A different horizon – and a straight path between the stars

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A lot of blogs offer advice on how to achieve success or find happiness. I would not attempt to advise on either – both depend so much on subjective definitions – but I suppose this could count as guidance on finding clarity, which I constantly strive for in my writing, and generally. It is also sharing something that has helped me survive the last 18 months. When things get tough, I have taught myself to find a different horizon.

People who go on long trips as a way of dealing with significant moments in their lives often refer to the hope that they will ‘find themselves’ in unfamiliar surroundings.

A recent conversation with an inspirational filmmaker and educator included his story of a group of tourists travelling across Africa. The truck driver said: “When people say they are here to find themselves, I reply, ‘Why are you looking for yourself here? You didn’t leave yourself here’.”

Putting physical distance between yourself and your problems is one way of leaving yourself behind and making a fresh start. But if you don’t want to run away, but rather to find a way through the confusion, and you have imagination, you don’t need to travel far to explore different horizons. A conversation about space travel and following astronaut Chris Hadfield on twitter inspired me to look for the International Space Station passing overhead. It is an Arthur C. Clarke moment sitting on a London rooftop watching a spaceship’s straight, steady path across a star strewn sky – knowing that the spaceship is ‘one of ours’.

Clarity in writing – and in life – can be likened to finding that straight path between the stars. I worked all night to meet a deadline and submitted my copy early in the morning. Then I got on a train to visit an old friend who lives by the sea. A few hours later a walk along the coast in the sunshine revealed a different horizon and provided the impetus to write this and more.

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Book review: Cold Feat – an inspirational Arctic adventure

In May 2013, Philip Goodeve-Docker died during a charity expedition to the Arctic when his tent was swept away by a violent snowstorm. Although his companions called for help, the best of modern technology was no match for the forces of nature. It took rescuers 30 hours to reach them, and by that time Philip had frozen to death.

This news story resonated with me because, just a few weeks earlier, I met polar explorer Duncan Eadie who has been on several expeditions to the Arctic. ‘Cold Feat’ is Duncan’s account of his first expedition – to the North Magnetic Pole. Duncan and a team of lawyers led by famous British explorer Pen Hadow braved the Arctic wilderness to trek to the top of the world. This book offers the reader a vivid glimpse of the place Philip described with unnerving prescience as one of the world’s most dazzling, beautiful yet deadly landscapes. It is an exhilarating and inspirational read.

The first few chapters cover Duncan’s determined efforts to join a polar expedition and the months of preparation: a demanding fitness regime where three daily gym sessions were supplemented by dragging tyres around the heath at night and gruelling training weekends; freezing different chocolate bars to find out which ones were still edible in Arctic conditions; and getting the right kit together, including shopping for ‘wind-proof’ underwear. Then the scene shifts to the pure, icy Arctic landscape and the characters that inhabit and explore it – and the real adventure begins.

‘Cold Feat’ transports the reader to another world – you can almost smell the clean, bitterly cold Arctic air that freezes the hairs in your nose, and feel the deep pile carpet in the world’s northernmost hotel. You get to know the explorers’ routine – long days of riding skidoos or skiing pulling heavy sledges or ‘pulks’ across a harsh frozen terrain followed by hours of melting ice for cooking and making drinking water – the toilet issues and the physical hardships including eyes frozen shut, frostbite and broken teeth. You get to know their personalities – their individual strengths, skills and vulnerabilities and their fantastic team spirit; the ‘ice dance’ that kept them moving and the shared laughter that kept up their morale.

You also get to know Duncan – his warmth, humour and strength of character. Although there are some hilarious stories, there are also dilemmas, disappointments and intensely private moments: when his frozen fingers fumbled for his camera as he lingered outside the tent mesmerised by the dazzling beauty of the Arctic landscape, but he was too emotionally overcome to get the shot, his genuine, cold-sweat fear of a polar bear encounter. And the poignant moment when he placed a single stone from his father’s garden onto the Arctic stones that mark the North Magnetic Pole. These are not spoilers. There is a lot more to this story.

