Killer Ceilings, Bobby Fischer and a Literary Festival (A post with no pictures)

I’ve worn glasses ever since I was six years old and I reckon that I’ve known two things with absolute certainty about Reykjavik from roughly the same age. Firstly, that Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. Secondly, that Reykjavik was the host city in 1972 for the gargantuan clash of ideologies in the World Championship Chess Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – of course, I probably didn’t know what gargantuan or ideology meant back then.

Knowing that Reykajvik was the capital is fairly easy to understand.  Whilst other kids my age were playing with their Hello Kitty pencil cases, chewing Chappies bubble gum and clanging dark balls with politically incorrect names around in their mouths, I was learning the capitals of the world.  It seemed a natural thing to do – maybe I felt the need to live up to my bespectacled image or maybe I had a premonition that at some point in the future women might find it sexy if I could tell them that Ulan Bator was the capital of Mongolia.  Sadly, my trivia knowledge remains steeped in the 1980s – more Wham! than One Direction – and whilst I’m a useful partner in an 80s revival quiz with an ability to reel off the capitals of Zaire, Yugoslavia and the USSR, I suspect this knowledge is a little less pertinent today.  Of course, I’m also less concerned now – life’s cruel testing ground has taught me that a Rainmanish ability to reveal that Rangoon is the capital of Burma is not exactly the most effective pickup line.

I also played chess from about the age of six and somehow learned that Fischer trounced Spassky in the exotic-sounding location of Reykjavik.  Whilst it’s inconceivable to me that you are not all well-versed in this little byplay in history, experience (and a nagging suspicion that this sort of knowledge belongs only to the outcasts in society) suggests that many people have this sad deficiency in their education.  In essence, Fischer, an eccentric wunderkind from the U.S. was able to beat Spassky, a Russian maestro, in a sport the Soviets idolized, thereby allowing the Americans to claim victory in the intellectual Cold War propaganda battle.  With the fall of the Iron Curtain, this story is no longer prominent (although I see there is currently a movie out starring Tobey Maguire), but I suspect the fact that Fischer became a recluse shortly after the Reykjavik battle and in his later years spouted anti-Semitic and anti-American conspiracy theories, may have something to do with that.

After seven days in Reykjavik, I now know more than two things about the capital.  In search of Bobby Fischer, I found a literary festival, a crazy mayor and a ceiling that kept attacking my head.

Reykjavik is a small city by any standards although its population of about 220,000 is still two-thirds of the total Icelandic population.  We handed our campervan back with some trepidation – we’d become accustomed to the easy transport, its familiar odours and unmatched flexibility – and settled into our new home, our first Airbnb apartment.  It was central, comfortable and warm and although boasting only one bedroom, it appeared palatial in comparison to the confines of the campervan.  Its only downside was that at the edges of the rooms the eaves fell sharply and deceptively and for a man of my considerable height, I found it tricky to navigate the interior without repeated blows to my head.  Over time, my delicate and unhidden scalp was covered in well-placed bruises so that before long I looked like a tall, bald hobbit with a soft head who’d spent too much time visiting his dwarf cousin.

Reykjavik seems to be a city grappling with its identity.  Following the collapse of its currency, tourism exploded and the annual influx of tourists now exceeds its population by over four times.  This is reflected in its main shopping drag which is filled with bars, restaurants, cafés and tourist trinket shops that welcome you with a stuffed puffin or a stuffed life-sized polar bear, a little bit strange given that polar bears seldom visit Iceland.  Why anyone would think this would be enticing is beyond me.  As much as I like the Icelandic people, they do have some ideas that could only be the product of years of isolation living on a cold, weather-beaten island where light on a winter day is as scarce as a polar bear in Iceland and where there’s a need for a national registry to check that your new girlfriend is not your cousin (true story).

The downtown area is still well frequented by locals though, who love nothing more than hanging out in the warmth of the coffee shops or getting paralytically drunk in the pubs on a Saturday night.  A number of Icelanders have mentioned to us that the culture, which I imagine is not dissimilar to that of a young adult in Belville, is one where people don’t drink socially but purely for the purpose of getting utterly wasted.  So much so in fact, that a glass of light wine during the week at lunch could be frowned upon as people wonder how you will get through the day after your inevitable march towards inebriation.

We were delighted to discover shortly after our arrival in Reykjavik that the well-regarded Reykjavik Literary Festival was about to start. As some of you may know, not only do we like chess, capital cities and the inner life of sheep, but we are very keen literary festival attenders.  We are regular visitors to the Franschhoek Literary Festival back home where we nestle up next to the white-faced grannies and grampas from the Southern Suburbs and listen to writers talk about their methods, ideas and views on the world. Our most recent visit was steeped in controversy (for a literary festival) as a number of black writers expressed their outrage at the racist, exclusionary nature of festivals and publishing in South Africa, much to the chagrin of the gawping, pale-faced, self-anointed liberal septuagenarian audiences. The Reykjavik Festival also had its main issue this year, which was the treatment of refugees in Europe and it was hard to miss the striking parallel to Franschhoek, where well-meaning yet comfortable attendees could speak of kindness and compassion, but purely in the most abstract of terms.

I loved the festival though.  For a start, it was free, which in and of itself is something to recommend it.  But there was also a range of excellent international writers, including one of my favourites, David Mitchell, as well as a raft of local writers.  Most sessions had readings and I was struck by the simple, evocative prose as well as the dry, subtle humour of the Icelandic authors.  One of the more colourful attendees was a chap called Jon Gnarr, a former mayor of Reykjavik who was a comedian and actor before he became a politician.  He rose to power on the back of the financial crisis as the population rebelled against the lies of politicians.  Gnarr started a party called the “Best” party as a satire, which included a campaign video to the tune of Tina Turner’s famous song (for a chuckle, google it), making outlandish promises including a promise to break all their promises.  Who wouldn’t vote for that? I guess he was as surprised as anyone when he was elected.  It’s still not clear to me how successful his reign was, but he certainly appears liked. I thought of starting a similar campaign back home, but I’m not entirely sure that it would be recognized as parody.

Beyond the festival, we wandered the streets eating famous hot dogs and visiting museums.  I foolishly ensured that we watched the Manchester United v Liverpool match in a pub.  We were serenaded by the rare sight of the Northern Lights in Reykjavik.  Most disappointingly, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find any sign that the great Bobby Fischer had ever been here at all.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike Crause says:

    Wonderful reading matter on a fairly cold Western Cape morning. Please keep going Saul.

  2. John Leyden says:

    Words are your toys and facts are your playground, Saul. Don’t stop – playtime has just started.

  3. Mark Hayter says:

    Enjoying your blog in Zimbabwe

  4. Gramps says:

    Thanks Saul – really enjoyed the writing again. Interesting to hear of drinking habits and similarities with other Northern European countries and Russia – weather is tough 🙂 …….. Hard to think no memento of Fischer/Spassky …. even in the Free State this was news. Hang in there with the EPL – sense BS is under pressure to keep his job, but see your lads got through Cap Cup tie last night

  5. Dave Moores says:

    I remember hearing tales of your epic pick-up lines at varsity involving knowledge of the Polish national currency, but I had no idea you were also well-versed in capitals of the world. Truly a multi-talented player!

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