Archie and The North Wind review
The Scottish Review Of Books
Uneducated and in his late forties, Archie Grierson lives on an island near Skye. He, who grew up listening to local myths and fantastical tales, is compelled to go to the North Pole because he is “tired of the north wind” and seeks to “extinguish it”.
Archie is not driven by “some existential quest” nor because he is an island-dwelling yokel lacking a sense of what’s possible. He equates the North Wind with his nagging wife, who considers him useless. Archie fears his wife is right, and his mission to the Arctic is partly an effort to avoid admitting this. From what we learn about the couple’s life, really it is the wife and an idle son who lead a futile existence.
Archie doubts himself because he no longer feels he belongs, and his working life, faithful to old skills, seems irrelevant now. Campbell is careful to stress that Archie is not clueless about modern technology; he uses credits cards, a mobile phone and Googles for information for his travel plans.
Working his way to the North Pole, Archie is befriended by refugees in Glasgow who are eccentric and outlandish, and at Heathrow he realises survival depends on adapting to new experiences including accepting the foul language of others because this is their way of coping with a hard job.
Those who accompany Archie on his journey are outcasts. He believes all human suffering is a shared knowledge, regardless of time or place. 9/11, Archie knows, was as catastrophic to those it affected as ‘the Great Shaker’ a gale that destroyed most of Archie’s boyhood environment. The further Archie ventures into the wider world, the more his belief in the importance of the stories he grew up hearing is confirmed.
Archie eventually reaches the North Pole, where the tale becomes unpleasantly surreal. He and his companions work for an oil company which creates pointless tasks for its employees in the belief that if everyone is busy they are also content. For Archie and his team of companions this new world they work for is a utopia and beyond any modest achievement they might hope for in life. They are rewarded with every comfort they do not need and earn money they could only dream of. There rewards are justified by a manager who preaches the company’s gospel, a warped interpretation of Isaiah where “instead of grief the Lord is giving them the oil of gladness”.
In contrast, in scathing language, Campbell describes the plundering of the earth’s resources and asks how the planet (or more pointedly, man) will manage without them. He does not condemn necessary progress, only gross and finally self-defeating exploitation.
Paradoxically, the artificial environment of the Arctic factory brings home the point of the true significance of the stories Archie heard in childhood. The oil company representing capitalism is the same monster once slain in those old tales, but now is apparently indestructible.
When Archie learns the answer to where the North Wind springs from, it is not what he expects. His return to his island also challenges the reality of myth versus the myth of reality. Archie sees his wife cutting her toe nails, which she was doing when he left, and given how others react to him, we begin to wonder whether he ever really left the island. To quote T.S. Eliot, Archie realises, “the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”.
Archie and the North Wind will disturb those who prefer conformity in fiction. It has little in common with other examples of contemporary writing. The tale is complex, but told in confident style. Although every page is marked with some unquiet reflection, these are off-set by amusing observations which give the novel a sparkle and make it somewhat more than mere polemic.