Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Iceland: Days 1 & 2 - Bjork, Banks & Boyle

Surreal start to the trip as I noticed that the music, as we boarded the plane to Reykavik, was an obscure Bjork track. I then sat down next to film director Danny Boyle, so watch out for some weird locations in his next movie.

As for us, why Iceland? First, one son’s yomping across the Peak District, the other’s in France on a school exchange; 4-2=2 free adults. Second, anyone who comes to stay with us will notice that I have a house full of rocks. Since a child I’ve loved geology, so it’s been a lifelong ambition to visit Iceland, as it's full of rocks. I can still remember Surtsey rising from the ocean to form a new island and was trapped for a week Miami (a blessing really) when the recent volcano blew its top.

Iceland is the half-caste child of two violent parents who have been drifting apart for some time; half American, half Eurasian. It sits astride the North Atlantic Ridge and as the two plates separate, lava floods up to form, layer upon layer. This has its advantages as you can sit in tropically blue geothermal waters even in Winter, watch scalding hot geysers spurt 60 odd feet into the air (original geyser is in Geysir) and the water that gushes from all taps in Iceland is pure spring water. This is hard rock geology – then again there’s lazing about in the Blue Lagoon.

Then there are the banks. I was curious to find out what happened here.

Iceland: Day 2 Geysirs, volcanoes and plate tectonics

Iceland’s bigger than I thought, about the size of England – there’s a surprise. But only 320,000 people live here, that’s not much bigger than Brighton & Hove. And they run an entire country. David, an Englishman who has lived here for 15 years, has an interesting take on the island. When he first came here it was like living in an East European country, with little in the way of luxuries. Iceland hadn’t moved much in the Industrial Revolution and was still largely a fishing island, so everything was smuggled in on Russian trawlers. There were only a couple of makes of TV, both Eastern European, and luxuries were few and far between. He remembers when brussell sprouts hit the island and everyone rushed out to buy them – bit of a disappointment that one. But fish became a valuable commodity and the island prospered.

When banks go bonkers

Then something odd happened, the fishermen found banking. It’s a small country, lightly regulated, so the bankers, in cahoots with the politicians and regulators, went mad with greed. It’s an Icelandic Saga that will go down in history. In fact it’s already been well documented in their 2000 page Special Investigative Report (a bestseller in Iceland).

Everyone at the top was in on the greed game; the former Prime Minister Haarde, Finance Minister Mathieson, Business minister Sigurdsson were all deemed to have been negligent, ignoring advice and warnings. Their Central bank Governors, along with the head of the so-called Regulatory Authority were also judged to be negligent.

It gets worse. Many member of parliament (ten in total, seven from the right-wing Independence Party) had personal loans of over half a million sterling from the banks. The Education Minister had loans of $13.4 million (she has since resigned). The President, Grimmson was also in on the act and was pushing all the time for more and more risk.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the majority owners of the largest banks were also their largest debtors. Glitnor, Kaupthing and Landsbanki were overextended to their own owners and up to their necks in corruption. It would seem that the banks were run like a fishing fleet, with owners trawling out massive amounts of cash, plundering the banks and depleting the reserves. Unfortunately, the fish stocks ran out.

This Saturday, Iceland goes to the polls to decide whether to go on with a £2.35 billion agreement to pay back UK Icesave depositors (Landsbanki), that was bailed out by the IMF. It’s neck and neck, and if it’s a NO, and I saw plenty of NO stickers on the backs of cars, it goes to court and the whole international finance system will be under pressure. What a mess.

Hot water and heavy metal

OK, back to the land itself. We set off early in falling snow, but were soon in sunnier climes (the weather changes every five minutes here) driving through rugged, crumbly lava fields to the large geothermal power station that supplies the whole of Reykjavik with hot water. The steam is used to drive turbines which pump the water at 85 degrees to the top of a mountain and it flows down to the city under pressure to taps in every house. They’re world leaders in this type of technology. There’s even a hydrogen fuel station going into Rekjavik where you get the fuel for free.

Then to a volcano with a water filled crater, well frozen water, filled crater. These things blow their top then collapse back in on themselves when the magma chamber empties. After this we drove on to the Gullfoss Waterfall. Now we’ve all seen lots of waterfalls, but if you stood on the edge of this one, it is gut wrenching, as the glacial water boomed into a dark chamber. One curious sight was a heavy metal band (getting on in years) who were posing, legs akimbo, for some photographs and a video on the edge of the waterfall. Boys will always be boys.

Then off to the geysers, which hissed into action every four minutes or so. The mantle’s very close to the surface here and as you see the water dome up and explode into the air, you can feel it breath.

But the next site was what I was looking forward to, a zone where you can see the two plates tear the earth apart. The whole process is laid bare here, with the American plate visible as a cliff on the West side, and stepped cracks and cliffs all the way across a 7 kilometre valley to the Eurasian plate. It’s moving apart at an average of 2.5 cm a year. This was the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament, where disputes were settled and punishments meted out. A few bankers and politicians could be bagged up and drowned here methinks.

David had another take on the Icelanders, They never give way,” he said, “at road junctions, on the pavement, in shop doorways…even in business. They rarely back down”. I thought again of the bankers and politicians.

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