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Copyright Š Edward Hancox 2013. Cover image designed by Kit Foster Designs and copyrighted to the author. The right of Edward Hancox to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the copyright holder. Some passages of this work by the author have previously been published online by Iceland Review. They have been reproduced here with their kind agreement.


The following chapter is an addition to Iceland, Defrosted, by Edward Hancox, published by SilverWood Books in July 2013.


Edward Hancox: Hvalreki

Hvalreki

On the Reykjanes peninsula in south-western Iceland a man lies on the bare rock. His face is pressed against his rifle, one eye closed as he concentrates. A lit cigarette balances between his lips. He takes aim. Below, the cold sea is churning over and over, as a female on the beach falls to her knees. Blood spatters from her head on to the rock beneath her. She puts a hand up to her face, which is streaked with both blood and tears. Meanwhile, a flame-haired siren is walking on the same beach, secretly calling each party to action. This isn’t the scene of one of Iceland’s infrequent murders (there are only 1.5 a year on average, despite what Nordic crime authors would have you believe), it’s the latest music video from ÍRiS, a breathtakingly talented songstress from Reykjavík. She produces sultry, elegant music with a sharp edge. She is the siren and her real name is Íris Hrund Þórarinsdóttir. Iris agreed to meet me in the Laundromat Bar on Austurstræti in the centre of Reykjavík. I was quite nervous about the meeting. Not only is Íris gorgeous, gifted and 1


Edward Hancox: Hvalreki

slightly intimidating, but I’m not really a journalist. I have never been trained in how to interview up-and-coming pop stars and there is always the risk that my mind will stop working and my tongue will just start flapping around on its own. I’m just interested in Iceland and the way it produces the most amazing musicians, and whether the concept of celebrity exists there. When she arrived – I’d been there for seemingly ages – she ordered the usual Icelandic black coffee, despite the sun beating down on the street outside. She flipped up her oversized sunglasses and pushed them into her red hair. I launched, somewhat uncouthly, into my questions. ‘Where in Iceland are you from?’ ‘I come from Reykjavík, simply, although my family tree can also be traced elsewhere.’ I tried a different tack. ‘The idea of “celebrity” seems not to exist in Iceland. Everyone seems to be on an equal footing, and yet creativity is celebrated. Why do you think this is?’ ‘Well, for the celebrity part I can’t answer. But for the creativity, I have my theory. In my opinion, there is a very doit-yourself kind of atmosphere here in Iceland. Most artists are independent and new acts can in most cases find a venue. I have never felt limitations or barriers as an independent artist. 2


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It’s hard work but if you want to, there is no one stopping you. It’s a small community, so putting your work out there seems like an approachable idea. Although that could also set you up for criticism, since everybody knows everybody. But that’s a risk worth taking, in my opinion.’ ‘Where have you been until now?’ I asked. ‘Here and there – Sweden, France and Iceland mostly. I have been wanting to go away again for some time now, but Iceland always seems to have some reason to hold on to me. I guess I feel very connected to this place. But my mind definitely wanders abroad.’ ‘Your new album is called Penumbra: what does that mean? It doesn’t sound like an Icelandic word.’ ‘The name is far from being Icelandic, true. But since all but one of the songs on the album are in English, I felt that an English title would be fitting. While recording Penumbra I explored various musical contrasts by mixing together traditional instruments such as cello and piano with more contemporary electronic sounds; I also experimented with the full range of sounds available from both instruments and items found in everyday life. From this process the title of the album was born, Penumbra, which stands for the region

