Sunday, 30 November 2014

Everything As It Should Be

Allt í lagi

By Grant Nicol

The rough and tumble of your first few weeks in a new country is unavoidable. The struggle for control of your self-belief and the battle to keep your wits about you is ongoing. Learning Icelandic as a foreigner is a daunting prospect for many new arrivals. Far from allowing this to put you off moving to Iceland it should inspire you to push yourself further than you ever have before. It is now time to dispel a few misconceptions and tell you what it’s really like.

We are jolly green giants walking the earth

So, you’re new in Iceland. One of the first things you’ll want to do is start learning Icelandic. It is after all the passkey you will require to get along with the locals on their own level rather than expecting them to switch to English every time they see you. So the sooner you get started the better. Icelandic is however a complicated beast. Many years ago I tackled German vocab and grammar in high school and that now seems like a week on the shores of Lake Como compared to my new self-inflicted regime here on my very own North Atlantic version of Parris Island.

“You will give me the correct version of the number two that we use when counting librarians, which are of course of the masculine gender, or you will be standing tall before the man”. The first thing people do in a situation such this is panic. So that’s exactly what I did. At least I was doing everything in the right order. I knew that if I got this one wrong the whole platoon would be back over that obstacle course first thing tomorrow morning and I would be beaten in my bunk later that night with packets of harðfiskur stuffed down someone’s socks. I never let them see me crying myself to sleep but I’ll always know the truth.

Do you think I’m cute Private Pyle?

Tveir? Tvær? Tvö? Tveimur?  My brain fumbled through all the options available. Not wanting to disrespect the man’s beloved Corps I dug deep and struggled to find the only Icelandic phrase that comes to mind easily in times of crisis. “Ég veit það ekki”, I spouted defiantly. It wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for but at least I’d used the right verb and as a sentence it was technically correct because, I didn’t know the answer. There were groans from the rest of the platoon and I saw the devilish glee in our drill-sergeant’s eye that told me that we would be back on that course again soon enough and the harðfiskur would definitely be coming for me again tonight.

As basic training, or as they call it in Iceland, Íslenska fyrir útlendinga 1 progressed we became more familiar with changing the gender of our numbers depending on what was being counted (only for 1-4 or anything that ends in 1-4 of course), finding the accusative at will and deducing which preposition to use whether we were sitting on a peninsula or at the bottom of an old swimming pool on Barónsstígur. Confusing superlatives were overcome and daunting but delightful declensions were also tackled head-on as though they were old friends and not bitter enemies.

It was a war that was getting tougher and tougher to sell to the folks back home but it was one worth fighting, of that I was sure. It was just hard to get your head around it unless you’d been face down in the mud with the rest of the grunts.

The deadliest weapon in the world is a marine and his umlaut

Finally after seven weeks on ‘The Island’ it looked as though the end might just be in sight. After this Viet Nam would be a doddle I was assured. And I believed them. That was until the day we were exposed to our drill-sergeant’s favourite joke about Icelandic grammar. “Have I told you the one about the umlaut that disappeared into the banana”?

Every man has his breaking point and this was clearly mine. I had travelled as far up this river as I could go without losing my mind. Captain Willard never had to put up with this. All he had to deal with was Dennis Hopper and a boat full of rock’n’rollers with one foot in the grave. I was tired, I was hungry and I no longer loved the smell of plokkfiskur in the morning. They had lied to me. It didn’t smell like victory. It smelled like fish. Thankfully right on the stroke of klukkan hálf átta Walter Cronkite declared the war to be unwinnable and it was decided we should all go home and call it a draw. Looking back on it now my only regret is I never found out what happened to that umlaut, or the banana. But life is full of regrets.

A Long Time Listening (To Your Heart)

From dark waters of tragedy to the bright white light of love and beyond

By Grant Nicol                                                                                                 

The first time I saw Agent Fresco live it was a Friday evening in a hostel in Reykjavík and don’t get me wrong, they were good but they didn’t steal my heart. That night. It wasn’t until I saw them much more recently at Iceland Airwaves that I finally ‘got’ them. And boy, did I ‘get’ them then. The magic that surrounds this band is nothing short of amazing.

