In ancient times, the civilised peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East contemplated with curiosity and usually with horror what lay to the north – or rather, what they assumed on the basis of rumour, myth and theory lay to the north. For a Greek or an Arab, most of Europe north of the Alps seemed uninhabitable by normal human beings. As late as the late Middle Ages, the Arab scholar Quazwini was eloquent about what he had heard of winter in Rum (probably eastern Europe): ‘Winter in Rum is an affliction, a punishment and a plague; during it the air becomes condensed and the ground petrified; it makes faces to fade, eyes to weep, noses to run and change colour; it causes the skin to crack and kills many beasts. Its earth is like flashing bottles, its air like stinging wasps; its night rids the dog of his whimpering, the lion of his roar, the birds of their twittering and the water of its murmur, and the biting cold makes people long for the fires of Hell.’
If eastern Europe was worse than Hell, what lay even farther north was unspeakable. Somewhere up there were the Rhipaean Mountains, from which blew Boreas, the ferocious North Wind that blasted everything in its path and sometimes could make life miserable even in the toasty world to the south. North of the Rhipaeans was congealed death; just south of them life was possible but barbaric. Arabs, Greeks and Romans all associated the North with cold, and cold with savagery, bestiality, subhumanity. It was so cold in the North, shocked Greeks reported, that the Scythians had to wear trousers. Monsters bred up there. True, they bred in all the weird worlds peripheral to the civilised world, but the North took the cake. Sanalians lived there, who wrapped themselves in their immense ears instead of clothing, and Hippopods, horse-footed men, and Cynocephali, dog-headed men, and in the Christian era the anti-Christs Gog and Magog were located increasingly north and east as time went by. Obviously it was fun to think about such monstrosities, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson speculated that Pytheas, the explorer who sailed into waters north of England in the fourth century BC, was debunked for many centuries, not because he reported prodigies in the North, but because his reports were not prodigious enough. According to Stefansson, Pytheas was judged a spoil-sport: he reported that northern lands were habitable and that human beings lived up there, and Classical and Early Medieval geographers could not forgive him his uncooperative lack of imagination.
Pytheas was right, of course: human beings do live up there, not only in northern Europe but beyond on bleak islands surrounded by the bitter waters of sub-Arctic seas, and they and their austere environments are the subjects of Lawrence Millman’s Last Places. Millman’s denizens of the North might not be Sanalians, Hippopods or Cynocephali, but some of them come close, and Millman loves them for it.
On his journey and in his book Millman follows the migratory eastward route of those ‘cranky, restless people’ the Norse, from Norway to the Shetlands to the Faeroes, then to Iceland, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. Somewhat cranky and restless himself, Millman stays close to sea and earth, taking small craft across stormy waters rather than flying, and hiking rather than driving: ‘Between a fast boat and a slow boat, I would choose the slow boat. Between a slow boat and walking, I would choose the latter, as walking makes the world the vast and savoury place it used to be in times long past.’ Although not a youth, he travels the way the young travel – on his feet with pack on back, locking himself into no timetable and mixing with people along the way. He usually camps in his tent rather than stay in hostels; when he does travel by bus or hitch a ride he often changes his mind, gets out of the vehicle, and walks; he speaks Icelandic and smatterings of Danish and Greenlandic, fabricating a northern lingua franca that allows him talk with everyone he meets. Occasionally, for long and dangerous treks, he hires a native guide: ‘The native knows best, and even if he doesn’t know best, at least he’ll manage to get you into the same trouble he’s always gotten himself into.’
He had visited many of these sub-Arctic places before, some of them several times. He is a chronic traveller to far-out areas, but the North has a special appeal to him. ‘For me, the cold waters of the North Atlantic evoked something deep and kindred – something, I dare say, that the waters of the vast and infinitely more ancient Pacific did not. Glacially scoured boulders put my feet in an inspirational mood; forests and grasslands did not. Resolutely barren islands made my soul sing; the more barren, the more rollicking the song.’ In the Faeroes he finds himself camping in a land ‘that’s dead with the absolute death of the stillborn’:
By all rights I should be feeling a little lonesome for my own kind and kindred, but I’m not. Instead I’m possessed by a sort of neolithic love, wherein familiar objects take on richer colours, or richer non-colours, and my thoughts new, more canny edges. It occurs to me that I’m seeing an irreducible landscape where not variety – the facile handmaid of the tropics – but the lack thereof presents itself with utmost simplicity. The planet might have looked like this when its crust was first squeezed into shape. I feel as if I’m peering at the first till, the first talus, the first waterfall, the first larval certainties, and the first lichen ever.