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where complete shadow and illumination meet, where musical contrasts connect.’ She lost me there, at that last point. I just smiled and nodded along. It didn’t matter though. Íris makes some of the best alternative pop music, and has one of the best voices I’ve heard in Iceland. I just had one more question for her, as she drained the last of her coffee. ‘If it’s not rude to ask, who else should I try and catch while I’m here?’ ‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘Pascal Pinon are touring churches around Iceland. They are excellent.’ I made a mental note, wished Íris all the best and stopped trying to be at one with cool Icelandic musicians. I dashed out into the sunshine, checking my phone to see where Pascal Pinon were performing. Back in the video, Íris walks along the sea shore, placing footsteps in the wet black sand. Sirens don’t exist, of course. It’s not possible to lure sailors to their deaths by enchanting songs. If it was, Íris would have blood on her hands. ❄❄❄ I could spend my life in Reykjavík, meeting people like Íris, sipping black coffee. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it; 4


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but now? I was in Iceland only for a short while, like one of those migratory birds that keeps getting blown back there. I headed back to where I was staying for the night, thinking that I must make the best out of the trip. The next morning, as I travelled out of Reykjavík on Route 1, I had only a vague idea about where I was going, but sometimes, and especially in Iceland, it’s good to keep it vague. Planning too much, I find, can be counterproductive. I had my phone, should I get lost completely, my swimming kit, should any unexpected hot pots need diving into, and my pen. I’d kind of given up on my camera; the images I’ve taken in Iceland have turned out to be disappointment after disappointment. It’s not me – I worked out how to remove my finger from the lens some time ago – just that the images never match up to the extraordinary beauty I’m trying to capture. I headed towards the Reykholt area, to a place called Fljótstunga, in the middle of nowhere. I’d been told it was magical and it was: a gorgeous little farm perched on a hill. I approached via a short, rough track dotted with occasional spindly trees and populated by ubiquitous Icelandic horses. It’s a working farm, although it has diversified and now hires out Scandinavian wooden cottages right next to the lava 5


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fields, among low bushes that will bear berries come autumn. Right now, though, it was summer. This meant that the grass glowed a vivid green and although a fine rain hung in the air, there was every chance it might turn out to be as burning hot as the previous day. I was in Fljótstunga to go underground. Yes, the Clash song was on repeat in my head, like some kind of punning psychological tick. I am English, and some songs are just in your DNA. There are plenty of places where you can go underground in Iceland. The country is riddled with lava tubes, dormant volcanoes and mysterious unclassified caves that are the stuff of legend; some were even lived in and feature in renowned works of literature. There are companies in Reykjavík that will take you and your wallet deep underground straight from your plush hotel, promising a great adventure. There is a dormant volcano that can be entered on a contraption seemingly borrowed from the window washers of Manhattan’s tallest towers. I wanted something a little more organic, a little less popular, and a lot less expensive. Enter Fljótstunga. The owners of the farm are the custodians of Víðgelmir, a massive lava cave that’s 1.585 kilometres long and up to 16.5 metres wide and 15.8 metres high. It is by far the largest of all known 6


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lava caves in Iceland and no one has ever traversed its full length. Speleologists consider it one of the most remarkable caves on earth. Deep

inside

there

are

many

well-preserved

lava

formations. Bones and jewellery from the year AD 1100 have been found in some of them, believed to have been from previous inhabitants, one of whom was apparently a thieving female warrior. The entrance to Víðgelmir is a short distance from the farm, where the green meadows have given way to the sharp mess of a lava field. A portion of the cave roof has collapsed, leaving a hole the size of several cars. A rusty ladder was affixed to the side of the aperture, which I nervously climbed down. This led to a ‘path’ across the shattered volcanic rocks. As I clambered down the steep, slippery rocks into the darkness and gloom, the guide helpfully pointed out that the rope handhold was for guidance only; it wouldn’t hold my weight in the event of a fall. In the nooks into which sunlight could still penetrate, moss and lichen had started to flourish, but as the darkness encroached, this gave way to dark, sombre rock. The lava tube itself was covered in what appeared to be thick melted chocolate, although it was actually hard and brittle. The smell was of damp, stale air. 7


