I have promoted this up the TBR because I couldn’t wait until next October to read it. I’ve been excited about this book ever since Katherine Findlay, who I’m lucky enough to count as a friend and who I’ve had a coffee with in Iceland but never met up with in the UK (yet) started talking about the manuscript she’d come across detailing the adventures of a Devonian fish trader in Iceland.  And then, in October, here it was, and I rushed to buy it but then a few other reading things got in the way (sorry!). I really loved it, as I knew I would.

K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward”

(02 October 2018)

The edited 1906 diaries of a Devon fish merchant who instigated such trade with Iceland that he ended up being awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. It’s a fascinating look at the country in its very much less developed days, something I imagine like the Iceland of Halldor Laxness’ novels.

The first and most important thing to say about the book is how beautifully it’s edited. Katherine provides an excellent introduction to both the background of Ward’s work and a potted history of Iceland that has just enough detail to let the reader understand what’s going on and what led up to the events described in the book. There’s a great epilogue which details what happened next to both Ward (a house in Teignmouth called Valhalla and full of Icelandic artefacts!!) and the Icelanders he writes about, as well as some intriguing mysteries. There’s also a good map, reproductions of the actual photographs Ward mentions taking (and on proper plates, not just printed on the paper) and useful but not intrusive footnotes, making this an excellent example of an edited manuscript. And this wasn’t an easy job, as the note on the text explains. The references are extensive and there’s a thank you to my friend Chris in the acknowledgements which weaves the Icelandophiles of my circle neatly together.

Having mentioned how the stories of Iceland and Britain were intertwined in the early Middle Ages, we see how the two countries are drawn closer through Ward’s endeavours and those of other pioneers. He comes across quite a few British folk, some managing in the country more successfully than others. I love how his fish are called Wardsfiskur and his bay and farm Wardsvik; it’s also very endearing when he compares the majestic scenery of Iceland to the somewhat quieter views around his native Devon.

As someone who knows Iceland a bit, it was lovely to read about it a century or so ago. Some things are very different, for example the small bay where the quiet village of Keflavik is found (now the site of the international airport), and reactions to a sculpture by a now-revered artist. In the middle is the beginnings of the city of Reykjavik as we know it, as well as details of towns that are all still here today, but very different. And some things remain the same: there’s still a famous lighthouse at Reykjanes, Icelandic horses have a sturdy will of their own and surprise you by when exactly they want to speed up, and Icelanders have a somewhat eccentric and relaxed attitude to playing by the rules (this meant I wasn’t too worried about missing the cut-off in the Reykjavik marathon by a minute or so …).

A really lovely book and a great and entertaining read for anyone who loves Iceland or a good travel narrative (or both).

I’m currently reading the very lovely “Spring Magic” by D.E. Stevenson, very kindly sent to me by Dean Street Press as one of their new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming out in January. Gentle but absorbing, the story of a woman finding herself after a live of servitude to her aunt in a Scottish village in WW2 is unputdownable. A review soon!