Hammerfest is a thirty-hour bus ride from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering. It is on the edge of the world, the northernmost town in Europe, as far from London as London is from Libya, a place of long, hard winters, where the sun sinks into the Arctic Ocean in November and does not surface again till late January.
I wanted to see the Northern Lights. I had also long harboured a curious, half-formed urge to see what life was like in such a remote and cheerless place. Sitting at home in England with a glass of whisky and a book of maps, this had seemed a good idea. But now as I picked my way through the grey, late December slush of Oslo, I was beginning to have doubts.
Things had not started well. I had overslept at the hotel in Oslo, missing breakfast, and had to leap into my clothes. I couldn’t find a cab and had to drag my absurdly overweighted bag eight blocks through slush to the central bus station. (Knowing that I was about to spend three weeks in a land of darkness, I had packed masses of books and reading material, and a generous quantity of leftover Christmas foodstuffs as insurance against discovery that the diet of northern Norway was centred on herring and blubber.) I had had huge difficulty persuading the staff at the Kreditkassen Bank on Karl Johans Gate to cash sufficient traveller’s cheques to pay the extortionate 1,200-kroner bus fee – they could not be made to grasp that the William McGuire Bryson on my passport and the Bill Bryson on my traveller’s cheques were one and the same person – and now here I was arriving at the station two minutes before departure, breathless and steaming from the endless uphill exertion that is my life, and the girl at the ticket counter was telling me that she had no record of my reservation.