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Notes from an author: DBC Pierre on drama, exploration and freedom in Norway’s High Arctic

The Svalbard archipelago, staging point for many expeditions to the North Pole, is a place of extremes. But there’s something going on here that isn’t in the literature: an elusive freedom that empowers, and a love of community that inspires.

By DBC Pierre
Published 9 Aug 2020, 08:05 BST, Updated 11 May 2021, 16:24 BST
Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre's new novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, was released 4 August 2020 ...

Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre's new novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, was released 4 August 2020 with Faber. 

Photograph by Sarah Lee

Pilots billowed across the snow at Tromsø in northern Norway. They’d blast this 737 up through an icy twilight that turned to night at lunchtime, quivering through more dimensions than I thought there were. The captain said to the cabin, “Things are different in the Arctic.” He wasn’t a comedian but the kind of doughty tugboat skipper that dealt with typhoons the way a grandad wrangles a toddler. “Turbulence might be different than you’re used to,” he said as we left the Eurasian landmass.

This is a scheduled flight, weather permitting, and there are snow boots and parkas and fur trim around, and a buzz: the buzz of explorers, although we’re drinking coffee on a 737. We add milk and sugar — explorers need all the energy they can get — and fly 90 minutes north over the Norwegian and Greenland Seas to the northernmost place on Earth this plane can land: a runway laid on permafrost at Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, staging point for the pole. The sun won’t rise here for another month, but there’s a Moon outside that doesn’t seem to set, spinning a tight little halo for days. I’m with a small gang and we scratch ‘northernmost’ from our vocabulary: it now applies to everything.

It’s my third time in the high Arctic in as many years, and time to wonder why. As the plane roars down like Thor between a snowy escarpment and an ice-filled sea, I add up the place’s attractions: it’s minus 20 degrees, you have to carry guns to wander off-road, as there are one-and-a-half polar bears for every person here, and it’s night for another month.

But something else is going on that isn’t in the literature, and I try to pin it down. The outpost itself is like the approaches to a toy box, a scattering of blocks in a valley between escarpments where the avalanche risk always seems to be considerable. There’s a permanent hum of generators, the glow of lamps on snow, a buzz of snowmobiles, plucky sled dogs. And there’s tourism — you’re welcome here, there’s cuisine and some bars and a cool museum, there’s dog sledding, snowmobiling and a place that does moose burgers.

So there’s serious next-level Arcticness, with dog parking and Nunavut fur on sale (as the shop window says: ‘All the polar bears in this shop are already dead, please leave your weapon with the staff’). But after a trip or two up the main drag dressed like Roald Amundsen, I came to wonder why I felt so good, even grateful to be Roald Amundsen on his day off. And what I felt, I think, in the humming silence, the powdery chill, the bright white night, was freedom.

Sure, I was far away from the world and its churning societies, but I could do that without polar bears. Something else was at play, and looking closer I saw it was a human community that functioned implausibly well. A place where doors were left unlocked in case you spotted a bear, a place without immigration controls, where you could come from anywhere and stay for as long as your money lasted.

Governed by Norway under treaty, and shared with Russia, Svalbard is a place where you get along by your own good nature and sense, writes DBC Pierre. 

Photograph by Getty Images

What I’d found here was the model for a community on Mars, or better yet: for a community on Earth. Although governed by Norway under treaty, and shared with Russia, Svalbard is a place where you get along by your own good nature and sense. A global mix of scientists, miners, students and service workers keeps the place intelligent and tolerant, and the one cardinal rule — come healthy and don’t die here, as there are no cemeteries in permafrost, and the clinic is for emergencies — means it’s also young and fit. It’s a population of 2,428 souls who don’t need binding by law after law, rule after rule; they don’t need telling who to be, and why. Take your boots off at the door so you don’t tramp snow through our place, is about as prescriptive as it gets. That and: Please don’t bring guns into the bank. What I could feel was that aggregated freedom.

Common sense reigns here and it’s shocking how fresh it feels.

The top of the mountain beside the town begins to glow. Emerald green plumes fly off it and trail overhead till they’re lost in the light of the Moon. Northern Lights — the reason I first came. Boots and parkas and gloves go on for the umpteenth time, we go out and gaze up at the lights, and I think: I don’t even know what time it is. Or care. If it’s night-time in Svalbard, it could be Monday back home.

DBC Pierre is the author of Vernon God Little, his debut novel, which won the MAN Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2003. His latest novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, is published by Faber. 

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