Greenland: vanity, seal meat and gonorrhoea

by Charles on February 8, 2011

It was, of course, vanity which took me to Greenland. One of the great problems about travelling a lot, and advertising the fact in print, is that each trip has to be harder than the last. If it’s not, they’ll say that you’ve lost your nerve or slumped terminally in the suburbs, and your pride will convince you that they’re right. The consequent chase round the world becomes futile, boring and utterly addictive. There’s a boarding house near the quay in Calais which is more foreign than anywhere else I know. I wanted to go there. And so I stepped from a milk crate at Reykjavik City Airport onto a little turboprop heading for Kulusuk on the east coast of Greenland.

The article which was to justify the journey was half drafted in a notebook and fully drafted in my head. It was to be a study of the relatively benevolent Danish rule in Greenland. It would be pretentiously sub-titled: ‘I’ll scratch your back: Don’t worry about mine’. I had lots of statistics about shrimp catches and corrugated iron corrugated iron
imports, and a lot of more or less dubious parallels with British India.

Kulusuk is a village of Inuit subsistence hunters. There are about 200 houses and 2,400 sledge dogs, which makes it very important to wipe your feet before going inside. There’s a store which sells .22 rifles, subsidised Danish beer and sea-boots. They kill an average of 12 polar bears a year, and are extremely promiscuous. Someone at the dance in the village hall said that all the dogs have gonorrhoea sores in their mouths from eating used condoms, and that in Disko Bay, on the west coast, penicillin is pumped into the mains water supply.

The two traditionally approved responses of visitors to Greenland are ‘awed bewilderment at the boreal desolation’ and ‘intense respect for the deceptively simple lives of the Inuit, whose hearty and fulsome welcome is a consequence of their hard and gritty lives, not a contradiction of it’. The Inuit are supposed to put us to shame; are supposed to highlight dazzlingly and painfully our own spiritual inadequacies. There are two facts about Greenland which everyone who travels there knows and repeats to everyone else who travels there. The first is that if the Greenland ice cap melted, the sea level worldwide (‘worldwide’ is an unnecessary word, you would have thought, but it always goes in) would rise by six metres. And the second is that all the Inuit believe that everything in the world around them (and that includes the rocks and the icebergs and the scraps of caribou moss) has a soul. On jetties all over East Greenland you will hear Americans saying, as they watch the seals being dragged from the boats and secured in bundles under the water for natural refrigeration : ‘Of course the seals agreed to surrender their souls voluntarily to the hunter. It is not sad’. In fact the Inuit believe nothing of the sort.

There is a lot to be said for the thesis of Lawrence Millman who, in his curious and very good book Last Places, tried to explain the bizarre blandness of the land. The problem is that the land should hum with resonance for anyone properly brought up on John Buchan or Arthur Ransome, and it doesn’t. Millman averts to the old belief, which is now enshrined only in the jetty comments of foreigners and in the Lonely Planet guide, and wonders if, when the Lutheran missionaries arrived from Denmark and proclaimed that only people had souls, their pronouncement exorcised the souls from the rocks and the moss. Perhaps the preachers said, with the mandate of the Creator, that the land was barren of personality, and lo, it was so. Whatever the reason for it, Greenland is the nemesis of the romantic pantheist One might have hoped that the souls of the moss clumps would have been subsumed into the Inuit; that the Inuit might have become the true embodiment of the land; that personality might not have been extinguished but merely translocated; or at least, if not becoming brighter themselves by some sort of spiritual transfusion, that the Inuit might have appeared to shine particularly brightly against a particularly dull background. But it is not so.

I had hoped, patronisingly, to be infected with the notion of the noble savage. But the Inuit I met were not particularly savage and not at all noble. They were canny, cynical, and extremely bored. It is nonsense to say that they have been corrupted by western influence. Tourism, in fact, is one of the principal factors which keeps the Inuit close to their aboriginal state. This is because the tourists who come to Greenland on the one day been-there-done-that tour from Keflavik are so laughably and obviously inadequate that no Inuit could possibly want to emulate them. Because they only come for the day they do not equip themselves for the conditions. They shuffle from the air-strip in pop-socks and pink training shoes, pick disgustedly around the piles of seal-blubber, shiver when the dogs set up their half-hourly racket, ask stupid questions about the drying cod-heads under the eaves and the plastic flowers on the graves, pay absurd prices for badly carved soapstone walruses, and shuffle back again. The Inuit come out of their houses to watch them, and laugh and laugh.