Living in these ‘irreducible’ land and seascapes are creatures suitable to their environments – fierce skuas and Arctic terns, whales and Greenland sharks, seals, polar bears, Arctic foxes, and, of course, ‘that tiny celebrant of all warm-blooded life, the mosquito’.
Millman delights in the existence of these creatures, but his real delight is in the humans who share those ferocious worlds with the creatures. Like most literary travellers to far-out places – Chatwin, Theroux and Newby come instantly to mind – Millman has it two ways. His book celebrates the immobility of his human subjects, but at the same time implicitly it celebrates his own mobility – their virtual enslavement to their own environments, and his ultimate freedom from those environments. This is the underlying subject of most travel books, especially those about journeys into the boondocks of the world: indigenous peoples are fixed, and much of their charm and power comes from that fact, while the traveller is by definition mobile. Travellers who write usually celebrate the fixity of native inhabitants, which often seems to give them a simplicity, an energy, an integrity, a colourfulness lacking in complex and mobile (and therefore somehow diffused) modern Western man. But travellers’ books also inevitably, even if covertly, celebrate not only their own literacy, sensitivity and intelligence, but also their own worldliness, their own freedom from the restraints of place.
Most of the folk Millman meets, except for a very few other travellers, are wonderfully, delightfully fixed in their environments. Many inform him that they have never been more than a few miles outside of their own small worlds – their village, their valley, their fiord – and they often know little about what goes on outside that world. A Newfoundlander tells Millman that the Pope lives in Ottawa. A Greenlander taking him through a maze of drift ice in a skiff inquires politely if they have much ice in America: when Millman replies not as much as Greenland has, the Greenlander is disappointed ‘because he thought America was the greatest land in every respect.’ Another Newfoundlander asks him where he lives, and when he replies, ‘A few hundred miles away, in Boston,’ the man is puzzled: ‘“But how do you manage to live so far away?” he asked, being himself from a place at once fly-specked and the centre of the universe.’
Modernity bears hard on hunting, fishing and herding cultures. The Shetlands have changed since the discovery of oil in the North Sea. In the streets of Walls, a tiny village drained by the loss of the salt-fish trade and by the discovery of oil, Millman sees only one very old woman leading one very old cow. When he asks her where everyone is, she replies: ‘Everyone’s drowned at sea or repairing helicopters at Sullom Voe.’ Much of the population in Iceland has gravitated to Reykjavik, where, among other things, they indulge in Saturday-night drunken orgies that put American college fraternities to shame. The Danes, heavy-handed in their paternalism, relocated many rural Greenlanders in dreadful blockhouse settlements, virtual inner-city slums surrounded by spectacular settings of icebergs and glaciers. The orgies in Reykjavik have redeeming features, and one senses that in their fierce energy, with an edge of violence always present, they probably bear comparison to Viking orgies. During a wild night of drinking, Millman is approached by a well-dressed gentleman (‘I might have taken him for the Belgian ambassador’) who announces: ‘I am a murderer.’ As Millman notes, such a comment from a stranger is a conversation-stopper, but he manages to reply politely that, after all, so were Ingolfur Arnarson and Eric the Red murderers. The stranger allows that’s true, then says: ‘I killed my wife.’ Millman learns that prisoners in Iceland, even wife murderers, are often let out for recreation on weekends. But if drinking in Reykjavik has a redeeming energy, a dionysiac joy, drinking in the Greenlandic resettlements is merely depressing or degenerate, and the resettlements themselves are the graveyards of a dying culture.
