Way way back, in the year dot (1991), one of my first writing awards was a Prix Europa. It was a very exotic award to win because I was flown to Reykjavic to collect it, put up in a very comfortable hotel, and treated like a proper writer. But I didn’t feel that I really ought to be there. The hotel was booked entire by the Prix Europa people and everyone was better educated, more stylish, and cleverer than I was… It was like being held hostage by Oscar Wilde. They spoke about books I hadn’t read, films I hadn’t seen, concepts I didn’t have words for. Even the ones who spoke English had a vocabulary that was foreign to me.
At that time there was an advertisement (I think it was for Guinness but I may be wrong) featuring an Icelandic swimming pool, fed by the geothermal waters. The commercial featured a mysterious bank of billowing steam, out of which loomed the swimmers, first one serious face silently gliding past, and then another. Comically serious, if you know what I mean. I went to two of these geothermal pools while I was in Reykjavik and they were exactly as the TV commercial had portrayed; grey sky, grey stone, thick steam rising into the cold air, and silent, funereal swimmers emerging from the mist and then silently slipping away, back into it. Marvellous!
I love swimming and when I lived in Derby we were spoilt for choice and went every single day, so I was looking forward to the thermal pools. I didn’t know that for an ex- Roman Catholic ex-convent girl there would be a couple of embarrassments along the way. Bear in mind, as you read the paragraph below, that our nuns told us never to look at ourselves naked in a mirror, and to beg forgiveness if we were ever seen by anyone else. How bonkers is that?
Here’s an excerpt from an Icelandic tourist’s guide:
Do I have to shower naked?
Yes. Butt naked! But of course, the dressing and shower rooms are divided men-women. The locals have been bathing naked at the local pool since birth and most definitely have no interest in other people’s private parts. If breaking the rule, you might receive a friendly reminder from a dedicated swimmer to take off your clothes.
That line ‘a friendly reminder’ from another swimmer is a tad misleading. In addition to this information, there were notices on the walls about how to wash the body and, when I was there, anyone transgressing these instructions would be addressed by a very stern, fully dressed woman who sat in the shower area closely watching the ablutions of every naked would-be swimmer. Cringeworthy. And so un-British.
In the water everything was regimented and orderly, everyone swam in straight lines. No one paused. This was the ‘before-work’ swim and there was a rhythm to it. No chance to float on your back and gaze at the clouds. No chance to float on your front and gaze at the bottom of the pool through water hazed eyes. Up and down, breast stroke. That’s yer lot.
Then came the awards dinner – silver service and sparkling crystal, champagne, fabulous food, and the buzz of conversation. Have you ever been out of your depth, knowing that this is a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime treat, but you’re unable to enjoy it? A chic woman of about my age seemed as uncomfortable as I was, and so we skived off together as soon as we could, to get happily drunk in the hotel bar, and laugh ridiculously. She was French, tres chic, with very very little English and I was vice versa but somehow we struck it off. I have no idea what we laughed about, but we had a hilarious time as we watched the arty-farty set kissing and hugging and exclaiming all around us. I think she must have been another writer, on the sidelines of society, observing it, loving it, amused by it, intrigued by it, caring about it, but somehow apart from it. D’ye think?
It’s very hard, after 30 years of writing, to stop being an observer of society and to become a part of it. And now, flip me, I’m a member of a church. How did that happen? Let me set the scene : the church is buzzing, the love is palpable, the truth is amazing, and it’s something I would never have imagined for myself. Much like those days in Iceland, in so many ways! Maybe I’m a bit out of my depth in this particular pool. Most of my companions talk another language, plus they’ve read books I haven’t, and I’m daft and they’re not, and I don’t have a family life and they do…. and I find things hilarious when they don’t…. and I find things poignant when they don’t even notice them…. but the biggest thing is that first one, the language… they speak church-speak and I don’t….
Does church have to be quite so churchy?
It’s kinda lonely. And it’s pretty inevitable too, because I’m not just in a society that’s new to me in the church, I’m also removed from my culture back home in Derbyshire and far far removed from the culture of TV writing. I’m out of contact with most of my friends simply because they are 5 hours away, and anyway they’re all on set somewhere and busy, and I live alone and the family’s moved away and HEY! HEY! this is what it is to be retired. Get used to it.
It’s even more isolating than 5 days in Reykjavik!
I made a promise to myself several years ago, that whatever I was asked to do in this new society, Church, I would do. So far I’ve not been asked to do very much at all, so I’ve plunged in and volunteered for all sorts of things … and I can’t help smiling as I think about all the things I’ve put my hand up for, only to realise that they’re not required after all! I don’t mean ‘they don’t want me’ or ‘they don’t like me‘ because they do want me and they do like me, some of ’em. I mean, the stuff I did simply wasn’t needed. Like coals to Newcastle, or selling snow to Eskimos.
Church is a school of hard knocks. I’m learning that I am not, after all, the centre of the universe. Flip me! Really? That there are some activities where I don’t have the skills required and the skills that I do have are redundant. Cor! Bit of a stunner, that one. But I’m learning that this is ok. I’m learning to wait until I’m asked to do something, and not to volunteer for anything. I love doing the things I’m asked to do. Really love those things. And it’s a relief to let go of the things no one wants anyway.
Maybe I’m learning to live in Reykjavik, learning how to swim silently, seriously, in a straight, straight line. No more splashing and standing on my hands and floating and fooling around, no more bombing the other swimmers. Making like an Icelander. Do you think?
Oh, do give over, Luce! The truth is, I’d give my eye teeth for a bit of a hoolie sometimes. A gang of pals, wreathed in smoke, table littered with bottles, air heaving with anecdotes and daftness, someone breaking into song, Ivan telling a bad joke badly, Tim being posh, Simon being actorey, the clock ticking on to the wee small hours.
And stuff Reykjavik.
Hey – I heard someone speaking with a Scottish accent this morning. In a cake shop. Two of my favourite things in close proximity. Heaven! George Marshall, I miss you.