In Icelandic waters

I have an article coming out in Prospect this week about a schism in Icelandic fishing. It came about because the country’s financial crisis provoked a hunger for a social reordering; a sign, please, that the firmament of power will be rearranged. After all this, are you telling me that nothing is going to change? The feeling is less sharply articulated in Britain but it is in the air, no question. A banking commission does not feel sufficient. In Iceland, fishing has become the national experiment, the object of utopian as well as simply redistributive instincts, and no one is enjoying it. The article was difficult to write – there is a lot of information but arrange – but the star of my reporting was a fishing captain called Gísli Marteins, from a village called Ólafsvík in western Iceland. Marteins is in the story, but I wanted to print a small section that, for space reasons, never got beyond the first draft. Among the things that I failed to convey was the residual danger in fishing, the coldness and hardness of those seas on the edge of the Arctic circle, and the never-failing sheerness of the wind:

‘Marteins wanted to show me the tiny village of Rif, further down the peninsula from Ólafsvík, which was little more than a street of houses, next to two enormous fish processing warehouses. As we drove I asked him what he liked to do when he was away from the sea, not fishing.  “I like to fish,” he said, “in rivers.” In Rif, Marteins drove up to a new lifeboat station that had recently been constructed, from contributions from the local fishing captains, to rescue crews that get into trouble. Just under ten years ago, in December 2001, four men from the Snæfellsnes died under the cliffs where I had been fishing earlier in the day, after their engines failed. “They could rescue one man, who was tied up on the top of the bridge,” said Marteins. “The weather was crazy.” For a moment I was reminded of what the act of fishing in Iceland actually entails, the pulling of wild things from wild seas.

‘Later that evening, after Marteins had gone, I went to see if I could find the graves of the men he had talked about. I drove up a hill to a church that looked out over the peninsula. A sign said that people had been worshipping at the Ingjaldsáoll, as it was called, since 1207. Almost seven hundred years later, it became Iceland’s first concrete church. I got out of the car. The door was locked. A very strong, flat wind blew across the exposed ground. Twice it blew my glasses off my face. In the graveyard, humped with the grassy knots of the dead, I did not find the memorial to the fishermen. Instead I came across a rock engraved with an earlier disaster: the deaths of nine men, aged twenty-three to fifty-five, who died when their boat hit the rocks at Hellissandur, the tiny headland where I was staying, in 1909. “Rest in God’s Peace,” it said at the base. I hurried, bent over, back to my car. It was well into the evening but there was light everywhere as I drove back down and saw, half a mile offshore, a trawler making its way through a heavy grey sea, mopped with white. The boat was also grey, and seen from a distance, its movements had a terrible slowness, as it rose, and then fell, emerging clear on every wave, and then disappearing into the spray.’

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