Vampires In The Ice

Tags: Robyn Hitchcock

The deeper we sail into the Arctic, the more incongruous humanity becomes. Snow and ice cover everything solid. Yesterday on the small island of Uummannaq – which means ‘heart-shaped’ in Greenlandic – we visited a children’s home in a 1400-person port. This is the northernmost habitation on this voyage, and the last place we will visit on this trip that has an ATM.

The day was divided sharply into two weather conditions: snow and sunshine.

Snow reminds me of a life that petered out in 1991, when the last significant snowfall happened in London. Even in Newcastle it’s now a rarity. The Grigory Mikheev heaved to in a bay ringed with icebergs that were muted aquamarine against the grey sea and darker grey sky. Never have half-tones looked so lustrous. Facing the icebergs are a range of local crags, disappearing into the clouds. As the zodiacs deposit us on a rickety jetty, snow twirls out of the air. Snow falls on snow and we trudge up hill to the museum. A police car crunches past, and up the hill I see the Uummannaq Hotel, where we musicians will later perform a show.

The museum is also a shop, and as long as there is something to buy there is civilization as we know it. ‘Civilization, don’t let me leave your lonely world’ sang Johnny Clarke once (Hello, Clarke-ears). While some of us buy beads and contemplate boots, I edge past sepia photos of beautiful, gaunt Inuit mummies – the logical extension of our starved fashion models, but classier, even with no eyes – and find a pile of Danish TV guides from the 1960s. Soon I am lost in photos of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Malcolm X. A cigar advert sits across from a moose flan recipe on the black and white pages. Our party is enveloped by a collection of bear-skin suits, old telephones, guns, maps and shovels. If this museum survived, deep-frozen, as the only relic of our time and race, it wouldn’t be too hard for the curious to work out what we humans had been about.

We make our way through the snow to a hut that is too small to stand up in – a vivid reminder that originally humans were originally about 4 foot 6 inches tall – to the children’s home, opposite a colony of chained huskies. It’s a long, elegant lilac-blue building: through an upstairs window stares a tiny girl in a white dress clutching a recorder. Soon we too are upstairs, minus our boots, watching her and some of her fellow residents playing a madrigal. I feel like crying as I watch them carefully performing their fragile pieces. Two boys follow, singing exactly half a tone off the notes, as Ryuichi later observes. Our show at the hotel will be an extension of theirs at the orphanage.

The sun comes out as we are shown a slide-show of multiple Santas and a delegation from the orphanage visiting Amsterdam and Copenhagen last summer to a soundtrack by U2. While we see this European cavalcade, the sun is flaming down outside on the snow-flecked crags, the huskies are howling as their halibut arrives, and the sky is blue. We are led to a table bearing seal’s liver, harmonica fish and halibut shreds. Also some whale-skin cookies which are Jarvis’s favourites. As the sunlight flares through the windows in the cheerful dining areas, we are served coffee and meringues to complement the fish snacks.

Although a choir arrives to sing Greenlandic songs (very professionally – they’ve just been on tour in France and Denmark), the inside of the home could be anywhere in Scandinavia. Yet outside, even with its clusters of wooden houses and metal cars, is Arctic Greenland, where for ages the few human settlements reached each other by dog-sledging across the frozen sea. Now it doesn’t freeze over reliably enough to permit cars driving on the ice, and you have to travel by helicopter. Perhaps it’s the Scandinavian houses and churches with the 4 X 4’s and pipelines that seem so out of place here, because they remind me of home; the turf huts and shamen of the Inuit fishermen are now seen only in the museum, but seemed to belong here more than the transplants from our world do.

Finally it was our turn. After rehearsing in the ship’s bar at twilight as the coastline deepened into a purple silhouette, our keyboard, guitars and selves were lowered into the zodiacs and made their way to the un-smoke-free bar of the Hotel Uummannac. I miss smoking in bars as a groover, but not at all as a singer – nonetheless we had a great hoot, adjusting each other’s vocal levels – Leslie was particularly good at that – from a mixing desk at the back of the stage. Martha and Leslie performed lovely solo sets, then Shlomo burst into a dazzling vocal beatbox section which really hit everybody, even the non-English speakers. Jarvis followed up with a Pulp classic, then recruited Martha and Leslie for backing vocals on ‘Femme Fatale’. Jarvis switched to miniature blue electric guitar and Ryuichi slipped behind the keys to join me on a song, then stuck around for my second whilst KT, Martha, and Leslie kindly crouched around one lonely mike to harmonize. KT called Shlomo back up and we romped through a couple of hers and into Vanessa’s set, which had the locals and the Russian crew all hollering with delight. There was a warm feeling between us all afterwards. I could sense, as ever, the way musicians are drawn to playing with each other like a vampire is to drinking blood.

The aftershow was on the top deck of the Grigoriy Mikheev. Planting our boots in the slippery snow and ice – as much as is possible on a frozen steel surface – we gazed up at the Northern Lights; wraith-like green columns that streamed up into the sky, some 70 kilometers above us. With their friends, lovers and colleagues, the little posse of vampires stood in the ice and watched the heavens.

Robyn Hitchcock in Greenland where he is investigating the effects of global warming
Robyn Hitchcock. Photo: Nathan Gallagher

PS – thanks to the wisdom of John Hegley – as some of you wondered – yes, I did bring a spare pair of glasses: two pairs, in fact. And some weaker ones for long distance. Thankyou, John!

One Comment

  1. Tony Clarke Ears Worboys

    Posted Tuesday 7 Oct at 00:07 | Permalink

    Simply Wonderful !
    A safe passage homeward to you & Min, indeed to all on board.
    Have dearly enjoyed reading what everyone has written, watching the vids & feeling the chill of it all!

    What a Beautiful Planet it is that we share, with some beautiful people, habitants past and present.
    Would love to see those Northern Lights. Alas, ‘Local Hero’ will do for now.
    Love to you and Min.
    T.C.E.W x