A Special Book


I have just finished The Stones Speak by the prolific, much-loved, 20th Century writer, Thórbergur Thórdarson, born in 1888, who grew up on a remote family farm named Hali in southeastern Iceland, very near to Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2119 metres.

I bought the book at the Þórbergssetur museum, where our tour group stopped on July 18th, two days into our 10 day bus tour. The centre was built in 2006 in Hali, (near Reynivellir in Southeast Iceland) and is dedicated to this unique man. He was largely self-educated, being too poor to attend high school or university.

The Stones Speak, translated in 2012 by Professor Julian Melton d’Arcy of the U. of Iceland, is Thórdarson’s only complete book that has been translated into English. Written when he was in his 60’s, this is an inspired, witty and sometimes caustic collection of his earliest memories – those of a precocious, hypersensitive visionary who lived very close to nature.

The book is, in my opinion, a must-read for folks who plan to visit Iceland and really want to work at understanding its recent (20th C.) history and its people. The introduction and notes by d’Arcy deserve to be read both before and after reading the book. They even contain the simplest, best guide to Icelandic pronunciation that I have found.

I went to Iceland because it was my wife’s choice and must confess that, uncharacteristically, my only research before the trip was to google the heck out of each place we were visiting on our Ring Road tour and look for things worth escaping from the pre-arranged options to see. And because we were arriving in Reykjavík (KEF) at 6 AM on the red-eye from Toronto on July 16th I was looking keenly for the most interesting places we might explore that day on our own. Our Grand Hotel was only a half-hour walk or a # 15 city bus from the centre of town. These were, for this dyed-in-the-wool self-directed traveler, the vital facts, since we were not due to meet our tour director at the hotel until 5:30 P.M.

Combined with the superb tour itself, reading The Stones Speak has given me wonderful, intensely personal insight/hindsight into the unique Icelandic people. It was, for me, not an easy read. It does not grab you like The DaVinci Code. I put it down and picked it up several times, as I have done with Proust, until realizing that, by making margin notes and studying maps and breaking down words in what is for the superbly gifted Daniel Tammet this oh-so-special language, I fell in love with Iceland and humanity in general, starting with the folks in 1890’s Suðursveit. 

If you have already visited Iceland, take the time to study The Stones Speak. You will, through it, reconnect with human nature and, perhaps, yourself.

P.S. If you have not gone yet, check out Guide To Iceland, a great website community to which my post travel research luckily led me. They justifiably claim to be an “unrivalled source of information.”



Sea Cadet Camp, or My First Letters Home

Page One
Page One

At the tender age of 13 I was in the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets. Hated it, basically. We did diddley squat. I had two good school buddies in our local Corps. Found out later that other Corps had actual boats and taught cadets how to sail them. That’s apparently what Navy trainees are s’posed to do. Our town had a big lake about 100 metres from where we cadets met in our school gym. Maybe 100 metres was too far…

Anyway, what we did learn was how to march and salute and hold a rifle straight out from your shoulders until told to stop or until you collapsed in pain. Our leader seemed to specialize in punishment. My friends and I specialized in attracting it.

Taken in our front yard. The Lachine High field is beyond the fence
Taken in our front yard. The Lachine High field is beyond the fence

We were going to quit until we found out that they were going to fly us to camp in Nova Scotia in late June after school finished. I had never flown in a plane, which was par for the course back then in 1958 for most teenagers. The chance to fly in a plane and see the Atlantic Ocean kept me enrolled for the balance of that school year. My rifle holding muscles grew grotesquely over-developed.

