Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: Tristan Jones's Ice

Imagine you go into a pub in the wrong end of the wrong sort of town.

It's a rough crowd that go silent at the sight of soft city folk like you. You persevere, going to the bar to order, but to break the tension you offer the man standing there a drink.

He's lean, not ancient like the famous mariner, but tough, scarred with gnarled hands: he has been around the block, seen sights you wouldn't want nightmares about, with tough eyes that, though they have judged you as being weak and unworthy, have a twinkle in them too.

He starts to talk, telling amazing stories of a three legged dog called Nelson, a 34' ex-lifeboat of a yacht and the adventures they had in the high latitude lands and seas of ice. The voice, which has a Welsh lilt, rises and falls like oceanic swell, telling every more extraordinary yarns, so extreme that you would doubt them but dare not say so, fearful.

That's what it felt like reading Tristan Jones's classic "Ice": it was incredible, almost unbelievable, and that was the problem. For Jones has a reputation of mixing fact with fiction, but where could the dividing line be?

Of course there could be advantages to this mix when he writes about lifting gear needed for his boat from Admiralty yards and smuggling whisky into France, so that he has grounds to tell the authorities "I made it up, guv". But there is a counter thought: if this is what he's prepared to admit to, what else did he do?

It is certainly entertaining, as he stocks up with many years of food and heads north via West Ireland and Scotland to Iceland, Greenland and points north. He climbs the mast and falls down, circumnavigates Iceland, gets stuck in the ice, encounters polar bears and much more: to tell would give too much away.

There are rants against the English, strong Welsh pride, and a scattering of history that seemed jumbled up. For example the navigation laws of Oleron (12th Century) are described together with the voyage of Pytheas (330 BC), heading up to Thule, which Jones is convinced is Iceland.

I did wonder how he could at times appear to be unaware that icebergs roll over as they do that frequently, and ignoring that risk led to several crises.

So a good read but it left me with questions. What can not be doubted is that Tristan Jones did go to the far north in a small boat and he wrote a remarkably readable book on his return.

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