The task of connecting

Agent Fresco are Arnór Dan Arnarson on vocals, Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson on drums, Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson on bass and Þórarinn Guðnason on guitars and keyboards. Their first single was 2008’s “Eyes Of A Cloud Catcher” which was written about Arnór Dan’s family gathering at his father’s death bed. Arnór Dan was six years old at the time. It’s not unusual for musicians to write songs about a great loss in their lives. What is extraordinary is the ease with which Arnór Dan approaches this task on stage. The task of connecting.

Some singers wear their hearts on their sleeves. Arnór Dan hands his to the crowd and watches it as it’s passed around the room amalgamating with the other souls present. The night I saw them his affection for the audience lit up the room like a supernova at its standard candle mark. And it was repaid. Tenfold. Back at you, Arnór Dan. He makes the job look ridiculously easy and for him it probably is. That’s why he’s doing what he does

Take my hand

“Eyes Of The Cloud Catcher” was followed up by a second single, “Translations” along with a full-length release, ‘A Long Time Listening’ in 2010 and then the title track from the album in 2011. The song, “A Long Time Listening” is where Agent Fresco really hit their straps showcasing their unique power-rhythm section of bass player Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson and drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson. It is Hrafnkell’s drumming in particular that sets their sound apart from other local rock bands. The unorthodox poly-timing and staccato precision brilliantly counterpoints Arnór Dan’s emotional floating vocals.

The choruses are anthems designed to be sung along with. “A Long Time Listening” in particular begs to be mimicked by the crowd as the song powers through its chord structure and allows the chorus to roll over the top of it all. Underneath it all Hrafnkell’s drumming urges us to never forget that this is rock. To be played fast and hard. There is a pace to be kept up with here and to falter even for a moment would to be left behind. And yet it is never allowed to become predictable or heaven forbid, easy.

Mourning light

2014’s “Dark Water” heralds a new phase for the band. The production is huge and clear, the piano urgent and teasing. Arnór Dan’s vocals are once again a plaintive call to join the band on its quest for emotional integrity. This is not music to be merely listened to, it is music to be absorbed. In the same way that their show at Airwaves was much more than just an opportunity to have a good time, and I can assure you that everyone did just that, it was an opportunity to do something more.

It was a chance to embrace the collective ambition of a group of people not content with just having another great night out at Gaukurinn. It was an opportunity to revel in each other’s presence at a special moment in space and time. Arnór Dan revealed that his favourite ever Airwaves memory was getting the crowd at NASA to sing “Eyes Of The Cloud Catcher” for them. So at just before 3a.m in the huddled confines of Gaukurinn they gave it another shot. When the time came for the collected mass of humans to take over they did so with such gusto that the band were left with no option but to cede complete control and walk away from their own creation. A dream was realised as the song continued long after their departure from the stage leaving them fulfilled and yours truly reeling from the beauty of it all.

The Genesis Device

From hell’s heart I stab at thee

By Grant Nicol

It wasn’t all that long ago that Arnaldur Indriðason came up with the idea of setting his own brand of crime fiction stories in Iceland. At the time people here thought he was joking and laughed at him. None of them are laughing any more.

 The Sigurðardóttir code

At the recent Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival in Reykjavík the most amusing anecdote came during the first panel of the first day when Lilja Sigurðardóttir, author of ‘Steps’ (2009) and ‘Forgiveness’ (2010) described how she got published. When she saw an ad from a publisher saying that they were “looking for the new Dan Brown” she decided to send her manuscript to them hoping that they would decide that she was to be the author of the next ‘Da Vinci Code’. When they got back to her they said that while she wasn’t “the new Dan Brown” they were going to publish her anyway.

