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Sara Wheeler

a polar star

in Book Reviews , Friday, August 07, 2020

Admin Note: one decision to emerge the hand-wringing period I had over this website is that I would close off my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here, which was anyway moribund, and publish occasional off-topic posts here. Whatever "off-topic" may mean - since it is all personal anyway, everything is on-topic. So, here is the first "off-topic" post. And a heavily overdue one, at that.


Many, many years, I wandered into Waterstones in Guildford (probably), and noticed a book cover with a bulkily-clad figure kneeling on ice apparently attempting to interview a group of emperor penguins. I bought it immediately. After many moves and changes in my life, this copy of this book is still with me. I've read it more than a few times, and always get lost in its pages. "Terra Incognita", by Sara Wheeler, is a travel book that has spoken to me like no other, and her other books are not far behind. At that time I would certainly have ranked "Foreign Land" and "Coasting" by Jonathan Raban at the same level, but these have faded over time. Terra Incognita shines as bright as ever.

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Pretty much all first person narratives set in Antarctica are written by what Wheeler accurately and amusingly describes as "Frozen Beards". They are about conquest and discovery, and the superficiality of the continent. They are about geography and landscape, and going from here to there (and hopefully back again), generally having the worst possible time while doing so. I find Wheeler's book, instead, to be about a search for a sense of place and belonging. Such a book could very quickly becoming terminally cloying, but not Terra Incognita. It is written in such a captivating, engaging way, and with a very healthy dose of self-deprecation, that the deeper currents only become clear later. Of all the "travel books" (whatever that means), there is none that have stayed so close to me as this one.

The idea of being able to travel around a significant part Antarctica as a writer would problem seem bat-crazy today, never mind 30 years go. That Sara Wheeler managed to do this, fitting in diverse locations in the Ross Sea area, the Pole, the West and East Antarctic ice caps and both ends of the Peninsula is a gold-standard tribute to her ingenuity and persistence. Totalling up the cost to various supporting organisations, agencies and individuals would come to a pretty scary figure, but the result is priceless. Others have said this, as have I, and I'll repeat it again: Terra Incognita is simply the best book ever written about Antarctica. Or to be more precise, about the experience of Antarctica. The only vaguely similar book I am aware of is Jenny Diski's "Skating to Antarctica", but that is a completely, and darker, kettle of fish.

I can't help but empathise with much of Terra Incognita. Antarctic was a huge part of my early adult life. I spent 2 summers there a few years before Sara Wheeler, and while I was there as a salaried scientist, it felt far, far more than going to do a job. The first part of Wheeler's book describe her time largely under the wing of the United States Antarctic Programme, with sorties to Italian and New Zealand bases. Within the narrative are dark hints at what is coming next, her sojourn in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula abetted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

If ever she was unhappy in the Antarctic, it seems it was during this time. She describes BAS sadly dragging a stifling male-dominated class culture with it, featuring public schoolboy behaviour, a complete ban on expressing any kind of emotion, essentially pretty much what you would find in any wealthy village pub in southeast England. I can corroborate this. Although I had some unforgettable experiences and shared time and tents with some fantastic people, my experience in particular at Rothera base was pretty miserable. And unnecessarily so. My later experience in Antarctica with a haphazard gang of Scandinavians was something of a redemption.

Interestingly, Wheeler's better times with BAS appear to have been spent at the mythical Fossil Bluff, which I never reached, as we had a bit of a prang with our jolly old kite over Palmer Land. However I suspect she would have enjoyed spending a few days out at our happily isolated camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf.

You can reach in and touch the ice, the clear air and the stillness - as well as the storms - in the pages of Terra Incognita. It is multi-levelled narrative, as much about the author as the places, but handled in superbly skilful way.

Much like Terra Incognita, Wheeler's earlier book, "Chile - Travels in a Thin Land" is the kind of book you never want to end. Written about a 6 month wander from one tip of the country to the other - and even beyond - it feels like it distorts time. After (re)reading it over a few days last week, I feel like I had myself spent 6 months in Chile. Personally Chile is a country I came late to, and have only scraped the surface of. We planned to return shortly, but obviously events have put that on hold.

Chile, the book, is another delight. Again, with a light touch, Wheeler pulls you into her explorations, both inner and outer. There is a stronger element of her Christian faith in this book, something that is touched upon in Terra Incognita, but to a lesser extent. Although I don't share her faith, the way she writes about it could make be come to regret this. Clearly it is a source of inner strength and inspiration to her, and I only wish I could feel the same way. And equally clearly it does get in the way of her having a good time!

The final pages of "Travels in a Thin Land" seem to be almost a different world. Wheeler returns from the paradisiacal world of the South to Santiago, and in a very unexpected move veers off to spend 10 days immersed in one of the more deprived parts of the city. Many a writer would have gone into full virtue-signalling here, but not Wheeler. In fact she downplays this part very much, not indulging in explicit social commentary, but the contrast with the (kind of) gringo trail atmosphere of the main body of the book is very striking. As is that with her final few days living in the world of the privileged upper middle classes of Santiago. It is an extremely effective jolt back to reality.

I'd like to spend more time writing about these books, but I'm not very good at writing, and I would only do them a disservice. All I can say is seek them out and read them. They will surely touch your soul. And I would not stop there: her later books, such as "The Magnetic North" (inspired title), set in the Arctic, and "Access All Areas", set pretty much ever, are equally admirable. Actually, thanks to "The Magnetic North", I renewed contact with a companion from my BAS days while travelling around Svalbard. And then there is her latest book, "Mud and Stars", which is sitting a few feet away from waiting to be read.

I feel there could be a sequel to this post in the not too far future!

Links to books:
Chile - Travels in a thin country
Terra Incognita
The Magnetic North
Access All Areas
Mud and stars

There also a couple of videos online of Sara Wheeler giving talks on her writing and travels:

Sara Wheeler @ 5x15
Access All Areas: In Conversation with Sara Wheeler

 

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