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We continued through an alarming locked gate, which is apparently for locking people out, not for confining people inside the subterranean prison. The guide then extinguished all the light sources in the cave. This had an amazing effect on my senses. Being enveloped in complete, absolute darkness is an experience in itself. I could see nothing at all, with not a single pinprick of light to activate my retinas. Instead, my hearing took over. I could hear my own breathing, and the sound of blood rushing through my ears. But more than that, I could hear the dripping of water from the cave roof. On entering the cave, I’d barely been aware of the droplets of water, save for the ones that hit me squarely on the back of the neck and dribbled coolly down my spine. Without light though, the drips performed a cacophonous symphony, alternating between slow and soft, hard and fast. It sounded like the most divine xylophone, played by a psychotic mouse. I’m told that the dripping has been recorded by artists. I’m not surprised. The surprises kept on coming though. Around the corner, I was confronted with a partial collapse of the cave, which had created a sharp rubbly slope up to the roof. It held one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. A mass of spiky tentacles of ice pointed upwards to where they had fallen from. These 8


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jumbled sculptures were made of ice, and were glistening white. Even in July, they remained there in the cold depths of the cave. Ice can close the cave entirely in the harshest winters. Some say that the ice formations are a city lived in by elves, but I think it’s too cold for your average elf. I was shuddering, not just with the cold, but at the sheer beauty of that forest of inverted icicles, catching the illumination from my torch beam and refracting light like the most expensive diamonds. It was utterly, utterly spellbinding. ❄❄❄ Back above ground, the sun had poked through the clouds. After my eyes readjusted, I got behind the wheel of my rental car and just sat for a while. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just seen. I was smiling to myself. I glanced to my left, and three puzzled-looking sheep were staring back at me. In their eyes, I saw them trying to figure out why a human was sitting in a small white car, smiling demonically to himself. Icelandic sheep, like most things Icelandic, are a breed apart. Pretty much isolated since their introduction to Iceland by Vikings over a thousand years ago, they now outnumber their human compatriots. There are 475,000 of them, to a mere 320,00 Icelanders. Sheep have always been hugely 9


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important to Icelanders, providing food, milk and warmth. It’s no surprise that one of the Icelandic words for sheep (fé) is also a slang term for money. Icelandic sheep come in myriad colours, up to thirty variations in total, although my favourite has to be the ‘badger face’. What an excellent name for a sheep – and it is exactly as it sounds. Although now bred mainly for their meat, the sheep produce high-quality wool, chiefly to combat the extremities of the Icelandic weather. It’s a dual coat, made up of the coarser, weatherproof tog, and the finer, warmer þel. Both are used in the production of the most Icelandic of garments, the lopapeysa. Naturally, the sheep are extremely hardy: in the exceptionally harsh winter storms of 2012, sheep were buried in metres of snow. Everyone assumed they had perished, but they were being discovered some forty-five days later, still alive although in need of some TLC. For this reason, a lot of Icelandic sheep now carry a book with them. No, not really. Icelandic lamb is delicious. I think that’s down to all the exercise they get, the unspoilt, clean landscape they inhabit, and the fresh Icelandic water and juicy green grass they consume. I was intrigued to see that Ólöf Arnalds, the Icelandic chanteuse, had posted a recipe for her very own 10


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kjötsúpa (lamb soup) on her blog. I decided to give it a go. It was very tasty, I have to say. I’m not one for the more obscure lamb products eaten by Icelanders – svið (boiled and singed lamb’s head), I’m looking at you. The problem, I guess, is that svið is looking right back at me. I prefer tender joints of lamb on the barbecue. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Icelandic sheep also produce their own leaders. Insert your own ‘leader sheep’ joke here. Called forystufé, they are highly intelligent creatures, able to lead their flocks out of danger and back home. They are said to be leaner, fitter, have longer legs, and even ‘intelligent eyes’. I think I would be a forystufé, come to think of it. In May, once they’ve lambed, Icelandic sheep are sent out to the lush mountain pastures where they can roam free for a few months. When autumn arrives, they are rounded up by farmers on horseback in a process known as réttir. This involves the whole community and is usually completed in a day. The sheep are all herded into a circular wooden sheepfold and then separated out to their owners, identified by unique ear markings. The sheep, not the farmers. The whole day is something of a celebration, with coffee and cake served to the farmers in the afternoon (how very civilised), and a party in the evening (not so much). 11