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Page Two

So, at the end June we flew out to Sydney, N.S. Two Mikes and a Bob with a bunch of other cadets on a Trans Canada Airlines plane. We were driven to H.M.C.S. Acadia, on the Atlantic Ocean, sitting on wooden benches in a tarp-covered truck. One tall cadet, curious to observe the countryside through which we were traveling, stood on a bench and stuck his head out through a hole in the tarp. He got hit on the back of the head by a low hanging cable that stretched across the road. Lucky he was looking backward. Real lucky, I remember thinking…

H.M.C.S. Acadia was on the ocean in a protected bay. No visible ocean waves. We never got out in a dinghy in the two weeks we were there. I caught starfish in the still, salty water for amusement and worked towards earning a signaling badge. My friend Mike B. was so bored that he challenged me to a daily game of chess for money – 25 cents a game. He never won, which shows you just how bored poor Mike was. We slept and rested in bunk beds in the barracks. Mike was in the lower bunk. One day he amused himself by kicking me up in the air until I got so pissed that I leaned over to demand that he stop and, in mid-yell, found myself sailing ass-first (fortunately) onto the concrete floor. I chased the bugger all over the base until we both ran out of leg muscles and air.

The best thing about our two diabolical Maritime weeks, spent mostly on our stiff-booted feet, was finding out about Mad Magazine from older, and wiser, cadets. The second best thing was coming home with more money than I left with.

The second worst thing was lining up in the sun for an hour for meals, many of which being so bad that we survived largely on sliced white bread and (thankfully) real butter for two weeks.

The absolute worst thing (people much younger than I probably will have trouble believing me) was thinking I was going to go to hell for listening to an endless stream of dirty jokes my tender ears had never been exposed to before. Looking back now, I realize how masterful the Catholic Church was in messing with a sensitive young person’s mind. In those days I lived in what seemed like fairly constant fear of dying in a “state of mortal sin” and spending eternity surrounded by Satan’s unquenchable fire licking at my tender nether parts. Talk about manipulating one’s imagination for evil purposes. (See previous post.) My parents, my sister and I learned later, were quite liberal. I wish they’d explained to us how full of B.S. that twisted, authoritarian system really was. I’m sure they didn’t know the effect it had on me at the time.

Episode two to come if you like episode one…

Imagination Part 2

I know lots of you guys would rather see pictures of Spain… but I promised you the meat of the Ideas program/podcast on Imagination, Part 2 (with a little of my patented sauce at the end) on Nov. 29:

Buddhism, among other philosophies, tells us that the self isn’t as concrete as we think it is. Our personal identity is a bit of an illusion. What poses as a coherent individual identity is largely due to a person’s memories, and the weird thing is that those memories change; we modify (i.e. reimagine) them every time we retrieve them. What’s more: memories are the “building blocks” of imagination.

The real virtuoso imaginers are the visionaries, who possess what Jung called a mythopoeic imagination. Henri Frankfort and his wife Henriette Antonia Frankfort coined the term, mythopoeic, in the 1940’s. Frankfort, H. studied ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia – the source for most of our modern religious mythological types. Ancient Egypt is really cool, but let’s stay on topic here. Jung believed that all humans share a collective unconscious that includes bits from the memories of our ancestors – even pre-human ancestors.

Modern humans also build a community based on our common observations. Observations are really all one has to go on when one has to go – on, I mean. Continue reading “Imagination Part 2”

Imagination, Humanism, Theism and Note-ism

Human imagination, like technology, can be wonderfully helpful or incredibly destructive. A fair amount of what I will eventually have to say on the imagination comes from yet another CBC Ideas broadcast/podcast. Other sources for this and future blogs are described in the paragraph below.

As for the stuff on humanism, theism and any other isms that might come up in this and future posts, I will acknowledge the sources where I can. Throughout my life I have collected thoughts and ideas from various thinkers. I have made notes on these ideas and recorded tapes of radio broadcasts before podcasts made it easier. I have a box of small spiral notepads that go back to when I was 20 – about 48 years ago. Other formats galore, though some have yellowed, remain intact. My mother, Angel, saved two funny letters from sea cadet camp (at 13) and two years of letters I wrote home to Montreal from Trinidad between 1965 and 1967. Lots of scattered notes, names, numbers and ideas. Blah blah ad infinitumContinue reading “Imagination, Humanism, Theism and Note-ism”