Monday, April 8, 2013

Guest Author Quentin Bates

Quentin Bates escaped English suburbia as a teenager, jumping at the chance to spend a pre-university gap year working in the far wild west of Iceland in the days before faxes had been invented, let alone email. For a variety of reasons, the gap year turned into a gap decade, during which he went native, working as a netmaker, factory hand and as a trawlerman. Returning to England, complete with a family acquired in Iceland, he fell largely by accident into journalism and from there it was a long hop and a sidestep into fiction.

His series of novels so far feature Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, a down-to-earth police officer who has faced an escalating series of challenges in Frozen Out (Frozen Assets in the US) and Cold Comfort.

The latest in the series, Chilled to the Bone, appears this month in the UK, through the good offices of  C&R Crime and will be published by Soho in the US later this year.

Here's Quentin, with a post he entitles:

Remembering Beer Day

‘It should be banned. Simple as that,’ he said, mind firmly made up on the issue.
My friend, an alcoholic who followed ten mad, self-destructive years with twenty (and counting) dry ones, has strong views.
We were talking about booze. His attitude says much about the Icelandic view of alcohol, as well as the attitude to rules and regulations. Drinking is something the Nordic countries do well. It’s is an extraordinarily popular pastime and the Nordic nations have some odd (to some eyes) ideas about alcohol.
When I first went to Iceland in the 1970s there were only half a dozen shops in the whole country that sold alcohol, plus a handful of hotels that had licences to sell shots of the hard stuff at wallet-crippling prices. Although there are now more of the shops run by ÁTVR, the state-owned tobacco and alcohol monopoly, and they’ve been smartened up to resemble supermarkets rather than the Soviet-style shops they were thirty years ago, they are still, supposedly, the only outlets for anyone who wants to stock up for a party.
Back then, if you wanted a bottle for the weekend, it meant getting to one of these shops before six on a Friday, or if you were somewhere with no booze shop, ordering a bottle over the phone that you could collect and pay for at your local post office. In winter it could be touch-and-go. If the roads were snowed over and the post delayed, the dreaded spectre of a dry weekend could loom over many an isolated village.
Iceland’s hang-ups about alcohol stem partly from US-style prohibition in the early part of the 20th century that presumably seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn’t last. This was partly because it didn’t stop people finding other ways to get a drink, and also because Spanish traders wanted to sell wine in exchange for buying Icelandic salted cod.

The Spanish and Portuguese wanted the saltfish, but they also wanted to sell wine. So prohibition didn’t last in Iceland. In any case, moonshine and smuggling had been rife.

So alcohol was allowed again, but gradually. First there was wine, then spirits made a re-appearance. Then came the war that brought with it foreign soldiers and officers who expected a drink. By the 1980s, the shelves of the booze shops had pretty much everything  – but with one glaring exception. Iceland was a beer-free country; a sore burden for an expatriate Brit with a liking for a pint.
By the end of the 80s, Icelanders had become fed up with their beerlessness. Bars began selling ‘mock beer’ in the form of piss-weak ‘pilsner’ (A peculiar Nordic brew), blended with shots of something stronger. The ban had become eminently pointless and soon enough Parliament had to lumber into gear. After a long and tedious debate, beer became legal.

Pilsner low enough in alcohol to be sold in ordinary shops is available in Iceland. In spite of the name, it bears little resemblance to the magnificent golden nectar that comes from Pilzen and which gives pilsner its name.

Beer Day was the 1st of March 1989 and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on a course in Reykjavík and the city went wild. There were cans of beer everywhere. The poor guy who was teaching us on the Navigation College’s antique radar simulators repeatedly had to go and lie down.
Then it was all over. As if fingers had been snapped, life went back to normal and Icelanders acclimatized to having beer. The drinking culture has changed, and not in the way that beer’s opponents had predicted. From what those old-fashioned politicians had told Icelanders, allowing beer would be the end of the line, the country would simply wallow in a non-stop spree of drunkenness and depravity. Did they really expect that to happen? Did those old boys really have such a low opinion of their fellow countrymen?
None of that has happened. It didn't take long for a pub culture to flourish in Iceland. Before that the idea of a quiet couple of jars was enough to make people look at you as if you had two heads. Either you were drinking or you weren't  There was no point keeping the cap for that bottle, as nobody was going to stop until it was empty.

Icelandic liquor, or Brennivín. It’s the cheapest booze available legally. The uninviting black label was supposedly intended to deter people from drinking it. Although it’s consumed at winter festivals alongside traditional food, it’s mostly sold to tourists and those who are more interested in the effects than the taste. The other bottle is a liquorice vodka concoction, based on a chewy sweet that has been popular for many years. It’s not something for an empty stomach and it comes in a back-pocket-friendly plastic bottle.

These days the traditional Icelandic binge boozer, touring the country for a week at a time with a pocketful of cash in a taxi with a crate of liquor in the boot and the meter running, is species verging on extinction. Contrary to what had been predicted, Icelanders can have a quiet couple of beers without needing to stay out until dawn or break windows.

Iceland imports beer and also has several breweries producing decent stuff in plenty of different styles.

Now Iceland is in the odd situation of verging on prohibition once again. The financial crash of 2008 resulted in increased taxes all round, which includes the duty on booze. Beer isn't cheap, and a round will send shooting pains through your wallet, but it’s the hard stuff that is beyond affordable. A litre of legal, state-supplied vodka will set you back an eye-watering $55 or €40.

Cardamom or lemon essence drops, used for baking and available in supermarkets, are a fall-back option for hard-core drinkers.

So private enterprise has taken over. A litre of decent-quality moonshine, brewed and distilled in someone’s garage or barn costs around a third of that, so it’s no surprise that production of illegal, home-made hooch has become a thriving cottage industry now that the state-run suppliers have effectively priced themselves out of the market. In fact, moonshine, known as landi (along with its popular and actually less profitable stablemate, growing dope in the attic) has become a booming cottage industry run by sharp entrepreneurs who do their market research, take pride in their work, deliver on time and to order.

You can even buy a still legally. But it’ll come with a disclaimer that the warranty is void if it’s used for distilling anything other than water. I’d guess that this still, which runs pretty much all day and every day, has never been used to distill water.

What’s blindingly clear is that where there’s a demand, someone will meet it and turn a healthy buck in the process. It seems that a ban, whether on the statute books or a de facto version, is great for business.


  1. Between Yrsa with the sheep's head and you with the booze, Quentin, I can hardly wait for CrimeFest!

  2. If Yrsa doesn't bring any scourged sheep head, then I won't bring any brennivín...

  3. And panic spread like wildfire through the flock...

  4. OK - I'll bring a head or two.... Or testicle pate....Rotten eggs from Mývatn perhaps?

  5. I just saw that a couple of your Southern Africa cohorts have a new book coming out later this month. I'm excited!