Five years later and she is in the process of adapting that first novel, ‘Steps’ for television. When asked how screenwriting differed from writing novels Lilja said that it was important in an adaptation to “leave room for the other artists to bring their talents to the project”. It is after all a collaborative enterprise unlike the daily solitary pursuit of novel writing. She also said that crimes do not necessarily have to be the result of a criminal act, “Crime in Iceland can just be an accident. It doesn’t have to be an evil force” and spoke of the alternatives to the traditional publishing route, “A lot of people self-publish in Iceland.” Not everyone is lucky enough to not be the next Dan Brown.

Parallel Universes

Certain things happen to your brain when you decide to start writing a book. There are the obvious speed-humps along the way known as self-doubt and any number of potentially traumatic fears that you will make a giant arse out of yourself as well as the nagging questions along the lines of why the hell am I doing this when I could be at the local beach/pub/art installation? Sverrir Berg Steinarsson admitted to something I felt very strongly when I was working on my first book. He said “When I started writing it I didn’t tell anyone about it because I didn’t know if I was going to finish it.” Either did I, for three long years. Fear of failure does strange things to your behavioural patterns.

There are other more subtle things that happen to you as well. As a crime fiction writer you will find yourself staring out of a window, into a construction site or an area of wasteland and thinking about how the next murder victim in your book is going to die.  As Ævar Örn Jósepsson said, “You go from “What a lovely lava field” to “That’s a great place for a body.”” I find it difficult to even visit the local swimming pool without dreaming up strange new ways for people to be kidnapped or pass from this world to the next. It’s not that you become unnaturally gruesome, it is just as he also said, “You never look at places the same way again.”

Everywhere in your life becomes a potential location for your next chapter. Your whole world becomes part of your next book which rather than being odd and disturbing, not for you anyway, becomes a hugely cathartic release. I don’t recommend telling too many people about these things though, not even close friends. No matter how much they love you, they will think you have lost your mind. Even if we know that it is not what is going on in our heads that is dangerous, they may not see it that way. Jón Óttar Ólafsson said it best, “It’s the real world that’s scary.” If you want to be really freaked out, pick up a newspaper.

The method behind the eyes of the madness

It must be easy for people who think along the lines of normal human beings (that’s our friends, not us) to wonder why we do it. Is it a compulsion, an addiction or something else altogether? I’m not sure that I can answer that myself but I will make an attempt using a little story that one of the panellists at Iceland Noir shared with us. Johan Theorin summed it up succinctly with another of the more memorable anecdotes from the festival, “People tell stories so as to not be forgotten.”

He once worked in an old people’s home and sometimes the staff were the only people left to hear the stories that the inhabitants had to tell before they died. They had no one else left to turn to and needed to pass on to someone what they had been through and what they had achieved with their lives. An eleventh hour narrative last will and testament. It is an experience that has stayed with him ever since and one that taught me a very valuable lesson about why I do what I do.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Frozen Treats

This is my local supermarket at the Kringlan shopping mall in Reykjavik. Christmas is almost upon us so the stores are full of Christmas treats of all sorts. There are the usual cakes and cookies but also a huge selection of books for sale. Now that's the kind of treat I want to find in between the frozen goods and the toiletries.

The two on the end are new books by Iceland's two biggest selling crime writers, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardottir. At Iceland Noir at the weekend Yrsa said that hers contains a murder where someone is killed in a way that has never been done before. Apparently it involves duct tape and a vacuum cleaner and makes absolutely no mess at all.

There are many things I love about this country but the number of books read here is right up there. There is nothing better than being a writer in a land where books and authors are so well-regarded.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

20,000 Days And Counting

The life and times of Nick Cave according to the man himself

By Grant Nicol

‘20,000 Days On Earth’ directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, written by Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being”, says Nick Cave at the beginning of the movie. To be honest, I never really thought of him as one anyway.

You are a little mystery to me

The secret to song writing according to our narrator is counterpoint and through the years that is what his songs have all been about. His first album with The Bad Seeds was 1984s ‘From Her To Eternity’, his latest one with them ‘Push The Sky Away’ is the band’s fifteenth studio album. It is not just the volume of work he has produced that is impressive though, it is the sheer quality of these recordings that he will be remembered for long after he has left us behind for a deserved place beyond the stars. His first will was drafted in 1987, a year he spent in an attic in Berlin and remembers remarkably little of.

