Extract from Latitude North
As the ebb gathered speed, the Saltstraum, which we had crossed at dead slack water, began to fret itself into little eddies, and then whirlpools, and then overfalls, and then massive standing waves in which no small boat could have lived. (It is said to be the strongest current in the world, running some 22 knots at half-tide.) The gulls which before the tide turned had been sitting thoughtful in the westering sun on the rocky shore were screeching and wheeling above the water, and diving to the surface of – well, the maelstrøm. Delicately, feet and webs spread wide for extra lift, they craned down and snatched fish from just under the surface – the little ones the big fish below had chased up in their feeding frenzy. They reminded me of those great gannets off St Kilda all those years ago, diving at the fish as we hauled the trawl. My memories caught up from the deep… We watched, and I set up my telescopic travelling rod and tied a small spinner on the end of the line – the one that wrought such carnage in Greenland. Jenny sat down, prepared for a long wait. But every cast brought a fish, though never the salmon that they had said were there. Within a few minutes I was throwing them back as we had more than enough for our meal. Indeed, it was boring fishing: little skill, and the furious current overmastered any playing of the fish. But you could see why that narrow gut had attracted settlement from the earliest times: the living might be easy – if you liked fish. The fish came because their food concentrated there, and man and birds came because the fish were there – just like the pattern far to the north at Alta, where three successive raised beaches three thousand years apart record in those carvings of men and boats and fish Man’s hunting the riches of the deeps. But we were not hunter gatherers: we were filling in time before the real business. The day after tomorrow we had to get to the Lofotens, where huge fish are said to lurk, but not for me to fish for them. And that would be the end of a road we did not quite know how to travel.
It had all started when young Justin had been offered a job as mate on Copiousfor the summer, supporting various expeditions in Spitsbergen. He had asked what I thought – not exactly a father’s permission, not exactly my advice, not exactly my decision, but something in between all three. And I did not want to make executive decisions for my son at the age he had reached. I knew the little ship well – a bit of a cow in a seaway, but the men who decades earlier had built her oak hull in Buckie to face the winter storms of the North Sea as she fished had done their job well: I knew, for I had helped scrape her bottom free of barnacles with a garden hoe that hot summer day at Cherbourg as she sat on the blocks and the harbour dried out between the tides. Her engine was reliable. And at a pinch she could make a knot or two under her little sail. Her skipper, Mike, of course I knew from years back, from my own Spitsbergen journey: a man whose passions for music and elaborate model railways and the sea at high latitudes were imperious. His indulgence in gin was heroic, but it did nobody much harm. (He said it tanned his inside so he did not get ill.) I knew the places the ship was going, and what the risks were: not negligible. And I knew what crossing the Barents Sea even in summer might be like. Jenny knew Mike slightly, but none of those other things. I thought, ‘What would I have wanted?’ and I remembered how, long ago, I had wanted to go to sea without knowing what I wanted, and then feared it, and wanted my mother to call me back with a word of caution and to give me a job to do that would let me off so I could look myself in the face – and then for ever regret what might have been… so, mentally gulping somewhat, I had said, ‘Go’. And when Mike’s other crewmen, a cook and a hand, pulled out at the last minute, I found him replacements from among my own pupils. So the little ship had set off from Great Yarmouth, heavily laden with stores in every nook and cranny. Two young men aboard had never been to sea. There was a lad whose parents had liked the names Xerxes Xavier and Zeus and, unable to choose between them, had given him all three. And at sixteen he had already been shipwrecked twice. The mate’s experience was limited to the School CCF Naval Section and a few crossings of the Channel withCopious. But the skipper did know the waters North very well indeed. Mike was – or had been – a very fine seaman, finding his true calling after chucking in his job as a Polytechnic lecturer. In him the blood of those Viking ancestors he claimed ran true: alongside the gin.
After working all day on the loading, and seeing her warps drop from the quay into the water, we drove out to where the river meets the sea. We saw Copiousmake her turn and butt her determined little red head into the first of the grey waves that an east wind was building up against the shore, and rise again, a daughter of the foam. (Perhaps not…) Jenny turned away. I stood and kept the glasses on the boat until she was almost hull-down, and then we went home to this Cambridgeshire house, far from the sea, to feed the hens.
