Greenland: Vanity, Seal-Meat and Gonorrhoea

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Greenland: Vanity, Seal-Meat and Gonorrhoea


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


It was, of course, vanity which took me to Greenland. One of the great problems about travelling a lot, and advertising the fact in print, is that each trip has to be harder than the last. If it is not, they will say that you have lost your nerve or taken up lawnmower mechanics, and your pride will convince you that they are right. The consequent chase round the world becomes futile and boring and utterly addictive. There is a boarding house near the quay in Calais which is more foreign than anywhere else. I wanted to go there. And so I stepped from a milk crate at Reykjavik City Airport onto a little turboprop heading for Kulusuk on the east coast of Greenland.

The article which was to justify the journey was half drafted in a notebook and fully drafted in my head. It was to be a study of the relatively benevolent Danish rule in Greenland. It would be pretentiously sub-titled: 'I'll scratch your back: Don't worry about mine'. I had lots of statistics about shrimp catches and corrugated iron imports, and a lot of more or less dubious parallels with British India.

Kulusuk is a village of Inuit subsistence hunters. There are about 200 houses and 2,400 sledge dogs, which makes it very important to wipe your feet before going inside. There is a store which sells .22 rifles, subsidised Danish beer and sea-boots. They kill an average of 12 polar bears a year, and are extremely promiscuous. Someone at the dance in the village hall said that all the dogs have gonorrhoea sores in their mouths from eating used condoms, and that in Disko Bay, on the west coast, penicillin is pumped into the mains water supply.

The two traditionally approved responses of visitors to Greenland are 'awed bewilderment at the boreal desolation' and 'intense respect for the deceptively simple lives of the Inuit, whose hearty and fulsome welcome is a consequence of their hard and gritty lives, not a contradiction of it'. The Inuit are supposed to put us to shame; are supposed to highlight dazzlingly and painfully our own spiritual inadequacies. There are two facts about Greenland which everyone who travels there knows and repeats to everyone else who travels there. The first is that if the Greenland ice cap melted, the sea level worldwide ('worldwide' is an unnecessary word, you would have thought, but it always goes in) would rise by six metres. And the second is that all the Inuit believe that everything in the world around them (and that includes the rocks and the icebergs and the scraps of caribou moss) has a soul. On jetties all over East Greenland you will hear Americans saying, as they watch the seals being dragged from the boats and secured in bundles under the water for natural refrigeration: 'Of course the seals agreed to surrender their souls voluntarily to the hunter. It is not sad'. In fact the Inuit believe nothing of the sort. There is a lot to be said for the thesis of Lawrence Millman who, in his curious and very good book Last Places, tried to explain the bizarre blandness of the land. The problem is that the land should hum with resonance for anyone properly brought up on John Buchan or Arthur Ransome, and it does not. Millman averts to the old belief, which is now enshrined only in the jetty comments of foreigners and in the Lonely Planet guide, and wonders if, when the Lutheran missionaries arrived from Denmark and proclaimed that only people had souls, their pronouncement exorcised the souls from the rocks and the moss. Perhaps the preachers said, with the mandate of the Creator, that the land was barren of personality, and lo, it was so. Whatever the reason for it, Greenland is the nemesis of the romantic pantheist.

One might have hoped that the souls of the moss clumps would have been subsumed into the Inuit; that the Inuit might have become the true embodiment of the land; that personality might not have been extinguished but merely translocated; or at least, if not becoming brighter themselves by some sort of spiritual transfusion, that the Inuit might have appeared to shine particularly brightly against a particularly dull background. …

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