7 October 2010 – Longyearbyen, Svalbard
I’ve arrived this afternoon at Longyearbyen, Svalbard, to participate in The Arctic Circle creative residency, and am sitting in our Lodge quietly watching most of the other 17 participants hunched over their laptops or quietly chatting with one another. It’s a truly wild and wonderful (and weird) place – a mining town in the middle of an Odin’s landscape of jagged black peaks, glacial valleys and sweeping fjords. There are polar bear warning signs on the street, in this village of steel and wooden huts in various rusted colours. The Lodge itself is a mish-mash of what look like second-hand building materials patched one on the other in all kinds of shoddy formations – but on the inside the mish-mash is unbelievably cosy. Exposed beams in raw wood under a curving ceiling, leather and velveteen couches, carved blonde wood tables – and in the restaurant, piles of arctic fox skins (why?), a couple of stuffed polar bears and a heated, tiled floor, big windows that look out onto exposed pipelines, black gravel and the side of a mountain… The overall ambience encompasses hand-woven table mats, dangling bone-sculptures, quirky framed photos, beaten copper pots and brass candlesticks. It’s warm as toast and friendly, full of fake plants, pot belly stove and the murmur of Norwegian TV, two artists in the kitchen chopping cabbage under a heavily ornamented clock. Outside, the utter darkness of a place that even in the middle of the day is grey twilight. It really feels mythical. So today it has mostly been indoors – though the descent from the air between mountains was special, onto an airstrip that pointed out to sea, barred at the end by a few yellow poles and blinking red lights. After settling into my room – to be shared tomorrow but all my own for now – I walked with some others across the mud and rocks to the ‘shopping mall’ (it’s a heatwave here, around 7 degrees, not even raining so there’s no snow except on the mountains – all is bare and raw). For Svalbard souvenirs I have a choice (yet to be made definitively) of fleece sweaters, teatowels, packs of cards, baseball caps and t-shirts – and every item is emblazoned with the bear. The bear that now that I’m here I’m not so sure I want to see: the one warning we’ve received here was stern. Do not leave the town, in the day, at night, alone or with others, walking or cycling. The bears wander beyond the end of these few strips of grey bitumen, the clusters of utilitarian structures, and they move fast. In other news: in the shopping mall, cheese bratwursty hot dogs : ) And of note: Norwegian Kronor have little holes in the centre, like ancient burial artefacts. We’re here until Sunday, when we head out to sea on the Noorderlicht for two weeks, sailing north – hopefully north of Moffen Isle and along the coast of Spitsbergen towards the east.