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Starlings, Rain and Quoins on Houses

A Short, Self-indulgent Reykjavík Scene Setting

· prose,short post,poetry,Iceland,4 minute read

It’s the middle of July and I’m spending my first summer for many many years in the south of England. I left Iceland about two weeks ago after a month stay. I’m missing it terribly and so I thought it an appropriate time to have a wee think about the last house I lived in, on Bjargarstígur, in Þingholt in downtown Reykjavík.

Downtown has always struck me as a strange way of referring to the middle of the city—known as miðbær [middle-town] in Icelandic—when in British English we use the mundane and far less poetic “city centre”. Downtown to me has always suggested the exotic and exciting. The name carries with it a sense of sophistication and class, the bright lights of the capital city, where artists and novelists rub shoulders with fashion designers in trendy cafés and bars.

The house is—quite unbelievably for the middle of a capital city—semi-detached and wooden. It is also 100 years old, ancient by Icelandic architectural standards, feeling very much at home in one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. Though its construction is wooden, its facade is that distinct Reykjavík classic, corrugated iron. In most of the rest of Europe, this building material looks industrial, neglected or simply cheap. In Reykjavík, however—perhaps because of its often exuberant colour scheme—it appears quaint. Despite the iron, the house's wooden structure can still be seen on the window sashes, doors and corners, architectural features which can, when different from the main building facade, be termed quoins (pronounced coins), an old French term for corner. These quoins serve as stylistic outlines, demarcating shapes such as windows, or, indeed, the shape of a house. On our iron-fronted wooden house on Bjargarstígur, these quoins are blue and differentiate it from the next house, whose wooden quoins are yellow.

To get into the flat, you have to go around the corner from the street and up a short flight of wooden stairs onto a small platform, creating the feeling of a secret hideaway. You have to go round not one but two corners to find it, turning completely back on yourself!

When I first wrote something about the house, I was sitting on a rickety wooden chair in a small patch of grass hidden away in a corner of the garden, secluded from the street and set in a small oasis of green and trees where the backyards of three houses meet, only metres from the city-centre streets but feeling a world away. The table lay beneath the leaves of what I think is a wild cherry tree, its twin trunks rising from the furthest edge of the garden and leaning over the house as if trying to be close to an old friend, some of the uppermost branches almost touching the roof. That this open expanse of urban space is filled only with trees and plants and air means the feeling of seclusion is not one of being hemmed in but of freedom and sky.

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Here in Oxford, we’re in the midst of a record heat wave, so I try to find some relief in the memory of the sound of the rain on the corrugated iron roof. The best kind of rain for listening to, which we seemed to have a lot of when I lived there, is “foreign rain”, the endearing Icelandic term used to describe rain which is very much uncharacteristic, coming straight down in cords rather than horizontally, as is more typically Icelandic. The term is an obvious example of Icelandic’s (and Icelanders’) appreciation for naming the weather and that to recognise, experience and understand something, having a name is important.

Even when the rain has stopped in our house though, it still sometimes sounds like its raining. This is due to the fact that the gutter above our doorstep is a favourite bathing spot for a group of starlings, who send water cascading just in front of our door for several hours after the rain has stopped. In Reykjavík, they love trees such as the one in our yard and when the berries are ripe at the end of summer, they dance on its leaves and have a feast, chattering their delight. There is even a new mural in our neighbourhood displaying such a scene.

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Mural by Arnór Kári and Stefán Óli.

There aren’t so many different species of birds in amongst the buildings of Reykjavík (they are more and various by the sea), though redwings, blackbirds and starlings are all present. Starlings seem to me, in their noisy clusters, indispensable residents of Reykjavík and help me to keep in touch with the non-human world through the seasons. To finish, here is a poem I wrote two summers ago now in which they feature. I was living in Old Vesturbær then, another antique and trendy part of the city, though quieter than its downtown neighbour.


That week in July

when the seeds float like snow

and drift on the lee slopes of grass banks;

and the laburnum’s golden petals

fill the Vesturbær gutters.

Starlings gather on fields and between-places,

their petrol-feathers glinting in unison

as they murmur and shoal.

Every day I pass the same house.

It flares white in new paint,

shines beacon at the crossroads

and is the lighthouse-pin

around which the neighbourhood threads.

The mountain looms,

raised above the city on stilts of trees,

which stand sentinel on streets that curve

downward towards the sea.

And the pedestrian’s head tilts,

gazing vertiginous

at the sky.

The mountain top hovers

above every roof,

its flanks glimpsed in passing,

like sunlight behind trees

in intervalled flashing

on a sunset train.

And in the flashes,

its motley slopes bring colour

to pavements of grey.

Blended like lichen on a stone,

green mosaics into brown and brown into white;

and grass on rock,

and snow on earth,

pierce the urban mind,

shake it from its den,

and end its long hibernation.

Pebbles spin as it raises

its haunches, extends its claws,

grips at the lintel, and breaths free on the wind.

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2022