Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis
Review by Chris Watson
Empire Antarctica arrives within a week of a significant South polar anniversary, which without reading this book, would have passed me by unawares.
On the 11th of November 1912 the frozen bodies of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Dr Edward Wilson and Lieutenant Henry Robertson Bowers were found at rest inside their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf on the south western edge of Antarctica. These men, along with their fellow explorers, Captain Lawrence Oates and Seaman Edgar Evans, famously all perished on their return journey from the South Pole.
Gavin Francis has written a simple, thoughtful and moving description of this particular event and indeed there are many sections in his book where Francis re-tells accounts from the ‘Heroic’ period of arctic and Antarctic exploration. The attitudes of that time are encapsulated by the advertisement Ernest Shackleton placed in The Times newspaper to recruit members for his ill-fated but epic journey South which Francis usefully quotes. ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’ The vast continent of Antarctica then was largely unexplored and still regarded by some in higher latitudes as ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. Francis very well lays out the origins of its discovery and helps one better understand what and who went before.
After the horrors of the First World War few men sought heroism for some time.
Part of the thrill of reading this book is when Francis relates, in his own words, the astonishing accounts of endurance and fortitude from this early period which also reflects in turn his deep understanding of the place and the weather conditions those men faced because he has experienced much of this directly for himself. Francis ranges widely across the geography and wildlife of Antarctica and Emperor penguins in particular. The details included come with an engaging authority derived from his extensive reading and research during his year long residency as medical doctor at the remote Halley base for the British Antarctic Survey. Confined for times inside buildings on small platforms raised above the ice Francis describes the routine, inside and out, over the months of darkness. He is frozen into a place, with thirteen other people, where the sun sets in late April and does not rise again until the middle of August. Towards mid winter in the expansive stillness with temperatures reaching below -50C Francis includes a fabulous and evocative description of hearing the moisture vapour in his breath freeze as he exhales. A recording I would dearly love to make.
A visit to a breeding colony of Emperor penguins must be an experience of a life time, the potential for which was one of the reasons Francis was lured to Halley, a base within 20Km of a significant colony of these remarkable birds. Here too is a strong connection with the past and a book, which, I would suggest, is read before Empire Antarctica. Apsley Cherry-Garrards The Worst Journey In The World is the staggeringly powerful story of just that.
Francis’s own Emperor penguin encounters are carefully observed and richly detailed by someone who is a trained professional yet a man who also has a compassion and sense of endearment for these animals on the edge of our existence.
Inside the base, warm and dry, events appear much more mundane and I yearned to no avail for some sort of drama, maybe not quite like ‘The Thing’, but a punch up in the bar at least.
This book comes towards the end of a century of Antarctic exploration and is a valuable and entertaining personal account.
As a sound recordist who has been on the Ross ice shelf and at the South Pole I have a niggle with one word which is often used in this book. In my experience Antarctica can be incredibly quiet however it is never silent. Read this book and imagine you are listening.
Empire Antarctica is published today by Chatto & Windus.
Copies can be found in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.99