The irony of their interest in the tourists who come to peer at them is not lost on the Inuit. And the irony breeds a naughty desire to shock: to show the tourists that they, the Inuit, are not at all like the effeminate westerners. It is for the tourists that the young men suck the brains of harp seals out through the seal’s nostrils and blow them out again through their own. But this grotesque kind of assertion of difference produces difference where assimilation has begun, and maintains difference where it has not. For a host of reasons it is genuinely more difficult to sit comfortably in front of your satellite television screen when seal brains are dribbling from your nose. The more the tourists go to Greenland, the deeper the contempt of the Inuit will be. And the deeper their contempt, the more secure are the anthropological characteristics the conservationists think are worth saving.

From a writer’s point of view Greenland is a washout. When I was there the mist blew in from the sea and settled immovably over Kulusuk. The planes couldn’t see the runway, and I was stranded there. I could see the hut next door, and hear the dogs, and that was all. I had deliberately not taken anything to read, so that I would have to watch the world and write. This was a disaster. I sat in the hut drinking bitter Danish schnapps, losing a friend, playing gin rummy and reading and re-reading a back number of ‘What’s on in Reykjavik’.

It is true that the trip enlarged my collection of similes, but not usefully. A phrase like: ‘The seal guts wavered in the harbour water like pale fine-fronded dahlias’ might convince the writer and his mother that he is drawing deep draughts of real life, but convinces everyone else only that the writer is trying unsuccessfully to conceal the fact that he’s a pretentious bore. Calais would have produced some much more valuable tools.

One always hopes, though, that the numinous is going to burst in. I thought it had. I had hitched a ride on a fishing boat going to the settlement of Angmassalik. A harp seal surfaced near the boat. The Inuit helmsman shut off the engines and took out his shotgun, which was frighteningly pitted and corroded. The seal was well within range, and was bobbing closer all the time. The gun was levelled at the seal’s head. And as the trigger was being squeezed there was a great groaning and splitting noise behind us, and a colossal iceberg a quarter of a mile off tipped and rolled belly side up in the sea, and the helmsman shouted: ‘The berg is the mother of the seal. Hear how she cries for her young’; and the wave from the berg hit the boat and threw the gun high, and the shot missed the seal, which sank smugly down. All this would have been very moving and a great dissipator of cynicism if the skipper of the boat behind us had not shot the seal when it surfaced, pulled it aboard with a gaff and posed beside it for a group of Koreans, who paid him a krone per picture.

In Kulusuk there lived some of the fiercely bearded Danish frontiersmen: the real rough ones with Inuit squaws and canvas topped landrovers and windows made of brennevin bottles. Their immense social poverty, together with the subsidy figures, tended to confirm my basic thesis of Danish colonial altruism. And the sight, at close quarters, of Danes of the other kind, convinced me that I was right. This other type was very sad. The classic example is male, about 33, with a minor criminal record, a rapidly diminishing debt, a nastily broken relationship in the recent past and an insistent dream of an unsullied Eden in the Copenhagen suburbs. He drinks mournfully and alone on his bunk in the foreigners’ compound, and crosses off, on his ‘Sites of Denmark’ calendar, the days to the end of his three-year stint as a reluctant backwoodsman. The sad Danes vastly outnumber the fierce Danes, and neither affects the Inuit in any way. The fierce Danes are more outlandishly Arctic than the Inuit. If they bark imperially at the Inuit workmen, it will be because the Inuit are insufficiently Inuit in their attitude to work. If seal-spearing from a kayak ever dies out, the Danes will have left Greenland. The sad Danes are too busy being sad in their compounds to mingle meaningfully with the Inuit, and are saving too hard to disrupt the local economy with wild purchasing. There is no boreal Muthaiga Club where Danes can sip sherry: There is no polar polo to create a patronising colonial sub-culture for the Inuit to aspire damagingly to emulate.

All this meant that the classical breast-beating article about subsistence cultures simply could not be written. The stock lines (‘… ancient and wise people being buried under a mess of metaphorical Coke cans …’) are manifestly untrue. And so as a writer in Greenland I had wasted my time. The figures about corrugated iron would not excite anyone. I had failed to travel far enough from the hut to make a mere travelogue realistic. I had failed to admire the Inuit enough to
readably about them. No angels had saved the seal. I dislike reflective, navel gazing prose. My navel is my own business, and does not bear close inspection. I could not feel or write entertainingly vitriolic things about a nation whose main tourist brochure says of the inland ice: ‘… it looks soft and delicious – like the fine wool you find on the stomach of lambs just a few weeks old’. So, having run out of writing options, and failed in Greenland, I waited in the fog until there was a buzz in the cloud loud enough to be a landing aircraft, and then I ran up the track past the cod-head racks to the air-strip.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Wenter Blair July 9, 2011 at 3:38 am

Brilliant! – YOU, are my new favorite author. I was with you every step of the way and this little Texas may NEVER tred on the non-cliche shores of Greenland because of you. Gracias.

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