We did not hear for many weeks, save for laconic messages passed through a colleague in Cambridge whose outfit was hiring Mike part-time as supply vessel. Then came the bombshell: a phone call from Longyearbyen from Justin, saying that they would have two empty berths when they dropped the last of the scientists in the Lofotens and if we could get to meet them we could come back to England with them. Mike (and Justin) knew of my own love for the seas of the north, and I took this offer – for this was a challenge too – very kindly indeed. And it might be, I thought, the last chance I would have to go North. (It was not, as it happens.) Jenny little knew what she was letting herself in for – after all, she found a punt on the Cam slightly alarming – but made no demur. Which was brave: for when we had helped with loading the storesat Yarmouth, she cried afterwards because Copiouswas so small. The largest space aboard was the saloon – a grand name for the converted fish hold – which would seat about ten squeezed round a table. Never before that day in Yarmouth had she seen the boat in which her child was going off into the wide blue yonder, and the idea did not thrill her.
And so, the long journey by rail up Norway… Pretty Bergen with its Hanseatic past, and its wonderful twelfth century Mariakirken, with those elaborate monuments to the pride of dead German notables from the Hansa. Then over the granite boss of Hardanger with the Handangerjökull’s ice reflecting the sun into the windows of the train, Oslo and its noise, the night train to Trondheim and its cathedral that could have been in northern France. We paused for a day or two to walk in to the snout of the Svartisen, and noted the markers painted on the rock recording how that glacier had retreated over the last thirty years. Even then, before people were beginning to get excited about anthropogenic global warming, we found it troubling that it had retreated well more than a kilometre – and in the single summer of 1976 more than a hundred metres. But it was Jenny’s first glacier, so, just so that she could say she had walked on a glacier, we scrambled though the rotten melting lumps, as big as sheds, at the snout and got onto the lateral moraine and then onto the melting ice, pocked where dark pebbles had absorbed the heat of the sunlight and melted their way into the ice. A katabatic wind almost enough to blow you off your feet roared down the ice, and then stopped as suddenly as it had started. We retreated. And as she came back off the moraine, she suddenly said, ‘Look!’ and there was a fist-sized lump of rock full of garnets glinting in the sun. A noble souvenir.
It was a long hike back to the hired car, and rain began really to set in. We had got food in the car, bought in the supermarket. But neither of us understood Norwegian. So what should have been the degustation of smoked fish and salad with wholemeal bread turned into a disgust of salt cod and raw cabbage with a hard dark bread. It required some valour. We spent that night by the shore in a hut, rather hungry, and I could not catch any fresh fish, and both of us nervous about the coming meeting, yet not daring openly to show it. Then came the slow journey, following the railway until it turned west down Saltfjord to its end at Bødø. We had a day to wait there. It dawned one of those days the North gets in late summer, especially after a big depression like the one we had just had has gone through, with the sea flat calm, the light almost throbbing with brightness, and every skerry and island fringed with a lace of foam against its dark rock. We climbed up through the sparse juniper and blueberry on to Rønvikfjellet, and lay on our backs watching a white-tailed eagle wheeling overhead, for what seemed for ever. The scent of the plants our bodies had crushed –earthy, yet resonant of honey, and currants – was strong in the sun. Jenny reached out her hand and sought mine. ‘Will he be very different?’ ‘Bound to be’, I said, pretending I knew all about it, which I did not. But she had put into words the worry I was trying to avoid. ‘But not much: still the same lad’. She sighed. ‘Were you different when you came back?’ ‘Yes: but it soon wore off: I was a bit younger’. No more was said, but we both knew that we dreaded, and longed for, the morrow’s meeting. I rolled over and looked out to the west. Below me another eagle circled. I looked past Landegøde, the big island to the west, to the horizon below which Copiouswas wallowing her way south – no, that is not fair, for it was calm and the swells in the Atlantic would be long and regular. Comfortable weather: she might even surf if they came at the right angle and speed. ‘He had to go, you know. Once you have had those thoughts you can’t duck what they entail. And he has to cast off if he is to come home’. More optimism than experience, I think: but I comforted myself with words that came unbidden.
From our coign of vantage we could see the Hurtigrut boat coming in from the far south. In five hours, after she had dropped her cargo and picked up more, she would sail, and we had to be aboard. So we shouldered our packs and set off down the hill to the dock. A wheatear bobbed politely alongside us, and pipits climbed high to celebrate the sun.
