Caught by the River

China Girl in Reykjavik

Dan Richards | 27th July 2016


Words and pictures: Dan Richards

China Girl in Reykjavik. I heard it all over the city. On the coach to Landeyjahöfn, in the bar at Kex, on the way down Laugavegur, escaping from a corrugated record shop, chiming crisp and Chic. I heard it in bookshops, in top-end knitwear boutiques…its omnipresence was weird but not unpleasant. In a city whose radio stations seem to favour a synthetic 80s glacial chill and repetitious two word choruses it made a kind of sense… I mean, it’s not the best Bowie single by any stretch. It’s not even the best track on Let’s Dance… but there it was, hammering away insistent, shiny, and slightly crazed.

The song accompanied me out on a walk to Úlfarsfell, a small mountain about 300 meters high — fjall, fell from the Old Norse for ‘hill’ — ear-worming insistent and incongruously away as I tramped a route around the docks, orienting by sight of the peak — losing the mountain behind silos, finding it again. Still far off. I passed various shopping centres, along verges chock-full of alaskan lupines, through the suburbs of Mosfellsbaer, a golf course, negotiated the central reservation of a motorway: stumbled out of town just like a sacred cow / Visions of swastikas in my head / Plans for everyone… All the while I cut between Iggy and Bowie’s versions, the one so bright and trebly, the other so raw, galloping and growling — the EQ knob back and forth-ing between their takes on this dark pop; barbed and paranoid in plain sight: My little China girl / You shouldn’t mess with me / I’ll ruin everything you are…

A bear-like man in a car park told me about the Icelandic right to walk wherever, pitch a tent wherever… the right to roam in crow-straight lines. I stumped on over the iron-red ballast and scouring pad moss until I reached Úlfarsfell proper and wound up its brown flanks, following a path marked every hundred yards by neon orange plastic strips. Eventually, having reached the summit, I discovered two glum girls eating chips from a paper bag and two whippets, inflamed and rutting. I smiled at one of the girls and raised an eyebrow, which earnt a scowl as if to imply that this was all my fault.

Turning away I looked out beyond Reykjavik to the sea, the bay, the skewed black box of the opera house, far-off — a closer clutch of multi-coloured pigeon lofts. Mount Esja, hammerhead in cloud, rolled out right. Other, darker, sharper steeps sat far over to the left, topped white — and all the time, that white aluminium sky.

Looking round I found I was alone — the chippy doggers having vanished — so I sat on the loose cairn that marks Úlfarsfell’s top and thought about Iggy and Bowie and the imminent walk back; and began to wonder if maybe the pair weren’t actually a far better fit for this place, this scape than I’d first thought. Like Iceland, they always seemed mythic, elemental and strangely ageless to me; old gods, always there — touchstones; a kind of cultural geology constantly folded back on itself, constantly changing, mysterious, emerging renewed, on the cusp… like this permanent daylight: so often apparently set to break down or brighten up but never actually doing either. But then the thought and logic broke down and I just sat there, unsure of the time or the day, listening to the breeze and far off hum of the city.

And when I get excited / My little China Girl says / ‘Oh Jimmy, just you shut your mouth.’ / She says, ‘Shhhh…’


Dan Richards is the 2016 Writer in Residence at Rough Trade. His new book Climbing Days was published by Faber last month, and was our Book of the Month for June.

Dan will be reading from his book on our Port Eliot stage this Saturday 30 July. See our full lineup here.