‘Cold Feat’ is a raw, personal account of the adventure of a lifetime interlaced with some history of polar exploration and quotations from famous explorers. There is also philosophy, including lessons that apply to life in general: to embrace the unknown without fear; to be as prepared as you can be, while recognising that you can’t be prepared for everything; to remember that getting there is the intention, but getting back is the imperative.

The blurb describes ‘Cold Feat’ as the story of an ordinary man going on an extraordinary journey. But nothing about Duncan or his book is ordinary. ‘Cold Feat’ is a beautifully written account of an extraordinary adventure of the kind that brings out the best in people – and risks the lives of the best people.

Personal Space – a short film I wrote

I wrote this short film for the London 48 Hour Film Project 2012. It didn’t win, but it was shown at the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square and featured in all the event trailers. It was amazing to work with a highly talented creative team (collaboration between Motion Blurr and Nude Up Productions), experience filmmaking first-hand and then see my work on the big screen for the first time.

Personal Space is being shown at a London indy short film event and has been shortlisted for two film festivals, one in the UK and one in California.

This is my first IMDb credit as a screenwriter, which to me is a big step in the right direction. I am starting with short films and have just started work on a new project – a genre mash-up: gothic, dark sci-fi, multi-lingual … hopefully disturbing…

Iceland: Midsummer night’s dream with a slice of paradise

I recently attended a talk on blogging organised by the London Writers Café. We were asked what topics we blogged about and I mentioned travel as one of my main interests. I then realised that I hadn’t written a travel piece this year. So here is my take on midsummer in Iceland. Unusually for me, this was a holiday, not a business trip, so my insights and travel tips are from a slightly different perspective than usual.

Continuing my fixation with Scandinavia, I had been thinking about Iceland for some time. The original idea was to see the Northern Lights. Then the opportunity arose to take a few days’ holiday at midsummer, which I have long considered a special time of year. It turned out to be a midsummer night’s dream.

Iceland is the furthest north I have ever been – and I have visited Stockholm and Moscow. In the summer there is no night at all. It is the land of the midnight sun.

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We arrived in Reykjavik at about 11pm and the sun was dipping towards the horizon like a traditional sunset. But it never actually set. The landscape on the drive to Reykjavik was stunning – and reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as sunset became sunrise.

We stayed at the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll http://www.centerhotels.com/our-hotels/hotel-arnarhvoll/ which we were told was fully booked, though we didn’t see many other people. Perhaps it’s because I’m from London, but to me Iceland is a land of empty spaces. Reykjavik is Iceland’s biggest city and most populated area and even with all the midsummer tourists, there did not seem to be many people around. The hotel was ten minutes’ walk from the city centre; the room had a sea view and so does the hotel’s Panorama Restaurant, which serves an incredibly varied breakfast and is perfect for an evening drink. As I said, I was on holiday, but I mention in passing that the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll has free wireless internet that works very well…

Iceland is a wonderful tourist destination. There is plenty to see and the people are great! The Icelandic language is based on Old Norse and is challenging to say the least. Icelanders recognise this and there are plenty of fun souvenir t-shirts. I bought one with the slogan “I don’t speak Icelandic”!

Everyone speaks English and in a useful way – not just prices and numbers, so it is easy to organise sightseeing and transportation. There is no touting or hassling even though tourism is a major industry. The souvenirs are brilliant, and sometimes bizarre, but Iceland is expensive, so it is best not to get too carried away. Think about what you would like to keep/wear when you are back at home. For example these onesies looked ever so cute in the shop, but we resisted…

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Íslandia is one of several shops that specialise in Icelandic souvenirs, notably the famous lopapeysa (Icelandic jumpers) which are sold all over Reykjavik – I bought a cardigan. It looks nice and kept me warm on late night sightseeing tours, but left bits of wool all over my black t-shirt… we bought books about legends, trolls and runes.

Norse legends refer to the various “hidden people” that include elves, trolls and fairies. Trolls in Iceland are not necessarily bad, though they can be dangerous. They are sometimes depicted as lovable characters, sometimes as massive smelly destructive monsters. It depends what you read. I met this cute troll in the city centre.

