Caught by the River


Roy Wilkinson | 23rd November 2017

Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North by Horatio Clare
(Chatto & Windus, hardback, 224 pages. Out now)

Report by Roy Wilkinson

No man is an island, but it seems a lot of people would like to be an Icelander. Or, at least, an icelander. All-you-can-eat cruises to Svalbard and South Georgia abound in this era. Such Nordic specials as hygge and the Aurora Borealis are eagerly sought by more southerly folk. And, most alluringly of all, TV ads show us how Jean-Claude Van Damme knows even a bottle of Coors piss-wasser can seem desirable when served up in his secret Arctic ice-cave.

Horatio Clare – ex-Radio 4 documentary producer and author of books including the acclaimed 2015 ornithological quest Orison For A Curlew – now adds to the ice-ography. With such a forename, Horatio was perhaps destined to survey the maritime expanses. He is, indeed, a sometime seafarer – his 2014 travelogue Down To The Sea In Ships was based on two voyages on container vessels. Recently, via a friend, the Finnish government invited him to spend ten days aboard the state-run Finnish icebreaker Otso, meaning bear. The area of operation was the 450-mile-long Gulf of Bothnia, up to the northwest of Helsinki.

The Finns were after something to help raise the country’s profile in 2017, the centenary of the nation’s independence. Those coolly cautious nordlanders acted judiciously, giving Horatio a fascinating and otherworldly stage for a tale that’s both captivating and diverse. The on-board milieu includes soft porn, a steady diet of frankfurters and Eminem on the stereo. But alongside these more earthbound peripherals there is also meditative consideration of the psychological effect of ice, and poetic reflection on ice’s multinational nomenclature: nilas, fern, growlers, shuga.

Shuga – pronounced shoo-gar – is a Russian word for the rubble of ice balls and slush that icebreakers create as they work. As Clare points out, there’s a grim irony here, the icebreaker both making and breaking ice at the same time. The ice removal extends to a wider perspective on that crunching through the white – the icebreaker’s heavy fuel consumption adds to the global warming that shrinks our ice caps; another little layer to mankind’s catastrophic fairytale.

With quiet charm the ship’s crew manifest Finland’s ascribed mood of heroic insularity – as hinted at in a joke relayed by Horatio. ‘What’s the difference between a Finnish extrovert and a Finnish introvert? The extrovert stares at your shoes when you talk to him’. In the cold white world that the Otso works in, the sang is always likely to be pretty froid, but the crew fulfil their national stereotypes with wit. Captain Teemu Alstella claims he has published a book taking in the colour chart that goes with a Finnish sub-Arctic winter: 99 Shades Of Grey.

Clare himself is a charming companion for the reader. His narrative encompasses both the past and a highly charged now – Finnish history interwoven with instantaneous thrills as the ship grinds and slides through a world that most of us will never experience. The author comes up with regular memorable lines – as when the ship is likened to a chisel slipping through mint cake. For one page only is Clare’s descriptive palette overwhelmed by this world of white and light, when this amazing exterior is lost in a routine litany of adjectival colours. The rest is a delightful mix of mariner-rime reportage, local colour and Finnish history. The latter two dimensions include Mannerheim and the Second World War, a fascinating condensation of the Finnish myths of the the Kalevala and monkey’s fists (the most difficult knot in the sailor’s repertoire). Though this reader was left wanting just a touch more information on one of the TV programmes beloved of the crew: ‘A loopy sketch show involving a man dressed as a kind of owl-priest with wing mirrors’.

An icebreaker is a double-hulled exercise in removal from the world – the fact of being away on a ship compounded by the perilous ice-void that surrounds you. Clare is good at evoking the charismatically self-contained character of these mariners. ‘I like ships because I like my own time,’ says the female engineering cadet Katri. Clare also ponders the psychological effects of working in this very particular environment. At one point he begins to wonder if time in this reference-free white emptiness could produce an effect akin to Charles Bonnet syndrome – the condition where a brain served by malfunctioning optic nerves begins to summon imaginary images. Even so, two weeks aboard an icebreaker such as the Otso seems an enviable way to spend some time. It’s a measure of the wit, insight and entertainment that Clare brings to his writing commission that you become very glad that he was summoned to sail out into the ice.


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Roy Wilkinson is author of the acclaimed forestry/rock memoir Do It For Your Mum (Rough Trade Books). It’s long sold out in print, but available as an e-book here.

Roy Wilkinson on Caught by the River