Slumbering Volcanoes by Quentin Bates

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The poor chap in the next seat eyed me with disdain after my snort of amusement woke him up. A few years before the Second World War, Louis MacNiece and WH Auden travelled to an impoverished backwater of the small Danish empire called Iceland, and wrote a rather odd book about their travels at a time when a troop of ponies was still the most reliable form of transport. I was reading ‘Letters from Iceland’ on a train and Auden’s laconic comment ‘I understand that local politics are very corrupt’ was the cause of the snort that woke the chap in the next seat, not that he was to know that little has changed in Icelandic politics over the intervening seventy years.

I’m a brand-new crime writer, which means that hardly anybody has read any of my books. A couple of weeks ago I was lurking at CrimeFest, a convention held in England every year for crime writers and serious crime fiction buffs, and was asked by Colin Cotterill if I’d be interested in contributing to an international crime fiction blog. Of course… so here I am.

(Deep breath) My personal stamping ground is the weatherbeaten rock of Iceland, most recently in the news for inconsiderately allowing a clutch of ill-behaved volcanoes to spew ash over the North Atlantic, and before that for the breathtaking idiocy of its financial sector that came to a head in 2008 when all three of its major banks were forced to admit that they’d been doing a large-scale version of using Mastercard to pay their Visa bills and vice versa.

But to backtrack, back in the days before mobile phones, the internet and even fax machines, I was offered the chance to spend a gap year between college and university working in Iceland, and jumped at the chance to escape what was just about to become Thatcher’s Britain. The gap year became a gap decade and a bit more, during which I acquired a family of my own, an unexpected profession and something of an education to make up for missing student life in England, as well as a new language courtesy of cultural immersion and the girlfriend who didn’t speak English. As it is, we’re still together, and in the pleasant situation of each speaking the other’s language well enough to crack jokes in either.

Writing came later. Mrs Smith, who taught class 3Z, told my Mum when I was nine that I’d be a writer one day, and English was the only A level I didn’t fail abysmally. The eventual sidestep from seafaring into journalism came via photography, or more precisely, through not being hard-nosed and talented enough to make the jump from competent amateur to working freelance when black & white 8x10’ prints were a standard requirement. It seemed I was better at writing captions than taking pictures, until the captions became articles and I’m still in the same day job today, but it wasn’t enough.

Fiction came calling after years of obscure trade journalism, mostly as an escape from the leaden style demanded by the day job. It needn’t have been crime fiction, but knowing Iceland intimately and travelling there regularly for work and pleasure, that was the obvious setting – and Gunna, my rotund heroine, jumped off the screen one day, cracking her knuckles and demanding attention.

The financial crisis was too good not to use. I spent a lot of 2008 in Iceland, witnessing business as usual in January to the wide-eyed uncertainty of the spring and summer as the overbloated banks had nothing to lend and everyone knew that something was deeply wrong, but government and the media carefully danced around the subject without wanting or daring to say out loud what was being whispered in the shadows. Every bus driver, teacher, carpenter, factory foreman and plumber knew something was up as the exchange rate lurched and prices of consumer goods crept upwards. The real trouble indicator was that half of the immigrant community left for the relative stability of the Eurozone like the prudent rats who discreetly abandon a leaking ship. In October that year I arrived for a trade show on the day that the first bank, Glitnir, admitted that it couldn’t meet its debts and instantly sent shockwaves through society – and there were gaping holes at the trade show as a good few companies walked away from it, overnight casualties of the impending meltdown.

The three-quarters-finished book that became Frozen Out (Frozen Assets in the US) was hastily re-written to place its ending in that insane week in October 2008 when the whole country was wondering what the hell was happening around them, and everyone with a smidgen of imagination knew that things weren’t ever going to be the same again.

Today the 2008 Crash has become a temporal landmark. ‘Did Nonni buy that green Skoda after the Crash?’ Or ‘was Sigga’s youngest confirmed before the Crash?’ It’s the pivotal point around which Iceland went overnight from being a spoilt rich kid to an impoverished single parent, and the transition has been far from painless, with largescale emigration, a growing crime rate and public services from education to law enforcement slashed to the bone and struggling to cope.

For the moment at least, the spectacular, albeit inconvenient, volcanoes at Eyjafjallajökull and Grímsvötn have settled into uneasy sleep, reflecting the lives of the Icelanders who live on top of a fault in the earth’s crust. A casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking that people have come to terms with the Crash and are doggedly working their way through it. But don’t be fooled. Things are still at boiling point under the surface.

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