As he drives his friends including Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone around Brighton where he now lives, “You’ve got to drop anchor somewhere”, they discuss their lives and fears. Kylie’s is worried about being forgotten or winding up lonely. Either seems highly improbable, while in another scene Nick tells his psychiatrist that his greatest fear is losing his memory. He hints that without those tiny building blocks of our past in our heads we will lose our identity. He feels that everything that defines us is hidden away in the things we have done and said or heard or otherwise experienced over the years, and he’s right.

Come sail your ships around me

His writing is undeniably beautiful, it is often angry. It is enlightening and uplifting and often as dark as the wrong end of a mine-shaft. There is always a feeling of destiny, an unfolding of fates happening before us as we listen. They are not just songs, they are stories designed to fill us with joy as well as dread. “All things move towards their end. On that you can be sure”.

There is a sense of imminent destination about his work as if the characters that inhabit what he refers to as his other world can’t leave it quickly enough. They hurry through the folly of their torrid lives, hungry for an end to the unsatisfactory roles they have been bequeathed. It is a world, he tells us, where everything is inflated, distorted and monstrous. “A place where people rage away and God actually exists”.

Everything, it comes tumbling down

God inhabits this other world of his the same way his father did his real world. Often present but not seen until such time as he chose to reveal himself. Colin Cave was an English teacher in Victoria, Australia and used to read to Nick from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita to expose him to the beauty of the written word. When Nick started performing with The Boys Next Door, Colin would secretly go to see his son perform and then casually bring the show up in conversation at a later date when he felt the time was right. He once described him as being “like an angel” on stage. A fairly dark angel one would imagine.

Colin was killed in a car accident when Nick was nineteen, creating a vacuum in an already troubled young man’s life. He was told of his father’s passing as his mother bailed him out of the St. Kilda police station in Melbourne. Nick believes in the idea of a greater being watching us all from above and keeping score. Who that is looking down on him is a matter of opinion but there is definitely a divine being of some description judging all those below him in Nick’s other world. One who stands back and waits for the right time, certainly not an interventionist God.

Euchrid’s woes

On top of his musical achievements Nick has published two novels as well as two screenplays for Australian director John Hillcoat. The most remarkable of his works is undoubtedly 1989s ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’. A southern gothic tale of abuse and revenge which one strongly suspects was dropped from the final edit of the Bible only to land in a Florida swamp up to its neck in quicksand in the same fashion as its deaf-mute protagonist, Euchrid Eucrow. Nick wrote it along with the first draft of his last will and testament in what he describes as a crawlspace in Berlin which he filled with soft-porn and religious icons that were purchased from a local flea market. These images fill the novel as Euchrid struggles to escape his tortured existence after the death of his baby twin brother.

We define our moral ground

“The only time I believed in anything like that was when I was using drugs”, he says as he explains how he visited church and listened to a sermon before going out to score heroin in his younger days. His logic being that if he did a little bit of good as well as a little bit of bad then everything would even itself out. It’s hard to argue with his logic considering the way things have turned out. That balance is a big part of Nick’s success. None of his work is beautiful without being scary. None of it is romantic without being lonely and desperate for an end to that solitude. He has written some of the most beautiful songs ever crafted but they could just as easily be the soundtrack to a lover’s suicide. And all inside 20,000 days.

For Sheree

This blog is for Sheree, without whose constant 'encouragement' it may well never have happened. Thank you.

My first post will funnily enough have nothing to do with Iceland whatsoever except that it's about a movie I saw here at Bío Paradís (the home of independent cinema here in Reykjavík). This man has moved me in ways I can barely describe ever since the release of 'Jennifer's Veil' in 1983.
At the time my friends and I would gather our resources and contacts every Thursday to vote it to the top of the local student radio's Top Ten and we did it with great success. It was number one for over two months, thanks to us.

You can listen to Jennifer's Veil here: