Bagley in Iceland

Bagley first went to Iceland as a passenger on a fishing vessel in 1946; he stayed for only one and a half days in Reykjavík and never forgot his short visit. [1]

His next visit was 23 years later when he visited with his wife, Joan, to research a new novel. Bagley and Joan arrived in Iceland on Tuesday 22nd July 1969; Joan said that this was some four or more years after he had first mentioned the idea to her. [1]

Bagley was impressed with the sale of his books in Iceland, having sold in the region of 2,500 copies, which by population percentage would match the 2.5 million sold in the United States of America [1]. Bagley’s novels were published in Iceland within eight months of the UK publication, compared with other countries where it could take two or three years. Bagley had mentioned something similar in an interview with William Hickey from the Daily Express just prior to leaving for Iceland. He said:

I have my own personal publisher there. An Icelandic friend who publishes only my books. I’m even a best seller in Iceland. There are only 200,000 people there, but one in a hundred buys my books. If I kept the same proportion in England, I’d sell half a million copies of each novel. [2]

Bagley was very  impressed by the finish of the Icelandic version of the books [3]. In fact a friendship formed between Bagley and the publisher Torfi Ólafsson, who is one of the people mentioned in the dedication on the copyright page of Running Blind.

Bagley and Joan held press conferences a few days prior to leaving Iceland; one of these conferences took place at The Hótel Garður in Reykjavík (Gamli Garður, Hringbraut 29, 101 Reykjavík). During these interviews they described how they had spent their time whilst in Iceland.


Upon arrival in Iceland Bagley and Joan travelled directly to Greenland for three days [4], when they returned to Iceland they travelled the North and West of the country visiting historical sites and searching for ideas for a novel. An interview published on 15th August [3] indicated that the couple had just returned from 12 days travelling. In this same interview Joan said that when they had planned the trip she had began to learn Icelandic. She said:

It wasn’t really necessary though, because everyone here speaks English. In a restaurant I tried to order one pilsner and one Coca-Cola in Icelandic, but it didn’t work out so well, as we got sixteen bottles!

Bagley was asked why he had chosen Iceland as the setting for his next novel. In the Vísir interview he said:

It is simply because one does not encounter adventures in, say for example, London. Then it is just a nuisance. But if you encounter them in Reykjavík, it’s an adventure. Otherwise I choose my setting, depending on whether people know a little or a lot about the country, and really the only thing that people in England hear about Iceland, are these fines, that the British receive for fishing in territorial waters. Yes, and when you want to expand your territorial waters, you shoot up a new volcanic island and wide away from the country (he added with a smile). [1]

He further said in the interview with Þjóðviljinn [4] that he had travelled highways throughout the country and the barren landscape stimulates the imagination of how one could find their way into danger. Not one to stay serious for very long Bagley said in the interview for Tíminn:

Iceland is a very unusual country. It is also an advantage how few people live here, so if I were to write some nonsense, then nobody knows the right thing, except Icelanders. [3]

It was clear the couple enjoyed their visit to Iceland, he joked about how easy it was to break an ankle walking across the lava fields, and was impressed by the Icelandic radio system, the latter of which featured in the novel. Bagley said that they had both liked Iceland so much that there were determined to return, maybe with a car, to give them more time to explore the country and its people. [1]

Interestingly during these interviews Bagley said that he had travelled to Antarctica the previous year (1968). Bagley stated he was working on his seventh novel set in Antarctica, (at the time of the press conferences six of his novels had been published), and that when he had finished writing that one he would commence work on the novel set in Iceland. In actuality the novel set in Antarctica, Operation Deep Freeze (also called On the Ice and Antarctica) remains one of his unpublished novels [5] and Running Blind was in fact the seventh novel to be published.

Bagley and Joan left Iceland to return to the UK on Saturday 16th August having spent 26 days on their research trip.

Four years later on 6th March 1973 an article in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið [6] indicated that Bagley had recently written to his publisher, Torfi Ólafsson, and informed him that Running Blind would be filmed in Iceland in the summer of 1974. Bagley stated he would be arriving in Iceland on 11th June (1973) with his wife, film producer Geoffrey Reeve and two technicians. They would stay for a week to find suitable locations, spending three days in Reykjavík and three days in Akureyri.

However when June of 1973 arrived Bagley and Joan did not make it to Iceland. It was reported in the Icelandic press [7] that although Geoffrey Reeve and Ian Rodger, who wrote the screenplay, would still arrive in July Bagley would not now be coming as he had suffered a heart attack.

There is evidence that Bagley and Joan may have revisited Iceland in July of 1978, (which is concurrent with BBC Scotland visiting Iceland to film the television adaptation of Running Blind) as an entry in Joan’s 1978 travel diary reads ‘July 24-29 – London – Iceland – Greenland’. [8]

Read contemporary Icelandic press articles about Bagley’s research trip


Images © The Bagley Brief, © / Árvakur hf.

  1. Einhver mun brjóta á sér ökklan í hrauninu ykkar’; Vísir, 14 August 1969, p.16; © DV ehf.
  2. Want to buy a torpedo?’; Daily Express, 30 July 1969, p. 3; © Northern and Shell Media Publications.
  3. Kötlugos í næstu bók Desmond Bagley’; Tíminn, 15 August 1969, p. 2.
  4. ‘Desmond Bagley skrifar bók sem hann lætur gerast hér’; Þjóðviljinn, 15 August 1969, p. 10.
  5. Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (2013). The Desmond Bagley Collection.
  6. Metsölubók  Bagleys kvikmynduð hér’; Morgunblaðið, 6 March 1973, pp. 31& 32; © / Árvakur hf.
  7. Kaupa sumarbústað við þingvallavatn til að kveikja í honum’; Vísir, 16 June 1973, p. 20; © DV ehf.
  8. Foston, L.  (2016). pers. comm 15th April 2016.