Brass Monkeys VI: Last Days



I’m a convert. Having always loved jungles and deserts, I’m not prepared to admit another alternative; the arctic snowscape gives you a blank white canvas on which to write your dreams.

This is a wilderness that needs to be captured by artists and on film before it goes. The recent shocking rise in Arctic temperatures suggests that the thinner ice is allowing through enough sunlight to photosynthesise plankton, and the vast white plains will be gone in 20 years.

Svalbard is one of several communities here, but the only one with an airport. It has a main street and a shop selling animal pelts. I met a visitor who’s a Vegan and she really didn’t find anything at all to eat. How could you in a place where nothing grows?

Here’s one of the only stores in town, selling ethically farmed pelts.


If your child ever posts letters to Santa Claus, this is where they seem to end up, in an immense red postbox.  Some apparently get answered in Santa Claus, Indiana (nowhere near the North Pole) where they’ve hijacked the idea, but this post box is the real deal.


Dog sledding was much more fun that snowmobiles, and environmentally friendly. If you do it, keep one foot on the brake, don’t be a passenger (colder, smellier) but a driver – it’s harder work but keeps you warm.

The dogs fall into two types; ones from Greenland are aggressive, so they’re crossed with gentler huskies. Still if they’re not running (which they love) they’re fighting. They run until they’re nine years old, then retire. They’re hardy, eat dense meat, but not a lot, and sleep outside. Leading the team into a pristine valley was a highlight.

It’s much harder work than you realise because you have to jump off and push the sledge sometimes, only to find that the dog will heed the lighter load and run fast, meaning you have to jump back onto the runners at speed.


One scary moment – My driver Pete fell off the back and the dogs decided to run. I didn’t realise I was alone as we picked up speed and headed into the valley. Looking around and seeing no-one on the back, I was able to stick out my boot heels and drag us to a lower speed so he could catch up. Chucking out the anchor suddenly is not a good idea unless you really want to compact your vertibrae.


This is really worth considering as a trip. The people are fantastically hospitable and eager to talk, and you all feel united against the elements. Children raised here cope well. I watched a group of kids seated in snowdrifts playing a game, as easily as if they were at the beach. The various modes of transport are not cheap, it’s a complicated place to get to, and it’s a bit more punishing than I’d expected.


You need two sets of gloves, hats, scarves and stuff that might get wet as anything taken outside freezes in seconds. You will fall over several times. I’m covered in gashes and bruises, but big deal, it was amazing and I loved every second.

Heading back to London via Oslo, where I’ll be visiting the Modern Art Museum.





11 comments on “Brass Monkeys VI: Last Days”

  1. SteveB says:

    I dont see Arthur coping there, or indeed anywhere outside london, but I really have the feeling John May should make a visit.

  2. SteveB says:

    Ps dont ask me why i just do. Its that deserted cinema really got me. Something is waiting there.

  3. Brooke says:

    I think Arthur would do just fine; see White Corridor. Pyramiden validates his world view, as it does mine. What is waiting in the deserted cinema is our future…think of all our digital images and writing floating about for other types of beings from the future will find and wonder what we were thinking. Or more to the point, were we capable of thinking at all, given our capacity for destruction. Back to Sebald.

  4. Diane Englot says:

    That has reminded me of being in Northern Norway late in a November, above the Circle and steps from the Russia border…it was absolute Heaven. Sailing in the cold, clean, crystalline air and pure white as far as you could see, with one or two little red houses on the shore of the Barents Sea. Gorgeous!

  5. Chris Webb says:

    “The people are fantastically hospitable and eager to talk”

    or to quote Arthur Bryant:

    “Have you ever met a Norwegian? If they were any gentler they’d be hamsters.”

  6. Vivienne says:

    This sounds so wonderful. Why do they not stick do gentler huskies, I wonder? I read recently of a 4 year old girl who walked, I think, about 5 miles through the snow in Siberia as her grandma had died, so interesting that the children you saw are similarly resistant and resourceful.

  7. Anchovee says:

    I’ve loved all the Brass Monkey posts – thank you and have a safe trip home!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Absolutely wonderful.
    Just reading Craig Davidson’s “Precious Cargo” about driving a school bus for a year in the Calgary area. The first day of real winter (-8C the day before but now -30C) and he dressed with: longjohns, tube socks, wool socks, long sleeved shirt, hoodie, another hoodie, trousers, toque, boots, magic gloves (don’t know what they are), mittens over gloves, and finally a parka. He says he waddled out the door. I’m sure scientifically created fabrics and so on could have reduced what he wore but he didn’t have the money.
    There is a French Canadian song “My country isn’t a country, it’s the winter.” It isn’t a friendly country and it forgives nothing, but isn’t it absolutely fabulously gorgeous?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, yes, and about Santa Claus letters. If you mail them to “Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0” you will definitely get a reply because Canada Post has a service that answers the letters. My husband reminds me that there is a place in Alaska named North Pole, but I don’t know if they answer letters.

  10. Jan says:

    Strange old part of the world.
    As I think I have said before the Kalmos in January where the sun is so low in the sky it’s never fully light is a fantastic time to visit Finnish Lapland. Some days the sunrise lasted all day making the ski slopes blush pink throughout the daylights hours. Other days constant twilight persisted sort of a murky turquoise twilight.

    Norway tickled me the wines a spirits section of the supermarkets were surrounded by a sort of cage. The cage could be pulled out to completely lock up the booze and was even built into the ceiling/roofing. I had a chat to one of the security guys who said it was to prevent locals burrowing in or breaking in during the hours the shops were closed. Alcohol abuse being a bit of a problem. Came across one poor guy who had kipped overnight in a bus stop in Helmesdal. How did he not die….suppose the amount of alcohol in his blood could have stopped him freezing! And probably was a very, very long nights boozing….probably only a couple of hours snoozing. They are a remarkable bunch of people that Viking race.

  11. Sounds like a trip of a lifetime. Great that you got to experience it — and so fully, too.

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