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Each year, the Sheep Farming Museum in Hólmavík holds a very unusual competition. It’s the Icelandic Championship in Ram Groping. Participants have to rank rams by taking a feel of their assets. The winner receives a specimen of prizewining sperm. It’s not a competition I’ll be entering anytime soon. ❄❄❄ Leaving the sheep of Víðgelmir, I spun the car round and drove off down the dirt track, sending up powerful and, dare I say it, sexy plumes of dust behind me – which would have been both powerful and sexy had I been driving something that wasn’t the same size as a shopping trolley and powered by a lawn-mower engine. I was off to go waterfall spotting. Is there such thing as a waterfall spotter? There should be. Hraunfossar (Lava Falls) and Barnafoss (Children’s Falls) were only 5 kilometres away, which meant I had to visit them. I overshot them on the first attempt. Probably due to all the power under the bonnet, but also because they were half obscured by a dense scree of scrub that had taken full advantage of the wet summer. On arrival, I was pleased that I’d made the effort. Sure, there are more spectacular waterfalls across Iceland (see Dettifoss, Skógafoss et al.), but 12


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Hraunfossar is something else. Not really a waterfall, but a series of small tumbles in parallel. The Hallmundarhraun lava field drops by a metre or so across approximately 900 metres, meaning that a line of waterfalls suddenly appears and trickles beautifully into the bright aquamarine Hvítá river. The falls are brilliant white and with the river being such a dramatic blue, it was quite surreal, as if viewed in HD. People began turning up all around me, and some bright spark had set up a sandwich stall. I didn’t mind sharing the site, but I fervently hope it doesn’t get spoilt. Barnafoss (or as some would have it, Bjarnafoss) is just a few hundred metres away. It’s the same Hvítá river, but nothing like as serene. These falls are squeezed through a dark lava canyon, causing the blue water to thrash around on itself, like your worst nightmare fairground log flume. Water spray hung in the air. It wasn’t the only thing hanging in the air there, either. The place was tinged with sadness. Barnafoss is named after two children who, according to local folklore, were left to play at home one Christmas while their parents attended Christmas Mass. For some reason, the children decided to leave the farm and follow their parents, taking a shortcut across this very stretch of river, over a natural rocky archway. The footsteps in the snow ended there, and it is 13


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believed that they plunged to their deaths. The archway was destroyed soon after; some say that the children’s mother put a spell on it, others that it was demolished by an earthquake. Either way, no one could survive the ferocious, heaving water beneath. A second, smaller natural bridge across the falls still stands, and I hope that history does not repeat itself. On the way back to the car, several children were licking ice lollies and running circles around the car park, unaware of the events that happened just a short distance away. They were those tubular, sticky orange lollies full of E-numbers, so I guess that explained their behaviour. ❄❄❄ I pressed on. I’d checked my phone (is there anywhere in Iceland that doesn’t have a signal these days?) and found that Pascal Pinon, the band that Iris had recommended to me, were playing a concert in a church in Grundarfjörður that night. My new-found blasé attitude to travel dictated that I must go, so I pointed my golf-cart with a roof westwards, in the direction of Snæfellsnes. En route, I passed Kolgrafafjörður. This is a long but crooked fjord that cuts deep into the northern flank of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. In 2004, a bridge, partially constructed 14