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Had we been staying longer, we might have considered a day at Magnús Skarphéðinsson’s famous elf school, and I did email, but apparently it only happens on Fridays… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_Elf_School

24-hour daylight means you can do a lot, if you have the energy – and we certainly did! We got back to the hotel well after midnight each night and it felt surreal walking back in broad daylight in the early hours of the morning.

Reykjavik sightseeing and culture

We visited Hallgrímskirkja, the big church in the city centre, just in time to listen to choir practice before climbing the tower to take photographs of the marvellous views across the city and the harbour. Then we walked down Skólavörðustígur, a street full of arts and crafts galleries and cafés that leads into Laugavegur, the main shopping street.

The Settlement Exhibition http://www.minjasafnreykjavikur.is/english/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-4206/ in the city centre beneath the Hotel Centrum is worth a visit. It is a relatively small exhibition of the history and archaeology of an early Icelandic settlement and includes numerous interactive elements.

The Reykjavik Art Museum is on three sites http://www.artmuseum.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-2173/3432_read-6298/  We visited Kjarvalsstaðir, which focuses on painting and sculpture and is a short walk from the city centre. The permanent exhibition of key works by Icelandic landscape painters, notably Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885–1972), is an excellent example of how Iceland’s unique and fabulous scenery has influenced and inspired its art.

Food and drink

This was not a ‘foodie’ holiday. Icelandic menus include unusual items like whale and puffin, but if, like me, you’re not keen to eat the local species, there is a wide variety of restaurants and cafes, including pizza and sushi as well as conventional Scandinavian food. We liked sitting in the sun at Café Babalú, a hip rooftop vegetarian café. As with many Scandinavian destinations, the coffee is excellent.

We particularly enjoyed a meal in Hornið, one of the city’s oldest bistros (I thought it might have a Viking theme, but Hornið means corner in Icelandic, and the food is Italian-style…)

Reykjavik has a massive choice of bars and clubs including Kaffibarinn owned by Damon Albarn (look out for the London Underground style sign).

The Golden Circle

A major cultural highlight was an evening Golden Circle tour which included Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. The trip takes about three hours each way and passes through some spectacular scenery. The rugged volcanic landscape is breathtaking – it feels like we are on a tour of a different planet.

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We saw the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and the point at which the European and North American continents meet. Apparently the two continents are gradually moving apart. I discovered that it is not possible to stand with one foot on each continent…

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Gullfoss is breathtaking, and definitely reminiscent of the Prometheus movie. It is a steep and slippery walk from the car park to the waterfall, and perhaps because we were there at night, even though it was light, there was a strong wind and a chill in the air, so it is important to have appropriate footwear and something warm to wear – the shop sells Icelandic knitwear and hot drinks, but it helps to be prepared because it really is worth getting close to the waterfall and experiencing the power of this wild and wonderful landscape at close quarters.

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On the way back we visited Geysir, a spouting hot spring that gave its name to geysers worldwide. The original Geysir is dormant, but nearby Strokkur, apparently the world’s most active geyser, erupts every 5-10 minutes.

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This was a long tour, but every element was amazing and it was a photographer’s dream. The photographs on this blog were taken with an iPhone 4S and a Nikon Coolpix compact camera. I have posted more photographs on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/joannagoodman/

The Blue Lagoon

I have saved the best for last as I will never forget the Blue Lagoon http://www.bluelagoon.com/ The brochures raise expectations and the experience exceeded them. My photographs are not adjusted – it really was this colour.

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The spa is very well organised with spotlessly clean changing rooms, showers and lockers. Towels and bathrobes are provided – you only need to bring a swimming costume. Various spa treatments are available, but we just swam around and enjoyed the unique experience. The water is almost too warm and there is a swim-up bar with a good selection of alcoholic and soft drinks. Silica mud is available to put on your skin and you can buy this to take back. I didn’t try it as my skin is quite sensitive, and following the advice of the hotel receptionist, I kept my (long) hair out of the water.

Relaxing in warm blue water drinking strawberry wine was a slice of paradise that will keep me smiling for a long time. However, sunscreen is important as the sun is quite strong and reflects off the bright water. As you can see from my picture below, I didn’t apply enough…

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