On the road to Greenland | Ian C Smith | CNF

Needing respite from factories, blast furnaces, I read Laurie Lee’s As I Walk Out One Midsummer Morning yearning to walk out myself – any morning would do – also wanting some best years of my life to remember when older.  With minimal skills, even less education, bank balance unbalanced, gripped in the gap between family obligations and imagination, I embark on study.

Before this, daydreaming, my ideal was a tough tattooed gum-chewing guy in a motorcycle jacket living at the heartbeat of what I suspected was an enchanted world utterly unlike my everyday tableaus of men hunched over monotonous machinery bolted in place.  This was after searching for specimens of On the Road’s rare full stops.  Now a woman has won an award for 1,000 pages almost bereft of them.

I remembered joining a small library as a boy, reading Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.  Too callow to reel from horror, that Pacific theatre’s saga of bloody loss, I yearned for action, the thick of life, alongside those G.I.s, death’s real threat way over my head like printed bullets over marines’ helmets.

T.S. Eliot is my challenging introduction to literary texts.  Desperate emptiness smites my heart, those claws scuttling across ancient ocean beds underlining that I must thwart time’s mundane thievery.  Graduation after feeling as old as those clawed ocean beds on campus with mostly younger undergraduates boosts my confidence to locate places connected to reading, the closest to time travel I can manage.

On New York’s subway’s train dubbed The Beast I count five languages being read in my graffitied carriage, recall V.S. Naipaul’s first stop here after leaving Trinidad as a teenager, too poor to tip a cabby in The Enigma of Arrival.  I hitchhike to, and tarry in, Vermont near Solzhenitsyn’s hideaway in exile after triumphing over gulag cruelty.  When my ferry reaches fog-shrouded Newfoundland I meet characters who have stepped straight from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

Paul Theroux nudges my wanderlust, place ever more important in books, my antidote to loneliness, squashed into outside pockets of my backpack smugly treasured during delays.  On the Kentish coast I rent accommodation with a miniature train line Theroux rode behind it.  I arrived at Dover from France greeted by those trademark white cliffs, thinking of Matthew Arnold, read a poem by Tennyson whose monument I shall reach high above scudding drift on the Isle of Wight.

At Newstead Abbey I see a duck frozen in a large pond, but not the skull Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know used as an ashtray.  I imagine wielding a quill.  Dip, dip, blot, blot.  Thomas Hardy’s writing desk, D.H. Lawrence’s narrow house, visited, I cross the Irish Sea seeking Yeats’ tower but become lost on winding lanes in the Celtic twilight.  Buck Mulligan’s Martello tower interests me despite initial puzzlement over meagre punctuation and obscure references with Joyce, a la Kerouac.

Walking to Papeete from the airport jutting over the ocean, sweating under my heavy pack, the heat takes me back to Mailer’s marines toiling in the tropics, also to Gauguin’s colourisation in art biographies now in vivid display, locals chiaking me, their backdrop volcanic, voluptuous.  Movie magic, albeit skewed, TV programmes, plus everything I read when fixated about the Bounty mutiny, stimulate me.

Here I shall write about my mental mispronunciation – sonn-offer-bitch for sonofabitch –  favoured by those marines, not understanding until naivete’s stab, realisation, well into that book when a boy.  Airport security, crazy now, is a put-off, but I need to be close to where literature breathed, have read books set in Iceland, and Greenland.

Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash


Ian C Smith’s work has been published in BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Honest Ulsterman, Southword, Stand, & The Stony Thursday Book. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

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