She smelt of fish and fertiliser. Later in the year her main cargo would be pallet loads of stockfish, the wind-dried cod that for centuries has been the major export of the northlands, feeding Europe on Fridays and in Lent. Stockfish is even on the coat of arms of proud Germanic Bergen. Erasmus of Rotterdam, prone though he was to dyspepsia, liked it. Raw, it is a pleasant enough sort of fishy chewing gum, and cooked properly – as they do it in Portugal – it is splendid. Along the hurtigrut route, each little port has its wooden frames on windy points for hanging the cod on: the cod fishery is a winter operation, when – decades ago now – men would migrate with the cod to the feeding grounds off the Lofotens, the Skerrygard, the Western Wall, where the gales of the Atlantic beat ceaselessly on the iron coast and the winter spray freezes thick on all that it touches. Once, men caught those huge cod on long baited lines, from little one-man boats: now they hoover them up from stern trawlers, and the little red painted huts by the waterside (often overthe water, with a space beneath so the dory would not fill up with snow) which the fishermen built for their shelter are little used except by tourists. Picturesque, they call them now: but they were not that in the dark of the northern winter. In a hard frost in a clear still spell the Aurora plays overhead against the bright stars, occluding red Betelgeuse, and blue Sirius, hiding Orion’s belt, utterly other, a dance in which man and his cleverness have no part. Sometimes, they say in the north, when the Aurora plays the dogs hear the angels sing, but men’s ears are stopped with things of earth. And Ido in part believe it.For once, high in the mountains at the year’s deep midnight, on the Swedish border, I was skiing alone on a still, moonless night of intense frost. The noise of skis and the creak of my poles in the snow seemed deafening. As I came out of the forest onto the frozen lake I stopped for breath: and I could almost swear Iheardthe dazzling stars crackling in that deep silence.
We leaned over her rail to watch the final loading. Landfall and departure: Conrad comes to mind. And it is the story of our lives. We are wanderers, for here is no abiding city, here is no eternal stay, and we deny the nature of our species, hunter and gatherer for far longer than farmer, in being sedentary. There is something I find perennially exciting about the splash of the warps and the bow and stern springs dropping into the water and being hauled into the self-contained world of the ship, about the gap between hull and shore slowly widening. It works for me even on prosaic Channel ferries, which momentarily are hidden by Argo, Antelope,Santa Maria. The Hurtigrut ferry – Vesterålen,I think she was called: all ships deserve a name – had a four hour trip to Stamsund ahead of her, past Landegøde’s towering bulk, into the swells of the open ocean that spoke to a keel of distant Iceland and Greenland and other New Found Lands. As we stood out into the sound, looking back we saw properly, for the first time, the aweful majesty of those sharp steep mountains that pile up, range after range until you reach the lake-strewn shield of Finland, rawly cut by the recent ice and not yet smoothed by time and weather. In the North you can believe in the power of the Ice Giants. They will overwhelm Father Odin at Ragnarøk: their work is all around you, and they wait their time.