Nevertheless, good last places do still exist, and many of their inhabitants resist modernity with an often perverse stubbornness that brings joy to Millman’s heart. He meets a lighthouse keeper in Iceland living out his life-isolated from the world, reading omnivorously. He meets a half-crazed Greenlandic hermit who lives in a cave and threatens him with a gun (his guide then telling him: ‘You see? It is not a good thing to steal another man’s solitude’). He meets Newfoundland fishermen who still face terrible tides and winds in tiny boats, ‘fearlessly marginal’. He is not a sentimental primitivist, however, and he does not conceal the brutality that is usually a part of these people’s lives. Some of it, perhaps, comes from their blood-stained Norse inheritance. In search of folk who still can speak Norn, the language of the Norse, Millman finds a farmer on Foula who talks to his sheep in it. The old man dutifully recites a Norse lullaby to him, and then tells him what it means. The mother is rocking her baby in her arms, singing sweetly: ‘Go to sleep my little bairnie – and if you don’t go to sleep I’ll smash your head against the wall, and then you’ll go to sleep all right.’
Millman knows that many of the people living in the comfortable countries of the West who celebrate the idea of the simple life and greenpeace are squeamish sentimentalists who couldn’t survive living a life such as his northerners lead. He clearly enjoys rubbing the noses of such people in reality, Faeroe Islanders are whale-hunters, for which they have been berated and sometimes invaded by whale lovers from all over the world – men and women, Millman comments, ‘for whom Flipper was the paradigm of all sentient life’. Among other things, the invaders often are vegetarians who attempt to convert Faeroese to their persuasion. The man who reports this outrage to Millman shakes his fist and shouts: ‘I hate carrots.’ Besides, as Millman points out, vegetarians act ‘as if the world were one loamy field with the same softness of complexion as Ohio or the English Midlands, but less than 6 per cent of Faeroe is arable.’ He then describes in gory detail the carnage that results when a pod of pilot whales makes the mistake of coming too close to shore near the Faeroese town of Vagar. The town empties as men, women and children rush to the shore – one of the men in business suit and tie. Some go out in small boats, others simply wade in the bloody water, all wielding knives, harpoons and grappling hooks. On shore, children play with still palpitating whale kidneys and hearts. It’s a horrifying ritual, but it provides a year’s worth of meat for the village.
It’s a harsh world, and the people who live in it are often harsh, but Millman celebrates their toughness, their independence, their authenticity, their bluntness. (A Greenlandic girl comes to his tent and asks: Kusunsuaa unsukkapiq? – ‘Do you have a nice penis?’) Most travel books like Millman’s, even if steadfastly humorous like his, are implicitly elegiac: such isolated ways of life cannot survive the modern world, and should be experienced and cherished while they still exist – for example, before they become tourist sites like the island of Mykines off the Faeroes, suffering ‘a lingering photogenic death’. The humour in such books, in fact, is partly a defence against the tragedy of cultural death in time. Even while you experience and cherish anachronistic and fading cultures, it’s best to hold them at a safe distance so as not to be hurt yourself; humour helps deflect melancholy.
The distancing humour found in most travel books today is also the result of a healthy consciousness on the part of their writers that, even if they tried, they could not be a part of the cultures they observe – that always they are just observers and strangers, never entirely welcome by the communities through which they pass, and not really wanting to be absorbed into those communities anyhow. Their books are emblems of their difference from those they write about, even of their estrangement from them. An inner part of them might yearn for the supposedly simple lives they observe in such last places as Millman’s northern islands, but another inner part – a shrewd ironic part – knows that such yearning springs from sentimental self-delusion. So why pretend? Observers are what they are, not participants, and the wise ones don’t try to fool themselves or others about it. As Millman comments early in his book, travel is a ‘quick Fix’: ‘It entitles you to meet interesting people whom you otherwise would never meet even if you laid traps or advertised for them. Not only do you meet them, but you also unmeet them, all in the space of, it often seems, a mere compacted evening.’ Writers like Millman watch and listen, often laughing in admiration or in horror at what they see and hear in those weird places they visit – then they assert their own freedom and mobility, a freedom and mobility usually not found in the weird places themselves, and they move on.