Edward Hancox: Hvalreki

from landfill, was built to span the fjord, which may or may not be part of the problem. I should say at this point that Kolgrafafjörður is usually teeming with wildlife: birdlife is abundant there, even killer whales and dolphins have been spotted. However, in December 2012 tragedy struck the fjord. Thirty thousand tonnes of herring washed up on the fjord’s shores. This created a thick, silvery carpet of decaying fish that was initially a food bonanza for opportunistic birds but soon became a smelly, dirty eyesore for concerned local residents. Various reasons were put forward: the landfill bridge, low oxygen levels in the water, a sharp cold snap freezing fish in the shallows. But no one was really sure. If that wasn’t enough, the whole damn thing happened again in February 2013. This time, 22,000 tonnes of deceased herring were found. Cue photographs of locals standing knee-deep in fish, and religious websites marking this as the start of the coming apocalypse. I was glad they’d all disappeared before my visit. I’d hate to have seen such a sight. It seemed that Grundarfjörður was near to nowhere. Somehow, I still can’t quite get my head around distances in Iceland. Places that seem relatively near on the map take forever to get to. Maybe it’s the winding roads, or that vortex

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that flummoxes us Brits when we convert kilometres to miles. I continued west from Kolgrafafjörður anyway. Grundarfjörður, home to just under a thousand people, was hosting Pascal Pinon that night. Pascal Pinon is an Icelandic band centred around twin sisters Ásthildur and Jófríður – not to be confused with the twentieth-century Tex-Mex ‘twoheaded’ freakshow act in the US. They make sublime, exquisite music – the sisters, not the two-headed fella – that is both sweet and engaging at the same time. Grundarfjörður sits prettily on a bay on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The mountains above it were still flecked with winter snow but the sea was relatively calm, with no hint of the herring tragedy of a few months earlier. The most arresting sight though was the hulking Kirkjufell – Church Mountain – which sits just out to sea, towering above the town’s attractive, colourful houses. It’s 463 metres high and might just be Iceland’s prettiest mountain. It has deep horizontal striations which the summer had streaked with green. Last time I was there, I downed a cheese burger in town before having my first taste of the dreaded hákarl (fermented shark) at nearby Bjarnarhöfn. I was pleased to see that the little café with views of Kirkjufell was still there, although less pleased to find that the food hadn’t improved 16


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any and that they still insisted on serving paprika rather than vinegar with the chips. It was a good job that the view made everything alright again. Pascal Pinon were performing at Grundarfjarðarkirkja, a delightful church perched on a small knoll above the town. It’s a really lovely building, with white walls, a red roof and a spire pointing up to the aqua-blue sky. I was starting to feel that the journey had been well worth it. I was right. Pascal Pinon were not alone on their jaunt around Iceland, which had already taken in other beautiful churches around the country. They were accompanied by Blásaratríó, a woodwind trio of young women who had attended the same music school. Blásaratríó were first on stage, in front of an audience of just thirty people. I was a little concerned, to be honest, that their music might be classically perfect but completely inaccessible. This was particularly the case during the first piece, which included the church organ. I found myself checking my watch. I needn’t have worried, the trio went on to combine bassoon, clarinet and flute to produce beautiful music totally attuned to the surroundings of the church. Furthermore, they didn’t outstay their welcome.

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Pascal Pinon were soon on stage. They appeared relaxed, having clearly benefited from their recent Europe-wide tour with Sin Fang. They started off with gentle, melancholic tunes that reminded me of Mazzy Star, although the exception to this would be the album opener ‘Ekki Vanmeta’; the fuzzy backing loop makes it stand out as one of their best songs. The woodwind trio joined them back on stage, and added depth and warmth to the sisters’ songs, making them ring out into the early evening. Between songs, children could be heard playing outside and gulls cawed as they wheeled around the spire. Highlights for me included the sublime ‘One Thing’, ‘I Wrote a Song’ and ‘Babies’, and the songs that were written for – somewhat bizarrely – Fernando Torres, and, even stranger, Kanye West. The church had filled. Not with the slightly geeky, ubercool music fans that fill every void in Reykjavík, but with townspeople from Grundarfjörður. Whole families had turned out for the performance, which was simultaneously being enjoyed by a granddad with thick grey hairs sticking out of his ears and a young lad who had stopped playing with his red toy car to listen intently. Jófríður’s voice is extraordinary: sweet, soft and yet full of character. I felt myself falling in love with Pascal Pinon’s 18


