Books Geography Photography

An illustrated journey to Svalbard

This is a charming travelogue.


(You have to click through for the real polar bears.)

North is a travelogue of illustrations and photographs detailing Christoph Niemann’s journey to Svalbard as part of a National Geographic cruise (which looks ace but also seriously out of my price range).

Had you asked me about Svalbard a month ago I would’ve told you about the home of the Panserbjørne, about those two episodes of Fortitude I watched before I forgot it was a thing, and how its name comes from 12th Century Icelandic records of islands visited by Vikings that may not actually be Svalbard.

Now, however, fresh from reading Prisoners of Geography it’s all about fishing territory, coal mining (or not), and the scramble for the Arctic.

Most countries and international organisations recognize the islands as being under (limited) Norwegian sovereignty, but the biggest island, Svalbard, formerly know as Spitsbergen, has a growing population of Russian migrants who have assembled around the coal-mining industry there. The mines are not profitable, but the Russian community serves as a useful tool in furthering Moscow’s claims on all of the Svalbard islands. At a time of Russia’s choosing it can raise tensions and justify its actions using geological claims and the “facts on the ground” of the Russian population.

It’s a genuinely fascinating read, I had no idea the extent to which Russia and China maneuvre their population en masse into foreign or disputed territories, or the importance of warm water ports. It was written pre-Brexit/Trump but with speculation on what could happen if UK or US foreign policy changed which adds an extra layer of interest.

Me People

If Britain were 100 people

So… pretty much everyone is white!

My parents are immigrants. But they’re the sort of immigrant that’s ok nowadays (there was a time they really weren’t): we’re white, English-speaking, our names aren’t too tricky to say or spell; there are plenty of ‘more foreign’ targets. Unless I point out to anyone that I’m the first generation to be born in Britain no-one is any the wiser.

My neighbours are Indian. Well, actually they’re not, most of them are British. There are three children all born in Britain, as was their mum, and their Dad is from Punjab. There are also a lot of retirees on my street. I used to talk to them when I was gardening out front or walking to the shop but I don’t any more. It turns out they aren’t happy that there’s a brown family on our street. Our street where virtually everyone is white (there’s a Colombian lass a couple of doors down and a black guy at the end of the street plus my neighbours). But apparently that’s too many. And because I’m white (and probably British, right?) I must agree with them. “They don’t belong here”, “they should go back to their mud huts”, “it’s not right”. They’re all smiles when they see my neighbours, but they must feel so sorry for me having to live next door to them, that’s why they feel the need to come over and utterly mis-empathize with me, right? When I tell them that I couldn’t disagree more they act like I have been outrageously rude to them.

All the nationalist, xenophobic shit the government is trying to pull at the minute is terrifying. Genuinely terrifying. That people can happily scapegoat immigration to the degree they have beggars belief.

When I was kid I loved learning history but back then I didn’t understand that you learned these things in order to avoid the mistakes of the past and to understand why the world is the way it is. I honestly don’t know what happens now, so many people in this country feel wronged or let down, and appealing to their most base, racist beliefs will work. It will always work. There’s no credible opposition. I don’t know what happens.


John Oliver on Brexit

As always, John Oliver is spot on.