July 12, 2008

What Would Your Arctic Island Discs Be?

By Simon Calder

Karen Carpenter, get out of my head. Right now, I am aboard a polar expedition vessel just 10 degrees from the North Pole. I'm on top of the world, looking down on creation, and the only tune that's whizzing around my brain is The Carpenters' 1973 hit, "Top of the World".

Spitsbergen, where I have spent the past couple of weeks, has every right to be considered the top of the world. This Norwegian island, the main part of the Svalbard archipelago, is only 600 nautical miles from the frozen swamp of sea ice that comprises the North Pole; most visitors to Antarctica get nowhere near this close to their chosen pole.

The problem is the sugary soundtrack running through my head. Whether you cruise Route 66, stay at the Hotel California or merely take The Road to Nowhere, music can prove an inspirational companion. The wrong sort, however, can be an irritation - as Charlene demonstrated with her (thankfully only) hit, "I've Never Been to Me". This terrible tune somehow managed to combine Nice, Monte Carlo and Harlow in a single verse, along with her geographically curious line about "the isle of Greece".

Here in Spitsbergen, the only course of action is to come up with an Arctic playlist that drowns out Ms Carpenter. Dirges are unacceptable at this life-affirming latitude, which means Rod Stewart won't be sailing anywhere near this top of the world 10. Instead, "Sail Away" appears twice: Enya's ethereal effort and David Gray's moody melody, including the apposite line, "Crazy skies are wild above me now/ Winter howling at my face".

Chill-out music comes courtesy of Neil Diamond with "Coldwater Morning" and Foreigner's "Cold as Ice". The Beatles make three appearances (none from the White Album): "Norwegian Wood", "I Am the Walrus" and, given the capricious climate at 80 degrees north, "Magical Mystery Tour". If the weather closes in, Lindisfarne's "Fog on the Tyne" and Michelle Shocked's song about being anchored down in Anchorage could prove apt. To complete the cool countdown of Arctic island discs: "White Flag" by Dido, whose chorus begins, "I will go down with this ship..."

THE LINE-UP for the not-yet-forthcoming Spitsbergen Festival writes itself. The Arctic Monkeys will be there, supported by Coldplay, Seal, Snow Patrol, The Average White Band and Whitesnake.

The Three Degrees must show up, since their name corresponds to the amount of latitude traversed in the past fortnight and the average daily high in July.

The headlining acts will celebrate Spitsbergen's first two industries: ladies and gentlemen, a polar welcome, please, for The Von Trapp Family and Bob Marley's backing band, The Wailers.

NATURE'S SOUNDTRACK at this latitude is more melodic than anything humankind can create. On Tuesday I went ashore to a wild promontory where forces even stronger than the Arctic winds have ripped the Earth's crust to reveal a towering cliff. An absurd number of seabirds inhabit this avian metropolis, producing a wall of sound that comprises a low wash of gossip interspersed by screeches and squeals. And at the location where the photo on the cover was taken, I was among a group of 50 hikers.

The expedition leader, David Wood, told us to pipe down. For three minutes, all you could hear was the rush of water from the thawing snow and ice; is that the sound of the planet melting?

ONE SOUND you never hear in these parts: a mobile phone ringing. Along with television, Radio 4 and the internet, telephony is notable by its absence in this rarefied territory of rock, sea and ice. Yet, people adapt remarkably quickly to life in a world astray, where even the simplest codes of communication cease - north of Morse.

A fellow traveller, Sarah Skinner, an executive for a leading shower manufacturer, summed up the sense of escape: "The world won't stop revolving because I can't access my emails and my mobile phone doesn't work. Life goes on without Sarah Skinner selling showers."

BACK AT the Carpenters back catalogue, I recall that "Top of the World" was on top of the charts during my first visit to Ireland.

At the village of Killorglin in County Kerry, I asked a friendly local what time the pubs closed.

"October," he responded.

Ask a resident of Spitsbergen a different question - "What time does it get dark?" - and you elicit exactly the same reply.

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