitudes effectively were the death of my working class grandfather on my father's side. He gained entry to UCL to read engineering, and passed out top of his year with a fellow student Alexander Gibb. Together they formed a partnership and Grandpa was in charge of the works to extend the naval dockyards at Rosyth before and during WWI. The newspapers of the time recorded that Norwegian granite was used for this project, so it came to mind as we passed a quarry yesterday. According to my father, Grandpa found the pressure of socialising eg at shooting parties and the like, as he was catapulted into the upper reaches of Edwardian society, too much to cope with. He was depressed, too, no doubt, although he was exonerated at the subsequent inquiry, by the memory of many casualties at an earlier job he was in charge of - the enlargement of the dockyard at Newport South Wales, where shuttering collapsed to deadly effect. Anyway, he took to drink and died in Portadown, northern Ireland, where he and a new partner had been commissioned to widen the bridge.

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