Why Antarctica? Perhaps because exactly at the point in my life when I could accept, Antarctica materialised. Not the construct, described in the pages of the book I’d written: but the real physical space. This one tenth of the planet’s land surface, slowly discovered, painfully explored, where no humans lived, or ever had. This final opportunity for finding and exploiting resources, securing routes and territory, exercising national and personal ambition. For claiming. The last fling, if you like, of the drivers of imperial expansion. Available, yet – not taken. The long momentum of territorial acquisition halted by the cunning compromise of the Antarctic Treaty signed in the midst of cold war tensions in 1959, coming into force in 1961.
The almost unnoticed solution of science as the enabler, as the means of resolving a political impasse. Imperialism outflanked, in this last continent.
I’d arrived in Oxford a fledgling historian from the University of Adelaide on an overseas scholarship, the journey a month by sea from Australia. A post-graduate degree, three years of College life, but then marriage, two years in America, three children, life in London. Books were written for the general market, from aviation to inventions, from exploration to Egyptology. A Visiting Research Scholarship in the history of science at the Royal Institution provided a nudge into the edges of academe. Then, one morning, a 6am phone call from Australia. My Antarctic book, short listed for an environmental prize, had triggered the request from the Antarctic Division that I apply to come south, as a writer.
I’m not athletic. I’d never learnt to ski. Hardly knew ice or snow. Was generally desk bound, London based. But – as I stood on the deck of the icebreaker heading south, wind chilling, albatross circling, one ocean-slanting wing defining but never touching the contour of each massive swell, I found the me that had travelled on the ship to England all those years before. Still here. Awaiting the chance.
Space was found in helicopters, on scientific stations and distant refuge huts. I bumped across the ice on the back of a skiddoo to a distant Weddell seal colony where newborn pups lay bleating like lambs on the sea ice. I clumped across the frozen sea in my fur-lined boots to pick a way between ten thousand Adelie penguins nesting across a small island, smelling the rich, optimistic penguin smell of food in, waste out, of regurgitated krill, and guano-splashed stones. I watched a blizzard blow in from the distant ice sheet, ice crystals flowing and eddying, rising higher as the wind speed built up, till nothing could be seen but whirling, featureless grey-white. I was in thrall to Antarctica. Completely captured, by the beauty and complexity.
I travelled south again, three more times. With the American Antarctic program, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol vessel, on a Russian ice breaker. But after each extraordinary experience, once back in London, all the actions and stalled needs that accumulate during long absence inevitably pressed. Meeting the deadlines I’d committed to wasn’t easy. My obligation, and desire, as the recipient of funding, was to promote the understanding of Antarctica, to children, to adults, to the widest possible public. I needed to think and write, uninterrupted.
Out of the blue, the Wolfson solution arrived, the invitation from Gordon Johnson. The freedom to work the hours I wanted. The peace of my rooms in Penguin Palace, once the home of Antarctic explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs. The pleasure of conversations, content unexpected, but always available – in our kitchen, or in Hall, especially over breakfast at what we christened the Breakfast Club. Lectures and seminars. The ideal 25-minute break, walking across fields and parks to research at Scott Polar Research Institute in Lensfield Road. The British Antarctic Survey on the edge of town, with archives, and helpful scientists. No requirement to cook, or run anything. Thank you, I kept saying, to Gordon, and to everyone who helped fit in my comings and goings as a repeat Visiting Scholar. The reply – it’s what we are here for – was almost overwhelming. I’d found something I never thought to have again: a happy return to collegiate life.
My Antarctic commitment is wide-ranging, mostly pro-bono. As a writer, so many subjects press, so much to research. Antarctica is key to attempts to understand the Earth’s systems, the interactions of ice, ocean and air that drive our climate. At Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula I worked with seabird ecologists studying the impact of warming on the local Adelie penguins. The Ferocious Summer focuses on the lives of these iconic, much loved birds, as a way of bringing crucial issues of climate change and Antarctic science to the general reader. The Longest Winter, the book that followed, took me back to the historical record, to my founding discipline. Polar history tends to be generally unknown, or ignored. The exception are certain narratives, iconic and contentious, their status in part constructed, their telling woven into the national consciousness. Perhaps the best-known example, Captain Robert Scott‘s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913, is currently celebrating its centenary. But start unpacking the key narratives and polar history spills into the business of myths, heroes and villains, of participants embedded, as they must be, in their time but also embedded in the form in which they have been cast, or have cast themselves.
A wealth of primary sources exists. But too often, in the peculiarly isolated world of polar history, these sources stay unread, their content passed over. They can be difficult to access. But for me, they are essential; the addictive draw of the subject. Reinforced by Professor Patrick Collison’s reminder to historians at a Wolfson seminar of the need to listen to numerous voices, I dug through diaries, sledging notebooks, letters, photographs, to find the voices: clear, immediate, powerful. Real people, believable. Not constructs. Collison’s ‘sticky clay of history’ easily deters. It can be inconvenient. But to the historian, the stickiness is where insight and understanding lies. In The Longest Winter I chose to pull out the extraordinary story of six of Scott’s men who survived being abandoned for the winter with minimal equipment, summer clothes, and six weeks supply of food. I stay within the daily account, never moving beyond what the men knew at the time; tracking what is was like to be there, while they were there. Their powerful, revealing story is almost unknown; swept away by the torrent of emotion unleashed by the news of Scott’s death. But move back into the actual business of lives, as each day unfolded, and there are new insights, and unexpected conclusions.
My paper (http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A85P6QLZ) is based on the same assumptions. It looks at the primary sources, on the British side, describing, at the time, the only meeting of men from Scott’s expedition with Roald Amundsen and his companions. In the isolation of Antarctica - the excitement, the sheer pleasure, of coming across others. For long years Roald Amundsen and his achievement of the South Pole ahead of Captain Scott rubbed raw edges in Britain. Going back to the drama of the actual event, 4 February 1911, proved a happy exercise.