Northern Soul: A Letter from Iceland

Does it bother me, being unable to smoke on a plane for just five-and-a-half hours? Not at all. Five glasses of red wine, one chicken dinner, three bars of chocolate, a tube of Pringles, one Pepsi cola, two little bags of pretzels and 1lb of wasabi peas later and the air hostess is giving me side-eye. For the love of God, people: don’t ever start smoking.

The view from the window of the aircraft as we descend through the clouds and approach the Southern Peninsula of Iceland is of nothing but vastness. Nothing but faraway mountains, fields of lava and the odd cloud of steam billowing up from volcanic caverns. It is the most magical, inspiring and peaceful land there seems to be. Icelandic people seem to be either completely attached to the nature of their island country – population 334,252 at the last count – or totally suspicious of it. Perhaps not suspicious, but cautious, of it. The Vikings, as the bighearted folk they were, used to dump people in the middle of nowhere as the worst form of punishment there could be. How could one possibly survive alone in such brutal conditions? You tell me. I wouldn’t fancy it.


I’m here to do two shows at the National Theatre with Reykjavík Kabarett. They’re a collective described by Grapevine magazine as “a bunch of nerdy intellectuals, hilariously funny and sexy at the same time” – can you picture them? They’re an inspirational team of writer/performers who seem to be wired in the same way I am: to make an audience forget all their worries, escape the outside world and feel great about themselves afterwards. To leave the show feeling completely different – richer, happier people – than when they had showed their ticket, bought a drink and took their seat three hours earlier.


The Kabarett has a loyal following that seems to be growing with their core audience – a crowd that often returns each month for the next experience. They’re artists who have to stay right on top of their game by creating new works to perform every time. Although there’s plenty of live music and a grassroots comedy night in Reykjavík – population 123,246, slightly less than Bournemouth – this is alt. variety and the opportunity to really hone a routine night after night really isn’t there. Among the core members and founders are the DJ, burlesque act and performer Margrét Erla Maack, Iceland’s reigning Queen of Drag, the unstoppable Gógó Starr, the stand-up magician Lárus Blöndal – a.k.a Lalli – and the brilliant character comic Ragnheiður Maísól. Talent, sharp minds, dedication and hard work = win. Audiences are hungry for it, too. They laugh hard in all right places and despite being several jars down they’re respectful, attentive and super open-minded.


Among the audience of our Saturday night show is a girl named Hrönn, whom I met while travelling around Southeast Asia years ago. We haven’t seen each other since and it’s fantastic to catch up. She’s working as a ranger for the Vatnajökull National Park and I suspect she could show the Vikings a thing or two about surviving the wild. An astonishing creature she is. This is a woman who, while caving in the middle of winter, had to single-handedly rescue a man just slightly larger than the size of the hole he got stuck in. She’s the sort of person you’d want fighting on your side of the trenches if and when this planet we share declines into a Third World War.


In case you didn’t know, Iceland is a blister of land where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly moving apart at a rate of around one inch per year. For anybody reading this with even the slightest interest in geology, let me put it clearly: Iceland is all of your Christmas mornings coming at the same time. The activity on Iceland ranges from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and geysers – the latter providing geothermal power for almost all of the island’s population. The effects of one volcanic eruption that happened in 2010 made headlines all over the world – remember the ash cloud that grounded flights for days? – but the most catastrophic in recorded history took place in 1783 when Laki spewed lava and poisonous gases, bringing disastrous consequences that affected much of the planet. Temperatures plunged, leading to a brutal winter – even the Mississippi River froze over in New Orleans. Europe was covered in haze of dust and crops were devastated, leading to mass starvation. Look closely at the roots of the French Revolution and the Irish Potato Famine – and never underestimate the power of Mother Nature. If Trump doesn’t get you, Laki might: another major eruption is well overdue. And if that last paragraph doesn’t send you straight into a bar, I don’t know what will.


Reykjavík itself is really not so much a city, more of a large town with sprawling suburbs and one major stretch of a high street which climbs uphill to the Church of Hallgrímskirkja, a stunning piece of expressionist work from the beloved national architect Guðjón Samúelsson, designed to resemble the glaciers and mountains of Iceland's landscape – visible from almost every part of town. At night after the show, as I walk home uphill – avoiding the bars and inns which try to call me in for a nightcap like a tart in the night – the lights of the church tower twinkle goodnight to me with a storybook beauty. Ah, Reykjavík. You are an intolerable flirt.


At Keflavik Airport I look out onto the tarmac awaiting a plane to depart which hasn’t arrived yet but which should’ve departed twenty minutes ago, yet somehow none of that matters at all. I feel fantastic – a few days in Iceland is somehow enough to bring me right into the present moment. Though to be fair that might also have something to do with the nicotine patch on my arse cheek. Will I eat myself right through the in-flight menu once more? Let’s throw caution to the wind and hope for the best. 


Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.

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1 Comment

about 2 years ago

Thanks Matt for a wonderful visual journey through a very entertaining piece of writing , I want to visit Iceland it's on the bucket list !