Slowly the Lofoten Wall drew closer. At midnight the sun would briefly water his horses in the western sea behind it, and the brief and luminous dusk would be the shadow of the nights that from November would be endless. Gradually we made out not the blue of distant hills but the green of growing things – Justin said later that after being so long in the North their eyes could not believe the lush green of the Lofotens in late summer, the lushness of the vegetation in a place we would normally regard as utterly barren. Slowly, ever so slowly, we saw the white of the modern buildings of Stamsund climb over the sea’s rim, and then the line of dull red fiskerhytte at the water’s edge. The water suddenly boiled as the bow and stern thrust went on and the ship slowly, so slowly that her touching would hardly crack an eggshell, came alongside the quay. We stood waiting for the gangway, our rucksacks on our backs, craning our necks to see if we could see Copious– no – or Justin among that little knot of people which always seems to gather when a ship arrives. No sign. The gangways went down, and we came out onto the quay, saying nothing. We walked uncertainly away from the boat towards the Co-op, and as we did so round the corner he casually came, cagoule flapping open as always, unexpectedly unbearded, to all appearances very much the son we has seen last waving from Copious’stern as she passed out of Yarmouth heads. But… ‘the changes take place inside’. For he who had gone north a boy had been faced with much, and come through it, not the least being the fishing of a dead man out of the water littered with brash ice. The man had fallen overboard from Copious’ low waist when a small bergy bit turned over and sent an unexpected wave to rock the boat. He died instantly: his heart could not stand the thermal shock. And Justin had kept the peace between the conflicting personalities on board, which is not easy when people are cooped up in the middle of nowhere in a rocking space little bigger than a large caravan. But…
Casual was the word. ‘Good trip? The dinghy’s just round the corner. ’ We had to clamber down – it was low water – into the inflatable in which Justin had fished up the body. All this time Jenny had said little, just smiled. But the inflatable was a challenge she had not expected, and the sudden thrust of the outboard took her by surprise. She looked grim. And round the point, at what seemed to her a long way off – actually about 150 yards – there was Copious, looking very small in a lot of water. Our home for the next three weeks. And then she had to climb over up over the gunwale, with the dinghy and the boat moving irregularly and unsychronically. Poor girl… Mike’s stereo played us aboard… Handel’s Acis and Galatea. And Mike, smiling that shy smile of his – for he found talking to women difficult – browner than a berry, ruddier than a cherry, bald head shining in the sun, huge tummy covered in an oily sweater, gave her his almost femininely small hand, and said, ‘Come and have a gin.’ She had two. To start with.
Our little space was right in the forepeak, with small bunks at right angles to each other, mine fore and aft above hers. The bow wave broke a few inches from my left ear. And of course, in any pitching, at that point in the boat the up and down movement was at its maximum. Just opposite us, on the other bow, was the forward head, a sea toilet perched on the curve of the hull, with the handle of its pump at its side. Mike, optimistically ingenious, had installed a shower in that minuscule space, but it was not used at sea as fresh water had to be limited. That toilet was a difficult one to manage in a seaway, for your feet were off the deck, and you occasionally were of neutral gravity. Far easier was the other one aft down in the bowels, as it were, by the engine, but the drawback there was the squeeze to get in, the smell of diesel, and seeing the prop shaft turning, turning through a gap in the floorboards, and perhaps the bilge water sloshing about. But, as I said to Jenny when we stowed our dunnage, ‘We are as near heaven by sea as by land’, as Humphrey Gilbert said on the deck of the sinking Squirrel– not awfully helpful, perhaps – and reminded her that our Elizabethan ancestors would have regarded Copiousas a big ship and she would have carried a complement of up to fifty people. After more helpful remarks about being grateful we were not in an open knarr, with horses and cows, going to colonise Iceland, I was told to shut up. Justin poked his head in – it was all he could poke in – and said ‘Dinner’s ready’.
And Mike and Keith the cook had put on quite a spread, for in part they were celebrating the departure of the last of the scientists and his wife, who had been vegetarian. And they were welcoming us. This was a noble meal: fresh prawns to start with, and then seal steaks – the beast had been bought in Svalbard – with potatoes and carrots, getting a little spongy now after their long journey from England, washed down with well-travelled Burgundy – again, an indulgence, for the scientists had been teetotal, which on that boat was an achievement. Hunger satisfied – for we had not eaten well as we had journeyed north, apart from one bankrupting meal of reindeer in cream with chanterelle mushrooms – everyone felt a lot better, and the crisis of getting to know our son again had utterly passed, for the old language still had currency. And so to bed, with Mike’s strict insistence that we sail at 0900 the next morning and that if anyone wanted to go fishing they could use the inflatable but had to have it aboard by 0830. Who could refuse such a challenge?
Three of us, two with handlines, me with my rod, went off about 0600. Within an hour we had caught a dozen huge herring on the jigs, deep, deep down: both the depth and the size were a complete surprise, for one expects herring (like mackerel) to be near the surface, and we had been expecting haddock or cod. But nobody was complaining, and I cleaned them over the side, with ever watchful gulls squabbling over the discarded entrails, as we motored back to Copious.Three of the fish were full of roe: fresh herring roe on toast is wonderful.