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music with every song they played. The evening sun was shining through the stained glass windows and ricocheting from the brass candles in the church. By the time they sang the delicious ‘Bloom’, complete with flute solo and that lovely ‘Oh, oh, oh’ refrain from Jófríður, my heart had melted. On the way back to Reykjavík, I wondered briefly if Kanye had ever heard of Grundarfjörður. Probably not. I don’t know if the concept of celebrity exists in Iceland or not: I suspect I’m no closer to finding out. Regardless, there are some seriously talented people in Iceland. Íris and the Pascal Pinon girls go some way to prove this. I can’t help but draw comparisons with Icelandic sheep: a special breed, not only surviving in an environment that should be inhospitable, but thriving in it. I bet that’s the first time Íris has ever been compared to a sheep. The Icelandic term hvalreki literally means beached whale, or a whale that has come ashore. Its other meaning is windfall or jackpot, apparently because, in days of old, Icelanders could use a beached whale for many products and counted each beaching as lucky. As I began my journey back to the UK, I reflected that this latest trip to Iceland, although short,

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had been a hvalreki. It hadn’t been planned, and it had been a truly wonderful gift. ❄❄❄

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Note from the author Iceland, Defrosted is the story of my obsession with the people, places and music of Iceland. Published as a paperback and e-book in July 2013 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the book has taken on a life of its own. It has been taken to heart by Iceland lovers the world over, who want to share in my adventures and read a little more about the secrets of the country they adore so much. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response it’s had. This bonus chapter is both a thank you to those Kickstarter backers and supporters that have already purchased and devoured Iceland, Defrosted, and, hopefully, a tempting introduction to new readers. Takk fyrir!

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About the author Edward Hancox lives in the UK with his wife and small, noisy children but spends as much time as he can in Iceland. Music - especially contemporary Icelandic music - is his other passion. He writes about both subjects for various magazines and websites, including Iceland Review, Atlantica, and the ReykjavĂ­k Grapevine, and on his blog, icelanddefrosted.com. Edward enjoys growing plants, which, not unlike himself, are tall and thin. He has had particular success with bamboo and rhubarb. It is not possible to grow bamboo in Iceland, but rhubarb is surprisingly prevalent.

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Thanks to ÍRiS The author wishes to thank Íris Hrund Þórarinsdóttir for her support during the launch of Iceland, Defrosted. She performed at the London launch at the Embassy of Iceland, and at the launch in a Reykjavík bookshop. She has continued to offer unwavering support, and even proofread this chapter. In return, you should all rush out and by her album, Penumbra. Please see www.irismusiciris.com for further details.

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Praise for Iceland, Defrosted ‘A quirky, easy-reading insight into the country’ – Wanderlust Magazine ‘Get rid of your guidebook immediately and instead bring along Hancox's comical and honest suggestions’ - Iceland Review ‘A deeply personal tale with a warm-hearted focus - National Geographic Traveller Magazine ‘His words have stayed with me and whilst travelling I had a little 'Iceland, Defrosted' voice in the back of my head. Charlotte Theobold, 'Arctic Adventures' ‘Hancox knows his Bjork from his Borko’ - Ólafur Arnalds (musician and composer)

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Iceland, Defrosted: For further information, please see: www.icelanddefrosted.com. Publisher: SilverWood Books Ltd (17 June 2013) ISBN-10: 1781321086 ISBN-13: 978-1781321089 Available from all good bookshops and online, in paperback and ebook formats.

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Iceland, Defrosted Bonus Chapter