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Wishful thinking took me to Iceland, home of the glowing grave and eternally bruised vegetable

Suzanne Moore travels to Iceland, where she finds poor coffee and depressed chefs in a long, dark night.
Icelandic dark. Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty
 
Ah, Twixmas . . . those strange, formless days between Christmas and New Year, named after a chocolate bar.

Usually a time when I make a break for it. That’s how I ended up persuading the Professor to come to Iceland.

“Reykjavik! Pop stars go there,” I said.

The Professor agreed provided that two of her main passions were accommodated: good coffee and swimming.

“Yeah, loads of that!” I said.

“Why are you going at that time? It will be dark and cold,” said another friend of mine. Will Self, as it happens.

“What does he know about anything?” I thought. I promptly rang the Icelandic embassy and asked the staff to tell me it wouldn’t be dark and cold. I find there is no need for all that lengthy trudging that Will does when you can just do wishful thinking.

We arrived, in the dark; the only light was from the illuminated gravestones. This is the Icelandic way.

“I think it’s the time difference,” I said.

The Professor was unhappy: she’d been given instant coffee. The wind howled.

The famed nightlife was elusive. We sat in a bar with men who looked like Barbie’s Ken and drank extortionately priced lager.

Within a couple of days I could see little point in getting up at all. It could be 3am or 3pm. When you went outside it was freezing anyway. When you stayed in they gave you reindeer, tinned potatoes and dead lettuce. The Professor was agitated by my inertia.

I sensed her irritation when she stormed into a gay bar one night demanding a Diet Coke. They didn’t have one, and she barked, “Call yourself gay?”

Trying to lift our spirits, I booked a coach tour. We got up at 4am to look at geysers in the dark. The guides tried to get us off the coach to admire geothermically grown tomatoes.

“I don’t want to look at a fucking tomato,” screamed the Professor, swigging from a secreted stock of brandy.

Still, there was swimming to be had at the Blue Lagoon. The Professor dived in, swimming to a rock she had seen through the mist, and promptly threw herself on top of it. It turned out to be less of a rock and more of a man floating on his back.

At least one of the activities I’d promised her was available. We felt better.

But then we met the chef to the US ambassador.

“Do you know what it’s like to cook and never have fresh ingredients?” he asked.

We nodded.

“And when I order in vegetables, they’re bruised. Bruised! Can you imagine?”

We could.

“Damaged peppers. How am I expected to cope?”

The depressed chef made me realise my own sadness was just temporary. The blackness had truly entered him.

My long, dark night was in fact a minibreak of the soul. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt