Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins
by Gavin Francis
250 pages, Chatto & Windus
Review by Pat Black
Snow and ice has a dazzling, transformative effect on our world. It’s light from darkness, a reaffirmation of the cyclical nature of our world in the very depths of the cold and the dark. Snowfall is an act of reassurance from nature, a pat on the back even as she sucks the heat from your bones and flays you alive.
Of course, after you’re about 14, when the stuff appears it’s a bloody misery. It’s easy to forget that there’s magic in even one single snowflake - a moment white on your glove - when you have to scrape the stuff off windscreens, shovel it aside from pavements and driveways and indeed slide onto your neck in it.
But sometimes, if you’ve got nowhere special to go – ideally with a glass in your hand and a fire in the grate - you can be transported, reminded of the excitement you felt as a child upon waking up and finding out your world has been completely changed overnight.
Scottish GP Gavin Francis found extreme ways to engage with this sensation by going to a place where snow and ice holds absolute dominion: Antarctica. Given to seek out severe landscapes and conditions, he signs up to become the on-site doctor at the British-administered Halley atmospheric research station on the Weddell Sea’s Brunt Shelf for the Antarctic winter, a time when the sun completely vanishes for months on end. He is driven to seek out a landscape that obliterates human habitation, where brutal polar winds and terrible storms blow away all the clutter, both internal and external. He has a powerful need for solitude, and the time and space to reflect.
I think you are either the sort of person who understands this impulse immediately, or says: "Nutter." Writers would surely appreciate six months of absolute peace and relative solitude. More gregarious people might struggle. The fact that Francis made it through the barrage of psychometric testing to take his place in the polar enclave suggests he was well suited to the endeavour. Soon, he crosses frigid seas to the British base in the alien cold.
Francis melts the stories of previous expeditions to the South Pole into his own. Cherry-Garrard, Shackleton and Scott’s triumphs and catastrophes are well known, but the author sheds light on less famous figures such as Scott’s doctor Edward Wilson, or Augustine Courtauld, who was trapped alone in a snow-blocked tunnel for months before he was plucked from certain doom with his supplies and oxygen running out. A rescue party spotted a tiny black nubbin sticking out of the ice – the only visible sign of his station.
Francis is also keen to recount the work of Scots out there, reflecting that those born north of Hadrian’s Wall tend to hang on to a desire for more extreme latitudes "the way you might nurse a grudge".
With the return of the sun, Francis skis, skidoos and abseils around his white playground. The doctor is transported by the fairy tale landscape, and this is where the book excels. Without openly stating his beliefs, Francis has a spiritual leaning in his writing. This near-mystical evaluation of the place, even as it slaps him in the face then crystallises his tears, elevates this book head and shoulders above other travel writing. There’s a lot of science here, too, as Francis examines the weather, the night skies, the vanishing sunlight and the ice beneath his feet. But the thoughts of the poets are given equal valence beside those of the great scientists, explorers and naturalists. It’s the lyrical bent makes Empire Antarctica special.
That and penguins, of course. These dapper, blubbery, bow-tied creatures are a delight to many, whether they feature on the spine of our favourite books or on the wrapper of a chocolate biscuit. But Francis’ work also examines the dreadful struggle these animals undergo simply in order to exist. Something so comical to our eyes looks as if it shouldn’t exist in such a place; that the near-insanity of their breeding cycle seems guaranteed to nudge the species towards extinction. And yet they survive, clinging to the ice, utterly naïve in their acceptance of humans sitting beside them on the tundra as they have no experience of being hunted on a flat plane - and yet tougher than we could ever hope to be.
We know this already from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it struck me that such a base would be the perfect setting for a horror film. Not necessarily some slithering, tentacled horror creeping up on people and pulling their scarves over their eyes, but the horror of isolated people quite plausibly undergoing some gothic meltdown in the impenetrable dark. If something goes wrong out in these bases in the middle of winter, you’ve simply got to hold tight. No planes or helicopters can reach you until the sun comes back. Francis does wonder how the base’s only physician might heal thyself if thou should be the one to meet physical misfortune. The oft-repeated comparison is that it is easier to get an injured person back to earth from space than it is to extract them from an Antarctic winter.
Francis seems to get on with his colleagues. Their increasingly creative efforts to spice up mealtimes or simple drinking escapades provide welcome humour in the book. There’s only one moment of explosive tension, when Francis draws the wrath of the base mechanic after removing a speed limiter from a skidoo. I guess if people do end up dead, well… There’s lots of ice to keep the bodies cool.
Questions of how people endure a lack of sex are deftly handled. (It seems there was an extensive DVD library on the base.) There were just two women on the party of 14, shacked up with other members of the team. Francis, and everyone else, wonders what the atmosphere would have been like if everyone was young, free and single. Again, we go back to that "novel plot" thing.
Bottom line, it seems that polar adventurers handle a case of blue balls the same way regular people do.
As Francis reflects on the base dwindling in his line of vision as he’s flown out of Halley – turning into a set of commas and ellipses amidst the white – you wonder if there’s something in him that yearns to go back. The doctor revels in his bleak but beautiful surroundings, from the sea ice up to the unfamiliar southern hemispheric star field he gazes into, lying on his back on the bottom of the world.
Whether Francis ever made a snow angel on the top of the base, sheltered as much as possible from forces that would shatter him like glass, is unrecorded. But we can hazard a guess.