Dan Richards’ Outpost – an exploration of the appeal of far-flung outposts in mountains, tundra, forests, oceans and deserts – is published today by Canongate. Read an extract from the book below.
I grew up fascinated by the polar bear pelvis in my father’s study.
My mother, Annie, tells me that when my father, Tim, returned from his final Arctic expedition, a month before my birth, it was night and raining hard. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, caught several trains to reach Swansea and finally a bus to Penclawdd – a village on the Gower where my parents lived. Annie had sat by the window all evening, waiting, and now she could see him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. She was listening to Gladys Knight & the Pips, a cassette. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant Annie was, how round her belly. He was also very taken with the carpet, Annie remembers – it felt so good on his tired feet.
Tim had been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, situated north of mainland Europe, about halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the Brøgger peninsula and the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost civilian functional settlement at 78° 55′ N.
Next morning he unpacked his bag. Everything smelled of smoke. The smell permeated the whole house – Trangia smoke and unwashed man – and from deep in the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out the pelvis, abstract, sculptural, bleached, and placed it on the table. Strange object from another world.
The pelvis lived in the study of our various houses throughout my childhood; less trophy, more alien artefact. It looked so pure, supernaturally white. When held it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx, the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures – all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. The idea of my father having discovered it on a glacier – an impossibly far-flung landscape of mythical beasts – caught my imagination. And the names! Ny-Ålesund: I rolled the word round like a marble in my mouth; Svalbard: it sounded so cold; the Kongsfjorden Glacier: somehow colder still.
The pelvis was full of story. To hold it was to think of Tim as a young man in that great white silence, imagine polar bears — the life of that particular bear — and feel my horizons expand.
There’s a photograph of Tim on his expedition. In it, he stands with four others outside the front door of a small wooden shed. Everyone smiles. Behind and around them stretch moonland cliffs and dunes. On the back of the photograph is written Hotel California, Ny-Ålesund. Tim, dressed in a wool hat and striped jumper, dark trousers and big boots, stands holding two pans. At his elbow, leant against the shed, is a long black rifle, for bears. Or rather, in case of bears… He was the expedition marksman and took a shooting course before the party left England but never fired a shot, he reassured me.
They never met a bear.
Which is lucky, because Hotel California doesn’t look like it would stand up to a bear. An unremarkable garden shed, the only thing that makes it a shed of note is the fact it’s there, stood on Svalbard. Once you notice the shed, the sheer blunt ordinary shed-ness of the shed, it’s hard to see anything else. It looks sheepish, out of place; a lost shed stumbled into a shot. The idea of six people sleeping inside it seems implausible and rather eccentric. Yet they gave it a name and called it home and there they are, Tim’s party, stood beaming outside their shed, an incongruous cabin at the top of the world.
What had become of that shed? As time went on it became inseparable from the pelvis in my imagination, part of an Arctic triptych – my father, the pelvis, the shed. It stood clear of the mêlée of his recollections. The anecdotes about his team being buzzed by Ranulph Fiennes’s spotter plane, climbing mountains, an incident with a boat full of advocaat, sleeping out in the midnight sun, keeping watch for bears, receiving a care package from Annie – fruitcake and tea wrapped in newspapers posted up to the world’s northernmost post office – all these recollections subtly shifted and changed as the years went on but the fact(s) Tim went to Svalbard, stayed in a shed and brought home a polar bear pelvis remained solid.
I’d read that in recent years, due to melting permafrost, wooden buildings in the far north have begun to thaw and rot for the first time. Has the shed gone the way of that bear on the ice – fallen down, picked apart, disappeared? At some point I decided to go and discover for myself, a quest that became a book: Outpost.
Outpost considers the romantic, exploratory appeal of cabins and isolated stations; utilitarian constructions, pared-back buildings of essential first principles. Astringent architecture attracts me because it seems to represent a longed-for clarity, and the book examines the importance of dens and eyries as creative spaces – cells containing just enough domestic comfort to allow a person to work, whilst eschewing the usual barriers to the outside world. But outposts are many and various, an idiosyncratic lot, so whilst some are low-tech interzones made of just enough architecture to keep out the weather like Thoreau’s Walden cabin, others are more robust. Old and new, restored, repurposed; the solid, the decrepit and the brilliantly bizarre. Some don’t conform – Shedboatshed and Nageire-dō might leave some scratching their heads – but I hope readers will forgive and perhaps join me in celebrating any such apparently aberrant and eccentric detours along the way. I hope they’ll be delighted and seduced by such marvels as the belvederes atop Desolation Peak and Phare de Cordouan; the Mars base in Utah, Hvítárnes sæluhús in Iceland. Outpost is not designed to be a definitive tour but rather an odyssey inspired by the world of possibilities and wonder embodied by a polar bear pelvis brought home to South Wales one wet and blustery night. If the question at the heart of my last book, Climbing Days, was ‘Why climb mountains?’, Outpost seeks answers to the question of what draws people to wilderness and the isolated human stations around and within them. What can such places tell us about the human condition? What compels us to go to the ends of the Earth, and what future do these places have?
Outpost is out now, published by Canongate, and is available here in the Caught by the River shop (priced £16.99).
You can hear Dan discuss the book on our stage at this year’s Good Life Experience. See our full lineup here.