14 September 2017

1:00 PM

14 September 2017

1:00 PM

I never expected to visit Iceland, let alone play cricket there. But the Iceland national team was off to play in the Pepsi Cup in Prague last week, against Hungary and Poland among others, and needed some easy meat to practise on. So the Authors XI found themselves in a vast indoor stadium in Reykjavik with artificial grass and a yellow ball, playing three 20-over games.

The floodlights were dim and the ball swung prodigiously. When it bounced, it either stood up, stopped or hurried through low. The best word to describe batting conditions would be ‘difficult’. Our opening bowler, the novelist Nicholas Hogg, took four for seven in four overs. The Iceland team had one native Icelander and one Brit; the rest were from Sri Lanka or Pakistan. They were fit, quick and able — as players from that part of the world tend to be. Every time they threw at the stumps, from whatever angle, they hit. I’m proud to report that we acclimatised quickly enough to win the third game.

We then had one of Iceland’s rare sunny days for a bus tour of the island. It was like a crash course in geology GCSE, as our guide pointed out volcanoes, tarns, magma, calderas, tectonic plates and terminal moraine. We urged him to go further on the basis that one good tarn deserves another.

The only drawback was that since the ‘investment’ bankers trousered all the money in Iceland, everything is expensive. With beer at almost £10 a go, the duty-free at both ends had been plundered and our resourceful scorer found a restaurant that would let us bring it all along. The dinner table looked like the police station after a speakeasy raid in Prohibition-era Chicago.

But the Authors XI enjoy a challenge. Some hours later, the table was clear. We were told the Northern Lights were now visible and clattered downstairs onto the quay to look at them. I saw them, dear reader, I saw the aurora borealis.

At least, I think I did. I kept remembering Sir Herbert Gussett, who once wrote a letter to Private Eye claiming that on his way home late one night from the Dog and Duck he had seen the European Monetary Snake.

Mercifully, a historian took a photo on his phone, so the next day we could confirm what we had seen: a vertical greenish smudge, as though a decorator with a thick brush had tried a new colour (mucus) on the wall of the sky. It was more stirring than that makes it sound.

The business part of the trip involved a ‘panel event’ on cricket at the student bar as a curtain-raiser for the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. Attendance was low, but the emotional moderator was a show in himself. At the bus stop the next day, we met a scruffy-looking man even more dramatically refreshed. ‘How can he afford to be that drunk?’ asked the sage football writer Jonathan Wilson. ‘He must be the richest man in Iceland.’

Final gastronomic tips if you fancy a visit to this unusual island. Horse: please not. Seal: almost bearable. Whale: like a dense Bombay duck. Puffin: unspeakable.

I have just finished a novel set in Paris in 2006. What fun it’s been to write it, to live in Paris, either in fact or in my head, for two years, and how much I’m going to miss it. Above my desk were the rules of the book. No war and no psychiatry. No croissants, no café au lait. No arrondissement that any tourist visits. No baguette. No Pont Neuf. No spring, no love affair. Nothing that anyone will find familiar. I think I kept most of them.

It was finished too late for this September, so it won’t come out till autumn 2018. For reasons I’m not sure of, a book published in mid-September will always sell better than one that comes out in May. So my publishers say. I do what they tell me.

A sad week for people who like 1970s music. Walter Becker, one half of the peerless Steely Dan, has died. How to define that acid melancholy, that tuneful cynicism, that playful plangency?

There was talk of putting an extra note in a diminished ninth chord, and other things I don’t quite understand. But you knew it was complicated because it was so hard to sing. I didn’t finally crack ‘Dr Wu’ till duetting in a van with a British television cameraman. Simon Allen is now the drummer/vocalist with the New Mastersounds, while I am confined to the bathroom. ‘Biscayne Bay, where the Cuban gentlemen sleep all day/ I went searching for the song you used to sing to me…/ Are you with me, Dr Wu?’ That ‘Wu’ was a hard note to find.

There was a time in the early 1980s when I couldn’t set off for work in the morning till I’d played ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and wouldn’t go out in the evening until I’d heard ‘Rose Darling’ twice. Those songs still sound good today.

RIP, Walter. I thought our little wild time had just begun.

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