Jenny’s next surprise was to be told that they wanted a good cook for a change and she was to take over in the little galley, and breakfast would be herring roasted in oatmeal. ‘Oatmeal’s in the canister behind your head’, said Mike, as he squeezed his bulk out of the galley to let Jenny in. It was well equipped enough: a stove on gimbals, an oven, fiddles on all flat surfaces, but it was small: a tiny sink with sea water for vegetable preparation and fresh for cooking – ‘Don’t mix them up’ said Mike – and evidence everywhere of Mike’s taste. Huge pots of mayonnaise, and ketchup, and pickles of every sort, and in the store cupboard all the exotic spices one could desire. There was a freezer full of meat and fish: salmon, sirloin, chunks of black seal meat, legs of lamb. There was a large chip pan, full of congealed lard, for Mike liked real chips, done with lard in the old way. And as I said to a conventionally horrified Jenny, as the boat moves you can’t have a pan of liquid oil sloshing around when you don’t need it.
I was next. ‘At sea you are taking the middle watch [0000-0400] and the afternoon watch [1200-1600] and the second dog watch [1800-2000] with Justin. He is Officer of the watch. You are his No.2. You do what he says.’ One did not argue: in fact I was rather pleased. The last times I had been on CopiousI had been a simple passenger, lucky to be allowed to make a brew for the crew. Justin visibly swelled.
By the time the dinghy was stowed and lashed down and the boat made ready for sea, with everything secured, the smell of the herring was wafting out of the galley. Herring less than an hour out of the water, dressed with oatmeal and dusted with salt – the best breakfast, perhaps, in the best surroundings and best company, I think have ever had. We finished with strong coffee, black as the ace of spades, and bread Mike had baked, and marmalade, and then, as the Cook washed up, came the getting of our anchor, the clatter as the last two fathoms of chain came though the hawsehole, hauling it aboard and lashing it down. The little donkey engine worked hard, and then its stutter was overtaken by the baritone throb of the big diesel, the boat’s heartbeat on which we all depended. It was a perfect calm morning as we slipped out of the harbour, politely dipping our ensign and taking down the courtesy flag as we did so.
As we came out of the shelter of the Lofoten Wall, the long gentle swells of the ocean came abeam of us, rolled us gently, and passed on. Jenny was sitting on the stern, her cagoule hood up, for the wind is chilly at sea, and looked increasingly thoughtful. After an hour or so she went to her bunk, saying that herring for breakfast might have disagreed with her. She stayed there for ten hours, and emerged that evening, jolly, cheerful, and determined to enjoy herself and humming Captain Corcoran’s song that she was ‘never, never sick at sea.’ (‘What, never?’ ‘Well, hardly ever’) And she wasn’t, even when in the North Sea Copiouswas pitching me out of my bunk and into hers – an achieved impossibility, actually. The only thing she did say quietly to me was ‘They are all awfully smelly’. It was not a difficult observation, and getting a shower became a matter of ingenuity (and cheek) at each port we touched.
Mike’s plan was to hug the coast, using the indreleia– the Inner Passage – as far as he was permitted by Norwegian regulations. He would then round Stadlandet – the seamark from which so many early voyages to the West had taken their departure – and then make his way down to about Haugesund before striking across the North Sea. We were a mite worried about how long it might take, for Jenny had to get back to an unforgiving school term, but somehow that came to seem insignificant as the ship’s rhythm asserted itself. We tried to suggest to Mike that he might put in at Eyemouth so she could get the train to Cambridge. In the event, we went into Harwich. Of that landfall more later.
A long leg that first day across the open sea took us from Stamsund to Ørvik, where, quite illegally, we anchored for a night. The sun stained the sky blood red as it dipped below the horizon. We set a riding light, for even in a remote spot a ship might be a hazard to mariners who might come that way, but there was probably no living soul for twenty miles round. The warm darkness – it was not really dark – and the comfortable languor after food – Jenny had now recolonised the galley – encouraged quiet sitting on the afterdeck watching the stars come out. Justin came and joined us. As is his wont, he looked pleased and said little. But perhaps talk was not necessary.
There came a splash, then another, and another, from for’rard. We heard Mike’s voice: ‘Bloody geologists!’. I went forward to find him with a tray full of rock samples that the CASP group had left aboard, just as he dumped them overboard. Not wanted on the voyage. Then he spotted a single fist-sized piece on the shelf just inside the companion way. ‘And that’s the last!’ I was too slow to stop him: those were Jenny’s garnets.
Pure fantasy, I hear you say. Perhaps. But see the note on what I like to call the sounds of the spheres on page 228.